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 August 2011

Book 36 - Animal Farm

Book - Animal Farm
Author - George Orwell
Year - 1945
Genre - Fiction
Pages - 95
Given to me by Alinda Haynes-Hunte

In a lovely treat this weekend, Alinda arrived at our house with a massive stack of books that she had no room for any more.  I am currently sat in my living room surrounded by a stack of second hand paperbacks, and am so excited to get going on them - no matter how many hundreds of books that puts in my 'To Be Read' pile now.  Of all of the books that she bought over though, I was most excited to see a copy of Animal Farm - so excited in fact, that I started it straight away.

Until now, I had never read any Orwell.  It seems a shocking thing considering how much I read, but I had just never gotten around to it, and of the two massive books that he has written (I shall leave it to you to guess which other one I consider as huge, but I doubt you will have much trouble) this is the one I fancied most.  I was a little shocked by its size - under a hundred pages for one of the biggest classics of all time - but keen to give it a shot.

Even before having read it - although dim memories of seeing Article 19 perform a very good production of it at university remain - I already knew a few facts about it.  It concerns the uprising of animals against their master on a farm, where he is run out, and they take over for themselves.  Despite this being a wonderful release from the oppression that they had suffered, things don't run particularly smoothly.  I also knew that the book was written by a staunch opponent of the Stalinism that was running amok in Russia in the lead up, and through the Second World War.

My knowledge of political history is really not all that great if truth be told, and as such I am sure that I am not the best person to expand upon the hows and whys of how this links up to Russia of the time, but even I can see the links between characters such as Napoleon and Old Major, with Stalin and Marx (Karl, not Groucho).  If you are interested in that kind of link, a quick Google search reveals hundreds of pages dedicated to just that kind of thing.

Instead I shall say two massive points in the favour of the book.  Firstly, despite this lack of knowledge, it is written well enough that I was able to understand the political aspects well enough.  You need know nothing about Communism to understand how the principals are not fitting into any society that contains human - or in this case pig - notions of greed and self.  There is a whole argument I am sure to be made for either side of the coin, but Orwell puts forward his in a brilliant layman way that is rightly applauded.

The second point is that the book is really very enjoyable.  I am sure that the number of politically minded books that are out there is in the thousands, but I know that much of the (limited) exposure that I have to them tends to say that they can be pretty dull.  Not so with Animal Farm which even whilst giving across a strong political message, manages to be entirely engrossing.  I feel that an author can feel free to try and get across any point that they wish with their writing, as strongly or as implied as they like, and they should not be criticised for this.  However, if you cannot make your book enjoyable, then there is no point whatsoever, and it is this that lifts this book to that of a true bastion of classic literature.

9/10

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Book 35 - The Hardcore Diaries

Book - The Hardcore Diaries
Author - Mick Foley
Year - 2008
Genre - Autobiography
Pages - 371

If you read regularly here, then you will probably notice that I do enjoy a good wrestling autobiography.  It's sort of an aim of mine to read them all - something that I should manage within a few years - and then catch them as they are released.  We have a real glut of them at the moment, with everyone from the almighty Bret Hart down to the lowly Goldust (worst.  book.  ever) having their own book, but it is only back at the beginning of this century that they really started to be released, and that was all down to this man - Mick Foley.

With the release of his first book, we had a true glimpse behind the scenes of the wrestling world for the first time.  Becoming an instant best seller, it was a book that wrestling fans lapped up, and even non wrestling fans were reading - such as my nemesis Bob, who probably receives more links to this review than any other book he read last year, despite the fact that he wasn't a fan.  Foley then followed up his first autobiography with Foley is Good, a second along the same vein, and nearly as well received.  Then a few years back, he released his third autobiography - this, The Hardcore Diaries.

I loved the first two autobiographies, and even went so far as to read the first of his fiction books due to the easy nature of his writing, and the interesting things that he had to say about the industry.  Unlike some other wrestlers who have used their autobiographies to slate other people, Foley usually had good things to say about most, and came across brilliantly.

