Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Marina Lewycka – A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian

Title: A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian
Author: Marina Lewycka

ISBN # 0141020520

Publisher: Pengiun Books

First Published: 2005

324 pages

Format: paperback

Rating: 4/10

'Two years after my mother died, my father fell in love with a glamourous blonde Ukrainian divorcee. He was eighty-four and she was thirty-six. She exploded into our lives like a fluffy pink grenade, churning up the murky water, bringing to the surface a sludge of sloughed-off memories, giving the family ghosts a kick up the backside.' Sisters Vera and Nadezhda must put aside a lifetime of feuding to save their engineer father from voluptuous gold-digger Valentina. With her proclivity for green satin underwear and boil-in-the-bag cuisine, she will stop at nothing in her pursuit of Western wealth. But the sisters' campaign to oust Valentina unearths family secrets, uncovers fifty years of Europe's darkest history and sends them back to roots they'd much rather forget...

It’s been a while since I was quite this disappointed by a book. The front cover quote from the Daily Telegraph says it's "Mad and hilarious", so I would have expected it to be at least a little funny, but there were only really a couple of moments that I could describe as being "mildly amusing" at best.

I didn't like any of the characters - the father was a pathetic, gullible old fool (and a bit of a dirty old man, to be honest); the two daughters come across as selfish, controlling and nagging; and the dead mother as being far too saintly and too-good-to-be-true. The only character that held any interest for me was Valentina - the character I was supposed to hate - at least she had a bit of spirit.

The book seems to be split into three separate stories: 1) the story of a man in his 80s being taken in by a 36-year-old woman, 2) the family history, and 3) the history of tractors. The 1st story is the one I found most turgid, to be honest; the 2nd held a little more interest, as it's always nice to find out more about other cultures, but most surprisingly, the bit I was most interested in was the third story - the history of tractors being written by the old man!

Throughout the book, the writing seemed very disjointed - lots of little paragraphs, many of which jumped around and had no association with one another. I honestly can't see why this won one award and was nominated for another.

I wanted to like this book and I persevered, but my sincere hope that it would pick up was never answered.

I also didn't like how whenever there's a sarcastic comment made in the narrative, "ha ha" is placed in brackets immediately afterwards, because, obviously, readers don't understand the concept of sarcasm (Ha ha!).

I'm afraid I found this severely over-hyped and very disappointing - I'll not be bothering with any other books Lewycka might write - I just don't like her style at all.

Eddie Izzard (with David Quantick and Steve Double) – Dress to Kill

Title: Dress to Kill
Author: Eddie Izzard (with David Quantick and Steve Double)

ISBN # 1852277637

Publisher: Virgin Books

First Published: 1998

160 pages

Format: Hardback

Rating: 7/10

Following his success as stand-up comic and theatrical performer, Eddie Izzard has turned his attentions to the written word. His first book, Dress to Kill, is a series of conversations with writer/presenter David Quantick that claim to reach "deep inside the most original head in
Britain". Presented as a mixture of opinion and autobiography, Dress to Kill is a riveting, witty read that features a number of stunning photographs by Steve Double.

Like Eddie's shows, this book is a constant stream of thought, switching from one disparate subject to another with no apparent links, then a thread from earlier on being woven into another section, seemingly making no sense at all whilst also making perfect sense. It's a look directly into his brain, with some anecdotes from childhood and his early career as well as his experiences while touring. Also jam-packed with fabulous photos of Britain's most loved Transvestite!

Simone Lia – Fluffy (Graphic Novel)

Title: Fluffy
Author: Simone Lia

ISBN # 9780224080484

Publisher: Random House

First Published: 2003 - 2005

187 pages

Format: Hardback graphic novel

Rating: 7/10

Originally published by the author in four volumes, Fluffy is described by Simone Lia as 'a story of unanswerable questions, love, despair, adventure and happiness'. Fluffy is a baby rabbit who is being looked after by an anxious, single man called Michael Pulcino. Michael tries to make it clear to Fluffy that he is not his daddy, but Fluffy appears to be in denial. Michael is being pursued by Fluffy's nursery school teacher, and partly to escape her, he and Fluffy set off to visit his family in
Sicily. Will Michael escape her? Will Fluffy come to terms with the reality that he is not a human being? All is at least partly resolved in Simone Lia's utterly irresistible graphic novel.

