Peter Steward's Web Site
BOOK REVIEW SECTION
Reading is another of my great passions. So this section of the web site is designed for book reviews and recommendations. I hope you enjoy it. If you have any comments you would like added please e-mail them to me by clicking here. Each book is given a rating out of 30 with 10 points being awarded for style, 10 points for story and 10 points for enjoyment or readability. A score of over 25 is outstanding, 20-24 good, 15-19 average, 10-14 poor and under 10 very poor. Books with a score of more than 25 are highly recommended. Of course I emphasise that this is all a personal view.
The Interpretation of Murder - Jed Rubenfeld 13
The Historian - Elizabeth Kostova 15
Arthur and George - Julian Barnes 24
It may seem strange to bracket these three novels together, but there are many similarities and I read them in the order above. I didn't set out to do this, it was purely by chance and from their reputations.
The Interpretation of Murder has been an international bestseller and I was attracted to it after it was made a choice of the Richard and Judy Book Club (not sure whether that's a good thing or the kiss of death). To the uninitiated Richard and Judy is a British television chat show hosted by husband and wife Richard Madeley and Judy Finnegan. I'm not quite sure why it's so popular as Madeley seems intent of turning every situation into an item about himself.
Anyway they have a book club where they bring the attention of the public to certain volumes and single handedly can ensure a book moves to the top of the charts, as was the case with this one.
I was intrigued to hear that the novel is set in early 20th century New York and follows the visit to America of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. Historically it is known that Freud did visit America and disliked the country intensely due to something that happened to him whilst he was there.
Rubenfeld has woven an intricate plot around this with a storyline that guesses at the reasons for Freud's hatred of America and Americana.
The Historian is another epic historical novel on a massive scale, this time dealing with vampires and the legend of Dracula. It is not my intention to go deeply into the plots of novels but rather to comment on style and general content. This book brought with it a huge advance for the author ahead of its publication.
The third of the trio is by British author Julian Barnes (the other two are American) and tells the story of Sherlock Holmes' creator Arthur Conan Doyle and his attempts to prove the innocence of a young man wrongly accused of butchering animals.
You will see from my ratings that two of these books end up in the poor or average section. This is simply because they are far too rambling for their own good. Rubenfeld's book receives mixed reviews on the Amazon site and I would suggest that those who eulogise about it have been bitten by the hype. Essentially it is a second rate story told in a confusing style where characters seem to merge into one another. The depiction of New York in the early 20th century is much patchier than many reviewers suggest and the premise that this is about Freud is a nonsense. Freud is only involved as a peripheral figure with one of his students taking centre stage.
Similarly The Historian suffers from having too broad a canvas. Again it has a confusing plot that seems to ramble all over the place. It is an overlong novel that ultimately disappoints. When we meet Dracula he seems more of a benign presence than an evil blood-sucking vampire. It also stretches credibility even further than Rubenfeld and I found myself looking forward to finishing it.
Arthur and George on the other hand succeeds as an historical novel. It homes in on a bygone age with clarity and pace. Conan Doyle comes out of it as a marvellous English character and you feel that this book keeps very closely to the actual happenings of the time. Reading this gave me a sense of achievement wanting to know far more about Conan Doyle. It is a also a social study of the Midlands and reveals the prejudices of the age.
Barnes succeeds because he has not attempted to construct a blockbuster but a lovingly knit together story of the relationship of two main characters that works on all levels. Perhaps the ending is disappointing but this doesn't really detract from the overall feel of a beautifully written and researched story that is infinitely more enjoyable than the other more ambitious texts.
Richard Harris: Sex, Death and the Movies - Michael Feeney Callan 20
Can You Tell What It Is Yet - Rolf Harris 21
Does anyone see the link between these two? One is a biography, one an autobiography and they appear to be about people at the opposite ends of the entertainment spectrum.
You may have spotted that the only link is that they are both about R. Harris. It was a link I didn't grasp when I picked them both up from the local library and decided they would be my next two reads. So apart from sharing a name they are books that are poles apart, but both interesting in their own way.
They do have something else in common, however. Richard Harris was a hell-raising Irish actor and Rolf Harris is a tee-total genial Australian. Both, however, are heroes of mine for different reasons. Both are men I either would have liked to or still would like to meet. Richard had great passion, great energy and had to wrestle his demons. Rolf has great passion, great energy and is everyone's favourite Aussie. So men totally different and of course that comes over in the books.
Callan gives us an insight into the tortured world of Richard - a world where he seems to change his views and his mind with the weather. At times the book is rather confusing, as if it's being written without any help from the subject (and I'm sure this was the case). Richard Harris could be all things - a manic depressive, a drink swilling alcoholic but also a tender and generous man.
