- Premium reviews
- Express reviews
- Reviews rated
- Ratings received
I haven't seen the motion picture, The Shipping News, but the book was bought to my attention by virtue of the film. I was listening to an interview with Dame Judi Dench and she happened to mention how wonderful she found the book and so when Tesco's were offering it for just under £2, I ordered it. £2 for a new book is a real bargain. The Shipping News was penned (or probably word processed) by Annie Proulx a Canadian lady who did not publish her first novel until she was 56, this is her second novel and won the Pulitzer prize, The Irish Times International prize and The National Book Award. Huge gongs then for Annie Proulx and please you haters of books with awards do not be put off by them, despite being liked by critics this is a refreshingly easy book to read about a part of the world that I had not experienced as a location for a novel before. The Shipping News is set in Newfoundland, Canada, although Newfoundlander's clearly feel about as Canadian as a the Scots do English. I am sure that puts you in the picture. The narrative features the hapless, blundering, tubby Quoyle, a man who the world appears to have blessed with no confidence, little ability and looks that were more likely to open him to ridicule than female lust - what confidence and ability he did have was firmly kicked and beaten out of him by his father. Finding himself as a widower, following the death of his rather horrible and self-centred wife, Pearl, Quoyle is left as single parent with daughters that are a bit of a handful. To add to the mess, his father dies and he loses his job as bit part local reporter for a small local New York newspaper. Enter his Auntie Hamm - who picks him up by the scruff of his neck and persuades him and his daughters to join her in a return to the land of their forefathers, Newfoundland and the old dilapidated family home. Quoyle is to learn that there was more than met the eye to his ancestors and certainly more than meet s the eye to life on this sleepy backwater of an Island. Once again Quoyle becomes employed as an average hack - this time on Newfoundland's leading local and "comical" paper, The Gammy Bird. A newspaper specialising in front pages features of car and boat wrecks; as many stories of indecent assault and paedophilia as the paper can get its grubby mitts on (although something about Newfoundland seems to give it a greater share than you would think possible of perverted delinquents); and the shipping news - a bland page of what ships arrived and left the main harbour and from where and to where they are heading. Quoyle has found his niche with the shipping news in more ways that one. Oh and it seems that everyone who appears in court on the island, decides to perform some kind of strip act. The success of the paper serves to illustrate modern societies greed for information about the unfortunate and bizarre, probably so that the readers can feel safe in their own cocooned perceived normality. Quoyle's loneliness and insecurities seem to abate contained in the cosy life on Newfoundland and slowly but surely he finds himself fitting in and rediscovering his abilities and self-confidence and finding that his new life might just suit him after all. This is not a book with a huge plot line running through it. It is distinctly character driven rather than plot driven and personally, I often prefer this type of read. There are times where in between chapters whole months have passed and so the narrative can seem a little disjointed in places, but then being a book about people there are times when whole months elapse in a person's life and all that person has done is follow their little routine. This is a book about people and how they can find themselves again after years of punishment by modern society. It is about nature and how people still live away from all the mod-cons of society, although, Newfoundland suffers a t the hands of the modern global economy with its waters being fished dry by corporate powers and large trawlers with the result that locals struggle to adapt to a life without fishing and look for other ways to earn their keep. This is also a book very much about love in its different forms, for Quoyle love has always led to bad things, an abusive father and in certain ways an abusive wife. Proulx beautifully points out that love can mean all kinds of different things for different people and different things at different times of their lives. In Newfoundland Quoyle is told that there are four kinds of woman "The Demon Lover. The Stout-hearted Woman. Maids in the Meadows. The Tall Quiet Woman." Maybe to pigeon hole all types of women into four categories is a little on the generalist side, but this observation does hold merit. The Shipping News also has a comical side, Quoyle has a habit of observing his life experiences as a headline writer would and at times these boil life down to its ultimate ridiculous simplicity and capture the whole essence of a scene in the book in a few words, whilst giving the reader a few laugh out loud moments. "Man with hangover listens to boat project variables." "Newspaper reporter seems magnet for dead men!" "Girl fears white dog, relatives marvellously upset!" There are probably about 50 or so of these strewn through the book and they add marvellous light relief. This is an easy flowing book, whilst it is certainly not fast paced, meandering along at the speed of an eccentric Newfoundlander's life (slow), it is deeply absorbing. The style captures the local dialect and slang moreover, the dialogue in the novel really brings its sometimes larger than life characters to life in the mind. The book features a rich tapestry of characters depicting a society in flux, the older are more eccentric and wish just to be left to fish, whilst the younger generation real ise that the old Newfoundland ways are fading fast and something else has to take the place of fishing, but what? The descriptions of storms really make you feel that you could be wrapped up warm in a cosy Newfoundland house whilst the sea and wind rages all around you and this ability to transport the reader to almost a different world with an easy writing style is to be much admired. The Shipping News is clever, intelligent, moving, observant on the nuances of social interaction, comical and in a way it has a rugged beauty, much I expect like the coast of a storm battered island has. But most of all The Shipping News is a strangely uplifting read. This is a very good book, that I deeply enjoyed, but I was left wondering why it has had so much critical acclaim, there are lots of good books out there that don't find this. Perhaps it is because the character of Quoyle is one that I will never forget. Published by Fourth Estate. Priced £6.99 in paperback, or £5.59 plus postage and packaging from amazon.co.uk. ISBN 1-84115-059-2. Further details of all Fourth Estate books and authors can be found at www.4thestate.com.
Do you know who you are? How do you know that your persona is actually you? How do you know that this really is Earth that we are living on? The most probable answer is that none of us can be entirely sure - of course we are all told that this is Earth and we are informed what is sane and insane, but who is really to judge what is sane and what is insane? Who are we to tell certain harmless people that they are mad and we are sane? Well of course society is the judge of that, just as society says that you are strange if you do not conform in your dress sense or way of expression - the sanity stage is just a more extreme version of a group of people's idea of what is or is not acceptable mental behaviour. In his novel K-PAX, Gene Brewer, explores the notion of sanity and the power of the mind in ways reminiscent of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest - K-PAX never quite hits the levels of this great book, but it is still an interesting, entertaining and thoughtful read. Prot claims to come from the planet K-PAX, woooo hang on their buster, this is a chap with mental problems - people from other worlds, no not at all, not possible, are you mad - this guy is insane. Accordingly, prot ends up at the Manhattan Institute, a small and specialist psychiatric hospital. It is there he ends up under the care of Dr. Gene Brewer a psychiatrist determined to get to the bottom of this interesting and ultimately special patient. The question is, just who is prot? He has no apparent traceable background and appears to know an awful lot of detail about this planet K-PAX that rings true, with an astronomer contact of Dr. Brewer's, knowledge and this knowledge is not available beyond a select group of astronomers. Is prot an Alien? Is prot a savant in the midst of a delusional fantasy? Is prot simply a different personality of the real man, the real man who is not an alien and is an ordinary American with severe mental problems? K-PAX is m ore than just a journey of is prot an alien or not - in describing life on K-PAX to Dr. Brewer, prot seems to shine some light on the problems of our own world. Is religion really a force for good? Do we really need the democratic capitalist system viewed by the dominant group as the best way for societies to function? Are humans really superior to other life forms on our planet - or are they just arrogant pigs? Do humans really need to engineer so many synthetic medicines when there are countless herbs used by societies more in tune with their natural environment that do the same job? ""What about psychiatry? I suppose you are going to tell me there is no need for it on K-PAX." "Why should there be, we don't have religious, sexual or financial problems to tear us apart."" It is on religion that Brewer (the author) is most scathing: ""Then you don't believe in God?" "The idea was kicked around for a few hundred cycles, but was soon rejected." "Why?" "Why kid ourselves?" "But if it gives comfort?.." "A false hope only gives false comfort."" You just wait until he gets stuck into religious bigotry and the prejudices of one religion to another, then the exchange above just seems soft! K-PAX is written in the first person from Dr. Brewer's perspective and it has a structure that feels like a case history as written by a psychiatrist, with each chapter being a separate session with prot and the events that have surrounded that session. Whether prot is alien or not, the unique way that his mind thinks and his unique gifts soon bring benefit to the other patients as a fresh approach is tried to relieve them of their mental problems that mean they cannot function in what we call society. This structure makes K-PAX an extremely easy book to read and the ideas within the book are expressed v ery clearly, there is no subtle message for humanity in the book, it is rammed down the reader's throats. Have an open-mind; what we perceive as correct and the truth may not be as infallible as we think; our beliefs and our perseverance by our beliefs does not make them the truth; the ridiculous may not be ridiculous but just another form of existence. Furthermore, K-PAX is an illustration of just how little we really know about the human mind and what it is capable of - as for prot and whether he is human or alien, in the end the judgment is left up to the reader. I have not got to the bottom of whether K-PAX is based on any of Gene Brewer, the author's work, I have no idea if he is a doctor, I guess this may just be another conundrum and twist to the book's plot. Is this the book that the Dr. Gene Brewer and doctor and friend of prot was intending to write? Is it based on a real life prot? Even if it is, is this just fiction? There is nothing to be gained from the answers but it is an interesting conundrum, is Gene Brewer, Gene Brewer? Who knows - but who are you? K-PAX is an easy book to read, it flows, it is carefully structured, is well written and has a powerful if unoriginal message. There is a certain off beat humour to the story and in the end the tale is uplifting, in certain ways refreshing and optimistic about humanity and the human spirit. This is a good relaxing read, with just enough to keep the mind ticking over without making it hurt - it will make the reader think about their beliefs and perceptions, which in today's bigoted world is no bad thing. There was a recent film version of this book, with Kevin Spacey cast in the role of prot - to be honest, I think the casting was perfect and I will watch the film with interest. Published by Bloomsbury paperback. ISBN: 0-7475-2547-1. 226 pages long and very easily they slip by as well. Priced: £6.99. <br> Further details of all Bloomsbury books can be found at www.bloomsburymagazine.com. Now just don't go telling me that my young flat mate Geoffrey the mohican giraffe is just a delusional fantasy of mine.