This is such a sweet book! With gorgeous black-and-white line drawings and the most mundane of story-lines, it's surprising how engaging it is. Complete with dysfunctional family and a rabbit that refuses to believe he's a bunny. Although the style and lack of any sex or violence might lead people to think this is aimed at a younger audience, a quick look at the plot reveals a slightly darker sub-story. Despite this, it's a gentle and heart-warming read.

Just lovely!

Jasper Fforde – The Fourth Bear

Title: The Fourth Bear
Author: Jasper Fforde

ISBN # 0340835729

Publisher: Hodder and
First Published: 2006

416 pages

Format: Paperback

Rating: 8/10

The Gingerbreadman - psychopath, sadist, convicted murderer and cake/biscuit - is loose on the streets of
Reading. It isn't Jack Spratt's case. Despite the success of the Humpty Dumpty investigation, the well publicised failure to prevent Red Riding-Hood and her Gran being eaten once again plunges the Nursery Crime Division into controversy. Enforced non-involvement with the Gingerbreadman hunt looks to be frustrating until a chance encounter at the oddly familiar Deja-Vu Club leads them onto the hunt for missing journalist Henrietta 'Goldy' Hatchett, star reporter for The Daily Toad . The last witnesses to see her alive were The Three Bears, comfortably living out a life of rural solitude in Andersen's wood. But all is not what it seems. Are the unexplained explosions around the globe somehow related to missing nuclear scientist Angus McGuffin? Is cucumber-growing really that dangerous? Why are National Security involved? But most important of all: How could the bears' porridge be at such disparate temperatures when they were poured at the same time?

This sequel is proved every bit as funny as The Big Over Easy - I loved all the references to fairy-tales and nursery rhymes (it takes me right back) and the subversion of the characters (which really just returns them to their original dark state, as many of those old folk and fairy tales are pretty gruesome when you strip away the candy they were coated with to feed to the kiddies!). It's also got plenty of intrigue which kept me guessing... It’s so surprising to find that something based on a fairytale can really work as a Whodunit!

I loved this one - I'm definitely going to read more Jasper Fforde as I've now read two of his books and not been disappointed. The Tuesday Next series is now just waiting for me, but I shall have to get in some other reading before I start, so that I get the full impact of the literary references!

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Purple Hibiscus

Title: Purple Hibiscus
Author: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

ISBN # 0007766653

Publisher: Harper Perennial

First Published: 2004

307 pages

Format: Paperback

Rating: 7/10

Longlisted for the 2004 Man Booker Prize Shortlisted for the 2004
Orange Prize A haunting tale of an Africa and an adolescence undergoing tremendous changes by a talented young Nigerian writer. The limits of fifteen-year-old Kambili's world are defined by the high walls of her family estate and the dictates of her repressive and fanatically religious father. Her life is regulated by schedules: prayer, sleep, study, and more prayer. When Nigeria begins to fall apart during a military coup, Kambili's father, involved mysteriously in the political crisis, sends Kambili and her brother away to live with their aunt. In this house, full of energy and laughter, she discovers life and love - and a terrible, bruising secret deep within her family.

I'm not sure what I was expecting from this book, but I think it may have been a little over-hyped for me as, although I enjoyed it and found the warped relationships in a family where the father is a violent religious fanatic interesting, I thought it lacked intensity.

There was so much promise, but the underlying threat never really made itself felt in any dramatic way - I thought more could have been made of it.

I wonder how much, if any, of this story was autobiographical...?

Jane Austen – Pride and Prejudice

Title: Pride and Prejudice
Author: Jane Austen

ISBN # 1853260002

Publisher: Wordsworth Classics

First Published: 1813

288 pages

Format: Paperback

Rating: 8/10

When Elizabeth Bennet first meets eligible bachelor Fitzwilliam Darcy, she thinks him arrogant and conceited; he is indifferent to her good looks and lively mind. When she later discovers that Darcy has involved himself in the troubled relationship between his friend Bingley and her beloved sister Jane, she is determined to dislike him more than ever. In the sparkling comedy of manners that follows, Jane Austen shows the folly of judging by first impressions and superbly evokes the friendships, gossip and snobberies of provincial middle-class life.

