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.

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.


Rating: 5 out of 5.

Discworld virgin

8:30 PM 28 AUGUST 2016

I’m embarrassed to say that this was my first taste of Terry Pratchett, curiosity tweaked by a swathe of obituaries lamenting his loss. And just one book into an impressive catalogue of work, I can see why the author’s fans are so numerous. One of the Discworld series, the story centres on the Ankh-Morpork Watch led by Commander Sir Samuel Comes and his diverse team, as they unravel two murders and a lingering threat to the local overlord. Any tale including werewolves, dwarves, vampires and golems is likely to engage, but it is the delightful humour which sets the writing apart. Inventive, bazaar and laugh-out-loud funny, this is simply a wonderful indulgence. 


Rating: 4 out of 5.

May-be more than cars

8:21 PM 28 AUGUST 2016

James May rambles through a profound century of life-changing inventions with interesting observations and no small amount of humour. Ardent viewers of ‘Top Gear’ will be aware of the disparaging treatment of May by the other presenters and yet here the ‘geeky one’ reaches out to those of us with a similar appreciation of man’s technical advances, in a terrific homage to human ingenuity.


Rating: 4 out of 5.

‘Marmite’ book

8:07 PM 28 AUGUST 2016

This might be described as a ‘marmite’ book. I was drawn to ‘The Unconsoled’ based entirely on my enjoyment of ‘Remains of the Day’ and ‘Never let me go’ and the confidence that attends the offerings of a consistently great writer. However, though I stuck with it (it’s quite long), for me, it never reached those heights. With the belated benefit of reading other’s reviews, the responses do appear to be polarized, but notwithstanding those readers who list this book in their top twenty reads, sadly I must confess to feeling rather disappointed. I disliked intensely the surreal twists of the book and derived very little pleasure from it. Indeed, never before have I cared less about the characters and outcomes of any novel. Of course, it is possible that I am merely parading my ignorance, but given my former blissful immersion in the other works of Ishiguro, by contrast I found ‘The Unconsoled’ was bland and uninteresting. Incidentally I love marmite, but I’m fairly inconsolable about this book!


Rating: 2 out of 5.

Revolutionary storytelling

7:57 PM 28 AUGUST 2016

I read this after attending a talk on World Book Night by the author. Still, my curiosity was well rewarded. A real ‘page-turner’, I slipped through the book in just three or four sittings and the plot moved through the gears effortlessly. In spite of the powerless situation in which the ten year-old central character (Charles) finds himself, compounded by his traumatic loss of speech, still his inner strength comes through in his inner dialogue. Charles is a pawn in an intriguing politically charged struggle on both sides of the English Channel and the backdrop of the French revolution is masterfully woven into the storyline. Based on this experience, I will definitely seek out some other examples of Andrew Taylor’s work.


Rating: 3 out of 5.

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.


Rating: 4 out of 5.

First steps

12:43 PM 14 AUGUST 2016

The first novel by D H Lawrence seemed a good place to start in my Kindle edition of the complete works. Certainly the quality of the writing signposts to the books to come, but the plot in this instance, seemed to peter out. Still, the description of rural life in the period is authentic and the examination of the disparate relationships is really engaging. Looking forward to reading the later works.


Rating: 3 out of 5.

Sens – ational read

12:54 AM 14 AUGUST 2016

It is an intriguing feature of the writing of Joanne Harris (author of ‘Chocolat’) that she deliberately soothes and entices the reader’s senses with her evocative descriptions of tastes and smells. And yet, her innovative use of a bottle of wine as a narrator, perhaps extending the notion of ‘character’ beloved by gourmets, conferred a tongue-in-cheek, surreal quality to this novel, at times. Certainly the device raised my eyebrows initially, but the masterly story-telling by Harris ensured that this quirky element didn’t detract from a wonderfully atmospheric tale.

The story centres on Jay Mackintosh, one-time acclaimed author, beset by writer’s block and the expectation of a second success, mired in a meaningless relationship. In a spontaneous, but desperate attempt to break free, Jay buys a property in Lansquenet, and drops out of sight.

In a clever weaving of alternate story-lines, Jay reflects on his childhood and the influence of his journey from ‘Pog Hill’, amid the new chapter of his life unfurling in France. The six ‘specials’ (bottles of homemade wine laid down by his childhood mentor, Joe) are a tangible link with the past for Jay and seem to unlock a spiritual/magical connection, enabling the the reappearance of the ethereal Joe and his earthy counsel. 

Meanwhile, in Lansquenet, Jay is drawn to his neighbour (Marise), who is stuck in her own domestic nightmare. Are the echoes of their respective personal histories fated, or can they yet rescue each other?  This is a warm and thought-provoking novel, which invites the reader to evaluate ‘what matters’ in life, but also draws on the metaphor of maturing wine. “Men are like wine – some turn to vinegar, but the best improve with age”. (Pope John XXIII).

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Classic top 100 novel!

8:09 PM 7 AUGUST 2016

Classic satirical take on the futility of war and the chasm between the accompanying rhetoric and the reality of conflict. Wonderfully witty and thought-provoking, Heller serves up one of the top 100 novels of modern literature, a ‘must read’ book, which has the quality to remain significant over time, if not to be viewed as quite profound.


Rating: 4 out of 5.