Friday, December 31, 2010

Books read 2010

Well chuffed with the books that have been read this year. Will provide some more in-depth thoughts about them in a couple of days but here is the list of all those consumed this year. A great year's reading.

1. The Dream Life of Sukhanov by Olga Grushin
2. The Book of Fame by Lloyd Jones
3. All Quiet on the Orient Express by Magnus Mills
4. The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor
5. Nobody Move by Denis Johnson
6. White Ravens by Owen Sheers
7. Rushing to Paradise by JG Ballard
8. Pierre et Jean by Guy de Maupassant
9. The Story of Mr Sommer by Patrick Suskind

10. A Dreambook for Our Time by Tadeusz Konwicki
11. The Man Who Knew Everything by Tom Stacey
12. The Locked Room by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo
13. The Belly of the Atlantic by Fatou Diome
14. The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris
15. Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder
16. The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

17. Bel Ami Guy du Maupassant
18. All the Conspirators by Christopher Isherwood
19. The Professor + The Housekeeper by Yoko Ogawa
20. The Summer Book by Tove Jansson
21. Cop Killer by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo
22. Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith
23. Solar by Ian McEwan

24. A Month in the Country by J.L Carr
25. The Various Haunts of Men by Susan Hill
26. How I Came to Know Fish by Ota Pavel
27. Old Masters by Thomas Bernhard
28. Tofu Landing by Evan Maloney
29. The White Castle by Orhan Panuk
30. Untimely Death by Cyril Hare
31. Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley

32. Young Hitler by Claus Hant
33. Natasha by David Bezmozgis
34. The Elephant by Slawomir Mrozek
35. The Carpenter's Pencil by Manuel Rivas
36. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell
37. The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa
38. The Cuckoo Boy by Grant Gillespie
39. They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell

40. Life of Pi by Yann Martel
41. Repeat it Today With Tears by Anne Peile
42. Sabra Zoo by Mischa Hiller
43. All My Friends are Superheroes by Andrew Kaufman
44. Amulet by Roberto Bolano
45. Black Water Rising by Attica Locke
46. Stones in a Landslide by Maria Barbal
47. A Preparation for Death by Greg Baxter

48. Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi
49. The Last Will & Testament of Senhor Da Silva Araujo by Germano Almeida
50. Tintin and the Secret of Literature by Tom McCarthy
51. Who is Mr Satoshi? by Jonathan Lee
52. The Opposite of Falling by Jennie Rooney
53. Light Boxes by Shane Jones
54. The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter

55. Prater Violet by Christopher Isherwood
56. Sarajevo Marlboro by Miljenko Jergovic
57. The Luneburg Variation by Paolo Maurensig
58. Wessex Tales by Thomas Hardy
59. The Legend of Elizabeth Siddal by Jan Marsh
60. The Wine-Dark Sea by Leonardo Sciascia
61. The Courilof Affair by Irene Nemirovsky

62. From a View to a Death by Anthony Powell
63. Kings of the Water by Mark Behr
64. The Castle of Otranto by Horage Walpole
65. Silence of the Grave by Arnaldur Indridason
66. Vivian and I by Colin Bacon
67. First Love, Last Rites by Ian McEwan
68. C by Tom McCarthy

69. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
70. The Land of Green Plums by Herta Muller
71. The Canal by Lee Rourke
72. The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson
73. Leaf Storm by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
74. The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
75. Maigret and the millionaires by Georges Simenon

76. My Friend Maigret by Georges Simenon
77. They Shoot Horses, Don't They? Horace McCoy
78. Men in Space by Tom McCarthy
79. The Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene
80. Who Killed Palomino Molero? by Mario Vargas Llosa
81. Circus Bulgaria by Deyan Enev
82. Coming Up for Air by George Orwell

83. The Interrogative Mood A Novel? by Padgett Powell
84. The Dead Beat by Cody James
85. The Small Hand by Susan Hill
86. Rumpole at Christmas by John Mortimer
87. The Passport by Herta Muller
88. The Box of Delights by John Masefield

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Thinking of doing a refresh for 2011

Last year I looked at the blog and changed the look and to a limited extent the content and thoughts are now turning to doing something smiliar.

The look is perhaps a little bit dull and the commitment to try and update every day has just not been sustainable this year and so going forward I will be being more realistic about the volume of posts.

What is important are the reviews and so more effort will be put into those. There are still so many that are not yet done from this year and to speed up the process I will be putting together some concise reviews in the next few days to clear the backlog.

Thanks as ever for reading and if you have any suggestions please don't hesitate to make them.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Thoughts at the half way point of Box of Delights

The idea of choosing this as the last read of the year had been to read it to the children. But at 309 pages with chapters too long for me to read out loud in the allotted bedtime read time it became something for me to try and get through.

every year, well for the last three at least, there has been a tradition in the Quicke household to watch the BBC adaptation of Box of Delights by the BBC first aired in 1984. Running over six episodes the special effects now look slightly dated but add to its charm.

But the TV couldn't cope with all of the magic scenes in the book so there is a clear reward for watching and then reading, because in many respects there are real differences.

Sure enough the book is deeper and the magic denser. The main character Kay comes across fairies and manages to find out a lot more about his enemies from dreams and flying sequences.

But the story of good versus evil played out against the snow and Christmas lights is as solid in the book as it is in the BBC adaptation. Great stuff. Just need to finish it before midnight strikes on New Years Eve...

Sunday, December 26, 2010

bookmark of the week

This bookmark was a christmas present and is not only fairly large and weaved but also very festive. It is going to come out and be used from now on to mark my progress through the last few books of the year at Christmas time.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas everyone. Hope Father Christmas brings you lots of books!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Yuletide reading is slow going

With the kids off school and myself on holiday there is no commute and a busy house at this time of year. That makes reading difficult.

there is always that moment, in a good book, where after reading about 10 or so pages you get into a rhythm and get taken up by the pace of the writing and you can get lost in a book.

At this time of year there are so many distractions that getting lost in the pace of the book becomes a real challenge and one that over the years i have accepted i will not overcome.

So as I slowly plod my way through my last read of the year, Box of Delights, it is without a sense of pressure knowing that 20 or so pages in an evening is all that can be achieved at this time of year.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

bookmark of the week

This is one of those bookmarks where the image moves slightly as you move it. It comes from the shop at the Harrison Planetarium in Greenwich Park. Its about the idea that despite knowing a fair bit about the universe there is still so much to discover.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Praise for the points card

I've never been on for things like club cards and nectar points so when Waterstones launched a points card i signed up with a great deal of scepticism. But as I look back over the year I have to concede it has worked.

Fundamentally from a Waterstones point of view I have bought more books. The card has not necessarily been the incentive, with the occasional promotions with double points etc, but it has encouraged me to buy a book when I can put some points towards it and reduce the cost/guilt of the purchase.

But there has been another consequence of having the card and that is with most chain bookshops disappearing off the high street it has in noticeable and probably unconscious ways, made me closer to the Waterstones brand. The ability to get a magazine for free is also a bonus that works.

Throughout the year I have used my points, regularly tendered the card unprompted at a purchase and it's always in the wallet. That means it has been for me at least a success.

Friday, December 17, 2010

book review: The Passport by Herta Muller

Sometimes the joiner's wife is summoned to the priest because of the baptismal certificate, sometimes to the militiaman because of the passport.
The night watchman has told Windisch that the priest has an iron bed in the sacristy. In this bed he looks for baptismal certificates, with the women. "If things go well," said the night watchman, "he looks for the baptismal certificates five times. If he is doing the job thoroughly, he looks ten times. With some families the militiaman loses and mislays the applications and the revenue stamps seven times. He looks for them on the mattress in the post office store room with the women who want to emigrate."

Imagine a small, claustrophobic and corrupt community that offers only one release through a passport and movement abroad. Add to the misery the environment of a dictatorship and the prospect that life in the West might not be much better and it is a world of pain and disappointment that tests the human resolve to the limit.

