Saturday, 30 October 2010

Boys Don't Cry by Malorie Blackman

I generally don't read teenage fiction, but I will read anything Malorie Blackman writes.  Her Checkmated series is in my top ten reads of all time, and when I was younger I loved Pig-Heart Boy.   This book came out in September, and I finally got around to buying a copy last week. 

Synopsis: Dante is nervously waiting for his A-Level results which will hopefully lead to him going to a top university when his ex-girlfriend turns up with a baby in tow.  Explaining that she just can't cope with a baby on her own, she dumps the baby on Dante and leaves. 

Score: 5 out of 5

I loved this book and read it in less than a day.  Like all of Blackman's books, it felt very real and believable.  I've not been a teenager in almost six years now (I feel old!), but reading this book, I was transported right back in time.  Like with the Checkmated series where she turned racism upside down, Blackman took a cliche and turned it on its head - rather than the teenage mum left holding the baby, the teenage father is.  And he gets a lot of stick for it - in one passage that jarred with me as a teacher, social services come calling because surely a 17 year old boy can't raise a baby on his own?  Child protection is such a thorny issue, and Blackman had a new take on it.

Alongside the main story of Dante coping with his life being turned upside down, we also get the story of his brother Adam, who is being bullied for being openly gay.  Blackman has lots to say about the use of "gay" as a derogatory word as what starts out as this is tolerated by all of Adam's school friends and even Dante but soon turns into something much more serious.  There was also hints of Mel, the baby's mother, suffering from post-natal depression - she gives the baby to Dante as she is "scared of what she will do".

But although the book had lots of "messages" and "issues", it was above all a good story.  The writing style was simple but with lots of emotional impact and as a reader I really cared about the characters and wanted to find out what would happen to them.  It was overall a coming of age story about facing life's responsibilities and growing up and at no point was the reader patronised. 

Highly recommended.

Friday, 29 October 2010

Perfume by Patrick Suskind

Perfume by Patrick Suskind

I had high hopes for this book as it was recommended to me by a friend,  someone who I usually share the same reading taste with.  It sounded like an original adult fairy tale, something I would love.

Synopsis: Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is born in 18th century Paris with an extraordinary sense of smell.  As he has no scent of his own, he is driven further and further in his quest to create the perfect scent.

Score: 2 out of 5

Unfortunately, I found this book to be silly.  I did enjoy the writing style and how the author described the setting and the people in a fairy-tale way, but it was just too silly for me.  I am prepared to suspend belief for a good story, but this seemed to have been plucked out of the air in a pretentious kind of way and not thought through properly.

The main problem I had (aside from the silly ending, which I won't spoil for others who want to read it) was that Grenouille was just not a developed character at all.  He didn't change or react to anything around him and although I could tell Suskind wanted him to be an anti-hero, I just didn't care what happened to him.  Some of the secondary characters were far more interesting and developed; the wet nurse, Richie, Baldini.  Grenouille seemed more like a plot device than a real person.

The 'magician's apprentice' chapters where Grenouille was learning his craft were interesting and it was a quick easy read.  Just one I was happy to be finished with.

Have you read this book?  If so, I would love to know whether you agree with me or not.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

I've had this book a while; I got it in a set of books short-listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction.  I avoided it for a bit as it had won the Man Booker Prize and I've yet to have a great reading experience with a Booker book - I usually find them hard going.  But, as I do love historical fiction and I'm on a week's holiday from work, I finally decided to give this one a shot.

Synopsis: The story of Henry VIII's divorce in order to marry Anne Boleyn is the back-drop to the life story of Thomas Cromwell, a commoner who managed to persuade and manipulate his way into becoming one of the most powerful men in England.

Score: 3 out of 5

This book had many strengths, the major one being Mantel's ability to make this much written about period of English history somehow seem fresh and modern.  It didn't seem like a Phillipa Gregory style period romance, or even a period book at all - the characters all jumped off the page and events seemed immediate and compelling, even though everyone knows how it was going to turn out.

The character of Cromwell was a masterpiece, he was so complex and I loved how Mantel showed the distinction between what he was thinking and what he was saying as he slowly manipulated people and got his revenge.  Although there was plenty of historical happenings and legal proceedings, these were interspersed with personal events from Cromwell's life, which gave the book a balance and broke things up a bit.

But there were definitely things I didn't like so much about the book.  It was a hard slog - whilst I didn't have trouble keeping track of who was talking as others seemed to (the 'he' pronoun causing difficulties), it's the kind of book you have to concentrate on and be fully awake to read.  I know a fair amount about this period of history but sometimes it was hard to follow all of the minor characters and the legal proceedings.

And one of the book's strengths was also it's biggest weakness - writing as Cromwell gave the book immediacy and something fresh, but it also meant there was no room for the back story of other characters.  People going into a meeting don't spend twenty minutes reviewing the life stories of all the participants in their head beforehand, and if Mantel did so the book would have seemed a bit stuffy.  Consequently, not at lot was explained and Mantel was relying on you knowing your history.  I knew a bit about Cranmer and More, but not enough.

