Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Paulo Coelho - The Alchemist

Title: The Alchemist
Author: Paulo Coelho

Translated by: Alan R Clarke

ISBN # 0725532938

Publisher: Harper Collins

First Published: 1988

177 pages

Format: paperback

Rating: 8/10

Olympic Challenge:

Every few decades a book is published that changes the lives of its readers forever. This is such a book - a magical fable about learning to listen to your heart, read the omens strewn along life's path and, above, all follow your dreams. This is the magical story of
Santiago, an Andalusian shepherd boy who dreams of travelling the world in search of a worldly treasure as fabulous as any ever found. From his home in Spain, he journeys to the markets of Tangiers, and from there into the Egyptian desert, where a fateful encounter with the alchemist awaits him. With Paulo Coelho's visionary blend of spirituality, magical realism and folklore, "The Alchemist" is a story with the power to inspire nations and change people's lives.

This book reads like a fairytale, full of mysterious wise men, omens, dreams and a destiny to follow. There’s a simplicity here – the story flows from scene to scene at a gentle pace, but there is so much happening under the surface, and at each step there is a lesson to be learned.

There is something timeless about The Alchemist - it could be set in any period, past, present or future – and will remain relevant in a way that some other books written in the latter part of the 20th Century may not, due to its complete lack of reference to anything that could possibly date it.

Absolutely enchanting!

Maureen Rylance - The Spur on the Plate

Title: The Spur on the Plate
Author: Maureen Rylance

ISBN # 1412054591

Publisher: Trafford

First Published: 2005

100 pages

Format: paperback

Rating: 7/10

1529 - The England/Scotland border - a wild lawless place where families made their own law and stealing from each other was part of daily life. Meg and Rob Armstrong despair at the hardships of their family, a family, until recently, rich, respected and probably feared by many, for their uncle is the notorious Reiver, Johnnie Armstrong. Meg blames her father for the hard times as he will not ride out and provide for them. She thinks him a coward and a lay-about, yet her mother fiercely defends him. Headstrong and
wilful, as always, Meg decides to goad her father into action. But does she know the full facts of the situation? She makes her stand but is shocked and terrified at the force of the reactions from all around her. Even her young brother Rob will not stand by her side. She finds herself forced to ride out on a raid with her father's men. The raid goes badly wrong and Meg realises that she has brought all those she loves into great danger. The lives of her father, her brother and her uncle, as well as her own, are threatened. Remorse, guilt and fear and the disclosure of a family secret make Meg desperate to make amends. But, is it too late?

Aimed at perhaps the 12- to 15-year-old market, The Spur on the Plate is one of those books that is just right for getting those not so interested in reading to pick up a book. At 100 pages, it’s not at all intimidating, and from the very beginning draws the reader into the lives of Meg and Rob Armstrong with ease.

The setting of Scotland was especially appealing and the historical aspects of the tale are well-researched (you won’t see any tartan-clad Highlanders tramping through the heather in kilts!). The dialogue flows quite naturally and because of the novella-length, the action takes place over a short period of time which makes the pace quite thrilling.

The themes of growing up and discovering that things aren’t always as they seem to young eyes are universal and ageless, so despite being set almost 500 years ago, young people will still easily identify with the characters.

This is one of those treats to enjoy on a wet afternoon - while the wind whistles outside; the reader is effectively whisked away to another time and place.

Tara Ison - The List

Title: The List
Author: Tara Ison

ISBN # 9780743294140

Publisher: Scribner

First Published: 2007

259 pages

Format: paperback (advance uncorrected proof)

Rating: 7/10

For anyone who has ever broken up with someone... a smart, sophisticated, and darkly comic novel about a dysfunctional couple who make a list of 10 things to do before they break up.

Isabel is finishing medical school and destined to become a brilliant heart surgeon. Al is a video store clerk, a one-hit-wonder director whose first and only film became a cult classic. They have a sisyphean relationship - endlessly coming together and breaking up until they decide to make a list of 10 things they want to do together before they really break up. But after a few perfect dates - clams on the Santa Monica Pier, sleeping under the stars on the roof of a Sunset Boulevard hotel - the list takes a dark turn, and their plan spirals out of control, until they realize they would rather destroy each other than let go....

