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 Timewaster Diaries by Robin Cooper - 23
This might seem to be a strange choice for my first book of 2009, but I came across it by accident. I was reading a number of other books when I came across this in the comedy section of my local library. I do enjoy spoof diaries but on starting to read this felt it was a little dull. Then I got into the characters and shot through it in no time at all.
book soon became like an old friend. I didn't want it to end
because it provided some really light entertainment.
Positively Happy by Noel Edmonds - 21
After reading Timewaster Diaries I started numerous books without seemingly being able to concentrate on any of them - continually putting novels aside half read to return to later. Was this a comment on my state of mind or the lack of interest in the literature's sustainability? I like to think it was the latter.
So on a browse through the local library I came across this slim volume and thought "well why not." I read it in two sittings and it is certainly interesting. I learnt nothing new about positivity that I didn't already know from doing a diploma in life coaching.
Noel Edmonds subscribes to the cosmic way of life - where the cosmos has it in for you (in the nicest possible way of course). If you trust yourself to the powers of positive thinking more is obtainable. I expected some revelations about cosmic ordering, but the cosmos side was rarely mentioned. This is more of a self help positive attitude book interlaced with episodes about Edmonds' life, career and family. That actually makes it more readable and the concepts included are solid.
Having a positive attitude and fully grasping opportunities certainly does improve lives - of that there can be no doubt. What Edmonds is saying is we all have lows, but positive people just see these as part of their lives and move on. I am a firm believer in this.
This is a very readable and well written books. It isn't likely to win over many cynics, but perhaps their cynicism comes from being negative anyhow. Whatever you think of Edmonds as an entertainer, he uses simple, understandable language to make his points and this book is worth reading for that alone.
The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or The Murder at Road Hill House by Kate Summerscale - 19
Let me start by saying I found this an interesting if rather flawed book. I have always enjoyed factual books written more like novels and this reminded me a bit of the excellent Midnight in the Garden of the Lost and Found.
Unfortunately it is nowhere near as powerful as that book. Basically Summerscale tells the story of a gruesome murder in an English country house. Gradually she unfolds a description of the intrigues within that Victorian house through a story of complicity, violence and of course murder.
Despite the way in which the author sets the murder up as one of the great mysteries of the Victorian Era, the action is not sustainable over a full size factual novel. So we have details of Victorian country life, a history of the first detectives in the country and an examination of detective and police novels of the era.
It does lead to the whole thing becoming a hotch potch. We veer from Jack Whicher's investigations into the Road Hill House murder into other murders and other crimes he investigated. Then we hear of the literature of Conan-Doyle, Dickens, Poe and many other lesser lights and how they might have been intrigued by the murder.
The actual murder at Road Hill House is interesting but slightly disappointing. Just when you expect some blinding revelations through the work of Whicher and other detectives, the whole thing rather peters out with an old fashioned confession from one of the main characters. From that point the book seems to lose its raison d'etre and ends with a whimper rather than a bang.
The Reader by Bernhard Schlink - 17
I'm not sure whether something of this book has been lost in the translation or whether it is simply too short to do justice to the subject. The problem seems to be in the way Schlink uses the action for various psychological hypotheses, only to jump across vast tracks of time with a suddeness that is difficult to handle.
The novel doesn't seem to know whether it wants to be a love story, a psychological drama or a portrait of the holocaust and consequently it drops somewhere between the three. The holocaust feels like an episodic aside to the life of the main character and his love and infatuation for a woman many years his senior and a woman with a hidden past which comes out when he attends court as a law student.
The problem is that nothing is the book comes as a real surprise. Events suddenly happen with a stark realism but they don't shock us. To comment too closely on the action would be to give away the plot. I am looking forward to seeing the film of the book. I am sure it will be more edifying than the starkness of the narrative.
The Birthing House by Christopher Ransom - 14
According to the blurb on the back jacket this is "a stunning debut - swaddling the reader in dread from the very first sentence." The description of the story sounds promising and we are told it's the scariest novel since Stephen King's The Shining.
If after all that you were expecting something special - forget it. This is a pretty dreadful book, written with a total lack of finesse with dialogue that at best is laughable and written throughout in a kind of pseudo American slang. It always amazes me that there are people living who talk in this way. I'm sure there aren't and it's just the author trying to be clever and failing by many a mile.
