Thursday, 30 October 2008

Bernard Cornwell – “Sharpe’s Prey”

Publ: 2002 ISBN: 9780007796502
Rating: **** 4 stars

Yes, another Sharpe novel. There’s not much doubt that I am hooked on this way of learning about British foreign policy and wars at the turn of the nineteenth century. This one is Richard Sharpe and the Expedition to Copenhagen 1807. Whilst the Battle of Copenhagen of 1801 (during which Nelson turned a blind eye to the signal to discontinue action) is well remembered by the British the iniquitous expedition of 1807 is largely and conveniently forgotten. The 1801 battle was between the respective navies and the casualties on both sides were troops. In 1807 the British simply bombarded the town in order to take the Danish fleet. The British government had nothing against the poor Danes but simply wanted to pinch the fleet before the French did. Smashing Copenhagen and its civilian population to bits seemed a good way to encourage the Danes to give us the fleet! As usual Richard Sharpe is in the thick of the action with his own private agenda getting muddled up with the ‘greater good’. And, as usual, it’s a first class tale with a useful postscript to sort the fact from the fiction.

Bernard Cornwell
– See Sword Song

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

David Gibbins – “The Last Gospel”

Publ: 2008 ISBN: 9780755335145
Rating: *** 3 stars

A typical archaeological adventure – heroes seeking a lost gospel whilst being chased by the bad guys who are trying to prevent its publication. Good but not spectacular. The third in a series about archaeologist Jack Howard but I doubt I’ll bother hunting for the two earlier ones.

David Gibbins, born 1962, has worked in underwater archaeology all his professional life. After taking a PhD from Cambridge University he taught archaeology in Britain and abroad, and is a world authority on ancient shipwrecks and sunken cities. He has led numerous expeditions to investigate underwater sites in the Mediterranean and around the world. He currently divides his time between fieldwork, England and Canada. Atlantis was his first novel.

K J Parker - "Shadow"

publ: 2001 ISBN: 1 84149 019 9
Rating: ** 2 stars

Fantasy. A man wakes in the wilderness, amid scattered corpses and inquisitive crows. He has no memory of who he is or how he came to be there. The only clues to his former existence lie in his apparent skill with a sword and the fragmented dreams that permeate his sleep. This is the first of three books in a series – the Scavenger series.
I got over a hundred pages into it and then gave up. Enough said...

K J Parker is a British author. Having worked in journalism and the law, K. J. Parker now writes and makes things out of wood and metal.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

My ‘Classic’ Fiction List

I have added a list of my favourite / recommended fiction to the right hand column of this blog. Even as I write this posting I realise the list is not complete - where, for example, is "Birdsong"...

I've just been through my postings on this Blog to see which authors I had left out of my 'classic' fiction list down the right hand column. I discovered quite a number and I shall fill in those ommissions as soon as possible. In the meantime I realised that some authors justify their inclusion on the list by virtue of one book alone whilst others do so through the overall quality of their work and cannot therefore be judged on the basis of one book. In the first category, for example, is Stephen Baxter whose work 'Evolution' is a must-read for everyone. In the second is Conn Iggulden whose combined works mean I should have included him whilst I've only read one Cecilia Ahern so she remains a poassible depending upon whether the next book matches up to "A Place Called Here".

Other authors I must definitely include are Jenny Downham, Sebastian Faulks, Frederick Forsyth, Masha Hamilton, Jane Harris, Robert Harris, and Markus Zusak. Possibles include Mitch Albom, Steve Berry, Carol Birch, Sam Bourne, Gerladine Brooks, Michael Byrnes, Raymong Khoury, Diane Schoemperlen and Terri Windling. No doubt I shall be adding to it at regular intervals. In the meantime, this is the preface to the list –


Also known as The Introduction – but if I had given it that heading no one would have read it. Why does no one ever read an introduction?

Lists of “Fiction you should read before...” and lists of “The Top Classics” are available all over the web. Richard’s first assignment at University was an annotated bibliography about The Sun newspaper in the 1980s and 1990s. So I thought to myself why not add my annotated bibliography of books I think everyone should have tried. I’ve done a few similar lists over the years including ones for Bryony and Helen when they were young and I, foolishly perhaps, felt it would be useful to guide them in their reading. (Rich has never been interested in reading fiction – his fiction is all on screen.) I suspect the list now is not as I wrote it on previous occasions and in some cases that is due to my reading having been guided by the girls. I wonder at what stage the roles began to reverse? Any way, here is the list of Scriptor Senex at the age of 59 and a bit...

