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.

Friday, 31 December 2010

Book 100 - No and Me

Book - No and Me
Author - Delphine de Vigan
Year - 2007 (in French, 2010 English translation)
Genre - Fiction
Bought for me by my Mum and Dad

Wow.  It feels pretty good to be able to put a three digit number in the title space of my blog.  But I shall post in the next couple of days with some thoughts on the landmark, so for now, I shall review the final book of my challenge - and maybe give just a little plug to Bob's blog who is just behind me.

No and Me is set in Paris and follows a young girl called Lou with an IQ of 160, and a homeless girl she befriends due to a school presentation, by the name of No.  Both have had troubled lives, and the book does well to examine the parallels between the rough sleeping No, whose mother had her as a teenager after having been raped, and the intelligent outsider Lou, whose mother lives in a near comatose state after the death of her baby Chloe as an infant.  Adding in Lou's 'love interest' Lucus, whose father ran off to Brazil, and whose mother moved out to live with a different man shortly after leaving him home alone, and you see an author with something intelligent to say about not just the plight of the homeless in Paris - which is a rapidly growing concern - but also about underprivileged children.

At times the writing is incredibly moving, but I was a little bit frustrated at times by some of the cliched plot twists, and the occasional loose tie at the end of the book.  Overall however, this is a beautiful little book, and I would be keen to read more by the same author.


Book 99 - Magic Study

Book - Magic Study
Author - Maria V Snyder
Year - 2006
Genre - Fantasy
Lent to me by Faye Braggins

Having read the first in this trilogy the other week, I was very pleased when Faye lent me the second book, and read the whole thing without even breaking for more than a cup of coffee - this week has been littered with me reading until the small hours of the morning.

It's often pretty hard to write a review of the second of a series, as it tends to be much more of the same, but when you are reading a book of as good a quality as this, then that is certainly not a bad thing.  This time, our lead - Yelana - has graduated on from being a poison taster to a junior magician, and we follow her south to a land where magic is more tolerated than the setting of the first book.  I don't want to say too much more, as any plot points about a second book tend to give away spoilers from the first, and if there's one thing I despise then it is spoilers.

In short, it is a very similar summary to the first book - if you are a fan of fantasy books, then give this series a whirl.  I very much doubt that you will be disappointed.


Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Book 98 - Awkward Situations for Men

Book - Awkward Situations for Men
Author - Danny Wallace
Year - 2010
Genre - Humour

So for Christmas I asked for books.  And my parents duly obliged.  Come Christmas day, I was presented with a wonderfully wrapped pile of about twenty brand new books.  And what a beautiful present it was.

I finished my ninety-seventh book last night, and despite it being in the small hours, I decided to get a few pages into my next book, but with such a massive pile of shiny new books to choose from, I wasn't sure where to begin.  In the end, I picked out the author that I knew best - Danny Wallace.

I was introduced to Danny Wallace's books via the one that has probably made him most famous - Yes Man, later to become a Jim Carrey film.  I read it whilst I was commuting to London for work, and it is most notable in my mind for the number of times that I burst into literally uncontrollable laughter on packed rush hour London Bridge to Dartford services.  From then on, I read Join Me and Friends Like These, which through no fault of their own are not quite as funny as Yes Man, yet are still probably both in the top five funniest books I have read.

Which explains somewhat how Awkward Situations for Men is not as good as I expected.  Wallace's style (weirdly classified by booksellers under 'Travel'.  No, honestly, take a look next time you are in Waterstones) is that of the man who undertakes a mission, be it saying yes to absolutely everything he is asked for a year, or getting in contact with all of his best friends from primary school once he has hit his thirties.  However, this book is a collection of anecdotes about his everyday life - written incredibly similarly to his Shortlist column.  They are all individually very funny, but it means that the book lacks the cohesive story that all of his other books have had.  This is disappointing, mainly in the way that I am looking forward to his next foray into doing something weird, but the quality of his writing does shine through, and I found it a very amusing, and enjoyable read.


Book 97 - Heart of Darkness

Book - Heart of Darkness
Author - Joseph Conrad
Year - 1902
Genre - Fiction

Right at the beginning of the year I discovered the Penguin Classics range in which you can buy loads of different classic books for just two pounds each.  I quickly bought The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as it was the show I was rehearsing at the time, The Great Gatsby as it is probably the first book that I think of when I think of a classic piece of literature, and lastly this book, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, because... well, I don't know why, but three seemed like a good number of books to buy at that time.

