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Detonating a Taboo

8:15 PM 24 OCTOBER 2016

This book was listed for World Book Night 2016 and though an unusual storyline (at fist glance recovery from teenage mental illness may not seem fertile territory for humour), Holly Bourne has successfully woven together a really positive ‘rite of passage’ novel, which reinforces the notion that a diagnosed condition need not define the person. In this instance the sixteen year old person is Evie and the start of a new college offers the prospect of a chance to re-boot her adolescent life, no longer identified as ‘that girl who went crazy’. Still, in her efforts to re-invent herself with new girl friends and prospective boyfriends, Evie is cautious about how much she reveals about the past, or even her experience of the present. By contrast, her family have lived with Evie the darkest lows and with her psychologist, try to help navigate the return to ‘normal’.

Indeed, the book is something of a roller-coaster from emotional highs to poignant lows, the reader follows the central character’s progress and setbacks in her burgeoning relationships and ongoing mental health challenges, but the author deftly avoids any mawkish tendencies. Alongside some laugh-out-loud moments, Bourne also explores interesting insights and manages to balance the interplay between the potentially crushing effects of illness, with the shared ‘madness’ that so often characterizes the human condition. A thoroughly enjoyable and compelling read, it turns out we are all a unique version of ‘normal’, just moving along our respective paths. If we are lucky, there are people who care alongside us on the journey. 

I’m passing my copy on, fully endorsing the World Book Night listing as a genuine celebration of reading and books in all its diversity. Remember the name. Holly Bourne is a very promising young writer.

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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The road to enlightenment

12:46 AM 15 OCTOBER 2016

‘The Pilgrimage’ has the distinction of being Paulo Coelho’s first major book and relates his extraordinary and at times mystical quest along the medieval route to San Tiago de Compostela. The mental and physical trials the author experiences and the insight he derives from this challenge are perhaps deliberately obscure, but also makes this a challenging read in parts. Complex metaphors wrapped around the enigmatic author and his strange guide (Petrus) give the impression that this book is multi-layered and yet I’m not convinced that careful unwrapping is necessarily worthy of the implied effort.

Certainly there were some interesting concepts introduced, such a ‘agape’ – total love. “…the love that consumes the person who experiences it… the highest form of love”. Moreover, enthusiasm is considered as “agape directed at a particular idea or a specific thing”. Still, Coelho postulates the ultimate challenge for each of us is how to harness these underpinnings of faith and happiness on our respective journeys. Invoking a term coined by St. Paul, the author examines what it means, “to fight the good fight”.

What should we be seeking to achieve with this wonderful gift of life and the talents we each possess? This is philosophical stuff and encapsulating the ‘bigger picture’ within the boundaries of a walk, albeit a very long one, was interesting, though somewhat dull. Rather than lift a veil on the meaning of life, Coelho has perhaps suggested we are each on a pilgrimage of sorts, to discover our own meaning and purpose. Still, my personal search for happiness is likely to include fewer such weighty or prophetic books. Life is afterall rather short.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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Life is partly Survival…

2:42 PM 24 SEPTEMBER 2016

‘Life of Pi’ made the World Book Night list for 2011 and rightly so. Martel has created a modern masterpiece, which is beautifully written. The storyline is unusual and all the more absorbing for it. The ending too is intriguing and though the movie interpretation is good, it can’t do full justice to a wonderful book.

Notwithstanding the general assumption of the superiority of the human race, the author holds up an interesting mirror for the reader, which reflects man’s inherent, but potentially ugly, animalistic desire for survival. 

Rating: 5 out of 5.

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/REVIEW/SHOW/1521143932

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Servants No Longer De Rigueur…

2:16 PM 24 SEPTEMBER 2016

I was honoured to be given the opportunity to give this book, as part of the World Book Night 2012. This was my first choice and enabled me to wax lyrical about this deceptively simple story, which explores in detail the reflections and experiences of a butler, Stevens, as he contemplates his life in service and the relevance of a life spent in service at a time of profound social change. Empathetically written, Ishiguro’s prose is a sheer delight and his attention to detail and fine emotional expression is quite touching. Certainly not a thriller, yet I feel the intentionally pedestrian pace merely accentuates the absolute quality of the writing. A truly exceptional read! 

Rating: 5 out of 5.

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/REVIEW/SHOW/1521144071

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Dark Matters

12:21 AM 24 SEPTEMBER 2016

A challenging read which plumbs psychological depths and questions the morality underpinning ‘crime and punishment’. I found the brutal killing and attendant emotional turmoil both disturbing and fascinating in equal measure and the abundant food for thought truly marks this book out as a classic.