Which is why I was so disappointed with this one.  Foley is quick to point out at the start that he doesn't feel he is another Winston Churchill, and thus doesn't have a third autobiography in him, and so instead he writes like a diary to show how he comes up with a concept and follows it through to a big pay off match - in this case a tag match pitting himself, Edge and Lita against his mentor Terry Funk, Tommy Dreamer and Belluah in a hardcore match at One Night Stand.  This strikes me as a really interesting concept, but he tends to wander all over the place as he tells the story, and when you add in the flashback style chapters about other events that have taken place since his last book, it becomes pretty hard to follow.  Instead of an interesting development with some good gossip, you find that now he is not friends with almost everyone in wrestling, and is instead bitter when plans don't go his way.  Not that I am saying he is wrong to think this, but some of the likability factor goes out of Mick Foley in this tome of his autobiographies.

He also says near the beginning that he knows that we are all reading for the wrestling stories, so he will try to stick to them.  He then proceeds to spend most of the book telling us about the charitable work that he does nowadays.  I am sure that he does do a lot of this work - he is quite famed for being a generous and caring man - but as wonderful and wholesome as it is, it is really boring to read about.  We are treated to six or seven stories of ill children who Mick visits and they suddenly have their lives brightened.  I am not knocking the work, or trying to be callous, but as nice as this is, it has no place here.  I want to hear about the wrestlers that Foley knows and the gossip he can tell.  Unfortunately, most of this seems to have been used int he first book, so instead we get stories about Trish Stratus making a sandwich, and far too much of Foley telling us that he doesn't fancy the Divas (female wrestlers for any of you non-wrestling fans who have actually made it this far).  Methinks the hardcore legend doth protest to much.  Foley needed to make it cool again, but it isn't.  And he isn't by the way he keeps telling us how great he is.  "I really changed that boy's life" "It was worth it to know that I had given him the greatest day ever" "That is when rock legend Dee Snyder stopped me to say that I had made him a better person".  The more it goes on, the more frustrating it gets, and does little to endear me to a man that I previously had a lot of love for.

It isn't the worst autobiography ever - that would be Goldust's, so bad I will not link it twice in one blog - but the bar was set high, and Foley really missed it this time.  Last year his fourth autobiography came out, and, in keeping with this 'read them all' challenge, I will eventually get around to it.  I hope it is an improvement over this installation.

4/10

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Book 34 - A Doll's House

Book - A Doll's House
Author - Henrik Ibsen
Year - 1879
Genre - Play
Pages - 72

Continuing with one of my little challenges this year - namely the one that says 'read more plays because you really haven't read very many' - I thought that I would pick up one of the plays by a playwright who falls firmly in the category of 'someone you really should have read or seen one of their plays, but probably haven't'.  A 132 year old Scandinavian play seems a ridiculous place to start, but as a legend of the theatre, I needed to read some Ibsen, and this is arguably his most famous play.

A Doll's House was a massively controversial play at the time of release.  If follows Nora, a wife who is treated much like a plaything by her husband, as she gets into some trouble.  She raised a loan several years back after a doctor told her that only a move to sunnier climes could save her husbands wife.  As women were unable to borrow in those days, and she wanted under no circumstances for her husband to find out, she forged her father's signature onto the loan.  When this comes back to haunt her, she is left with difficult decisions to make.

It is unusual to think that the reasoning behind this play being so controversial was that it showed women thinking for themselves, and being strong willed and independent, when upon reading nowadays, the controversy seems to be that women were ever put into such a repressed situation.  Despite the datedness of ideas, A Doll's House remains a truly brilliant play - particularly to read.  I found myself being swept up in the characters and the concept, and thoroughly enjoyed the ride.  I was recently fortunate enough to pick up a book of four of Ibsen's plays (one of which is unfortunately a second copy of this one) for a mere thirty pence in a second hand bookshop, and I shall now look forward to reading some of his other work.

9/10

Book 33 - The Sea

Book - The Sea
Author - John Banville
Year - 2005
Genre - Fiction
Pages - 263
Winner of the Booker Prize 2005.

One of the things that I intend to manage eventually over the next few years, is to read all of the winners of the Booker Prize.  It is one of the most prestigious book awards here in the UK, and I always keep an ear out for who has been shortlisted.  I don't quite remember why, but when John Banville won in 2005, it is the first one that sticks out in my mind - I have a feeling there may have been some semblance of controversy - and I always said I would read it.