Students of literature might have to read the occasional novel for the good of their health but in general the purpose of reading fiction is enjoyment. The author may have intended their book to have a social or political message but it was up to them to put it into readable format. If you are not enjoying a book it is not worth finishing it. There are too many books awaiting our attention to worry about the one that got away.

There is a bias in my list towards historical, crime, fantasy, psychological works and novels about society. Although I had a spell of reading science fiction in my late teens and a very brief spell of reading cowboy novels they never had quite the impact of the other genres. Modern romantic comedy made an impact briefly a couple of years ago.

It has also occurred to me that some books I discarded (either completely read or half-read) in years gone by might now appeal a lot more. For example, I read a few Joseph Conrad books as part of my school syllabus. I had to read "Typhoon" and "Youth" and to get a better idea of his writing i also read "Lord Jim" and, I think, a couple of others. I was not impressed. However, glancing at a couple of e-books of his I think I might now rate him quite highly. I must try him again. Similarly, I never got on with Horace Walpole but it occurs to me to try again. I suspect in those days I was more concerned with plot than style and if one works on that basis it's not surprising I wondered "Why the deuce Hamlet the Dane could not find anything better to do than bother himself about his father's ghost!", to quote Marie Corelli. After my recent experiences with George Eliot, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens everything is worth a second go.

How can a man include Tom Holt and leave out Thomas Hardy? That just goes to show how individual a list of favourite classics always is. J K Rowling and Philip Pullman are both flavour of the month at the moment but don't rate highly enough in my eyes to make the lists.

You will notice that a number of ‘standard’ classics are missing from list. Works like Alcott’s “Little Women”, de Cervantes “Don Quixote”. Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe” and Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver's Travels”. These are among the many classics I read (or partially read) and which did not enthral me or make me feel they simply should be read for the good of one’s soul. I must have tried about four Graham Greene’s before finally giving up on “Brighton Rock”... Nevertheless, they appear on many top 100 lists. There are number of others that I can never recall having picked up and which therefore should at some stage be considered. I have put some of these on the ‘Books to be read’ list.

I’m not really sure at what stage children’s books and adult books merge – the line is always going to be arbitrary. Some children’s books are equally enjoyable when read as an adult, others remain suited to children. I have, however, included half a dozen books that are undoubtedly children’s books – if you didn’t read them as a child, read them now. They may open your eyes to a whole new world of fiction.

My list has 125 books.. There was no design in the number – it is simply what they added up to. One day I’ll do a matching list of Non-Fiction that should be read.

There then follows the list...

Cecelia Ahern – “A Place Called Here”

Publ: 2006 ISBN: 139780007247073
Rating: *****

I don’t recall where I came across this book but I know it was recommended by someone or some thing. Whoever it was – Thank you.

There are two principal sorts of fantasy book. Those which are set in a completely different world, often with creatures that we do not have in our world (like “Lord of the Rings”), and those which are set in our world but tiptoe into another (like Diana Gabaldon’s “Outlander” books) . This is one of the latter with psychology, mystery and romance thrown in for good measure.

In October 2006, “A Place Called Here”, Ahern’s fourth novel, was a international number one bestseller and went straight to No.1 in U.K. and Ireland. It was published in U.S.A. under the title There's No Place Like Here. It is optioned by Touchstone with Warren Littlefield for a TV Drama series.

The plot moves timeframe within the life of Sandy Shortt whose childhood schoolmate disappeared twenty years ago. Since then Sandy has been obsessed with missing things. Finding becomes her goal - whether it's the odd sock that vanished in the washing machine, the car keys she misplaced in her rush to get to work or the graver issue of finding the people who vanish from their lives. Sandy dedicates her life to this, offering devastated families a flicker of hope as she searches for missing persons.

A couple of quotes:
“She cared all right, but one year on, she still slept at night during the longest hours of his life. The hours when Jack cared most about everything but the hours when, deep in her sleep, Gloria didn’t and couldn’t care at all. Every night he felt the distance grow between her world and his.”
“That was the other thing I hated about kids; they always said the exact things that deep down you already knew, would never admit, and most certainly never wanted to hear.”
“We said we would meet again but we made no arrangements. Not out of any badness between us, but because I felt it had all been said, or not said but understood, and she probably did too. To know she was there was enough, and for her to know I was around probably was too. Sometimes that’s all people ever really need. Just to know.”

