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.
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini - 25
Hosseini is a new name to me and I came across his literature by accident. One of my Christmas presents to myself and my wife was membership of Cinema City in Norwich. This is a wonderful small cinema venue where the emphasis is on Art with a capital A. Our first film was based on Hosseini's international bestseller The Kite Runner and was a very moving and thoroughly enjoyable piece of cinema. Unfortunately I was unable to get hold of the novel from the library and so turned to Hosseini's follow-up which my wife was given for Christmas.
The book was featured on the television programme Richard and Judy as their Book Club choice - thus ensuring it immediately went to number one in the bestsellers' list. So that apart does it deserve to be up there? The answer is an absolute yes.
This book deals with massive themes of love, hate, redemption, alienation, kindness and brutality amongst many others. It is the story of two women thrown together in the ravages of Afghanistan and, like the Kite Runner, gives us a wonderful insight into this frighteningly war ravaged country where women don't even qualify to become third rate citizens at the time in which the novel is set.
The first two sections of the books follow the lives of the two women - Mariam and Laila - and at times drags slightly. The full power of the book is unleashed in Part Three, however, where they come together under the same roof to live with the evil and violent Rasheed. It is the way the characters, at first distrustful of each other, become friends and allies. To go into the plot more would be giving what is also an excellent story away. I will just say that there is much heartbreak on the way to the book's conclusion.
At times reading about the ravages of the Taliban regime is almost unbearable. I was intrigued but so wanted to move on swiftly as it felt uncomfortable and that is Hosseini's skill. A man that can make a novel feel hugely uncomfortable has to be a master storyteller.
If I have one slight reservation about the book it is the way ultimately it moves towards a happy ending with all the jigsaw pieces slotting neatly into place. It could be argued that this is Hosseini's way of showing the triumph of hope and an indomitable human spirit. It could also be argued that it is slightly twee and Hosseini has caught the American public's need for sugary endings. You could also argue that after all of the turmoil and hatred it is a pleasant way to end a book with the triumph of love and hope. An early contender for book of the year.
Next of Kin by John Boyne - 21
This is not the kind of book I would usually bother with, but having named his The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas as my book of the year for 2007 I thought I would investigate.
This is very different. An historical murder thriller set around London of 1936 it has a number of plots and sub plots surrounding the abdication of Edward VIII and his affair with Wallace Simpson.
Boyne is a skilful writer and it has to be said that this is an enjoyable read as long as you take it with the proverbial pinch of salt. It features the breakdown of family relations and the corruption of politics amongst other matters as socialites, judges and a variety of other characters turn to crime and plot murders in order to achieve their own aims.
Much of it is contrived and at times the plot is sadly leaden but there are as many plusses as minuses.
Eddie Waring – The Life and Times of a Sporting Icon – Tony Hannan -
dying many years ago, Uncle Eddie is remembered fondly for his days as the
country’s top rugby league commentator thanks to his unique northerness
and strangled vowels.
went on to perpetuate the myth of “ordinariness” with stints on the
ridiculous It’s A Knockout.
is a rather strange book in many ways. I loved the opening pages which set
Eddie’s world into the context of the times and gave a strong insight
into the history and cultures of Yorkshire’s West Riding – an area I
know well through marriage.
that is the high point of the book. From there it goes on something of a
rambling journey, dotting and diving all over the place and rather
suggesting that the author is short of solid material.
obviously never met Waring and really reveals relatively little about the
man, often hiding under the premise that Eddie was a private person. We
understand that basically he was “a fine chap” with an encyclopaedic
knowledge of Rugby League who, in some circles, was viewed as an
anachronism and someone who helped southerners in their views that rugby
league was a sport for violent thickies from the north of England (my
words and not those of the author).
of us of a certain age grew up with Eddie’s commentaries on Grandstand
and an interesting aspect of the book is the fight to get rugby league
accepted as a serious sport, particularly when the BBC seemed to take
pleasure in laughing at it.
we start off with a social history of Eddie’s home town of Dewsbury, The
author then seems to be undecided whether he wants to write a
socio-economic history of West Yorkshire, a history of rugby league or a
biography of Eddie Waring. The result is the book falls somewhere between
the three categories – into a kind of no man’s land.
is undeniably a good read but flies off at too many tangents, almost as if
the author has a butterfly brain and must move into a different area
before he forgets something. We leap backwards and forwards in time and
seemingly irrelevant events are afforded a great amount of space – which
once again suggests that he doesn’t have enough about Eddie to fill a
success as a character lay simply in his love of the sport and the way he
promoted it both as a commentator, administrator and coach. There’s no
great controversies in Eddie’s life. His first marriage broke down but
we never really find out why and that’s the great failing of this book.
We just learn too little about our subject. His life is put into the
context of the sport but we don’t get an insight into just what made him
As a sports book it’s a good read, but it falls short in a number of areas as if the author has had a good idea, is determined to follow it through but then finds his material is not as strong as he would have hoped.
A Quiet Belief in Angels by R.J Ellory - 25
The tension at times in this beautifully written book is almost too much to bear. I wanted to rush headlong through to its conclusion, but at the same time I wanted to slow down to savour every word.
I love it when an author takes a particularly popular genre and turns it into genuine literature through a style of his own. That's exactly what top selling author Roger Ellory has managed to do.
I always feel that the enjoyment of a book is reflected in whether, once it is finished, you want to seek out anything else by the same author. The answer to that with Roger Ellory is an unqualified yes.
The author gets his power from originality through his very existence. He is an English writer producing novels about America. The fact that it works marvellously is a tribute to his writing skills and his skills as a storyteller.
On the surface this is a book about the serial killings of children over a number of years. To leave it there would be to cheapen the way in which Ellory skilfully introduces side issues. It is much more than a crime novel. It is a novel that at times can make you gasp at its literary beauty. It is a story about love, redemption, prejudice and above all small town America and the way the heart always returns to ones roots. It is a story about loss, sadness, longing, missed opportunities, hatred and just about every other human emotion you can think of.