Take a journey through a tunnel - a tunnel of intermittent light, strange creatures, strange landscape and strange companions. Is this a journey through the jungles of the Congo River, or a journey to the heart of the human soul? What will you find at the end of such a journey - ivory, riches, experience - or the true nature of humanity? Well according to Joseph Conrad what you find on both counts is "The horror! The horror!" Heart of Darkness, written by Joseph Conrad at the turn of the twentieth century has become one of the seminal pieces of English literature. Conrad, an exile from Polish Ukraine, whose true name was Jozef Korzeniowski (I like true names better, but then call me old fashioned - I am not about to change my name to Geoffrey now!) and whose true language was not English is cherished as a great English writer. It is perhaps because of Conrad's background that his books are hard to read and at times read like translations from his mother tongue to English. I have never finished any of Conrad's previous books, despite being told just how good the Secret Agent and the Heart of Darkness are - but this time I was determined to start and finish the Heart of Darkness and I did. After all it spawned one of the most critically celebrated films of all time, Apocalypse Now and the story lines of the book and film are closely matched - despite the shift in geographical location and political direction of the film. The premise of Heart of Darkness is simple, take away the trapping of civilisation and place a supposed civilised man back into the wilderness - which is of course what happened throughout the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries as certain nations went hell for leather at imperialism and stripping nations of their natural riches and resources. A trait of course continued by America, by more subtle means at the start of the twenty first century - with a scramble for the new ivory, oil. Conrad's book is based on his own personal experience. It was in 1890 that he went to work in Congo as a trainee steamboat captain on the Congo River, so that he could glimpse the greed of imperialism first hand and by virtue of certain accounts so that he could find himself and his true nature. What we have is a simple book, the tale of Marlow, a seaman, who recounts his own trip down the Congo River to rescue an ivory trader named Kurtz - what Marlow finds is that the civilised man is at his heart, barbaric and selfish and that imperialists are nothing short of burglars with no desire to do anything except exploit for personal and national gain. Marlow's tale is also a metaphor for a person's journey within himself or herself - what is the true nature of a human? Kurtz has undertaken this journey and perhaps left whatever notion of sanity the West has along the way and as for Marlow, his own journey is just beginning - will he go the way of Kurtz, or will he simply observe with an amused air? Heart of Darkness is undoubtedly a book with atmosphere and a deep sense of brooding, there are times when the narrative draws you in as Marlow (Conrad) must have been drawn in to what was happening around him. There are other times when the narrative is little more than a confused stream of consciousness, as Marlow in the telling of his tale seeks to recount what he couldn't quite grasp at the time and therefore cannot convey in his re-telling. This leads to a book that is incredibly difficult to read and is at times incredibly confussing - but perhaps critics of the book, who say it rambles and is poorly focussed should recognise that the rambling and the coming in and out of focus of what is actually happening are a means for Conrad to convey the atmosphere and to convey what Marlow (Conrad) felt as he undertook his strange journey. In this respect, the disjointed feel of the novel is little different to the somewhat disjointed feel of the film, Apoc alypse Now. Heart of Darkness conveyed to me the feeling of a man in strange and barbaric circumstances who escapes the reality of his predicament by not really being there at all - except in the physical sense. This is true both of Marlow and of the manic Kurtz. When Conrad's narrative is in focus, he has some pertinent and interesting points to make about the base and selfish nature of all of humanity and when it is out of focus it drifts and loses itself. Whether this is meant or not, I do not know, but it makes this a damn hard book to read and not one for a relaxing read in the sun! Heart of Darkness is a very clever book, it is written in a way that makes it stand out from the crowd of the vast plethora of literature available - but that style makes it difficult to read. If the reader pays attention there is a great deal of depth and insight into some of humanities more wicked ways to be gleaned, but perhaps the picture that Conrad paints is just a little too dark. I am not sure that humanity is quite as selfish, barbaric and dark in its nature as Conrad portrays. I do think that he was spot on about Imperialism and the scramble for loot and personal gain; I just don't think that the heart of the human soul is as dark as Mr Kurtz found - but then what do I know, I have never been down the Congo at the height of imperialist aggression and certainly never abandoned myself in the jungle to trade local commodities and seek the worship of the native inhabitants! Personally, I found the ending a huge disappointment, but then it is probably realistic, the myth of the great man is usually far more impressive than the man himself. This is a hard book to rate - it is, at times so hard to read and hit and miss that it could easily warrant 1 or 2 stars, yet at times its clarity of vision and conveyance of atmosphere would warrant five stars. I will settle for 4, but warn you, it is not everyone's cup of tea or rancid hippopo tamus! <br>Published by Penguin. ISBN: 0-140-27422-7 Priced: £5.99 111 pages long, but it is not a fast read - this is a book that needs to be taken in slowly, paragraph by paragraph, or I fear some of the atmosphere and deliberate confusion may be lost. This is for Jill and her celebration - to more years free of Cancer and more years of friendship.
In some weird twist of fate, myself and my good lady friend Lorraine appear to have assumed guardianship over a young mohican giraffe named Geoffrey. Now, we are not sure what age he is exactly, although it is "that difficult age" whatever that may be in mohican giraffes - but young Geoffrey is currently into reading adventure books. Occasionally, I will pick one up that Geoffrey has been particularly enthusiastic about (this usually means that he has decided to re-enact parts of it round the house, with all the ensuing mess that this creates). In this case it was Artemis Fowl, by the debut Irish author Eoin Colfer, which had been shortlisted for the Whitbread Children's book of the year and received critical acclaim across the board. This was one of those children's books that was deemed more than just that - a book for all and after Geoffrey had been so enthusiastic, I had to give it a go myself! Artemis Fowl is a criminal mastermind, in fact a twelve-year-old genius criminal mastermind. Our young Artemis is so clever he is one step ahead of most humans. However, in order to restore his families fortune (all of the previous Fowls have been criminal masterminds) Artemis hits on a different plan. The sort that only a twelve year old would believe in enough to take seriously. Artemis kidnaps a fairy creature, Captain Holly Short of the LEP("Lower Elements Police")recon force, and asks for fairy gold as a ransom. Artemis doesn't fully appreciate what he has landed himself into, these fairies are not the fairies from traditional fairy tales - these are advanced fairies, leprechauns, dwarves, centaurs and sprites with attitude. These fairy people know how to kick butt and Artemis's butt is the target. Furthermore, these people are pissed off with humans and their destructive greedy ways that have forced the magical creatures to live below ground and hide from humanity's wicked ways. Artemis may have bi tten off more than he can chew! The concept is the traditional children's adventure story with a twist, our hero is a criminal and the supposed good side are not quite as clean and clear-cut as in traditional fantasy books. This is traditional fantasy adventure with a huge twist. Colfer may have used the traditional figures of fantasy and magic, but he has bought the traditional bang up to date with real vision and creativity. What is left is a mixture of myth and modernity, packed into a roller coaster thriller of a plot line - which has originality to it, which is a hard thing to achieve in any form of writing. My main worry about Geoffrey reading such a book was the morality of having the hero or anti-hero as a criminal mastermind - I was afraid that Geoffrey would put on hold his plans to be either a footballer or a tennis player and decide that what he really wanted to be was a criminal genius. I was expecting extortion and racketerring amongst his panini sticker collecting friends! But Colfer spreads pretty sensible messages to kids - crime is not glorified at all, who is good and who is evil is not clearly delineated as in so many of the shallow children's adventure books around and moreover, Colfer paints an ugly picture of the greed and selfishness of humanity, coupled with the damage that this attitude has wrought to our planet and co-creatures. "Although she was enjoying the night air, Holly could taste traces of pollutants. The Mud People [humans] destroyed everything they came into contact with." "It was an ugly craft, this one. The smell of death and pain lingered in the blood swabbed decks. Many noble creatures had died here, died and been dissected for a few bars of soap and some heating oil. Root shook his head. Humans were such barbarians." "That would spell the end of everything, unless the Mud People had learned to co-exist with other species. And if history had taught him any lessons it was that humans couldn't get along with anyone, even themselves." Kids love bum jokes and pong jokes and the book abounds with that kind of innocent childhood humour, I laughed out loud on a few occasions and was amused throughout the whole book - "Of course, no one said anything, their boss being touchier than a septic bum boil". Added to this there are a few jokes aimed at the adult audience; some wonderful slapstick style comedy and banter; and some wonderful James Bond style piss takes - which should and do to my mind make this a book that will amuse all, well anyone who is still even remotely in touch with their childhood. The plot is wonderfully paced and absorbing, but with, at times, real depth and message about how people should behave to other animals and the environment that they live in. The characters are fantastic and bought to life by wonderful simple writing and a wacky air, which make every one a clearly delineated person, with different quirks and habits. The book flows, is easy to read and is the most absorbed I have been in any book for a long while. For those of you who feel that fantasy is not your thing - this is not pure fantasy, this is a great children's book that will feed their imagination and perhaps get them to ask themselves some interesting questions about the world around them. Naturally Geoffrey being a mohican giraffe and all that with some of his own magic powers, the existence of a fairy race was not news to him, but he did say that he though that MrColfer had, more than any other human writer, portrayed them closer to their actuality. Fantastic explanations abound for all sorts and there is the most plausible explanation for Santa Claus that I have ever read. Children's fiction is cool at the moment and Geoffrey says that this a cool book, I would have to agree, this is streets ahead of Harry Potter, but not quite as philosophically deep a s Philip Pullman's Dark Materials, which makes it ideal for all kids from about the age of 8. The most original and witty children's book that I have read in ages, but despite all this praise it is missing a spark that the Dark Materials had to make it an all time classic for both adults and children - but that doesn't make it a bad book, just more of a children's book than Pullman's. Published by penguin. Priced: £4.99. ISBN: 0-14-131212-2. 279 pages long, but they fly by. Further details of all penguin books are available at www.penguin.com.