CECELIA AHERN was born on September 30, 1981 in Dublin, Ireland. She is the daughter of Bertie Ahern, Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) since June 26,1997, and is the sister-in-law of Nicky Byrne of Irish popgroup Westlife, who is married to her older sister, Georgina Ahern. In 2000, Cecelia was part of the Irish pop-group Shimma, who finished third in the Irish national final for the Eurovision Song Contest. Before embarking on her writing career, Cecelia Ahern completed a Degree in Journalism and Media Communications.

At twenty-one, she wrote her debut novel PS, I Love You, published in January 2004, which was sold to over forty countries. The novel was one of the biggest-selling debut novels of 2004, reaching No.1 in Ireland and in the U.K. Sunday Times bestseller list and was selected for the Richard and Judy Summer Read campaign.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Alexander McCall Smith - "The Miracle at Speedy Motors"

Publ: 2008 ISBN: 978031603007
Rating: ****

This is the ninth book in the infinitely enjoyable and best-selling No 1 Ladies Detective agency series. Mma Ramotswe continues to do what she does best - solve mysteries and philosophise about life in Botswana. Meanwhile Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni does more than just run Speedy Motors. All good clean fun.

“Mma Ramotswe had never been able to understand that, and considered it one of the very worst features of modern society that people should be ashamed to be of traditional build, cultivating instead a look that was bony and positively uncomfortable. Everybody knows, she thought, that we have skeleton underneath our skin; there’s no reason to show it.”

“’Would it nor be better if a man did not have to pay for his wife?’ she asked Mr. J.L.B. Maketoni. ‘I am not one to disturb old customs unnecessarily, but wouldn’t it be better?’
“Rather to her surprise, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni was quick to agree. ‘Yes,. It would be better. You pay for a car, you do not pay for a wife.’
Mma Ramotswe looked at him with admiration. ‘That is a very modern view, Mr J.L.B.Maketoni,’ she said, almost adding ‘for a man,’ but not doing so. Men could be modern too, she reminded herself.”

“‘I think I know the answer to your problem, Rra,’ she would say. ‘It is in your bed. That is where the answer lies’.
Such advice would not be well received, and could well be misinterpreted. The client might take it as a disparaging reflection to a wife or husband, for example, and it could be awkward explaining that the solution lay in the mattress rather than in any person
upon the mattress. Mind you, that was often the case too, she suspected, but she could not say that either.”

ALEXANDER McCALL SMITH - See The Right Attitude to Rain

Monday, 20 October 2008

Bernard Cornwell - "Sharpe's Trafalgar"

Bernard Cornwell - "Sharpe's Trafalgar: Richard Sharpe and the Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805"
Publ: 2000 ISBN: 0002258749
Rating: *****

The fourth book in the Sharpe series sees Sharpe leave India and ship back to England, stopping en route to take part in the Battle of Trafalgar. War at sea making a change (for him and the reader) to his usual war on land is nevertheless equally brilliantly described. Apart from Trafalgar he has a few other adventrures on the way including being on board an East India ship when she gets captured by a formidable French warship, the Revenant, which has been terrorizing British nautical traffic in the Indian Ocean. Sharpe ends up aboard a 74-gun man-of-war called Pucelle and takes part in vanquishing the combined naval might of France and Spain at Trafalgar.

Since my first Sharpe book (Sharpe's Tigers) the rating for Cornwell's stories has still not dropped below a four and this just crept into the five star category because of the excellent portrayal of the battle - though it's all a bit arbitrary and any one of the previous ones might have been the one to get the five stars.

As always there is a postscript few pages to sort fact from fiction which is most helpful and leaves one feeling not only replete with good storytelling but educated at the same time.


Saturday, 18 October 2008

Simon Beckett – “Written in Bone”

Publ: 2007 ISBN: 9780553817508
Rating: ****

“'I took the skull from its evidence bag and gently set it on the stainless steel table. 'Tell me who you are...' Forensic anthropologist Dr David Hunter should be at home in London with the woman he loves. Instead, as a favour to a beleaguered colleague, he's on the remote Hebridean island of Runa to inspect a grisly discovery. Hunter has witnessed death in many guises, but even he is shocked by what he finds: a body almost totally incinerated but for the feet and a single hand....”
I’m doing well of late, even the books I’m reading purely for relaxation are turning out to be first class. I thought this was going to be your standard murderer loose on a lonely Hebridean island cut off by storms. It turned out to be a very good thriller with an ending I could never have guessed. (I had a few guesses at the killer on the way and came close but then veered of a few times. But it wasn’t the killer I goofed about it was the turn the ending took.)

