Having just missed one hundred books in the first year of The Book Challenge, in 2010, I made the full tonne. Still reading, but without the challenge, take a look at the reviews for the books that I have read this year.

Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Book 17 - Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Book - Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Author - JK Rowling
Year - 1998
Genre - Fantasy

Following on from the first Harry Potter book, I decided that the second Harry Potter book would be a sensible decision as my next book of choice.  Actually, that is a little bit of a lie - I was reading a different book, but I have put it down somewhere and I can't remember where for the life of me, so I thought I'd grab this one off of my shelf in the meantime.

And as expected, I enjoyed it thoroughly.  I spoke in the blog on the first book about how good it is to go back to a series that you have enjoyed before, and this held true for this one as much as Philosopher's StoneChamber of Secrets doesn't have the introductary charm of the first book, or some of the darker or more complex elements of the later books, but is still a fantastic read.  It is massively interesting reading the books in full awareness of how the series will pan out, and particularly with this book I noticed many more little things that have relevence with the last book in the series - without giving anything away, a couple of little points particularly regarding Ginny Weasley and Colin Creevy.

The moral of this blog - as will be the same with each of these Potter books - is if by some chance you haven't read it, then do so.  You won't be disappointed.


Book 16 - The Top 10 of Everything

Book - The Top 10 of Everything
Author - Russel Ash
Year - 2007
Genre - Fact Book
Bought for me by my Mum and Dad

Whilst 'Everything' may be a little bit of an exaggeration, the title of this book does still go a long way to decribing its contents.  This is a massive hardbacked book jammed full of that favourite of men everywhere - lists.  Men love lists.  Give a man a copy of Wisden's or of FHM's 100 Sexiest Women, and aside from looking at the pictures (in the latter book obviously) they will happily compile a list of positions from the year before and the percentage of blondes to redheads.  Men love lists, and thus, as a man, this is the perfect kind of book for me.

The problem with this particular book is that there are three different types of lists in here.  There are the lists that I found genuinely interesting - Top 10 Goal Scorers in the European Championships or Top 10 Animated Films in the UK.  There are the lists that I was not interested in, but I could understand other people being interested in - Top 10 Highest Earning Female Golfers or Top 10 Longest Bridges.  Then there are the ones that I just don't see who could be particularly interested in - Top 10 Mobile Phone Owning Countries or Top 10 Years With the Most Murders on the UK.  Whilst these last two sound interesting, they pretty much fall into a list of countries you would expect - think USA and Japan - and a list of the last ten years in a random looking order.  This information could of course be useful to some people, but I can't imagine any of them picking up a book like this which is purely a fun trivia book.  And therein is the biggest problem of all - the book is probably about half full of the last category.

It's not the worst book of it's kind around, but it really drags when you get to a section that doesn't interest you at all.  As I think I mentioned in a previous blog, I will be reading more of this kind of book this year, but fingers crossed that some of them impove a little over the ones I have read so far.


Saturday, 27 March 2010

Book 15 - Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

Book - Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone
Author - JK Rowling
Year - 1997 (yes, really!)
Genre - Fantasy

I think that this book needs very little introduction.  For anyone who has never heard of Harry Potter, I would like to point you in the direction of the internet.  The biggest literary craze of the past forever begain with this book, and I was very much looking forward to reading it for what must be the fifth time.

It never disappoints.  With the six sequels, movie franchise, newly opening Harry Potter land, computer games, t-shirts, mugs, toys and any other number of Potter branded items, it's hard to remember that this first book was once a relatively unhyped release with a small print run, before which we had never heard of Quiddich, Hogwarts or Dumbledore.  As an introduction to a new series, this is perfect.  It is so accessible, without all of the deep complicated connections that the characters will later gain, but having read the other books, it is brilliant to see some of the portents that will relate to the later books.  Above everything else though, it is a massively enjoyable book which comes about as close to a book that every person 'should' read, as any other I have read.

The temptation here was to not give Philosopher's Stone too high a mark so as to not set too high a precedent and end up with seven ten out of tens on my list this year just on a reread series.  But then I decided that as a book that I enoyed thoroughly, feel is wonderfully written, and - without hyperbole - genuinely changed the face of books forever, I couldn't really give it anything less.


Thursday, 25 March 2010

I think I've read that one...

The Book Challenge is something I made up myself.  There is no prize if I complete it.  There is no governing body watching to see how I perform.  There would be no one but myself to point fingers should I cheat.  However, I do worry about cheating, as it isn't something that I inadvertantly want to do, and herein lies the problem - I don't have any hard and fast rules that have to be followed, and deciding whether something is cheating or not comes down to whether I feel it is acceptable or not.