And the fact that the author sums up the prejudices and atmosphere of small town America is almost breathtaking from a literary point of view. He does it so much better than the majority of American writers that it's almost scary. A Quiet Belief in Angels has much in common with To Kill a Mockingbird as far as feel and development goes and the scenes in New York reminded me of William Styron's epic Sophie's Choice.
By the end of this book the unveiling of the murderer seems almost to be a side issue to all the other themes. In Joseph Vaughan the author has produced a wonderful central character - a man battling with demons, but a survivor. We connect with him on all levels. We celebrate his success, we share his joys and we suffer his sorrows and we go with him through his life journey..
Bearing in mind that there are relatively few central characters the list of possible killers is very small and it isn't too difficult to work out who is responsible. But to moan about that would be to miss the point of the novel. When I reached the end I wanted to return to the passages between Joseph and the murderer to see if I could pick up any clues and they are certainly littered all over the place - more in the killer's attitude than anything else. I found the murderer's character odious from the start and this changed to hatred. Only top class characterisation can have this effect on a reader.
Above all the great thing about this book is its poetic feel, the changes in style, the changes in pace. They somehow sum up the way the world changes. Whoever said there are only two things certain in life - death and taxes - was wrong. There are three - death, taxes and change.
This is the ideal book for those summer days on holiday for those who want something a little more thought-provoking than the norm.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak - 25
I really can't believe that in the first three months of the year I have come across three gems in "A Thousand Splendid Suns," "A Quiet Belief in Angels" and now "The Book Thief." Each of these books is different but they are all stunning in their own individual way.
The Book Thief is highly original, although it did remind me somewhat of my book of the year for 2007 "The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas." The subject matter for both books is the Nazification of Germany. Both books look at things from the perspective of a child growing up in the most turbulent of times and both have a child-like simplicity that just adds to their powers.
The Book Thief is a beautiful book from start to finish. Indeed at times it is more of a scrapbook of a life than a novel. It has a strangeness that only enhances the subject matter. For a start it is narrated by death. But this never detracts from the shape or power of the novel as young lives are slowly ripped apart in a German Town where poverty is rife.
The central character Liesel has a beautiful calmness of spirit. She always seems to be on the verge of re-alisation whilst still retaining the fragility of childhood. Slowly and gradually the evil unfolds before her as she becomes aware of the fate of the Jews in a town where she is thrust as an unwilling refugee.
In her adopted father Hans Hubermann, Zusak has created one of those unforgettable men of strength and kindness. At first when Liesel is thrust into the Hubermann household I was expecting a hard-hearted couple keen to take the small amount of money that Lisel brings with her but not so keen to give her the love that she craves. Nothing could be more from the truth. Hans is open with his love and support whilst is wife is softer than she would ever want anybody to know.
There are passages where the book appears to be meandering and nothing much seems to be happening. There is a war on, but it isn't hugely affecting those involved in the story. But then you realise, almost by chance, that it is affecting every character, sometime directly and sometimes in a rather subtler way (if war can be subtle). Then comes a cataclysmic climax that is both sad and uplifting.
This is a very unusual book. It is a delight to read and never stodgy and once again I can only highly recommend it.
Random Acts of Heroic Love by Danny Scheinmann - 18
I found this rather an awkward book in many ways. Certainly it doesn't fall into the poor category, but ultimately it was disappointing with the language all too often bordering on the cliched.
Some of the dialogue seems childish and characters seem to change their habits at will which is a shame because the basic idea is a decent one and it didn't take me too long to work out that the author was really telling his own family story here. Neither did it take a genius to work out the link between the two similarly unconnected stories set 75 years apart.
I felt happier when Sheinmann was writing about the early part of the 20th century than the more up to date times of the 1990s. In the latter his prose became rather stilted and I had trouble with the main character Leo who I at times wanted to shake. I soon lost all sympathy with the death of his girlfriend.
I found that the reconciliation of Moritz and his beloved Lotte also stretched the bounds of belief. Overall I would call this a nearly book. It nearly makes it but just falls too short in too many departments.
A Quiet Vendetta by R. J. Ellory - 24
Having loved A Quiet Belief in Angels I was keen to see whether Roger Ellory's other books reached the same high standard.
This one is very different. It is a brutal and at times savage book rooted in the life of Mafia hitmen, but still retaining the characterisation of fragile human beings that the author has the ability to conjure up.
The success of this book lies in a very different area to that of A Quiet Belief. Here was have a central character in Ernesto Perez who seems to kill men at will. But there is more to Perez than meets the eye and that in many ways is the point of the novel. After reading of Perez' killing sprees can we find any sympathy for the man and his own tragedies. The brilliance of the novel lies in the fact that I still can't answer that question. You try to like the man but in the back of your mind is always the sordid murders and violence. You try to hate him but in the back of your mind is always the other side of Perez - the side that loves and is loved.
It wouldn't be an Ellory book without characters wrestling with their own demons. Here it comes in the shape of investigator Ray Hartmann, a man struggling with alcoholism and the potential breakdown of his own marriage.
Perez unveils his life story to Hartmann in a series of interviews. There is always the underlying feeling that there is more at stake here than the truth and this is the way it turns out with a neat twist at the end which leaves us wondering about Perez' motives yet again.
Once again Roger Ellory underlines the corrupt nature of American politics and the way the system can be bucked by those who are little short of criminality themselves. By the time the story reaches its climax we are entitled to feel exhausted by the sheer scope of what takes place over decades of American history.
Candlemoth by R. J. Ellory - 26
Roger Ellory's first published novel is a wonderful examination of the American dream gone sour.
I became fascinated by small town America many years ago and always dreamed of writing the "great American novel" interweaving fact and fiction. I never made it - Roger Ellory has.
It might seem rather trite to continue to heap praise on this man's literature but he is purely and simply an author of the highest calibre and Candlemoth is a wonderful example of the way he can twist and mould a plot to produce an evocative piece full of wonderful characterisation.