So many well written novels get turned down by publishers that it is truly difficult to see how this one got through. For a start it's about as frightening as a six year old's birthday party. It isn't really a horror story and when you analyse it there is very little story anyway.
But the main problem is sex! Ransom, for some reason, seems obsessed with writing about it in virtually every scene and every circumstance. The result is he has produced a totally rigid and unsexy novel. The characters seem to veer from subservience to anger virtually in the same sentence and the whole book is written in excruciatingly dreadful language. Just take the following:
"Eddie squealed the tires and blew the stop sign near the Kwik Trip, cranked his music and floored it around the corner" or
"When he opened his eyes she was bleeding from just below her equatorial center, maybe Tanzania on the globe of her belly" or
"Oh my God. Are you trying to make me lose my shit?" or
"Hey baby," he said affecting a sort of jive-ass tone.... "You knew what kind of cat I was when we got hitched." He thrust his hips back and forth, fucking the air between them.
Those are just a few of the hundreds of dreadful passages throughout this book. And I'm never sure whether it tries to be a horror story or one about relationships. Sadly it fails miserably in both camps.
I would suggest the only reason for reading this book is to see whether it really is as truly awful as it sounds
Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson - 24
I found this a very interesting and entertaining read, but am not sure whether it should be classified under history or fantasy. It really is a mixture of both.
A well told debut novel, it tells about the love story of a man seriously burnt in a car crash and a mysterious woman who visits him in hospital and then gives him a home. But the woman is certain that they have loved before over the centuries.
The novel weaves in the ancient and the modern, taking us into the world of legends and redemption and all based around Dante's Inferno. Really it isn't as difficult as that brief descriptions makes it sound. It has a similar feel to Labyrinth by Kate Mosse but is much more readable and interesting.
It's main success is that over 500 pages it never becomes stodgy and you end up longing to know more about the central characters. The novel conjures up images and mid pictures and that makes it effective fiction even if reality is stretched to the absolute limits.
Written by a Canadian, there is a North American feel to the prose, just occasionally lapsing into slang but the writing is of a much higher standard than the slipshod writing of Christopher Ransom. The subject matter is handled delicately and there is a good insight into the rehabilitation of burns victims. Well worth a read.
The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff - 25
A contender for book of the year. If the success of a book lays in making you want to research more about its subject matter then this is an undoubted success.
It tells two stories set may years apart. Both involve the Church of the Latter Day Saints (Mormons). One is a modern murder mystery and the other is the story of Brigham Young's 19th wife Ann Eliza Young who was at the forefront of the fight against polygamy in the USA.
Brigham Young was the prophet and successor to Mormon's founder Joseph Smith. A renowned polygamist it is assessed that he had well over 50 wives of which at least 19 were official - having been "sealed" by the church. Ann Eliza was number 19 and the book traces the history of the Mormon religion from its early days until the crusade of this redoubtable woman who wrote about her life "in shackles" in the original 19th Wife book which was a blockbuster of its time and still worth a read. It is easily downloadable from the Internet being well out of copyright.
Ebershoff is at pains to explain that his novel is a work of fiction. It draws at length from Ann Eliza's memoirs, however, which makes it instantly very successful from the historical point of view. The author is a very talented and well known book editor amongst other things and this comes over as well as his writing skills. Less successful is the modern day murder story that I found to rather fizzle out near the end. I would have preferred this to have stayed as historical "fiction". It is still an excellent read and insight into the Mormon world. The author leaves you to make up your mind on whether to believe Ann Eliza's take on events.
Mudbound by Hillary Jordan - 22
I struggled long and hard with this book, which isn't to say that it's bad. I just lost interest in the middle but then returned to finish it in one sitting a few weeks later.
It's a powerful story of friendship, racial hatred, violence, ignorance and rural post second world war American life where prejudice is just a byword for existence. Living off the land is tough and when Ronsel Jackson returns from war as a hero he just has one problem. Ronsel is black and instead of a hero's welcome for serving his country he meets with the kind of reaction all too familiar in the Mississippi of the post war years. Hating Ronsel is standard but he is befriended by white angst ridden Jamie McAllan younger son of a racist father.
Interestingly the book starts with a death and then works its way back to that point with a story of hatred and harshness that is pretty unrelenting.