There is a whole wealth of discussion to go into regarding the length and format of books - and one that I have been meaning to write a blog on for a couple of months, but the thing that got me thinking today is re-reads.

There are some staples which I can read over and over without getting bored.  The Adrien Mole books were favorites of mine as a kid, and for the past few years I have read the first two in the month before Christmas each year.  As a child I must have read The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe every summer.  As anyone who has had the misfortune to get me onto the topic will know, I have reread the Song of Ice and Fire series - my favourite ever books, and ones that make War and Peace look like a Spot the Dog book in comparrison - about five times in the past eight years.  There is something wonderfully comforting about getting back into a book that you are already familiar with.  Meeting old characters again, and getting excited or nervous for them as they come up against obstacles that you now know are going to appear.  And you can pick up much more on rereads - especially if it is particularly complex or involved story.  All in all, I am a big fan of going back to old favourites, but I am not one hundred percent positive on their place in my challenge.

During The Book Challenge last year I had a fair few rereads.  Sometimes a book comes up that you just want to read again, and it had to happen.  The overarching feeling is that a book is a book, and as such it goes on the list, but I always feel a bit cheeky.  Rereading a book is far quicker and easier than reading it for the first time.  And as - to an extent - the challenge should be helping me expand my tastes in books, is there a place for reading the same things that I have already read several times over?

I have decided that the answer is yes, there is a place for rereads!  I want to be able to go back to the books that I have already read and re-enter their worlds.  I want to be able to pick up whatever book I find and be able to read it without thinking that it won't count towards my 100 target.  I intend to keep the challenge going, even if I complete it this year, so would I be stopping myself from ever rereading books?  At the end of the day, if George RR Martin ever gets a move on and finishes the next Song of Ice and Fire book this year, then I will need a reread to catch up, and as the first four books have a total of around four thousand pages, without including rereads I would have to kiss the challenge goodbye.

So to that end, and following two different conversations with Amy C and one of the year sixes at school, I am just starting Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone again.  I have reread this a couple of times, but not since I was waiting for the seventh book came out.  To that end, I have only read the last book once, and as Amy keeps beating me at Harry Potter Sporcle quizzes, this will not do!  So bring on the rereads, and let's keep this challenge rolling on!

George RR Martins website is here.
You can find loads of Harry Potter, Literature, and many other quizzes at Sporcle.
Image is Google Images 're-reads'

Book 14 - Who Moved My Blackberry?

Book - Who Moved My Blackberry
Author - Lucy Kellaway
Year - 2005
Genre - Humour

One of my very favourite books of all time is a novel called E by Matt Beaumont.  When I read it about nine years ago it was different to anything else that I had ever read in that the entire thing was written in e-mails.  It was the funniest thing I had ever read, and might remain so to this day.  The second review of this blog was the follow up E2, and I massively enjoyed that too, so when I saw Who Moved My Blackberry available in a Christmas sale I was excited, and have been looking forward to reading it ever since.

Which makes the final product all the more disappointing.  The book follows through email the life of Martin Lukes, a Director in a big business (which is named as a-b global, yet it is never defined what they do) who spends all of his time speaking in management speak (typical sentence being "I have been doing some 360-blue sky thinking and have decided that our synergy with the consumers is a creovative masterclass") and doing pretty much no work.  He is unfortunately a character with pretty much no redeeming qualities, and therefore you are at no point interested in rooting for him.  Added to that, the single joke of the whole book is the aforementioned management speak, which gets tiring after about a dozen pages, and you are left with a poor poor book.

Having looked into the book a little after reading it, it would seem that the novel is an extention of a column from the Financial Times.  I suppose that this means that it could at least be a piece of fan service, but does nothing to improve the book.  Definitely one to avoid.


Monday, 22 March 2010

Book 13 - The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips

Book - The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips
Author - Michael Morpurgo
Year - 2005
Genre - Children's

Michael Morpurgo is one of the most prolific children's writers around, with well over one hundred books written since 1974. To my shame, until I started working at a primary school at the end of last year, I had never heard of him. I was soon set to rights by one of our year sixes - a boy who would have been able to give me the exact number of books Morpurgo has written as opposed to the rough estimate I just threw out - and since then I have read three or four of his books, and thoroughly enjoyed them.

The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips is, like a fair few of his books, is set during World War Two and is the story of a girl in a town on the south coast of England, which is evacuated wholesale in order to let the Allied forces practice for D-Day. Although it is a fictitious story, these evacuations really did take place in towns across the the south coast - something that I was completely unaware of. Much like the other Morpurgo books I have read, the story is incredibly charming, and is written perfectly with children in mind. From the information about the War, all the way through to her assertion that 'worser' is not good grammar, but she likes to use it as it sounds worser than worse, it teaches children, whilst being fun and massively accessible.

