Thursday, September 29, 2005

Harry Potter & the Goblet of Fire by J K Rowling

Author: J K Rowling
ISBN # 0747582386
636 pages

As Harry Potter readies himself for his fourth year at Hogwart’s School for Witchcraft & Wizardry, he has a lot to get excited about – the Quidditch World Cup is being hosted in Britain (& he, along with his friends, Ron & Hermione, has tickets for some of the best seats at the event) & Hogwart’s will be playing hosts to pupils from three wizarding schools from around the world in a competition which was last successfully held four centuries ago. But once again, things are not running smoothly as the Dark Mark, symbol of You-Know-Who, has been seen in the sky, heralding the return of some of his followers, & Harry finds himself the favourite subject of Rita Skeeter, Daily Prophet reporter. It’s going to be a tough year – Harry will have to use his wit, strength, magical abilities & the help of his best friends to get him through, & all while he’s struggling just to be a normal 14-year-old!

With more than 600 pages, this is the longest adventure so far for Harry & his friends, but I hardly noticed the extra length as Rowling managed to pack so much action into every scene that it was practically bursting out from between the covers. We have all our old favourites returning (even if some of them, such as Snape, Malfoy & Sirius, are criminally underused) along with a few new characters to busy ourselves with. Once more we see a new member of teaching staff –an ex-auror who has taken up the post of Defence Against the Dark Arts (they never last long, do they?), & it’s not just an influx of new first years arriving this time: We are given rather a treat in that we get to see a few foreign visitors arrive to add a bit of flavour.

This is much darker & more intense than the previous three books, which reflects the fact that Harry is now growing up (the possibility of romance is even briefly brought to the fore, with all the jealousy & insecurity that goes hand in hand with teenage infatuation) & is no longer seeing things through the eyes of a child. We are also shown a little more of Voldemort’s history & that of his followers, which adds to the tension considerably & gives more of an air of danger than was evident prior to now.

In my opinion, this is the best so far (having not yet read Order of the Phoenix or Half Blood Prince) & I’ll be grabbing both of those at the weekend to devour!

Rating: 9/10

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

Author: Mark Haddon
ISBN # 0099456761
272 pages

Christopher is 15 years old & lives with his dad. He likes logic, maths & science because he understands them. What he doesn't understand is people - he hates being touched & cannot respond in the "normal" way to the emotions of others. In his opinion, animals are much better - they don't tell lies because they can't talk. So, when his neighbour's dog, Wellington, is mysteriously murdered with a garden fork, Christopher takes it upon himself to decipher the curious incident of the dog in the night-time & solve the crime in the style of his hero, Sherlock Holmes, & write a book about it as he does. In doing so, he unravels more secrets than he had bargained for & embarks upon a voyage of self-discovery that will take him away from the small town where everything is as he likes it, into a wider world where everything is confusing, scary & strange.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time has won the Whitbread Book of the Year award, the Guardian Children’s Fiction & the Book Trust Teenage Fiction award - & deservedly so! If it hadn’t been for the fact that I had other important things to be doing, I wouldn’t have put it down at all. As it was, even with the forced intermissions, it feels like I read this at warp-speed!

Haddon has a way of drawing the reader into the characters, especially that of Christopher, the focus & narrator of the story, who he has written so well that identifying with him & his problems becomes easy, even if those problems are uncomfortable to deal with. Autism is a difficult subject to tackle due to the preconceived ideas many people have, but it has been mastered artfully here & I felt that Haddon was completely in control with incredibly well-researched material. It felt real - compellingly so.

In the end, I think the main message of this story is universal: Limits are self-imposed & when we have to courage to push the boundaries, we open ourselves to new possibilities & find that we can accomplish anything.

Rating: 10/10

Monday, September 26, 2005

Popcorn by Ben Elton

Author: Ben Elton
ISBN # 0552772976
320 pages

Bruce Delamitri is a movie director on a mission - winner of the Best Director Oscar, he's the hero of the MTV generation for his violent films which, he claims, simply hold up a mirror to real life & portray the lives of ordinary Americans. But in a world where explosive & extreme violence is becoming common-place, is it time to admit that art doesn't only imitate life - it influences it. Enter Wayne & Scout - the notorious Mall Murderers. They've got a plan & they might just get away with murder - literally!