The second half of the book is better than the first. It is written through the eyes of the main characters which takes plenty of skill and that is a skill that is partly effective. Overall it's a good study of American humanity in a time, thankfully now rooted into the past.
Slumdog Millionaire (published originally as Q and A by Vikas Swarup - 23
are two comments that have to be made about this book. Firstly it
is vastly more entertaining than the film and secondly it is very
different to the film.
F in Exams - The Funniest Test Paper Blunders by Richard Benson
Giving this book a rating is impossible. I picked it up in Norwich Library and stood and read it in about 10 minutes. It is just a series of test paper answers - some potty, some funny and some clever dick. It is an amusing little book, but really you can pretty much get most of these and many more on the internet. Nevertheless it provided a little light relief. I particularly liked the maths question where a triangle had two angles of 30 degrees and the question was locate the angle x. The candidate had pointed to the letter "x" and added the words "This is the location of angle x." It is difficult at times to work out whether the candidates are being totally thick or deliberately obtuse. At times you begin to believe that it is the question writers who are being funny and just asking for trouble through the way they phrase their questions.
The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry - 17
I really struggled with this novel. I set off reading it at some pace and was looking to finish it in a couple of sittings, but then got bogged down in the middle and gave up on it for quite some time. The middle section of a book is often the most important. Once the initial interest has waned you need something to take you through the mid section and into the end where loose ends unravel. I got so bogged down in the central section that I almost didn't make it through to the end. On the plus side the plot idea is a reasonable one - a centenarian living in a mental institution in Ireland looks back on her life and we soon learn about the prejudices that has seen her "locked up for many years. The book is based on two areas - the secret scripture of this woman Roseanne McNulty and the thoughts of psychiatrist Dr Grene.
The main concern is I could never really identify with the characters and the dear doctor becomes something of a bore - droning on about a relationship with his dead wife that is of little interest or relevance. The book does give an insight into the violence and politics of Ireland and the relationships of those involved. These relationships are never fully developed, however, and this is one of the book's failings. Also there is nothing in the least surprising about the ending. In summing up it was a good idea, but one that misfires somewhat.
Engleby by Sebastian Faulks - 22
I have read many of Sebastian Faulks' books with a mixture of enjoyment and slight boredom. I was pleasantly surprised by Engleby - a good study of a mind in turmoil. Mike Engleby is an unlikely hero but a man we strangely empathise with, but in the most ghastly way imaginable. For a start much of the action is set in and around Cambridge University. Engleby seems to disintegrate as a human being and this is one of the main interest areas of the book. Another is the highly literate way it is written, weaving in avariety of culture and politics. It does rather grind to a halt but overall an enjoyable read and one that takes the reader into the head of a highly disturbed man. It is certainly a change in style and content for the author.
At My Mother's Knee and Other Low Joints by Paul O'Grady - 24
Look Who It Is by Alan Carr - 24
One Flew Into the Cuckoo's Egg by Bill Oddie - 19
Three autobiographies - two of which were rattling good reads and one of which was disappointing. Two of them enhanced my views of the individual and one certainly didn't. So let's start with the one that didn't. Because he was in the Goodies and from his television nature series I always envisaged Oddie as a cuddly, fun type guy - not so. During his hosting of Spring and Autumn Watch I always got frustrated by his insistence of hogging the limelight and not allowing fellow presenter Kate Humble to get a word in edgeways. I forgave him for this, looking upon it as his enthusiasm for his subject - not so. Oddie is a complex man, a contradiction. This book shows him to be a fragile grumpy old man. In the book he tries to be original. Half of it is straight narrative looking at his childhood, his mother's parlous mental condition and his own fight with depression and inner demons. The other half of the book consists of interviews with himself where he asks the questions and gives the answers and at times it verges on the silly. It is almost as if Oddie is trying to write a comedy strip and it's not all that funny. It doesn't work and brings the whole book crashing down. Oh and the title is ridiculously contrived and not particularly clever.