Now that I've finished it, I'm glad I read it, but it was hard going at times.  It's like spring cleaning your house - you may find it boring at times and tough, but you love having everything sparkly clean once it's all done.  There's a sequel on the way, not sure if I will pick it up or not.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Some of my Most Favourite Books...

I don't have a favourite author, or even a favourite book, but I do have quite a few books that I keep coming back to whenever I don't know what to read or I want something to make me feel passionate about reading again.  In no particular order, here are a selection of them:

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

This book was on my Christmas list back in 2004 and I got the lovely black hardcover copy with the black embossed pages.  Writing in a style that imitates 18th century literature, it tells the tale of the return of magic to England through the stuffy, academic Mr Norrell and his prodigy Jonathan Strange.  I loved the style, the detail and all of the little footnotes - I found the world Clarke had created very consistent and believable.  And the interaction between the two main characters was great.  It seemed a plausible continuation of folk tales and fairy tales.  Not for anyone who likes a quick read or an action packed story.

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

At the time of my first reading of this book, I was going through a bit of an African history kick, so this fitted in nicely.  It tells the story of a missionary, his wife and four daughters as they settle in the Congo.  I really enjoyed that each daughter had her own "voice" in the novel, and felt that all of the main characters were distinct and believable.  I couldn't put this one down, and although the action slowed down towards the end, I did want to find out what had happened to all of the main characters afterwards.  I've recommended this book to practically everyone since first reading it.

 Wild Swans by Jung Chang

Covering three generations of a family, Jung Chang tells the story of herself, her mother and her grandmother, from the ancient Chinese custom of footbinding to the communist revolution.  One of the reasons I loved this book is that ever since studying the Russian revolution for my GCSE history, I've been sort of fascinated with Communist history.  I just think it's so interesting.  But this book has a lot going for it apart from that - it's a well written biography with a good blend of personal story and history.   Even though the lives she describes are so different to modern Western ones, you can't help but empathise with all three of the women.

Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman
(and the rest of the trilogy, but not Double Cross).

I worked at Waterstone's for a while and ran the children's/teenage fiction section.  Loads of people were buying this trilogy so I decided to try it myself and I'm so glad I did.  It's about racism, but everything has been flipped so that darker skinned people are "in charge" and whites are second-class citizens.  White girls dream of getting bum implants and have chemical treatments to get afros.  It's a clever story about racism, terrorism and inter-racial relationships.  Because everything has been flipped, it really makes you think about prejudice - alongside enjoying the story of course :)

Have you read any of these books?
If so, what did you think of them?

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Dracula: The Un-Dead by Dacre Stoker & Ian Holt

Dracula: The Un-dead by Dacre Stoker & Ian Holt

The original Dracula by Bram Stoker is on my top ten list of all-time favourite novels.  I love slow-paced gothic literature, and for me, Dracula is the best of the bunch.   I love the characters, the letters/diaries style and when I first read it as a 12 or 13 year-old, I was scared.  I don't like the modern Twilight-style vampire stuff at all, but I did very much enjoy The Historian.  Given that this 'sequel' to the original bears the Stoker name, I was looking forward to reading it.

Synopsis: Quincey Harker, the son of Mina and Jonathan, starts working on a production of Bram Stoker's Dracula at the Lyceum Theatre.  There he starts to discover the secrets of his family as one by one the heroes from the original novel are destroyed.

Score: 1 out of 5

This may sound brutal, but here it is:  there is nothing to like about this book.  Please don't read it.  It is a blatant attempt on cashing in through the use of a famous surname and should never have been an authorised sequel to what is a classic and much-loved book.  

What offends me the most about it is how the original characters have been twisted and 'developed' into something completely beyond what Bram Stoker had imagined them to be.  Mina has become a sex-crazed vampire affecionado, Jonathan a sad drunk who likes prostitutes,  Jack a crazy morphine addict, Van Helsing a sell out and Arthur a sad and lonely old man.  And Dracula, an undeniable villain, has become a tragic romantic hero, 'God's crusader' who was merely misunderstood.  He doesn't even drink human blood anymore!  And Bram Stoker even appears in it as a plagerist! It all seems a bit disrespectful to me.

There was also a high proportion of silliness in the plot.  Don't get me wrong, I don't mind a bit of tackiness or suspending belief - but Jack the Ripper really being the Countess Elizabeth Bathory?  When the authors of a book take so much liberty with both the original story and the timeline of history that they have to provide an afterword to explain themselves away, you do start to wonder.

To sum up, I am sure Bram Stoker would have been appalled to have learned of this treatment of his novel if he was alive to witness it.  If you like the original, steer well clear of this one.

Friday, 15 October 2010

The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard

The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard

 I don't particularly read sci-fi (though I loved Michael Moorcock's 'Behold the Man') and got this book as my free book in a 3 for 2 deal at Waterstone's.  I just thought it sounded worth a shot.  It's my first Ballard.

Synopsis: Fluctuations in solar radiation mean that the ice-caps have melted and temperatures reach up to 150C.  Most of the cities of the Northern Hemisphere are submerged in tropical lagoons populated with prehistoric animals and massive bugs of all kinds.  The main character, Kerans, is a scientist sent to study the animal life forms but soon gets caught up with all kinds of people.