It's an interesting concept, this. Having been in one or two destructive relationships, I could empathise with both the characters, and am having some perverse delight in watching them drive each other crazy. Been there, done that, take sadistic pleasure in watching it happen to two complete strangers! But even if I hadn’t, the way the characters are introduced entices the reader into their lives in such a way that one feels a part of their lives. It's all written in the present tense, of which I'm not usually a fan, but it works here, keeping the reader involved in the action. There’s also the added twist of the chapters being narrated, turn and turn about, by the protagonists, so that the inner thoughts of each are exposed.

This had moments of very dark humour that had my doing my "Evil Mastermind" laugh every now and then. It gets slightly surreal near the end as the actions of the characters get more twisted and extreme, but it still manages to keep on track and delivers an ending that is perhaps slightly unexpected.

Not having read Ison’s previous novel, I can’t say whether or not this style is typical of her, but her style is certainly appealing and I would be interested in reading more of her work in future.

Vadim Jean (with Terry Pratchett) - Hogfather: The Illustrated Screenplay

Title: Hogfather: The Illustrated Screenplay
Author: Vadim Jean (with Terry Pratchett)

ISBN # 0575079290

Publisher: Orion

First Published: 2007

252 pages

Format: Hardback

Rating: 6/10

Hogswatchnight is fast approaching, and the Hogfather (that jolly fat man who delivers presents to the kiddies) is missing. But it's vital that all the presents are delivered, otherwise the sun won't rise tomorrow. However, there is another supernatural entity who can be everywhere at once and, most importantly, knows where everybody lives. And Death reckons that with a false beard and a few cushions, it might just work. And while Death is busy working out the mysteries of climbing down chimneys and drinking sherry, it's up to Susan to track down the real Hogfather. It's a dark time of the year. There are monsters afoot. And some of them look just like us. HO HO HO. You'd better watch out...

Terry Pratchett's bestseller, adapted and directed by Vadim Jean, is a two-part live-action / CGI film starring David Jason, to be premiered on Sky One in December 2006.

After having been rather disappointed by the television production itself, I rather hoped that I’d enjoy the illustrated screenplay of Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather rather more, but unfortunately it failed to deliver.

There are positives here – it’s lavishly presented in a beautifully glossy hardback format, it’s pages are filled with set photographs, line drawings and design sketches, and there’s the added advantage of not being hampered by lackluster performances, but other than two forewords (one by Pratchett, the other by Jean) and an after word by the producers, it is absolutely devoid of extras. One might expect a few production notes scattered throughout and perhaps some cast interviews, but one would be left unsatisfied.

It’s a lovely addition to anyone’s collection, but if you are looking for something that will give you a little insight into the production, you’ll find this sadly lacking. One can’t help feeling they threw this together quickly in order to cash in on the seasonal programme schedule, with little thought as to what it could have been – and it could have been so much more! On the other hand, if you’re looking for something to leaf through on a wintry afternoon, or leave on your coffee table, you could do a lot worse.

Art Spiegelman - The Complete Maus (Graphic novel)

Title: The Complete Maus
Author: Art Spiegelman

ISBN # 0141014083

Publisher: Penguin Books

First Published: 1996

296 pages

Format: paperback

Rating: 8/10

Combined for the first time here are Maus I: A Survivor's Tale and Maus II - the complete story of Vladek Spiegelman and his wife, living and surviving in Hitler's
Europe. By addressing the horror of the Holocaust through cartoons, the author captures the everyday reality of fear and is able to explore the guilt, relief and extraordinary sensation of survival - and how the children of survivors are in their own way affected by the trials of their parents. A contemporary classic of immeasurable significance.

I haven't read a graphic novel since I was about 14 or 15 years old and now I'm wondering why I ever stopped, as this one is so very good. I loved the "voice" of Vladek - so very, very Jewish, with his reversal of words within sentences. I also enjoyed the fact that each little section started with Art visiting his father and occasionally had Vladek saying something like, "But I don't want you to write that bit in your book." It made it feel all the more personal, yet making the reader one step removed from the action.

The whole animals-as-people* aspect makes it feel very Orwellian in approach, but having the story presented in cartoon pictures makes a difficult subject more accessible to the reader, in a way that we perhaps wouldn't be if it were only words on the page, or action on a screen.