Paul O'Grady's autobiography on the other hand is very readable and gives an excellent insight into his early years. If you ever wondered about the man's sexuality - here are the answers. Yes he is bi-sexual. This gives us an insight into the character of the early Paul, unable to settle into a number of dead end jobs and becoming more and more dragged down without too many hints of the glittering showbusiness career to follow. He speaks openly and candidly about his sexuality, but there is always a significant lighter touch to the story. One of the stars of the show is his mother - always full of homespun philosophy, always ready with the put down line (albeit in a strangely supportive way) This is one of those books that you can get wrapped up in and I look forward to the next instalment.
Similarly the Alan Carr autobiography is another excellent and entertaining read. I finished the book in one sitting which is very unusual for me nowadays and for five hours I was entranced by the fun of the tale. It has much in common with Paul O'Grady's offering, again discussing Carr's homosexuality in an open way. Carr is still a young man so there isn't quite so much to talk about but his insights into the Edinburgh Festival and the way he almost drifted into stand up comedy after years of dead end jobs makes it very entertaining. There's plenty of humour here including his father's acceptance of his lifestyle after trying to turn him into a footballer. Carr's father was a professional football manager with a decent reputation in the game. Personally I have never greatly liked Carr's style or camp delivery but after reading this book I can at least understand it a bit more.
Library of the Dead by Glenn Cooper - 26
So many new novels seem to miss the mark and disappoint. Occasionally new literature turns up an unexpected gem and so it is with Glenn Cooper's debut novel. On the surface it seems to be a straightforward detective novel about a New York serial killer. Do we really want yet another book about a washed up New York Cop looking for redemption through his work and glorious past. Well the answer is probably no, but thankfully this book doesn't fall into that trap. The New York angle is only one of a number of scenarios in a complex tale which takes us to medieval Isle of Wight and to post war Britain and America. For two thirds of the novel I failed to see how the various scenarios could be linked - but they are in a very original and clever manner. This book is very subtle in its plotting and a very good read. I am looking forward to the follow up which covers roughly the same area. I can highly recommend a book that stands a good chance of being my favourite read of 2009.
Classics Revisited - The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Read simply as a children's story there is plenty to admire in the Secret Garden. But of course there are deeper meanings hidden within the text. Redemption, love, understanding, the triumph of spirit. It's a child's tale almost within an adult framework. It works for the most part in transporting us to a gentler time when children made their own entertainment. The fact that the characters are partly one dimensional does act as something of a handicap to the enjoyment. The characters are just misguided but never really nasty or evil although we are told of childish tantrums. The transportation from nasty little oiks to country loving gentlefolk perhaps comes a little too quickly and perhaps the book does get bogged down with its limited plot. The book looks closely at the healing power of positive thought - something that we hear so much about today. I can see how it became such an inspirational book in its day.
Classics Revisited - Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
A lovely book of quieter times when children played through using their imagination.
Sir Bobby Charlton – The England Years - 20
The second volume of Bobby Charlton's autobiography. Perhaps after over 400 pages of the Manchester United Years I was getting slightly bored but I found this volume to be less interesting – more about the real deal than the embryo footballer. Again Charlton takes us through his career – this time on the international stage. At times it just seems to dart around all over the place and isn't as well constructed as the first volume.
Once again it does show Charlton as a real gentleman of the game and covers in depth the great 1966 World Cup win and the disappointments of the 1970 competition. Above all it illustrates that sometimes what happens off the field has a tremendous effect on what happens on it. Footballers are human beings, affected by outside occurrences.
Parky by Michael Parkinson - 21
Surprisingly I preferred the autobiographies by Alan Carr and Paul O'Grady to this one – although I find it difficult to say exactly why. I suppose Micheal Parkinson is such a high profile celebrity that we almost become disinterested in his upbringing and try to race through to see if he has anything illuminating to say about the hundreds of celebrities he has interviewed for his chat show over the years. The answer to that is no. The elderly Parky is a kind old soul unwilling to dish any real dirt. So we have confirmation of his spat with Emu and how impossible Meg Ryan was to interview but not a lot else.
Consequently it took me some while to read this book, although it is enjoyable enough in its own way. It does give a lovely portrait of Parky's much loved father and his love for cricket.