The really nice thing is that it is also accessible to adults. You are always aware that this is a kids book, but it would be a challenge to not be absorbed and charmed by this book. Anyone who was not introduced to Michael Morpurgo as a child, could do a lot worse than go out and give his books a try as an adult.


Book 12 - Storm Front

Book - Storm Front
Author - Jim Butcher
Year - 2000
Genre - Science-Fantasy/Detective
Bought for me by Robert Hyde

Storm Front is on many levels the male equivelent of trashy 'chic-lit'. It follows Chicago's only advertised wizard as he deals with a missing persons case, a police double murder investigation, a nosy reporter... oh, and a demon summoning psycho wizard.

The action is fast paced, the lead character is dry and funny, the fusing of the arcane world of magic, and the modern techological age is wicked, and the whole book is incredible fun. I don't imagine that it will ever win Jim Butcher a Nobel prize in literature or be recommended on an A Level syllubus, but as a fun exciting book you couldn't ask for much more. Except for twelve further books in the series. Which he has delivered. Excellent!


Saturday, 20 March 2010

Book 11 - Where Underpants Come From

Book - Where Underpants Come From
Author - Joe Bennett
Year - 2008
Genre - Travel
Bought for me by Faye Braggins

Where Underpants Come From is a travel book in the same way that books by Danny Wallace or Dave Gorman are travel books - mainly in that they are stocked primarily in the travel section of Waterstones. Although this book does have more travel in it than most by the aforementioned authors, it would still be fair to say that it is a challenge book. In this particular book, the author has challenged himself to research exactly where his newly bought cheap pair of pants were made - all the way down the line from the growing of the materials to the placement on the shelf.

This is a sound enough idea for a book of this kind, but unfortunately is not quite interesting enough. Much of the book involves him visiting similar factories where he learns that material is made by big machines, eating delicacies that he quite enjoys until finding out it is actually dog he is eating, or visiting quaint little Chinese towns and discovering that whilst the Chinese can be very different to us, they are not so bad really. This sometimes comes across as a little ignorant and a little 'let's laugh at how strange this other country is' which is ironic as I don't believe that the writer is actually anything of the kind.

His best bits are in the discussion of the history of the places he visits and the culture behind it. His writing of the different religions of China in particular is concise, understandable and quite witty and the big shame of the book is that he focuses too much on the underpants and eating out side of the journey and too little time on the bits that are truly interesting, different and make up the best passages of his book.


Friday, 19 March 2010

Book 10 - Starter For 10

Book - Starter For 10
Author - David Nicholls
Year - 2003
Genre - Fiction (best I can do, sorry. Humour maybe?)

Having fallen behind recently on the book challenge, I managed to whip though this 470 odd pager in pretty much spot on 24 hours (no applause please - oh go on, just a little then).

Set in the 1980's, Starter For 10 tells the story of Brian Jackson, a slightly pretentious working class teen - very reminiscent of a cleverer Adrien Mole - who goes off to university with dreams of sex, socialising and starring on the TV show University Challenge. Meeting and falling in love with the beautiful wannabe actress Alice, he struggles with just about all of his aims, whilst trying to properly integrate his new college life with his more modest background in Southend.

The lead character is cracking, and for any trivia boffs with a massive interest in books and using long words simply to sound clever (yes yes, the main character appears to be me. He even has a preoccupation with trying to fit 'eponymous' into conversation if at all possible - a specific word which I try to do likewise with) Brian will immediately strike a chord. The book itself is funny throughout, and definitely worth a read, but is by no means the greatest book around - or even necessarily the greatest book of its type. The big let down is the ending which seems a little rushed and doesn't match the deft characterisation from the rest of the book. Having said that, it doesn't distract too much from the book overall. A perfect read should you have a long plane or train journey coming up.


David Nicholls is also the author of the quite brilliant One Day.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Book 9 - Three Men In A Boat by Jerome K Jerome

Book - Three Men In A Boat
Author - Jerome K Jerome
Year - 1889
Genre - Victorian Humour/Travel Aid

The first person I knew of to write a review of every book that he read in a year was my old English teacher, Mr Simpson. He presumably had dozens of books full of reviews of every book he had ever read - and considering as how he had read almost every book ever (only a slight exaggeration) I feel I have quite a long way to go in order to make a dent into his own pre-blog-era blog. However, as I so distinctly remember him recommending Three Men In A Boat to us at school, it seems a suitable book to include here.