Popcorn is Elton's satirical take on the shallow inhabitants of Hollywood & the movie-culture of the nineties. Delamitri is a fictional characterisation of Oliver Stone & his movie Ordinary Americans is his Natural Born Killers. The apathy of the American film industry & the refusal to accept responsibility for one's own actions comes under sharp attack here & Elton asks us what the world has come to when we can blame everything on our upbringing, social circumstances or personal tragedy rather than admit we may be at fault ourselves. It encourages you to examine the motives behind the denial - is it as unconscious as we would have others believe? Or is it coldly calculated as a way to defer responsibility onto others?

Elton's brutal honesty & acerbic wit are perfectly suited to the subject matter & although cynical, the dark humour is never far beneath the surface& the reader is left with no doubt as to how the author feels. We are, however, left with questions about the validity of media claims that movies are the cause of wide-spread violence as it champions the free-thinking individual as able to make up their own minds, make their own decisions, & accept responsibility for their own lives.

One of Elton's earlier forays into writing, it remains one of his strongest pieces to date, bested only, in my opinion, by the likes of Dead Famous (where he examines the phenomenon of so-called reality TV, in particular, Big Brother), & Past Mortem (a murder/mystery for the computer-age). His style, although jarring in places, never holds the reader back from the plot, letting us see the story from all angles as it unfolds.

Rating: 6/10

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Time for Bed by David Baddiel

Author: David Baddiel
ISBN # 0349117462
256 pages

Gabriel Jacoby has problems: His flat-mate is going crazy, he's in love With his brother's wife, he's having trouble hitting the deadlines for his sports column & to top it off, he just can't get any sleep. What's a guy to do?

David Baddiel (half of the Newman & Baddiel comedy duo & a quarter of The Mary Whitehouse Experience) really comes into his own with this, his debut novel. Large parts of it are obviously based on his true-life Experiences with his then flat-mate, Frank Skinner (who now partners him on Baddiel & Skinner, Unplanned) & the air of honesty lends itself well to the fictional elements with which it has been seamlessly interwoven.

The focus is entirely on Gabriel Jacoby & his skewed view of the world As he battles with insomnia & his unrequited love for his sister-in-law, Alice - until he remembers that she has a sister! As he struggles even to stay awake, how can he deal with the roller-coaster of emotions & with the fact that his best friend is clearly going gaga after a bender involving some mind-bending drugs & an encounter with the highly unusual Fran, who brings everyone together in a cataclysmic fashion.

Time for Bed also explores the importance of heritage within a Jewish family living in London & the lengths to which people will go when they fear a loss of cultural identity, set against a backdrop of a curious love-triangle (of which only one of the participants is aware!) & other affairs of the heart. It shows how enlightenment can be reached by many different approaches & how none of it matters if you can't actually get your head round your own problems first.

Smart, funny, witty & written with an affection for the characters & subject matter, this is a superb debut novel from a comedian who has turned his hand to another medium & excelled. It paves the way nicely for his darker novel, Whatever Love Means, as well as his latest, The Secret Purposes; a semi-fictional/semi-biographical account of the Jewish settlement on the Isle of Man during WWII.

A must-read book of the highest calibre, Time for Bed delivers everything you could possibly want from a rom-com & leaves the audience wanting more.

Rating: 7/10

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Under the Eagle by Simon Scarrow (Book 1)

Author: Simon Scarrow
ISBN # 0755330684
434 pages

Under the Eagle follows the fate & fortunes of Macro, a battle-hardened Centurion of 14 years service, & Cato, a 17-year-old freedman, until recently a Palace slave, made Optio (Macro’s 2nd in command) due to the patronage of the Emperor himself.

Set amid the 43AD attempt at invading Britain, this first novel in a series of 6 to date, is filled with political ambition, intrigue & espionage. Will the secret mission to retrieve a prize left sunken in the misty moors of Britain 100 years before during a failed attempt to conquer Britain be successful? And will the life of a legionary be the making of young Cato, or will the military utterly destroy him?

Likened to the works of Bernard Cornwell, this is not the kind of book I’d usually choose to read, but I snapped it up for a song (a bargain at 99p!) on a special offer in Ottaker’s & couldn’t resist the thought of an extra book on the cheap. I’ve had absolutely no interest in military dramas, historical or otherwise, so I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly I was drawn into the narrative & before long I was completely absorbed.

It is a well-written piece & although I’m no historian, I can completely believe that all historical references are authentic. The battle scenes were never too lengthy or wordy, & were filled with all the excitement you’d expect watching a movie of this genre. It is descriptive without being too sickeningly gory & brings the harsh realities of the battlefield sharply into focus.