Death on a Branch Line by Andrew Martin - 17
Sadly this is drivel. It starts out well with good period description of Victorian railways, but then deteriorates with a sorry plot that seems to ramble and go nowhere. I understand this is just one of a series featuring railway detective. The figures are wooden and ultimately the whole thing is highly disappointing.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows - 20
At junior school I had a teacher who banned the use of the word nice. It was a non word he said. But it does seem to sum up this novel - it's nice if a tad dull. Certainly the idea of weaving a story around. It has been called charming, delightful, lovely and any number of other words that lead one to believe it is a tad short of substance. Underneath it all it is a love story - a love story of people and places - the place in question being Guernsey during and after the Nazi occupation. Here are a whole host of ordinary people thrust into a very non ordinary situation. Written through a series of letters and the brainchild of American Mary Ann Shaffer and finished after her death by her niece Annie Barrows, It illustrates the fortitude of people in adversity but at times struggles to tug onto reality.
Revelation by CJ Sansom - 24
Reading a series of books out of sequence is not a particularly good idea, but it didn't seem to detract too much from this fifth novel by CJ Sansom. It is the fourth in the Matthew Shardlake series set in the 16th century during the reign of Henry VIII. It follows the adventures of hunchback lawyer Shardlake and his assistant Jack Barak as they hunt a serial killer and investigate the reasons for a teenage boy to be locked up in the Bedlam hospital for the insane. It is a carefully crafted book with plenty of twists and turns and enough personal details about the main characters to make them interesting. Above all it is an excellent evocation of London at the time - the violence, the filth and the dangers. Certainly one of my favourite books of the year.
Mutiny on the Bounty by John Boyne - 25
Another book with an historical perspective is this excellent offering by the author of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. I thoroughly enjoyed this one from start to finish. It is an excellent portrayal of its subject matter through the eyes of Captain Bligh's servant lad John Jacob Turnstile, consigned to duties on the Bounty in lieu of punishment for being a London pickpocket. There are definite shades of Oliver and Fagan in the early passages, but once we get aboard the Bounty there is still plenty of the Artful Dodger about John Jacob but certainly more of Tom the Cabin Boy. There are adventures a plenty but this is much more than just an adventure tale. It takes us inside the heads of many of the mutineers and looks at the whole question of loyalty. It is also a book about survival against the odds. Overall an excellent read.
Dissolution by CJ Sansom - 23
Back to the Shardlake Novels. This was the first in the series and not surprisingly for a book set in the reign of Henry VIII deals primarily with the dissolution of the monasteries. England is undergoing vast changes, not all of which are designed to modernise the country. London still has a seedy seam. Nobody is safe from wagging tongues and those all too eager to rat on a colleague or even a friend and the consequences can be dire. Thomas Cromwell is investigating the monasteries and that can lead to only one thing - dissolution. Much of the action takes place on the Sussex coast at Scarnsea where Cromwell's commissioner has been found murdered and Scarnsea's great relic has been stolen Shardlake is sent to investigate and once again places himself in perilous danger. Once again this novel gives a wonderful evocation of the times with plenty of twists and turns before the truth is revealed.
Dark Fire by CJ Sansom - 24
The second in the Shardlake series revolves around a legendary substance - Greek Fire - which is capable of destroying buildings with tongues of fire. The discovery of a formula for Greek Fire leads to a gruesome double murder and a journey across London to try and discover the truth. As well as doing this Shardlake has the job of proving the innocence of a young client, imprisoned for a murder that it looks likely she did not commit. But of course being the 16th century everybody has to be guarded about what they say and to whom they say it. So when Shardlake's client refuses to talk, things become even more involved. Again another wonderful portrayal of London during Henry's reign.
The Alchemy of Murder by Carol McCleary - 19
When I started reading this book I thought I had hit upon an absolute gem - but I was wrong. At first I thought that McCleary's heroin Nellie Bly was a character from her own pen. But then I found that Nellie actually existed and the majority of the first 80 pages are a description in novel form of this investigative journalist's life, fighting for equality and the rights of women. It is an excellent insight into the times and the way she forces her way into newspapers as a campaigning journalist, even going to the lengths of getting herself committed to an infamous American lunatic asylum to write a piece on the treatment of women there. So far so good.
Then the book sadly goes off the rails. We skip over the interesting parts of Nellie's career, tossing aside how she made it out of the asylum and we embark on a silly murder hunt that is quite obviously fictional and takes her to Paris of the late 19th century on the trail of a man who slashes and kills women.
