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, 23 November 2010

Book 86 - Have I Got News For You Guide to Modern Britain

Book - Have I Got News For You Guide to Modern Britain
Author - Nick Martin
Year - 2009
Genre - Humour

Can you belive that the show Have I Got News For You has now been running for forty series?  The fact that it still remains funny and relevent is a huge testament to everyone that works on it, and as a side effect of that success, it manages to churn out an incredible amount of associated mechendise - DVDs, books, and in the olden days, even videos.  This is one such associated act.

Understand that I have no problem with that, but aside from an Ian Hislop introduction and a Paul Merton conclusion, there was probably no need to connect this with HIGNFY.  It is in essence a humourous look at the history, politics, and culture of Britain, which is admittedly the subject matter of the TV show, but with no particular tie-ins to the format of the show itself at all.

This is not to say however, that it is not a good book.  Several times I found myself laughing out (my particular favourite line referring to John Prescott, and suggesting that 'language is not really his first language') and the chapters are spread evenly with funny sections so as to not give it a massively up and down thread of quality such as some other comedic books achieve.  It strikes me as a stocking filler - albeit a meaty one - but at £9.99 may be a tad too overpriced for what it is.

At the end of the day, it's funny, and if you like the kind of thing that they do on the show, then it is still probably a fair bet that you will like this too.


Book 85 - The Maltese Falcon

Book - The Maltese Falcon
Author - Dashiell Hammett
Year - 1930
Genre - Crime

Whilst it is quite genuinely just a strange coincidence that the past two books that I have read have featured the tail end of a bird on the front cover, in terms of content, I assure you that not only are both of them completely different, but neither contains even the smallest instance of birdwatching.

Made into a classic film starring Humphrey Bogart some eleven years after the publication of the book, The Maltese Falcon was a massive point in the field of the detective novel.  Following the private eye Sam Spade as he unravels the mystery of a missing solid gold falcon, the book is exciting and interesting the whole way through.  I found myself drawn in to the story, and owing possibly to the complete absence of seeing into even the lead characters mind, I found myself doubting who had done what throughout the story.

Whilst seen as a classic in its field, mainly for being such an early example of a cool and calculated detective, there is something about the way that the genre has moved since which lends an air of low brow literature to the book, and that is a little sad, as it is a cracking read and well worth grabbing should you get the chance.


Friday, 19 November 2010

Book 84 - Automated Alice

Book - Automated Alice
Author - Jeff Noon
Year - 1996
Genre - Steampunk Sci-Fi

The reason that I picked up this book is the blurb which is a wonderfully interesting concept.  It introduces the idea that Lewis Carroll wrote a third book about his famed creation, Alice, called Automated Alice.  It then implies that this is not true, and that the book was actually written by Zenith O'Clock.  Then it finally admits, that Zenith is actually a creation of Jeff Noon himself.  I was massively intrigued by the idea of a book within a book within a book with a real life tie in, and decided to give it a go.

Unfortunately, despite this being the most interesting thing about the book, not nearly enough time is spent exploring it.  The occasional aside from Carroll as though he is writing it is mentioned, and once or twice the characters speak as though they are aware that they are in a book, but this occurs only five or six times in a 250 page book, and rarely if ever followed up.  The idea is sound, but administered in such a lacklustre fashion, that it is barely worth it.

Aside from that, the story reads much like a contemporary Alice tale would do - the word play for which Carroll is often famous is used continually, and in my mind over relied on, and there is a fairy tale feel to the whole book.  It reads almost like a children's book, but with the occasional massively dark moment - the scene where Alice meets an elderly version of Carroll who lives up to his possibly completely fabricated image of having a slightly less than appropriate relationship with the real Alice, leaves a vibrantly disturbing streak upon the book - and an unfortunate amount of things happening for no reason other than to further the plot.

I was expecting some good things from this book, but was massively disappointed.  What could have been a very clever intelligent read that would leave you thinking back on it for years, instead ends up as trashy, and quite forgettable.


Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Book 83 - Why Does E=mc2? (and Why Should We Care)

Book - Why Does E=mc2? (and Why Should We Care)
Authors - Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw
Year - 2009
Genre - Physics
Bought for me by Mark Holdaway

By this stage in the challenge, getting through a book in under a week and a half should not exactly be quantum physics.  However, this quite literally was quantum physics.

Why Does E=mc2? written by professor of physics at Manchester University Jeff Forshaw, and former D:Ream pianist (and admittedly, a physics genius as well) Brian Cox, sets out to explain in an easy to understand way, and without using too much mathematics, everything there is to know about Einstein's famous equation, and what it means to our perception of physics over the past century.  It halfway achieves it.

