Friday, January 25, 2008

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Title: Heart of Darkness
Author: Joseph Conrad
Publisher: Librivox
No. of pages: N/A
Rating: 2/10

Synopsis (from Librivox):
Set in a time of oppressive colonisation, when large areas of the world were still unknown to Europe, and Africa was literally on maps and minds as a mysterious shadow, Heart of Darkness famously explores the rituals of civilisation and barbarism, and the frighteningly fine line between them.

We get the tale through a classic unreliable narrator, relating as Marlow, a ship’s captain, tells how he was sent by the Company to retrieve the wayward Kurtz, and was shaken to discover the true depths of darkness in that creature’s, and in his own, soul. Conrad based the work closely on his own terrible experience in the Congo.

This work has been reinterpreted and adapted into many modern forms, the most well known being the film Apocalypse Now.

From all accounts, Heart of Darkness was based on Conrad's own experiences in the Congo some eight years before writing the book, which would, one would think, make for an interesting read. Instead, I found this dull, plodding and pretty pointless. I know it's held to be a classic full of symbols and ambiguity, but I just did not gel with any aspect of this novella - not the characters, nor the setting, nor their apparent motives (which seemed very weak) for any of their actions.

The ending, in particular, was anti-climactic, singularly lacking in any drama or discernable meaning, and seemed drawn out yet strangely abrupt (a combination that would seem impossible, but that's how it is!). Basically, it took a long time to get nowhere.

I'm not sure if it was the style of writing or the story, but I'm not much bothered about reading anything else by Conrad, at least, not in a hurry.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney

Title: The Tenderness of Wolves
Author: Stef Penney
ISBN: 9781847240675
Publisher: Quercus
No. of pages: 450
Rating: 8/10

Synopsis (from Amazon):
It is 1867, Canada: as winter tightens its grip on the isolated settlement of Dove River, a man is brutally murdered and a 17-year old boy disappears. Tracks leaving the dead man's cabin head north towards the forest and the tundra beyond. In the wake of such violence, people are drawn to the township - journalists, Hudson's Bay Company men, trappers, traders - but do they want to solve the crime or exploit it? One-by-one the assembled searchers set out from Dove River, pursuing the tracks across a desolate landscape home only to wild animals, madmen and fugitives, variously seeking a murderer, a son, two sisters missing for 17 years, a Native American culture, and a fortune in stolen furs before the snows settle and cover the tracks of the past for good.

Once in a while, the literary awards people get it right. When the Costa crowd made The Tenderness of Wolves their choice for Book of the Year and First Novel Award in 2006, they were certainly on top form!

This novel reads like a dream from start to finish, from the way the characters' lives and relationships are gradually revealed, to the unfolding of the mystery surrounding an artifact that may prove the existence of a written culture of the Native Americans, to the investigation of a murder that rocks a small and seemingly close-knit community. There's a timelessness to it all that means it could easily be transported to any era, but it sits perfectly in the onset of the harsh winter of 1867, and charts the journeys - physical, mental and emotional - of each of the players.

Told partly in first person from the point of view of Mrs. Ross, the mother of a teenaged boy who has gone missing immediately after the murder of a French trapper, and partially in the third person, taking an overview of what happens to the others as she ventures out on her quest - to find her son, and herself. It's a much internalised epic that strikes deep into your heart as you read, pulling you effortlessly into the narrative and forcing you to journey with her.

Highly recommended.

Friday, January 18, 2008

The Island of Dr. Moreau by H. G. Wells

Title: The Island of Dr. Moreau
Author: H. G. Wells
Publisher: Librivox
Rating: 7/10

Synopsis (from Amazon):
Adrift in a dinghy, Edward Prendick, the single survivor from the good ship Lady Vain, is rescued by a vessel carrying a profoundly unusual cargo a menagerie of savage animals. Tended to recovery by their keeper Montgomery, who gives him dark medicine that tastes of blood, Prendick soon finds himself stranded upon an uncharted island in the Pacific with his rescuer and the beasts. Here, he meets Montgomery's master, the sinister Dr. Moreau a brilliant scientist whose notorious experiments in vivisection have caused him to abandon the civilised world. It soon becomes clear he has been developing these experiments with truly horrific results.

Like Frankenstein almost 80 years before, The Island of Dr Moreau features a man of science playing God and finding that his creations do not act as he would prefer. The themes of human nature, law, religion and society are expertly mixed against the backdrop of a mysterious Pacific island.