The book does give an evocative feel of Paris in the grip of anarchists, Black Fever and squalid living conditions. But the book has a major flaw and I have the same kind of problem with it as I had with Jed Rubenfeld's The Interpretation of Murder. Both weave a fictitious plot around real famous people. In the case of this book we have Nellie Bly, Jules Verne, Oscar Wilde, Toulouse Lautrec and Louis Pasteur who all come together in some kind of literary/medical murder solving club. It's plainly quite silly.
There is also a limit to the number of times you can enjoy a joke of the "it'll never catch on" when talking about ideas of items that are now taken for granted in the modern world. Things like who wants to have noisy, smelly machinery when there are horses. That kind of thing is littered throughout the book.
The plot seems to be all over the place and when the criminal is unmasked there are no real surprises. If McCleary had stuck with the actual life of Nellie Bly with a fictional account based on the facts of how she campaigned on behalf of women it would have been a riveting read instead of a second rate murder story. There was a good novel inside this effort, but this wasn't it.
More than any of the other Shardlake novels, this one illustrates just what it was like to live in Tudor England and how the King was falling apart. It brings out the power of the opposition to Henry VIII, the intricate tapestries of Tudor life and the violence and corrupt nature of the time. It is ironic that what I believe to be the best of the Shardlake novels is the last one I visited.
\it revolves around Henry's progress (visit) with a huge entourage from London to York - a journey that today would take a mere three hours but which in those times took months - how the world has changed.
The royal and not so royal people of Yorkshire have stepped out of line. Sadly Henry has begun to turn into the bloated figure that we now associate him with. If this is a public relations exercise it is one that goes wrong. There are murders, plots, sub plots aplenty and an earth shattering discovery which if found to be true could change the course of British history.
Sansom's command of historical details is once again excellent. You can almost smell the festering sores on Henry's legs. Shardlake and his sidekick Jack Barak are beautifully drawn characters and there is a sinister dark feel to the novel that adds to its effectiveness.
The Book of Illusions by Paul Auster - 24
How do you come across new authors? Often it's through recommendations or word of mouth, often through reviews on the internet or in newspapers and magazines. Paul Auster came to my attention through a contestant on Mastermind who chose the author as her specialised subject which I found intriguing, So I dug a few books out from the public library and turned to this one first.
I found it highly readable and entertaining and it's one of those books that you just know is deeper than it appears. It is a novel that leaves you thinking long after you realise it is much more than a story of a desperate academic thrown into the gravest depths of despair by the death of his wife and sons in a plane crash.
David Zimmer finds solace in the work of a long overlooked silent movie star Hector Mann who went missing presumed dead many years before. Through Zimmer's research we learn about the films and the life of Mann - a life that in many ways mirrors Zimmers. Then suddenly Zimmer is provided with evidence that Mann isn't dead, but seriously ill. Also Mann is living with a number of secrets.
We learn about Mann's life through a series of flashbacks and Auster's portrayal of small town American life is excellent and possibly the highlight of the book for me. Gradually it unfolds that Mann has actually produced many additional films and Zimmer gets the chance to view them and possibly re-assess Mann's value. The question is will he get to see the films before it is too late.
This is a stylish novel that isn't going to be everybody's cup of tea but it is a thought provoking piece of work that certainly made me want to read more. It deals with numerous themes including loss, love, friendship, passion, exploitation and of course illusions.
Gig by Simon Armitage - 24
The fact I read this in a day says volumes for how enjoyable it is. Simon Armitage is one of the country's top poets. His poems are part of GCSE syllabus and he also appears on television documentary programmes. Gig is almost a scrapbook of reminiscences, poetry and above all the men's memories and love of rock music.
Towards the end of the book Armitage talks about the formation of a rock band The Scaremongers and hey they are on My Space and I'm listening to them as I write this review. Their album Born in a Barn is also available on Napster. And honestly they aren't bad at all - a kind of post punk tuneful outfit a kind of cross between Joy Division and the Beautiful South. As for the book. Well it skips about all over the place which doesn't detract from its enjoyment.
We run through Modland to Punksville as Armitage gives us stories about growing up in West Yorkshire, travelling the world as a poet and musical influences.
Armitage is at his best when describing concerts by the likes of Morrissey and weaving in music with his love of literature. He is at his weakest when he tries to write travelogues, which somehow just don't work.