If I had a problem with the character of Ernesto Perez in A Quiet Vendetta, I certainly had no such doubts about the central character here. Daniel Ford is on death row having been convicted of the killing of his best friend Nathan Verney. But there are serious flaws in Daniel's conviction.
Once again the author uses the tried and tested way of getting the central character to tell his or her story by giving them a listening ear. This time it comes in the shape of Father John Rousseau who counsels Daniel as his final days to his execution begin to count down. Ellory's writing is perhaps more simplistic than in the other two novels of his I have read to date. That only adds to its allure, however. At no time do you feel anything but genuine sympathy for Daniel and his plight.
Of course not everything is as it seems. I won't go any further in fear of spoiling the story, but I will say that the tension of the last few chapters is almost unbearable. I read the end part of this novel on a long haul flight with Led Zeppelin playing in my headphones. I can't remember hearing the music - that's how good this book is.
Once again behind the basic story there is so much more. Daniel and Nathan live each other's dreams, suffer each other's nightmares and when Nathan is called up for Vietnam the couple go on the run. The book covers their relationship from the age of six through some of the most turbulent years in American history. It's a story about growing up, a rites of passage saga and a story about a great country that dips and falls almost into the abyss. There are times when Daniel and Nathan's friendship threatens to be ripped apart but the beauty of the human spirit always wins through - rather like the country itself.
It's also a story of love, redemption, honesty, truth, forgiveness and the futility of war. It takes us through the heady days of hippydom to the stark realisation that many potentially great lives are snuffed out in a conflict that few people understood.
Above all it is a portrait of racism. Daniel is white and Nathan is black. They are friends irrespective of the colour of their skins, but of course in America of the 50s, 60s and 70s all men were certainly not equal. The system and society tries to prise them apart but only the brutal murder of Nathan manages this.
This is a great American novel that, for some unknown reason, isn't available in the USA. Perhaps it's just too much to have an Englishman writing truly tear-jerking American literature. Candlemoth has so much to say. Finally a special mention for the heart-rending side story of the life of Eve Chantry, a wonderful and wise character.
This is one of those novels that you look back on with tremendous pleasure and satisfaction.
Shakespeare by Bill Bryson - 20
Like so many others I always look forward to a new Bill Bryson, but this one was rather strange. A small volume, the author spends most of it telling us that virtually nothing is known about our greatest playwright and then continues to prove it throughout the text.
So we skip over many lost years and hurtle from his productive period to his death in a matter of pages seemingly skipping over where he was, who he was, how he wrote, where he wrote, why he wrote, what he wrote and even how he died.
Shakespeare is a mystery and an enigma - Bryson tells us this on numerous occasions and this book falls into the same slot. It's almost as if he has decided to write a book about the man and then found out that there is very little to write.
That doesn't detract from the entertaining way Bryson sets the historical context of the times but we always return to the same premise - little or nothing is known about the man, his movements, his life, his family and so we go on. If Bryson went in search of Shakespeare he failed to find him. Much of the book debunks various theories. Certainly it isn't one to read if you want to learn about Shakespeare. It is one to read if you want to learn a little about Elizabethan and Jacobean England and that's really all there is to say about a good idea that just leaves you wanting more facts.
The Rotters' Club by Jonathan Coe - 18
I really thought I was going to like this book after the first page which made me chuckle. It's 2003 in Berlin. Two young people are sitting down to dinner and talking about their parents. One asks the other where he thinks they have gone. "Clubbing, probably. Checking out the techno places," says one. "Are you serious?" comes the reply. "Of course not. My dad's never been to a club in his life. The last album he bought was by Barclay James Harvest." "Who/" "Exactly."
Now as anybody who reads my site will know I am more than a bit partial to BJH, as I would suggest the author is to have brought it up. And of course at the height of their career BJH were massive in Germany and in particular Berlin.
I suppose the fact that this is the most memorable part of the book rather shows that I found it disappointing. For me the early 1970s were wonderful years. Years when the world was changing in a strange and marvellous way. Coe tries to evoke this world but sadly falls rather short of doing so successfully.
The fact it took me three months to finish the book, probably says it all as time after time I lost patience and gave up. It must be said, however, that there was an attraction that made me return, but it wasn't a strong enough rights of passage book to make me want to read the sequel The Closed Circle.
City of Lies by R. J. Ellory - 23
The great thing about Roger Ellory's books is I can't help dissecting them and that to me is the mark of a master storyteller. This was my fourth Ellory book and in many ways another tour de force. This one moves more like a movie than the others and I know that is what the author was trying to achieve.
You can imagine the end chapters which involve a series of bank robberies as a shoot-em-up ending to a film and in many ways City of Lies would lend itself to the big screen better than some of his slower moving books where the plots unravel at a relatively leisurely pace.
I didn't quiet connect with the central character in the same way I have done in his other novels, but there is no denying the power once again of his description of the lawless side of New York life. Ellory deals with seamy subjects and once again conjures up the ghost of William Styron in his hard-hitting Big Apple descriptive pieces.
The action of this book covers just 12 days, rather than years, and because of that it has to be tight in its construction. John Harper is thrust into a world of hoodlums when he discovers that a father he thought had been dead for 30 years is still alive - albeit in a coma after being shot in a New York robbery.
Harper travels to New York against his better judgement and gets drawn into a world of violence and intrigue with rival gangs posturing over territorial rights. Once again superbly researched, Ellory conjures up the nether-world of urban New York where nothing is as it seems. Strangely the power of the book comes not so much in the violence of New York but in the Epilogue where the peace and tranquility of rural Florida acts as a foil to the violence of the rest of the book. This is not a comfortable read - but the author never meant his books to be comfortable.
Ghostheart by R. J. Ellory - 25
Thankfully Roger Ellory has a new novel out later this year. Otherwise I would now be getting withdrawal symptoms as I read his first five novels in quick order and that really sums up just how good he is.
