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.

Saturday, 31 July 2010

Book 57 - The Magical Worlds of Harry Potter

Book - The Magical Worlds of Harry Potter
Author - David Colbert
Year - 2001
Genre - Non-Fiction

When you pick up a book about Harry Potter and it has plastered on the front cover 'Not Approved by JK Rowling or Warner Brothers' you instantly start to think that you are holding a load of rubbish.  The amount of 'cash in' books that are released whenever a massive phenomenom is always incredible, and usually they contain little more than rehashing of things that you already know, and often some pretty shoddy illustrations.

This book I had bought years and years ago - simply because it was for sale very cheap - and I don't think had even considered reading.  However, I picked it up to have a quick flick through a few weeks back, and was pleasently surprised enough with what I found to give the whole book a read.

Instead of some cash in where it 'reveals the secrets of the book (which you could probably find out if you just read the book anyway', instead it looks at Harry Potter from a real world point of view.  For example, it has a section on the 'real life' wizards who are mentioned in the book, and gives a real history of Nicholas Flamel - the creator of the Philosophers Stone - who was a real person living in the 1400s.  It explores the roots of some of the names of the characters - Draco meaning 'Dragon', Beauxbatons meaning 'Beautiful Wands' - and so on.  It explores the real world legends behind mythical creatures such as hippogryphs, veela and manticores.  All done in a breif enough way to not become overly scientific, but with enough information for you to come away feeling you have actaully learnt something.

If you are a fan of the Harry Potter books - which from this blog it should be obvious that I am - then this is worth picking up.  And as I have said before, if you haven't read them, read them.

7/10

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Book 56 - Chris Moyles: The Difficult Second Book

Book - Chris Moyles: The Difficult Second Book
Author - Chris Moyles
Year - 2007
Genre - Autobiography

Not every book that I am going to read this year and like is going to be a literary classic.  For all of your The Great Gatsbys and Of Mice And Mens, there will be some books that I enjoy that, in all honesty, are pretty rubbish.  Enter Chris Moyles.

I am a massive fan of Moyles, and have been listening to his Radio 1 show on and off for the past eight years.  Every afternoon in my first year at university, every morning on my way to work, and now on podcast when it is released each Friday.  Surrounded by his team, I have always found Chris Moyles to be very funny, and hugely likable.

I read his first autobiography a few years back, and thoroughly enjoyed hearing about how radio is his life's passion, and how he worked his way up to one of the most prominant spots in British radio.  The Difficult Second Book takes somewhat less of a narrative arc, and talks us through Moyles' times at the Brits, alegations of homophobia and racism and his losing weight.

The first thing that made me think that this was actually a pretty big load of rubbish is the layout.  Every half page or so Moyles has something to say that he wants to emphasise.  He does this by doing it all in bold, capitals, on a line by itself and in a font size a couple larger than the rest of the writing.  He is effectively bellowing at you every few pages.

The next is the legitimately banal content of some of the stories.  In a chapter talking about the pub, he speaks of his friend Kevin who is a bit of a pub bore.  That is the whole story, yet it still takes up almost a page.  You are left thinking that the whole section was building up to a punchline which was never delivered, and ultimately that some sections are genuinely no better than an autobiographical account you could write yourself.

There are some interesting stories in there as well - the ones involving Chris Evans and Comic Relief spring to mind - but it is only once you get to the chapter about writing the book itself that you really warm to the concept.  Moyles talks about how he hates the idea of using a ghostwriter, and that even if it is to the detriment to the book he would rather have a bad autobiography that is actually by him, than a book not actually by him but with his name on the front.  It is hard to disagree with this - especially when, as I do, you try and avoid ghostwritten autobiographies - and coupled with how much I already like Chris Moyles, makes this a perfectly enjoyable read.

It is impossible for me to finish this review without mentioning this brilliant clip by Stewart Lee.  When we went to Edinburgh a couple of years back we saw Lee do this sketch with regards to The Difficult Second Book and it was included last year on the television  programme Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle.  Stewart Lee is one of the best stand ups around, so definitely worth a look.

