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.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Book 69 - Hombre

Book - Hombre
Author - Elmore Leonard
Year - 1961
Genre - Western

With the slight exception of the fantasy tinted Gunslinger earlier this year, Hombre is - I believe - the first Western novel that I have ever read.  Generally considered to be a true classic example of its genre (at least by Wikipedia), it tells the story of a cool handed man by the name of John Russell who has spent a lot of time with the Apache Indians.  Along with the narrator of the story, and several others, he is off on a stagecoach journey when things take a turn for the worse.

It is an enjoyable book, but for me at least, nothing more than that.  I enjoyed it enough to be able to whip through it in a little over twenty-four hours, and would have no objections to reading a similar book, but it didn't do enough for me to make me run out and grab a hold of as many similar books as possible.

So in conclusion, not a whole lot to say about this one.  A good book, which I would certainly not dissuade anyone from reading, but for me personally, one of the most middle of the road books of the year.

7/10

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Book 68 - No Country For Old Men

Book - No Country For Old Men
Author - Cormac McCarthy
Year - 2005
Genre - Fiction

Cormac McCarthy is generally considered to be one of the greatest American writers of our time.  With books such as this and The Road he is held with high regard across the Atlantic, and - possibly off of the back of the Oscar winning film adaptation of this book - is becoming increasingly well read over here as well.

No Country For Old Men is very American.  It tells the story of a Vietnam war veteran who finds a caseload of drug money and sets off on the run.  Add into the mix a grizzled sheriff, a bunch of Mexican drug runners, a psychopathic Native American (at least in my eyes, although I can't remember a passage describing his ethnicity) and a teenaged wife, and we have all of the stereotypes of Texan America.

The book is tough to get into.  McCarthy writes with no speech marks, and usually without apostrophes - although he does use them sometimes, possibly just to prove to us that he actually doesn't know the apostrophe rules - and this is a little disconcerting to start with.  However, once you do get used to it, it doesn't always help you to follow what's going on particularly well.

Things happen when you don't expect them to, trying to keep up with who is who - particularly during conversations - is difficult, and investing emotionally in many of the characters is tough.  It also committed one of my cardinal sins of not describing one of the leads till around page 250, when I already had a different picture in my mind.  It is a good job that the story itself is pretty exciting, because otherwise I don't know how well my interest would have lasted.

Bob reviewed this book pretty early on in his challenge and he seemed to enjoy it quite a bit (he is a much harder marker than me - in fact I think this is the first time we have read the same book and he has given it a higher mark), but for me, I couldn't quite see what the hype was.  I am glad I read something of his, but I am not positive I would be rushing out to grab another.

6/10

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Book 67 - Grave Peril

Book - Grave Peril
Author - Jim Butcher
Year - 2001
Genre - Fantasy Detective

The Jim Butcher Dresden Files series is becoming a little bit of a guilty pleasure for me.  I am not one hundred percent certain of its relative artistic merit compared to, say, Dickens, Austen or even modern writers such as King or McEwan, but they are so enjoyable, that it is difficult to say anything bad about them.

The basic premise is that Harry Dresden is a wizard for hire in modern day Chicago.  Unfortunatley, most people don't believe in magic, despite the number of warewolves, vampires and demons that are running amuck.  In this, the third book in the series, Dresden must face two of the above three, and as ever, things do not run particularly smoothly.

One reason that the books are so good is the amazing characterisaton of our lead.  Dresden is a true good guy through and through - chivalrous, intelligent, and always does the right thing.  However, he is also moody, swears a lot and is constantly depressed about the fact that he knows he is going to help everyone as much as he can, even if it means his almost certain death.  The line that summed it up best for me was "I thought that my neck must have broken.  Then, in the corner of my vision, I saw my fingers twitch, and thought with a flash of depression, that I wasn't out of the fight yet".

The Dresden Files may not be quite for everyone, but if you like your fantasy novels with a modern and comical twist without them becoming cartoony, then this is the place to go.