Muller uses the story of a miller, Windisch, and his attempt to get his wife and daughter passports to get out of the Romanian village into Germany as a tale that could be applied to thousands elsewhere.

The miller bribes the mayor with corn and hopes that he is inching closer to getting his passport but the only real bargaining chip he has is his daughter who he will have to send to sleep with the customs and parish officials who can speed through the paperwork.

The bitterness that leaves and the damage it does to the family is taken with them as they finally manage to leave.

But there are other things that you are left with as an experience reading this book. One is the idea that people can react differently to dictatorship and some will unfortunately close their minds to the ambition to gain freedom and will choose to remain victims.

The other is the style. Having read the Land of Green Plums the same lyrical, poetical style is on display here and although it is perhaps initially difficult to get into the Muller groove, once there the book flows along.

This might be a fairly slim volume but it is describing a world that most of its readers in the West would never have experienced and one that shows that even in the darkest despair there is always hope and the pull of freedom is an incredibly strong one.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Thoughts at the half way point of The Passport

Having read Land of Green Plums you are reintroduced to Muller's style within a matter of words. Her prose has a poetic lyrical quality that paints pictures that are dream like as they weave in the past and present.

She introduces you to a Romanian German town where most of the inhabitants seem to have ambitions to get their passports and move to West Germany. Of those left behind a decent proportion are involved in the corruption that surrounds the passport application process or are too old to care about moving.

The story centres on Windisch the miller who has been planning to get his passport for a couple of years, bribing the mayor with flour, but so far has not been successful.

He roams the village watching those who manage to get a few steps further down the line towards escape. Can he get there as well before his marriage totally falls apart and he has to play his daughter as a trump card.

A review will follow soon...

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The end nears for a great series

It is with a heavy heart that I embark on the tenth and final book, The Terrorists, in the Martin Beck series of crime novels penned by the husband and wife team Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo.

Their books have provided great reading moments over the last couple of years and the world of the police set against a changing political and cultural landscape in Sweden in the 1960s and early 1970s has been fascinating.

Whenever you read a series of books there are always high and low points and the hope is that obviously they end on a high note. Along with Dance to the Music of Time these books have been one of the longest exercises in reading I've made over the last couple of years and I have enjoyed them immensely.

So it is with some regret that the final book is started but what a great discovery they were back that Sunday afternoon in an Oxfam shop when i stumbled over the first in the series. Back then no one I asked had heard of them but thanks to some great editions from Harper Perennial and the current vogue for Swedish crime writers they are at last getting the wider recognition they deserve.

As I head into the pages of The Terrorists hoping for one last magical moment from Sjowall and Wahloo.

Monday, December 13, 2010

book review: Rumpole at Christmas by John Mortimer

'All that does is make you fat, Rumpole.'
'You're telling me I'm fat?' The thought hadn't really occurred to me, but on the whole it was a fair enough description.
'You're on the way to becoming obese,' she added.
'is that a more serious way of saying I'm fat?'
'It's a very serious way of saying it. Why, the buttons will fly off your waistcoat like bullets. And I don't believe you could run to catch a bus.'
"Not necessary. I go by Tube to the Temple Station.'

If you are looking for a bit of humour, tales that have an outcome that involves great insight into human character and heavy doses of coincidence and a bit of humbug then this is a great book to consume against the backdrop of tinsel and fairy lights.

This collection brings together a series of seven yuletide themed stories that have not been collected together like this before. Rumpole is the old but wise barrister who manages to win cases despite most of the legal establishment being against him. She who must be obeyed, his wife Hilda, provides light relief and bosses the old boy around when he is not in the Old Bailey.

Over the course of the stories Rumpole manages to get his clients off on lighter charges, solve a murder and spend one Christmas break with a judge he can't stand.

There is some repetition that perhaps could have been edited out given that by the seventh story you know all about how the Rumpole's spend Christmas and how Hilda gets lavender water each and every year. But once you get past that repetitive scene setting theses stories, which have a recent feel about them thanks to topical references to the internet etc, do take hold of you.

If you fancy buying a Christmas book at this time of year and are open to spending time with an aging and outwardly rude barrister who has a heart of gold and a flair for solving crimes and getting justice then this is a perfect choice.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

bookmark of the week

This is one of those clever bookmarks that appears to move as you tilt it. It shows artists dummies in a series of fun activities.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Books are for life not just for Christmas

Went into Waterstones in Greenwich this lunchtime just to get some ideas for presents and it was packed to the rafters. The crowds slowly shuffled past tables with the 3 for 2 offers and dodging elbows was a real challenge but plenty of book buying was being done.

Great to see so many people out book shopping and hopefully those that receive the books as gifts will be back themselves in the new year to add to their book collection.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Thoughts at the half way point of Rumpole at Christmas

Apart from the almost inevitable bit of Dickens at Christmas my reading at this time of year tends to be theme free. But having been sent the Rumpole at Christmas title it seemed like there is little time better than now, just days away from the 25th to have read.

I've not read a huge amount of Rumpole before but have got through enough to know his character and that of his legal colleagues. This collection has so far combined the best of Rumpole, the dry wit and ability for him to see things no one else around him has yet figured out, along with a good sprinkling of Christmas cheer.

Looking forward to spending the weekend getting through the rest of it. A review will follow soon....

Thursday, December 09, 2010

book review: The Small Hand by Susan Hill

"Do I believe in ghosts? The question is common enough and, if asked, I usually hedge my bets by saying, 'Possibly.' If asked whether I have seen one, of course until now I have always said that I have not."

Rather than scared the feeling on competition of this story was one of sadness. Mysteries of the past have the ability to emerge into the present and do great harm to those that thought they had left the past far behind them.

Having introduced the idea of a decrepit house and a ghostly presence of a child in just the few pages the story of the house and the small hand then unfold over the rest of the story.

The main character, rare book dealer Adam Snow, stumbles on the White House and its over grown and falling down house and garden on his way back to London from an appointment in Sussex. To get to the house he has to push past the brambles and the old gateway where visitors would have paid to visit the garden and in that quiet and chilly setting a small hand seems to enter his own. The presence of a child, a ghostly hand, that Adam feels as if it were real.

He then has to discover if he is going mad or whether or not the small hand is destined to haunt him for a long time. A well crafted story of hidden events of the past starts to unravel slowly and Adam suffers a few more spine chilling encounters before the truth is discovered.

Unlike the Woman in Black you don't read this frightened to turn the page but rather hurry along wanting to find out how the story unfolds. It is disturbing and the question of ghosts is one that both the character and the reader would have to think about. Do you believe in them? That question dominates Adam and starts to nag at the back of your own mind.

As a yuletide ghost story to be read against a backdrop of cold dark nights it's the choice of the moment and while it won't have you frightened to close your eyes it delivers a slower scare leaving darker thoughts lurking in your mind.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Thoughts at the half way point of The Small Hand

Ghost stories are not something I read with great regularity so I'm not sure of the form. But on limited experience this seems to go slightly against the norm. Instead of a growing sense of dread creeping up on you before the first 'sighting' of something supernatural the small hand is introduced very early on.

Having said that the sense of a small child holding a man's hand is introduced but the reason for the hand, the story behind it and the consequences for the man in the story, Adam Snow, are going to take a while to become clear.

By the half way point he has suffered a few more moments of feeling the hand with an increasing sense that the power behind it means him harm. Advised by monks to face his fear he sets out once again to the dilapidated house he first felt the hand to find the source of the mystery and to conquer his fears.

A review follows shortly...

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

book review: The Dead Beat by Cody James

"It clouds your vision of the present, of what you have, of what you've made of yourself. It colours everything with dissatisfaction. It points out every instance in your life where you have been disappointed, hurt and heartbroken. it jumps on every word out of place that you hear people say and shows you the bruises and bumps it has suffered along the way, demanding that you do something about it. It looks around and tells you that it can't handle things this way, that things weren't supposed to be this way, that this isn't good enough. We're always being told to hold on to our innocence. Well, let me tell you what I've learned: innocence is a dirty, conniving whore."