7/10

Monday, 26 July 2010

Book 55 - The Other Book

Book - The Other Book
Author - Mitchell Symons
Year - 2005
Genre - Trivia

I am pretty sure that I have mentioned this before, but I love trivia books.  And so do booksellers.  Wander into your local Waterstones and have a look at the variety of books on the shelves with names like You Can't Sneeze With Your Eyes Open, All Polar Bears Are Left Handed and A Duck's Quack Doesn't Echo (the last of which, incidently, is not true.  Of course it echoes).  Mitchell Symons is the king of this genre, and The Other Book is the third of a trilogy in which the first two are unsurprisingly called This Book and That Book.

Weighing in at four hundred pages, it is no slouch either.  There are so many varied things in here, from lists of famous people who are known to salute magpies, to lists of Winston Churchill quotes, to 'genuine' A Level exam answers, to the complete run down of former Pipe Smoker of the Year champions, and so much of it is vastly interesting.

If you like this kind of thing, then the whole series cannot be recommended enough.  If you don't like this kind of thing, then don't get them, because they really aren't your kind of thing.

9/10

Friday, 23 July 2010

Book 54 - I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

Book - I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings
Author - Maya Angelou
Year - 1969
Genre - Autobiography
Recommended by my Mum

Finally, I am through the next book in my challenge.  It has been nearly two weeks since I started this book, and I have reached the end of it (allowing arch-rival Bob to catch up with me).  However this should not be taken as a reflection on I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.

I have known for years that my Mum considers this one of the best books she has ever read, and after having read it for a course, went out and read the rest of Angelou's autobiographies.  Having read one of my Dad's very favourite books earlier on this year felt it would only be fair to read this one.

It is known as a moving and deep account of life growing up as a young black girl in America in the 1930s.  In writing this book, Angelou broke a mold by becoming possibly the first black female to prove that her life was worth reading about.  She manages this without once sounding worthy or put-upon, and with a charm that makes the entire book very readable.

I had heard how moving the book was, but for the first fifty or so pages found it simply an enjoyable autobiographical account.  However you eventually reach the section where Maya Angelou tells of her ordeal at the hands of her stepfather at the age of eight, and I don't mind admitting that I let out and audible sob sat on the top deck of the bus.  It is testament to the author's strong writing style that within a few pages she has you smiling at the exploits of her brother again, despite such a strong event preceding it so closely.

The troubles involved in growing up as a black woman in America eighty odd years ago is hardly a topic that it easy for a white, British, twenty-something man to connect with, but in this book Angelou manages to let it happen.  Most unusually for an autobiography, it leaves you waiting for the next in the series, and I shall look forward to continuing.

8/10

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Book 53 - One Day

Book - One Day
Author - David Nicholls
Year - 2009
Genre - Fiction
Recommended by Lucie Jordan

If all books were this absorbing then this challenge would be easy.

I mentioned in one of my blogs how lovely it is when people get in contact about The Book Challenge.  So many people have gotten in touch and recommended books that I am having difficulty keeping up.  It is expecially nice when someone who you haven't seen in ages gets in touch - such as Lucie, a friend from my theatre group at uni who I think I have seen once in the past five years.  She sent me a lovely message and recommended this book - and what a great choice.

The book starts on 15th July 1988 with Emma and Dexter in bed together after their graduation party.  Both are young and massively studenty - albeit in very different ways.  We then fastforward to 15th July 1989 to follow the both of them.  This continues, following the next twenty years, each time looking at the same day.

The characterisation is brilliant.  Within a couple of dozen pages you feel that you are friends with both characters.  Like a big freak, I found myself cheering out loud when something good happens, and groaning with a hand over my face when you see the approaching inevitability of a complete mess up looming.  At one point I had to put the book down to take stock over something happening.  It is pretty rare that it is possible to get that involved in a book, and it is such a wonderful feeling when you actually do.

There are a select little band of books that I feel make a massive impact on you and can be truly described as 'unputdownable'.  Off the top of my head Game of Thrones, The Time Traveller's Wife, The Book Thief and more recently How To Talk To A Widower have all done this to me.  One Day is definitely up there now.  If you haven't read it, do it now!

10/10

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Book 52 - The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger

Book - The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger
Author - Stephen King
Year - 1982
Genre - Western/Fantasy

Stephen King reportedly regards his The Dark Tower series as his magnum opus.  It is a series that he is still writing twenty-eight years after the publication of the first volume.  King is an amazing writer, and as such if he considers a book to be his best, then it must be truly amazing.