The only time human faces were given to characters was during the section where Art's previous strip about his mother's suicide in the 60s. Perhaps because it's after the war and the people were no longer categorised in the same way as they were during the atrocities. I also especially liked the symbolism of the roads in Nazi-occupied Poland taking the form of a swastika - very clever!

The format definitely made it easier to read such harrowing content, but without detracting from it at all. I loved the scenes between father and son, where Art is frustrated by Vladek's constant scrimping and obstinate ways that have been caused by his past experiences. This has encouraged me to consider more graphic novels in the future - I certainly won't be discounting them, that's for sure!

* Jews were portrayed as mice (a reference to them being considered vermin by Nazi’s?) and were almost identical to one another; Nazi’s were therefore, naturally, cats; and gentile Poles were shown as pigs (non-Kosher). Further along we see Americans as dogs (perhaps a hound Dog?) and the Brits are fish (perhaps a reference to our love of fish and chips or us being seen as “wet fish”).

P. G. Wodehouse – My Man Jeeves (Audio book)

Title: My Man Jeeves
Author: P. G. Wodehouse

Narrator: Mark Nelson

Publisher: www.librivox.org

First Published: 1919

Running time: 5 hours 12 min 51 sec

Format: Audio Book

Rating: 7/10

Containing drafts of stories later rewritten for other collections (including "Carry On, Jeeves"), "My Man Jeeves" offers a fascinating insight into the genesis of comic literature's most celebrated double-act. All the stories are set in
New York, four of them featuring Jeeves and Wooster themselves; the rest concerning Reggie Pepper. Plots involve the usual cast of amiable young clots, choleric millionaires, chorus-girls and vulpine aunts, but towering over them all is the inscrutable figure of Jeeves, manipulating the action from behind the scenes. Early or not, these stories are masterly examples of Wodehouse's art, turning the most ordinary incidents into golden farce.

I've never read any P. G. Wodehouse before, although I’ve seen a few episodes of Jeeves and Wooster on TV over the years and found them rather funny. I have to admit, I can't possibly picture anyone other than Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry in the roles, and I kept hearing their voices in my head while I listened to the stories, which were bitingly funny – more-so than the TV series, despite it seeming to be quite faithful. This is a collection of short stories, rather than one, on-going escapade, although there are a few incidences of some little nugget from a previous story being briefly mentioned in another, later episode.

Only half the stories in the collection actually feature Bertie Wooster and his exceedingly clever valet, but instead feature Reggie Pepper (a character so dimwitted, yet kind-hearted, that he might as well be Bertie anyway and who, indeed, appears to have been some earlier prototype of Bertie). That being the case, I'm not sure I see the point in this collection being called My Man Jeeves, but the stories were still a lot of fun, so I didn't actually mind all that much.

The only slight problem I had with this recording was that the American narrator has quite a strong accent which doesn’t really work very well with something so quintessentially British, however, it hasn’t deterred me and I shall certainly be following more of the adventures of Jeeves and

Stephen Booth - Black Dog

Title: Black Dog
Author: Stephen Booth

ISBN # 9780006514329

Publisher: Harper Collins

First Published: 2001

528 pages

Format: paperback

Rating: 8/10

Dark, intense and utterly compelling, 'Black Dog' was an extraordinary first novel from a writer who has rapidly become the most promising crime author to emerge in the genre in years. 'Where Cooper stood was remote and isolated! But the smell that lingered under the trees was of blood.' The long hot Peak District summer came to an end when they found Laura Vernon's body. But for local policeman Ben Cooper the work has just begun. His community is hiding a young girl's killer and a past as dark as the Derbyshire night. It seems Laura was the keeper of secrets beyond her years and, in a case where no-one is innocent, everyone is a suspect. But Cooper's local knowledge and instincts are about to face an even greater challenge. The ambitious DC Diane Fry has been called in from another division, a woman as ruthless as she is attractive!

From start to finish, this is an exploration of secrets – everyone has them and some are darker than others! It's rather dark and you get the feeling that "outsiders" aren't necessarily welcome despite Edendale being a tourist town in the summer - an air of "This is a local town, for local people - there's nothing for you here!"