Geoffrey, my live in companion who also happens to be a mohican giraffe is going through an artistic phase at the moment. Well, he likes to draw on things, mainly Bradley the permanently sad looking basset hound's face, but Geoffrey thinks that this is artistic. Of course both Geoffrey and Bradley go to school at a secret location in London and so they need all those stationary type items, high lighter pens, folders, pencils, pencil sharpeners, rubbers [ohhhh errr misses!] "Geoffrey shut up, you don't even really know what you are ohhh erring at!" I will re-phrase, erasers, sellotape (which Geoffrey thinks it is amusing to use on Bradley's mouth!), drawing pins (lets not go there, except you had better check any chair that you are about to sit on in our house), paper clips, staplers ["Can I use those to staple Bradley to wall?"] "Geoffrey you can't, how comes you are being so nasty to your friend?" Sigh, well you get the drift, Staples stocks a whole range of office equipment and stationary related items, including printers, printer cartridges, scanners, digital cameras, fax machines, basic computer software, lap tops, floppy discs and even office furniture. As I sit typing, my desk is from Staples. I normally shop there in one of two ways, I either order by phone from their comprehensive catalogue, or pay a visit to their huge warehouse type store at Staples corner in North London. PRICES One of my major reasons for shopping here - they are generally the most competitive in this field for prices and if you order anything in bulk then there are large discounts. The way their catalogue ordering system is set up they seem to be aimed at the small business, but if you have kids going off for a new year at school, or do any kind of work from home it is well worth a check. A shredder, I purchased recently was £10 cheaper than Argos and my new Hewlett Packard printer was £15 cheaper than in Dixons. So they score heavy plus points for being so competitive in their pricing. So confident are they of being the cheapest, they operate a price promise, if you see any product purchased from Staples, available at a cheaper price within 14 days of your purchase, Staples say that they will refund 50% of the difference up to £25. I have not had to use this, because I have never seen anything cheaper, but it is there should you do so and feel slightly peaked. ORDERING You can obtain your free catalogue by telephoning 0800 14 14 14, once it arrives, simply note down the item numbers that you want and call the same number. One of the reasons that I like this shop so much is that the operators at the end of the line are always polite and there is never a long wait to get through. Moreover, the people seem to know about the products that they are selling and you can actually ask them questions and get what seems like sensible answers. It is a smooth, painless and well-run process. You can also order by FAX: 0800 14 15 16, or by post. DELIVERY This is always next working day (unless it is furniture and is then within 14 days) and if you order £30 worth of goods, excluding VAT or over, then delivery is free. Any order under the £30, will cost £2.85 plus VAT for delivery. Staples have always met their delivery promise with my orders. I have used them about 6 or 7 times for general orders and once for furniture and so I can recommend the firm on this ground as well. You can specify a time slot for delivery on the day, but they do not always manage to keep it, although they have, in my experience, managed to be pretty close. They lose a star just for this small minus point, it can, if you are working from home be awkward to have to wait in all day for a parcel. QUALITY OF PRODUCT Staples stock many of the leading names, but they also do their own brand products, for example printer pape r, once again I have no qualms with the quality of anything that I have purchased, including their own brand products. Furthermore the firm offers a 12-month guarantee on everything purchased from them - this includes products where the manufacturer does not offer a warranty at all. Admittedly it is at Staples discretion whether they replace it, repair it or refund you, but the guarantee is there. But, another sign of the quality of the merchandise is the fact that I have never had to take advantage of this. PAYMENT Obviously in store you can pay by cash, cheque, debit card or credit card, when ordering from the catalogue you are restricted to credit or debit card. If you run a small business, you may be interested in a Staples' business account, which gives 60 days free credit, a VAT invoice for your firm for each transaction you make and no charges, unless of course you are late in paying or breach one of the terms and conditions. You would need to enquire with Staples for details of interest rates and terms and conditions as I have not used this facility. THE STORES These are warehouse in design and usually feature a slightly more display orientated feel solely for their furniture. Everything else is laid out in product specific aisles, but the stores are big and not very exciting and unless you really need to go and see the item that you are purchasing then I would recommend the telephone ordering and the delivery service. Like the phone lines, the staff are helpful and friendly and the Staples corner store is always spotless, I suppose the place feels sterile, but hey this is an office supply store, what do you expect. OVERALL If you use any kind of office equipment at home and think about it you probably do, even if it is just printer paper and cartridges, the odd set of envelopes and paper pads, I would recommend doing a few bulk orders from Staples, it saves money in the long run and th ey are efficient and have an excellent product range. If you have kids, this is a great place to get those stationary basics in one yearly shop and if you run a small business or are a one-man band this firm should still fulfil all your needs in a one-stop shop. The small solicitors office that I worked in as a youngster used this firm and never had one complaint or one wrongly sent or missed item, in my time there - I should know I had to check and put all the damn stuff away. I would even say that the catalogue is worth a look for other more odds and ends house related stuff, such as batteries. Anything that your office needs is likely to be here, including things like bulk tubs of coffee, plastic cups and all those condiment type things. I recommend them, though be careful what your magical live in animals get up to with the products - mischief is chiefly what happens in my house. Sigh, I just looked into the next room and Bradley is sellotaped to the chair. "Just coming old chap, GEOFFREY, get in here now!" That number again 0800 14 14 14. They do have a web-site that you could go and browse at www.staples.co.uk, you cannot purchase from it, but it will help find your nearest store and you can order your catalogue from there. I find the telephone ordering service so useful that, I wouldn't order from the web site even if it were possible.
Terry Pratchett - oh how he is loved and feted amongst readers, such wonderful fantasy, so observant, so astute, so amusing - to name but a few comments of praise that I have read about Pratchett, both on this site and in the press at large. I have long sat on the fence over Pratchett; I saw the appeal, I could see the observation of our modern world in his Discworld fantasy series and I have on occasions smiled at some of his jokes. However, I have always found the Discworld series of books average, no more no less. Wyrd Sisters has sat on my shelf un-read for a year, left over from a time when I thought that I liked Pratchett. So, I thought that I would give him another go - to make sure that my decision that he was just average was correct. The novel itself is a re-write of that famous Shakespeare play, whisper it, Macbeth, or if you want to speak it aloud, the Scottish play. In fact, the plot is Macbeth and then a Macbeth within a Macbeth, within a Macbeth. First gripe, I got it the first time, this is Macbeth, with more comedy and supposedly some observational twists on the theatre and our modern entertainment business. Yes too many plots within a plot of Macbeth make for tired reading. Wyrd Sisters revolves around three witches, caught up in the dastardly doings of a Duke and his wife. The Duke has murdered the rightful King of Lancre and taken the throne for himself and scheming wife. Our intrepid witches Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and Margrat are left to wonder whether to meddle in politics or not - they know you see that the rightful heir to the throne is alive and if they could just come up with a scheme they could get rid of this Duke and his power crazy wife, who were ruling the Kingdom in a manner that upset even the land - then Lancre would be fine again. But witches weren't supposed to meddle, it was against their code!. That is it really, it is a: will the evil impostor King be found out and made to account for his actions; will the rightful banished heir make a triumphant return; will the heir want to be King; and will the witches be able to save the Kingdom and still get home in time to check their warts? Pratchett as is his standard (although blatantly stolen from Douglas Adams), plays with words and people's standard interpretations of them, he adds life and thought to things that we would consider inanimate and thoughtless, such as storms, trees and the land itself and irritatingly he has to tell a joke at least once every 4 or 5 lines. These jokes involve some kind of supposedly amusing metaphor for what is going on or one of some kind of witty observation at how witches are perceived and how Pratchett perceives that they actually are. Most of these jokes are lame and very few help the plot, while, grudgingly, some did make me smile, especially when Pratchett takes words and their meaning in such a non-literal manner, which is Pratchett at his best, but no where near as spot on as Douglas Adams. ""I don't reckon a lot of kingdoms do that sort of thing", she said. "You saw the theatre. Kings and such are killing one another the whole time. Their kingdoms just make the best of it. How comes this one takes offence all of a sudden?"" There are a few modern themes within the book, Pratchett seems to imply that people are better off with rulers that do not think too much (well I wonder if he is happy with old George W Bush - he doesn't seem to think too much). "No, things like crowns had a troublesome effect on clever folk; it was best to leave all the reigning to the kind of people whose eyebrows met in the middle when they tried to think. In a funny sort of way they were much better at it." Environmentalism features heavily, the Kingdom of Lancre itself is upset at the thought of its trees being chopped down and animals persecuted and whilst this is a good topic to present in a pop ulist book the mere fact that you present it, does make your book good. The one excellent theme and well-executed part of the book was Pratchett's exploration of the power of words. Spread a rumour and it becomes the truth, smear your opposition and they become unelectable etc etc and in this part of the novel, he hits on a problem that we have with the power of television and the media and our political parties. The writing itself is average, the book is easy to read, but the constant barrage of poor jokes, interspersed with the odd amusing one, makes the novel hard to read and detracts from the flow of what little real plot there is. Pratchett, a little like Nick Hornby, would to me write better books if he stopped trying to be side splittingly funny twice a page and just concentrated on fewer quips - because some of Pratchett's quips and observations are amusing, but too many just becomes plain tiresome. In the end, I had little desire to continue reading this book beyond a third of the way through. I did finish it, but it was a struggle and a let down, I knew the type of ending we were going to get, the constant humour of exactly the same nature got boring, much like a stand up comic telling the same joke, over and over, but in very slightly different ways. I was so dejected with the book, that by the end it had put me off reading anything else afterwards altogether and it is for that reason that it gets 1 star. It does have redeeming features; as I have mentioned, but a book that you don't want to read is not a book that you can recommend. Having read this, my decision that Pratchett was an author that I just find tedious and repetitive, seems all the more correct and I would say on the basis of the 5 Discworld books that I have read, I have given him a good go - not even average is my view now. Published by Corgi. ISBN: 0-552-13460-0. Priced: £5.99. 332 pages long (about 150 too long!)