Of course, in recent years, many of the issues faced by Moreau have come to the fore in the media, as the advancement of genetics and cloning have begged the question of whether it is ever right for Man to play God, and just how far is too far? There is also the question of forcing a belief system on another set of "people" - deifying ones-self in order to be protected from one's own creations - and the degradation of said creations when they are left to their own devices.

Wells has chosen a heady blend of science and nature to portray just how easily mankind can go astray - and one has to wonder if his ideas are not already becoming a reality - which makes for tense and exciting reading. It's not a particularly long story and it runs at breakneck speed from beginning to end, hurtling the reader into the action and offering no respite until the tale is told.

If you fancy trying a bit of classic sci-fi, this is definitely one to try!

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The House in the Forest by Michèle Desbordes

Title: The House in the Forest
Author: Michèle Desbordes
ISBN: 0571217796
Publisher: Faber and Faber
No. of pages: 186
Rating: UNFINISHED - 0/10

Synopsis (from Amazon):
In her cottage in the rain-drenched French countryside, an old woman receives an unexpected visitor: a boy whispering in an unfamiliar language, and bringing sheaves of paper, the letters and jottings of her youngest son. Some time ago her son had done as she had told him, and left to seek his fortune on a Caribbean island. Once there, the promised wealth disastrously eluded him. Soon, not far from the old woman's cottage, the locals see a mysterious stranger, with a boy and a dog, carrying planks into the woods to build a place to live, perhaps a place to die...

It’s rare that I give up on a book so very quickly, especially one as short as this, but I got as far as page 32 and just could not force myself to read another word.

My boredom mostly stemmed from the fact that absolutely nothing seemed to be happening and the narrative (which continually switched between past and present tense) constantly returned to the same image of a man lying dead in a shack and a boy sitting motionless and silent beside him. And this wasn’t the only instance of repetition: Quite often, the sentence used to end one paragraph was almost identical (if not exactly the same) as the one that began the next. This got old very fast.

It was also filled with long sentences broken by far too many commas – I fear Desbordes is an auto-punctuator – which ground my nerves from the very start, as I found I lost track of where the sentence was originally heading.

I can honestly say that I will never be tempted to try reading anything else written by this author ever again. Whatever message was supposed to be conveyed was utterly lost on me.

The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley

Title: The Water Babies
Author: Charles Kingsley
Publisher: Librivox
No. of pages: N/A
Rating: 4/10

Synopsis (from Wikipedia):
The protagonist is Tom, a young chimney sweep, who falls into a river after encountering an upper-class girl named Ellie and being chased out of her house. There he dies and is transformed into a "water baby", as he is told by a caddis fly — an insect that sheds its skin — and begins his moral education. The story is thematically concerned with Christian redemption, though Kingsley also uses the book to argue that England treats its poor badly, and to question child labor, among other themes.

Reading The Water Babies is like having a large quantity of morals and saccharine forced down your throat, and the constant digression (in particular, the one about salmon rivers; one of many digressions that seemed to have utterly no point!) makes it even more difficult to swallow.

The cloying condescension makes it even more unpalatable, as does the fact that if each meandering incident of digression and every lesson imparted to the reader were removed, we’d be left with a sweet story of about three pages in length.

This was very obviously written with an audience of just one in mind (constant personal references such as, “that’s more than you can do!” are certainly aimed at a specific young boy) and the rambling fairytale appears to have been constructed with the sole purpose of having him grow up to be a good, God-fearing man, which is all very well, but didn’t much endear it to me.

Overall, it was just far too sickly-sweet and moralistic (although the narrator claims the story has no moral on account of it being a fairytale – as if that ever made a difference to morals within tales!) to be completely enjoyable – I prefer not to be lectured while I’m reading!

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux

Title: The Phantom of the Opera
Author: Gaston Leroux
ISBN: 0140621741
Publisher: Penguin Popular Classics
No. of pages: 270
Rating: 6/10

Synopsis (from back of book):
As Monsiers Richard and Moncharmin prepare to take over as acting managers of the Opera House, they discover their predecessors have bequeathed them the "Opera Ghost". A seperate memorandum-book has been set aside for his various whims, including extravagant financial needs. Heedless of the numerous warnings to comply with these strange demands, the managers shrug it all off as a practical joke taken too far. Then a sequence of eerie coincidences and tragic events follow, culminating in the sudden disappearance of the beautiful prima donna Christine Daae in mid-performance.