Score: 2 out of 5.

I liked the premise of this book, and indeed the initial third or so of it was amazing.  I liked the scenario of the increase in temperature leading to all of these prehistoric animals in a kind of de-evolution and thought I was in for a fantastic adventure story, in the style of Conan Doyle's 'Lost World'.  I wanted battles with giant iguanas and crocodiles as enormous as blue whales!

But there wasn't actually much of a story at all.  The main character was very passive (intentionally) and the book just kind of drifted with no purpose.  I get that this was because humanity and the world as a whole were drifting with no purpose, but it didn't make for fun reading. The sections on what happens to humanity when civilisation is stripped away were interesting, and all the looting and plundering seemed applicable to life now.

The main problem for me that this book appears to have been written in a psycho-analytic time.  Don't get me wrong, I did a psychology degree, but I have no time for the "collective unconscious" or "regressing to the womb" or other such Freudian arguments.  Ballard seemed to be arguing that the heat was activating some kind of genetic memory we all have of the time of our ancestors, and this was captivating and entrapping the main characters, making them seek out hotter lagoons.  It made no sense!  If I was Kerans I wouldn't be thinking "Hmm, 150C is a little mild, I'm going to leave this nice air-conditioned scientific facility with all the food provided and venture south where it is even hotter and I will have no resources whatsoever!"  Despite the shortness of the book, there was a lot of waffle about this.  A bit disappointing, really.

To summarise:  I liked the idea, but not enough pace or story. 

Has anyone read any other books by Ballard?  I want to read 'Empire of the Sun', but this one's put me off a bit!

Sunday, 10 October 2010

A Journey by Tony Blair

A Journey by Tony Blair

I am a part of 'Blair's generation' in that I was 11 when he came to power in 1997 and 21 when he left power in 2007.  I grew up in his schooling system, was one of the first to take the new AS-Levels and when I went to university, I had to pay the new top-up fees.  I voted for Labour in my first election (2005) but also joined in the marches against the Iraq war.  I was interested to read his autobiography for all of these reasons, and especially interested as he is such a divisive figure.  People either love him or hate him (and most hate him), but no one seems to actually listen to what he has to say anymore.

Synopsis: Autobiography of Tony Blair, Prime Minister of the UK between 1997 - 2007.

Score: 3 out of 5

This was a long book.  It wasn't just long in terms of the number of pages (just under 700), but it felt long due to the poor organisation of the book.  The chapters were extended and seemed to ramble round a few different topics aside from the chapter heading in no particular order.  I like that the book was organised thematically rather than chronologically, and I liked the informal, chatty writing style, but think the book would have been much improved by splitting it into many smaller chapters just restricted to one theme.  The chapter on Iraq also had a few pages on university fees and Northern Ireland, for example.  This made it hard to follow at times and hard to get an overall sense of the passing of time.

That aside, I did enjoy reading the book.  My favourite sections were the parts dealing with international issues and summits, which felt honestly told and full of fascinating characters and relationships.  There was a sense that not much was held back and Blair had made a real effort to tell his side of the story.  He wasn't apologetic or trying to covert you to his side of things, he was just telling it as he saw it.

The book was largely ideological.  As someone who is interested in politics, I enjoyed that side of it and felt that understanding the ideology helped me to understand the decisions and actions made by Tony Blair as prime minister.  However, the ideology was repeated constantly throughout the book, which is a bit unnessecary.   Well worth the read for anyone interested in politics or current events, though.

What do you think of Tony Blair?


Saturday, 2 October 2010

Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson

Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson

When I was at university as an undergraduate completing my psychology degree, I took two modules in the history and development of the major languages of the world.  From that moment on, I've been hooked.  If that wasn't enough of a reason to read this history of the English Language, I also spend a considerable amount of time teaching children to read and write, and sharing their frustration when you can't just 'sound out' every word in English.  Plus, I love Bryson.

Synopsis: A potted history of the English language, from its early development to its evolution to British and American English.

Score: 4 out of 5.

This was an entertaining, easy to read book.  As always, Bryson has a talent for making quite complex subjects and explainions clear and easy to understand.  Although the book did go into quite a bit of detail, it never felt dry or stuffy.  More academic chapters were interspersed with chapters on the history of swearing and amusing anecdotes.  My favourite was from the chapter on names - a street in London that was famous for prostitutes was once called 'Gropecunt Lane'.

I thought Bryson was especially strong when explaining just why English has become one of the trickiest languages to learn (aside from non-alphabetic languages like Chinese).  It was interesting to see how each of the peoples that invaded or migrated to England added a little something to the language, resulting in a bit of a mixing pot of all different spelling patterns and sounds.  I also found it interesting that in Elizabethan times, most words were said exactly as they are spelt now - for example there was no silent 'k' in know, knee etc.  And the classicly posh British accent wasn't around until well into the 18th century - so all those Elizabethan costume dramas are competely off the mark!

I was always going to love this book as I'm interested in the subject matter and have read a lot on it before.  I think it serves as a good general introduction and is entertaining enough to be enjoyable to most.