"And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children, or else I die." The first paragraph of Genesis, 30:1-3 and how Atwood, begins her most famous of books, The Handmaid's Tale. Booker Prize nominated and winner of both the Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction and the Governor's Generals Award, hardly high profile awards but The Handmaid's Tale has gone on to be a set text in many A level syllabus and was of all the "great" books that I haven't read, the most recommended to me. The quotation from Genesis, sums the book up - in a futuristic landscape, where human meddling with the environment has caused parts of America to be uninhabitable; women to suffer fertility problems and people to become disenchanted with the consumerist and money driven nature of everything - the traditional American Christian church has formed the Republic of Gilead. Taking over the majority of the American states, with a totalitarian and medieval regime. Atwood in this fictional landscape focuses on a woman, "Offred" (although her real name has been denied to her); she has but one function in this new order, to breed. If she fails to breed she will be sent to the wastelands, where she will be poisoned by radiation and all things foul previously released by democratic America. "Give me children or else, I die". What a wonderfully literal interpretation of the bible that is. In Gilead, conception and children are the most valuable commodities around - however, defective children are disposed of, like garbage and the poor mother is deemed to have sinned against the church and can expect little reward other than pariah status and maybe those wasteland colonies. A fine lot of forgiveness there then. In The Handmaid's Tale, Atwood has taken, the destruction wrought on the globe by modern society and the changing roles of the sexes and form ed a frightening conclusion. Western society has nowhere to go, except to another form of totalitarianism - except this time it is the Church that springs into the role of oppressive dictator, the Church with its doom filled prophecies and notion of sin. The Church takes away the populations' liberty; freedom of thought and expression with the ideology that if it doesn't act in such a way the human race will eventually extinguish itself. Who knows, whether it will prove a terrifying reality that we will get ourselves into such a mess and who knows whether such a punishing end justifies the means? But the vision painted by Atwood, is certainly not too far fetched. Atwood has taken the Nineteen Eighty Four approach in conveying the damage that any totalitarian ideology does to the human spirit. The Handmaid's Tale in the same manner as Nineteen Eighty Four takes the personal approach. It focuses on one person "Offred" and shows how totalitarianism impacts at an individual, rather than state level. You are never sure in the book, what is going on outside Gilead, the reader is told all that "Offred" is fed by the Gilead propaganda machine. The reader knows not who or what is in control, or pulling the strings, but they feel the effect - the sapping of morale; and the paranoia of doing or saying the wrong thing through "Offred", as in Nineteen Eighty Four, you feel all this through Winston. Furthermore, in The Handmaid's Tale, redemption of spirit and resistance to the totalitarian masters, the spies, the informants and the all-pervading suffocation of people is carried out and demonstrated through love - the one simple act that is illegal to Winston in Nineteen Eighty Four, is illegal to "Offred", but still she wants it as Winston does and so in Atwood's totalitarian vision the human spirit is seen as unbreakable as Orwell expressed some forty years previously. The Handmaid 39;s Tale is written from and in a certain regard for, the female perspective, what is it that makes women tick? (At this moment, I expect that all men are simply shrugging their shoulders!) The importance of love and children to a woman, are emphasised, "Offred" in flash backs reflects back on how much her child meant to her; how wonderful it felt to be in love; and how people never know how lucky they really are in a situation. Atwood is certainly not saying that women should stay at home, be good little housewives and have babies; she is expressing the need for choice, for society not to judge either way and perhaps in a real icky Hollywood way, Atwood forms the view that it is love that makes the world tick. Of course as in any totalitarian regime that has actually been in our history, Gilead fails to stop any human being truly falling under its spell, by its own repression - just as in NAZI Germany and Stalinist Russia, the people at the top fail to practice what they preach and come across as hypocrites and this adds a real echo of history to the novel. As with all of Atwood's books, The Handmaid's Tale is supremely easy to read, the novel flows and it is easy for the reader to imagine himself or herself as "Offred" in Gilead. Gilead itself is bought to life with real vigour and bleakness, with frightening brutality; to me the vision created is one that is eminently possible. This is not purely a "straight" book, Atwood has a sharp and sometimes cynical wit and this is displayed in full force in a very dark kind of way, but it does make you smile, even though you really shouldn't. I enjoyed this read, it made me think about how selfish our generation is; it made me realise that everybody always thinks that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence; and it drew me into the murky and medieval world of Gilead. However, as indicated this book is not original, it is Orwell's visi on of totalitarianism with a slight twist, at times "Offred" could be "Winston" and you wouldn't know which book you were reading. Whilst it is not a crime to be inspired by a previous novel and to take ideas from it, it is a shame when the later book, seems to find it very hard to find its own voice and place. The Handmaid's Tale at its worse is simply Nineteen Eighty Four, written in the female voice - there are differences, and of course we have seen that totalitarian regimes all end up looking very similar no matter what the ideology is that sparks them off, but there are any number of ways to write about such a regime, not just the superb way that Orwell did. Not only this, but The Handmaid's Tale builds up the tension, the will she or won't she and then just ends, in a sharp and unsatisfactory fashion. Both of these detractions do not make The Handmaid's tale a bad book, but the first is always the original and the more striking and simply The Handmaid's Tale is not a patch on Nineteen Eighty Four. I still recommend this read, Atwood, writes in such a beautiful manner and provides such a pertinent warning to the complacent Western Democracies that the book, to some extent, deserves its place among the modern classics and it is a much better read than Atwood's recent Booker winner, The Blind Assassin, but, this is not an original read and does not really add a great deal more to Nineteen Eighty Four in message, about the dangers and horrors of totalitarianism. Published by Vintage. ISBN - 0-09-974091-5. Priced £6.99 and 324 pages long.
