Recent Reading

April 24, 2009

The Diary Of A Wimpy Kid

Having had it recommended in a number of places, I was really looking forward to reading Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney, and being that it was nice and short and unlikely to make me consider my own mortality, I thought I would give it a go.

I have to confess to being seriously disappointed. I think the main problem is that Greg, the main character is just, well if I am being polite, not a very nice kid. It is meant to be an amusing look at how Gregory misinterprets situations, whilst always believing he is pretty much the centre of the universe. Now this may not be that unusual for a child of his age, but I fail to find any redeeming aspect to his character. He is abusive and bullying to his dim-witted best friend Rowley, he is not nice to his younger brother, he is ungrateful to his parents when they clearly gone beyond what they can afford on his Christmas present. Yet the author seems to want us to side with this spoilt brat and thus allows him to come out on top.

What is worse is that it just was not funny. It was written with no concept of subtlety and generally left me wanting more.

I know that it is a kid’s book, but there are many kids books that do have sub text, that do have subtlety, and characters with far more depth and more importantly (to me at least) seem to adhere to a sense of justice.

But as I say, I have had this book recommended to me by adults that I actually respect, so if you have read this book, and liked it … tell me what I am missing, what are it’s saving graces?

Once

After the banality of the Wimpy Kid, I decided to prove to myself that books aimed at children did not need to be thought free fluff, and instead deciced to move to the other end of the spectrum and grab a copy of Once by Morris Gleitzman.

This story is about a young Jewish boy named Felix. When the story starts off, we find Felix unknowingly taking refuge in a Catholic run orphanage in Poland. The adults around him decided that he is too young to understand the horrors that are happening in the outside world, so they tell him that his parents (who run a book shop) have left him there while they go off to find some rare books. So when the Nazi’s come to the orphanage and Felix witnesses them burning books, his mind goes already highly active imagination goes into overdrive and he concludes that they hate books and he needs to escape the orphanage to return to his parents shop so as to protect the books.

With no real understanding of what is going on Felix tells a story of brutality and persecution through the innocent eyes of a small child.

This is one of those books that, whilst I could have empathised with the story prior to having children, now had me captivated, horrified and sickened, yet totally unable to stop reading.

Whilst being in no way comfortable reading, it is another book that is defiantly makes the reader think.

Liberation Day

Continuing in the vein of reacting to the previous book, I decided to get a book that really was not likely to make me think.

One of my guilty little pleasures is that regardless of just how low brow they may be, I really do enjoy reading the books of Andy McNab. I started with Bravo Two Zero which his non-fiction (although reportedly exaggerated) account of the SAS team of that name and their failed mission in Iraq in the first Gulf War.

He as since that gone on to write a fictional series based on the character Nick Stone, and I am slowly making my way through the this series. Liberation Day is the fifth book in the series and takes place 2002 in a post 9/11 world, where Nick has been charged with thwarting Al-Qaeda’s attempts to move money from Europe to Algeria, and thus preventing a planned attack on US civilians.

As I said, War and Peace it is not. However it is the literary equivalent to watching a Die-Hard film …. Just turn the Brain off and let it happen … A far more enjoyable experience than you may otherwise have credited.

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The Time Traveler’s Wife

March 23, 2009

As I may have mentioned ( 😉 ) I recently read The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger and I promised to talk more about it.

The thing that has been putting me off doing this is just how do you do this book justice. If I say that it is a story about a man named Henry who travels in time it sound really sci-fi, but it is far from it. It is a love story. A beautifully written, many faceted, unravelling story that is both heart warming and heart breaking.

Rather than being the traditionally conceived time traveller Henry suffers from a genetic disorder that, when stressed, causes him to loose his grip on time and space, and he finds himself transported to some other when and where. His time travel has certain obvious advantages, but they are significantly outweighed by the disadvantages but there are disadvantages too. I left the crossed out text as it was what came to mind, but the book also talks of the complex relationship between cause and effect. Concepts like destiny and free will. Without his ability to time travel Henry would not have met his wife future wife Clare, or at least their story would have been very different.

One of the most striking things about this book is how beautifully it has been written. Unlike The Kite Runner which, whilst managing to be a good book, was pretty much an unhappy book throughout, The Time Traveller’s Wife has both highs and lows, which due to the nature of Henry’s condition were sometimes closely intermingled. This contrast between light and shade allows us to feel we understand Henry and allow us to empathise with him despite his very peculiar problem. The story is told from the point of view of two narrators, Henry the time traveller and Clare his wife. This has the wonderful effect of causing events to slowly unfold whilst reading, allowing each event to be told more than once from multiple points of view in increasing detail, with many events being foreshadowed by some Henry from the future, giving us yet another account of the situation. What starts out as a strange tangle of events all go on to mesh together into one carefully woven story.