Tortured by the pangs of unrequited love, the mysterious figure living beneath the Opera Hose has been awaiting his chance to strike - and once he does, he is deadly...

Somehow I was expecting a little more from this novel, having seen several film adaptations (including the very famous musical), none of which have been completely true to the original story (although some have been closer than others).

At the start, it is presented almost in the style of a factual report, with the author relating events allegedly as told to him by those who were there, gathering information from various sources, including diaries, letters and anecdotal evidence, and indeed, parts of it are based on fact (the Opéra de Paris, for example, does exist as described, as does the subterranean lake; and on one tragic occasion, one of the counterweights for the magnificent chandelier fell, killing one), but the flights of fantasy as the story develops becomes wilder and wilder.

The Phantom himself is presented as a tragic-comic figure. His despair and loneliness inspire pity, but many of his escapades (such as the "joke" with the money) make him seem faintly ridiculous. There's also the psychotic nature which is, apparently, completely due to his being hideously ugly, which seems just a trifle far-fetched. As does Christine's relationship with him - one of attraction/repulsion - as there are several occasions where one cannot honestly be expected that any woman, no matter how gullible, would let herself be entrapped in such a way when there is very clearly more than one way out.

Ultimately, though, the opulent splendour of the tale and its setting redeems it and lifts it out of the murky depths. There are moments of absolute genius (mostly the descriptions of the Opéra de Paris) which make this a very worthwhile novel to read and one that perhaps should be read by anyone who loves a Gothic touch.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

How to Do Just About Everything (eHow)

Title: How to Do Just About Everything
Author: Multiple (eHow)
ISBN: 9780007798148
Publisher: Harper Collins Ltd
No. of pages: 688
Rating: 9/10

Synopsis (from Amazon):
This text claims to have the answers to (just about) every question you might have. Whether you need to unclog a sink or wash your cat, you'll find clear, step-by-step instructions on how to do it. There are also checklists, calendars, charts and tools that will help you get the job done quickly and easily. For every task, there are concise step-by-step instructions, helpful tips and warnings, as well as useful lists of everything you'll need. Browse through these pages to discover how to: tie a tie; plant a lawn; carve a turkey; write a business plan; ask for a raise; unclog a sink; juggle; change your motor oil; lose weight; write a love letter; train a dog; prevent jet lag; burp a baby; and much more. Whatever you need to do, you'll know where to look for complete, authoritative instructions. A thorough keyword index will guide you to the exact solution you need. And with 1001 how-to-solutions, you'll not only find what you're looking for, but also a few things you hadn't considered.

This might just be the most useful book on the planet! It's packed with 1001 useful guides to doing, as the title says, just about everything, from helping your child prepare for the first day of school, to repairing your credit history; from planning a wedding to delivering puppies or kittens; and everything in between!

It's also very usefully split into sections like Computers and Home Electronics; Food; Family; Health and Fitness; and Sports and Recreation. Each guide is in easy-to-understand language (you'll find no jargon here!) and is simple to follow, also giving tips and warnings where appropriate.

If you're looking for a book that you can dip into and find out how to do pretty much anything, then this is the book for you. It even gives you the web address of the eHow website, where you can get your hands on even more useful guides. Seriously, this is a book you'll keep hold of and refer to time and time again, whenever life throws a curve-ball at you and you're not sure what to you - like an old and very knowledgeable friend, it will be there, waiting to tell you how to deal with it all!

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Book Club Bible (various contributors)

Title: The Book Club Bible: The Definitive Guide That Every BookClub Member Needs
Author: Various contributors
ISBN: 9781843172697
Publisher: Michael O'Mara Books
No. of pages: 224
Rating: 10/10

Synopsis(from Amazon):
Every book-club member has felt the pressure to pick out a new title for the whole group to read and enjoy. Wouldn't it be great if there was a book that helped you to make that all-important decision and maintain your place of respect in the book club? Fear no more, "The Book Club Bible" is here to help, shining an illuminating light on to the treasures of the literary world, from "Pride and Prejudice" to the modern classic "The Inheritance of Loss". Containing a diverse selection of books to choose from, the guide explains why titles are book-club worthy, and includes interesting discussion points and facts, and potential partner books. From chart-toppers to old favourites, every literary taste is catered for and you'll be sure to make an informed and popular choice. Above all, "The Book Club Bible" suggests some damn good reads. Compiled by a range of English literature experts and avid readers, this informative and enthusiastic guide is guaranteed to inspire.