How do you make a reader willingly and avidly read on about the lives of four house mates who are dragging themselves deeper into the dark depths of drug addiction? How do you make the reader care about these people and their black world even when described in all its horrific detail? Good writing with a solid voice and a cracking pace is the simple answer.

Cody James clearly knows what she is writing about and can portray the world of the falling apart without coming down on either side of the fence. She can tell you about Adam and his friends in graphic detail with humour and pain, but it is up to you to decide how you feel about them.

And feel about them you do. Adam, the main character, is heading for death and doing a very good line in self destruction. His friends Sean, Lincoln and Xavi are all gripped by the same addictions and sense of desperation. They each show it differently with Lincoln putting his hopes into a relationship that seems to have only remote prospects of lasting. Sean swings through bisexuality looking for satisfaction and Xavi trys to control his environment to bring some sort of sense of calm.

As Adam falls apart and takes his failings out on his friends and women he is involved with it would be easy to be turned off and hate the guy. But there is a part of you, perhaps all of us, that refuses to turn away until the light has completely gone out. You want to believe that Adam will sort himself out and recover some stability.

A few years ago now I stayed up late one night and watched a film with a young Michael Hutchence taking one of the main roles. Dogs in Space was the title, if I remember rightly, and it centered on a collection of misfits sharing a house and trying to find happiness. But excess and tragedy mar the group and it is a movie with a lot of self reflection and growing up in its tale. Had expected this to perhaps go in the same direction but liked the way James left the characters open to your interpretation.

Ultimately Adam and company could go either way. That is perhaps the greatest irony of drug addiction as so well portrayed by James that even until the end there is a chance of pulling out of the nosedive. Would Adam have done it? You would like to think so but this story pulls no punches and so you are well prepared to accept that he wouldn't.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Thoughts at the half way point of The Dead Beat

This book is almost cinematic in the way the scenes are so well described. You can so clearly picture the world of drug use and squalor that Adam and his three friends inhabit. even though you would walk, no run, to the other side of the street rather than get involved with these people James manages to pull you into their lives and struggle.

As the story develops you want Adam to kick the drug habit, which is so destructive, but as the other characters point out so frankly, what is the point life for these guys hardly looks attractive when played in real-time and horrible realism.

But accompanied with a controlled use of time and space there is some wicked writing here with some lines that stick in the head:

"Trying to decide what to do becomes a nightlong activity in itself, like some lousy postmodern joke."

A review to come on completion...

Sunday, December 05, 2010

bookmark of the week

This is made from recycled leather. It comes from the Royal Artillery museum, Firepower, in Woolwich. The museum houses a fair few guns and the story of the development of artillery. Like it although it's often cold inside.

Friday, December 03, 2010

book review: The Interrogative Mood A Novel? by Padgett Powell

"Can you cook? Can you fight? Can you lie? Can you do anything well? Have you acquired a sufficient stock of clothes from a mail-order seller that you can, if you want to flip through the catalogue to decide what to wear that day ? Do you know a peony from a petunia? What exactly does "Standard & Poor" mean to you? Can you hang ten? Do you dance?"

Life is full of questions and answers and each child goes through their why? period before learning that asking about things all the times causes both annoyance and frustration because the answers are usually far from satisfactory.

Imagine reading a book that from start to finish a series of questions. It might sound difficult reading, and in parts it is, but perhaps not for the reasons you think. One of the problems is the urge to mentally answer as many questions as you can and the other is to try, even though it's clear one isn't coming, to look out for a traditional narrative structure.

At the end you realise that of course life is a series of questions and a search for answers, for some sort of truth, and that those that ask with the sort of random determination of the voice in this book do so at risk of alienating themselves from friends caught in the questioning crossfire.

The questions ebb and flow and there is something almost symphonic about the way that certain themes recur through the reading. Questions about blue jays, poodles and haircuts crop up in different ways throughout the book.

There is also a sense of asking the reader to think about their perceptions of a novel. The question really is what is a novel? and although this comes hardbound at 164 pages looking like a novel is it one? Is this literature as art? Is this literature as a construction? The questions don't stop at page 164.

As an exercise reading something different this reminds you that the narrative forms you take for granted are there to be challenged and in a way this succeeds where Tom McCarthy's C failed to be an anti-novel. It might not be comfortable but it will make you laugh in places but more than anything it will make you think and that has to be a good thing.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Thoughts at the half way point of The Interrogative Mood

It's hard to know where this book is going, no doubt more of the same questions, as you wade through question after question.

Some of them make you laugh, some disturb and others have cultural references that are missed but overall if the intention is to get you to think about things then it is working.

Keep finding it's taking a long time to read because the natural urge is to try and answer the questions.

Review on completion soon...

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

The month in review - November

Just managed to squeeze the Orwell in before the shutters came down on the month. Enjoyed the reading this month, but way behind on reviewing things. if there is a theme it probably should be the word 'clever'. Men In Space was clever in terms of displaying its knowledge of art, Eastern European politics and plot construction. Ministry of Fear was clever in the way it all came together with Greene pulling the strings masterfully. Coming up for Air was a clever book saying something bit but preparing the reader with humour and Circus Bulgaria cleverly painted a bleak picture of life in Bulgaria drawing on realism and dreams.

The books read in November were:

My Friend Maigret by Georges Simenon
They Shoot Horses, Don't They? Horace McCoy
Men in Space by Tom McCarthy
The Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene
Who Killed Palomino Molero? by Mario Vargas Llosa
Circus Bulgaria by Deyan Enev
Coming Up for Air by George Orwell

Roll on December...

Monday, November 29, 2010

Thoughts at the half way point of Coming up for Air

This book starts with great humour. It's hard not to see some of myself in the lead character George Bowling who is struggling to come to terms with his life. Swamped by two children and the dreary existence of being an insurance salesman he seems to be drifting through life failing to find any satisfaction or meaning.

Where did it all go wrong? To some extent the First World War marked the changing point taking George away from the life he knew. With both parents dying during the war he had no home to go to after wards.

There were opportunities of course and he took some of them but he seems to have ended up 45 and fat and far from happy by the time the book gets back to the present and he finishes reminiscent about the past.

Great so far and looking forward to the rest...

Saturday, November 27, 2010

book review: Roman Soldier's Handbook by Lesley Sims

This review has been dictated to me by my eldest son who has really enjoyed this book:

"It is old modern history put into fun ways for children to understand. They have some jokes which are really funny. It is a really interesting book that I have enjoyed reading very much. It is quite history packed. At the back you have a map of the Roman countries and it is full of Roman facts."

"I took this book into school, where we are learning about Romans, and showed my friends. They thought it was great and Samuel really wants to read it."

"The best thing about the book where the way the pictures took you inside to places like the general's house and they had horses and stables. That was the best part."

This book gets a Roman thumbs up and four and a half stars out of five.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Inspiring Orwell

It's strange how you can pick up a book that speaks to you across the years and in this case has a tone of voice and content that is similar to something you might try to write yourself.

With November almost at an end it's fair to say that my efforts to write a 50,000 novel have ended around the 12,000 word mark. But among those thousands of words there is a clear idea and a story that I might eventually want to take forward.

What is amazing is how my grumpy and frustrated tone that emanates from the main character is similar to George Bowling the main character in Coming up for Air. If I had doubts that someone who is slightly angry and bitter with his lot could resonate with readers then this book, although I'm only 60 pages in, is providing me with real food for thought and encouragement.

Thanks George.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

book review: Circus Bulgaria by Deyan Enev

"In the office, I took out my notebook and cigarettes and knocked off a story in a couple of hours. The endings were the easiest part for me. They'd hit the reader on the head like a hammer. Then, like any writer I needed to share with someone the miracle of creation."

If the aim of this book of short stories, almost excerpts of daily life both real and imaginary, is meant to summarise the state of life in Bulgaria then a few words are conjured up in your mind including harsh, cruel, strange, magical, comical and hopeful.