This book is easily the my favourite read in quite some time, and as much as I am once again very late to the party, if in the strange Venn-diagram of the five-six readers of this blog and the five or six people that can read yet have not read this book, there happens to be any overlap, I strongly recommend adding this book to their list of future reads 🙂


Bart Turns Bookworm

July 31, 2008

Book WormWell they do say that you can take a horse to water…

This is what instantly springs to mind when throughout the summer so far I keep turning around and there is Bart reading.

Don’t get me wrong he has always been a very capable reader, it is just that he gets a book every week during term time, and it is only through sheer force of effort (mostly expended by Mrs Geek) that he reads what he has to. It’s not that he can’t it is more that he can’t be bothered.

But in the past few weeks he has cleared the first two stacks of books the he got from the library progressing through the next.

I suspected that maybe he was missing school already, a claim I expected him to staunchly deny, but yesterday he told me that he wished he was back in school because he has to tidy his room while he is on holiday… I think he is missing his friends. (Not to mention all the love letters secret correspondence he keeps getting from a girl in his class)

What ever the reason it really is good to see him so enthusiastic about reading.

I’ll stop now before I jinx it.


Witches Abroad

April 18, 2008

A while back the geek in felt ashamed that I had never read any of the Terry Pratchett, Discworld books. I remember mocking one of my close friends at school for reading them as I saw them as an extension of the whole Dungeons and Dragons thing … which was seriously uncool … and these things matter to a teenager.

I was wrong, and although I don’t expect that he reads my blog, I would like to go on the record and say “Sorry David”.

The OCD in me insisted that I start with the first and go through them in order. I have not come across one that has disappointed me yet.

Witches AbroadMy latest adventure through the Discworld was Witches Abroad .

For the unindoctrinated although the Discworld books are all based around the goings on on the Discworld, the books are based on a number of themes. The themes I have encountered so far seem to have been Rincewind and The Wizards, The Witches, The Guards and Death. Unsurprisingly Witches Abroad is all about the witches (with brief appearances from Death).

Many of the books have specific themes, and Witches Abroad’s theme is Fairy Tales. The basic plot is that people do not influence stories, stories happen to people. The story starts when the Desiderata, the Fairy Godmother, dies and in a characteristic twist on the old story, passes the responsibility to Magrat, a “wet hen” of a witch, to stop the Beautiful “Ember-ella” from marrying the prince. so accompanied by Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, she travels to Genua to right the wrongs that have occurred due to stories.

The book twists and retells many children’s favourites including Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, The Frog Prince, Hansel and Gretel … in fresh and incredibly amusing ways. The trick Pratchett pulls off is that it never seems to feel forced, it is as if these stories that have been around for years were specifically written to be used later in this book.

After the Drivel of Ian Sansom’s The Case of the Missing Books it is such a relief to be able to whole heartedly recommend this book, but to be honest it is a bit of an all or nothing type of arrangement… if you are going to read them start with The Colour of Magic and make your way through in sequence.


The Case of the Missing Books

April 14, 2008

(Oops … I wrote this last week before going away (more later) and forgot to press Publish)

The Case of the Missing Books by Ian SansomGaaarrhhh!!!

I have just finished this book, and all I have to say is Gaaarrhhh!!!

As a rule I always try to finish any book that I start, but this one would have defeated me if it were not for the fact that it was the designated book for the month in the reading group I am in. It was frustrating from beginning to end. To begin with the whole story is set up on a rather far fetched scenario in that the Protagonist, Israel Armstrong, turns up outside a library in Tumdrum, a fictional small town in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, only to find it closed down. He is then cajoled into taking on a role as the Librarian of the Mobile Library that the council has set up to replace it. This for me was a push in terms of believability, but he then stumbles from one implausible mishap to another, meeting a series of Irish people that are so cringingly and almost offensively stereo-typically Irish they appear to have been dragged from an episode of Father Ted.

Israel, is a guardian reading Jewish librarian who was undoubtedly set up to be the bumbling but well meaning type that stumbles onto the answer through his own amusing ineptitude. He actually comes across as an almost unlikeable character with very little in the way of redeeming features. He is a self absorbed, self pitying and quite frankly pathetic individual who is apparently well read but without any outward sign of intelligence.

The story is basically a series of anecdotes and stereo types cobbled together by a weak and unconvincing plot. In what I can only assume is an attempt by the author to convince us that he is as well read as his fictional librarian, we get many references to and derogatory remarks about other books, in what feels like a bout of Literary name dropping. Books that quite frankly are far superior to this one.