Einstein's theories of relativity are very complicated, and involve you thinking in four dimensions, imagining movement of invisible particles that have a mass of literally nothing, and generally abandoning everything you may have learnt in GCSE science in order to understand.  Yet somehow, these writers managed to get me to that point.  After fifty pages of almost baffling science-speak, I somehow knew enough of the principals behind relativity to understand that they were not making it up when they wrote that someone on a bus ages slower than someone sat on the side of the road watching the bus go by.  This is genuinely true, and blew my mind to the extent that whilst walking down a road by myself at around midnight, I stopped and said out loud 'No way!' whilst looking around to see if anyone else was affected by understanding this ridiculous fact.  What made me even more pleased than finding out about this new perception of the world, was the fact that I understood not just the fact itself, but also why that was the case, and that is down to the excellent writing of the book.

As the book progressed, I realised that I was understanding more and more, with Einstein's second theory, that of general relativity, also osmosing into my brain.  I cannot stress enough how much I have taken out of this book, and in that token, it is a truly brilliant read, no matter how long it took me struggling over my third or fourth reread of a sentence until I finally half understood what it meant.

It is not without its faults though.  Despite continually stressing that they are trying to avoid as much maths as possible, through the nature of the beast there is still a lot, and whilst they do an amazing job of explaining it, I think that a lot of readers - especially those with zero maths or physics knowledge behind them - would struggle with these chapters.  They say that you can skip over the maths part if needs be, but I think that the amount you would take from the book would be massively reduced should you do so.

The second fault is that towards the end they devote a lot of time to the Standard Model.  This is pretty much a quantum physics equation which explains everything in the world ever (except gravity - a small point of annoyance to all physicists).  As you would expect, it is therefore pretty tricky, and despite dedicating a lot of time to it, I feel they barely scratched the surface, and I don't really understand as much about it as I would like to.  I realise that it ties in with E=mc2, but I think that it may have fit better either being covered in full length, possibly in another book, or just taken out with an aside that it exists and people may look further if they wish to know more.

In summary, this is essential reading if you really want to know something about the universe and how it works.  However, if you are not particularly interested, then I wouldn't even bother starting as it will be a hard slog to understand what it took several genius minds to discover.


Monday, 15 November 2010

Book 82 - Double Indemnity

Book - Double Indemnity
Author - James M Cain
Year - 1943
Genre - Crime

There has been a little over a week since my last book review, and this is quite simply because I am reading a book on theoretical physics which is quite frankly not particularly easy reading.  I shall have it finished soon, and of course there will be more said about it then, but rest assured it is a very well written book.  It does however have one major drawback, and that is that it doesn't fit easily into my jeans pocket.

And thus why in the middle of reading this book, I happened to read Double Indemnity.  Late to leave for the pub on Saturday night, I needed a book to keep me company on the journey, and I quite literally picked up the first book from my to be read pile which would fit in my pocket and, well, pocketed it.  It was only once I was on board a bus and settled down to read it, that I discovered it was by the massively disappointing author James M Cain.  Oh well, I thought, no two books are the same no matter who the author is.  It appears I was wrong.

For anyone who doesn't know the rough plot of the last Cain book I read, The Postman Always Rings Twice follows a man who falls in love with a woman he meets by chance and colludes with her to murder her husband, before everything comes crashing down around him.  Double Indemnity however, follows a man who falls in love with a woman he meets by chance and colludes with her to murder her husband, before everything comes crashing down around him.

If I'm completely honest, this book is probably slightly better than his previous effort, but I couldn't believe the whole way through just how similar the two books were.  When you include the fact that Cain's lead characters tend to be a little unlikable, and the plots a certain kind of edge-of-seat awkward, it didn't make for incredibly enjoyable reading.

If you are a big fan of pulpy, film-noir type books then give this a whirl.  If you don't like reading the same thing twice, then don't start reading Cain's back catalogue.  I think this will be the last of his I read.  Unless I just can't fit that hardback book in my new jeans...


Monday, 8 November 2010

Why Does It Always Rain On Me

As I come onto the home straight, there a couple of things that are getting in the way of me optimising my reading time, and the biggest of them is the weather.

If I was to be forced into starting a superhero league tomorrow - admitted, a fairly unlikely situation, but stranger things have happened.  Maybe - then my superpower would be 'Reading Whilst Walking Down The Street'.  Well, that or balancing things, which turns out to be an even more useless skill than walk-reading.  It has been a superpower which has helped me no end throughout this challenge, as my walk into work in the morning is twenty minutes, and my walk home is half hour - on account that I don't get fired if I arrive late home - giving me an hour of guaranteed reading every single day.  There is nothing else to do on route, so it has enabled me to power through some of the more boring books, or really get into a far more absorbing one.  In short, despite using plenty of my spare time to read, I really rely on these five hours a week to get me through the challenge.