Plenty of twists & turns keep the reader engrossed as the police are thrown off the scent, whether by accident or design. There is constant intrigue, and some really good character development throughout the story. I was kept guessing all the way through the book, till the very end I had absolutely no idea who the murderer is – I was as much in the dark as the police, yet when the mystery was solved, I could look back and see exactly where the clues were offered up. It was almost like having a jigsaw puzzle and thinking you've lost a piece from the middle, only to realise you were sitting on it all along!

As a crime novel, this was an intensely good read and as a debut, it’s incredibly impressive. I'll definitely be trying more of Stephen booth's work at some point in the future.

H. G. Wells – The Invisible Man (Audio book)

Title: The Invisible Man
Author: H. G. Wells

Narrator: Alex Foster

Publisher: www.librivox.org

First Published: 1897

Running time: 4 hours 54 min 55 sec

Format: Audio Book

Rating: 5/10

With his face swaddled in bandages, his eyes hidden behind dark glasses and his hands covered even indoors, Griffin the new guest at The Coach and Horses is at first assumed to be a shy accident-victim. But the true reason for his disguise is far more chilling: he has developed a process that has made him invisible, and is locked in a struggle to discover the antidote. Forced from the village, and driven to murder, he seeks the aid of an old friend, Kemp. The horror of his fate has affected his mind, however and when Kemp refuse to help, he resolves to wreak his revenge.

I found much of this quite comical. For being swaddled in bandages and heavy clothing, "the stranger" has a flair for exhibitionism when he feels like it, shown in the furniture "going crazy". I was laughing as I walked down the street!

This definitely has all the elements of a slightly comedic horror as well as being classic sci-fi. Although Griffin isn't a particularly sympathetic or even remotely likeable character, one can't help but enjoy his antics. Kemp, by comparison, seems rather a weak character and although he's the more likeable of the two, I actually found him rather annoying and vapid.

To be honest, I haven't been overly impressed by this one and I very much doubt it's one I'd actually pick up to read after listening to it. I did like the way it was presented as a report on happenings from an outside point of view, giving the stories of the people involved in the action, but it then spoils the effect at the end by revealing something that an observer wouldn't know in the epilogue, which is a bit of a shame.

Overall, I found it a bit hit-and-miss. Alex Foster is a capable enough narrator for audio fiction, and although it’s sometimes a little difficult to differentiate between character’s voices when they are in conversation with each other, he does quite well in the presentation and has a pleasant enough voice to hold the interest of the listener.

Bret Easton Ellis - American Psycho

Title: American Psycho
Author: Bret
Easton Ellis
ISBN # 033049189X

Publisher: Picador Thirty

First Published: 1991

384 pages

Format: paperback

Rating: 6/10

Patrick Bateman is Harvard-educated and intelligent. He works by day on Wall Street, earning a fortune to complement the one he was born with. His nights he spends in ways we cannot begin to fathom - doing impermissible things to women. He is living his own American Dream.

I'd seen the film already and had been intrigued as everyone said the film was incredibly graphic, but I didn't find it all that viscerally visual, although I'd been told the book was more descriptive in its violent scenes. This was absolutely correct.

From the outset, Patrick Bateman is a meticulous person who obsessively lists a person’s attributes – in his world, a person’s job, possessions, politics and how he presents himself is who he is. He’s a mass of contradictions, expressed both in his politics and his lifestyle, for example, he takes good care of himself, exercises regularly, has a rigid skincare regime and worries about such things as the sodium content of soy sauce, yet takes drugs at every opportunity.

In typical “serial killer” style, he is repeatedly described as “the boy next door”, despite the fact that he continually tries to convince people otherwise, even whispering under his breath, “No I’m not, I’m a fucking evil psychopath,” almost as if his murderous impulses are caused by his desire to distinguish himself from others (who all seem to be identikit versions of the stereotypical yuppie and are continually mistaken for each other – they are interchangeable non-entities).

Bateman is primarily a visually stimulated person, whether it's taking note of the minute differences between the various business cards, or getting off on a scene in a movie where a woman is drilled to death. He seems to be a stickler for time - he is almost reduced to tears when he thinks he and his colleagues won't get a good seat in the restaurant due to taking so long to decide on a destination. I found I could empathise with him on this aspect of his character, as I often get very frustrated when trying to arrange something like that although I promise I’m not a psychopathic killer!)