Well, I got around to it.  The Sea is effectively set in three places.  Max has just lost his wife, and in a fit of grief comes to stay in the holiday town of his childhood.  He is writing about the end of his wife's life, and about the people that he is now staying with - his B&B host Miss V, and the mildly befuddled Irish Colonel - but with much focus on the days of his youth interacting with the somewhat strange family who stayed in the hotel he is now staying at.

Banville's writing - unsurprisingly for someone who is so highly acclaimed - is excellent.  He paints a perfect picture of everything the whole way through, and at no point does this shifting around between places ever seem contrived.  The big problem with it is that it is mainly pretty boring.

I know that from a review point of view this is probably pretty unfair, as there is nothing wrong with the book at all - descriptions I have seen of it find pretty much zero faults in it, and from a technical point of view they are probably right - but for the vast majority of the book I was really really bored, and could barely even be bothered to pick it up.  The fact that I started this book back in February, and have picked it up only in fits and bursts since then to get through it says it all really.

It is page 196 that things start to get interesting.  The whole book is delivered as the writing of Max from his hotel.  On page 196, we get a sudden diatribe, swearing and cursing at how he has been left alone.  Completely out of character, only half a page long, and never referenced again, it is a wonderful moment in the book, and in fact, one of the best moments in any book I have read this year.  It does not continue to be this good for the remainder of the pages, but a marked improvement is made from here, and things stop being quite so boring, but instead begin to come together quite nicely.

Despite this wonderful little moment, I couldn't honestly recommend this book particularly.  Unless of course you are trying to read all of the Booker Prize winners.  In which case you had better give it a go.

6/10 (mainly for the final third)

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Book 32 - A Dance With Dragons

Book - A Dance With Dragons
Author - George RR Martin
Year - 2011
Genre - Fantasy
Pages - 959
Series - A Song of Ice and Fire

Here it is.  The book that I have been waiting for for the past six years for.  The continuation of my favourite series ever.  The book that - after eleven years - will catch us up on some of the cliffhangers that we were left with at the end of the third book.  The book that I have spent countless hours scouring the internet for theories or updates on.  And this summer it finally arrived.

Rather than just devour it in one go, I wanted to savour it a little, and as such spread the reading out over a few weeks - holidays and a show also colluded to lengthen this out.  My verdict is that this is a brilliant book, and I will give you an early glimpse of the numbers at the bottom of the page by saying that it is definitely a 10/10 book.  Martin's writing is immense and it was so good to get back to Tyrion and Jon and the like who the entire fanbase has been hankering after for so long.  The most important thing is however, that I really enjoyed reading it.  The whole way through I actively enjoyed sitting down to get some read time in, and hot off the heels of a manic reread to be ready for this one, that was massively appreciated.

But - and I am sure that you realised that there would be a but - I am still somewhat disappointed.  I know that that might seem a contradiction to a book that I loved, and have given a perfect score to, but my disappointment stems from the incredibly high standards by which I hold this series.  Let me explain my problem.

When A Feast for Crows came out, it received a fair bit of criticism from many of those who had been waiting so long for it.  It was a bridge book.  Sitting in the middle of the series, its main purpose was to get us from the early parts of the book to the endgame.  To me, it draws many parallels to Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.  Both were eagerly anticipated, took far longer to write than we thought they would, and were ultimately disappointing to their respective fanbases as they were bridging the story.  However, with the Harry Potter books, Rowling took the series straight back to form with Half Blood Prince.  Martin however, had to split his bridge book, which leads us to Dance - the second half of the bridge.

Quite frankly, not enough happens.  Too many of our cliffhangers are not properly resolved, and new ones added, so that eleven years after the literary peak of the series so far, we seem to be not much further on than we were.  Martin has learned his lesson, and the intrigue is kept better here than before - especially by the incredible number of 'reveals' of characters who we thought were one person but turned out to be another - but there is no avoiding the bridgelike nature of the book.  It is all setting us up for the end of the series, but is not quite the blockbuster that we all hoped for.