I really cared about what happened to these characters – I found myself worrying about them as they marched off into the fray, desperately fighting the temptation to skip ahead & see how they’d fared: Were they hurt? Were they even still alive?

The sub-plot of the ambition of men towards political careers through triumph in the military threw the stark physicality of battle into relief, highlighting the necessity of friends in high places, bribery & subterfuge. The intelligence of Scarrow made this a wonderfully rich thread throughout the tale.

I have had my eyes opened wide & can see now that I shall have to get hold of the rest of the series & follow the action & adventure of the men serving under the 2nd legion’s banner of the eagle.

Rating: 8/10

Monday, September 19, 2005

Angels & Demons by Dan Brown

Author: Dan Brown
ISBN # 0552150738
620 pages

Although not quite so well-known or talked-about as The Da Vinci Code, Angels & Demons is now being more widely publicised along with the rest of the Brown back-catalogue - & rightly so.

Angels & Demons, like Da Vinci, features Robert Langdon as the lead character – the Harvard Professor who seems to be permanently decked out in Tweed & also perpetually locking horns with the Vatican. On this outing, it’s the long-dead Illuminati – a secret society of the world’s greatest scientists - he’s pitting his wits against, as they attempt to annihilate all that is holy by attacking the very heart of Catholicism. Aiding him is Vittoria Vetra, a beautiful, Italian boffin, in the ultimate quest for redemption & enlightenment.

Brown seems to have a real knack for cryptography & although I’ve only read two of his works to date, from what I know of his other novels, he continues along the same vein in those to. He seems to thrive on mystery & enigma, but there is one drawback – the continual repetition of lines within the clues, almost as if he can’t credit the reader with the ability to retain the information for anything longer than a few pages. As a result, I found myself feeling more than a little put out as I read, feeling that his style was a little condescending, but I stuck with it simply because the plot was so intriguing!

His knowledge & understanding of science is also either incredibly vast or amazingly inventive. I even felt that I was beginning to comprehend some of the concepts myself despite having very little background in the sciences (read “zero”), the theories he described were in-depth without being too detailed.

The flip-side to this was seemingly the antithesis of science – faith & religion. Brown marries the two perfectly & even manages to reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable – the theory of the Big Bang & creation as it is written in Genesis - & makes a compelling argument for their compatibility.

The only negative to this was Vittoria Vetra – she could have been Sophie Neveu, lifted straight out of Code & grafted into the narrative. I get the feeling that they were both based on the same idolised & unattainable woman in Brown’s life – now forever immortalised in these books as someone just over the line of being too good to be true. These women have it all – beauty, brains, ambition, success, & a weakness for a middle-aged Harvard professor. Something tells me this is a little bit of wish-fulfilment on Dan’s part!

One last thing – about ¼ of the way through, I got a gut feeling as to who were the bad guys, although I didn’t know why they were doing it. My instinct was right, but I was pleasantly surprised as to the reasoning behind it all.

All in all, a well-written piece which explores both the historical & modern-day Rome & takes the reader on an informed tour of the mind & the soul. Miss it at the risk of your very soul!

Rating: 9/10

Friday, September 16, 2005

Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban by J K Rowling

Author: J K Rowling
ISBN # 0 7475 4629 0
317 pages

Harry is about to return for his third year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry, but tensions are high as Sirius Black, convicted mass-murderer, is on the loose after escaping from Azkaban, the horrifying prison of the Wizarding world. The Dementors – guards from Azkaban – are stationed all around the school in the belief that Black will come for Harry…

The third book in the Harry Potter series, this one starts, as do the previous two, at home with the Dursleys, giving the reader of how Harry’s confidence is growing as he grows up & becomes more at ease with his wizarding abilities, despite the fact that his family are quite atrocious. Rowling, as ever, writes these hideous characters with such love that it’s hard to hate them too much & you kind of feel a little pity for their misguided ways (it’s well-seen why she’s the highest-earning woman in Britain!).

Once again, we see the introduction of a new Defence against the Dark Arts teacher – Professor R J Lupin – &, for once, the school seems to have chosen a teacher who is effective (rather than a blathering idiot like Guilderoy Lockheart) & on the surface appears to be one of the “good guys”, but is all as it appears?

