Thursday, 31 March 2011

Temporary Hiatus

I'm not going to be around until at least Tuesday or Wednesday because tomorrow I'm moving house!  I'm really excited and can't wait to get in the new place and start decorating it the way I want to.

Hope everyone has a good weekend :)

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Growing up Amish by Ida Wagler

Maybe it's because I grew up without religion, but I've always been fascinated by very religious communities.  I went through a phase where I read lots about Orthodox Judaism and Sharia law in Islam.  I just couldn't imagine living in the kind of society where religion makes the rules as in my own life religion has no role or influence at all.  I didn't know much about the Amish community, so jumped at the chance to receive a review copy of Growing Up Amish.

Synopsis: This biography tells the story of Wagler's Amish upbringing and his struggle between the comfort of his traditional life on one hand and the freedom of the outside world in the other hand.

This memoir was an enjoyable read and was pacy enough to keep the pages turning quickly (I finished it in two sittings).  Wagler's life was covered in chronological order and I particularly enjoyed the sections about his childhood.  As a primary school teacher who often bemoans the amount of gadgets children have and how they don't 'play' anymore, Wagler's childhood seemed idealistic.  And it also contrasted effectively with later sections in which he was more tormented.

These later sections really got across the point that it was impossible for Wagler to be happy anywhere.  When inside the Amish community he strained against the restrictions but when outside he was tormented by the certainty that turning his back on the Amish church would lead to him going to hell.  That part was hard for me to relate to as a non-religious person (as was the very end of the book), but imagining what having that certainty would do to your mind and self-esteem was powerful enough. 

I did enjoy learning about the Amish way of life and differences between the various Amish communities.  My only criticism was that I wanted a bit more of that, and thought that the book could have taken the exra length.

Score: 3.5 out of 5
Publisher: Tyndale House Publishers (many thanks for the review copy)
Publication Date: 1st July 2011

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

The Brightest Star in the Sky by Marian Keyes

I should start this review by saying that I have a thing against chick-lit.  I have tried lots of chick-lit but find it generally formulaic and it doesn't even relax me in a guilty pleasure kind of way.  My sister has been nagging me for ages to read Marian Keyes, arguing that even though her books look like chick lit, they are much more well written and deeper.  I finally decided to give in with The Brightest Star in the Sky.

Synopsis: The novel tells the story of a group of people all living in flats in the same building. Maeve and Matt are a married couple coping with a traumatic event, Katie is finding it hard to see where her life is going, Lydia is a female taxi driver who cares for her Mum (who has dementia) and Jemima is coming to the end of her life.

Well, my sister was right - it's not really chick lit.  In fact, Marian Keyes' writing style reminded me a bit of Nick Hornby's and there was no way the book could be described as superficial.  Marian was very good at writing about everyday life in a way that didn't sugarcoat it or make it overly depressing.  It was just like real life, lived by people everywhere.

With such a large cast of characters, it was hard to relate to and root for every one.  I found Maeve's story the most affecting and guessed the twist before it was revealed.  On the other hand I didn't really get behind Katie's relationship struggles.  Those sections weren't boring, but I didn't really care which character Katie chose.

The writing style was simple and easy to read - all of the strength of the book was in the characters and plot developments.  I didn't care for the supernatural element of this novel but would definitely read more by Marian Keyes.

Verdict: Sister 1  Me 0
Score: 3.5 out of 5

Friday, 25 March 2011

The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells

I really want to love sci-fi.  I love the ideas behind sci-fi books but usually when I get around to reading the actual books, I'm disappointed.  As the only sci-fi book I've ever really enjoyed is The War of the Worlds, I decided to give The Island of Doctor Moreau a go.

Synopsis: Edward Prendick is stranded on an island with the sinister Doctor Moreau, who uses a painful process of vivisection, transfusions and classical conditioning to 'humanise' animals, turning them into beasts that can walk and talk.

This was obviously a book with many different levels.  On the most simple level, it was a very good story with lots of action.  Although it was easy for the modern reader to guess what was happening very early on and to guess how things would turn out, that probably wouldn't have been true for when the book was first published.