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/BOOK/SHOW/7138

Rating: 5 out of 5.
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‘Champion’ Heroes

13:10 PM 30 August 2020

In his thrilling fantasy novel, indie author Jeff Lane introduces two strains of superhumans, in effect the Yin and Yang of seemingly contrary forces, locked in a perpetual existential struggle for survival. That the conflict between the ‘champions’ and the ‘spoilers’ rages alongside the humdrum existence of the vast majority of the human population is interesting. That such extraordinary beings are hidden in plain sight among the general population and their activities go largely unnoticed is also slightly unnerving! Both groups are relatively small in number and co-opt lesser mortals to their respective causes, however, the enmity between the two factions is palpable. For the champions it is driven by the predation of the spoilers, whose hunting style resembles that of hyenas. The spoilers seek to harvest power from their superior opponents in a gruesome and tortuous process, draining the very life force from a lone champion, most often isolated and overwhelmed by numbers. Still, for the reader, this insatiable appetite for the ‘consumption’ of champions’ energy, in what is essentially a parasitic existence, readily casts the ‘spoilers’ as villains and the battlelines drawn between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are clearly marked throughout this opening book in the series.

In an act of self preservation, some champions are loosely connected through a national network and this story follows the transition of eighteen year-old, Jim Hunt, from college student to elite champion-in-the-making. Jim is the prodigy of his neighbour, the enigmatic Nathaniel Parker, who had identified the boy’s potential at a young age (and the need to protect it), but until now never disclosed why he was so special. However, the importance of the young man does not go unnoticed and when spoilers audaciously organise to trap Nathaniel and use him as bait to feast on two of the most powerful champion ‘batteries’, Jim has a life-changing decision to make. 

This, will he, won’t he, journey to potential ‘champion’ undertaken by Jim is exciting and at times comical, as the hero is supported by his college roommate, Eric Warner, who exhibits all the more familiar traits of a hapless mortal teenager. In fact, at times, Eric reminded me of Sancho Panza, with his squirely regard and selfless support for his friend, though he is also weighed down by a substantial secret, his ‘sanchismos’ provide a useful lighter tone amid the surrounding tension.

In the broader arc of this compelling story, can the champions survive this coordinated attack on their existence? Maybe even counter attack the unusually organized incursion into their established, but intentionally nondescript lives? No doubt which side the reader is on, but the grandstand finish raises plenty of new questions, which will have me reaching for Book 2 (“This Burning World”). The author has also confirmed that Book 3 (“This Champion’s World’) is currently being edited, so more to look forward to. For fans of thrilling fantasy tales, this is a very welcome addition to the bookshelf and I am obliged to Jeff Lane for a welcome diversion in this time of COVID-19. 

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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Sumptuous Secret

12:08 AM 24 SEPTEMBER 2016

An enchanting tale of children growing up in a private space unencumbered by the troubled and sometimes burdensome world of adults. Uplifting and heavy on the feel-good factor, beautifully written, a classic book for adults and children alike.

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/REVIEW/SHOW/152114455

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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Classic Adventure

11:48 PM 23 SEPTEMBER 2016

Wonderful classic novel of adventure and unadulterated escapism. As I was reading, the news was full of the latest activity in Icelandic volcanoes, which just seemed to add to the vivid descriptions crafted by Verne. Meanwhile the interplay between the key characters was both moving and intriguing. Quite a short book, the pace of the story is brisk, which fuels the incessant sense of excitement and perhaps a slight sense of guilt at a very sedentary life by comparison! In any event, a very satisfying read.

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/REVIEW/SHOW/1521144597

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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A Novel or a Series of Short Stories?

10:28 PM 23 SEPTEMBER 2016

I am a great fan of Sebastian Faulks work. Although we will all form attachments to particular books, he rarely disappoints and within the body of his work he has set the bar wonderfully high. However, as a ‘novel in five parts’, I’m not sure ‘A Possible Life’ works. The writing is superbly crafted and the sweep of the book is clearly ambitious, but seems most effective as five short stories. Certainly, for me the ‘novel’ is not greater than the sum of its parts, which is disappointing, but should not detract from the quality of the writing, which is at times sumptuous. I intend to read it again, in case I am doing the book an injustice, but I would encourage anyone to make the effort, in any case.

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/REVIEW/SHOW/1521144712

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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Not the Mountain, but the Climb

10:09 PM 23 SEPTEMBER 2016

The notion of a story about Elijah may not be an obvious choice for the secular majority. Yet, such is the depth and quality of the Brazilian’s writing that the author successfully draws the reader in and through this profound parable invites the curious to reflect on the path of his/her ‘Personal Legend’ and the various stages that living one’s own destiny entails. Moreover, how should one respond in the face of the ‘unavoidable’. As Coelho observes,”…the unavoidable has touched the life of every human being on the face of the earth. Some have rebounded, others have given up – but all of us have felt the wings of tragedy brushing against us.”