A man of extremes, Bateman has a very short fuse over the most inane things (such as pizza), yet can instantly switch back to a calm, commanding persona, resuming control of a situation. His appeal is quite disturbing – I found myself, on occasion, actually liking him, despite his homicidal tendencies, and loved that he was so brazen and bold in taking his bloodied sheets and clothes to a cleaner.

The mention that he reads the biographies of serial killers wouldn't ordinarily cause concern, but in this case, knowing that he's psychotically violent, it's rather disturbing that he admires them so much and is emulating, possibly trying to surpass, them. He also objectifies women (referring to them as “hardbodies” - as do all his friends), keeping them anonymous.

There's an interesting section near the end (don't worry, I won't divulge any major plot details) where Bateman briefly refers to himself in the third person which is rather surreal - he really is losing the plot at that point. I also wonder how much of the narrative only takes place inside his drug-crazed mind, and how much actually happens.

This was a very interesting read and I rather enjoyed parts of this descent into utter psychotic madness...

Catherine Millet - The Sexual Life of Catherine M

Title: The Sexual Life of Catherine M
Author: Catherine Millet

Translated by: Adriana Hunter

ISBN # 0802117163

Publisher: Grove Press

First Published: 2001
209 pages
Format: Hardback
Rating: 7/10

The Sexual Life of Catherine M is the autobiography of a well-known Parisian art critic who likes to spend nights in the singles clubs of Paris and in the Bois de Boulogne where she has sex with a succession of anonymous men. Unlike many contemporary women writers, there is no guilt in Millet's narrative, no chronicles of use and abuse: on the contrary, she has no regrets about a life of energetic sexual activity. Catherine Millet's writing is a subtle reflection on the boundaries of art and life and she uses her insights on the role of the body in modern art to set the scene for her multiple sexual encounters. The Sexual Life of Catherine M is very much a manifesto of our times - when the sexual equality of women is a reality and where love and sex have gone their own separate ways. Like The Story of O, it is a shocking book that aims to capture a decisive moment in our sexual history.

Unsurprisingly, this is very frank and graphic in detail, but it's not really what I would describe as pornographic, despite the language used (yes, there are "unsavoury" euphemisms that perhaps aren't considered polite in company). Despite the fact that the author (and protagonist) has undoubtedly had many, many lovers over the years, it's written in such a way that it doesn't seem at all "dirty" in a way that it is often considered with double standards the way they are. Nor did I feel pity, as the way it's presented, there is nothing to pity. In fact, Millet comes across as a strong and independent woman who enjoys experimenting and pushing the limits. It's making for an intoxicating and titillating read!

I found that I could identify with some of Millet's feelings in certain situations, the way she described her relationship with the space around her.

There are one or two uncomfortable moments where she describes incidents in her childhood and early teens that suggest that her sexual life may have been coloured in response to them, but even these are presented in a matter-of-fact style, as if to say, “These things happen, but one moves on.”

Although there are elements of Millet's life that make me feel very sad for her, I also admire her for her unashamed openness and bravery in revealing her inner self like this. I also think that many women might find a small part of themselves portrayed in this book, whether or not they'd publicly admit to it.

This is an intriguing exploration into self discovery and abandonment to the pleasures of the flesh.

Mark Twain - The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Audio book)

Title: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Author: Mark Twain

Narrator: John Greenman

Publisher: www.
First Published: 1876

Running time: 6 hrs 12 min 25 sec

Format: Audio Book

Rating: 6/10

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (published 1876) is a very well-known and popular story concerning American youth. Mark Twain’s lively tale of the scrapes and adventures of boyhood is set in St. Petersburg, Missouri, where Tom Sawyer and his friend Huckleberry Finn have the kinds of adventures many boys can imagine: racing bugs during class, impressing girls, especially Becky Thatcher, with fights and stunts in the schoolyard, getting lost in a cave, and playing pirates on the Mississippi River.

One of the most famous incidents in the book describes how Tom persuades his friends to do a boring, hateful chore for him: whitewashing (i.e., painting) a fence.

This was the first novel to be written on a typewriter.