There is no doubt in my mind that his true greatness was never reached. From an early age I was a devotee of the actor. A Sporting Life remains possibly the best film about sport ever made. Reading that Richard Harris was in a film gave it instant credibility for me. But then he hit a sticky patch becoming involved in second and third rate films that made a mockery of his talent.
Towards the end of his life he again found his way with films like The Field and the Harry Potter series. All this is chronicled well by Callan, along with his womanising and hell-raising. At times it doesn't quite add up, but I should imaging that was also true of the subject. It must be remembered that Harris was much more than just an actor. He was a poet and a recording artist. I would never claim that he had a great voice but I have all his albums and his collaborations with composer Jimmy Webb produced some great pop including MacArhtur Park which seems to be celebrated and vilified in equal amounts. Shortly after reading the biography I found a second hand copy of Harris' poetry I in the Membership of My Days.
Obviously being an autobiography, Rolf Harris' book is much more personal. Here is a man with a 100 per cent sunny outlook on life. He tells us that a few years ago he suffered from severe depression but we then learn it was because of medication he was taking for an illness.
I have always wondered whether Rolf Harris' friendly and homely personality was really too good to be true. From this book it appears not, although it is interesting to find him self analysing his life rather than just giving us the froth. At times you are almost waiting to find out the nasty bits only to realise that they really don't exist and Rolf really has led a virtually blameless life.
He does go into his personal relationships with his wife and daughter, apologising for putting his career first and all too often distancing himself from them. But overall Rolf Harris is a gem and this book was written in the easy going style that sums the man up - one of my true heroes, not because of his talent but because of who and what he is.
Never Go Back - Robert Goddard - 20
Over the years I have read a number of Goddard books and find them enjoyable and easy-going. There is nothing out of the ordinary with this one which gets a little stodgy in places and I found the ending rather obvious and disappointing.
The characters are rather wooden and nicknames used throughout become rather tiresome and confusing and I never felt that the characters were real people.
Essentially it tells the story of a re-union for a group of RAF comrades in the Scottish castle where they were guinea pigs in an experiment many years previously. But as members of the party get "bumped off" it is obvious that things are not what they seem. The book re-introduces us to the characters Harry Barnett and Barry Chipchase who featured in earlier novels.
Goddard's books need to be treated simply as good reads with no great analysis.
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas - John Boyne - 26
This is a remarkably good book. In just over 200 pages it says more about the holocaust than many weighty offerings.
Essentially written through the eyes of a nine year old boy, the language is direct and simple. Originally aimed at the young readers' market this is one of those cross overs into adult fiction. It is both strong and powerful and has a killer ending.
It is the story of 9-year-old Bruno who is forced to move with his family from the relative peace and calm of Berlin to a strange place that we learn is Poland. By putting together clues and pieces of the jigsaw, the reader stays one step ahead of Bruno. We soon realise exactly where he is and why he is there.
Bruno and family move to what he calls Out With but we soon realise it is Auschwitz. Bruno's father is an important man in Out With and we soon realise that he is commandant of Auschwitz, whilst Bruno remains confused and unsure. Bruno can see the barbed wire of the concentration camp, but thinks its a holiday camp and envies the young people he can see, assuming that they are playing together and having a good time. It is this irony that is central to the book, because we know better.
Through Bruno's eyes and his friendship with one of the "inmates" whom he meets daily, we begin to grasp the horrors of wartime Germany and Poland. Bruno also gets to meet a man he calls The Fury who comes to dinner and acts in a rather strange way. Despite its intensity there is humour in the book with Hitler being described as having "dark hair, which was cut quite short, and a tiny moustache - so tiny in fact that Bruno wondered why he bothered with it at all or whether he had simply forgotten a piece when he was shaving." When Bruno's sister tells Hitler that she can speak French he replies with a curt "but why would you want to." Poking fun at one of the most evil men to have lived just adds to the power of this story.
The centre piece of the story is the unlikely friendship that builds up between Bruno and Shmuel - The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. - a young Jew in the concentration camp. They soon establish that they were born on the same day, but their lives couldn't be different. Bruno doesn't comprehend why his new friend seems to be getting paler and thinner. He takes him food but often eats it himself on the way to the barbed wire. Eventually the friendship has disastrous consequences in the most unexpected way.
This book is full of poignant moments, emphasising the frailty of youth before ignorance and hatred can take over. It is a beautiful example of how literature can still astound and amaze.