I have previously found Nick Hornby to be a hit and miss author. I enjoyed Fever Pitch; I thought I enjoyed High Fidelity, until I re-read it and the book's innate shallowness shone through, if shallowness can shine? I found About a Boy to be even more shallow, crammed full of metaphors and clichés that were supposed to be funny, but left me feeling that here was a book that was glib. However, all three were well written and supremely easy to read. Why then did I read How to be Good? I suppose its Booker long list nomination and some favourable reviews in newspapers that I respect, persuaded me and after all in all of Hornby's previous books, there has been that huge spark of potential present. How to be Good focuses on the dilemma of the privileged Western World. We do not struggle to feed or dress ourselves, we seem to fill our needs with commercialism and well there seems to be a void. To be honest, commercialism has not bought about universal happiness. The theme is similar to Fight Club, but dealt with in a very different way, and perhaps to How to be Good's credit an altogether more subtle way. Obviously this void is not present in the third world or even the deprived in our own country, but we are talking about the privileged people in the western world here. David Carr is the "angriest man in Holloway". A real cynic and negative man, everything just seems to piss him off, well everything that is not really that important. His wife and the first person voice of the novel, Katie, is a Doctor, a kind GP and fed up with her cynic husband and to some extent her two children, Tom and Molly. Katie suffers from an empty hole in her spirit, get up go to work, come home to an angry and bitter man, go to sleep and so on. In true suburban London style, both David and Katie are liberal Londoners, liberal of the political persuasion. Intellectual, fair minded, free thinking......but are they really good? < br><br>Into their life arrives DJ GoodNews, a faith healer who cures David's bad back and their daughter's eczema, but he brings more than this to the Carr family. David has a personality change, he becomes a do-gooder - a do-gooder in the practical sense, why do we need all these consumer products when some people are so deprived? Why can't we do more to help the homeless? Why shouldn't people realise how lucky they really are? But is this good? So there we are, the book is clearly talking about important principles in our contemporary world, it is an attack on our consumer values that we hold so dear, the I must have the latest Prada bag or Dior make up. I must have satellite TV, a DVD player an MP3 and 6 computers. The question the book asks is why? Wouldn't some of this excess wealth be better channelled elsewhere? Why can't one person say, sod this it is the government's fault, what can one person do, I am going to set an example? Well David along with DJ GoodNews embarks on a two man crusade to save people from their own greed and comfortableness and much to Katie's chagrin she would rather have her angry, cynical but funny husband back. Is David good and Katie bad? Katie is a doctor after all, doesn't that make her good by definition? Hornby points to the demise of religion for this crisis in people's definition of good, nobody goes to Church and most people have realised that religion does not really hold the answers, there is guidance, but how much of it is relevant to today? So far so good, a novel about how can people be good in the face of so much embarrassment and prejudice. You decide to shun consumerism and see what your friends make of you, especially if you work in the City. Moreover, it examines what is our definition of good, how far does an individual need to go to be good and how practical is this idealistic standpoint? But Hornby still falls down in places. He seems to think that you can only amuse if you can fit as many metaphors on the page as possible, amusing metaphors at that. Some hit the mark, but ultimately some of the metaphors seem forced and detract from the flow of the book. Furthermore, Hornby fails to develop some of his excellent social themes, he builds them up to the point when he can really discuss serious issues and then just winds them up, just like that. In particular in this book, he just cuts off the discussion of the homeless problem, without really examining it in depth. So in the end the feeling of unfulfilled potential is still prevalent in How to be Good as it was in About a Boy, but this time Hornby saves himself with a wonderfully thoughtful ending where he pulls all the ideas together in a rather perceptive conclusion. The writing is superb, (when you remove the continual and unnecessary use of metaphors) Hornby is a master of easy flowing prose that draws you into the narrative and the characters, some of the exchanges with the children were priceless, capturing that wonderful childhood innocence and intelligence. Furthermore, there are times when How to be Good makes you laugh, there is no doubting that Hornby is one of those observant comic writers that can capture perfectly aspects of our society that when reduced down to their most basic level are in fact rather amusing. How to be Good is far more reflective and philosophical than anything Hornby has written before. ""If you start examining your prejudices carefully there will soon be nothing left of you."" ""But just because a lot of people don't have a problem with something, it doesn't mean that they are right, does it? I mean a lot of people used to think that Slavery was OK, but you know. They were wrong, weren't they?"" In the end you have applaud Hornby for tackling such a difficult subject in such an easy going and easy to read way. He has put some important ideas into the mainstream and hopefully he will have made some greedy pointless people examine their own lives and cut back on what they perceive that they need. How to be Good is thoughtful, amusing in places, observant, perceptive, full of ideas and a very well written easy read. If Hornby had managed to avoid his clichés, metaphors and glibness then this would have been a book that may have reached classic status, as it is, it is just a good thoughtful novel, that rises just above the average. Published by Penguin. ISBN 0-140-28701-9. 244 pages long. Priced £6.99, but still currently available for half price plus postage and packaging from http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/tg/feature/-/296329/ref=mk_p3_h_1_4/202-325627 9-9823833, which for £3.49 you cannot go far wrong. Further details of all penguin books are available from www.penguin.com.
Gods? How are they created? The traditional Church indoctrinated amongst you will tell me, there is one God and he (but it could be she) created everything on this planet. I would reply, well fine, but what about these ancient Greek Gods, or the Egyptian ones, even those of the African tribes, what did they do? You would scratch your head and probably wonder that yourself. Or am I being hard? Neil Gaiman, in his book American Gods has thought about the number of Gods that have been created by societies throughout history and across the globe - then added the twist that pretty much everybody, from anywhere at any time has visited the United States, oh yes we are talking pre-Columbus here, pre-pre Columbus and on their visit, their belief in their Gods bought the Gods' manifestation with them. Now there is a school of thought that has existed amongst broad-minded philosophers that if a human being creates something in their mind, then in some respects (these respects differ depending on who you read) that something is created in some form, in some dimension, or even for real. My answer to this is who knows, but Gaiman has said right, obviously all these Gods exist on some level and whatever that level is they are all mooching around the United States at present - some who have few living believers are down on their luck and others "new" Gods, technological Gods, media Gods are fresh with believers and therefore powerful. Gaiman himself is a writer that has written across the artistic spectrum, children's fiction, graphic novels (grown up comic books), short stories and novels. He is a writer that sits in that populist slot, much like Stephen King or Terry Pratchett, his books are fantasy based, but with a foot in reality as we perceive it. This was my first foray into Gaiman's work, a popular and well respected author and it will probably be my last - well what is a certainty these days? Woven into this elabora te God theory (which if you think about it, must hold some merit) is the tale of Shadow. It is Shadow who the God Odin, or Mr Wednesday comes to for help, to employ him as a bodyguard and errand boy. But it is obvious if you pay attention to the narrative that there is more to Shadow than meets to eye. Shadow has just been released from prison to discover that his wife has been found dead, just the day before, with Shadow's best friend's member in her mouth. Welcome back to life Shadow. Down in the mouth, Shadow takes up with the enigma that is Mr Wednesday and discovers that all is not well in God America. The old Gods are under threat from the new. The new want to exterminate the old and have the world of worship to themselves. Gaiman beautifully points out that in modern society we worship an awful lot, television, motorcars, shopping and most of all money. I didn't really buy this, the true and only God of our age, that I can perceive is money and a nasty God it is too. "There are new Gods growing in America, clinging to growing knots of belief: Gods of credit-card and freeway, of internet and telephone, of radio and hospital and television, Gods of plastic and bleeper and neon. Proud Gods, fat and foolish creatures, puffed up with their own newness and importance." The narrative is built up well, with Gaiman showing off his own knowledge of ancient cultures and traditions and rather forcefully making his point that it is quite possible, that nothing is as we as individuals in the western world perceive it. But, for a book in the thriller/fantasy genre, there was too much padding for my liking. American Gods is some 630 pages long, epic proportions, but it did not need to be 630 pages long. Some chapters served no purpose except for boosting the writers ego, stories of long lost Gods, how they came to America abound, but I had grasped the point the first time - after this it becomes padding - admittedly som etimes interesting padding, but this is a fictional book, not a piece of non-fiction work on ancient mythology. The narrative wanders to dream sequences, meant to add mystery to the plot, but because Gaiman is aiming at the populist market, they didn't add mystery to me, they just signposted where we were going to end up in 100 pages time, especially signposting the big twist in the plot line, which was obvious from about one quarter of the way in. Some of these dream sequences were interesting metaphors and allegories, but not subtle enough for their context in the plot line. Having slated the book thus far, I do have to say that Gaiman poses interesting questions to our narrow-minded western culture. What would happen to Jesus if he were to hitch hike in Afghanistan? He would be ignored of course, where as in Ireland people would bow down before him. What is heaven? What is hell? Just what type of reality do these Gods populate? Are their other dimensions to our own? Is history as we are taught it, just a pack of lies? I could go on, ultimately he answers many of his own questions, including how Gods are formed - I happen to agree with the majority of Gaiman's philosophical views, but that does not make this a good fictional book. Most of all Gaiman builds the reader up to expect a great conflagration, a great storm and when it comes, it is not even a drizzle. It could be viewed as another example of how people create a flase reality, but to me it was just a damp squib. The writing is standard fare, it is not bad, but nothing spectacular, it is not reduced down brilliance or an example of the beautiful use of language to bring images alive from the page. This is not to say that American Gods is badly written, the writing for the most part flows, but this is true for most of modern day fiction - but nothing about the writing style is any more than average. This is a book that promised much and in places was almost pro found. "None of this can actually be happening. If it makes you more comfortable, you could think of it as a metaphor. Religions are by definition, metaphors after all." However, the promise never turned into much, I found it hard to form any real identification with characters, any real long term interest in the narrative and ultimately this is a deep book that turns incredibly shallow. To me American Gods and the ideas within held such huge potential that when the potential was ignored and passed over it was all the more galling. In the end average fiction and only just average fiction. If you are a fan of Stephen King, you will probably like this, but beware, it drags on and becomes tedious. Published by Headline. Priced £6.99. ISBN 0-7474-6374-4. 631 pages long, about 300 pages too long. Further details can be found at www.madaboutbooks.com and of course www.amazon.co.uk.