Austen seems to enjoy offering up heroines that are slightly different than one might expect from a romantic novel of this period - they are witty, intelligent and fearless in their choices much of the time. They also seem to buck the trend of social propriety, even if it may cause them to lose their good name, happiness and position. Elizabeth, like Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey, seems intent on throwing off the constraints of society, preferring to walk several miles across muddy fields to visit a sick sister and arrive looking dirty and disheveled, rather than wait at home for news of her welfare, or be taken in a carriage over an easily walk-able distance. She actively seeks to be out of doors and unfettered by the presence of others who might hem her in and press her to act in a manner more "fitting" to a young lady of her standing. In this case, that Elizabeth and her sister Jane have turned out so well is more to do with their own nature than that of their parents, especially their mother, whose only goal in life is to see her daughters married and comes across as a very silly and unintelligent person.

The hero, Mr. Darcy, is at first presented as an unlikely romantic lead - he is disagreeable, curt and rude to the heroine, yet throughout the course of the story, he is revealed to be completely different than Elizabeth's first impressions of him. Indeed, her first impressions of another young man, Mr. Wickham, are also poorly judged and she is forced to re-evaluate her feelings of them both.

This is a highly enjoyable novel with more than enough social interaction, betrayal of trust, and witty badinage to entertain anyone with half a mind to give it a try.

George Orwell – Nineteen Eighty-Four (Audio Book)

Title: Nineteen Eighty-Four
Author: George Orwell

Narrator: Frank Muller

First Published: 1948

Running time: 9 hrs, 35 min, 23 sec

Format: Audio Book

Rating: 9/10

Hidden away in the Record Department of the sprawling Ministry of Truth, Winston Smith skillfully rewrites the past to suit the needs of the Party. Yet he inwardly rebels against the totalitarian world he lives in, which demands absolute obedience and controls him through the all-seeing telescreens and the watchful eye of Big Brother, symbolic head of the Party. In his longing for truth and liberty, Smith begins a secret love affair with a fellow-worker Julia, but soon discovers the true price of freedom is betrayal.

Although the concept of this story is both terrifying and depressing, there is an underlying feeling of hope that tyranny and oppression can be overcome by the actions of the individual, even if from the "lowest levels" of society; that they might overcome the fear they feel at going against the establishment and perhaps make things better for the people at large. It's intense and grueling, but absolutely enthralling.

So much thought went into the construction of NewSpeak as a new and complete language - scarily, I found I very easily understood NewSpeak and find several of the words quite wonderful (although the idea of a diminishing vocabulary is one that horrifies me!). I absolutely loved this book, and found the background of EngSoc as a whole fascinating. Knowing the background to the book makes me feel very sad for Orwell, to have had something he believed in so much to become something hateful to him - the disillusionment of the characters strongly reflecting the sense of hopelessness he must have felt himself.

Stunning stuff!

Richard Montanari – The Rosary Girls

Title: The Rosary Girls
Author: Richard Montanari

ISBN # 0099486881

Publisher: Arrow Books

First Published: 2006

533 pages

Format: Paperback

Rating: 8/10

In the most brutal killing crusade
Philadelphia has seen in years, a series of young Catholic women are found dead, their bodies mutilated and their hands bolted together. Each clutches a rosary in her lifeless grasp. Veteran cop, Kevin Byrne and his rookie partner, Jessica Balzano set out to hunt down the elusive killer, who leads them deeper and deeper into the abyss of a madman's depravity. Suspects appear before them like bad dreams - and vanish just as quickly. While the body count rises, Easter is fast approaching: the day of resurrection and of the last rosary to be counted...

There’s nothing quite like a good crime novel that features gruesome murders by a fiendish psychopath, flawed homicide detectives, tricky plot twists and tight writing, and it’s great when you find one that delivers on all levels.

The Rosary Girls kept me guessing to the very last – every time I thought I had it all figured out, another clue was revealed, yet it all seemed to come to a natural conclusion – it couldn’t possibly have ended any other way.

If this effort is indicative of Montanari’s style, then I will most certainly be reading more of this work and, no doubt, will become a great fan!