Austerlitz - W.G. Sebald - 19
My Summer of Love - Helen Cross - 18
This tackles the same kind of subject matter as Boy With the Striped Pyjamas but in a much more academic way. It is a strange book. The first 50 pages are so are rather like wading through porridge. When you eventually get to the narrative part you begin to have high hopes, that are then shot down with a disappointing middle and end section.
The book is written in just one massive paragraph - which in itself isn't a great problem, but at times you feel that Sebald is trying to be just too clever and erudite for the good of the story which is essentially about the leading character's journey to find his past - again rooted in Eastern Europe.
Sadly he finds the answers all too easily which means the book becomes more a social comment than a good mystery story. The prose is interspersed with strange black and white maps and photographs that seem to add little to it and at the end it all just peters out with a new character being introduced in the last three pages which just leaves you asking the question why?
Much of the book is rambling in nature which is sad because it does have quality and is well written but the subject matter ends up in disappointment.
On the surface there are no apparent links between a scholarly book like Austerlitz and Summer of Love which is set in working class Yorkshire in the 1980s. But it seems that every time I pick up a new book it has some link to the past.
In Austerlitz Sebald talks about a train journey from East Anglia to Liverpool Street. His starting point is obviously Norwich. Sebald was apparently Professor of European Literature at the University of East Anglia until his death in 2001. Helen Cross is a graduate of the UEA. She even uses the family name Fakenham for one of the main characters - Fakenham being a market town in Norfolk.
Apart from that the content of the books couldn't have been different. My Summer of Love is a hard book to describe. There are many strands to it and it does contain a form of erotic sexualty that is never fully developed.
It is a hot summer. Mona drinks, steals, plays slot machines and generally suffers the feelings of a teenage girl. She builds up an unexpected friendship with the rich and stylish Tamsin. The book is written in a direct almost slang style reminiscent of chic-lit but on a slightly higher level. At times the action doesn't really add up or gel. There are murders and strange goings on but somehow they are never that believable. It has been made into a film that I haven't yet seen. It will be interesting to see what I make of that.
Chart Throb by Ben Elton - 18
Frankly this book was a great disappointment. There is a feeling that rock and pop artists and current authors all have a shelf life after which they just become mere shadows of their former artistic selves. Elton seems to have reached this and but for an ingenious ending this book would have been very poor indeed.
The cover claims that OK Magazine called it "A brilliantly savage, laugh-out-loud page turner." That seems to be very far from the mark. It was a dull over-long attempt at satire that failed to work and at times became repetitious and boring.
Elton is no longer risque and by liberally sprinkling his book with the f and c words he does nothing to elevate himself above the mundane. It no longer shocks and is rather tiresome. I loved his early books that were spiteful and sharp. Now they seem to be tired as he strings out his take on modern society over well over 450 pages.
It is an easy read, but essentially the plot is quite ridiculous involving the Prince of Wales taking part in Heart Throb - the successor to the X Factor. It goes through the many ways in which the talent show is fixed, fiddled and just a vehicle for the egomaniac judges but I gave up caring about any of the characters long before the end and their posturing and preening became sadly dull as was Elton's attempts to be clever and witty. In many ways this is a one joke or one line book where the repetition becomes very dull and the evolvement of the plot moves at a snail's pace.
Having said that the ending is clever and won't disappoint and I certainly didn't see it coming.
52 Ways to Magic America by James Flint - 16
I really tried to like this book, but every time I did it disappointed and, in the end, I found it rather difficult going and my levels of interest dipped. I desperately hoped for a good ending, only to be disappointed yet again.
For a start I really don't understand the title as America doesn't feature to any great extent. I'm sure it's all very subtle and I'm just being "thick" but if I don't get it the chances are other people will be in the same boat.
I love books about magic and magicians - one of my little quirks. So that prompted me to read a book where the back cover blurb promises a very interesting read: "Marty has been practising magic since he was nine. All his hard work and obsessiveness appear to have paid off when, ten years later, he wins both the title of Young Magician of the Year and the heart of Terri Liddell. A glittering professional future seems to beckon for them both, but Marty's childhood dreams of following in his heroes to Las Vegas soon begin to fade as the duo find themselves eking out a living on Britain's decaying cabaret circuit."
So far so good - a tale then about success, failure and the decay of society. Sadly no. It becomes a rather silly story of two Princess Diana look-a-likes who join up with the magician. There are so many loose ends and the book seems to dip and dive into many areas without really deciding whether it wants to be social comment, a story of broken relationships or a story about obsessiveness.
Magician Marty Quick is an unappealing character - but somebody who never becomes a convincing anti-hero. The story is about the breakdown of his character as much as anything else but this is never fully developed as Flint opts for a world of seedy drugs and sex instead of a study of human failings.