To top it off, it would appear that the author finally got bored with the story too, as he could not bring himself to write an ending. If this is meant as a detective story Sansom really should try taking note a little better of the likes of Hercule Poirot, to whom Israel likens himself. The detective story should slowly unravel itself giving subtle clues to the reader which, whilst not being enough to give the game away, on reflection do indicate the eventual perpetrator. In this case however the mystery is solved out of the blue, not by our would-be sleuth, or even by his trusty sidekick, but by a confession by up until then a bit part character. This is all squeezed into the last few pages with very little in the way of explanation.

To top it off with no real explanation for his monumental change of mind, in the last part we are led to believe that Israel decided to stay on in Tumdrum to run the mobile library leaving troubling possibility of another instalment.

The one redeeming feature of this book is that it is short. It is however a few hours of my life that I will regretfully not be getting back. Really, if you are looking for a book to read, skip this one and buy any of the books that it mocks, from memory (I would look but I can’t bring myself to reopen the book) are

Brick Lane – Monica Ali

The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – J.K. Rowling

Bravo Two Zero – Andy McNab


Memoirs of a Geisha

April 2, 2008

Memoirs of a Geisha

I’ll start out with the standard line that exposes me as typical westerner and illustrates my ignorance of other cultures in that before reading this book, if someone said the word Geisha I heard Prostitute. The two things were indistinguishable to me. Now the exact connotations of what being a Geisha entails is beyond a simple blog entry, suffice to say it is far from simply summed up quite so easily.

Chiyo is a young girl from in a small fishing village called Yoroido in Japan. The book takes us through Chiyo’s life from just before she and her sister are orphaned, to being sold as little more than a slave, to becoming Sayuri, one of Japan’s most renowned Geisha.

It is a beautifully crafted story that immerses the reader in the detail and the pageantry of life as a Geisha, and bizarrely I enjoyed this book for many of the same things that I disliked Engleby. It takes it’s time in the describing Sayuri’s routines, her plans and her misfortunes but because it is based in a culture that is so alien to it’s intended reader it doesn’t feel forced. On the contrary, it would have achieved far less impact by being more direct.

I will own up to the fact that there were times during the book where I forgot that it was fiction and genuinely believed that it must be based on a true story. I even took the time to google for the “Famous Painting” of Sayuri, only to find a page quite rudely telling me “It’s fiction, get a life”. Harsh … but maybe fair.


Engleby

March 5, 2008

Engleby by Sebastian FaulksIf my last book (The Runaway Jury) was exactly what I expected, Engleby was anything but.

I will tell you now that I Never read the blurb. I like the feeling when a book takes me by surprise.

Having read Sebastian Faulks’ French trilogy (The Girl at the Lion d’Or, Birdsong and Charlotte Gray) which I found to be superb reads (well maybe The Girl at the Lion d’Or less so) I think I went into this book expecting another book based around the hardships of war.

I was wrong. Gone was the stories of living in a bunker, being terrified and under fire. Gone was France. Gone even was the raunchy love scenes. If this book were to be illustrated, the artist would soon have run out of neutral grey.

The book is centred on and narrated by Mike Engleby. When our story picks up Engleby is in his first year at University (which, although he goes out of his way not to tell us directly, is clearly Cambridge) during 1973. Engleby takes us through his life as a very intelligent boy, thrust into the English boarding school system in the 1960s when his father dies. He tells of the bullying and abuse that he receives whilst there, and the perceived normality of this by all of those around him. He goes on to give the outline of a young man that he becomes, finding it hard to fit in, Mike is a loner, a misfit.

It is quite tough reading, as I really did not like the protagonist. In Birdsong Faulks used his gift of wallowing in the mundane, revelling in squalor and displaying enormous amounts of self pity, without loosing his audience. However, in Birdsong, you felt that the protagonist had earned the right to that self pity, that awkwardness, through the extreme hardships and atrocities of war. In Engleby he is asking the reader to be show the same level of understanding and compassion, to a young man that does not fit in at university and may have suffered a certain amount of bullying at school.

Whilst at university Engleby gets fixated by a fellow student named Jennifer, but the feeling is quite clearly (to us) not mutual. It is when Jennifer disappears in suspicious circumstances that it all starts falling apart for Mike and consequently it is when the story starts to get interesting.

If anything I would say that Faulks overplays the wallowing aspect of Mike’s character. If we were again to use a movie analogy, I would say that this story could do with a good editor with a sharp pair of scissors.