To illustrate the point, the novel is set in the year 870 B.C. in Phoenicia (latterly Lebanon) and relates the exploits of the prophet, Elijah, fleeing persecution in neighbouring Israel, at the hands of Phoenician, Princess Jezebel. Since childhood, Elijah had heard voices and conversed with angels, but the massacre of the prophets and direction by the Lord, caused him to to seek refuge in the city of Akbar. Notwithstanding Phoenicia had enjoyed a lengthy period of peace and prosperity, underpinned by strategic alliances and a talent for trade, the presence of an enemy of of their countrywoman, Jezebel, placed Elijah under a constant threat. Throw in that the Phoenicians’ worship of pagan gods inhabiting the Fifth Mountain, the threat of Akbar’s invasion by an Assyrian army and a love interest with a native citizen and the possibilities for conflict are manifold. Indeed, the story of Elijah is a study in resilience, determination, compassion and the positive power of love, as well as an examination of doubt, fear and corrupted morals, all of which beset the human experience over millenia.

Coelho’s gift is to invite the reader to gain inspiration from the story of Elijah, contemplate our own responses to the unavoidable and embrace the inevitable potential for learning and growth on our respective journeys. A very thought-provoking read.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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Industrial Heart-lands

3:12 PM 18 SEPTEMBER 2016

Often described as an important/landmark novel, the story of members of the Morel family is a fascinating expose of period industrial working class life, made even more compelling through the author’s examination of the main character’s relationships. Lawrence consistently critiques social convention in his works and in this book covers the historic taboo of adultery and unmarried sex, but more importantly sheds light on the roles of women in society, juxtaposed with the male dominance of the period, born of paid work. Indeed the three central women in the novel – Mrs Morel (mother), Miriam and Clara (two lovers) are the stronger characters, albeit fatefully attached to the respective men in their lives. Still, their influence is testament to the dependence conferred upon son and lover. There is perhaps a suggestion that the emotional attachment of the female characters makes them potentially vulnerable to the whims of their male counterparts. However, in the most moving scenes, when Mrs Morel has to cope with the tragic loss of her eldest son, it is the contrasting ineptitude and emotional confusion of her husband that elevates the matriarchal figure to new heights of superiority and dominance. Overall a wonderfully thought-provoking read, which rightly sits among a select collection of books that might be labelled as ‘important’.

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/BOOK/SHOW/17567570-SONS-AND-LOVERS

Rating: 5 out of 5.
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Great Heights to Unnecessary Depths

11:31 PM 12 SEPTEMBER 2016

Any contemporary story set (even partly) in Afghanistan runs the risk of appearing bleak, at least to western eyes. However, in spite of a sobering glimpse of life under the talaiban, it is Hosseini’s examination of a series of overlapping relationships, which reveals the frailty of man and the attendant capacity for tragedy.

At the outset, the narrator, Amir, is aged just twelve and has a close relationship with Hassan, the son of his father’s servant. The characters are all subject to a social structure which ensures they know their respective places (Pashtun are the dominant tribe locally, while the Hassari are commonly regarded as inferior) but privately such boundaries are blurred. That is, until an incident witnessed by Amir challenges his ability to openly support his erstwhile friend. Amir and his ‘Baba’ are members of an elite class, but following the death of his mother, giving him birth, Amir grows up feeling distant from his father and desperate for his affection. However, he is no ‘chip off the old block’. Baba is charismatic and courageous, a stalwart of Afghan society and Amir’s sense of inadequacy is fuelled by the very positive attributes shown by Hassan and admired by his father.

Kite flying, we learn, is an important pastime in Kabul culture and offers an interesting metaphor for life in the differing strata, contrasting the fliers with those subject to gravity, scrabbling for victory among the ‘also rans’. Ironically, it is with Hassan’s encouragement and help, Amir is able to excel at flying and inspire pride in his father. In a touching show of loyalty, Hassan even seeks to run down the last defeated kite in a kite-battling festival, to seal a memorable triumph for his friend. Yet, the euphoria is short-lived.

In an impulsive and childish act, Amir deliberately sweeps Hassan aside, but in so doing unleashes a lifelong sense of personal guilt, magnified by the dignified self-sacrifice of his victim. In spite of everything, Hassan, by fluke of birth a member of the lowly Hassari tribe, demonstrates a superior magnanimity and notwithstanding the consequent prospect of destitution, stoically accepts the betrayal.

Fast forward, and the overthrow of the royal family by the forces of extreme Islam and with it the social order that has secured their privileged positions, sees Baba and Amir flee Afghanistan.

In the USA, notwithstanding their attendant poverty, Baba exhibits the drive to start again, though father and son are sustained by the cultural traditions preserved in the local Afghan community. Still, there is an inevitability in the need for Amir, the young man, to be confronted with circumstances in which he must return to his birthplace and seek to atone.

This book is clearly well written and offers an interesting insight into Afghan society , both home and abroad. However, there is also the troubling spectre of child abuse, which is explicitly referenced and to my mind, diminishes the narrative. Not because it challenges some taboo, but rather it adds little value to the story and gives the impression that it has been included for gratuitous shock impact. Moreover, in the context of the book, such behaviour only occurs on foreign soil and could be construed as symptomatic of an inferior society, which given western trials of recent years, seems more than a little hypocritical. I acknowledge it could be argued that this may be a courageous addition on the part of the author, but on balance, for me, it detracts from an otherwise compelling read.