However, one of the downfalls of books is their incompatibility with water.  You get a book wet, it won't thank you for it, and nine times out of ten make itself completely unreadable.  And now Autumn is upon us, the sky has taken it upon itself to chuck tonnes of the stuff at me on the way to and from work.  Even aside from the fact that it took till lunchtime for my jeans to dry properly, this causes a massive dent in my reading time.  I completely unreasonably spent my walks today internally grumbling at Mother Nature for inconveniencing my challenge for the year, just in order to avoid stupid little things like drought.  How rude.

Luckily, I have a backup plan.  I happen to be the owner of one of the campest umbrellas you will ever see a six and a half foot man carry.  It is bell shaped to keep the rain off, and completely clear to allow the light to fall onto my book - even now that the nights are falling earlier and earlier.  I shall not be defeated!

To paraphrase the theme tune to Round The Twist, "Rain rain go away, come again once I have finished reading one hundred books this year, or we are having environmental problems due to the lack of rain causing lots of plants to die resulting in a lack of fresh oxygen for us to breathe, which will in turn, cause an even larger hindrance to my challenge."  Or something like that.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Book 81 - The World According to the Man in the Pub 2

Book - The World According to the Man in the Pub 2
Author - Robert Anwood
Year - 2007
Genre - Facts

As this was a Marks and Spencer rerelease of a previous Robert Anwood book, it was an absolute nightmare to find a cover pic for this book - hence the very dark shot that I finally located being used here.  Despite the concept of a book marketed and published not by a reputable publishing house, but instead a supermarket, being one that doesn't necessarily fill you with confidence, this was a pretty good book.

Full of exactly the kind of things I enjoy to read about - is chewing gum illegal in Singapore (yes), are there wasps in Thailand (yes), did Ernie Wise make the first mobile phone call in the UK (yes) - Robert Anwood manages to mix the interesting truth behind some of the strange 'facts' peddled out by people in pubs who like to peddle out strange facts in pubs - yes, like myself - with plenty of humour.  Whilst reading, you are learning stuff, yet it remains lightheartedly fun throughout.

The only gripe I have is with the particular entry about the designer of the Sydney Opera House never having seen the finished product.  Apparently after difficulties whilst it was being built, he had an argument with the Australian government and vowed to leave Australia never to return, hence never seeing the building.  This I can believe, and a cursory internet search reveals that this argument did indeed take place.  However, Anwood then goes on to claim that an Australian department was set up to send him faked photos of the building on a regular basis, lest he should notice the changes to the design that were later made, and decide to sue them.  He claims that once the internet age hit us, thousands of dollars of Australian money has been spent on this.  This, I can find nothing of, and to me seems quite frankly ludicrous, and a little like the kind of thing that someone who likes to peddle out strange facts in pubs may like to peddle out.  Unfortunately, with no back up other than his own book.


Robert Anwood also runs this website which chronicals the use of the superfluous key change in pop music.  Worth a little look, even if it has been a while since it was last updated.

Book 80 - The Grifters

Book - The Grifters
Author - Jim Thompson
Year - 1963
Genre - Pulp Fiction/Crime

As the New Year deadline rapidly approaches, I am really having to put in the hours, and have managed to whip through this latest book, Jim Thompson's The Grifters.  Knowing that it was, in part, an inspiration behind Hustle - one of the best programmes on the television - it was something that I was quite looking forward to.  A tale of con artists and the interesting ways in which they ply their trade seemed like a cracking read.

Unfortunately, this book is light on the cons and heavy on an Oedipal relationship between the protagonist and his mother, and some seemingly random character developments.  Despite being a con artist as a profession, our lead - Roy Dillon - is plagued with guilt over treating someone badly.  Relationships seem to change on a dime, and at some points you lose track of how certain people feel about others.

There are also times whereby sections of the plot seem to make no sense.  I defy anyone who has no knowledge of not just horse racing, but bet rigging in horse racing, to understand that section of the book.  All I was aware of was the incidence of this occurring, but three pages of useless descriptions did little to interest me.

The plot does remain interesting enough in itself, and the occasional twist in it is great, however, if you are expecting something of the exquisite touch that TV's Hustle employs, then it will become a bit of a disappointment.


Thursday, 4 November 2010

Book 79 - The Slightly True Story of Cedar B. Hartley (Who Planned to Live an Unusual Life)

Book - The Slightly True Story of Cedar B. Hartley (Who Planned to Live an Unusual Life)
Author - Martine Murray
Year - 2002
Genre - Young Adult

The first thing worth mentioning, is that this book is currently leading the longest title of the year award by a considerable length.  Should I have cause to write it again here, I think I shall abbreviate to Cedar.