SIMON BECKETT is a freelance journalist. He was born in 1968 in Sheffield. He writes for national newspapers and colour supplements and is the author of the acclaimed international bestseller, The Chemistry of Death. He is married and lives in Sheffield.

Raymond Khoury – “The Last templar”

Publ: 2005 ISBN: 13978075280709
Rating: ****

Four masked horsemen, dressed as Templar Knights, make their way from Central Park to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They do not stop at the steps, but steer the horses through the crowds gathered for opening of the museum's exhibition of Vatican treasures, scattering the great and the good of Manhattan society and storming through to the exhibition, collecting artefacts, opening gunfire on security and police, beheading a security guard with a broadsword.
A top class adventure story combining modern thriller and Templar history in the best of ways. From 1291 AD to a modern day raid on the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Of its type, it’s a as good as it gets.

RAYMOND KHOURY was born in Beirut, Lebanon in 1960. The family move to Rye, New York when fighting broke out in Lebanon in 1975. After graduating from Rye Country Day Schook, he returned to Lebanon to study architecture at the American University in Beirut. A few weeks after he graduated, civil war erupted and he was evacuated from Beirut. He ended up in London where he joined a small architecture practice. In an attempt to explore other career options, he earned his MBA at INSEAD in Fontainebleau, France, and joined an investment bank, which he stayed at for three years. Not satisfied with world of investment banking, he sought a more creative career, and hooked up with an banker who dabbled in the film business. Though unintended, he ended up with a career as an acclaimed screenwriter both in London and in Los Angeles. Khoury lives in London, with his wife and two young daughters.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Chris Paling - "A Town by the Sea"

Publ: 2005 ISBN: 0224074350
Rating: *

So far on this blog I have posted about books I have read and books I have only read the first part of but this is the first time I have posted about a work of fiction that I skimmed. Perhaps, first of all, I should explain why I got it out of the library. |it was on the new books shelf and I fell for its wonderful cover. Forget the blurb the cover looked so good I had to at least try it.
It begins... 'When I awoke the tongue of the tide was lapping at my feet and the sea had claimed my belongings. The sand on which I lay was so stiff there was no trace of my footprints across it. An observer viewing me from above might have imagined I had been washed upon the shore from a shipwreck. Another would perhaps have construed that I had been cast away by choice. If I had encountered my inert body I would have made the former assumption although the latter is much closer to the truth.' and from on its gets more and more weird.
Nevertheless, the first few pages also yielded some good quotes so I skim read the rest partly to see if I could pick up any more quotes and partly to see if it began to make sense at any stage. It didn't. As Wikipedia described it - "A Town by the Sea (2005) is a departure from his previous style, leading the reader through a strange landscape of unfamiliar people and places."
Does this count as having read it, I wonder?
A couple of quotes:-
"Do not trouble yourself with the hours ahead of you. Regret nothing of the hours that have passed. Only misery lies in contemplating the future."
"...imagining myself to be under constant observation and feeling undeserving of my place in the world are the twin blights of my life."
(That quote particularly struck me because I know someone like that.)
"To make progress one must first set out; the direction one initially chooses in unimportant."

CHRIS PALING does not appear in the index of Fantastic Fiction which seemed a bit strange but when I Googled him there he was with his Fantastic Fiction page. Not often I find an error on that brilliant website. His page also had no biographical information so I had to turn to Wikipedia for that. Born in Derby in 1956, Chris Paling studied social sciences at University of Sussex. He started working as a studio manager for BBC radio in 1981. In the early 90s he had a Thirty Minute Theatre play called Way Station produced on BBC Radio 4. He wrote more radio plays and later began writing novels. He is married with two children, Sarah and Thomas, and lives in Brighton.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Stella Gibbons - "Cold Comfort Farm"

Publ: 18932 ISBN: 0140001409
Rating: ***

When I was young (i.e. until about a month or so ago) I though this was American book. I also, if asked, would have suggested it might be Victorian. All I really knew was that it was a classic and I hadn't read it. The plot, vaguely, I had picked up in my literary travels and knew it revolved around a girl who had been expensively educated, was orphaned, and went to live with horrendous relatives - the Starkadders of Cold Comfort Farm. Typical grim Victorian drama. I had failed to realise it was a comedy; set in Sussex in the 'near future' and written in the 1930s; that dear Flora was 20, modern and pragmatic; and that when she was orphaned she simply went to her relatives to avoid the hassle of having to earn her living. It's the sort of book which I would probably have rated more highly when I was in my teens but it was quite good fun, nonetheless.
My favourite bit of all is where Flora, setting off on the train, calls out 'Don't forget to feed the parrot,' leaving her bewildered companions shouting 'What parrot?' I must try that sometime.