I was looking to wait before reading this book, but weakened badly and saw it off in a couple of days. I would almost bracket this with the exceptional Candlemoth. It has a similar feel to it. Once again all the Ellory ingredients are here.
This time, however, the main character is female and that called for a more subtle approach. In Annie O'Neill he has brought to life an endearing character. One reviewer on Amazon said that Annie is the kind of girl you would ask for a telephone number. She is engaging but in a fragile way and as the drama unfolds Annie becomes more worldly-wise.
A mysterious stranger arrives at the bookshop owned by Annie, stating that he knew her father. As far as Annie is concerned her father has been dead for 20 years (a close parallel exists here with the situation John Harper finds himself in in "City of Lies").
Slowly a strange and tough story unfolds that includes Annie's relationship with a man who is much more than he seems. Once again we are driven into the world of American gangland, but once again the themes are much more subtle, encompassing loneliness, longing, desire and almost despair.
The author is equally at home writing about harsh violent themes and tender areas and this book takes us from the horrors of Auschwitz to gangland New York but also to the rural idyll of Annie's bolt hole - her book shop. It's a story about books, their power and their meaning by an exceptional writer who brings his world and his characters to life in an exceptional way. Can't wait for number six to be published.
The Last Testament by Sam Bourne - 22
Sam Bourne is the pseudonym of journalist Jonathan Freedland and this is a half decent thriller novel that sadly falls down in a number of areas.
It has received mixed reviews and it is easy to see why. You could be forgiven for sighing and saying "Not another thriller novel about the unravelling of codes." This is a genre which in effect began with Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code. Numerous authors jumped on the bandwagon and the market was flooded with such books.
Here we enter the world of Israeli/Palestinian conflicts. An historic deal is about to be signed but a man rushes towards the Israeli Prime Minister at a rally. He is known to be an opponent of the prime ministers and is shot dead. In his hand is not a gun but a piece of paper.
American/Irish peace negotiator Maggie Costello gives up her quiet life to return to international intrigue in an attempt to keep both sides on track. Unfortunately Maggie spends little time acting as a diplomat, but plenty searching for an elusive tablet that hides a remarkable truth.
Bourne's can't quite make up his mind whether this should be an adventure novel or a more series attempt to shed some light on the Israeli/Palestine conflict. It therefore drops somewhere between the two. The politics of the area are difficult to comprehend and Bourne seems to get bogged down in this fact with large passages that are difficult to understand within the context of the story as a whole. That said it is a page turner and a reasonable attempt to bring to life the feel of the area, but there is still something missing. It is certainly well researched.
Two Caravans by Marina Lewycka - 17
I couldn't wait to finish this book, but sadly not because I was enjoying it but because, whilst wanting to know what happened, I really wanted to move onto something more entertaining.
Having found her previous book A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian interesting if slightly unedifying, I had at least some hopes of this follow up.
Lewycka certainly hit upon a good idea - the plight of immigrant workers in the United Kingdom. But she can't quite make up her mind whether she wants to produce biting satire, a serious study or a comedy and it falls horribly somewhere in the vague region of all three and that makes for a very disappointing read.
The book ambles and rambles - suddenly moving off at a tangent where characters are dropped or just seem to go missing. In the end it develops into a kind of Ukrainian love story that becomes more and more implausible as it continues. It could have been a novel about the plight of immigrant workers - it isn't. It could have been a novel about the gang masters - it isn't. It could have been a study about the triumph of good over evil - it isn't.
Lewycka seems to insist on making her characters zany - we even have one of the main characters from her previous novel turn up in a Peterborough nursing home. When at the end some of the central characters come together in Sheffield I was left with the feeling of 1/ just how did they get there and 2/ so what.
Earlier parts of the book are sharp and at times well penned but by the end the whole thing has degenerated into a kind of pastiche. There's even a dog that has htoughts and these appear in the novel in capitals - and that's just plain silly.
Blind Faith - Ben Elton - 22
I thought in recent novels that Ben Elton has gone off the boil somewhat, so I was pleasantly surprised to find another biting satire on life and the universe.
Mind you getting through the jacket blurb as a bit like wading through porridge. "Ben Elton's dark, savagely comic novel imagines a post-apocalyptic society" and that's enough to put you off for starters. My initial thought was "oh no not another 1984 rip off."
Thankfully Elton stretched the bounds of 1984 with some delicious black humour and a wicked ending that brings no real surprises but certainly makes you think about inclusive and exclusive societies. Basically Elton's world occurs after the second great flood when the world (and in this case London) is celebrity and sexually obsessive - so much so that a decree goes out that everyone is famous. It is very much a 21st century view of the future.
The central character doesn't want to conform and sets out to find like minds - people who can think for themselves as opposed to the current Big Brother generation of vacuous me generation self obsessed youngsters.
We meet Cassius who is employed simply to keep up the government's targets for eliminating age discrimination Then Elton has the following to say about the internet "The internet was supposed to liberate knowledge, but in fact it buried it, first under a vast sewer of ignorance, laziness, bigotry, superstition and filth and then beneath the cloak of political surveillance."
In Elton's grave new world virtually everything that happens to a citizen is shared with everyone else through blogs, vids and other electronic means. Nothing is secret. But of course underneath it all lurks squalor and corruption. The thirst for knowledge backfires. And really anybody who uses the internet could be already part of this frightening concept (myself included).
This book is an enjoyable vision of a strange world that hopefully will never exist but at least it's more entertaining than the usual apocalypse fodder from authors that take themselves far too seriously.
The Resurrectionist by James Bradley - 17
I found this novel extremely disappointing on a number of levels - and I have spoken to friends who have read it and feel the same.
On the Edge My Story by Richard Hammond - 22
Sir Bobby Charlton The Autobiography - My Manchester United Years by Sir Bobby Charlton - 23
For a number of reasons it seemed right to read these autobiographies together. Firstly they are both bestsellers, secondly they are up to date accounts, thirdly they both deal with surviving horrendous crashes and fourth they are written by much loved people.