Jennifer Donnelly – The Tea Rose

Title: The Tea Rose
Author: Jennifer Donnelly

ISBN # 0007155565

Publisher: Harper Collins

First Published: 2002

782 pages

Format: Paperback

Rating: 9/10

Set in Whitechapel in 1888, The Tea Rose is a tale of a love lost and won, of a family's destruction, of murder and revenge - and one young woman's quest to escape the poverty of her childhood and make her fortune in the tea trade. Fiona Finnegan is the spirited, ambitious daughter of an Irish dock worker. She longs to break free from the squalid lanes and alleys of Whitechapel, where she has a job in a tea factory. With the love of her life, Joe Bristow, she dreams of escaping the poverty and opening her own tea shop. But one by one her dreams fall apart as her father is killed in a dock accident, Joe is seduced by another woman, and her mother is viciously murdered - a suspected victim of Jack, the Ripper. Devastated, her life in tatters, Fiona flees to
New York where she sets up home with her alcoholic uncle. Slowly, she builds his small grocery shop into a thriving tea house, and her new life flourishes. After years of hard work, she establishes herself as the head of her own powerful tea empire. But she cannot forget London - or Joe. Convinced that her father was murdered by his brutal employer, Fiona vows to seek revenge and ruin him once and for all. Making her way back to the streets of her impoverished childhood, Fiona must start her fight again.

I’m not sure what I was expecting from this novel except a little romance in an historical setting, but what I got was much, much more: Take a young couple from poor families with big dreams, add family tragedy that sets them on a downward spiral, separate them, introduce a pinch of betrayal and set it all in Whitechapel during the terrifying reign of the infamous Jack the Ripper and you’ve got a heart-stopping combination!

The story is full of intrigue and suspense and well as wonderful, well-written characters with realistic dialogue and down-to-earth attitudes – these people have very real problems and have to find solutions to fir the situations. It has excellent flow and kept me involved throughout – I could hardly bear to put it down.

Definitely one of the best reads so far this year.

Patrick Süskind – Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

Title: Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
Author: Patrick Süskind

ISBN # 0141029048

Publisher: Penguin Books

First Published: 1985

272 pages

Format: Paperback

Rating: 8/10

Survivor, genius, perfumer, killer: this is Jean-Baptiste Grenouille. He is abandoned on the filthy streets of
Paris as a child, but grows up to discover he has an extraordinary gift: a sense of smell more powerful than any other human's. Soon, he is creating the most sublime fragrances in all the city. Yet, there is one odour he cannot capture. It is exquisite, magical: the scent of a young virgin. And, to get it, he must kill. And kill. And kill...

I was surprised at how little violence there is in this book - honestly, it's quite the most gentle murder story I've ever read! Grenouille is a fascinating character who lives only for olfactory sensation and feels nothing for anything else, but surprisingly, I still felt sympathetic towards him, despite him being the "villain" of the tale.

I found this a surprisingly refreshing read and not at all what I would have expected if I hadn't already seen the film. And although I enjoyed the film a great deal, I definitely thought the book was a far richer experience (as one would expect) and found that it made me think about how people perceive one another. It also featured one of the most profoundly fitting last sentences I’ve read in a very long time.

If you like something a little unusual, then don’t miss this one!

Anna Sewell – Black Beauty

Title: Black Beauty
Author: Anna Sewell

ISBN # 0140621490

Publisher: Penguin Classics

First Published: 1877

224 pages

Format: Paperback

Rating: 7/10

During his long life, Black Beauty has many different owners who put him to a variety of tasks, from being a riding horse on a country estate to a cab horse in town. Despite often being subjected to cruelty, Black Beauty's strength, gentle temper and fine instincts stay with him throughout.

Sewell wrote Black Beauty because she was appalled at the treatment of horses and other animals and wanted people to understand that better treatment and understanding of the animals would lead to the animals behaving better. She died not long after the book was published, having been a very sick woman, and so never lived to see even the beginnings of the lasting impression her work has had on people.

There's a slightly preachy style to this book. Every chapter seems to be imparting a lesson: "Treat your horse well and it'll perform better", but it's over and over the same thing. The stories of the other horses are the parts I found more interesting that the story of the titular horse himself.

Apparently the first edition of Black Beauty actually stated "Translated from the original Equine by Anna Sewell", which I think is rather lovely. It was also not originally intended as a children's novel, but aimed at people who worked with horses. I wonder, was Sewell the first to make the adult/children double crossover we see so often nowadays with the likes of the Harry Potter books or The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon?

I actually found it quite an uplifting read, which I wasn't really expecting.