Although I know this was written to be primarily aimed at children, it does seem rather dated and there are words used that kids of "that age" today wouldn't understand and many of Tom's antics would seem pretty tame (as would his collection of "treasures" such as marbles, a dead rat to swing on a string, and a brass knob - in this age of commercialism, children would marvel that anyone of any age would think of these things as worth having). This also seems a lot more childish than The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn did, although perhaps that's to be expected as this was written first and the hero is younger here.

Overall, I think I liked this slightly better than The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn but there's not much in it. It's was entertaining enough, but not one I think I'll pick up in paperback.

Åsne Seierstad - The Bookseller of Kabul

Title: The Bookseller of Kabul
Author: Åsne Seierstad

Translated by: Ingrid Christophersen

ISBN # 1844080471

Publisher: Virago

First Published: 2002

276 pages

Format: Paperback

Rating: 7/10

Two weeks after September 11th, award-winning journalist Åsne Seierstad went to
Afghanistan to report on the conflict. In the following spring she returned to live with a bookseller and his family for several months. The Bookseller of Kabul is the fascinating account of her time spent living with the family of thirteen in their four-roomed home. Bookseller Sultan Khan defied the authorities for twenty years to supply books to the people of Kabul. He was arrested, interrogated and imprisoned by the communists and watched illiterate Taliban soldiers burn piles of his books in the street. He even resorted to hiding most of his stock in attics all over Kabul. But while Khan is passionate in his love of books and hatred of censorship, he is also a committed Muslim with strict views on family life. As an outsider, Seierstad is able to move between the private world of the women - including Khan's two wives - and the more public lives of the men. The result is an intimate and fascinating portrait of a family which also offers a unique perspective on a troubled country.

I'm not sure what I was expecting, but this was a complete surprise even from just a few chapters in. The double standards are despicable - if an adulterous couple is caught and only one punished (for whatever reason), it is the woman more often than not, and the punishment is most often death; girls are not allowed to smile at or talk to boys, not even to look at them, never mind be alone with them, for fear of them being "spoiled goods" and being beaten to within an inch of their lives; having to be covered from head to foot in all but the most permissive of households - even though I knew all this before I started reading, I found it completely shocking. Another aspect, with which I had trouble dealing, is a society where books, art & priceless historical artifacts of the Afghan heritage were willfully destroyed because of religious beliefs - it's utterly tragic.

The rituals observed, both in daily life and on special occasions, are absolutely fascinating, as is the fact that any woman would actively choose to wear a burkah over "normal" clothing that would be cooler to wear and allow more freedom of movement. The fact that while wearing this item, the women are actually described as burkahs, rather than called by name, adds to the anonymity it provides. Even though Afghan women lead far more sheltered lives, they have the same hopes and desires are any other women around the world - it's heartbreaking that they would be so harshly punished for acting on them. The family dynamics and the hierarchies, both within the family and the society, are very interesting.

Bookseller isn't really a very flattering book, neither of Sultan's family or his countrymen. Then again, with Afghan cultural attitudes the way they are, I think it would have been very difficult to portray them any more sympathetically than was done (although Sultan is arguably more progressive than many other men in that society). I found myself both pitying & disliking some of the family members (such as Mansul - he wants to do his own thing, but he's incredibly lazy with it) & reading about how the women are treated over there was incredibly uncomfortable & made me feel very lucky to live where I do!

There's a quote that particularly stood out for me:

Sultan said, “If the families don't have rules, how can we form a society that respects rules and laws, and not just guns and rockets? This is a society in chaos; it is a lawless society, right out of a civil war. If the families are not guided by authority, we can expect an even worse chaos to follow. “

Although I am still appalled at the way Sultan treats his family - like a tyrant, rather than a father, brother or son - I can't help feeling there is a grain of truth in what he says here. Children today seem to act in ways I would never have dreamed of acting when I was a child, with a complete lack of respect for others, especially those in positions of authority. Many are simply not taught that there are boundaries that should not be breached and that there is behaviour that is unacceptable in society. However, I think that cultures such as the one portrayed in this book have gone too far the other way, allowing no freedom at all & giving punishment that far outstrips many of the perceived. I'm not sure this teaches respect, more that it teaches fear & engenders an air of simmering resentment that will be taken out on future generations - an ever-perpetuating circle.

This is one of those books that will stay with you long after you’ve read it, and one that will undoubtedly fuel discussion, and therefore an excellent choice for a book group or reading circle.