Unfortunately, this was the worst of the three in my eyes.  A couple of times this year I had picked it up and read the first couple of pages, only to be distracted by a different book, but in the end I decided to sit down and blitz it.  The most interesting thing to note at the beginning, is that it starts in Erith, a local town to me that's only other claim to fame is... well, nothing really.  It is here that Marlowe starts his story of his time in the Congo which forms the basis of the book.  Every now and then we return to the ship that Marlowe is telling the story from, and it is mildly distracting, but the story itself didn't hold my interest very much at all - Marlowe finds himself a job as skipper on a steamboat in the Congo as he thinks it would be an interesting place to go, and meets the mysterious Kurtz there.  I am aware that it is a book held in high regard in many quarters, but it wasn't something that I could bring myself to enjoy too much.  Too often the sentences seemed to go nowhere, and overall, I was pretty disappointed in the writing style of a man considered a great of British literature.


Book 96 - Slaughterhouse Five

Book - Slaughterhouse Five
Author - Kurt Vonnegut
Year - 1969
Genre - World War II/Sci-Fi

Slaughterhouse Five is a book that I have wanted to read for a very long time, so it was lovely to receive a copy in my stocking on Christmas morning.  The main reason that I wanted to read it was that for a very long time I thought - simply from the title - that it was a comic book.  Once I found out that it was actually about the authors experiences during World War II, I thought that simply to correct my misconceptions about it, it was something that I needed to read.  However, it was only once I started to read the book that I realised that as well as being a war book, it is also based upon a Sci-Fi concept.

The story takes place in a massively non-linear fashion, with the main character - Billy Pilgrim - recalling memories of his life in a pretty random order.  This is because the story is a mixture of the horrors of the war, with focus upon the bombing of Dresden - an event that is widely regarded as one of the most unnecessary and excessive attacks by the Allies during the Second World War - and Pilgrim's travels to another planet after he is abducted by aliens.

As strange as this combination seems, it makes for an incredibly moving depiction of the hopelessness of war, and despite being considered as a science fiction book, I felt that it is left up to the reader to decide whether or not Pilgrim has actually been abducted by aliens, or whether it is his way of coping with the stresses of war.

All in all, this is a terrific book, and an excellent place to go to if you are keen on topping up the number of 'classic' books that you have read.


Book 95 - Half A World Away

Book - Half A World Away
Author - Tom Bromley
Year - 2003
Genre - Fiction

Well, I have now managed to pass the mark that I reached last year of ninety four books, and very proud I am too.  It has involved me reading all over the place, including until around three in the morning a few times, but I am determined to get there.

The book that took me past the mark is a very nineties book, with Britpop, New Labour, and all of the other mid nineties trappings that you would expect, but at it's heart is a love story between an Oasis fan and a Nick Drake fan.  As a fan of both artists, it was a nice thing to have so many references to them, and to be honest it is that, along with the other pop culture references, that make this book what it is.  As someone who grew up in the 90s, we only only relatively recently being treated to this kind of remenicing novel, and whilst you don't want it rammed down your throat, it is a welcome diversion from time to time.

Worth a grab if you are a fan of Oasis, Blur and the like, or a newer convert to the idea of popular folk music.  If not, then it is a lightweight love story which isn't terrible, but not the most gripping thing I have read this year.


Monday, 20 December 2010

Book 94 - My Uncle Oswald

Book - My Uncle Oswald
Author - Roald Dahl
Year - 1979
Genre - Comedy/Smut

So, you may be looking at this and thinking 'Nice one Alex, you are running out of time to reach one hundred books so now you are reading Roald Dahl to make up the numbers - the kind of book that even my kids could read'.  Unless of course you don't have kids, in which case this would be a very strange thing to be thinking.  Rest assured however, that I am not dumbing down, and if you are one of the readers with children, then please promise me that you will not introduce My Uncle Oswald as one of their bedtime stories.