Marty learns how to be a magician from a mysterious American uncle who just disappears back to America never to be heard of again. The seedy seaside circuit is never really fully investigated as the death of Princess Diana and the dot.com revolution subsumes the original plots.
It was a book that went in waves for me. I got interested, then I lost interest, then I got interested, then I lost interest (you might by now be getting the picture). Ultimately it was a good idea that doesn't really come off. At different points Flint seems to change his style of writing as well. In some books this can be very effective but in this one it just leaves the reader confused and annoyed.
The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson - 26
I always look forward with great anticipation to reading a new Bill Bryson and this one certainly doesn't disappoint. Bryson has a wonderfully "ordinary" and chatty writing style that just draws you into his books. It is only after some time that you realise that amongst the humour is often a serious message. Bryson writes as if he is your best mate chatting amiably over a pint at the local.
The Thunderbolt Kid not only draws you into the American boom of the 1950s but takes you on an historic drive through those years. Having been brought up in England in the 50s I can see so many parallels.
Bryson started his first book with the line "I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to" as if he is apologetic. In this book he makes Des Moines sound the most wonderful place on earth, continually referring to the good humour and kindness of the people. It made me want to go there, although there is an edge to his writing towards the end when he charts the birth of shopping malls, the growth of racial unrest as the world "grew up" - and not for the better. "All this disturbed tranquility occurred in the space of just over a year. People have never gone from happy to not happy more quickly," he writes.
At times he hits a few bleak notes about the reality of growing up and the place in which he lived: "At just the point where I was finally growing up, Des Moines stopped feeling like the place I had grown up in."
It is so refreshing to find a book about a normal childhood - the kind of childhood experienced by the majority of American and British kids. Bryson is quick to point out that his kid days were good ones. His parents were patient, kind and normal. He wasn't chained in the cellar or called It. And there lies the vitality of the story.
I must admit to having read the three child abuse books by Dave Pelzer with interest. They are quite rightly shocking but they spawned a whole host of child abuse books, increasingly bizarre and shocking. Bryson suffered none of this. He was a regular American boy growing up in a regular American family. But that is exactly what makes this book so "peachy." You just know nothing bad is going to happen and so it becomes an antidote to all the abuse books.
Bryson embraces the politics of the time, the fears, but above all the modernisation of the world that was the fifties and which led to the explosion of freedom that became the sixties. There are wonderful lines and passages throughout the book. Stories of the toity jar for those young people taken short and who cannot reach the bathroom in time are wonderful evocations of less frenetic times. Similarly we see the 50s as a time of naivity with the start of commercialism, but a commercialism built on the gullibility of the people who really did believe that smoking was good for them and that Camel cigarettes were the choice of doctors.
He travels into the land of the adult historian where he gives us snapshots of the leaders of the day, but always returns to the mundanity of childhood. Thus we have an instructive passage on the fight for democracy in Guatemala and the work of the democratic Jacobo Arbenz and how he was overthrown by a capitalistic backed coup only to be brought back to the world of the young with the words "let us return to Kid World where the denizens may be small and often immensely stupid, but are at least comparatively civilized.
Ultimately he remembers the 50s with tremendous affection "The best I can say is that I saw the last of something really special. It's something I seem to say a lot these days."
Bryson is an entertainer, he is a storyteller, an historian and the Thunderbolt Kid is a wonderful evocation of 1950s Americana. Roll on the next book by an author who rather surprisingly has settled down to live about three miles away from where I'm writing this.
The Apothecary's House by Adrian Mathews - 15
At the end of over 700 pages, I was left with just one thought - So What!
Firstly this book took about three attempts before I could get through it. I decided to persevere as certain sections went at a reasonable pace. Overall the storyline should have leant itself to about 300 pages. Some of the other 400 odd were turgid to say the least and certain sections were just plain silly.
At no time did I care for the characters and I found the author's attempts to inject humour, historical data or scene setting rather banal. It takes skill to wander away from the main thread of the story and sadly that is a skill Mr Mathews doesn't possess.
The storyline is reasonable. An old lady lays claim to a rather strange painting, but there is another claimant and it soon becomes obvious that the two know each other. The painting has a history far and away beyond its relevance as a work of art.
The book blurb tells us that the main character receives sinister and anonymous threats. Again at times these just border on the outright silly. The book can't decide whether it wants to be a code cracker or an adventure story and it drops sadly between the two.