When I was at school, I read pretty prolifically - no surprises there - but at no point would I ever have seriously considered reading a Victorian novel about some men who take a boat up the river Thames. I mean, what exciting could happen? Could any wonderful events happen that could possibly liven up a novel with such dull subject matter?

The short answer is no. Nothing happens in this book at all, except that some men get in a boat and row up the Thames. However, the beauty of this book is not in what doesn't happen, but in how nothing happening is described. Coming up somewhere as a cross between Waiting For Godot and Family Guy, the eponymous three men row on up the river having little conversations and arguments which remind the narrating character of a little anecdote about fishing, or bagpipes, or German pianists, which in turn can remind him of another anecdote, this time involving smelly cheeses, choosing the correct hotel, or mustard, until abruptly we are back in the present on the boat. The truly wonderful thing about these meanderings, is that despite being over 120 years old, they are still amusing. Some of the opinions have changed in that time, but the basic humour is still funny and warm.

The thing that holds these funny flashbacks together however is the three main characters. All are boastful, lazy, unskilled, judgemental and completely unaware of any of their faults, whilst simultaneously looking down on the other two for having the exact same failings. Despite this, you cannot help but feel particularly warm towards them, and look on them in the same way that you may look on a child who thinks that they know everything, but hasn't yet a clue about anything real in the world.

This won't be the highest scoring book I read this year, but it is definitely one I would recommend to anyone. At about 150 pages, it is not a massive read, but is remarkably accessible for a book so old, and makes you feel as though you are reading some good classic literature.


Thursday, 11 March 2010

Book 8 - How To Talk To A Widower

Book - How To Talk To A Widower
Author - Jonathan Tropper
Year - 2007
Genre - Lad-Lit (thank you Amazon!)
Recommended to me by Bob of Bob's Blog

Reading through the blurb of this book, it appears to be the kind of book that I would never read. A man loses his wife in a plane crash and drops into a depression. He has difficulty dealing with his grieving stepson, starts to drink too much, and has a dysfunctional family that he doesn't feel he can rely on. Books about people suffering are not my cup of tea, but Bob recommended it to me as a wonderful book he found by chance, and trusting him completely I decided to give it a whirl.

I am so glad I did. It is one of the most beautifully written books I have read in a long time, and in turns is both so wonderfully poignant, and outrageously funny, that I would find the same set of commuters staring at me on the bus for crying a little bit followed moments later by a big laugh. The characterisation is perfect, and you really feel for Doug, the titular widower, but as the story goes on, you start to see wonderful little idiosyncrasies of his life that are worth cherishing.

This is a terrific book that I would quite honestly recommend to everyone, and to finish on a massively cheesy note, I am glad I didn't judge a book by its cover!


Book 7 - The Book of Fascinating Facts

Book - The Book of Fascinating Facts
Publisher - John Blake Publishing
Year - 2007
Genre - Toilet Book
Bought for me by Claire Hogan (sorry, by Secret Santa. shhhhhhh!)

I love fact books. I have loads of them, and can never get enough of the useless trivia that they give. I love to start a sentence with 'Did you know...' and equally I love to hear really interesting snippets back.

However, this was a book that I didn't enjoy. I will give it its due and admit that there was the odd thing in here that was interesting, but there was an awful lot of oft repeated stuff in here, and worse than that, things that were actively wrong.

When you are reading a book that is designed purely to give you pub ammo, the biggest sin that can be committed is to put something in that is wrong. Pub bores such as myself receive enough bad vibes as it is, without the added problem of introducing a new fact and being shot down with the comment 'That's rubbish! You are wrong!"

I noted dozens of examples in this book, and in doing so intended to note a couple down here. However I completely forgot all of them so decided to have a delve to see if I could find one. I didn't have to look far - in actual fact, there was one in the blurb. Here was my reaction.

Rubbish book - 'Did you know, Marilyn Monroe has six toes on her left foot?'
Me - 'That's rubbish! You are wrong!"

This is a stupid theory based upon a single photograph that has been proven wrong a million times over. In fifteen seconds I managed to Google up the Snopes entry to prove it as well. This was apparently a job that no one involved in this book was capable of doing before deciding to charge a tenner for it.

I am ranting now, and while this is annoying, would probably not deserve the scorn that I am laying upon this book were it not for one particular chapter - Joke Corner.

Some trivia books contain joke sections. I am fine with this, I like a good joke as much as anyone else, and some of the jokes here are great. However, as I read them I started to feel that I had heard some of them before, and not in the way you have standards such as chickens crossing roads, and men walking into bars. I could remember them being said by particular comedians I had seen, usually in Edinburgh. Just as I was feeling that I must be being silly, I hit the joke 'My body has changed so much since I've been here. My stomach is fat from the booze and food, my legs are skinny from walking up all the hills. I've decided ET wasn't from outer space, he was from Edinburgh.'