Picked up in a charity shop three-for-two deal on account of it having a bright and vibrant cover, I wasn't expecting an awful lot of this book, but it just happened to be on the top of my 'to be read' pile (or more accurately, one of my 'to be read' piles) as I was dashing out the door for work one morning, having finished my last book late the night before.

After a few pages, I began to feel that this was just a bunch of childish fluff - the basic premise is of a twelve year old girl who is a bit of an outcast, so she daydreams a lot and hopes to become an acrobat.  But the trick of this challenge is to persevere, and this was a lovely case of that ethos paying off.

Cedar is a perfectly charming read, and the vast majority of that is down to the style of the writing.  At twelve, our narrator Cedar is not a little kid, but not quite a young woman, and is instead somewhere in between, and her language backs this up beautifully.  It is a mixture of childlike whimsy and attempts to sound grown up, resulting in her announcing to us that her mother is forty but looks younger 'because she has a small nose' or that her friends dog is about 'twice the size of a slipper'.  Nothing she says is quite the way that we - as refined, educated people - would put things, but nonetheless, it usually makes perfect sense, and is several hundred times more interesting.

So talking of all this magical language means that you may think me a little silly when I say that I could draw some very direct parallels between this and The Catcher in the RyeBoth are stories of people who have gone through some disturbances in their lives, and both - in slightly different ways - are massively affected by losing brothers.  Both try to brush aside their sadness and think of running away to sort it all out.  This is before even mentioning the stream of consciousness style of writing that both books employ to such good effect.  Maybe I am reading to much into things, but in one section where Murray discusses the term 'chewing the fat' - a phrase used in The Catcher in the Rye - I could almost feel that there was a certain homage to the book, however different they may be.

It's always nice to find a pleasant little surprise such as this one, and is certainly worth a look should you need a third in a three-for-two deal at your local charity shop.


Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Book 78 - The Catcher in the Rye

Book - The Catcher in the Rye
Author - JD Salinger
Year - 1951
Genre - Classic
Recommended to me by Emma Head and Alex Campbell

The only thing I really knew about The Catcher in the Rye is that it was famously often found to be a major part of the lives of many murderers.  The man who attempted to kill Ronald Reagan was a big fan, and Mark Chapman - the killer of John Lennon - had a copy of the book on him when he committed the murder.  I also knew that it is a highly controversial book that has had more than its fair share of bans, particularly in ban-happy America.  With that in mind, I was expecting to find a very dark and disturbing book.  In reality however, it is nothing of the kind.

The book is written from the point of view of Holden Caulfield who has just been thrown out of his school for failing all of his subjects except for English.  He decides to return to New York before his parents find out, but instead of going home, he spends three days living in the city, drinking, smoking and meeting new people.

From that, I am sure you can deduce that the book is still not all sweetness and light.  Holden spends a lot of time talking about how he feels, and he gets very annoyed about a lot of things that would not bother most people, but he is overall a pretty polite and pleasant person.  This means that whilst we see his inner thoughts and realise his not so happy outlook, for all intents and purposes he, is often seen as pretty happy go lucky.  This is where the book truly comes into its own, and probably the reason that it is still so popular today.  Despite being nearly sixty years old, the book perfectly encapsulates the 'angst' that teenagers still feel today.  Holden has identity issues and seems on the edge of a breakdown for the entirety of the book, but all in a way that seems instantly recognisable to readers.  So many times, the book gives you 'I feel like that sometimes' moments, and the idea of people relating to the book seems very easy.

One thing that I particularly like about the writing of the book is an incredibly simple idea that I can't believe I have never seen anywhere else - particularly in plays.  The idea of italicising a word to give it emphasis is common in literature, but in The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger sometimes uses it to emphasise just a syllable; for instance "They can't just ignore it".  By telling the reader where the stress is in the sentence, the meaning of the sentence is nowhere near as open to interpretation, and it manages to work without ever breaking the flow of the reading.  You barely even notice it after a while, but the emphasis remains.  This would be such a useful thing to do in a play - I have seen so many performers struggle over a particular line simply because by moving the stress, the meaning has changed - and when I finally get around to writing my magnum opus of a play, I shall try and incorporate this technique.

I genuinely feel that I could keep writing about this book for hours, and this is probably why it is so popular as an English Literature text.  I only wish that I had found it earlier; despite being written for adults, it is certainly a book which I feel would be best appreciated by readers in their mid teens.  It is just a shame that it is the only full novel that JD Salinger ever wrote.  It might not be the highest mark that I have awarded a book this year, but it is possibly the book that I would most recommend everybody to read.  A true classic that I think will live on for a great many more years.