The dialogue at times is dreadful. When you have a main character who makes such exclamations as " Jumping Jehosophat, " "Holy hollyhocks" and "take a hike you scurvy varlet" you know you really are in la la land. Other parts of the dialogue are also corny in the extreme and when the "plot" is unravelled it really comes as no surprise and leaves more of an empty feeling than one of achievement and contentment.
Still I suppose that if you like slow paced thrillers where the ending can be seen from a million miles, this could be the one for you.
Cell by Stephen King - 15
I have always held Stephen King is high regard as the best horror writer of his generation. But really Cell is nonsense. It was a nonsense I took on holiday with me to Cornwall.
King returns to the theme of humanity turned into zombies, with a handful of newly found friends trying to survive. It has a similar theme to his other novel The Stand. So it's all been done before. At times the plot is laughable.
Humanity (or of course in this case America) is hit by a phone virus that turns anybody using a cell phone into a flesh eating zombie. Zombies come together in flocks. The good guys band together with the main character desperate to find his son. And guess what at the end of the book he just comes across his offspring by chance. If I've made the plot sound ridiculous I can assure you that's deliberate.
Firstly we never find out who is behind the deadly "pulse" and of course we have no idea whether the whole of America or the world is similarly affected. In the end I really wasn't interested whether Clay found his son or not - after all most of American humanity had been turned into zombies so what would one more matter.
It's a muddled book that smacks of a good author who has obviously pretty much run out of ideas, deciding that a modern theme is for him and then waffling in over 400 pages in American horror slang. Only to be recommended to real King fans or completists who want to ensure they have read all his output. Truely horrifying stories are always based on the believable. This one is not.
Careful What You Wish For by Mikey Carroll with Sean Boru - 20
Firstly let me say I had no intention of reading this book. It was one of those you pick off the library shelf, look at and return. But because it has strong Norfolk connections I decided to take it out.
That same day I read the first chapter and within a couple of days I had finished the book. It was fascinating reading, but not necessarily for the right reasons. I'm certainly not saying it was a good book in any way and it poses as many questions as it gives answers, but it is highly entertaining and written in a very easy style.
For those who need to be enlightened, Carroll is Norfolk's self styled King of the Chavs who won £9.7 million on the lottery and blew most of it on a sex, drugs and rock n roll lifestyle and there's certainly plenty of the first two of those in the book.
The thought of Carroll writing a book could fill you with a clammy sweat induced horror. Having watched and read about his antics over the years it is difficult to imagine him putting a sentence together let alone over 250 pages. So enter friend Boru.
Now I remember this guy from a television quiz programme "In It to Win It" where he tried unsuccessfully to win money to make a cancer video. So the guy has something about him and that certainly comes over in the book.
Obviously the aim of any autobiography or authorised biography is to paint the main character as a "jolly fine person" who has been dealt with harshly by life and/or the media. Trying to sympathise with a character like Carroll takes some doing and I suppose the fact I finished with a fairly neutral view means the book has succeeded.
Plenty of the content doesn't really add up and there is much repetition. Essentially Carroll tells us that he is a reformed character. All we have to do is ask ourselves do we believe it? Does the fact that he keeps diaries and writes poetry mean that the bad old days are behind him or is this another cover up that will escalate into more bouts of violence and mayhem?
The proof of the pudding of course is in Carroll's own hands. Immediately he re-offends all claims he makes in the book will be null and void. The only way we will believe his claims of redemptions is if he stays squeeky clean from now on.
To be fair, if Carroll has had the savvy to attempt to improve his image he must be aware of how diabolical it has been. He must have thought about the effect his past actions have had on people. Whether he is genuinely contritious and keen to make amends or just wants to sell books only time will tell.
Obviously we only get one side of the story - his. It would make a very interesting book to include interviews with the people he criticises for using him and making his life a misery and I still feel that certain areas of the book fall into fantasy-land rather than the life of an ex binman lottery winner from West Norfolk. I once spoke to an hotel manager who had been the subject of some of Carroll's excesses. He painted a picture of an extremely rude individual, but one prepared to pay virtually any price to use the hotel's facilities. This of course is a picture that Carroll fully accepts.
Carroll claims that winning so much money was a curse as well as a blessing. I would suggest it's only a curse if you allow it to be. At the time of winning the money Carroll was quite obviously "a bad lot". The lottery win just gave him the means to become more excessive and more of a pain in everyone's arse.
The book contains contradictions. He openly boasts that he has had sex with hundreds of women but then professes his wish to settle down with his one true love who also happens to be in prison. He tells us he is a reformed character, but there are references throughout the book to just what he will do to certain people if he ever catches up with them.