When I was handed this book to try, I was immediately over the moon, as it seemed to be the answer to every book club member's prayers - a guide to books, both classic and contemporary, that are each and every one perfect choices for discussion in reading circles.

The foreword is written by acclaimed author Lionel Shriver (who wrote We Need to Talk About Kevin, which has itself become a book club classic over recent years), who describes this as " that one trustworthy friend upon whose taste you can pretty much rely." And she's not wrong!

Between the covers are no fewer than 100 books, each with a spoiler-free synopsis, a short note on what the critics said about it, a handful of suggested discussion points, a little background information, and several suggested companion books to try. Each book is given only a two-page spread, but this is exactly the right amount - there's just enough information to grab your attention and whet your appetite without negating the need to read the suggested titles.

On top of that, there is a smattering of Top Ten lists, covering Classics, Sci-Fi, Thrillers, Crime Fiction, and Foreign Authors to name but a few (and upon which I may base a future reading challenge!).

Whether you're new to book clubs or are a reading circle veteran, this is the book for you! It does exactly what it says on the tin and will leave your wish-list even linger than before as you discover books and authors you might not have considered beforehand. I've been frantically scribbling down notes for future reading and will certainly refer to it time and again.

This really is a must-have book for readers of all ages!

Friday, January 11, 2008

Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

Title: Far from the Madding Crowd
Thomas Hardy
No. of pages:
Other info:
Free audio book

Synopsis (from Amazon):
'I shall do one thing in this life - one thing for certain - that is, love you, and long for you, and keep wanting you till I die.' Gabriel Oak is only one of three suitors for the hand of the beautiful and spirited Bathsheba Everdene. He must compete with the dashing young soldier Sergeant Troy and respectable, middle-aged Farmer Boldwood. And while their fates depend upon the choice Bathsheba makes, she discovers the terrible consequences of an inconstant heart. Far from the Madding Crowd was the first of Hardy's novels to give the name of Wessex to the landscape of south-west England, and the first to gain him widespread popularity as a novelist. Set against the backdrop of the unchanging natural cycle of the year, the story both upholds and questions rural values with a startlingly modern sensibility.

Although I enjoyed this pleasant ramble through the countryside, I couldn't help feeling it dragged very slowly for much of the time, and I found that it was almost entirely predictable. I didn't find any of the characters particularly memorable; even the rakish Sergeant Troy and the wilful Bathsheba Everdene seemed very weak in places and it was only the steady Gabriel Oak that seemed to have any real weight to him.

The language, however, was beautiful and there's no denying that Hardy's writing flows easily, making this a pleasing way to while away the hours, even if it's not earth-shatteringly exciting or suspenseful. There's enough to keep the reader engaged and it's worth finishing, even if only to see if things turned out exactly as you thought they would when you started reading.

Out by Natsuo Kirino

Title: Out
Author: Natsuo Kirino
ISBN: 9780099492689
Publisher: Vintage Books
No. of pages: 520
Rating: 7/10

Synopsis (from Amazon):
In the Tokyo suburbs four women work the draining graveyard shift at a boxed-lunch factory. Burdened with chores and heavy debts and isolated from husbands and children, they all secretly dream of a way out of their dead-end lives. A young mother among them finally cracks and strangles her philandering, gambling husband then confesses her crime to Masako, the closest of her colleagues. For reasons of her own, Masako agrees to assist her friend and seeks the help of the other co-workers to dismember and dispose of the body. The body parts are discovered, the police start asking questions, but the women have far more dangerous enemies -a yakuza connected loan shark who discovers their secret and has a business proposition, and a ruthless nightclub owner the police are convinced is guilty of the murder. He has lost everything as a result of their crime and he is out for revenge. Out is a psychologically taut and unflinching foray into the darkest recesses of the human soul, an unsettling reminder that the desperate desire for freedom can make the most ordinary person do the unimaginable.

I was expecting Out to be far more graphic and violent than I found it to be, but that's not to say I was disappointed. There's excitement of a sort, set against the mundane lives of four factory workers. The sharp contrast between the boredom of the factory and the harsh realities of dealing with a dead body make this quite a dark piece, especially when you realise that for some, there is very little difference in what they are doing.