Hammond and Charlton have much in common despite the difference in age. They are both winners with a positive outlook on life and in their own ways icons and superb role models for young people for very different reasons.
The Norfolk library system loans out new books and bestsellers for a restricted seven day period. That meant I needed to get through these quickly. The fact that I read them both and got them back within the seven days shows how engrossing they were.
I started with the Richard Hammond book and then turned to the Charlton before returning to the first to finish it off. Then read the final two thirds of the Charlton in virtually one sitting. Deciding which was the more satisfying was very difficult and a veered between the two.
Richard Hammond covers the daredevil stunts of his childhood with a humour that he obviously took into his adult life. But the book isn't so much about his life as about the aftermath of his horrendous crash in a jet car whilst filming for the Top Gear television programme. The fact that Top Gear pushes the boundaries of acceptable motoring or that at times it can be irresponsible and purely for entertainment is probably not for discussion here. Hammond is part of that set-up and the fact that he drove a jet car could smack of commerciality gone too far.
As we all know he suffered severe brain damage from the crash. This book deals primarily with the build-up to the crash and the aftermath seen both through Hammond's eyes and those of his wife Mindy. Whilst Hammond was trying to pick up the pieces of his life and dealing with the problems of recuperating from brain damage, Mindy was trying to carry the burden of the family whilst giving him a solid base for his recovery. This is an overwhelming story of survival and return to fitness that at one point didn't seem possible. It is about the triumph of the human spirit. It is well written and an enjoyable read although I found the almost pathological need to avoid the Media slightly surprising given that Hammond himself operates within that field.
Bobby Charlton, like Hammond, is a survivor. At times the first part of his autobiography rather rambles but it is nice to have his own account of his life. The Charlton story has been chronicled many times. Here Bobby shows just why he is one of this country's greatest footballing ambassadors. The centre point of the book is the Munich air crash disaster that saw the Busby Babes decimated with the loss of many players including the incomparable Duncan Edwards who has been held up by many to be the greatest ever English footballer. Lives were cut short and Charlton was left to wonder just why he had been saved and got out of the crash with just a few cuts and bruises.
We hear that he has been haunted by the crash virtually everyday of his life. But Charlton is a survivor who came to terms with the losses and helped to re-build Manchester United. Here he reminisces on the past, the great players such as Law and Best and today's young Lions. He heralds Paul Scoles as the ultimate and complete professional football (despite leaving him out of his best ever Manchester United team).
Charlton is never going to be confrontational or controversial, but there are some interesting passages here which suggest that a contributory factor to the Munich crash was the need to return to the United Kingdom due to a directive from the Football Association. Charlton also comments on the lack of support from Alan Hardacre of the FA for European Football and the vision from Sir Matt Busby that Europe was the future of football (and how true has this been). He also tackles the family feuds between himself, his brother Jack, his wife and his strong willed mother. There is a great honesty about this book as you would expect from such a gentleman. The book also includes his post Manchester years before returning to the club as a director.
Charlton names his best ever Manchester XI. He is far too modest to include himself in this team. Other people must do this for him. And whilst accepting his laudatory comments regarding Paul Scoles I have to say that the author himself is probably the perfect professional and possibly (just possibly) England's greatest player of all time. It says much for the modesty of the author that the book is almost written as an outsider looking in and marvelling at the skills of others. I had the honour a number of years ago of talking to Bobby Charlton about his soccer school for a newspaper article. I found him quite a difficult man to talk to as he seemed rather shy. Reading this book shows that he has always shunned publicity and obviously takes a little bit of getting to know. I look forward to the second volume of his autobiography that deals with the England years and obviously focuses on the 1966 World Cup triumph.
The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox 24
First thing that strikes you about this very good novel is its great literary merit. Michael Cox is better known as a biographer, editor and compiler and this has helped him to create a very unusual first novel full of twists and turns and character studies.
Set in the mid 19th century it is a story of love (both realised and spurned), dark deeds, murder and inheritance and the depths the human soul can plummet in the voice of revenge. It is set in a similar era to James Bradley's Resurrectionist but is much more successful in recreating the period.
It is a beautifully written book that has almost a poetic feel to it and the author has undertaken a mountain of research to bring us the feel both of London and a country house of the time. Such is the success of the book that it brings forth many emotions. We never quite know whether to feel sorry for the central character or to be appalled at his actions. Certainly there are some odious characters here, some misguided ones and some genuinely good people twisted into complicity by the circumstances in which they find themselves.
If I have one criticism - the book is over long at almost 600 pages which makes it quite heavy going at times as plots unravel rather slowly. In truth there aren't many surprises either, but it is a beautifully crafted story that I can highly recommend.
The Righteous Men by Sam Bourne 23
I preferred this book to The Last Testament as it was less contrived and didn't seem to wander as much. Bourne sticks more to the central plot, although at times it can become rather rambling and I'm not sure how many more meaning of life type code books I want to read.
This is a decently written thriller, however, with a fairly taut plot and well researched background into the Jewish faith amongst other things. At times I tended to lose interest but at least the author always brought me back and the final few chapters flew by and the ending wasn't as disappointing as some I have read this year.
The plot is pretty implausible, however, although I won't give it away for those still to read the book. I found the characters much more believable than in The Last Testament and Bourne seemed to be more comfortable with them here. I suggest if you don't expect too much, but enjoy a fast paced thriller, this is decent enough.
The Outcast by Sadie Jones - 23
At first I wasn't sure about this one. It seemed to be written in a rather simplistic language. Then I realised that this was exactly what gave the book its power. In many ways a frightening portrait of the 1950s dealing with many taboo (for them) themes of abuse, violence, ostracisation and guilt. There are many gripping passengers as Jones weaves her tale.
And ultimately it's a fairly simple story about life after the second world war where communities have changed. The hero/anti hero (depending on which way you look at it) is 19-year-old Lewis. According to most of the local people Lewis is a bad lot. Having spent two years in prison he returns to his home with very little support and a father who somehow blames him for the drowning of his mother and a stepmother who is herself a weak character.