The basic premise is that Oswald is telling us how he made his fortune.  He did this by discovering the world's strongest aphrodisiac.  He then found a very good looking woman, and they proceeded to use this aphrodisiac to rape most of the prominent artists, royals and writers in the world in order to steal their sperm to sell on.  Whilst rumours will continue to circulate that this was the original plot to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, suffice to say it is not the kind of book I would expect from one of the world's best loved children's authors.

Where it is remarkably similar to the books of Dahl's that I know so much better, is that it is wonderfully funny, and interesting throughout.  His descriptions of meeting Puccini, Proust and Shaw are masterpieces, as is the scheme concocted when approaching Freud.  Much as I remember being entirely engrossed in every last word of The BFG when I was a child, I was with this book.  So long as you expect to be reading it as borderline pornography, it is a book that is well worth the read, even if it just so you can describe to your friends what the Roald Dahl book you have just read is all about.


Friday, 17 December 2010

Book 93 - The Lawnmower Celebrity

Book - The Lawnmower Celebrity
Author - Ben Hatch
Year - 2000
Genre - Fiction

In The Lawnmower Celebrity, Jay Golden shares with us his diary as he is fired from multiple jobs, fights with his Dad and tries to come to terms with the death of his mother.  He is also one of the most annoying protagonists in any book I have ever read.

With regular comments made about JD Salinger's Catcher In The Rye, Jay sees himself as a voice of a generation, but in a very Adrian Mole kind of way, he is just someone who has an overinflated sense of ego.  He is lazy, unappreciative, mean and unperceptive, but less like Adrian Mole, unfortunately doesn't seem to have any upsides to go along with all of these problems.  Occasionally he shares an entry from his earlier diary, written whilst his Mum was suffering from the latter stages of cancer, and in here we find a character worth caring about - still probably over privileged and flawed, but decent and undergoing real problems.  The Jay we read about in the main throughout this book however, is so obviously and continuously wrong, and entirely unrepentant about the damage that he causes to others, that it is impossible to like him, and made the first hundred pages or so an awkward, difficult read.

It is not the most terrible book in the world, and a couple of the characters such as Jay's Dad who seems to have had most of his flaws balanced out by his wife for most of his life, so becomes slightly inept without her there, are actually fantastically written.  However, hearing everything from Jay's horrible point of view, when you know that you disagree with everything he thinks anyway, ruins much of the good will that the other characterisation gives.


Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Book 92 - Poison Study

Book - Poison Study
Author - Maria V Snyder
Year - 2005
Genre - Fantasy
Lent to me by Faye Braggins

This challenge has lead me to read so many different types of book - romance, sci-fi, comedy, science, western - you name it, I've probably either read it this year, or have it in my impressively large 'to be read' pile.  However, no matter what I read, I have a special soft spot for fantasy books, and will always find myself coming back to them time and time again - especially if I manage to find a good series to get my teeth into..

Knowing this, Faye lent me Poison Study last week.  I always know I am in for a good fantasy read when the first thing I see upon opening the book, is a good old fashioned map, and I wasn't let down.  The first of a trilogy, it tells of a nineteen year old girl called Yelana, who is plucked from the dungeons of the Commander's castle, and pardoned for the murder she committed should she agree to become their ruler's personal poison taster - a dangerous job, but at least she will live.  With a Duke intent on her death, invading wizards and a possible traitor thrown into the mix, things are tough for her, and it all melds together to make a classic fantasy story.

It's a relatively big book - between four and five hundred pages - and at this stage of the game, I was a little worried that it'd be a bad idea and take up too much of my precious reading time, but when you become as absorbed in a book as I became with this, it is easy to whip through something, and during a weekend where I had two rehearsals, a concert, and a good evening of drinking, I still managed to get through the whole book.

Any of you fans of the swords and magic type of fantasy, this series is worth grabbing hold of.  Fingers crossed I can get hold of the other two, as I am raring to get going on them now.


Saturday, 11 December 2010

Book 91 - 84 Charing Cross Road/The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street

Book - 84 Charing Cross Road/The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street
Author - Helene Hanff
Year - 1970/1973
Genre - Memoirs
Lent to me by Julia Bull

It is lovely when people recommend to you a book that they love, and I have especially enjoyed it when people want to do so after finding out about this challenge.  At a rehearsal the other week I was chatting to Julia about The Book Challenge, and she was hearing about it for the first time.  The next rehearsal she came up to me with this book saying that she wanted to lend me something for it so she searched her shelves for something she liked which wasn't absolutely massive (I am on deadline you know).  It felt very grateful that she had taken the time to find something for me, and having now read the book, am even more so.