STELLA GIBBONS. Stella Dorothea Gibbons, novelist, poet and short-story writer, was born in London in 1902. She went to the North London Collegiate School and studied journalism at University College, London. She then worked for ten years on various papers, including the Evening Standard. In 1933 she married the actor and singer Allan Webb, who died in 1959. They had one daughter. Stella Gibbons died in 1989.

John Barnes – “Mother of Storms”

Publ: 1994 ISBN: 0752808869
Rating: unrated
I managed the first three pages of this before I had to give up. Nothing to do John Barnes and the quality of his writing. It was the typeface used by Orion paperbacks, compared in the picture below left with the typeface of the Hazel Holt book, below right.

Admittedly when the book is 225,000 words long you need a fairly small typeface but this was just too extreme. A shame because this science fiction / disaster novel looked worth reading.

Hazel Holt – “A Time to Die”

Publ: 2008 ISBN: 978074079062
Rating: *

It seems to me that if your heroine is female, older than twenty five and detects crime she becomes – on the blurb of the book, at least – another Miss Marple. Implicit, and sometimes explicit, is the suggestion that the writing is as good as Miss Christie. One suspects that the blurb-writers have never actually read an Agatha Christie in their lives.
The latest one I have come across is Shiela Mallory – the heroine of a number of novels by Hazel Holt. Perhaps I just picked a bad example in “A Time to Die”, but the writing was poor, the action non –existent (at least until page 60 which is where I gave up). “A galloping quest for the truth” – another quite from the blurb – it was not. More like a sedate trot towards what was presumably to be an early death somewhere along the line. Instead the book suffered an early death.

HAZEL HOLT was born in 1928 in Birmingham. She studied at Newnham College, Cambridge, and went on to work at the International African Institute in London, where she became acquainted with the novelist Barbara Pym, whose biography she later wrote. Holt wrote her first novel in her sixties, and is a leading crime novelist. She is best known for her "Sheila Malory" series. Her son is the novelist Tom Holt.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Alan Bennett – “The Uncommon Reader”

Publ: 2007 ISBN: 24681097531
Rating: *****

I love Alan Bennett’s sense of humour and whilst this 124 page ‘novella’ may seem like a little pot-boiler it is anything but. It is a hilarious, well-written and very believable account of how Her Majesty began to read for enjoyment – a sharp contrast to her former existence where a sense of duty was always paramount. It all began with her entering the little Windsor mobile library to apologise for the noise her dog’s were making... Aided and abetted by her amanuensis, stick-like, ginger-haired (and gay) Norman from the kitchens, she sets about reading much to the consternation of her staff. You MUST read this book.
I could fill a whole notebook with wonderful quotations from this book but I’ll settle for the following:-

“Book, bread and butter, mashed potato – one finishes what’s on one’s plate, That’s always been my philosophy.”

“I think of literature,” she wrote, “as a vast country to the far borders of which I am journeying but cannot possibly reach. And I have started too late.”

“There was such a chasm between the monarch and even her grandest subject that the social differences beyond that were somewhat telescoped. So the social distinctions of which Jane Austen made so much seemed of even less consequence to the Queen than they did to the ordinary reader...”

”It could have been a syllogism, if Gerald had known what a syllogism was: Alzheimer’s is common, the Queen is not common, therefore the Queen has not got Alzheimer’s.”

“Reading was not doing, that had always been the trouble. And old though she was she was still a doer.”

“Once it would have brought him to the block; these days it brought him a ticket to New Zealand and an appointment as high commissioner. It was the block but it took longer.”

“ is true one is eighty and this is a sort of birthday party. But quite what there is to celebrate I’m not sure. I suppose one of the few things to be said for it is that one has at least achieved an age at which one can die without people being shocked.”

All this and I learned a new word – “solipsistic” for which a definition was hard to come by but Wikipedia says Solipsism (Latin: solus, alone + ipse, self) is a philosophical theory that all activity takes place within the mind, and therefore there is no reality outside one's own mind. ...