Whichever way Lewis turns seems to put him deeper in trouble. The mutual abuse passages are sad to read but do highlight a tortured soul. Another skill of the writer is that whilst we often feel sorry for Lewis and angry at the characters around him we cannot quite be sure that he isn't indeed a bad lot. We are never quite sure about his behaviour or his motives, although towards the end of the book they become more clear and the final paragraph of the book gives us hope for the future that Lewis will find redemption in the love of Kit.
This is an evocative book about a time long gone when family violence seemed to be acceptable.
Getting Rid of Matthew by Jane Fallon - 23
Whilst this book will never win any prizes for literary merit, it has to be said that it is an extremely enjoyable and at time funny read.
A tale of morals, relationships, slip-ups and farce, it centres around Helen whose lover Matthew finally decides to move in with her after a relationship that has already last four years. Having asked for this time and time again, Helen suddenly realises that she no longer wants to live with Matthew. But how to get rid of him is the problem.
There are some very sharp and amusing passages as the plot unfolds and new relationships are forged, whilst others are destroyed. A light book, it does make some serious points and underlying this is the fact that it's simply a very enjoyable book which many people will devour at one or two sittings..
Wish You Were Here by Mike Gayle - 23
I know I liked this book as I finished it in one day whilst travelling long distance on a variety of trains. So that must say something about its appeal. In many ways it is a companion to the previous book "Getting Rid of Matthew"- light and frothy but a good read.
Gayle writes blokish kind of books that seem to wrap you up inside them. They are very simply written with relationships the key. This one surrounds three thirty something blokes trying desperately to re-live their youth in Crete. But with them goes all the trappings and angst of their age. They feel out of place in the youth culture, but somehow try to hold onto what they once had.
The problem is they have taken a considerable amount of baggage with them and this is always going to put their friendship at risk. It is a well crafted book. Again its lack of literary merit is more than made up for by the enjoyment it gives.
A Simple Act of Violence by R.J. Ellory - 27
It's difficult to know where to start with one of the finest thriller novels I have ever read.
So let's begin with a simple statement of belief. This book is even better than the best selling A Quiet Belief in Angels. I really cannot recommend this one highly enough and Roger Ellory just gets better and better.
This novel is full of twists and turns, dead ends, leads that seem to go nowhere. On the simplest level it's a murder detective novel. But on a much higher level it's about corruption, greed, hatred but also the power of good. Some of the suggestions made in the book would have huge ramifications for the USA if they were found to be true - that's how good this book is.
One thing is certain - nothing is quite what it seems. In Detective Robert Miller we have one of the author's best characterisations to date - a man of honour, determined to root out the truth, a man as unsure of the future as he is of the past.
To try and outline the plot of this novel would be to do it a disservice. It is far too vast and too complex for that. The complexity of the novel is in the subject matter and never in the writing style which is as vibrant as ever. Never for one moment did I lose interest in this book, never for one second did my mind wander or did I wish to be somewhere else. Once again the author gives us a history lesson on the way. The amount of research that went into this novel must have been massive.
To say I am in awe of this man's writing ability would be true. He weaves intricate plots that twist and turn - always giving us a drip of information but leaving us guessing. The subject matter is complex, it involves the CIA, the American Government, the judiciary. The action is painted across a massive vista where very little is what it seems as a number of serial murders occur with the victims seemingly being people who do not exist. You are never quite sure exactly who is who, but there is a clarity to the writing that makes this irrelevant because you always know that by the end all the pieces will be tied up.
Identifying with Detective Miller is easy and this is where the writer's supreme ability comes in. And whilst the author does tie up all the loose ends we are left wondering what life holds for Miller. He has found the answers but this leads to as many questions in his own life, questions that only a subsequent appearance can answer.
So let's end with a Simple Statement of Fact - this is the most enjoyable book I have read in years. I was desperate to get to the end to find out exactly what it was all about, but sad when I reached the final page. As they say in the old cliche - if you only read one book this year, make it this one. I just cannot recommend it too highly.
The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce by Paul Torday - 18
Having thoroughly enjoyed Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, I was looking forward to reading the follow up, expecting the same kind of biting satire and unique feel. My anticipation was heightened by the title.
Sepulchre by Kate Mosse - 21
In many ways this was a difficult book to review.
For a start it runs to well over 700 pages and so the initial question has to be: Does it hold the reader's attention over such a marathon?
I read Mosse's previous novel Labyrinth and found it to be unnecessarily rambling and complex and at times tedious. Thankfully Sepulchre doesn't fall into this trap but it does take an effort at times to keep going.
Sepulchre is a simpler and more constrained book with less sweeping vistas than Labyrinth. The characters are reasonably well drawn and the early descriptions of Paris of 1891 are sharp. A number of reviewers have complained about the Americanisation of some of the passages, but I didn't find this a problem with the narrative flowing reasonably well.
At times my attention did wander somewhat but it would be some author that could sustain tension over such a long stretch, I still believe, however, that this book would have been better served at around 500 pages. At times background descriptions are just too detailed and lose interest. The minutae of character behaviour is sometimes over-stretched.
There are some other annoying aspects to the book. Firstly, even after 700+ pages you get the feeling that the author has suddenly decided it's time to tie up the loose ends and end the story. The conclusion therefore reads more like a report than part of the narrative.
Another annoyance is when the characters suddenly lapse into French in an attempt to make us believe they really are French. The story is in English 99% of the time but just occasionally changes track. It is the equivalent of the old boys war comics where Germans occasionally used a Germanic word such as achtung just to re-inforce the fact that they were indeed the Hun!
Annoyances aside I have to say it is not a bad read at all. There are almost two distinct stories here. One is the supernatural mystery but the other is quite a fascinating Victorian melodrama and it is possibly this that is the most effective.
The action ultimately ends in more of a whimper than a bang as if a cataclysmic climax is just too much for the author. Overall I would recommend it as a decent read as long as you aren't expecting a classic.