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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‘O’ level debate

4:44 PM 10 SEPTEMBER 2016

This was one of my course books at school and we pored over the adventures of ‘Fiver’ and ‘Bigwig’, et al and the underlying social systems of the respective burrows. It was one of those classroom unknowns, but discussed at length, whether it was the author’s intention to provide a critique of democracy vs authoritarian rule, or simply a children’s adventure book to be enjoyed.
It was not until my thirties that I was able to get a definitive answer from the author, Richard Adams. I was lucky enough to live for a time in the same village, not far from the legendary down and was invited round for tea. Of course, I had to satisfy my curiosity, but it was quite a relief to learn that it can be enjoyed as simply a classic piece of fiction and the news did not diminish it one jot!

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/BOOK/SHOW/10258076

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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‘His Dark Materials’

4:31 PM 10 SEPTEMBER 2016

An utterly absorbing tale, which sparkles in its creativity and reaches young and older readers alike, with the quality of Pulman’s writing. The characterization is exceptional, the plot intriguing and the pace superb. A modern classic series which really does deserve the description, page-turner.

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/REVIEW/SHOW/1521145388

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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Four-legged Hero

4:26 PM 10 SEPTEMBER 2016

This was my first introduction to Jack London’s work and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The storyline was gritty and very in keeping with the period and the tough life for pioneers in the wilderness of north america. But, it was also gripping and offered a really satisfying read. On the strength of this book, I aim to read more from this author.

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/REVIEW/SHOW/1521145435

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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Workout for the little grey cells…

4:18 PM 10 SEPTEMBER 2016

Just after midnight, a snowstorm stops the Orient Express dead in its tracks in the middle of Yugoslavia. The luxurious train is surprisingly full for this time of year. But by morning there is one passenger less. A ‘respectable American gentleman’ lies dead in his compartment, stabbed a dozen times, his door locked from the inside . . . Hercule Poirot is also aboard, having arrived in the nick of time to claim a second-class compartment — and the most astounding case of his illustrious career.

Series: Hercule Poirot (#10)

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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Contemporary Christianity

3:46 PM 10 SEPTEMBER 2016

I came to this book, mindful of my spiritual frailties and yet, aspiring to better understand how to move forward. In that context, Dave Roberts has provided an inspirational and thought-provoking insight into the development of Ffald-y-Brenin and the foundation of faith, which has enabled the creation of a thriving ‘house of prayer’. Indeed, so engaging was the book that I drove to West Wales to see for myself, such was the allure of the exciting groundswell of activity described. I was not disappointed.
Doubtless it helps if the reader is a ‘believer’, but even if not, I fancy one cannot help but be impressed by the sheer dedication and outpouring of faith writ large on the page, which also suggests a courage and conviction which is increasingly rare today. A common charge is of ‘mainstream’ Christianity being a bit ambivalent and less forthright in it’s moral assertions. Whilst this book might not be the antidote, it does at least imply that there remain strong voices, with clear messages, not least concerning the value of prayer and an ongoing need to develop our relationships with God. An uplifting read.

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/BOOK/SHOW/18912000-THE-GRACE-OUTPOURING

Rating: 3 out of 5.
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Can do better….

9:50 PM 3 SEPTEMBER 2016

I have come to expect a polished story from JG, pacy and with a concise opening, which hooks the reader from the off. ‘The Racketeer’ fits this pattern and yet in my view it is not one of his best. The plot seemed more contrived than usual and the characters less plausible somehow. I do not regret reading it, in fact I read it voraciously, but even as an erstwhile fan, this book will not be near the top of my favourite Grisham’s.

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/REVIEW/SHOW/1521146142

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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To Bee-keep, or Not to Bee-keep

9:30 PM 3 SEPTEMBER 2016

A charming journal following the exploits of wannabee bee-keeper James Dearsley, in his first year as a novice. The book is full of ‘well I didn’t know that’ moments and offers some interesting insights into the trials and tribulations of establishing successful hives. Of course, it is a timely introduction too, as there is much handwringing around the international decline in the bee population and the potential impact on man, from such a threat to bio-diversity. I suspect readers are likely to include some people weighing the possibility of enlisting into the beekeeper ranks and though the book is not a manual, it does offer some pros and cons for what might seem an idyllic notion. Intriguingly the author does also draw parallels with that other seemingly eccentric British pastime of morris-dancing, complete with the need for a customary costume. Still, he makes a very compelling case for the hidden community of enthusiasts and a rewarding way to get back in touch with nature. For those wishing to take their exploration of bee-keeping further there is also a useful list of additional resources in the back. One for the curious to crawl over.