ALAN BENNETT is an English author and actor noted for his boyish appearance and his sonorous Yorkshire accent. He was born in Armley, Leeds, the son of a Co-op butcher. Bennett attended Leeds Modern School (a former state grammar school), learned Russian at the Joint Services School for Linguists during his National Service, and gained a place at Cambridge University. However, having spent time in Cambridge during national service, and partly wishing to follow the object of his unrequited love, he decided to apply for a scholarship at Oxford University. He was accepted by Exeter College, Oxford University and went on to receive a first-class degree in history. While at Oxford he performed comedy with a number of future successful actors in the Oxford Revue. He was to remain at Oxford for several years researching and teaching Medieval History before deciding he was not cut out to be an academic. He probably first came to fame as the partner of Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Johnathan Miller with Beyond the Fringe, a show which helped to revolutionise British satire.

His prolific output has stretched to nineteen individual television plays, four television series and three cinema films, together with numerous stage works, short stories, assorted journalism and his inimitable diaries. "His unassumingly owlish persona and fondness for self-deprecation has created the impression of a lovably eccentric minor talent. His ability to get under the skin of such withdrawn people and write about them with such empathy, compassion and wry (often gallows) humour makes him not just a great writer but the definitive chronicler of a certain kind of English ordinariness, whose outwardly placid surface conceals inner turmoil as intense as anything displayed by the more emotionally articulate." Michael Brooke.
In 2001 he complained he was suffering from writer's block. This little book shows he is definitely over that!

Monday, 13 October 2008

Carol Birch - "Scapegallows"

Publ: 2008 ISBN: 184408390X
Rating: *****

My first five star book for a while. Written in the first person and based on the true life of Margaret Catchpole (born 1762) - a woman transported to Australia after twice escaping the gallows. Facing death for a third time, stuck in a tree as floodwater rises around her - she reminisces on her life back 'home' in England. A life involving her family, her positions as nursemaid and cook, and smuggling. A brilliant tale made totally credible by the historical background and Carol Birch's excellent writing. I was very impressed. Looking forward to reading my next Carol Birch novel and wondering it it can live up to this high standard.

CAROL BIRCH was born in 1951 in Manchester and went to Keele University. She has lived in London, southwest Ireland and now Lancaster. For her first novel, Life in the Palace, she won the 1988 David Higham Award for the Best First Novel of the Year. In 1991 she won the prestigious Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize with The Fog Line.
Asking a working writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamppost how it feels about dogs. -- Christopher Hampton

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Michael White – “Equinox”

Publ: 2006 ISBN: 13579108642
Rating: ***

Oxford, 2006: a young woman is found brutally murdered, her throat cut. Her heart has been removed and in its place lies an apparently ancient gold coin. Twenty-four hours later, another woman is found. The MO is identical, except that this time her brain has been removed, and a silver coin lies glittering in the bowl of her skull. The police are baffled but when police photographer, Philip Bainbridge and his estranged lover, Laura Niven become involved, they discover that these horrific, ritualistic murders are not confined to the here and now. And a shocking story begins to emerge which intertwines Sir Isaac Newton, one of seventeenth-century England's most powerful figures, with a deadly conspiracy which echoes down the years to the present day, as lethal now as it was then.
I quite enjoyed this book but when I came across an error I got really sidetracked. At least, I think it was an error, if not it really gave the game away. I shan’t tell you about it in case you decide to read this book but it’s in chapter 32!
A couple of quotes – the first being purely educational, but hopefully of interest:-
“Funded by an Act of Parliament in 1838, the Public Records Office is home to some of the most iconic documents ever penned. These include the original Domesday Book, returns from the parliamentary elections of 1275, an inventory of Elizabeth’s jewels, William Shakespeare’s will, the confession of Guy Fawkes, and the minutes of Churchill’s War Cabinet during the Battle of Britain...”
“...anyone who was anyone in Oxford assumed that the only books in Nigel Cunningham’s home were ones that you coloured in.”
“Apparently, glider pilots and balloonists loved flying over the city, not just for the views but because there were always good thermals. The jokey explanation for this was that the thermals were produced from the hot air of the dons, but the real reason was the ubiquitous sandstone which reflected the heat of the sun.”