Live on a plain, sweep the sand away from your front door and balk when your neighbours come calling. That is the life for the narrator of this story and he likes his solitude and his sand sweeping. Not to mention his hobby of listening to the wind in the eaves of his house made of tin. It was his dream to live in a house of tin, but not on a windy plain, but what the heck, it is a house of tin and he is on his own. Well, until a woman named Mary Petrie comes calling. Mary Petrie quickly decides to exert her womanly influences on the house and solitary peace is disturbed, but companionship is strangely welcomed. There we have the simple base for Magnus Mills' sparse novel, Three To See The King. Mills is known for his deadpan and distinctly original works and deadpan and original are how I found this. Mills' first book, The Restraint of Beasts has been a success across our globe and garnished a Booker nomination and the Whitbread first novel award. This his third novel has met with praise but no awards - but that doesn't matter it is still a rollicking thoughtful read. The plot is simple and stripped to the bone; there cannot be a book where so little happens, whilst so much happens - not in a narrative sense but in a philosophical sense. Our narrator becomes intrigued and irate at the exodus across the windy plain, an exodus to live with and be part of the charismatic Michael Hawkin's grand vision and society. What is so clever and compelling about Michael, what is wrong with living on your own, or with a strangely appealing and demanding woman, named Mary Petrie? (Sweep the sand, don't sweep the sand; walk with me, don't walk with me!) Why would people want to move their entire house of tin, piece by piece, to go and live on another part of the plain? Why don't people just get on with their own lives - instead of fawning to Michael? ""Have you got something against Michael?" &qu ot;Of course not." "I mean you should give him a chance before you judge him." "Yes, OK." I said. "You're probably right."" Three To See the King is deadpan and comic in the same way as certain Python sketches are, poking fun at the most simple of things, analysing human behaviour and interaction between friends and the sexes. Why do men seem to think that a friendly woman has sex on the mind? Why do women change their mind so often? I would go so far as to say that Three To See The King is an allegory on life as powerful as some of Nietzsche's own. Represented in the novel are powerful questions such as, blind faith, the social standing and conflicting nature of human beings. Why are some people gregarious, whilst are others quietly observant? Why are some obedient to anyone willing to take command and show the lead, whilst others look to themselves to lead themselves. Perhaps Mills' is also pointing out why Religious bodies can exercise such power with their own blindly made promises, based purely on blind faith. But then despite a feeling I possess, that human beings are ultimately rational creatures, blind faith plays a huge role in all societies. To me though, the crucial message of this wonderful book, is think for yourself, don't be a sheep and follow the crowds or crows because that is the comfortable thing to do - go your way and no one else's. "By now some of the trails had merged to form more obvious routes, and I noticed that once they'd joined together like this they never separated again. After I'd been going for some while I began to yearn for the sight of a stray set of footprints wandering off to the left or the right, choosing their own direction, rather than merely following the crowd. None appeared." To me the books force exists in its simplicity, it is easy to read, almost a page turner in some respects, yet in the sim ple and sparse writing there exists a powerful celebration of the diversity of human beings, with warnings cleverly signposted, to make sure that you know what you want. The style of writing, surprisingly allows the reader to be swept away to this plain, to soar on its winds in a magical, beautiful and unique way. Without long detailed flowery descriptions or long words, Mills' manages to convey an eccentric plot with real feeling for all the characters and the location. A house made entirely of tin, a wind swept plain. The solitary, the grumpy, the strong silent types and those that possess that gift of charisma. Three To See The King is dry humour at its best and most intelligent. Furthermore, in a world where so few contemporary novels genuinely stand out from the crowd, this one does. Having read this short novel, Mills is now an author that I would go out of my way to read more of - just watch out for crows and try not to be drawn into following them, without asking yourself why follow can I not lead? Published by Flamingo. Priced £6.99. A short but satisfying read at 167 pages long. ISBN 0-00-711047-2. Further details can be found at www.fireandwater.com and www.amazon.co.uk.
I previously reviewed on this site, Melvyn Bragg's opening book in this series, The Soldier's Return - the fact that I was reading Melvyn Bragg was in some quarters treated with derision. Melvyn Bragg is not a "cool" author; in fact, I have the distinct impression that he is one of those authors's that many people wrinkle their nose at, without having read at all. Maybe it is because he appears somewhat pretentious on some of his arty TV programmes; maybe it is because he is now in the House of Lords. Who knows - what I can say is that I thoroughly enjoyed The Soldier's Return, so much so that when the sequel, A Son of War was released in paperback, I was quick to purchase it. Before these two books, Bragg had not only from traditional readers, but from the critics as well, been scorned and ridiculed - but if you were one of those people, think again - The Soldier's Return has been much praised and won the WH Smith Literary award, A Son of War has also met with praise from the critics and is going to meet with praise from me to boot. Bragg, himself was bought up in Wigton, Cumbria and like its predecessor The Soldier's Return, A Son of War is set in Wigton, Cumbria in the post Second World War landscape. Bragg has made no secret that this was no coincidence, Joe Richardson the boy of the story, is clearly and admittedly an auto-biographical Bragg and the mother and father of the story, Ellen and Sam also have an auto-biographical spine to them. Bragg has himself admitted in interviews that it was his father's death that sparked the drive to write, a provincial fictional series, based on his own upbringing and that is what he has done. A Son of War sees Sam settling for a job in a paper factory and attempting to put the horrors of Second World War Burma behind him. The change the war bought to the family is still hanging over them, like a guillotine ready to separate husband and wife and leave a puzzled and confused boy, in even more of a tangle. Sam has dreams of being his own boss and making something of himself, Ellen is tied to the town like a daughter to her mother's apron strings and Joe is growing up, experiencing life. Joe was eight at the end of The Soldier's Return and in this book we see him experience his early teenage years, up to his O levels. Ellen, is just as confused, she loves Sam, but he is not the same man that left for combat and she as a result of bringing the boy up on her own for so long, is not the same woman - but she knows how fragile the marriage is and knows what Sam gave up for her when he decided to stay. The two parents want what is best for Joe, but Sam fears that Joe in his prolonged absence has turned into a "mammy's boy" and to compensate Sam tries to bring Joe out of himself, with encouragement to box and stand up for himself. Whereas Ellen seeks a gentler life for Joe, with piano and dancing lessons - imagine the ridicule that Joe has to endure from his peers! There is little real narrative to this book, it is the tale of a family trying to get on and a boy trying to grow up, it is a tale that must have echoed round thousands of homes in post war Britain. It is, stripped down to its bare bones a simple chronology of post war family life - where moments of drama and tension are tiny, domestic and realistic - but for the people involved internally shattering events. But that is part of the appeal, the gritty realism of the events and the struggles. What does drive the book therefore is emotion, the shifting sands of the characters relationships, the accommodations and relinquishing, by mother and father of their own wishes so that they can try and provide a stable and good upbringing for Joe - where he will have chances that were denied to them. Of course there are other characters in the book: girls who Joe starts to have strange feelings for; Ellen's half-brother (an other source of friction in the marriage); Joe's friends, in particular Speed whose father had a breakdown after the war and as a result runs wild; Sam's old comrades in Burma; and the usual tapestry of town characters. Built into what narrative there is, are the fears of everyday people of the period: the threat of communism and socialism (debates as to whether the latter is was a threat or a blessing ""Nye Bevan" said Mr Kneale, whose fair mindedness in all such matters would never be compromised, "will turn out to be as great a man of peace as Winston Churchill was the war""); and the coming of the atom and hydrogen bomb and the linked fear of yet another global conflagration. What A Son of War conveys excellently are the emotions and turmoil of a young lad growing up. Bragg seems to have remembered and then captured how a young boy's life can be a minefield of fears, secrets and panics - but to the adult these fears and panics can seem petty and ridiculous. Similarly to John Grisham's excellent, A Painted House, Bragg has captured the essence of that part of childhood, the transformation from child to hormone filled teenager, the angst, the insecurities and the feeling that every other child is fine except for you. What shone through to me, is that kids are kids, no matter what the age, a kid of 1955, is very much the same as a kid of 1985 - I could relate to Joe and his fears and he seemed to echo the turbulence and insecurity of my own childhood of that time. The adults in the story, especially Sam's parents are reserved and stoical, accepting their lot, quietly and in dignity - in today's society people like Sam's parents may be more likely to run straight to one of those TV shows, to tell all how the world has cheated them of their dreams. In tune with the surroundings of the novel, this book uses an understated simplistic writing style, local dialect and slang, whils t flowery descriptions are shunned. Feelings and emotions are conveyed to the reader as much, by what is left out of the dialogue than by what is included. But despite, the simplicity of the prose, A Son of War is not fast paced; it meanders along like most people's lives. I found A Son of War, to be equal in quality to The Soldier's Return - perhaps not as profound on the impact of war on all stratums of society and therefore not quite as philosophical. To me one of the major differences is that in The Soldier's Return it was Sam that drove the book, whereas this time it is the boy, Joe. However, it was for me a nice relaxed read, echoing a time of Britain's social history that is becoming a distant echo. Very soon there will be no one alive who was either born in the immediate aftermath of the war, or who had reached adult hood in that era. To that end, I can see, much as some of Orwell's novels are excellent at conveying social history of their era (especially The Road to Wigan Pier) these books will themselves be useful at conveying what real people were like in that post war period. A Son of War is intelligent, moving and very easy to read - it is about how ordinary people are all heroes in their own little way and I thoroughly recommend it. A perfect summer read, not heavy going, not lacking in depth - just right for a perfect lazy afternoon in the sun. Published by Sceptre: priced £6.99 (although currently in amazon.co.uk's summer sale at half price): 426 pages long: ISBN 0-340-81816-6. Further details can be found at Sceptre's web site - www.madaboutbooks.com.