There are some moments that are almost humorous (albeit of the blackest kind of humour), and others that are almost confusing, but things play out pretty much as expected, with only a few spanners thrown into the works. Strangely, the one character I enjoyed most was Jumonji - a colourful character who combined cowardice and courage (of a sort) and really stood out from the drabness of the others.

The fact that all the characters seem to tread a very fine line between dark and light, right and wrong, sane and psychotic, makes Out an intriguing read that doesn't let itself be pigeon-holed too readily - part crime fiction, part kitchen-sink drama, part sisterhood/female bonding chick-lit - it's an odd combination, but it works.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

The Wit and Wisdom of the Discworld by Terry Pratchett

Title: The Wit and Wisdom of the Discworld
Author: Terry Pratchett (compiled by Stephen Briggs)
ISBN: 9780385611770
Publisher: Doubleday
No. of pages: 304
Rating: 8/10

Synopsis (from Amazon):
'A marriage is always made up of two people who are prepared to swear that only the other one snores.' From, "The Fifth Elephant". 'Inside every old person is a young person wondering what happened.' From, "Moving Pictures. The Discworld is filled with a vast and diverse population - from witches to vampires and from the fiendish to the foolish, it is a world in which magical books can devour the unsuspecting, and Death can escape to the country for some time off. "The Wit and Wisdom of Discworld" is a collection of the wittiest, pithiest and wisest quotations from this extraordinary universe, dealing one-by-one with each book in the canon. Guaranteed to transport you back to your favourite or forgotten Discworld moments it is the perfect book for die-hard Pratchett fans, as well as anyone coming to the Discworld for the first time.

The brief introduction by Stephen Briggs instantly lets the reader know that this is not a "read straight through" kind of book, but more of a "dip into" book, and he's right. This is not really a Discworld book, more a book specifically put together for the fans - a compilation of fantastic quips and quotes from the Discworld novels, including such gems as "Tourist, Rincewind had decided, meant 'idiot'." and "If women were as good as men, they'd be a lot better!".

There are quotes from each of the Discworld novels, both one-liners and much longer segments, presented in order of publication, up to and including the most recent one, Making Money. Basically it's a trip down memory lane that reminds fans exactly why they love these novels so much and will perhaps prompt an outbreak of re-reading of the older novels!

It's beautifully presented and will guarantee a gaggle of giggles from fans as they reminisce over their first exploration into the Discworld, but will mean next to nothing to those who haven't experienced the joys of Pratchett's most famous creation. If you've read even just two or three of them, however, it will most likely have you gagging to read more (if you're not already, that is!).

Saturday, January 05, 2008

The Truth About Fairy Tales by K T Casha

Title: The Truth About Fairy Tales
Author: K T Casha
ISBN: 9781419662935
Publisher: Echo Books, London
No. of pages: 397
Other info: Reviewing for TCM
Rating: 7/10

Synopsis (from back of book):
Think passion is all over once you hit forty? Well, think again. Jaded after a series of failed relationships, Cate McCormack's channeling her "inner romantic" into her very successful books. Author of a series of contemporary takes on traditional fables and legends, Cate's surprised tofind herself caught up in her own fairytale as two "princes", one young and handsome and the other rich and powerful, vie for her affections. Head battles with heart as Cate slys the twin dragons of public perception and dented self-esteem to assert her right to her very own happy ending.

I don't usually go for romances, but the fairytale angle was the part that initially piqued my interest, as I'm very interested in folk and fairy tales, and I was drawn to the idea of life imitating art. Fortunately, what I found between the covers was a warm (but not fuzzy!) romance, that didn't paint life as pink and fluffy in any way; instead, it highlighted the problems in a relationship with quite a difference in age and background between the couple.

The characters weren't "to good to be true" and there was no guarantee that everything would come to a fairytale, "...and the all lived happily ever after." In fact, it was the fact that the characters were so down-to-earth that kept me reading - I got interested in the lives of these people and came to think of them almost as friends.

The story was sweet without being sugary and there were enough trials and tribulations thrown in everyone's paths without it seeming too much; decisions were made and consequences followed - all very true to the ethos of fairytales - but there was occasionally a harder edge and a tendency towards sadness without it swamping into melancholy.

Overall, it is an uplifting tale of not just overcoming our differences, but actively embracing them; and also to follow your heart where it may lead.