Is Carroll misguided, misled or just a plain yob - read the book and make your own mind up. I would truly like to believe that the man has turned over a new leaf and will become a responsible person with money invested. At least he has started the process with this no holds barred book. Only time will tell whether Michael Carroll has the ability to become a real person instead of just a criminal.
Our Hidden Lives - The Diaries of a Forgotten Britain 1945-1948 by Simon Garfield -24
Being a humble diarist myself, I am always fascinated by books of this genre and this is a very good one.
It gives us an insight into the lives of five very different people who kept diaries in the immediate post World War Two era. They were part of the Mass Observation project which was set up to record the lives of ordinary people in Britain. Simon Garfield weaves the five lives together.
The people featured never met, but they all lived through the same times of uncertainty when rationing continued despite the fact the war had ended. The great thing about these diaries is how they weave together discussion on national and international topics with the details of mundane private lives. By approaching the subject matter in date order it is sometimes difficult to remember previous comments made by the diarists. To achieve this I would have to go back again and read the entries from individuals in order rather than inter-twining them as the author does. That is only a small criticism. Garfield had to decide whether to use chronological or personal order and I guess he has chosen the most interesting option so that you don't get bored with a specific character.
I particularly liked Herbert Brush, the London pensioner, who showed a wit rather lacking in some of the others and Herbert wrote diabolical poetry. We get wonderful entries such as "I paid my usual visit to my bank manager for him to certify that I am still alive. I gave him a couple of large tomatoes." Dear old Herbert is completely off the wall at times: "I walked along Charing Cross Road to see whether I could find a book giving prime numbers up to five million or so... but every bookseller said No without any hesitation. Even Foyles could not help me." Later on he advocates a new calendar which begins each month on the same day of the week!
The book brilliantly evokes the times as you are taken into the lives of the five people. I detested the gay antiques dealer B Charles who came out as a self opinionated bore with dangerous views. At one point he says: "I often think that the Germans deserved to win the war. It is a constant source of amazement to me how France has got away with it for so long. A treacherous false nation.... It would be a good thing, in a great many ways, if the whole of France could be swallowed up in an earthquake, along with the entire population! They are no good."
Charles also turns on the Americans and British and seems throughout to be a Nazi sympathiser: "Goering was a very brave man and I am very glad indeed to learn that all the Nazis died very bravely. In 25 years time they will be heroes and martyrs." How wrong could he be!
Elsewhere there is plenty of anti government sentiment with Maggie Blunt from Slough, George Taylor, an accountant from Sheffield and Edie Rutherford, a South African housewife from Sheffield all pitching in.
The book is hugely informative, good fun and very illuminating about a period in our history that has often been ignored. I can thoroughly recommend it.
A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian - Marina Lewycka -20
I ended up with mixed feelings on this one, despite enjoying it immensely at times. Firstly let me say it is very easy to read. The pace is good and the idea excellent. The problem is that as you approach the end of the book you sense a disappointment is coming - almost as if the author has run out of ideas and the whole thing just fizzles out.
The result is you feel let down and much of what has gone before suddenly seems irrelevant.
The book tells the story of an Octogenerian Ukrainian refugee living in Peterborough. He has two very different daughters and suddenly a voluptuous Ukrainian wife who is obviously out to bleed him dry. His daughters soon cotton on to this as "pappa" suffers abuse at the hands of Miss Voluptuous and her "genius" son who turns out to be a little short in the genius stakes.
There is plenty of pathos in the book and some deliciously funny sections which is quite a triumph from a plot that could have been very dark indeed. Some of the observations are very sharp and within the framework of the family relationships is exposed a wartime story of the correction camps and the family's otherwise hidden background.
Sadly there are no surprises and the ending is hugely disappointing. Problem is as the book unfolds you begin to feel that this will be the case and when it did all tail off I wasn't that surprised. Worth a read though.
Can't Wait to Get to Heaven - Fannie Flagg - 24
Everyone has weak spots when it comes to literature. I love the stories of Fannie Flagg or Patricia Neal to give her real name. Ever since I read Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe I have been a fan.
On the surface Flagg's books have a naive feel to them, but underneath they make a whole host of comments about human nature. By and large her characters are hometown Americans - the salt of the earth. Her books always see good prevail and at times the people are just too good to be true.
But her observations are very sharp and there is wit and humanity running through them all. Last year I found A Redbird Christmas just a little too sentimentally cloying. Can't Wait to Get to Heaven finds a better balance - never becoming over mawkish. I have to day that at one point I did begin to struggle when the main character "dies" and is ushered into the presence of a God who looks surprisingly like a former neighbour. Here the tale stretched reality just too thinly.