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/REVIEW/SHOW/1521146731

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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College mayhem

7:01 PM 3 SEPTEMBER 2016

A chronicle of Porterhouse College, Cambridge, the acidly-Sharpe humour served up by the author is as sumptuous as a fellows feast. Dripping with hysterical characters, the book plots the chaotic attempts to spare the ancient institution from financial ruin, led by a coterie of dysfunctional men marooned in a glorious past, which is slowly and painfully being eroded. The Master (Skullion), formerly the Head Porter, the Dean, Senior Tutor, Bursar and Praelector conspire and scheme and cross metaphorical swords with a media magnate and gangster for the greater good of Porterhouse. The Machiavellian plot twists unstintingly with laugh-out-loud moments sprinkled throughout. Tom Sharpe is rightly regarded as a great post-Waugh humorist and guardian of the national funny bone. Very highly recommended.A chronicle of Porterhouse College, Cambridge, the acidly-Sharpe humour served up by the author is as sumptuous as a fellows feast. Dripping with hysterical characters, the book plots the chaotic attempts to spare the ancient institution from financial ruin, led by a coterie of dysfunctional men marooned in a glorious past, which is slowly and painfully being eroded. The Master (Skullion), formerly the Head Porter, the Dean, Senior Tutor, Bursar and Praelector conspire and scheme and cross metaphorical swords with a media magnate and gangster for the greater good of Porterhouse. The Machiavellian plot twists unstintingly with laugh-out-loud moments sprinkled throughout. Tom Sharpe is rightly regarded as a great post-Waugh humorist and guardian of the national funny bone. Very highly recommended.

A chronicle of Porterhouse College, Cambridge, the acidly-Sharpe humour served up by the author is as sumptuous as a fellows feast. Dripping with hysterical characters, the book plots the chaotic attempts to spare the ancient institution from financial ruin, led by a coterie of dysfunctional men marooned in a glorious past, which is slowly and painfully being eroded. The Master (Skullion), formerly the Head Porter, the Dean, Senior Tutor, Bursar and Praelector conspire and scheme and cross metaphorical swords with a media magnate and gangster for the greater good of Porterhouse. The Machiavellian plot twists unstintingly with laugh-out-loud moments sprinkled throughout. Tom Sharpe is rightly regarded as a great post-Waugh humorist and guardian of the national funny bone. Very highly recommended.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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Granada’s grandeur

4:03 PM 3 SEPTEMBER 2016

Extracts from Washington’s book are used in the audio guide for contemporary visitors to the Alhambra and it was the emotive prose which inspired me to seek out a copy. The grandeur of the palace complex is beautifully reflected in the author’s description and related legends and alludes to the almost mystical influences of Spanish and Moorish inhabitants.

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/REVIEW/SHOW/1521151018

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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Classic swashbuckler!

12:03 PM 3 SEPTEMBER 2016

The term ‘classic’ is heard often, but this famed tale, first published in 1883, must bear the rubric as well as any. I confess I am very late coming to ‘Treasure Island’, the book, and can see why so many suggest it and recall it fondly from a childhood reading list (myself, I recall the 1950 Disney film version played out at Saturday morning pictures). Still, rarely has a fictional literary character been so profoundly absorbed into the national consciousness as Long John Silver. Moreover, on belatedly reading the book, one realizes the challenge of trying to capture, in moving pictures, the sheer scale of this much-beloved adventure and the pale nature of the many attempts.

As an island nation, I suspect we have a particular fascination with the sea, but Stevenson’s use of a maritime backdrop taps into the lifeblood of nineteenth century Britain, from the evocative description of bustling Bristol, steeped in trade, to the skills of the seamen who enabled such trade to flourish. Little wonder perhaps that such men should assume heroic status among landlubbers, nor that sea-faring legends should prove such fertile ground for the anti-hero.

In the main, the story is narrated by Jim Hawkins, young son of an inn-keeper, who is by chance drawn into a dark plot involving the pirate fraternity and the search for the late Captain Flint’s plundered loot. The contrast between the leading protagonists is stark, from the stoic, cultured Captain Smollett, Dr Livesey and Squire Trelawney, of the gentrified classes to the deformed, drunken and duplicitous pirates including Pew, Israel Hands and Long John, although it is the latter ‘have nots’ that display the more intriguing characters. Indeed, Stevenson describes the comic ‘lower’ classes in quite disparaging terms, the worse off for their inferior intellect and a weakness for drink, but on board ship the value of sailors in their ‘natural’ environment proves quite the leveller.  Woven throughout is the majestic schooner, ‘Hispaniola’, which sails under the Union Jack and Jolly Roger in the course of the book and provides the means of safe passage across the oceans for the would-be adventurers and a triumphant return.

The book is fairly short and the pages slip past under a full-sail assault on the senses, in which the reader can almost taste the salty air, luxuriate in the warmth of a secluded lagoon and hear the rigging creaking in the mainsail. Only Long John Silver’s irreverant parrot to break the atmosphere…..”pieces of eight!” 

Well over a hundred years after its original appearance, Treasure Island remains a wonderful tribute to the adventure genre, replete with a reputation undiminished by the intervening years. Young or old, for sheer escapism, this book can muster a place on most shelves. 

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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Nation-building

11:21 PM 29 AUGUST 2016

I read this with my teenage son and it says much for the late Pratchett’s ability to speak to a broad audience that this story was immediately hailed as “the best book ever….well so far”. So what was it that resonated so notably with that most challenging of all readers – the adolescent male? Clearly a pacy storyline helps, but the Pratchett brand of humour effortlessly underpinned some complex concepts and successfully held the readers attention, able to empathise with a choice of hero/heroines.