Gideon Defoe – The Pirates! In an Adventure with Whaling

Title: The Pirates! In an Adventure with Whaling
Author: Gideon Defoe

ISBN # 0297849018

Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicholson (Orion Books)

First Published: 2005

152 pages

Format: Hardback

Rating: 8/10

Since she sailed away after the pirates' adventure with scientists, the pirates' boat has been somewhat battered by the
rigours of ocean life. Her mast keeps collapsing, her wheel has broken off and several of the pirates have ended up with nasty splinters. Realising his paintings can only cover up the leaks for so long, the Pirate Captain decides he must pay a visit to Cutlass Liz's boat yard (Liz is 'famed for having the best face on the entire eastern seaboard') and trade his ship in for a newer model. Dazzled by the swan-lined curtains and tennis courts of 'The Lovely Emma', and frankly, by Cutlass Liz's lovely face, the Pirate Captain makes a rash decision and finds himself with a debt of six thousand doubloons, and very little time in which to pay it before the sands of Liz's hourglass run out and he and his crew are gutted like fish. And so the Pirates set forth on a courageous voyage and a desperate quest for some ready cash. Their adventure will take them from the Florida Keys to the bright lights of Las Vegas, to the ends of the earth in search of a mythical white whale, and even, perhaps into the dark depths of madness. But hopefully, they'll be home in time for tea.

If anyone ever needs a good giggle to cheer them up, all they need to do is pick up one of Gideon Defoe's books! They're all short - The Pirates! In an Adventure with Whaling is only 152 pages long, but it's incredibly funny and packed with such mad-cap characters as "The Albino Pirate", "The Pirate in Green", "The Scarf-Wearing Pirate" and, of course, "The Pirate Captain" himself! This time they meet up with Captain Ahab and go chasing after the great white whale (via Nantucket and Las Vegas) to repay a debt to the horrid Cutlass Liz. High-jinks on the high seas have never been so hilarious!

From all accounts, Defoe started writing his Pirates! books in order to impress a girl. I may not be the one he intended to impress, but impressed I am! This little book is the perfect gift for a friend who could do with a smile.

Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell – The Stone Pilot

Title: The Stone Pilot
Author: Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell

ISBN # 0552554391

Publisher: Corgi Books

First Published: 2006 (World Book Day)

80 pages

Format: Paperback

Rating: 7/10

This is an exclusive story, tracing the history of Maugin, the Stone Pilot, who Twig meets in "Stormchaser". Maugin is a trog, destined to change from a beautiful delicate creature into the fearsomely impressive adult termagant at her first blooding, due very soon. But an ill-fated trip above ground ends with her capture by Deepwoods slavers. Maugin's subsequent sale to a terrifying scientist could be the end of her - but for the actions of a young sky pirate, Quint Verginix.

This is every bit as enchanting as the rest of the series, telling the story of one of the characters largely overlooked in the longer books, although they played an important role in the proceedings. My only complaint is that I really wanted more! With this being a special short book published specifically for World Book Day, this was only ever meant to be a short story (a mini-adventure, if you will), but it managed to give a wealth of background information charting exactly how Maugin became the Stone Pilot and should perhaps be placed, chronologically, between the Twig and Rook sequences.

Absolutely charming and a must for fans of The Edge Chronicles.

H. Rider Haggard - King Solomon’s Mines (Audio Book)

Title: King Solomon’s Mines
Author: H Rider Haggard

Narrator: John Nicholson

Publisher: www.Librivox.og

First Published: 1885

Running time: 8 hrs 28 min 51 sec

Format: Audio Book

Rating: 6/10

Following a map drawn 300 years ago by a dying man, three adventurers set out in search of the legendary riches of King Solomon's diamond mines. On their journey they have to cross deserts, mountains and inhabitants that kill strangers. Will they make the journey and become the richest men on Earth?

The language used for the descriptions is very simple but very effective, although I'm finding the hunting scenes rather difficult to deal with, as violence towards animals is not something that sits easy with me, even in a book. I could really “feel”
Africa as seen through the narrator’s eyes (it was obvious to me that Haggard knew and loved Africa well), with all the sights, sounds and smells evident in full.

To my mind, many of the ideas are extremely dated as they were very much of their time, however, I did quite enjoy it.

Not bad, but rather a predictable "boys' own" adventure, really.