Thankfully after skating on the brink, the story pulls itself back to life - just as the main character does. It is essentially the story of Elner Shimfissle, a minor character in some of the previous Flagg novels. One day she falls out of a fig tree, is certified dead at the hospital, meets God, and comes back to life. Yes I know it sounds ridiculous but Flagg just about gets away with it.
The rest of the novel introduces us to many already well known characters from the world of Elmwood Springs and relates just how Elner touched their lives and there is also a mystery story in how peace loving Elner came to have a gun and what the secret is behind it.
As with most of Flagg's books all loose ends are tied up and you get to a point in this novel where you realise that process is just beginning. Although the storyline of this might be more implausible than in many of her novels there is no doubting that once again Flagg has come up with an easy to read moralistic story of everyday country folk.
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday - 23
Intriguing titles seem to be the order of the day. This one comes into the same category on that front as A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian. Overall it was a much more satisfying read, however.
Salmon Fishing has a satirical feel to it and in parts is very clever and sharp in its observations. It is an enjoyable read and the messages within it are subtle. The idea of a scientist whose previous claim to fame is writing a paper on cadis flies being thrust into the limelight to work a miracle in the Yemeni desert is pure irony.
The only disappointment is the ending, which I think the author felt brought a clever twist. Unfortunately it tends to let the book down in being slightly silly and rather unedifying compared to what has gone before.
Nevertheless the book does work on several levels. It's a story of redemption, of unrequited love, of faith in both the sacred and secular forms. It is also a wonderful comment on government spin and political correctness - something that has been dragging our country down for the past few years. Anyone who has worked in a large organisation will be able to understand the politics involved here and the way people are thrown to the wolves on the whim of a government.
Setting up salmon fisheries in the Yemeni desert may sound both dull and implausible. But the subject matter is just the outer shell of a variety of strands within the book and the catylist for some very sharp writing.
In government communications officer Peter Maxwell, Torday has invented an entirely odious character. It isn't too difficult to see parallels between him and the New Labour spin doctors that we were subjected to under the Tony Blair regime. Overall it's an original novel with bags of charm and wit.
The Sound of Laughter by Peter Kay - 17
To me reading is a serious pursuit, but every so often I pick up what I would call a frothy book - a light-hearted read, something to have a laugh at between more serious matter.
Sadly this one was just too much froth. For such an accomplished comedian the stories he tells are rarely funny and the incidents he explains leave you asking just two words "So what".
The book mainly deals with Kay's attempts to learn to drive, his process of growing up in an unremarkable family where he wasn't beaten, abused or from which he wasn't expelled. It deals with his life in a convent school, the way he tricked his way into university and the seemingly interminable mundane jobs that he acquired and subsequently lost. It made me answer the question "was this man really employable." You have to ask yourself just how funny Kay can make working in a bingo hall and sadly the answer is not very.
He also has the annoying knack of telling us in parenthesis when he is joking. There are no revelations here and the book rally is a ball of froth. Of course Kay has has his mind on the next buck by leaving enough out of this to ensure that there will be a volume 2.
If you want to read a book about growing up within a loving family go for The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson which brilliantly explains why Bryson is a writer and Kay is a stand up comedian
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro - 20
As the year began to reach its end I turned to an author I have enjoyed in the past and a former student of the University of East Anglia's highly acclaimed creative writing course. Never Let Me Go is a strange book and certainly one that took me quite some time to read. At one point I almost gave up as at times it seemed too rigid. I did persevere, however, but by the end I had one of those "so what" feelings.
In many ways the author delves into the world of science fiction - a kind of 1984 without the threatening vista. It tells the story of young people born and preparing to become organ donors and cloned to be used by others for spare parts - humanity meets the machine. The are many themes that never become fully developed such as the search for possibles - the people they may have been cloned from.
We never learn where the donations actually go to, but we do learn that each donor can be expected to give up to four donations. The parts of the body involved are not explained and overall the book poses more questions than it gives answers and as such is rather unsatisfying.
It's about life, it's about broken dreams and relationships and it's about confusion, but there is no clear definition of the themes and that makes it ultimately a disappointing read. The centre of the story is Hailsham - a school where the main characters are brought up and reared for their destiny in a safe and relatively happy environment that spits them out into the "real world" where they have many of the same doubts as anybody else. They seem to inhabit a rather shady and dark world that looks inwards on itself. Ultimately they are born to be used and die or complete. Yes there are sinister overtones but it's more a starter than a three course meal.
Certainly the strangest book I have encountered this year.
On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan - 20
I have always enjoyed Ian McEwan. His books have a seriously lyrical feel to them, whatever the subject matter.