There are plenty of stories that cover the harsh consequences of living in a country that has such a wide disparity between the poor and the wealthy. A boxer is hired by a mafia type boss to become one of his thugs and is shot when he refuses to hurt his own brother but at the graveside a bundle of notes is offered to clear any sense of debt to the grieving sibling.

The longest story about a film producer who arrives from England looking to tell the story of the woman who was kept living with pigs and raped by the farmer ends with a bitter twist that leaves the producer desperate to get out of the country.

There are moments where this is like reading a collection of dark fairy tales about boys who thought they could fly, ghosts who pass on watches to pawn brokers and mutes who believe that a miracle will restore their speech.

But what weaves through even the darkest tale is a sense that those involved want to change their lives and futures and as a country perhaps this is the post communist ambition. There is a strangeness about some of the customs and traditions held by the people described in this book. But there is also a sense that the strangeness and fear of change is a very real one that is felt by everyone from the poorest right up to the other end of the scale.

Enev displays a blackest of humours, which is how some of his characters handle the brickbats that life throws at them. The writing here is sharp, delivers the endings that hit the reader on the head like a hammer and is almost cinematic in the ability to conjure up images in your head that you know will stay for a long time. Some are welcome but the majority are going to be challenging for some time to come.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

is this giving me a headache?

Maybe it's because I'm not feeling well, apologies for the lack of posts the last couple of says, but it has been a challenge to get into The Interrogative Mood by Padgett Powell.

I really want it to click and flow but the constant questions are not making for good reading accompanied by a headache and a feeling of flu. It's no doubt a clever book, and reminds me of some of the word play that the likes of Georges Perec loved to do, but right now sadly something with a more conventional narrative is required.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

occasional series: bookshop of the week

I have driven past Daunt Books but not had the chance to get inside. But that was finally remedied today and what a visual experience. A galleried showroom takes the breath away. But what really inspires is the way books are sorted by country. next time I go away on holiday this is going to be a first destination. Funds are sadly lacking right now but there was inspiration on every shelf. The Swiss section alone had me learning and drooling.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Thoughts at the half way point of Circus Bulgaria

Not quite at the halfway point but as this book is a collection of stories wanted to capture the thoughts before getting too much further into it.

There must be a tradition in Eastern Europe of writing short stories that contain humour, sadness and the down right disturbing because this is the second book I've read that fits that description and comes from that part of the world.

The first one, The Elephant by Slawomir Mrozek, was a collection of stories that had the power to make you laugh out loud and at other points were incredibly moving. This is the same starting with the tale of the lion tamer from Circus Bulgaria being forced to sell his lion to make ends meet. As he drinks in the bar with the windfall he has not just lost his best friend but the meaning to his life.

Then there are other stories that stick in the memory like the boy who having lived in a single room for seven years believes he has found out the secret of flying grabbing pidgeon wings and attaching them to his arms. As he launches himself out of the tower block window that ends as you might expect.

But there are quirky stories about a ghostly figure sitting on a bench in the park able to send rays of good feeling to those other wanderers sitting on the benches.

Looking forward to the second half and a bit.

A review will follow next week...

Thursday, November 18, 2010

book review - Who Killed Palomino Molero? - Mario Vargas Llosa

"Why couldn't Alicia Mindreau fall in love with that skinny kid who played the guitar so beautifully and sang with that tender, romantic voice? Why was it impossible for a little white girl to be in love with a little cholo? Why did the colonel see that love as a tortuous conspiracy against him?"

There is something almost knee-jerk about wanting to read a book by a Nobel winner and as an introduction this slimline volume is an ideal start.

In a nutshell a man is killed, but tortured in a fairly brutal way before dying, and two local policeman Lituma and his boss Lieutenant Silva set about solving the case of who murdered Palomino Molero. Set in 1950s Peru this book is as much about racism and class as it is about crime solving and the two policemen come up against barriers throughout their investigation.

The first barrier is the victim's status as an airman because it means that the investigation has to take place involving the airfield personnel who are determined not to help.

The second barrier is one of racism with the victim being a cholo and looked down on by the white officers at the base. Part of the reason for his death is his racial background not being good enough.

The third barrier is one of understanding. Although Lieutenant Silva is very good at reading people he fails to fully understand the mental illness that Palomino Molero's girlfriend is suffering from. Her delusional state means that the relationship was probably doomed even before it was ended by murder.

Good books and great writers manage to say a lot of things in a small space without bamboozling the reader with too much information - deep but a light touch. Vargas Llosa shows here that he is able to use a murder story as a way of illustrating several points. Throughout though you want to know how and why the crime was perpetrated and long for justice.

it is perhaps the way that the divided society fails to accept the outcome that highlights more than anything else just how deep the resentments against class groups goes and how even when a crime is solved there can be those who remained unsatisfied.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Thoughts at the half way point of Who Killed...

A hot and dusty field near an airbase in Peru is the backdrop for a grizzly discovery of a tortured corpse. Two policemen take up the case and the more they discover about the victim the more they sympathise with him.

All the fingers point to the officers at the airbase being involved in the killing and bit by bit Leuitenant Silva and Officer Lituma start to get closer to finding out what happened.

But they are up against not just the military system but also class and race barriers and they recieve little help from the military and at the same time their own people seem convinced the murder will be hushed up by those in power able to pull the strings.

A review soon...

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

book review - The Ministry of Fear - Graham Greene

"'Your old fashioned murderer killed from fear, from hate - or even from love, Mr Rowe, very seldom for substantial profit. None of these reasons is quite -respectable. But to murder for position - that's different, because when you've gained the position nobody has a right to criticize the means. Nobody will refuse to meet you if the position's high enough. Think of how many of your statesman have shaken hands with Hitler.'"

Set against the terror of a blitzed out London one man has to solve a mystery that not only threatens his own life and sanity but potentially the safety of Britain in it's battle against the Nazi's.

Arthur Rowe starts off by buying a cake in a raffle by being tipped off by the fortune teller to its exact weight. He isn't the man meant to get the cake and soon afterwards a whirlwind journey begins that first sees someone attempt to poison him then to have Rowe framed for the murder of a man at a seance.

A bomb dropping and wiping out his memory saves him from being killed but the sense that he will solve the mystery surfaces again and in a story that reminds you of 39 Steps and in moments of some of the Bond's the book moves to a gripping conclusion.

To say anymore would give too much away and spoil the enjoyment for others but what is safe to say is that Greene is having fun here. The plot weaves and runs with the reader, as well as Rowe, never knowing who can be trusted and which side is good or evil. The fact Rowe is himself is a murderer is a brilliant twist that establishes that confusion about which side to back.

Despite his past the reader sides with Rowe and wants him to succeed. To a degree he does but finding out who you really are can be a terrible price to pay.

One of the other highlights of the book along with the plot is London itself. Greene describes a bombed and fearful London in a way few other writers have and manages to place a reader into a world where a sound overhead could mean death or a near miss.

Taking you down into the strange world of those who sleep on the underground Greene uses London brilliantly to evoke the sense of shifting ground and danger that is also being played out between Rowe and those determined to find out what he knows and kill him.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Thoughts at the half way point of Ministry of Fear

Arthur Rowe is a simple man who wanted to kill a bit of time at a church fete but by winning the guess-the-weight-cake he triggered a series of events that meant it was him not just time that was being killed.

Greene introduces the reader to a blitzed out London and a dreary world of rented rooms and the sad world of those unable to fight, left behind in the war torn capital.

As the story starts to unfold things go from strange to horrific for Rowe as he is accused of murder and ends up having to disappear underground to escape the law. One light shines in the darkness but with an Austrian background and links to the cake perhaps Anna Hilfe isn't the friend Arthur Rowe is hoping she might well become.

A review soon...

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Book review: Men In Space by Tom McCarthy

"Across all these images the words LIFT OFF are flashing. On the main dance floor swathes of young Czechs are holding their arms up. Their index fingers cast small silhouettes onto the screen: hundreds of shadow-fingers pointing upwards, urging the rocket, the sketched saint, the city, the whole country up towards the stratosphere, beyond, out into orbit..."