MICHAEL WHITE was born in Britain but is based in Sydney, Australia. He has been a science editor of British GQ, a columnist for the Sunday Express in London and, in a previous incarnation, he was a member of the Thompson Twins (1982). Between 1984 and 1991 he was a science lecturer at d'Overbroeck's College in Oxford before becoming a full-time writer. He is the author of thirty books: These include the international best-sellers, Equinox, Stephen Hawking: A Life in Science, Leonardo: The First Scientist and Tolkien: A Biography.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Kazuo Ishiguro – “Never Let Me Go”

Publ: 2005 ISBN:0571224113
Rating: ***

This novel was the Booker Prize runner-up; a nominee for James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction and for the Arthur C. Clarke Award. I wasn’t over-enamoured with the book but it put me in mind of a John Wyndham novel.
Kathy, Ruth and Tommy were pupils at Hailsham - an idyllic establishment situated deep in the English countryside. The children there were tenderly sheltered from the outside world, brought up to believe they were special, and that their personal welfare was crucial. But for what reason were they really there? It is only years later that Kathy, now aged 31, finally allows herself to yield to the pull of memory. What unfolds is the haunting story of how Kathy, Ruth and Tommy, slowly come to face the truth about their seemingly happy childhoods - and about their futures.

KAZUO ISHIGURO was born in Nagasaki, Japan, in 1954 and moved to Britain in 1960. He attended the University of Kent at Canterbury and the University of East Anglia. He now lives in London. He won the Booker Prize in 1989 for his third novel, The Remains of the Day. He has been awarded an OBE for his contribution to literature and the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Markus Zusak – “The Book Thief”

Publ: 2006 ISBN:0552773891
Rating: *****

I have the problem that when I cry my tears sting my eyes making it even more difficult then usual to see. A couple of times I had to just put the book down and wait until my eyes stopped stinging!

Ten pages into this work I had my doubts. Was this going to be another of those books I never finished? Twenty pages in I decided it was at least likely to be finished. By thirty pages i was well and truly hooked. Had it not been so long I would have loved to have consumed it at one sitting like I did "Sharpe's Fortress". It's just a small story really. Only 580 pages to tell the whole tale of man’s inhumanity to man – and, sometimes, man’s humanity. It is about, among other things, a girl, a house-painter, some words, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist-fighter, a boy who wanted to be Jesse Owens, and the occasional piece of thievery. . . .

P.S. the narrator is Death!! How cool is that? This is an unforgettable story about the ability of books to feed the soul. Not only should you read it (for the good of your soul) but you’ll enjoy doing so. The imagery is brilliant.

“Set during World War II in Germany, Markus Zusak's groundbreaking new novel is the story of Liesel Meminger, a foster girl living outside of Munich. Liesel scratches out a meagre existence for herself by stealing when she encounters something she can't resist - books. With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbours during bombing raids as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement....”

Some quotes:-
Frau Diller – “She developed this evil look to discourage the very idea of stealing from her shop, which she occupied with soldier-like posture, a refrigerated voice and even breath that smelled like Heil Hitler. “
“Many jocular comments followed, as did another onslaught of Heil Hitlering. You know, it actually makes me wonder if anyone ever lost an eye or injured a hand or wrist with all of that. You’d only need to be facing the wrong way at the wrong time, or stand marginally too close to another person. Perhaps people did get injured. Personally, I can only tell you that no-one died from it, or, at least, not physically. There was, of course, the matter of forty million people I picked up by the time the whole thing was finished, but that’s getting all metaphoric....”
“She was a girl.
In Nazi Germany.
How fitting that she was discussing the power of words.”
“When a Jew shows up at your place of residence in the early hours of the morning, in the very birthplace of Nazism, you’re likely to experience extreme levels of discomfort. Anxiety, disbelief, paranoia. Each plays its part, and each leads to a sneaking suspicion that a less than heavenly consequence awaits. The fear is shiny. Ruthless in the eyes.”
“On Munich Street, Rudy noticed Deutscher walking along the footpath with some friends and felt the need to throw a rock at him. You might well ask just what the hell he was thinking. The answer is probably nothing at all. He’d probably say that he was exercising his God-given right to stupidity..”
“1942 It was a year for the ages, like 79, like 1346, to name just a few. Forget the scythe, God damn it. I needed a broom or a mop. And I needed a holiday.”
“A SMALL PIECE OF TRUTH. I do not carry a sickle or scythe. I only wear a hooded black robe when it’s cold. and I don’t have those skull-like facial features you seem to enjoy pinning on me from a distance. You want to know what I truly look like? I’ll help you out. Find yourself a mirror while I continue.”
“In all honesty (and I know I’m complaining excessively now), I was still getting over Stalin, in Russia. The so-called second revolution – the murder of his own people.
Then came Hitler.
They say that war is death’s best friend, but I must offer you a different point of view on that one. To me, war is like the new boss who expects the impossible. He stands over your shoulder repeating one thing, incessantly. ‘Get it done, get it done.’ The boss, however, does not thank you. He asks for more.”