There is no problem with using choice jokes from comedians in books like this, but I was disproportionately enraged by the fact that no credit was given! The Edinburgh reference is what convinced me that someone has written this for their stage show, and it has been pinched here with no name or even acknowledgement that anyone other than the writers of this book had written it.

So again, I have recklessly utilised Google to discover this is a Wil Anderson joke. It isn't that funny, but at least it has now been acknowledged!


Book 6 - The Scarecrow and his Servant

Book - The Scarecrow and his Servant
Author - Philip Pullman
Year - 2004
Genre - Children's

I picked this one up on a whim from a charity shop a few weeks back based upon two reasons. Firstly, I am currently playing the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz (plug plug plug!), and secondly, Philip Pullman is an amazing writer, and in his trilogy His Dark Materials he has written of the most in depth children's books I have ever read.

Unfortunately, this is not one of them. The main characters of a bumbling Scarecrow who thinks he is grand and clever whilst having a head - literally and figuratively - of a turnip and a young boy who as his servant is the real brains of the operation are a good combination, and as a result of this there are some funny moments, but unfortunately I expected more from the story. Whereas Northern Lights and the like have wonderful little plot twists and beautiful scene setting moments, this story seems to amble along slowly, alluding faintly to some interesting ideas, but then skirting neatly around them without any real attempt to colour things up.

As I have in two paragraphs already referred to Pullman's earlier work, it is safe to say that I am basing my opinion partly upon the expectations that I already had for The Scarecrow and his Servant in comparison, but that is not to say that I would have enjoyed it particularly anyway. Not the worst book that I have ever read, but could have been so much more.


Thursday, 4 March 2010

Book 5 - The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy

Book - The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy
Author - Douglas Adams
Year - 1979
Genre - Science Fiction
Recommended to me by my Dad for roughly the past twenty years, and lent to me by Alex Campbell.

The above is not much of an exaggeration. My Dad has raved about Douglas Adams ever since I was a child, and has always told me that this is a book I should read. Adams is by far his favourite writer, and the only problem he seems to have ever had with him was when he had the bad manners to die without finishing the book he had been writing. Well, I finally got around to reading the first of his trilogy in five parts, and I am duly impressed.

Hitchhiker's Guide is a fantastically funny book. The characterisation is quite wonderful, and the randomness (a large chunk of the book is centred around massively improbable occurrences occurring) of things that happen is often laugh out loud funny. I was aware of the humour element of the books, and expected nothing less due to the high praise that they receive, but the thing I wasn't expecting quite so much was a truly wonderful plot.

Everything ties together in the way that you would expect from great works of literature, but that so often is missed by humourous books. And just to be the cherry on the top of the cake, it is the first of a series, so I have plenty more to look forward to where that came from!


Here is my review of the next book in the series, The Restaurant at the End of The Universe.

Book 4 - The World's Stupidest Instructions by Michael O'Mara

Book - The World's Stupidest Instructions
Author - Michael O'Mara
Year - 2004
Genre - Toilet Book
Bought for me by my sister Jeni

This is the first book of my blog which would fall under the category of 'Toilet Book', which loosely translated, means any book that can remain in the bathroom for reading from time to time in short bursts. It is also likely to be the shortest book I read in this year's challenge, as I whipped through it in barely any time at all.

To give you an idea of the content, I shall show you some samples, picked at complete random right now -

"Safe For Use Around Pets - found on a box of cat litter"

"Please do not turn on TV except in use - hotel bedroom"

"Do not use in shower - on a hairdryer"

So as you can see, it fulfills the Ronseal test of doing what it says on the tin and explains a whole bunch of silly instructions that management felt/were legally required to place on their products, in their shop windows and upon their advertising.

Some of them are funny. Advice suggesting that those allergic to aspirin do not take aspirin, or the warning note 'Some Assembly Required' on a jigsaw puzzle, are lines that should raise a smile with most people. However, a whole book of them means that the joke wears thin, and by about page thirty I had had enough. It doesn't help that some of them are not anywhere near funny - the London Underground sign saying 'Dogs Must Be Carried' is one that with some searching I can see how it can be perceived with a humourous slant, but could never even crack the tiniest of smiles at due to it being entirely unfunny - leaving the whole book as a little bit of a waste of time.

There will be plenty more ' toilet books' on the list over the coming year, but hopefully they will all have a little more worth than this one, and prove to be a mile more entertaining.