Recently when you think of Tom McCarthy you think of 'C' and this also sparks off another c for clever. Not just for the plot, which weaves together to create a story that pulls together several characters against the backdrop of a fragmented Eastern Europe.

Describing the story makes it sound extremely simple but in reality its a clot more complex than just a case of criminals asking an art dealer to copy a stolen painting so they can sell it off.

As an astronaut trapped in space while the former USSR countries fight out who's responsibility it is to bring him back the characters on the ground struggle to work out what freedom in a former Communist state means for them.

It means drugs, art and pushing boundaries but it almost means that there will be those happy to take advantage of it both in terms of criminals and those in the state who have been institutionalized into abusing their power.

As the consequences of freedom filter through, with the former state policeman abandoned to the static he hears after years of surveillance, the artist who gets lost in his own drug fueled visions and the criminals who turn on themselves after failure, it's clear life is not easy under a new regime.

McCarthy clearly knows his art describing an artistic scene in great detail. Central as a link is the icon which depicts the holy one hanging above the sea and land. That man in space also keeps those around him in limbo as the stolen art work goes from criminal to artist back unwittingly to artist.

The detailed story of the icon painting is a metaphor for what is happening more widely across the country as people come to terms with what is happening post Communism. The sense of uncertianty provides some freedoms, and those drinking the millennium in are taking advantage of some of those, but it also ushers in a sense of uncertianty.

Do the old rules still apply? With those in power still trying to hold onto their positions and abuse the back channels they have always had access to it's no surprise that those people continue to do that.

What remains apart from the hope that things will be changed is the brutality. Death still comes at the end of a gun swiftly and with little regard for the individual whether or not the trigger is pulled by the criminal or the policeman.

Monday, November 08, 2010

book review - My Friend Maigret - Georges Simenon

"Who would have dared not to take him seriously? Heaps of people, who did not have easy consciences, trembled at the mention of his name. He had the power to question them until they cried out with anguish, to put them in prison, send them to the guillotine.
In this very island, there was now someone who, like himself, heard the sounds of the bells, who breathed the sabbath air, someone who was drinking in the same room as himself the previous evening and who, in a few days, would be shut up once and for all within four walls."

The story starts with a down at heel former criminal being murdered on the island of Porquerolles. The night before his body is discovered the petty crook had been telling the villagers at the pub that he was a personal friend of the great chief inspector Maigret. As a result it is assumed that the attack was an indirect one on Maigret and he needs to come and solve the case for his own protection.

But things are not as easy as they sound because Maigret is being shadowed by a Scotland Yard detective studying French methods. Maigret can hardly reveal his methods are about pottering around smoking his pipe and listening to people so there is a tension there from the start.

Added to that tension is the relationship between Maigret and the deceased and a prostitute who was a girlfriend of the victim and was also helped in the past by the policeman.

That help seems to cross the line between policeman and offender but it is a grey area that Maigret finds himself in a few times on the investigation and is part ofn his methodology.

In the end the crime is solved through Maigret's methods with some help from the Englishman who manages to make a few passing comments that stick in the French detective's mind.

They have to go through the rigmarole of interviewing the villagers but it is out and about between the cracks of human life that the key to the mystery lies and where Maigret finds the answers.

Reading Simenon is like slipping neck-up into a hot bubble bath. He relaxes, amuses and gently challenges the concentration of the reader before tying it all up neatly at the end.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Thoughts at the half way point of They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

If you thought it was just Camus and Sartre that did the whole "Life is rubbish so I might as well die" line in existentialism then think again because Horace McCoy delivers something just as dark with They Shoot Horses Don't They?

Halfway through and you already know how the story ends because it starts in a courtroom with the narrator facing death for murder but the story unfolds detailing how he got to know Gloria and just why he killed her. Her gloomy bleak outlook on life wears the young man down and even when things might go well she is determined not to let them.

Two failed actors hanging round Hollywood meet and then enter a dance marathon competition together to try and raise money. The competition last weeks and over that time Gloria continually talks of death. Why didn't Robert escape from her? That remains to be found out.

A review will follow shortly...

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Thoughts at the half way point of My Friend Maigret

In some respects a Maigret story is my reading equivalent of a pack of Minstrels. Something to relax and enjoy, a bit of comfort and something totally pleasurable.

The grumpy Parisian detective has his own ways of working but in this story he is hampered by the shadowing of a detective from Scotland yard who has been sent to see how the great French crime solver works.

The case that presents itself is one that starts off on the wrong foot with an criminal who was boasting of his friendship with Maigret being shot dead. The assumption is that the person who killed him has a hatred for Maigret and so the detective is sent to the island in the Med where the crime has occurred to find the killer.

As the English policeman heads with him the reader is given an insight into the mind of Maigret and the way he works, which if he was given the choice would be just to walk round the village smoking his pipe.

A review will follow shortly...

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

The month in review - October

An odd month where things started well but ended in a rush. Freedom was a big book that left you thinking big thoughts anbd that perhaps made it difficult to pick up other things and get lost in them. The reviews went by the wayside slightly (although the intention is to back post them) as the final week caused a flurry of reading.

Highlights included not just Freedom but the Booker winner The Finkler Question and the Not the Booker winner The Canal. All three books deserved thwe attention they have been given and although different in style and content they challenge you to think. You need a bit of time to do that and perhaps the aim of sticking to seven books in a month was not just naive this month but a bit foolhardy. Anyway here is the list:

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
The Land of Green Plums by Herta Muller
The Canal by Lee Rourke
The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson
Leaf Storm by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Maigret and the millionaires by Georges Simenon

Monday, November 01, 2010

Writing instead of reading

For a change I intend to try and write something this month. Having signed up to the National Novel Writing Month I have this month to produce something that is 50,000 words long.

I have an idea but have no clue if it will stretch to that length so will set off today to try and see what happens when you take a loose idea and try to flesh it out a bit.

Despite doing this blog and twitter I don't really write anything 'creative' so it's going to be interesting and slightly scary! Will keep you updated on progress or lack of.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

bookmark of the week

Just to finish the month with a leather bookmark that puts the Roman rule of Britain in some sort of historical context. A great bookmark from English Heritage.

Friday, October 29, 2010

book review - The Finkler Question - Howard Jacobson

"How do you go on living knowing that you will never again - not ever, ever - see the person you have loved? How do you survive a single hour, a single minute, a single second of that knowledge? How do you hold yourself together?"

In many respects this is a love story. Not just for women that the main characters have loved and lost but for an idea, a hope, that after the terror of the holocaust the Jews were no longer going to be victims of anti-semitism and the horrors inflicted on them in the past.

But this is also a book asking some pretty weighty questions about what it means to be Jewish. Both sides of the for and against Zionism debate are covered and because of his ability to craft political questions with a great deal of humour Jacobson manages to pull it off.

What does it mean to be a Jew? For Julian Treslove, a failed BBC radio producer, failed father and failed lover it means a lot because his two best friends are Jewish. But as he seems to be intent on embracing Juadism his friends Libor and Sam Finkler are struggling to cope with what it means to be a Jew in the current age.

Things start with the three friends meeting after one of them, Libor, has suffered a recent bereavmenent after a marriage after a long marriage and Finkler has also lost his wife. But one was faithful and the other was not. Both have regrets but find a refuge in being and arguing about what it means to be a Jew. Treslove is a bystander as Sam and Libor argue about the rights and wrongs of Israel and he would have possibly have stayed on the sidelines until one night he is attacked when walking home and his attacker calls him a Jew.

His search for a justification in the attack and a growing envy and obsession with Judaism brings him into a relationship with a Jewish woman who is also setting up a cultural centre. As she finds the centre the target of attacks Treslove immerses himself in discovering the amount of hatred and antisemitism out there.

Just as Libor struggles to live a life alone, Finkler struggles to contemplate his guilt for infidelity and the prospect of growind old alone Treslove cannot cope with what it means to be a Jew.