The novel centres on the story of two survivors – ‘Mau’, an islander undergoing a right of passage to manhood, interrupted by a cataclysmic tsunami, which destroys his society and ‘Daphne’, whose boat, borne on the same monstrous wave, crash lands in the rainforest. With echoes of Tarzan meets Jane, Pratchett compares and contrasts the disparate cultures and beliefs upon which Mao and Daphne’s respective views of the world are founded and blends their different knowledge and skills to combat their vulnerability and attendant dangers. It’s a thrilling adventure. Babies to be birthed, raiders to be repelled, food to be chewed for the toothless. Indeed, part of the book’s appeal is possibly this Dahl-esque indulgence in the unexpected, the violent, the gross. But, it is also touching in parts and even the burgeoning relationship between the two main characters was tolerated in all its subtle sensitivity.

In many ways this is a ‘right of passage’ book and the emergence of the two young adults, stepping out into their prescribed futures, forever bonded by their experience, is quite uplifting.

The idea that, on this small island at least, it might be possible to erase a history and start again, or perhaps we are each a summary of our preceding generations, so that we are rarely a blank canvas. Certainly the encroachment of the ‘outside’ world into an isolated island community must change it forever, if not for the better, but individual contributions do matter.

Helpfully, in his ‘Author’s Note’, Pratchett plays the “great big multiple universes get-out-of-jail-free card”, to explain any anomalies in the plot. And about ‘Thinking’, he also belatedly warns the reader that “this book contains some”!

It is perhaps a measure of the writer that though aimed at the ‘young adult’ reader, ‘Nation’ has much to commend it to a wider audience. Leastways, son and I are committed to further exploration of TP’s lengthy book list. Bring it on!

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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Jungle drum

9:18 PM 28 AUGUST 2016

This was my first taste of Paul Theroux, but I tend to love the orange-spined Penguin books and the Sunday Times byline on the cover suggesting the author “is as cool as Maugham”, just had to be tested.

Set in Malawi, the book follows the antics of American, Calvin Mullet, sent by his company ‘Homemakers International’, to establish the use of insurance on the continent and European, ‘Marais’, a wannabe revolutionary leader, seeking to ignite a popular uprising against the incumbent dictator (‘Osbong’). The interplay between their disparate paths and the buffeting of the respective ambitions, lends itself to a satirical examination of a paternalistic brand of imperialism. But, the impact of capitalism, in the guise of a local brothel just piles on the irony, as the author casts an empathetic, quizzical eye over the insincere and ill-informed fumblings of the ‘developed’ world and the assumed vulnerability of the ‘developing’. Throw in the stereotypical British ex-pat, Major Beaglehole and the scope for political incorrectness is huge. However, read as a book of its time (1970s), the caricatures are cleverly assembled and instantly recognizable.

A very entertaining read, I’m not sure I would put Theroux in the same bracket as Maugham, but he does have an impressive back catalogue  and I shall look forward to sampling some more. 

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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Profound look at good endings…

8:44 PM 28 AUGUST 2016

Working as I do in an integrated Health & Social Care environment, ostensibly geared to working with older citizens, this book had a resounding resonance with my own professional experience. The loss of my grandparents in recent years also bore some of the hallmarks of the tensions alluded to by Gawande, between the expectations and aspirations of people faced with the additional years, which for many, modern science has made possible and systems which may be subverted towards longevity as a destination in itself, without recourse to the ‘quality of life’ issues, with which they are inevitably bound.
Gawande makes a very cogent case for considering the role of western medicine in contemporary society and the potential for Drs to collude with patient’s assumed desire for survival, because treatments are possible, rather than initiate ‘difficult conversations’ which establish ‘what matters’ to the individual. The author describes common examples of clinicians instinctive leaning towards the exhaustion of a catalogue of possible interventions, without necessarily relating decision-making to what the patient is seeking to achieve through treatment. The book may thus be seen as a rallying cry to clinicians to rebalance the power differential which has evolved between the professional and the patient. However, there is also an implied criticism of societies that have become distanced from the reality of death. In the past, families and individuals were arguably more exposed to the experience and consequences of ageing and dying. In contrast to today, when such decline is frequently behind hospital doors, managed by professionals, the sanitizing of the process may have resulted in societies less equipped emotionally and practically to procure and recognize a ‘good’ death. For example, the author contrasts the experience of many with the often enlightened approach adopted by the hospice movement, which could inform much of ‘mainstream’ medical ‘end-of-life pathways’.
In his quite profound book, Gwawande’s sensitive writing style invites overdue reflection on how we have come to the current state of affairs. Given the ageing populations of most western nations, he has also perhaps rendered us a great service, initiating a wake-up call to all of us, to consider how we would want the last stages of our lives to look like (and equally pressing – not look like) and to have the courage to ensure our nearest and dearest are aware of our wishes. Abdicating responsibility for defining a ‘good death’ in our own terms, potentially leaves the decision-making, when the time comes, in the hapless hands of those without the clarity of ‘knowing’. For those of us in a position to initiate such difficult conversations, the reward of short-term discomfort may be surprising responses, but also understanding and knowledge with which to advocate the most appropriate outcome. A really thought-provoking read.