Another newly-introduced character is Madame Trelawney who teaches Divination, who, I’ll admit, was not one of my favourites. I found her rather wishy-washy & 2-dimensional; put there only to throw a few wobbly predictions into the mix & give the pupils of Hogwarts a bit of a gliff in the proceeds. I think I would have taken the same stance as Hermione & thought her a fraud & a crackpot!

In Sirius Black, Rowling as given us the ultimate mystery-man. She writes her shadowy, darker characters with such daring & flourish that they are a joy to read & Black is the shining example here. He is multi-faceted in the same way that only her regular, more important characters (such as Harry himself) are, & I got the feeling that not only will he be a recurring character, but that he is a personal favourite of the author herself. The way she has written him, I think she got more out of writing Sirius than she did from any of her other secondary characters (with the exception, perhaps, of Professor Snape, who is as unpleasant as ever).

All in all, Rowling has progressed the story of Harry as he grows up coming to terms with a life that is far different to the one he expected. His friends, Hermione & Ron, have also grown, & I get an inkling that maybe Ron & Hermione may be getting a bit of a “thing” for each other from the way they are with each other (which would create an interesting “will they, won’t they” in future books, which I’ll be dying to read!).

The world of Hogwarts is well-rounded & is expanded upon with the inclusion of Hogsmeade, an entirely muggle-free village nearby – a lovely touch, I thought! Glittering with magic on every page, I think that Rowling surpassed her 1st two novels & has really developed a good flow – she’s really got into her stride. I can hardly wait to read the fourth one!

Rating: 8/10

Thursday, September 15, 2005

On the Shelf Book Group

On the Shelf is a group for bookworms, bibliophiles & avid readers of any kind of book to chat & tell others about the books they're reading.

This is not a "set text" reading group (you won't be asked to buy a specific book, read it to a timetable & report on it), so please feel free to join & chat about anything you're currently reading, have read, or are planning to read, or your favourite writers & publishers, recommend titles,& make friends with other bookworms & like-minded folks too. Whether you like horrors, chillers & thrillers, murders & mysteries, sci-fi & fantasty, or comedy & drama, you'll find others who enjoy reading the same kind of things & would love to chat about it!

So, it's time to make a nice, hot mug of coffee, kick off your shoes & curl up on the sofa, take a book down off the shelf, start turning the pages & transport yourself to another world!

Come & join us by clicking on the post title or via the link at the side of the screen.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Strange Blood by Lindsay Ashford

Author: Lindsay Ashford
ISBN# 1 870206 69X
226 pages

Not bad at all. A murder/mystery with the balls to push the envelope a bit with the psychology behind the storyline. Ashford obviously really knows her stuff & it comes through in her writing along with a genuine affection towards the characters she's created. A nifty plot, excellent set-pieces & unexpected red herrings, this one keeps you guessing & then guessing again. A real pleasure to read.

Rating: 7/10

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Storm Front (Book one of the Dresden Files) by Jim Butcher

Author: Jim Butcher
ISBN # 1 84149 398 8
341 pages

I can feel nothing but major disappointment over a book that has taken me the best part of a week to get through & yet was less than 600 pages long. Let's just say it's not exactly a gripping read. I was 3/4 way through the bloody thing before anything really started happening & even then, it wasn't terribly exciting - no page-turner!

Actually, having visited the official site of Jim Butcher, I wish I'd got hold of the talking book instead, as it appears to have been read by James Marsters (who I adore, even though he sounds like he's putting on an accent when he speaks American, which is weird coz he's American - I think I just got used to his British accent as Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer - LOL!).

Anyway, having wasted £6.99 on this book, I can't see me picking up the following 6 sequels as I was bored from start to finish.

If you want a really well-written, gripping tale of murder, mystery & magick, you're far better off getting hold of the Rowan Gant Mysteries by M R Sellars

Rating: 2/10

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Haunted by James Herbert

Author: James Herbert
ISBN # 0340416165
224 pages

I'm a pretty big fan of James Herbert but this is not one of his better tales. Truth be told, I was several chapters in before I realised I'd actually read it years before & forgotten as it's pretty unmemorable (unusual, because I'm usually completely immersed in the worlds he creates). This is one of the rare occasions where I preferred the movie to the book (it was on just a few days prior to me picking up this book & it bears little resemblance to the plot he wrote, but in this case, they managed to improve on it a fair bit - sorry, Mr Herbert!).

Nah, I definitely prefer his later novels such as Once or The Magic Cottage which have far more of his famous atmosphere & mastery of words than this does.

Rating: 6/10