84 Charing Cross Road sums up quite perfectly the definition of a charming book.  It is written in the form of letters between New York based Helene Hanff and the staff of Marks and Co. - an independent bookshop specialising in out of print books - over a period of about twenty years, beginning just after the Second World War, and continuing until the late sixties.  Without ever having met, a relationship grows between the American writer, and the occupants of the shop, who off the back of Hanff's generous purchases of food packages to their rationed times, grow to see her as a friend rather than a client - particularly her main correspondent Frank Doel.  With letters appearing from Frank's wife Nora, and friends of Hanff's who have visited London, you get a real sense of the characters of everyone, the esteem to which each of them holds one another, and the community feel they generate.

And the big payoff - all of the letters are genuine.  Hanff collected them together, and after gathering some consents, had them printed.  Without having read it, it is impossible to realise just how affecting these letters become.  At one point I genuinely cried a little (on a 96 from Bluewater no less) as you become truly entangled in their lives.

However, upon getting halfway through the book I was holding, the story came to an abrupt end.  It was then that I realised that this was not just one book, but a double edition of two Helene Hanff books in one.  I was devastated.  In a little over a hundred pages, I had become so attached to the lives of the people in the letters, that I didn't want to read something else that she had written, I wanted more of the same, with the same people and the same ideas.

So imagine my happiness when I started the second book to realise that it all started again where the last book had left off.  After the publication of 84 Charing Cross Road Hanff was invited to London for the first time ever to promote the book, and she keeps a diary chronicling the meetings she has with the friends she made at the bookshop, and fans of hers in the UK who she is always happy to meet.

The whole thing is such an uplifting happy book, and makes you feel good and warm that people have ever existed who think the way that some of the books characters do.  Hanff's writing style it witty and self deprecating, and truly lets you see through her eyes.  I cannot recommend this book enough, so if you haven't read it, then do yourself a massive favour and go and grab a copy now.


Book 90 - It Is Just You, Everything's Not Shit

Book - It Is Just You, Everything's Not Shit
Author - Steve Stack
Year - 2005
Genre - Toilet Book

Written as a counterpoint to the books that go under the name of Is It Just Me Or Is Everything Shit?, Steve Stack's books set out to show that actually the world is a much better place than that, and such cynicism is unnecessary.  Only a true grumpy sod could find fault with that.  Well, chalk me up as a grumpy sod then, because I wasn't impressed.

Some of the entries in the book are genuinely quite charming - such as Staying Up Late To Finish A Good Book or The Xylophone Playing Of Patrick Moore - but in the main the whole thing pretty much read as Here Is A List Of Things Steve Stack Likes With No Particular Regard As To Whether You Do Or Not.  As a result shows like Monkey make the list, as does Stack's favourite director, despite him not being someone that I have heard of at all.  Not that I am saying they are not good, but I would hardly call them bastions of what is great about the world.  He just about manages to stay shy of the cliche of The Cold Side Of A Pillow (if I remember correctly), but the whole thing is not fully explored.  Having an entry in your list book such as A Nice Cup Of Tea And A Sit Down, and following it with the illuminating description of 'there is nothing like a nice cup of tea and a sit down.  Heaven.' does not constitute great writing to me, and in an entry about great sandwiches, listing the recipe for how you make your own favourite sandwich - when really of all the foodstuffs the sandwich must be the most simple to make without the aid of a recipe - reeks of self indulgence.

I know I am being picky now, but some things do just annoy me.  The original books that spawned this one are called Is It Just Me Or Is Everything Shit?.  To twist this around, this book is titled It Is Just You, Everything's Not Shit.  However, this implies that everything in the world is not shit.  Crime is not shit.  War is not shit.  Michael Winner is not shit.  As you can see, this obviously doesn't work, and should read, It Is Just You, Not Everything's Shit.  See, told you I was a grumpy sod about this book.