8/10

Book 66 - Fury

Book - Fury
Author - Salman Rushdie
Year - 2001
Genre - Fiction

Salman Rushdie is an undoubtedly brilliant writer.  Fury is full of clever illusions to classic art, pop culture, politics and science, of intelligent discourse on the state of the world, of impressive parallels between characters and real life issues.  Unfortunately, it is also really really boring.

It took me nearly three months to slog through this book - and at around 250 pages, that is terrible going.  I reached the stage where I was challenging myself to read just two more pages before I had to put the book down and do something else.  It doesn't matter how clever your writing is if it is that much effort to get through your book.

The story of Fury revolves around an Indian born British professor and doll maker who has fled to the United States of America after having murderous thoughts about his wife and young son.  We then receive chapters on some of the more colourful characters he has met in his past, and in the present America.  There is a plot here hidden amongst the discourse, but sadly I just didn't care enough.

Despite not liking Rushdie's sense of story, I did however hugely respect the intelligence of the writing that was on show.  I suppose starting with Midnight's Children or Satanic Verses may have been a better idea considering that this is a mostly forgotten book of his, and they are seen as masterpieces, so it wasn't an entirely wasted amount of time, but this book is not one I'd recommend.

As a final note, this book was published by a group called Modern Library.  I don't think I have really gone into publishers here - excepting Penguin - but these guys deserve note simply because it is the most wonderful book to read from so far this year.  The whole book is flexible, but smooth, and really a joy to carry around.  I shall be having a look on their website soon, and hopefully will be able to find some similar to this.

5/10

Modern Library website - www.modernlibrary.com

Book 65 - A Clockwork Orange

Book - A Clockwork Orange
Author - Anthony Burgess
Year - 1962
Genre - Dystopian Fiction

For no particular reason (well, except for a Book Club 10 for a fiver deal, and a coincidental theme in the charity shops) I have recently acquired a lot of books which later became massive films.  Being the kind of person who doesn't have the required patience to sit through films all that often, very few of them are based on films that I have seen, however having now read A Clockwork Orange, I definitely hope to get a hold of this one.

The film version was famously banned in Britain for around thirty yeas due to the graphic representations of violence, and that in itself is surely a major reason for many people's desire to watch the film nowadays.  From the book, I can definitely see how the film could be packed full of horrifying violence, and yet the book goes so much further than sensationalism such as that, and manages to build up a character who is as close to evil as it is humanly possible to be, arrogant and dislikable to boot, and yet still not an entirely unsympathetic character.  Our antagonist/protagonist, Alex, hurts, steals and rapes for kicks, all with a smile and a sneer, yet manages to say more about the direction of society than of himself as an individual.

The most striking part of the book is the language.  It is written in the first person, and in a dialect called Nadsat - a mixture of English, Russian and Carney - which replaces a great many words - your head becomes your gulliver, your hands your rookers, a laugh a smeck and so forth.  For the first half dozen pages, this is massively confusing and I thought I was going to get bored and drop out of the book.  However, it then becomes second nature, and you can read this strange made up language with little difficulty, and as much fluency as any other book - and a fair bit easier than some of the books in this challenge so far this year.

The last interesting note that I have found out about A Clockwork Orange is that the final chapter (no spoilers here!) was omitted from the American version - against Burgess' wishes.  When Stanley Kubrick came to adapt the book for the screen, he had not read this additional chapter, and indeed was unaware of its existence until after the film had come out.  Thus many people think that the original final chapter was added afterwards, when in fact it is the defining point of Burgess' point.  True story.

8/10

Book 64 - The Winslow Boy

Book - The Winslow Boy
Author - Terrence Rattigan
Year - 1946
Genre - Play

It has been two weeks since I last blogged a book review, but don't think for a second that I haven't been reading.  It's just that through a remarkably anal sense of how I am doing this, the pictures of the covers of the books I have read need to match exactly the pictures that I display with them on my blog.  And for two of the books recently that I have read, I cannot find the right pictures for the life of me.  So I am for now leaving them blank, and at some point I will scan the covers if I have to.

And so on to The Winslow Boy.  Set just prior to the First World War, and based upon the facts of a true story, this Rattigan play tells of a boy who is accused of stealing a postal order from his naval school and is expelled.  His family then go on to fight a legal battle against the school to clear his name, which has massive consequences for the legal system, and for the financial welfare of the family.