My French Whore by Gene Wilder - 18
Firstly let me say that there were no difficulties sticking with this one - mainly because it runs to under 170 pages and so can be read almost in a single session.
Classics Revisited - The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
During the course of a year I am intending to return to classic novels. It would be unrealistic to try and rate these alongside new novels so I'm not even going to try - just simple reviews.
The power in Fitzgerald's writing is its starkness and sparsity. The Great Gatsby is a short novel by any standards but its power lies in the way the story creeps up on you. It's almost as if nothing seems to be happening but then you realise that in a very subtle way the action has carried you away.
Set in the Jazz area on Long Island it's a story of greed, love and lust, violence where things are rarely what they seem. Fitzgerald weaves intrigue into the plot. We are never really sure about who Gatsby is and what brings him to Long Island. Like an Edward Hopper painting, there always seems to be more than what lurks on the surface.
Post world war New York is one of the stars but throughout a powerful novel there are twists and turns that hit the reader like a sledgehammer. That's what ultimately makes this book.
Second Glance by Jodi Picoult - 21
Sometimes when I have read a novel and turn to reviewing it I find comments difficult to come by. Sometimes my head is so full of thoughts that it is difficult to know where to start. This book comes into the latter category.
It is a very strange, almost surreal work of fiction based on fact. Ultimately a ghost story surrounding a master race style selection process undertaken in Vermont in the 1930s, it is a complex and at times difficult to understand novel.
To start with the book is divided into three sections - the first and third take place in 2001 but the middle section, which goes a long way to explaining what is happening in the other two, is set in 1931. This does lead to some confusion. At times it's difficult to realise just how much information the author has allowed you to have earlier.
My main gripe with the novel is the ridiculous language it at times lapses into. Whilst the middle section of the book is powerful and well written, the first and third can be rather corny and I felt ultimately the book rather fizzled out. There were no massive surprises and the last pages turn more into an adventure tale than a ghostly mystery.
Getting back to the language. Picoult has a nasty habit of using "big words" in her text. At one point one of the characters actually picks up on this as part of a joke. But who really understands the words nictitating, ratiocinatively, catena, self-immolation of tropolgically - and these are just a few of those used.
Then there are sentences such as "Here I am confabulating about myself."
Even worse are passages that are just cringeworthy. Take these as examples:
"She smoothed down her napkin and looked down at her chipolata sausage, nestled in a bed of polenta." or
"She decided to put a tourniquet on the past for once and for all until it just dessicated and disappeared" or
"He tasted doubt on her tongue and pain on the roof of her mouth. He swallowed these and drank again. Consumed she had no choice but to see how empty he was inside and how sip by sip she filled him"
That doesn't mean that the novel isn't without merit. It is a good read, it touches on a number of important subjects and lets us into a world that isn't that far from the Salem Witch trials in content or style. I would recommend this book, but you have to stay with it as in the first section numerous characters are introduced at almost break-neck speed and it is quite difficult to keep a tab on just who is who.
Plain Truth by Jodi Picoult - 21
Very different in style and much less complex than Second Glance. The plot in this is fairly straightforward. A young Amish woman has a baby which dies shortly after the birth. The question is did she murder it or did it die of natural causes?
A top female lawyer with connections to the Amish world takes on the defence and the main questions are 1/ was the baby murdered and 2/ if so was it a deliberate act by the mother. As usual things are never quite what they seem but the success of this book lies more in the portrait of Amish life than in a murder drama.
The plain life is delicately observed and well painted and of particular interest to me as many years ago I had a tour of an Amish homestead in the area in Pennsylvania in which this novel is set. It even goes as far as talking about tourists having their photographs taken under the township sign for Intercourse and I am guilty as charged.
Once again there are some seriously yucky passages, but thankfully these are fewer than in Second Glance. Overall the book just falls short of the mark as I found the ending rather predictable and disappointing on a number of levels that I cannot discuss due to the fact that it would give everything away if I did. Suffice it to say the court appearance doesn't have a powerful finish.
The Conjuror's Bird by Martin Davies - 19
There is no doubt that this book has literary merit. I just found it sad that it fizzled out towards the end and I wasn't sure whether the idea behind the novel and the story got overwhelmed by the author's wish to give us some kind of period history lesson.
The story itself is divided into two distinct sections - set many years apart. It looks at the life and loves of naturalist/explorer Joseph Banks and also a modern day search for a model of an extinct bird. There is of course something more to the bird than meets the eye.
Unfortunately all too often the author seems to lose his way as he tries to make the plot tenable and interesting. By the end I had pretty much lost interest in the actual bird. From a historical perspective the narrative is well drawn but ultimately there are few surprises or wow moments within the text. Overall it was a very good idea that has only partially worked.
The Olivetti Chronicles by John Peel - 18
Peel was always something of an enigma - very much the maverick, trend setting DJ but also strangely part of the establishment and that comes out in this book, which collects together many of his articles and columns for a variety of sources from Disc and Sounds magazines to the Radio Times.
The fact that the articles are not in chronological order tends to lead to confusion as you suddenly realise that he has jumped 20 years. Peel's strengths were in writing about music and it's interesting in the cold light of day to look back on his musings on the likes of the Fall and Captain Beefheart.
Unfortunately his general writing can be very obtuse and quite aggressive and I found this at times quite confusing and even obtuse. There is no doubt that when Peel died we lost a gem of a man who brought so much raw and new music to the public's attention. Sadly his columns written on his old Olivetti typewriter (hence the title) are not quite the art form that publications employing him would have us believe. And I have to put him right on one aspect. He regularly refers to Ipswich as a city. Ipswich is a town, it has never been awarded city status.
Rock Me Amadeus by Seb Hunter - 24
For sheer entertainment value, this book scores very highly indeed. It was a delight to read. The basis idea is that rock fan Hunter goes off on a lopsided odyssey to discover the roots and history of classical music.