His failure, which he is set up for at the very start, raises questions not just of understanding between different communities but what impact the amount of hate has one anyone who sits down long enough to compile a list and really think about it.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

bookmark of the week

One of the highlights of the month was taking part in the Lego mosaic world record. This bookmark was one of the rewards for helping beat the record and bring a bit of the old Roman decorative magic back to life for half-term.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Thoughts at the halfway point of The Finkler Question

There are some moments when this brings a smile to the face but there are some big issues that Jacobson is dealing with here and laughter is a helpful alternative to the full force of the political and religious subjects he tackles.

Three friends, two Jewish and one not, two widowed and one not, spend their time together discussing Israel, Zionism and what it means to be Jewish. It makes the non-Jew among them rather envious and in some senses this is a story of how he starts to become attracted to a religion and way of life just as those around him born into it are falling out of love with it.

But there is also a theme here about friendship and rivalry and it should be interesting to see how that develops and how the relationships change in the second half.

A review will come soon...

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Libraries already going without details of the cuts

Although there were some large numbers thrown around by the Chancellor George Osborne in the Comprehensive Spending Review today but not that much detail.

With libraries around me already at risk of closure, thinking specifically of the one in Blackheath and New Cross Gate, it raises the question of what will happen when the details of the cuts finally come out.

Libraries seem to be in the firing line. Seen as places that are underused and as a result prime places to wield the axe what worries me is the impact on the future. Books might be seen as reasonably priced but for those that are unable to buy them or grow up in a world devoid of books the exposure and access to a library was crucial.

Take that away and I really worry about the long term impact on some people.

Monday, October 18, 2010

book review - The Land of Green Plums - Herta Muller

"Edgar nodded and Georg said: Everyone's a villager here. Our heads may have left home, but our feet are just standing in a different village. No cities can grow in a dictatorship, because everything stays small when it's being watched."

There is a moment early on in this book when four student friends find that they need to find a place to hide some books. Who can they trust in a state where informers and eyes are watching everywhere? Just hiding a book is something that could potentially land you in hot water so reasonably quickly you are introduced to the author's world of paranoia and fear.

The world where Georg, Kurt, Edgar and the female narrator occupy is one dominated by Ceausescu and it is a regime that is determined to crush individualism and any potential threat to the state. One of the victims of that regime is Lola who chooses to take her own life early on in the story after she comes up against the brutality of the state.

Her example unites four students who share the same views on the system and the same urge to defy it. Not defy it in terms of demonstrations and political actions but defy it in terms of wanting freedom of thought. The story follows them as they leave college and get jobs in factories where they are constantly kept under surveillance. They meet their nemesis in the secret service who is determined to break them and harasses their families as well as getting the few neutral friends to turn on them.

The style is almost diary like with small to long passages coming on top of each other to give you an idea of what it must be like to live in a society where the fear of the state is the first lesson handed down from parent to child and the consequences of free thought are dire.

Even when they escape the country they can never really escape the fear, the sense of surveillance and the threat from a regime that has to squash anyone who disagrees with them. It might not be easy to follow on occasions and the jerky results of it being clipped passages makes it difficult for the narrative to flow sometimes.

But the feeling it provides is one that is going to be more memorable than the story. The sense of paranoia, fear and the limits to where an individual can escape to when the only real escape is in their head is brilliantly delivered.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

bookmark of the week

Horrible Histories are a hit in my house and this fun bookmark sums up their approach to making history fun. One of a couple I picked up and will post the other one later on.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Thoughts at the half way point of The Canal

I should really be doing reviews but conscious that my reading almost slipped last month trying instead to get a few books under the belt. Aim to get a Freedom review up tomorrow. But in the meantime the halfway point has been reached on Lee Rourke's Canal.

Having waited ages to read this it suddenly feels very topical having come joint top in the Guardian's Not the Booker Award.

At the risk of trying to summarize something not yet read completely this does seem to be our own homegrown response to the war on terror. A man who is bored throws in his job and spends everyday sitting on the same bench on the banks of a canal in North London.

That sounds like a difficult setting to maintain a 200 page story but soon the man is joined by a mysterious woman who is attracted by suicide bombers, beaten up and menaced by a local gang of youths and drawn into watching the day to day activities of a man working in the office opposite.

Passages about terrorism, bombing, suicide and the twin towers are interspersed with views on boredom and on the futility of modern life.

"But wouldn't it be nice for us to just get away from here? And do something else for change? Do something other than sit here all day long?"
"There's no need to do anything else."

Enjoying it so far and will post a review on completion...

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Thoughts at the halfway point of The Land of Green Plums

There is a challenge with this book because of the way it is delivered in bite sized chunks. That makes it a rather jerky read and sometimes difficult to follow.

But the positive far outweigh that criticism and the writing is beautiful and you find yourself sitting reading it with a notepad on the lap taking down page references to remember passages afterwards.

One of the ones that will stick in my mind describes a father and his son heading to the station so the young man can head away from the village to the city and to college:

"My father, said Georg, took the bicycle to the station so that he wouldn't have to walk so close to me on the way there, and so that, on the way back , his empty hands wouldn't remind him he was returning home alone."

The world Muller describes is a horrible one of oppression with then main four characters living in a nightmare where only their thoughts are safe from the state. Living under a dictatorship every sign of non-cooperation brings persecution and some even take the suicide option rather than go on living with the pressure to lie to yourself everyday.

"...other people manage to to clap along with everyone else and make money."

You fear for the narrator and her three friends as the second half of the book unfolds.

A review will be posted soon...

Blog added to Bookswarm Feedreader

Thanks to the folks over at Bookswarm they have kindly added a feed of this blog to their reviewer section on their Feedread service. It's great that they have done that and will add another way for people to get this blog.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Importance of culture reminder on night of Booker prize

It's lucky I left a gap in the reading for this month to have a book spare incase C didn't win the Booker prize. Sure enough that decision turned out to be a wise one as Howard Jacobson won with The Finkler Question.

Watching the coverage of the prize on the BBC I found the comments made by the chair of the judges Sir Andrew Motion were worth listening to and remembering. His passionate defence of culture in a time of cuts is one that hopefully government ministers will have picked up on.

Taking the axe to arts budgets seems to be an easy option in times of hardship but as Motion said the cultural richness of a nation is as important as its economic wealth.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Sticking with paper and ink

EBooks are all the rage these days with the Amazon Kindle, the Sony eReader and the iPad all trying to jostle to catch the eye of the next generation of readers who are happy to read off electronic paper.

I liked to believe I was potentially one of them. Maybe still could be with the right technology. But the experience of trying to read The Canal on an iPhone screen has proved to be too much for me.

Having got to page 59 I am now printing it out in batches of 50 pages. There is nothing wrong with the book being sent in PDF form and nothing wrong with the book. If anything it's getting better the more you get into it. But the technology has let me down so it's back to paper and ink again for now at least.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

bookmark of the week

This bookmark shows one of the mosaic floors at Lullingstone Roman villa. The site is run by English heritage and this is one of the bookmarks that is very specific to the location, a great addition to the collection.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Read it before you grow up

Went to the library this morning and took out the 1001 Children's Books to Read Before You Grow Up. It's done by the people who did the 1001 things to do before you dies and it has provided some food for thought.

What really interested me was not so much the new books that are coming out or are a few years old, like the follow-ups from the Gruffalo authors for instance, but the classics.

There are some books that I read as a child including the likes of Just William that I had forgotten and have now been inspired to get out again to read to my children. Reading aloud is a great pleasure providing me with as much fun as the boys and having got through three Mr Gum books this year and a couple of Enid Blyton's we are currently reading a Michael Rosen. Next perhaps it might be Just William...

Friday, October 08, 2010

C seems to be the front runner

It was interesting to watch Newsnight Review and get a glimpse into what some of the movers and shakers in the lit world think will win the Booker prize next week.

The broad agreement seemed to be that C was the favorite but it wasn't necessarily a popular choice. John Mullan expressed his dislike of the pr around the book that it was an 'anti-novel' pointing out that if anything it had a chronology and a main character that made it in some respects quite like a traditional novel.