The play is fine.  It is nicely written, with some very concise stage movements that give you a real feel of how the writer wanted the stage production to look and feel.  Whilst it is undoubtably dated, it still makes perfect sense, and nothing has become so arcane as to ruin the play  However, it is a bit boring.  Over a hundred or so pages, very little happens and as a book as well as I am sure it would come across in live performance, it is easy to feel that it is very well done, but not really one's cup of tea.

6/10

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Book 63 - Brave New World

Book - Brave New World
Author - Aldus Huxley
Year - 1932
Genre - Dystopian Sci-Fi

It can feel quite wonderful to read a book considered a classic, but at the same time, incredibly boring.  In this challenge so far this year I think I have made it three or four pages into about six different 'classics', before deciding - however much I may be wrong - that they are too dull to carry on with and picking up a different book instead.  It therefore makes it all the more worthwhile when the classic you pick turns out to be an incredible book.

Brave New World was written by Huxley at a time where the idea of a dystopian story - one set in a not perfect future - was so new that the term dystopian had not even been coined yet.  HG Wells was writing Men Like Gods, and a book that it has been claimed Brave New World was based on, Yevgeny Zamyatin's We (curiously enough, I was recommended this book about a week ago, but new nothing of its connection to this book before Googling Huxley a moment ago) had just been written, and Huxley's novel was met with critisism.  However, having read none of these, just some far more recent novels that work along a similar line, I found Brave New World interesting, affecting, and probably most importantly, massively entertaining.

Huxley describes a future that is simultaniously nearly perfect and depressingly bleak.  The advances in science have left the world as a population of automatons - albeit incredibly happy and contented automatons.  To counterpoint this, we also see a 'Savage Reservation' where people live far closer to how we do now.  In my eyes, both are painted in tones that highlight their faults, and I found myself wishing for a mixture of the two.  It does raise very interesting questions of the possibility of achieving true happiness without anything to compare it to - no loss, no passion and no pain.

The philosophical and psychological points of Brave New World could be - and most definitely are - discussed forever, but maybe this is not the place.  This is the place however to say that if you are interesting in expanding philosophical world views, or like a good sci-fi novel that doesn't involve blowing aliens to pieces or attending conventions, or even just someone who would like to read a book that makes you look clever, yet is actually pretty damn good, then this is a book that I wholeheartedly reccommend.

10/10

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Book 62 - The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios

Book - The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios
Author - Yann Martel
Year - 1993
Genre - Short Stories

Last year was the first time that I attempted The Book Challenge - falling short at ninety-six - and of all the books I read, Yann Martel's Life of Pi was one of the very best - a fantastic story which kept me gripped for the entire book and is in my mind, destined to become a GCSE text in years to come.  So when I spotted a collection of Martel's early work for a very low price recently, I was pretty excited.  Unfortunately, the book did not live up to its expectations.

There are four stories in the book.  The first it the titular The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios.  The Roccamatios are a fictional Finnish family created by the storyteller and his friend Paul who is dying of AIDS.  The idea between them is to create a story between them based on a story for each year from 1901 to the mid eighties - when the story takes place.  Martel's story is written with interspersed sections describing Paul's deterioration and the historical stories that the pair base their tale on.  On paper, a cracking idea, but unfortunately the history seems tacked on in a constant bleak update on the horrors of AIDS.  It all simpers along depressingly without actually going anywhere.  It is easily the longest of the short stories, yet it is testament to how dull it becomes, that I thought it was twice as long as it actually is.

The second story is structured far better, yet still meanders without a point for too long.  The title is quite brilliant - The Time I Heard the Private Donald J. Rankin String Concerto with One Discordant Violin, by the American Composer John Morton - and the writing far more engrossing than the first book, but is effectively based upon one small moral, and possibly becomes a little indulgent.  Having said that, it is a quaint little story, and probably worth your time to read.