MARKUS ZUSAK was born in Sydney, Australia, in 1975 but brought up hearing stories about Nazi Germany from his Austrian father and German mother. Stories about the bombing of Munich and about Jews being marched through his mother’s small, German town. He always knew it was a story he wanted to tell. Originally Zusak intended to take on his father's trade as a commercial house painter but believed he had no talent for the job.
Markus Zusak said of The Book Thief:- “No matter what anyone ever says about that book, whether good or bad, I know it was the best I could do, and I don't think a writer can ask for more of himself than that.”

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Bernard Cornwell – “Sharpe’s Fortress”

Publ: 2000 ISBN:- 35798642
Rating: *****

I use the local library a lot but I cannot recall when I last ordered a book. Normally I rely upon what is on the shelves. This proved the exception. I was so keen to read it I didn’t wait until it either appeared in the library, an attic sale or a charity shop.
GB seems to think I read at an inordinate rate. In practice it is a combination of being a reasonably speedy reader and having a lot of free time. But it is rare for me to read a book at one sitting (or lying as this particular example was) but Cornwell’s Sharpe has me hooked. I went to bed at 6.00 pm with a meal after a busy day. It was my intention to read for half and hour and then have a snooze. In the end I went from page one to page 366 and didn’t set my head on the pillow until half eight. It brought meaning to the word "unputdownable". Wonderful. Can’t wait to get the next one.
Ironically, it caused me to analyse afterwards why stories may be particularly good and on no single count did it come out especially favourably. The plot itself was fairly predictable. Good guy gets plotted against by bad guys against backdrop of war. Characters are not especially well-delineated or described, either in the modern fashion as regards their motives and emotions nor in the way in which Victorian novelists were so prone to do. The background plot is already dictated for the author by the war in India and its campaigns. The story is seen only from the point of view of one character – Sharpe himself. The style of writing probably ranks a four out of five rating and the vocabulary the same. So why, after all that, is my rating five stars – the answer is partly that Cornwell is a brilliant story-teller and partly that the historical research has been so well undertaken that the setting is very educational.


Friday, 3 October 2008

Susanna Gregory – “The Devil's Disciples”

Publ: 2008 ISBN: 9781847440815
Rating: ***

Rumours of plague threaten Cambridge again, ten years after the Black Death had almost laid waste to the town. Neither the church nor its priests had defended people from the disease and now they turn elsewhere for protection, to pagan ritual and magical potions. It is a ripe atmosphere to be exploited by the mysterious 'Sorcerer', an anonymous magician whose increasing influence seems certain to oust both civil and church leaders from power. One murder, another unexplained death, a font filled with blood, a desecrated grave - all bear the hallmarks of the Sorcerer's hand, only the identity of the magician remains a mystery. A mystery which physician Matthew Bartholomew must solve before he loses his reputation ...and his life.

Susanna Gregory – see A Plague on Both Your Houses

Robert Louis Stevenson – “Virginibus puerisque”

Publ: 1881
Rating: ****

It is many years since I first read this series of essays. It was a favourite of Mum’s and one which she regularly quoted.
It would be easy to leave them {children} in their native cloudland, where they figure so prettily - pretty like flowers and innocent like dogs. They will come out of their gardens soon enough, and have to go into offices and the witness-box. Spare them yet a while, O conscientious parent! Let them doze among their playthings yet a little! for who knows what a rough, warfaring existence lies before them in the future?”
"Now, to be properly enjoyed, a walking tour should be gone up[on alone. If you go in a company, or even in pairs, it is no longer a walking tour in anything but name; it is something else and more in the nature of a picnic. A walking tour should be gone upon alone, because freedom is of the essence; because you should be able to stop and go on, and follow this way or that, as the freak takes you; and because you must have your own pace, and neither trot alongside a champion walker, nor mince in time with a girl. And then you must be open to all impressions and let your thoughts take colour from what you see."

An on-line copy of this book can be found in the Classic Literature Library.

Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson (November 13, 1850–December 3, 1894), was a Scottish novelist, poet and travel writer, and a representative of neo-romanticism in English literature. He was the man who "seemed to pick the right word up on the point of his pen, like a man playing spillikins", as G. K. Chesterton put it. Stevenson was greatly admired by many authors, including Jorge Luis Borges, Ernest Hemingway, Rudyard Kipling, Vladimir Nabokov, and J. M. Barrie.