But at the end as the four critics were asked what they thought would win there was a split between McCarthy's C and Damon Galgut's in a Strange room.

You get the feeling that if C doesn't win it's going to be quite a surprise. even the bookies aren't taking anymore bets on it. Waiting to see what happens on the 12 October.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Literary prizes...discuss

The question of whether or not literary prizes are worth while or not is certainly one that I come down on the side of them being a very useful exercise. Okay you can argue until the cows come home about who should be on shortlists etc but the point is that the lists of those considered has the effect of making you try out new authors.

So at this time of year with the Booker prize about to be unveiled and the Nobel prize for Literature unveiled today there is plenty of suggestions for the TBR pile.

At this point I need to admit that although I managed to read the previous winner of the Nobel prize but one Le Clezio I still have to get through a book from last year's winner Herta Muller. The colleague at work who has lent it to me will probably start wondering what has happened to it.

This month as earlier pointed out I plan to leave some space in my reading time for some Mario Vargas Llosa and if need be the winner of the Booker if it turns out not to be McCarthy, which I've managed to read.

These are inspiring times.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Thoughts at the half way point of Freedom

This book is big in scope and size and the story takes its time to unravel. It also takes a bit of time to get used to the way that Franzen is going to tell his tale.

You are introduced to the Berglund family who are doing rather well and have a marriage and a middle class lifestyle that is the envy of neighbours. But things fall apart and the book starts with those same neighbours getting the chance to gloat over the downfall of the respectable Walter and Patty and their children Jessica and Joey.

So having introduced a family that has gone from being happy and content to one being torn apart as the Joey moves in with the girl literally next door you finish the first part wondering just where that all came from and where they go from there.

And at the point Franzen starts to take you on a journey. It takes you back in time to the childhoods of Patty and then Walter taking you not only back past the point where the book started but then also forward into the future. These shifting view points overlay and develop the story.

In some senses it reminded me of John Updike in the way that Franzen is describing an America that is in crisis as behind closed doors the perfect nuclear families fall apart. But at other times I found myself thinking that if this was adapted for anything the stage would be the ideal place with each character getting their moment under the spotlight before the family unit took the narrative on collectively.

Slow so far but getting through it.

A review will be posted soon...

Monday, October 04, 2010

The month ahead

The month ahead is going to hopefully be a bit more controlled than previous ones with a determination to get through some specific books.

I aim to read the following plus a few more:

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
The Canal by Lee Rourke
The booker winner if not C
Land of Green Plums by Herta Muller
Something by the winner of the Nobel Literature prize

Sunday, October 03, 2010

bookmark of the week

My son is studying the Romans at school so the bookmark theme of the month is going to be Romans. here is the first one which is an aid to understanding their numerals.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Bath Children's Literature Festival

The only literature festival previously attended was the World Literature Weekend run by the LRB over the last couple of summers. But in order to take my son deeper into the world of Beast Quest, which he loves so much, this weekend we headed to Bath and the Children's Literature Festival.

Aside from regrets about not going to more sessions the Beast Quest event was brilliantly done. On one level it was a reading but it was acted brilliantly and then the children were invited to participate and get up on stage.

The book stall on the way out was packed and the event was a great success. We are already planning to go to next sessions next year.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Month review - September

September turned out to be a weird month with the aim of reading seven books a month almost derailed. A lot happening at work had an impact on my reading time and mood so that filtered through.

Having said that the choice of books perhgaps didn't help either with the Powell not having aged at all well. First Love, Last Rites by McEwan was also a much more difficult read than anticipated.

However the books were read and the year is entering its final stages with me having now read as many books so far this year as I did in the whole of 2009 so that is a real positive.

books read in September

From a View to a Death by Anthony Powell
Kings of the Water by Mark Behr
The Castle of Otranto by Horage Walpole
Silence of the Grave by Arnaldur Indridason
Vivian and I by Colin Bacon
First Love, Last Rites by Ian McEwan
C by Tom McCarthy

Thursday, September 30, 2010

book review - C - Tom McCarthy

"Their crashes and eruptions sound like handfuls of buckshot thrown into a tin bucket, or a bucketful of grain-like gravy dashed against a wash-boiler. Wireless ghosts come and go, moving in arpeggios that loop, repeat, mutate, then disappear. Serge spends the last half hour or so of each night up here among these pitches, nestling in their contours as his head nods towards the desktop and lights flash across the inside of his eyelids, pushing them outwards from the centre of his brain, so far out that the distance to their screen seems infinite: they seem to contain all distances, envelop space itself, curving around it like a patina, a mould..."

There is a moment in the book when the C in the title is defined to the leading character, as standing for Carbon the stuff of life, but by then you have already made up your own mind what it stands for.

Although having said that it would be too easy to talk about Communication which is the big theme of the book. Communication via the wireless and radio waves is a theme from start to finish but there are also ideas about communication between the living and dead and the present and the past. Could you hear Christ's last words on the cross in static form stretching back from time? asks one character as he muses on the static that crowds the fringes of the radio airwaves.

C is also the initial for the Carrefax family who dominate the story and from where the lead character Serge (often confused for Surge another technical communication reference) comes from. He starts the story as a baby being born but increasingly comes to dominate the story as it goes along.

Carrefax senior runs a school for the deaf and uses technology in the form of wax recordings to encourage the children to speak and puts them through performances to show off how his techniques are succeeding. His wife is also deaf, Serge's mother, and she has a ghostly presence in the book never emerging beyond giving an impression in a couple of scenes.

But the C also stands for cocaine and the drug abuse that Serge inflicts on himself as he goes through the First World War as an observer in a plane with the RAF. He comes back to London and the drugs continue to be part of his life as he hangs out with the theatrical scene and tries to find a role for himself in a world that is far too normal for a man who has lived through and witnessed the things he has on the battlefield.

There is a cleverness to this book that means that even when the main character becomes difficult to empathise with you want to see how it ends. Technology changed the world shaping communication not just in peace but also in war and throughout the book Serge's father is constantly looking to push the boundaries. The pressure he puts on himself is transmitted to his children with his daughter taking her own life as the madness of being constantly brilliant takes a vicious hold.

Serge himself seems to be looking for something. The teenager who listened in on radio stations and static is lost himself in the noise of normal life after he returns from the war and struggles to relate to the sort of life that his contemporaries are getting on with.

There are some big themes being discussed here and you sense that one day someone could do something similar with the web and its impact on the way people live. Just because you can communicate with people across continents and use technology to push what's possible doesn't always bode well for the individuals using it.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

book review - Vivian and I - Colin Bacon

"Despite chronic alcoholism and failing health, Viv remained at the top of his game until the end. He never let an audience down."

There are a few characters that manage to make drinking something that is part of their personality in an almost positive sense. Think Oliver Reed and the other hellraisers and think of Jeffrey Bernard (who was most of the time unwell) and their alcohol abuse made them memorable, adding to their popularity.

Added to that list could easily be the name of Vivian Mackerrell who inspired the character of Withnail in the Bruce Robinson film Withnail & I. His drinking finally killed him but he went down keeping the audience laughing until the end.

Sadly that audience became fewer and fewer, made up of medical staff and the few friends who had been prepared to stay with him. One of those who was there at the end is Colin Bacon who has put together a book that not only provides the details, which at times are sketchy, of Vivian's life and brief career but through anecdotes and memories provide an insight into the world that both Mackerrell and Bacon came from.

It was a life set against a Nottingham childhood and time spent as a drama student living in a house crammed full of other trainee actors. This provided the stage for Mackerrell to perform and perfect a routine he would become so well known for. Drinking heavily but with great charm and wit amusing those who stood him drinks.

He was still doing the same when he could no longer speak, having had his voice box removed, and was injecting the pints straight into himself through a syringe meant to be helping him eat.