The next bit will be a bit more spoilerish, so if you haven't caught up to date with the series to the end of this book (what have you been doing with your life if not!) then don't read this paragraph.  The big problem is Dany.  Her chapters - usually so brilliant in the other books - are genuinely dull in points, and there is so many of them that they are unavoidable in their relentlessness.  I know that they will be setting her up for greater things, but she was much better as an all powerful rampaging queen, than a slightly lost and inept city ruler.  It speaks volumes that her best chapter - and probably my favourite in the book - is when she leaves the city behind.  Tyrion suffers from the same problem as Harry Potter does in the aforementioned Order of the Phoenix - he becomes moody and not as nice as usual, thereby taking away some of his charm as the character that is seen as a monster in the books, but we as the reader understand is probably a far better person than any other in the series.  He rectifies this as the book goes on, but at the start it is a little disappointing.  Jon has a similar complex, as he blocks himself off and becomes less of the likable character he was, although his chapters are some of the best in the book.  Bran's are even better, and the only problem is that there are not enough of them.  Theon's are painful to read - no matter how brilliant they are - and seem to have sparked quite the debate online as to whether he is liked or not.  I have warmed to the Greyjoys - particularly Asha - and enjoyed their chapters, although I would like to know where we are going with them now as it doesn't seem much more advanced than before.  I like having Melissandre as a POV, and wish there was more of her - the same goes for Davos.  Arya was probably my favourite point of view character in the first three books, and whilst I still enjoy all of her chapters, I can't help but feel that she will be better once she is back in with everyone else in Westeros.  Jaime and Cersei probably didn't need to be in this book in my eyes, and could have waited for the next - ditto Aero's little chapter.  And finally, I liked having a Barristan POV.  He is a great character and one that I have been keen to hear from the whole series.

Spoilers over.  In summary, this is a brilliant book that series fans will definitely enjoy, although may feel a little let down by if they have been waiting six/eleven years for it.  Those who are just starting now, or start in the future will love it to pieces though.

Oh, and read.  These.  Books.

10/10

If you are a massive fan - and a massive geek - then you can chat about the books to your hearts content here at the forums.

Book 31 - A Feast For Crows

Book - A Feast For Crows
Author - George RR Martin
Year - 2005
Genre - Fantasy
Pages - Over a thousand
Series - A Song of Ice and Fire

A Feast for Crows is the black sheep of the A Song of Ice and Fire series.  A short publication history is probably in order to begin with (sorry, I will try to make it not dull.)

The third book of the series, A Storm of Swords, was published in 2000.  There are so many cliffhangers at the end of this book, that fans were desperate to know what was going to happen next.  Martin obliged by... waiting five years to publish the book.  It turned out that - after originally writing the whole thing with a five year gap included, before deciding that was a stupid idea and scrapping everything -  he had written something so stupidly large that there was no physical way to publish the thing.  So his series that began as a trilogy, and had grown to a six book series, was adapted so that this became two separate books - Feast and A Dance With Dragons.  However, instead of doing the thing that you would expect - splitting it down the middle - he decided instead to focus on half of his characters in this book, and would save the other half for Dance.  Even avoiding for now the fact that despite suggesting Dance would take another year until it came out due to it being nearly finished, and then it taking another six years to get done, Martin slightly shot himself in the foot by including all of the characters that no one wanted to hear about in this book, whilst saving all of the fan favourites until Dance.

All of this meant that I was very disappointed when I first read this book.  Not only were there the more dull point of view characters (if I haven't explained this before, each chapter in the series is written from the point of view of a particular one of around ten principal characters from the books), but Martin started a trend of putting in random new point of views.  We were used to our regular ten or so, plus a different one in the prologue and epilogue, but now people from Dorne or the Iron Islands - places we had never visited before - were introduced, and it all became very frustrating.  Instead of having our cliffhangers answered, we were expected to instead learn a whole new set of characters.  It was a bridge book, and one that posed more questions than it asked, and as such was not what we were expecting.

However, when I first reread this book about two and a half years ago, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it weathered far better on a second read.  Once you were over the hurdle of having to remember a couple of hundred completely new people, and you knew that your questions were not going to be answered, I was pleased to notice things that I hadn't noticed on my first read, and enjoyed it far mar.