On to the more complex levels - much of the text seemed to be an argument about nature versus nurture.  Dr Moreau altered the brains and bodies of the animals but with time their animal instincts started to win against the new human ones.  Wells also seemed to be making the same point about human character.

I really enjoyed the science parts, especially when Dr Moreau was having his long monologue about why he would do that to animals and how he did it.  It was definitely part Dr Mengele but some of his remarks foreshadowed science - for example that the brain is more plastic than the body and that the brain can be 'retrained'.  I studied neuroscience at university so the geek in me loved those parts.

One criticism I would make is that it was very much an 'idea' or 'issue' book, at the expense of story and character.  Prendick is just a plot device to expose Moreau to the reader, not a real fully formed person.  Although the story is easy and enjoyable to read with lots of action, it is very simple without many arcs.

Verdict: I sci-fi book I actually really enjoyed!
Score: 4 out of 5

Sunday, 20 March 2011

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Once again I am late to the party for a popular book.  I was beginning to feel like the only person in the world (or the book blogging world at least) who hadn't read The Hunger Games. Surprisingly my local library did have a copy, so I checked it out and devoured it within about 48 hours.

Synopsis: In a future that is not too far away, the districts of a country called Panem are kept in check by the Hunger Games, reality TV gone seriously wrong.  Every year the name of one girl and one boy from each district are pulled out of a hat and these 24 teenagers must literally compete to the death in a special arena.  The competiton is manipulated by mysterious all-seeing "Gamemakers" and every move is captured on camera.  Katniss Everdeen volunteers for the games after her sister's name is drawn and the novel follows her quest to try to stay alive.

The best thing about this book was that it was absolutely gripping.  There was a quote on the front of my edition from Stephen King saying the the book was 'full of suspense and unputdownable'.  And it really was.  At some points while reading I reached a point where it would have been nice to put the book down for a bit and think about it before carrying on, but I just couldn't because so much was going on and I was desperate to find out what would happen next.  All credit to Collins for that and for making the action unpredictable.

The satire on the reality TV genre was really well done too.  I liked how Katniss was aware of being filmed at every moment and constantly manipulating her responses and reactions so as to appear in a positive way to the audience.  Katniss herself was a wonderful character - a born survivor but you could still perceive as the reader how hard everything was for her.  The other characters taking part in the games were all very vivid and well written.

I do think there was a little bit too much dystopia for me personally.  I don't think Collins needed to invent a new country called Panem; the Hunger Games could have come out of America or Britain in a few decades, and that would have been much more powerful.  I don't know if I want to read the rest of the series or not - I enjoyed the actual Hunger Games part of this one and don't know whether I want to read about a rebellion with Katniss at the forefront.  And finally a minor quibble - I really don't like the UK cover and Katniss looks nothing like how I imagined on the front.

Verdict: Interesting idea, well written.
Score: 3.5 out of 5

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Slam by Nick Hornby

I am a big Nick Hornby fan and for a while I've been wanting to read Slam.  It's about Sam, a typical teenage boy who loves skateboarding, who accidentally gets his girlfriend pregnant.  I had been looking forward to reading it as I thought it would be interesting to read about teenage pregnancy from the boy's point of view, because I recently read and loved Long Way Down, and because I know that Nick Hornby does the men/boys being forced to grow up thing so well.

Unfortunately I was disappointed.  This was by far the worst Hornby I have ever read.  The plot was formulaic and contained no surprises.  Sam was the only character with any character - the book contains no more information about Alicia, the girl who actually becomes pregnant, than that she once wanted to be a model (or maybe she just said that to impress Sam) and she's irritable.  It honestly felt like Hornby had written this one in his sleep.

I think part of the problem is that I've read Malorie Blackman's Boys Don't Cry, which also deals with teenage pregnancy from the male point of view, and it was just so much better.  The characters were believable and I actually found myself caring about what happened.  Not so with Slam - I didn't care whether Alicia and Sam stayed together, or whether Sam grew up or not.  And I think Hornby ducked out of the whole abortion issue by having Alicia so adament to keep the baby.  I wanted that issue explored further.

The book's saving grace was that it was well written.  Hornby got into the head of a typical teenage boy very well and it written in his usual engaging style.  It was just missing that spark.  And don't even get me started on the possible time travel!