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/REVIEW/SHOW/1521155649

Rating: 5 out of 5.
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Sequels can work…

7:39 PM 28 AUGUST 2016

A return to Jake Brigance as a hero of the courtroom marks the continuance of John Grisham’ s first novel. JB now in his thirties has not enjoyed the take-off of his career that might have been anticipated following his triumph in “A Time to Kill”, set three years previously, but his brand of delivering legal representation with an ethical edge remains thoroughly compelling. Of course, the latest tale is dependent upon a scenario which duly presents a moral maze, through which JB must navigate on behalf of a victim of circumstance, facing high calibre legal gladiators. As always, Grisham confirms his standing as a consummate story-teller and his pacing of the plot translates into a strong ‘page-turner’. The book reinforced my relish of the wise Judge Atlee, who wields power on the Ford County bench, mentor of JB, but unashamed arbiter of fair play, at times based on an apparently instinctive, ‘common sense’ view of justice. There are a couple of mechanisms used to maintain the pitch of impending failure, but nonetheless, the resolution of the court case is satisfying and confirmed my standing as a fan of
Grisham’ s skill as a writer of thrilling fiction.

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/REVIEW/SHOW/1521162726

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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Men and sheds

7:41 PM 7 AUGUST 2016

Witty, insightful, poignant and thought-provoking, for men of a certain age Marcus Berkmann’s book provides a useful compass with which to navigate those twilight years, with humour rather than resignation, grace rather than grumpiness. Should be compulsory reading for all men with the potential to age predictably.

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/REVIEW/SHOW/1521167368

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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Quite Sublime

7:12 PM 7 AUGUST 2016

The word ‘superb’ is not one I bandy about lightly, but it seems eminently appropriate for “The Book Thief” by Marcus Zusak. Not only is it inventive in the use of Death as a narrator, which adds a peculiar perspective to the story and confers so much more than a simple device, but the plot and characters are truly compelling. Just when I might have thought the rich seam of World War II had been overworked, comes this beautifully crafted book, which teases at loose threads of this global human tragedy and gradually unpicks the experience of a unique individual, her foster parents and the street and town in which they lived. That the street and characters are German and shaped by the familiar trajectory of the conflict is intriguing. That human frailties and blessed courage know no national boundaries, yet flourish at the individual level, is fascinating.
The gloriously flawed heroine, Liesel, is a child, but nonetheless challenges stereotypes and her arbitrary circumstances, not saintly, but indomitable, funny yet deep. Meanwhile, the disparate array of relationships between Liesel and her parents, neighbours, asylum-seeker and benefactor sow the seeds of sadness, frustration, admiration and despair in equal measure. The impact of man’s folly is clearly shown in war and is perhaps felt most keenly by the poor and yet the author also casts a hopeful light on the resilience of the human spirit and without sentimentality the possibility of greater things. A wonderfully poignant read to ponder.

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/BOOK/SHOW/893136.THE_BOOK_THIEF

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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Quiet, please!

We all have talents, this seems self-evident, but in a world apparently possessed by a clamouring for celebrity culture and the reward of extrovert behaviour, there is a risk that we trade charisma for depth and push ‘quiet’ souls to the margins. This book makes a compelling case for re-evaluating the contribution of the introverted and examines why the range of human personalities exists, what are the implications for those who fall to the introverted end of that continuum and for those successful in overcoming such a potential disadvantage, how did they do it?
Naturally there is an obvious attraction in this book for introverts everywhere (though western culture appears to offer the greatest challenge) and there is a warming validation in Susan Cain’s explanation that it’s OK to be ‘quiet’. The cerebral-leaning are not to be pitied, the ‘geeky’, the ‘shy’ are capable of making profound contributions in work and social life and this book offers some real insight for those seeking to understand how best to relate. The book also offers strategies for the introvert not wanting to be held hostage to their natural self. I found it gratifying to find that introverts don’t need to move to China to be appreciated, but awareness of approaches that might oil the wheels of relationships were thought-provoking. This book reaffirms that ‘it takes all sorts’, but my favourite quote appears in the conclusion, “The secret to life is to put yourself in the right lighting.For some it’s a Broadway spotlight; for others, a lamplit desk”. Thank goodness for that!