The third and fourth stories are a lot more experimental.  Manners of Dying takes the form of a letter from a prison warden to the mother of a recently executed man about how his execution went.  This is then repeated several times with the details changed - a different last meal, a different disposition and so on.  This is again, a great idea, but just nothing happens with it.  The author seems to have run out of steam and then for no particular reason finishes.  It leaves you with yet another story which seems to have no purpose.

The last story - The Vita Aeterna Mirror Company - is easily the best - and the shortest, taking me about twenty minutes to get through.  The writer is listening to his grandmother droning on about how she met his grandfather and eventually the text becomes a repeated blah.  All of this occupies the left hand side of the page, whilst on the right we see his thoughts.  He loves her, but doesn't like her constant reminiscing.  However, upon finding an old mirror making machine in her cellar which runs on memories, he grows an appreciation for her.  The moral - whilst being pretty obvious from the offset - is pretty sweet, and the unusual writing style adds a something to the story as well.  Of the four, this is the one that I would most recommend.

However, as a whole, this was pretty disappointing.  Whilst Life of Pi is still a book I would massively recommend, I now can't help but think that this is the one off,  and I am not positive I would read another Martel book.

5/10

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Book 61 - Hitman

Book - Hitman
Author - Bret Hart
Year - 2007
Genre - Autobiography

Well, following on from my big gap between reviews (I just managed to keep it under a month) I chose a 'slobberknocker' of a book to start up again on.  At just over six hundred pages, it is a good job that this is a massively absorbing book.

For those of you not interested in wrestling, this would be a tremendously boring read, but for the rest of us, Bret Hart has had one of the most interesting stories to hear.  From growing up as one of twelve kids in probably the largest of the wrestling families around, to working his way up through the ranks of the WWF until he became the champion roughly nine years after starting work for the company, and then on to the infamous Montreal Screwjob of 1997, before his struggles after a stroke back in 2002, Bret Hart has been one of the biggest names, and one of the most involved superstars of all time.

And it is all here.  There is so much detail that I am staggered.  Hart kept audio diaries of all of his travels from the early eighties, so there is plenty to go on here, and for long term wrestling fans there are plenty of great references to old school names such as Andre, Piper, Dino Bravo and Bad News Brown.  His writing (although almost definitely ghostwritten) is very readable, and I often found myself unable to put the book down - its constant position clasped in my hands was even mentioned by one of my sisters.  Just about the whole thing is engrossing, interesting, and well written - and what more really can you ask.

My only real gripe with this was how Hart tries so hard to sound humble, yet peppers the entire book with references to people telling him how he is 'the greatest person I have ever worked with' or 'the best man I know' or 'thank you Bret for being our champion.  You are so much better than everyone else who has ever lived'.  These are not exaggerations.  Anyone reading this book will be well aware that Hart is regarded by pretty much everyone as one of the best wrestlers of all time, so his constant reminders that everyone loved him comes across as a little desperate after a while.

Aside from this small moan, this is one of the best wrestling autobiographies I have ever read - possibly even better than Foley's series of books, and if you are a fan of the squared circle - especially a fan from the nineties - then I urge you to read this book.

10/10

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Sound of Silence

My going nearly a month without adding any new books here on my blog is not necessarily a sign that I have not been reading very much recently.  So have I done much reading recently?  Well, no, I haven't, but that is by the by.

August always ends up a very busy time for me.  You would think the opposite seeing as how I have an unprecendented six week holiday, and also considering how most people fit most of their yesr's reading into their vacations, but my holidays are not quite the warm, relaxing things that most people experience.  Instead I went to Edinburgh and saw thirty five shows of varying quality, went to Wales, climbed Snowdon, went white water rafting, performed in three concerts, went bowling, came forth in go-karting (my personal best which I will never let rest) and pretty much left zero time for reading.  I finished my last book on the way to The Burg, and have read maybe half a book in the meantime.

So catch up time.  This was roughly the point last year that my challenge went off track, so I am keen to stop it happening again.  I reckon I am about seven behind target now, so if I can finish struggling through the Salman Rushdie book that I have been stuck on for nearly two months now, and then power through a couple of good books that I am looking forward to afterwards, then maybe I will be able to scrape back into the race.

At least the timing is similar to the busiest working point of the year for my nemesis who remains just behind my total.  For the time being....