I have read a couple of King books, and was thus excited to read this - lauded as his great fantasy work.  I was therefore pretty surprised to find that for all intents and purposes, it is a Western.  The lead character - the eponymous Gunslinger who is only given his real name about three quarters of the way through the book - is a dyed in the wool cowboy, and he trudges across a desert stopping at little towns where they have a honky tonk piano on tap, and everyone stares as he enters.  Not quite the fantasy I was expecting, but I perservered.

So being a Western, you would assume that it is set in America, probably around the 1800s.  Yet a few pages in, several people are singing Hey Jude.  It is all most perculiar.

All this seems a lot of preamble for a review here, but the problem is that the book becomes a little confusing because of the complete lack of being told anything.  Common enough for a fantasy book - nothing is clear till the end - but come the end of the book, I am still a little in the dark about lots of things.  There is an amount of tidying up, but I was still a tad perplexed.  The whole book reads a very long introduction to a story.

And therefore I suppose that makes it fine.  At around 250 pages, it is not a tiny book, but compared to the 800 page beast that is the fifth book that I managed to pick up, it covers a very small part of the overall story.  So I think I will carry on reading.  I do want to know what happens, and I believe that the whole thing becomes more cohesive as time goes on.  However, as a book, I can only judge it as mediocre.

7/10

Monday, 5 July 2010

Book 51 - Spies

Book - Spies
Author - Michael Frayn
Year - 2002
Genre - Fiction

As mentioned in my last blog, I hit a bit of a mental block as I crawled over the halfway point in The Book Challenge.  For no great reason, I was having a bit of difficulty powering through a book, but finally I have achieved it with Spies.  Although I had some trouble pushing on however, this is not particularly a critisism of the book.

Michael Frayn is mainly famous for his plays - Noises Off and Copenhagen being two of the biggest - and he is someone that I studied as part of my degree.  He also, by sheer coincidence, gave the speech at my graduation, so when I saw a copy of one of his novels at the quite brilliant price of 50p a couple of weeks back I felt that I should give it a go.

It is a strange book, with 'A Level Text' written all over it.  An elderly man feels compelled to return to the street where he grew up, and upon arrival he reflects on a major event of his life when he was a child in a slightly rural part of wartime London.  We flit between his visions of the street now - mainly a framing device - and the story of his childhood from his young eyes.

The most interesting thing about this is the way he switches between the old narrator and the young character.  It is all done by interweaving the present tense with the past tense - not too unusual of course - but also the first person with the third.  It must have been a logistical nightmare to work on, but flows seemlessly in the book so that you never question it, and are always aware of who is leading the story.

The problem is that everything within is ever so slightly unsatisfactory.  The characters are pretty much all unlikable, and never ever do what you want them to do, and despite building up a nice bit of tension, everything felt like a bit of a let down by the time you reached the end.  It is a book worth reading for the craft - with the tone of the young Stephen being particularly well handled - but is hardly a story that you would want to spend a lot of time reflecting on.

7/10

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Reader's Block

At the weekend, I proudly proclaimed my reaching the halfway point in The Book Challenge.  Fifty of my hundred books down, fifty to go.  It was a good moment - I suppose similar to how someone with more sporting skill than myself may feel when progressing in a sporting tournament (please feel free to insert your own favourite England joke here).

However, since then I have been struck with Reader's Block.  In the past four days I have started four different books, and the furthest I have managed is page fifty two, and that only by really pushing myself to read on.  Nothing is quite catching my imagination, and everytime I start to read I hear a mental sigh echo around my head.

It's not burnout, and thanks to bumping slightly ahead of myself I can currently afford a couple of days gap, but it is very frustrating.  Bob - who has started an heroic effort in catching me up over the past couple of weeks - has been reading a couple of high concept books, all made of strange repeated phrases and thought patterns in the place of regular prose.  Meanwhile, I am contemplating picking up the most mainstream, easy reading piece I can get my hands on just to kick start me into action.

As I always do around this time of year, I am going to blame it on the weather.  And hayfever.  Hayfever is rubbish, but gives you an excuse for being continually crap.  The New Challengers all begin their half year challenges today as the first day of the second half of the year - blog on their pages to follow once I have some of their blog pages - and I don't want to start falling behind to them so early on, so I had best buck my ideas up.  And maybe grab me some Mr Men books...