To make it all worse, this website, 1000 Awesome Things which I have been following on and off for a fair while, manages to fulfill the aims of Stack's book in a fair more eloquent, funny and heartwarming way.  If you have a few minutes to spare then I suggest you bookmark it rather than read it, because once you start you will want to keep reading the whole thing, which will take up rather a large amount of your time.  Do take a look though, because it is a brilliant website.

In conclusion, not everything is shit about this book, but I wouldn't waster my time reading it.  Except that I did.  Damn.  Now I'm an even grumpier sod.


Book 89 - The Restaurant at the End of The Universe

Book - The Restaurant at the End of The Universe
Author - Douglas Adams
Year - 1980
Genre - Sci-Fi/Comedy

Having started the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series of books right at the beginning of this year's challenge, I have finally gotten round to following it up with the second in the 'trilogy of five books'.  And what a pleasure it was.

I have read a couple of books recently which have been a little bit of a slog to get through.  Not so bad per se, but not books I was overwhelmingly into, so it was nice to be reading a book that I could thoroughly enjoy and actively look forward to picking up.

Picking up right where the last book left off, we follow our main characters to the titular Milliways restaurant, and then onwards in Zaphod Beetlebrox's scheme that he doesn't fully understand to find the ruler of the Universe.  The whole plot to the series is remarkably silly - so much so that to try and explain pretty much any facet of the plot to someone who has not read any of the books, is pretty much a futile task - but at the same time covers all bases so that no matter how stupid the concept plans, within the confines of the book, it all is quite logical.

A weird comedy sci-fi series of books, I suppose that upon release, few would have thought that thirty years down the line they would be regarded as genuine classics, but I can't help but feel that Adams' books have managed to reach that level now.  And I couldn't agree more.


Thursday, 2 December 2010

Book 88 - The Old Man and the Sea

Book - The Old Man and the Sea
Author - Ernest Hemingway
Year - 1952
Genre - Classic

There are several authors who are quite rightly considered literary greats whose books I have never read.  Dickens, Austen, Hardy - I haven't read any of them, but now I can take Hemingway off of the list.

I have always thought of The Old Man and the Sea as being the most famous of his works, and so I thought it would be the best place to start.  It was the book that reignited his career, and is still studied by many, particularly in America where Hemingway is considered one of their finest writers.  It tells of an elderly Cuban fisherman who has gone eighty-four days without catching a fish, but is certain that the eighty-fifth day will be his lucky one.  And indeed it is, as he hooks the biggest fish of his life, but it then proceeds to drag him across the sea for several days and nights.

The story has plenty of wonderful themes running through it - that of the loneliness of the sea, and of old age, of the respect due to someone who has worked his whole life, and even towards the end of the book, of the difference evident when tourists visit - but it has been suggested that the whole book has a large Christian parallel running throughout.  That particular last one was not one that I massively picked up on however, as to me, it is a story about one man's dedication.  It is a lovely story, but certainly not the big classic I had expected it to be.  I would be more that happy however, on the back of this book, to read some more Hemingway, so I shall see what else I can tuck into.


Book 87 - Tamburlaine Must Die

Book - Tamburlaine Must Die
Author - Louise Welsh
Year - 2004
Genre - Historical Thriller

Based around the final days of the playwright Christopher Marlowe, Tamburlaine Must Die is part reconstruction of the supposed facts surrounding his death, and part thriller.  Someone is framing him as an atheist, and there are plenty of candidates.  With plots running through government, friends who may or may not be who they say they are, and double crossings aplenty, everything points in the right direction for this book.

Unfortunately something doesn't quite gel, and the excitement is missing from the book.  It is fine enough, and teaches you a little about the history of Marlowe - who as well as being a playwright is believed to have been a spy, and as is acknowledged in the post script, some conspiracy theorists believe his death to be a ruse to allow him to write under the pseudonym 'William Shakespeare' - but somehow a certain urgency is lacking from the writing that sees you not sure how to relate to the principal character.  The twists are cleverly conceived from the somewhat blurry information that we still have about Marlowe's death, but are pretty much easy t spot, and in some cases not wholly interesting.

Not a terrible book by any means, but Tamburlaine Must Die will probably not be one of the books I remember most come the end of the challenge.  Of a slightly more interesting note is that I picked it up in a charity shop for about a pound, signed by the author.  Which is nice.