An Equal Music is primarily a book about classical music. This is what attracted me to it, I am not a huge classical music fan and would not know a semi-quaver from a crotchet - but I spend a great deal of time reading and thus am always willing and eager to try something different. The author, Vikram Seth is highly regarded and known for his books that have a delicately moving plot line, that explore aspects of human devotion, motivation and desire. Moreover, Seth is well travelled and has lived in a great diversity of countries, thus lending his books a multi-layered perspective. Well so I was told and read. In this novel Seth follows the life of a violin player, Michael - his playing in a string quartet and all the tensions that brings. Via the use of discussions about his past, we discover what formed Michael; the events of his final years as a music student in Vienna; the impact of an over bearing music teacher and most of all Julia a fellow musician whom he was passionately in love with - until. Well I cannot tell you what the until is or it will spoil the book, save to say that this until has shaped Michael into who he is and what he plays more than any other event in his life. Primarily set in London, An Equal Music is a book about the rediscovery of past love - can it be rediscovered and recreated, can you turn back the clock and continue where you left off? Michael seems haunted by past ghosts and lost in his own terminable regret, he would give anything for the one chance to make amends, but does anybody ever get the chance to put things straight, so many years after they originally got skewed? We therefore have a book about love, the love of music and the love of a woman. Seth highlights the problems of being a professional musician (and from my own brief encounter with the world of classical music and orchestras, via a relationship with a musician, the problems highlighted in the book are those that are faced in real life) the cost of instruments, the irregular income, the creative tensions of playing in a group and the diminishing likelihood that anyone from a poorer background will ever be able to train as a musician - with all the expense involved. However, I had one large problem in reading this book. It is hard to read if you know very little about music - how it is read, how it can be played and the multitude of technical terms that pervade the world of music. There were times where whole chapters were impossible to understand without reference to a dictionary and the internet - which for me interrupted the flow of the book. This is a book that cannot wholly be understood outside the small circle of professional musicians. Reading it did enhance my understanding of the musical world, but it was hard going in places and to me slightly highbrow and pretentious. Having said this the passion of the love story shone out of the text, the frustration, the obsession and the pure joy that occurs when two people click on all levels. There was an element of longing and suspense that was transmitted to me as the reader and in places you could truly feel what Michael was feeling. Another positive aspect to the book is the writing, when An Equal Music is not involved with the technicalities of music, the book is beautifully written and makes some wonderful points about people and the human race: "Piers and Alex had been equals. But with Tobias it was almost as if Piers was taking orders from a superior, an invisible fifth person who was perpetually present among us. It was a strange and unsettling episode, and one of the things that brought home to me how precarious, for all their strength, the ties between us are." Anyone who has ever been under the influence of another person or who has been close to a person who has ultimately foregone their right to make their own choices, in deferment to the wishes of another, will immediately relate to this paragraph. "Sharing the morning seems more intimate, more deliciously awkward than sharing the night." An Equal Music does have a beautifully revealed plot, piece-by-piece puzzles are solved and in places the book is cleverly written, suggesting things but never revealing them. The power of love over people and the happiness and destruction that this can bring are wonderfully portrayed and this is a book, as people have said of it, which is multi-layered - with many a sub-plot surrounding the main, will they won't they emotional cliff hanger of a love story. The book features a rich tapestry of characters, both from the music world and the non-music world, the bullying but ultimately sensitive Piers, the deeply artistic and kind Billy, the erratic Helen and the business hardened merchant banker James - who seems to frustrate Michael at every turn. Having said this, for me, the impenetrable nature of too many scenes about music detracted from an excellent story of human emotions. There was too much specific detail about music, which left me as an observer and part time listener of classical music, confused and almost isolated from what was going on. This spoilt what is a moving tale and beautifully written book. If you have a detailed knowledge of classical music, then this is a book that I think you would love, if not you may find parts distracting and otiose to the main plot. An Equal Music leaves you feeling that there is a separate musical world in London, enclosed and self-serving and that is perhaps why part of this book is pretty inaccessible to the non-music lover. As a nice aside and sub-plot is the tale of Michael's ailing father's cat Zsa Zsa - the "salmon-filching, territorial, canny cat" any cat lovers and owners of such loving and fickle animals will surely relate and smile at her antics. Published by Phoenix: £6.99 in paperback (£5.59. plus post age and packaging from Amazon.co.uk): and a hefty tome at 484 pages. Interestingly this book is also available as an audio story cassette (£11.70 from Amazon.co.uk) - with much of the music discussed featuring in the background to the story telling, this may just make the tale more accessible to non-music boffins. I have not listened to this, but I am tempted. ISBN: 0-75380-773-4.
The 1970s were a time of great change for the social and political fabric of the United Kingdom, out went socialism (in its more true form) and with the advent of the Thatcher government, in came capitalism of a particularly virulent nature. Trade unions, who had previously had the power to cripple an economy for sometimes petty and selfish reasons were to have their power and in some cases their dignity removed. In a way the 70s were a decade of conflicting extremes, anger, punk rock, violent picket lines, violent police and violent terrorism. The 70s were not just a decade of disco, bell bottoms and long collared shirts, this was a decade of real shifting sands, of the like that had not been seen for decades before or since. It is to this backdrop of changing times and uncertainty that Jonathan Coe has written The Rotters' Club charting the coming of age of a group of young teenage adolescents. Coe is another new author for my palate to sample and a number of his previous novels have met with great critical acclaim, including this The Rotters' Club - which collected the Bollinger Everyman Woodhouse prize - not a well-known award, but an award nonetheless. Before the critical acclaim and award puts you off (as I know it does to some readers) this is not a book of impenetrable thought, it is one of those rare books that achieves the cross over of being intelligent and also populist in its style and appeal. We begin in 2003, the teenagers have grown up and had their own offspring and it is these offspring that tell the tale somewhat retrospectively of their parent's youth - from 2003 we are transported to Birmingham, England, 1973. We have the middle class Trotters, cosy in their middle England existence - but in the case of Colin Trotter, the father, scared at the wind of change, that will at first threaten the status quo and then smash it. Benjamin, the middle of three children and the eldest son is the central character of th e book, he like his siblings attends King William's school, a direct grant academy requiring a test for entry, but by virtue of the grant system, mixing the rich and poor of the intelligent youth of the area. The school and Benjamin's friend provide a tapestry of the diversity of England, both in class and cast. Steve Richards is the lone black boy attending the school; Doug Anderton comes from a working class background - with his father being a rather factious but realistic shop steward in the local British Leyland car plant (the recently famous Longbridge); Phillip Case's father drives a bus; and Clare Newman comes from a family of religious zealots. Through the school the different perspectives merge and the four youngsters end up as editors on the school magazine. From the magazine, we get the youthful perspective on the transition of the United Kingdom and Coe has cleverly written chapters of the book as extracts from the school magazine, featuring some hilarious fictitious letters from Arthur Pusey-Hamilton, penned by the school clown, Harding. This is also one of those novels that charts the problems and uncertainty of that age of 17-19, not really a child, but not yet an adult. The world seems huge, at that age you are so unsure of your place in it and more importantly who you are. Benjamin is a solemn thoughtful young man, quiet and deeply artistic both with the pen and the guitar. However, it is the age of shifting sands, awakening sexuality and most of all rapid change in a youth's perspective. Benjamin and his friends find themselves on the rocky path towards adulthood and this leads to old ties becoming fractured and old certainties being smashed. But in the 70s Coe cleverly points out that it was the whole country going through a kind of adolescent crisis. Doug's father fights a losing battle on behalf of the assembly workers at Longbridge; Phillip's father fights a battle for his wife and her affections; Clar e's sister Miriam fights the intolerance of her own father; and most sadly Benjamin's sister Lois has to cope with a huge personal tragedy foisted upon the innocent to make a political point. The Rotters' Club is a whole book of personal battles and insecurities, neatly matching the insecurity of the country at that time. The only person in the book sure of themselves is the younger Trotter, Paul, who seems to have come to terms with the fact that society changes and evolves and people have to go with the changes or be left behind in a confused vacuum. Whilst picking out these big issues, the small personal trials of every school kid are featured, the forgotten P.E. kit, the crush on the school beauty, forays into girls' bras and boys' pants, the embarrassment of younger siblings and the desire to fight all in a position of authority. Coe's teenage characters are beautifully drawn; the confusion, the ambition, the naivety and the trepidation of youth are all drawn out in subtle ways, leaving the reader with a real affection and possibly identification with the characters. This is an easy book to read the narrative flows in an easy and relaxed manner and at a pace to suit all readers - it is not a slow lingering narrative and neither is it a wham bam thank you kind of read that solely centres on plot and story over any kind of delving into the characters in the book. Most of all it is witty, in an observant kind of way. Everybody in their lives gets themselves into amusing scrapes and so do all of Coe's characters; adult and teenage alike and the school clown Harding, is one that every adult must recognise and his astute comedy is a real lightening feature to the book. The Rotters' Club is a wonderfully funny and moving story, which analyses the 70s with some real objective perspective, the narrative is told superbly and is very readable. I devoured the book in about three sittings, which is r are for me. Similar in a way to Nick Hornby, but with far greater depth and ideas, it is a cleverly and some times painfully observed page-turner. This is a book that I will remember, it wouldn't make an all time top ten list and is missing that little something to elevate it to classic status - but it is a very enjoyable read and I for one am greatly looking forward to the sequel that will tie up some lose ends. I will leave you with Paul Merton's verdict "Wonderful storytelling. It took me back to the 70s and left me there. Help." Published by penguin: priced £6.99 in paper back (although still available for £3.49 from www.amazon.co.uk): 402 pages long: ISBN 0-140-29466-X. Further details of all penguin published books can be found at www.penguin.com.