On Chesil Beach amounts to little more than a novella and represented my final book of the year. Once I have read a book and formed my own opinion I usually read other people's reviews on sites such as Amazon to see if my own views are shared by others.
Strangely it seems that the only people who review books are either those who hate them and award one star and those who loved them and give five stars. Nobody seems to post reviews that hover along the line of "well it's not a classic but neither is it bad."
For me Chesil Beach falls into that nether world of okayness. It doesn't have the quirky power of Saturday but succeeds in invoking the feelings of period setting - the 1960s. Essentially the story of two former students and their unsteady relationship, the denouement occurs on their wedding night and the problems encountered with consummation of their marriage. McEwan's narrative is sparse and, for me, the whole thing had the feel of a starter rather than a rounded three course meal. There was a resonance to it, but overall rather disappointing.
Books I didn't manage to finish
Occasionally I come across books I cannot get on with and which I stop reading in frustration. I try not to let this happen but sometimes they are just too much to take. Below are the books that fell into this category in 2007.
The World According to Clarkson
Simply because it's a book to dip in and out of - reproductions of Clarkson's newspaper columns - all written to the same length. Some are dry and witty and I'm sure I will eventually get through the book
Imperium - Robert Harris
At times interesting, at times stodgy and dull. This story of ancient Rome failed to hold my attention long enough and in the end I got about three-quarters of the way through before giving up on it. It makes too many assumptions about the reader's knowledge of the time and the characters have a rather cardboard feel to them - highly disappointing.
False Impression - Jeffrey Archer - a turgid thriller with cardboard characters. Archer seems to have decided he must be topical by writing a book about 9/11. I got about halfway before realising I couldn't be bothered to go any further.
Wicked by Jilly Cooper - This was recommended on the Paul O'Grady show. I think I read about 80 pages before I realised there was no way I could face the additional 900 or so. This kind of turgid rubbish gives the term blockbuster a bad name. The characters were juvenile and the whole plot extremely silly.
Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry - I must apologies for not persevering with this one. By and large I find books about India and its culture very difficult to read. I'm sure this story about family life and ageing is excellent but I just couldn't get past the first 40 pages and gave up in confusion.
Teller of Tales The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle by Daniel Stashower - I became fascinated by the life of Arthur Conan Doyle after reading Julian Barnes' excellent Arthur and George. So I was delighted when I got hold of this book which I thought would give me an insight into the spiritual and literary world of a very unusual man. Sadly it was turgid and failed to flow. I struggled with it for a while but then realised I was never going to finish it and so gave up. Stashower is an American and it shows. He fails to understand the eccentricities of the British character and the consequence is he manages the impossible - to make Sir Arthur sound rather dull. The Americanistic approach is brilliantly illustrated by the fact that Sir Arthur's association with Portsmouth Football Club, which he helped to found, is restricted to just one paragraph. Obviously the American author didn't understand "soccer".
Diaries 1969-1979 - The Python Years by Michael Palin
Come December and I started to church my way through this weighty tome, knowing that it would take me until well into 2008 if I was to finish it. So a review will appear in next year's section.
Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens
In past years I turned to Dickens every December in the period leading up to Christmas. I never quite worked out why. Decided, however, to start the process again and re-read some of the classics starting with Nicholas Nickleby. Again it will take me until well into 2008 to finish it and a review will appear in next year's section.
2007 ratings in descending order.
Book of the Year
26 The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne
Book of the Year Runner-Up
26 The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson
24 Arthur and George by Julian Barnes
24 Our Hidden Lives by Simon Garfield
24 Can't Wait to Get to Heaven by Fannie Flagg
23 Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday
21 Can You Tell What It Is Yet by Rolf Harris
20 Richard Harris Sex, Death and the Movies by Michael Callan
20 Never Go Back by Robert Goddard
20 Careful What You Wish For by Mikey Carroll with Sean Boru
20 A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka
20 Never Let Me Go - Kazuo Ishiguro
20 On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
19 Austerlitz by W.G Sebald
18 Chart Throb by Ben Elton
18 My Summer of Love by Helen Cross
17 The Sound of Laughter by Peter Kay
16 52 Ways to Magic America by James Flint
15 The Historian by Elizabeth Kostove
15 The Apothecary's House by Adrian Mathews
15 Cell by Stephen King
Most Disappointing Book of the Year
13 The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld
no rating - Wicked by Jilly Cooper
no rating - False Impression by Jeffrey Archer
no rating - Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry
no rating - The World According to Clarkson
no rating - Imperium by Robert Harris
no rating - Teller of Tales The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle by Daniel Stashower