There is something about these characters that provokes admiration rather than pity and contempt. Bernard had a play about his lifestyle play over many years to packed houses and Withnail & I is famous for its scenes of heavy drinking and the slide of Withnail into failure as his flatmate gets an acting job and moves on.

Bacon has produced a book that is part biography part autobiography of his own past as he shares the importance of his friendship with a man that amused many but died a fairly horrendous death with most of the old names and faces long since gone. The book will no doubt introduce a new generation to 'the real Withnail' but it also shows the depths to which real friendship can go.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Worst month so far

This has easily been my worst month for blogging so far all I can do is apologise. I am trying to read more and as a result the reviews are stacking up unwritten. Please bear with me while I get the fingers tapping again.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Thoughts at the halfway point of C

The C of the title could mean clever as the number of times names of people, places and objects crop up starting with that letter. It reminds me a bit of the sort of word games that Georges Perec and his ilk liked to play.

But for me the C so far stands for communication with the deaf school mixing with the birth of wireless signals and the impact that this technology has on the limitations of the world.

As the Carrefax family experiment in communication and chemistry the world is changing with the spectre of the First World War moving closer where the knowledge the family possesses will be required for more war like purposes.

As the potential main characters fall or fade away the reader is left with the teenage Serge as he recovers from his sister's illness in terms of finding his purpose and sets out to conquer his own internal mysteries as well as those around him.

Review will follow soon...

Sunday, September 26, 2010

bookmark of the week

there is a shop in Greenwich market selling designs by Hartwig Braun and this is one of a couple of bookmarks he has produced. Will plan to show the other one later on this year. he draws London in a cartoon style but manages to cram in a fair few of the major landmarks.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

book review - The Castle of Otranto - Horace Walpole

"Shocked with these lamentable sounds, and dreading he knew not what, he advanced hastily - but what a sight for a father's eyes! - He beheld his child dashed to pieces, and almost buried under an enormous helmet, an hundred times more large than any casque ever made for human being, and shaded with a proportionable quantity of black feathers."

This slim but dense book comes with a reputation akin to wearing black and winklepickers with the Sisters of Mercy on the stereo.

The word Gothic has connotations that are valid with the idea of the creepiness but perhaps would put some readers off preventing a readership from enjoying this clever tale of treachery and ambition.

In some ways it reminds you of Macbeth and at other points the magical world of Peake's Gormenghast came to mind.

The story is perhaps slightly less accessible than you would like because of the language but once you get used to that the events of the story start to exert their power over the imagination.

Starting with what has become the classic - I found this manuscript somewhere in Italy and thought I would publish it - approach the story gets straight into the action.

A castle dominated by a Prince that has manipulated events to take power is set for the nuptials of the Prince's son and his chosen bride. But when the son is killed in a freak accident things start to move rapidly and ghostly premonitions indicate that the son is the first to die if the father will not relinquish the castle.

Far from taking heed what follows is a tale of a man determined to hold on to power even if it means the destruction of everything he holds dear.

In a Shakespearean type of way several moments of hidden and mistaken identity are revealed that compound the Prince's problems and reveal that events have moved far beyond his control.

In the midst of all of the ghostly sightings and terror love blossoms and the future foundation of the castle of Otranto emerges.

Not the easiest book to read thanks not just to the style but also the various references are dropped in about claims to thrones and lineage that can become confusing and despite its slimline look it took a while to read.

Still for those fancying a chill as the night's draw in it provides a few scares and plenty to keep the imagination going.

Monday, September 20, 2010

book review - Kings of the Water - Mark Behr

This book unravels like an onion with it matching that vegetable for its power to start the tear ducts tingling.

The fact that it manages to get you feeling involved and connected with the lives of a farm running family in South Africa is something that you would struggle to predict at the start.

With things starting with a son flying home from America to South Africa to attend his mother's funeral the reader struggles to get to grips with the landscape and the history. Both unfold bit by bit leaving you understanding more about the lead characters but also more about the country.

The family at the heart of the story have lived and run a farm for generations through the years of apartheid. Now things in the country have changed but the ghostly trace of previous attitudes remains and are heightened for someone who has not visited the country for many years.

But why has Michael not visited for so long? His disgrace leaving a pregnant girlfriend and being demoted in the army because of a homosexual encounter with a fellow solider haunt him and his family.

Coming back for his mother's funeral he has to face the people he hurt and face the bitterness of his father. The fact his eldest brother, who drowned, was also gay and took his own life to avoid death through AIDS is an extra twist that weakens the position of the father even more.

But as much as this is about personal reconciliation and forgiveness it is also about South Africa. The past can never be forgotten but it is the way people not only act now but how they act given their past that counts.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

bookmark of the week

This bookmark shows the downside of London in 1872. This reproduction of a print by Gustave Dore shows Orange Court, just off Drury Lane. Again this was purchased in the Museum of London, a great place for a day out in the capital.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

bookmark of the week

This is the second bookmark showing a vie of London, this time dating from 1630. This also came from the Museum of London and is one of the iconic views of the capital from the South side of the Thames. The skyline is dominated by the original St Pauls.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

book review - From a View to a Death - Anthony Powell

"Mrs. Brandon did not answer. She had ceased to fan herself with the Illustrated London News and now she lay back on the sofa quite still. Her eyes remained open, but they stared in front of her at nothing in particular. Mrs Dadds made preparations to leave the room. She was an unobservant woman and did not notice that her mistress was dead."

Cards on the table I like Anthony Powell. I know some people think of his Dance to the Music of Time as an upmarket Eastenders but it charts a world that has gone forever blown away by the bombs of war and the decline of the aristocracy. But From a View to a Death is slightly different.

It contains all of the Powell hall marks of characters from country houses that have wealth and eccentricities that are designed to make the reader laugh. The problem is that those characters were probably seen with some fondness back in 1933, when this was first published, but now seem not just vulgar but irrelevant.

The world inbetween the wars was one when those that had served in the First World War got to stroll around and talk about the war and the need for everyone to be a gentleman. But the spectre of Nazism was looming when being a gentleman was not going to be enough and those in houses that were already in decline were facing serious problems.

But this is written before that was clearly happening. In a nutshell an artist, Arthur Zouch, who is neither successful or a hit with the ladies exploits the hospitality of a family in the country setting his sights on an engagement and marriage into a comfortable life in the country.

He finds away from London he manages to start a couple of affairs with not just his intended target but another pretty girl in the village. Set pieces about a pageant and hunting are played out as the characters move through a vanishing world. What you sense clearly is how boring it is to be part of that and how protected they all are not just from reality but ever being told about it. Butlers might grumble about them but they dare not say it to their masters faces.

The two problems for me were firstly that the humour didn't carry through 80 years and the scenes about transvestitism were just awkward when presumably they were meant to be rib tickling.

But secondly the main character of Zouch never really worked for me. Was the reader meant to like him as he broke hearts and schemed his way through engagements? Were they meant to feel pity when the family he had chosen to become part of closed ranks and made it difficult? I felt neither and as a result found it lacking any real engagement.

As a piece of social history charting a world that has largely disappeared then it is worth a read but those heading for Powell would be wiser to go for the Dance rather than this.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

bookmark of the week

The bookmarks for September are all going to have a London theme. The first one, from the Museum of London is a print of the long view of London produced by Wenceslaus Hollar in 1647. No eye, Gerkin or Shard back then.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Month review - August

If there were any themes this month it was short stories with the Jergovic collection and Wessex Tales by Hardy. The first was easier to get through than the second, which although containing great content is quite a dense read.

The other theme was the history with the Luneburg Variation a tale of the holocaust, The Courilof Affair of Russian revolutionaries and the Legend of Elizabeth Siddal a biography of a remarkable woman.

List of books read:

Prater Violet by Christopher Isherwood
Sarajevo Marlboro by Miljenko Jergovic
The Luneburg Variation by Paolo Maurensig
Wessex Tales by Thomas Hardy
The Legend of Elizabeth Siddal by Jan Marsh
The Wine-Dark Sea by Leonardo Sciascia
The Courilof Affair by Irene Nemirovsky