This meant that I was quite looking forward to my big reread in advance of the publication of Dance in July.  I was mistaken however.  Once you are over the first read disappointment, and the second read of finding little bits you missed, you are left with a book that is actually pretty underwhelming.  Maybe it is unfair to judge things by Martin's high standards, but it does have to be done, and what he writes here is a perfectly adequate - to be fair, very good - book, that completely lacks the exciting verve that made the first three books so good.  I have a feeling that anyone who reads the series as a whole when he has finished writing them (so maybe in 2030 or so) will not find this an issue, as they can just plough onwards, and much like the first three seem to me - I read them all in about a week and a half - will blur a little as to what happens when.

So, disappointing.  However.  Still.  Read.  These.  Books.

7/10

Book 30 - A Storm of Swords: Blood and Gold

Book - A Storm of Swords: Blood and Gold
Author - George RR Martin
Year - 2000
Genre - Fantasy
Pages -
Series - A Song of Ice and Fire

I have just written a review for the first half of this book which nicely encapsulates everything that I want to say about it.  Here, in lieu of a proper review, I shall instead share with you a brief anecdote about the first time I read this book.

It was back in 2002 and I was at university just starting my first year.  My housemate Adam was reading the series, but I caught up with him, and whenever he was out - socialising, having a girlfriend, all of the normal trappings of life that I was distracted from by Martin's masterpiece - I would grab his book and cram as much as I could in before he got home, until I overtook him towards the end of the second book.  Whilst reading this, the third in the series, I came to a particular event - one that those of you who have read the book will certainly know what it is - that was so shocking and amazing, that I had to put down the book and go for a walk.  Never before or since have I been so surprised by an event in a book, or so emotionally involved.

It.  Is.  That.  Good.

And to top things, because I was stealing Adam's book, I couldn't even talk to him about it.  Although once we had read them, we made up for that alright.

Read it.

10/10

Book 29 - A Storm of Swords: Steel and Snow

Book - A Storm of Swords: Steel and Snow
Author - George RR Martin
Year - 2000
Genre - Fantasy
Pages -
Series - A Song of Ice and Fire

If anyone ever asks what my favourite book ever is, then I say A Game of Thrones.  I even wrote a blog about it being my favourite book ever.  Well, truth be told it is ever so slightly a lie.  A Game of Thrones is the first book in my favourite series of books ever, but it is definitely beaten by this, the third in the series, as the best book ever.

Picking up where the last book left off, this is more of the same, with the same marvelously written characters and intricate plotlines that made the first two books so breathtaking, but all of the best bits of the series seem to happen in book three.  I have no doubt that once Martin (finally) rolls around to finishing the series, we will have books that have even more exciting moments jam packed into a book, but as it stands, this is the standard by which all others need to reach.  There are so many jaw dropping moments that it is an absolute joy to read, and it is this coincidence of events that arrive in this single book that make it by far and away the best of the series so far in my eyes.

Of note - particularly with reference to this blog - that because of the sheer size of the book (this one is longer by itself than the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy), it is no longer published in one volume.  I own a single volume edition of this book that is so massive that it is difficult to use, and is now falling apart, so I bought the two separate editions, each of which is about 700-800 pages in itself - mine are both loaned out at the moment, but when I get them back I shall check the page count for this blog, note to self.  I was not sure whether to list them as one book as they were originally published, or two as I read them.  In the end, I decided that they are so bloody big that they deserved to both be put down here.

I am itching to stick spoilers in here, but I shan't as spoilers are beyond evil.  I shall instead just reiterate - READ THESE BOOKS!

10/10 (unsurprisingly)

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Book 28 - A Clash of Kings

Book - A Clash of Kings
Author - George RR Martin
Year - 1998
Genre - Fantasy
Pages - 708

Series - A Song of Ice and Fire

So, many of you may have only heard of George RR Martin and his awesome series of fantasy books A Song of Ice and Fire because of the recent HBO/Sky series Game of Thrones. I won't judge you for that, but now that you know it, you need to start reading the books.


This is the second of the series, and every bit as good as the first. The depth of character, the intricacies of the storylines, the sheer scope of the series is beyond anything else that I have ever read, and this book is crammed full of big events - although perhaps lacking a massive shocker like the first and third books (no spoiler!), but maybe after this, what I believe to be my fifth reread, the shock of certain things is lost.


Especially with sequels to books, it is really tough to write much in a review for fear of spoilers, but rest assured, this is a book that you NEED to read. Of course, read the first one first. That's how it tends to work.
10/10