Score: 3 out of 5

Monday, 14 March 2011

Confessions of a GP by Dr Benjamin Daniels

When I was little, I always wanted to be a GP (family doctor).  Not a hospital doctor or surgeon (that would be far too exciting!), but someone who sat in a nice cosy office and gave out tablets to make people feel a bit better.  I soon grew out of it but retained a sense of curisoity about what it would actually be like to be a GP. So when the kindle edition of this book going cheap, I had to get it.

Synopsis: "Dr Benjamin Daniels" (real identity protected) writes about the day to day life of being a GP, some of his more challenging/funny patients and also how the healthcare system looks from the point of view of the people that actually work in it.

This book was a light, fun read.  The chapters were nice and short and chapters about specific patients were interspersed with chapters about the NHS or medical issues, making it very easy to read.  Some of the patient tales were funny - I liked the women telling the doctor about her sex dreams featuring Tom Jones - but in other chapters Daniels found some humour in issues such as depression and deprivation.

It was particularly interesting for me as most of the book was about his experiences working in a deprived inner-city area.  I teach in a similar kind of area and deal with the exact same issues, albeit from an educational perspective.  Daniels may get patients who have tried every anti-depressant on the market but still can't organise their lives; I'm getting the same people as parents who can't get their children to school on time or  provide basic essentials/return letters.  I don't know what the cure is, but it was comforting to know that us teachers aren't the only ones who struggle with that sort of thing.

The chapters about the NHS were interesting too.  I am a big defender of our public health care system free at the point of use but I do recognise that it does put pressure on doctors to manage budgets.  But then, maybe it's a good thing for doctors to prescribe generic drugs rather than be in the pocket of drug companies?  The issue of sick-notes was interesting too - at which point do you become ill enough to not be able to work?  And is it the same for everyone?

Verdict: Good light read.
Score: 3.5 out of 5

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

My journey into Russian literature continues with Anna Karenina.  I have owned this book for a long time but have always been put off reading it because of its size and the fact that it's Russian and therefore to me, intimidating.  After reading it, I really wish I had gotten around to it much sooner.

The only word that can truly describe this book is epic. In some ways it reminded me a lot of Gone with the Wind in this sense - it was epic but not at all stodgy and quite fast paced.  The story centres around two sets of characters and their quest for happy family lives.  Anna leaves a passionless marriage for a romance with Count Vronsky, losing her social status and access to her son.  But her sacrifice soon starts to put pressure on her new relationship.  Levin, a romantic idealist wants an idyllic life in the country with new wife Kitty.  In fact, the opening statement sums up what the story is about well: "All happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion." 

What I absolutely loved about this book was how perceptive Tolstoy was about life in general.  His observations about character feelings and society were very profound in places and I found myself underlining a lot of key passages in the book.  I especially liked the way he wrote the stream of consciousness' of the main characters when they were going through a crisis as it made it easy to relate to them; for example when Levin was suffering with low self-esteem after being rejected:

"No, you're not going to be different.  You're going to be the same as you have always been - with your doubts, your perpetual dissatisfaction with yourself and vain attempts to amend, your failures and everlasting expectation of a happiness you won't get and which isn't possible for you."

The characters in general were so vivid and complex and real that they just jumped off the page.  Over the course of the book I felt like I had really got to know Anna, Vronsky, Levin, Kitty, Dolly and Oblonsky so when it got near the end and dramatic events started to happen I was glued to each page. I was definitely emotionally involved, even if I didn't quite understand why Anna would ever go for Vronsky as he seemed like such a shallow player at the beginning. 

The only slight criticism I could make is that there were too many minor characters for me - I didn't really care about Levin's brother (the writer one, not the drug addict one) or the self-sacrificing Varenka enough to read whole chapters about them.  But it is a minor criticism, I really enjoyed reading this one.

Verdict: A bit of a slog at times, but well worth it and I won't be forgetting this story.
Score: 4.5 out of 5

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Happy World Book Day!

Hope everyone had a good one!
I did have a pocket watch to complete my white rabbit costume but you can't see it in this photo.
I'm still plugging away at Anna Karenina, that book is long!