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/BOOK/SHOW/18006972-QUIET

Rating: 5 out of 5.
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Older and wiser…………

The underlying premise of this book is quite intriguing in that it appears to question the morality behind the ‘warehousing’ of our elders in Care Homes. Moreover, the delegation of caring responsibilities for some of our more vulnerable people to the vagaries of commercial enterprise seems destined to deliver only a diminished quality of life. Cue Martha Andersson, a septuagenarian heroine unwilling to allow the status quo to go unchallenged and the potential for conflict, drama and humour is set. Like a latter-day Spartacus, Martha contrives to lead her friends and fellow malcontents on a spree of uninhabited rule-breaking and new experiences, in an effort to enrich their lives.The series of adventures struck me as reminiscent of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, or rather how they might behave in retirement. Still, there is something endearing in the rebels rejection of stereotypes and their general railing against the dying of the light. Indeed, there is something delicious about the group’s refusal to comply with social etiquette and the frequently patronizing expectations of the older fraternity. Friendship, romance, bonding and unashamed thrill-seeking drive the ‘gang’ into an escalating spiral of misdemeanors, outwitting those in authority and proving the adage that people can only be ‘governed’ by consent.

On the whole an easy, entertaining read without being overtly funny or exciting. Nonetheless, the concept is a good one and just as some of us aspire to be the elder in the purple hat, some of us may now have a sneaking desire to join the ranks of the aged rebels and definitely not go quietly, but rather wring some quality from life well into our dotage.

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/REVIEW/SHOW/1644378598

Rating: 2 out of 5.
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Satirical Humour?

1:35 PM 6 AUGUST 2016

There can be little doubt that McEwan ia an exceptionally talented writer. Fresh from reading “Atonement”, for me, this is clearly demonstrated by the contrasting, but similarly compelling style and storyline deployed in “Solar”. 

This book centres on Nobel-prize-winning physicist, Professor Michael Beard. A brilliant mind, though past his ‘best before’ shelf-life, Beard is an emotional train crash, careering out of a fifth failed marriage and destined to be perpetually disappointed by the self-inflicted carnage of his sabotaged relationships. And yet, the superficial nature of Beard’s disposable romantic encounters, juxtaposed with the gravity and gloomy predictions of global-warming, is shot through with mawkish satirical humour. Notwithstanding the lure of scientific rationality, the weak and shallow base motivations of man are seemingly unequal to the challenge of impending destruction. Moreover, humankind may yet be sacrificed on the altar of our individual and collective inability to focus! It’s a sobering thought….

Another well-constructed novel, which further burnishes McEwan’s reputation, though I was also left with the impression that the serious threat to the planet is no laughing matter!

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Poignant Dystopia

2:09 PM 24 SEPTEMBER 2016

I was so impressed by The Remains of the Day that I was inspired to move on to this book by the same author. Admittedly it was also shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, but the quality of the writing was nonetheless similarly beguiling. Ishiguro has created another thought-provoking novel, which tackles some quite profound issues around what it is to be human, the tyranny of a new form of slavery and the ethics of a system prepared to sacrifice the few for the good of the many. Albeit a fictitious social framework, it nonetheless invites critique around other man-made discrimination, which cast some people as powerless, or ‘undeserving’. Brilliant book, the nuances of which were not fully captured (in my view), by the movie interpretation.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/REVIEW/SHOW/1521144086

Top 10 Literary ‘Hero’ Resides Here!

2:02 PM 24 SEPTEMBER 2016

For such an acclaimed classic novel, I’ve come to it late. I know the the reputation of the masterpiece by Harper Lee and the centrality of the character, Atticus Finch. What I hadn’t realised was that it’s written from the perspective of his young daughter, Jean Louise, aka ‘Scout’ and I think this was a masterstroke. Atticus is heroic because he acts as the conscience of the community of Maycomb, Alabama, albeit he is impotent in the face of 1930s racism.
Nonetheless, Atticus represents the rule of law and advocates for justice via the courts and crucially he has imbued his children with the ideals of what is right. And it is the naive belief of his children, unencumbered by the subverting effects of the prevailing white adult culture, which seizes the imagination. Throughout the book the invisible spectre of Boo Radley (local recluse) looms large for Scout and her brother (Jem), but so does the presence of their ‘coloured’ cook (Calpurnia) and as a consequence it is the simply balanced view of Scout, which deftly marshalls the sympathies of the reader. A remarkably well written book, which continues to stand the test of time.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/REVIEW/LIST/51836771

Classic American Novel

12:30 AM 24 SEPTEMBER 2016

Beautifully crafted, classic American novel, the mysterious, detached Gatsby is dissected through his relationships with acquaintances, friends, businessmen and father. In spite of extreme wealth, he cuts a tragic,isolated figure at times, undone by emotional attachment. The backdrop of 1920s US is also utterly compelling.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/REVIEW/SHOW/1521144352

Political Theory

12:14 AM 24 SEPTEMBER 2016

A seminal work, which offers an interesting, if dated, critique of capitalism and an alternative way of perceiving the world’s dominant system of social organization. Certainly the thoughts expressed by Marx and Engels lays bare the assumptions which accompany our embrace of capitalism, but its longevity may owe much to the absence of a workable alternative to date (the subsequent attempts at the implementation of communism being largely discredited).  

SOURCE: HTTP://WWW.GOODREADS.COM/REVIEW/SHOW/1521144565

Rating: 3 out of 5.