Apparently the American born but London residing author, Douglas Kennedy is a well known and a critically acclaimed author, well you could have fooled me. I had never heard of the chap. Well not until (almost a year again now) I accidentally forgot to send back one of those book club returns and so was lumbered with the novel The Pursuit of Happiness by the aforementioned Kennedy. It was a lucky lumbering as the book evoked memories of Sebastian Faulks' beautiful way of conveying a narrative and in particular the book On Green Dolphin Street. However, The Pursuit of Happiness surpassed On Green Dolphin Street, it absorbed me, I wanted to find out what happened to the characters, I identified with their frustrations and idealism. All I wanted to do was read this book, everything else in my life just got in the way of this desire. The Pursuit of Happiness is set in post World War Two America, more specifically Manhattan, New England and Maine. The Smythe siblings, Eric and Sara are literary and artistic and are enjoying the post war revelry and the opportunities that the end of global conflict is bringing. Manhattan is alive with jobs, wealth, diversity of culture and the ability to have a good time. All seems wonderful until Sara has a brief encounter with Jack Malone a dishy Irish American, U.S. Army journalist of conflicting ideological standpoints to Eric, the left leaning bohemian script writer and the apolitical Sara. That lightening bolt of connection hits Jack and Sarah and the rest of their lives becomes forever changed. The plot line closely follows the Smythe siblings and their lives in Manhattan, but two shadows loom large over their existence, for Eric it is his pre-war membership of the communist party and for Sara it is Jack Malone and true love. These two factors serve to shape the sibling's destinies and are more inter-connected than the reader would first think. Sara is the driving character of the book and it is from Sara's perspective that we see events. Kennedy examines the fact that every family has its secrets, children do not know all that they think they know of their parents. More importantly, The Pursuit of Happiness makes the point that an event or events that happens to one or two people, is never an event or events that happens in isolation to its directly involved participants. The impact reverberates around all that are connected to those people and can sometimes be felt for generations afterwards. The observant amongst you may have realised that the author is male and the perspective of the book is female. This quite often results in a book that misses the mark; the female character seems one of an alien sex, not female, not male, almost asexual. But in this instance the combination works, Sara is a strong independent female voice. The Pursuit of Happiness charts a time when women realised that they did not need a man in the traditional sense to be a whole being; although the world was only just starting to lose its prejudice against the working career orientated spinster. "The sense of freedom was extraordinary. I was no longer under parental supervision. I was paying my own way in life. I answered to nobody." ""How getting married by the time you're twenty-three is a good thing, because you're suddenly relieved of the burden of making a living, or dealing with personal choice, or even spending time by yourself. Whereas, I'm rather scared of the idea of entrusting my entire future to another person. Because, hell aren't they as fallible as I am? And just as scared?"" However, a seriously bigoted prejudice of 1950s America is well highlighted, that of the communist witch hunt. This was a time in American history where paranoia ruled. A simple connection to a dog whose owner had at one time known a writer that had joined the communist party in 1929 and then left in 1930 was enough to mean that the FBI were on your back - and if you did not squeal on a few more people of a slightly left wing persuasion your life was ruined. (OK, I exaggerate, but this period was almost as bad.) The Pursuit of Happiness pushes through the point that maybe a few genuine individuals - that may have slightly threatened the internal security of the country were apprehended; but that in the main the witch hunt just meant misery for a lot of Americans and unwarranted misery at that. The Pursuit of Happiness is about real people, people that the reader can identify with. Each character has flaws, each has virtues, but not one stands up as the hero or the villain. The story is fiction, but it seems that it could quite easily be the tale of anybody's grand-mother of a slightly adventurous and social trend bucking nature. Kennedy writes with a superb eye for detail, both in character and location, it is flowing and beautiful in style. Moreover, Kennedy cleverly links the recent past with our twenty first century existence. This is not a fast paced book - it lingers over issues and the question of why people do things, rather than just assuming that they do them. It captures an interesting period in American history, the paranoia of the right against the left - in a political sense, the start of commercialism and the awakening of suppressed intelligent women. Not only does this book deal with these issues, but it looks at why people are as they are, their background, their religion, the social code that they grew up in and their burning desires. If you are a fan of a book with a fast moving plot line and little character exploration, then The Pursuit of Happiness is probably not for you. However, if you like books that explore emotion and the complexity of individual human interaction with societal rules - that make sure that you really know who you are reading about, then this is a book that I can tho roughly recommend. Every time I picked this book up, I felt that I was transported to a cosy world - where I knew the people intimately and in this "give me everything quick" age, this type of book has become a rarity. You can purchase The Pursuit of Happiness in hardback from amazon.co.uk for £7.99, however, I would recommend waiting a few weeks as it is surely due out in paperback in the very near future. This is a long book at 519 pages, but its length gives it its superb depth. Published by Hutchinson. ISBN 0091794374.
When I first saw part of this site, I thought to my giraffe self that I had been deluding myself as to my continued existence. I must really be laying on a mortician's board and in writing this I must be having an out of body experience, cos you see, I was told that I was dead and that all you fine people could buy bits of me cruelly manufactured into consumables such as loo seats, sex dolls (the real thing is better, so MrKing says!), scarves (long ones at that) and poofy handbags. However, continued navigation of the site, told me that I was not really dead and that in fact I was a loveable little chap. Well let me tell you all that was a big relief to me, because sometimes I do question whether I really exist at all, or whether I am just a figment of my own imagination. After all, in that film The Matrix, everyone was a figment of their imagination and they were all really asleep. Whilst I am still not sure whether I really exist, are you, I am relieved that I have not really been carved up into horrible tacky Geoffrey souvenirs. You may be wondering what the bleedin hell I am going on about [language Geoffrey!] (I blow a raspberry at that interfering twit of an impostor King - phhhhhhhhh) well I am going on about, MrCharlie's website. Charlie Chuckle, the DooYoo member to you humans. It is his little bit of web space, with a few amusing little jokes on it (one of them being my fake death), I am Geoffrey by the way, not that stupid MrKing. Before I go on lets just tell you that in order to write this review, I kicked MrKing off the computer, he wanted to write one of his oh so pretentious and stuck up book reviews. I despair with MrKing, he thinks he is so clever, but he is not, he is a raving Mormon. [Should that not be moron, Geoffrey?] I mean he talks to me and I am a mohican giraffe, jeez, how stupid, you would have thought that he would have realised that he was always in the wrong and stupid by now, but no, he thinks he c an write book reviews. Pish Posh, I say. Back to MrCharlie. His website has this random babe generator. Not just any old babes, but babes from DooYoo. It is simple, you click on the link to "show me the babes" and you get this site where you can randomly generate pictures of the DooYoo girlies. I have to say that seeing me on the babe generator made me question my own sexuality and now I am wearing a ballet skirt again and lipstick. MrKing in his stupid political and legal correctness says he thinks that this bit of fun is a bit off. He thinks some of the girlies may get offended at being in a babe generator and that MrCharlie didn't ask them to use their image. I would be more offended if I wasn't on there, but then I think I am a male mohican giraffe, so maybe I should be offended at being included, I mean I am not an elephant, who as we all know are lesbians. Anyway, I tried to tell MrKing that it was just a bit of fun and he got all pompous again. He really is a twit. [Just because I have made you eat vegetables Geoffrey, there is no need to keep making fun of me - I will send you to your hidey hole if you don't behave!] What also makes me laugh is that MrGuru is also a girl and I think a lesbian to boot, he looks lovely as a DooYoo babe! [Geoffrey, just be good, or I will SHOUT!] What else is on the site, well there are links to all those DooYoo related thingies, DooYoo itself; Opcom, which Charlie says is a bit crap, where ever did he get that idea, I mean that place is the most accepting piece of web space on the planet; the TooYoo guest books, which I also reviewed and agree with Charlie that they are cool; the random DooYoo review generator; the DooYoo partner site; and the Opcom chat room. If you don't know what these are go and find out this is a review of Charlie's site and not all that other stuff. There is also a naughty adult section of the site, which made me laugh, I mean Charlie has a nice sense of humour, better than MrKing's anyway - the picture of the cute chick with knockers made me fall off my chair with laughter. There are some other naughty links, but you will have to find out the joke yourself. You can register as having visited the site, so that you can bring shame or joy upon yourself depending on your perspective of MrCharlie. Like me you either love him or hate him and I love his sense of fun and humour. MrCharlie and his site are good at pulling people's legs (but not out of their sockets) just enough to tease, but not hurt. That is about it, it is a small but amusing (to a giraffe anyway) website, nothing big, nothing grand, but it all navigates without those naughty software bugs and looks nice and clean and uncluttered. Go spend a few minutes having a chuckle and get rid off your stupid pompous correctness, well that is what I said to MrKing anyway. There is a member's section, but I have not been let into MrCharlie's version of the masons, he might let me if I am a nice giraffe, or he may try and kill me. Well anyway, I have scalping axes (being a mohican) so he doesn't scare me. MrKing did laugh at MrCharlie's copyright notice, and then tut tuted in his stupid lawyer way. I am going to teach MrKing to lighten up. Goodbye fine DooYoo people, I am going to do my homework now, I am studying mohican giraffe history and whether George the warrior mohican giraffe really did defeat King Lionel the Lion at the battle of mozibeeahh, frankly I don't care, but MrKing thinks it is important that I get educated. Oh and the address - www.chuckleweb.co.uk. The DooYoo link is currently wrong and takes you to a boring error message. I wish I had a table football game. This review is copyright to Geoffrey the (mad) mohican giraffe. Anyone copying this review or me as a nice little character will be scalped by order of me, Geoffrey. PS - I like the picture of MrCharlie chuckling, go look and find out, if you hate it, you will only have lost 5 minutes of your life, that may or may not exist - so don't worry now, will you?