One reviewer stated that Hunter showed a total ignorance of his subject matter - but surely that is the point of the book. Yes he makes gaffs, yes he gets things completely wrong but it is a fascinating and funny journey into some strange characters and equally strange places. The snobs will dismiss this book but surely if it make people set off to discover Bach, Beethoven, Mozart et al it will have done a service to the genre.
But let's not examine the content too closely. Let's just accept this for what it is - a fun book very much in the Bill Bryson style. It was a delightful accompaniment to Christmas 2008 - just funf, fun, fun.
Books I couldn't finish
Nicolas Nickleby by Charles Dickens - Too long and too demanding. I love Dickens but got really bogged down with this, having read it fully many many years ago.
Now in November – Josephine Johnson - This book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1935 for Josephine Johnson who was aged just 24. Sadly it is very difficult to see why. It is lacking in depth. The book is heralded as painting an indelible portrait of the American depression and dust bowl years – it doesn’t. The book focuses on one family, never really engaging the readers in the wider issues. The characters are cardboard and we never sympathise with them. I suffered about one-third before turning to the final pages and realising that there was no need to read what was in between as the book had little to say about human nature. If you want to learn more about this time in American history read Steinbeck’s classic Grapes of Wrath.
Diaries 1969-79 The Python Years by Michael Palin - I was very sad at not being able to finish this book. It was one I had looked forward to reading for sometime. I admire Palin greatly and getting hold of this book made me return to the Python LPs to listen to them again. I have to say they are still laugh aloud good - better than I remember. As for the book - well it's a disappointment. Very long and I made it to about halfway before losing the will to read on. The main disappointment is it failed to make the Python team seem anything other than grumpy young men. Palin talks about various projects but never describes how the sketches came about and what prompted them. The diary just assumes we know all about them and this makes it much more tedious than it should have been.
Mayflower by Nathaniel Pilbrick - Too complex and involved and written in too much of an academic style which makes it confusing and difficult to understand
Visible World by Mark Slouka - Sorry but one I just couldn't get interested in. It came highly recommended but after the first couple of chapters I just gave up.
Castle in the Forest by Norman Mailer - A vastly interesting subject but Mailer makes the ancestry of Adolf Hitler seem turgid and uninteresting. Again I just gave up on it.
The Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger - I know this one was a best seller but I found the first couple of chapters so confusing that I just couldn't be bothered to go on.
The House at Riverton by Kate Morton - Got completely bogged down in the first 30 pages of this and just didn't have the energy to go any further. I was initially put off by the second sentence. "It was 1924 and I was at Riverton again." This is a total clone of the brilliant Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier and it's classic opening line "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again." Sadly Morton's book was just too irrelevant to bother with.
Father Figure by Ann Widdecombe - Beware of celebrities writing novels and beware even more when current or past MPs put pen to paper. About 10 pages were enough to tell me I didn't want to go on with a writing style that is immature in style.
Many Lives of Tom Waits by Patrick Humphries - This book is interesting for giving a feel of the world that Waits inhabits but it does very little to help our understanding of the rock maverick. Indeed at times it gets confusing to say the least. Earlier this year I read a biography of rugby league commentator Eddie Waring and that left me with the same feeling. Here the author is sadly short of facts and insights into the man and so glosses over areas that should be developed while developing others that should have been glossed over. I almost gave up at the chapter dedicated to the work of Francis Ford Coppola as I failed to see the relevance of it and if I was interested in the film director I would have found a biography on him. It sadly smacked of an author running out of things to say on his subject matter. In two words this biography is very disappointing and I did eventually give up on it some pages from the end.
Judge Sewell's Apology by Richard Francis - A book about the Salem Witch Hunts in America and I just lost interest after the first couple of chapters.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon - I slogged through almost half this book before I realised that I didn't care about the characters and the amazing adventures weren't very amazing anyway.
Tree of Smoke by Dennis Johnson - I was really looking forward to this highly recommended book but just couldn't get into it thanks to the usual American slang-style writing.
Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier - Got so far with this one before I realised just how implausible and ridiculous the story was. A scholar goes in search of a Portuguese author after leaving his job for apparently little more than curiosity. Just too far fetched to be believable.
Somme Mud by E.P.F.Lynch - Our library hires out new books and best sellers for seven days instead of the normal 21. I just didn't have time to read this before it was due back and only got a quarter of the way through. It is one I will return to at a later date, however.
Book of the Year
27 A Simple Act of Violence by R J Ellory
Book of the Year Runner-Up
26 Candlemoth by R J Ellory
27 - A Simple Act of Violence by R. J. Ellory
26 - Candlemoth by R.J. Ellory
25 - A Quiet Belief in Angels by RJ Ellory
25 - A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khalid Hosseini
25 - The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
25 - Ghostheart by R. J. Ellory
24 - A Quiet Vendetta by R J Ellory
24 - The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox
24 - Rock Me Amadeus by Seb Hunter
23 - City of Lies by R. J. Ellory
23 - Sir Bobby Charlton - My Manchester United Years by Sir Bobby Charlton
23 - The Righteous Men by Sam Bourne
23 - The Outcast by Sadie Jones
23 - Getting Rid of Matthew by Jane Fallon
23 - Wish You Were Here by Mike Gayle
22 - On The Edge My Story by Richard Hammond
22 - The Last Testament by Sam Bourne
22 - Blind Faith by Ben Elton
21 - Second Glance by Jodi Picoult
21 - Plain Truth by Jodi Picoult
21 - Sepulchre by Kate Mosse
21 - Next of Kin by John Boyne
20 - Being Eddie Waring by- Tony Hannan
20 - Shakespeare by Bill Bryson
19 - The Conjuror's Bird by Martin Davies
18 - Random Acts of Heroic Love by Danny Scheinmann
18 - The Rotters' Club by Jonathan Coe
18 - The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce by Paul Torday
18 - My French Whore by Gene Wilder
18 - The Olivetti Chronicals by John Peel
17 - Two Caravans by Marina Lewycka
17 - The Resurrectionist by James Bradley