As I read this book I became envious of Armitage's lifestyle - something as they say you could kill for. Incidentally when I come across somebody I admire I try to get an e-interview with them. I tried to contact Simon Armitage to do this but only received a message from his agent saying he was too busy, which is in stark contrast to the response from author Roger Ellory and singer-songwriter John Howard who have been very generous in giving time for interviews and conversations.
The Final Reckoning by Sam Bourne - 26
Adventure thrillers don't come much better than this. Okay I know some people will read this and think it absolute rubbish but I'm not one of them. Perhaps it isn't cool to like this kind of book but it is undeniably well researched and I finished it in a little over a day, finding it hard to put down when I should have been doing other things.
I have always had this nagging question in my mind about the Holocaust about why the Jews never put up a fight and why they never really retaliated against the German nation at the end of the war. This book helps to show that indeed they did plot and retaliate.
Essentially it is the story of resistance. A seemingly innocent elderly man is shot and killed by a security guard at the United Nations building in New York. It looks like a dreadful case of mistaken identity. Slowly, however, details begin to emerge that show him to be anything but innocent.
There follows an intricate story that twists and turns and which is not only compulsive reading but thought provoking as well. This is the best Sam Bourne novel to date - less convoluted than his previous offerings.
My only complaint is about the corny and hackneyed relationship between the two main characters in the book. It seems Bourne is incapable of writing about main characters who aren't 1/ good looking and sexy and 2/ end up having an affair. It might be what the readers are expecting but it has become rather old hat.
A Matter of Life and Death or How to Wean A Man off Football by Ronni Ancona and Alistair McGowan - 21
Firstly I am assuming that the title is intended to be ironic. After all football isn't a matter of life or death.
Secondly I am assuming that this is a light-hearted comedy book that does have some darker side to it.
Alistair McGowan is a man obsessed with football and everything about it - the kind of man who intimately studies league tables and attendance statistics in the papers. For some reason former girlfriend and showbusiness partner Ronni decides that he should give up football through a 12 point plan of not watching it on television, not reading about it, not going to matches, not playing it and not listening to it on the radio.
For some reason not quite clear McGowan goes along with the idea (perhaps it was just they had an idea for a comedy book) and suffers for almost a year - having to go cold turkey. The premise of the book is rather ridiculous and I say that as someone who spends most of his life involved in either watching professional football or being involved with local football.
But it's really not important to go into the deeper meanings of this book. It should just be enjoyed as an entertaining and at times amusing read. And whilst Ronni's attempts at comedy and cleverness sometimes don't come off, Alistair comes over as a regular guy who truly loves football and is in awe of the great Leeds United team of the Don Revie era. His description of growing up as a football fan and his relationship with his dad is excellent.
The Secrets of the Lost Symbol Unlocking the Masonic Code by Ian Gittins - 18
This book doesn't seem able to decide whether it wants to give a considered history and view on Freemasonry or attack the novels of Dan Brown. I think it assumes that people have read the Brown books.
At times it is an interesting insight into Freemasonry but then gets bogged down with the rituals that soon lose their interest. It's a a fractured book that at times bursts into vitriol about the novels of Dan Brown without realising that anybody with half a brain realise that these novels are purely fictional and are a good read but little else. So chill out a bit Mr Gittins and write something useful rather than jumping onto the code bandwagon.
Mr Vertigo by Paul Auster - 23
My second Paul Auster book and this one grew on me the further I read. It's a very unusual story about a young boy in the USA who is taught to levitate. I don't want to give too much of the plot away but it follows his successes and failures, high and low spots. In many ways it read like a surreal tale.
There is a typically gritty American feel to the story. At first I found myself having little sympathy with the characters but once I got to know them I began to empathise. It's a world of gin palaces, brothels, gangsters, hucksters, baseball players, but a place where love and compassion and friendship win through despite murders and killings. There is an underlying goodness about the story despite the inherent violence.
The Road to Woodstock by Michael Lang - 26
Woodstock has always fascinated me. I was just coming up to my 17th birthday when it took place and so should have been aware of it- but wasn't.
Classics Revisited - The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy
One of my favourite all time novels. It may be late 19th century but it still has power and deals with many themes from loneliness and forgiveness to revenge and tragedy. This was the first novel I read on my new Sony e-book reader.
Paul McCartney A Life by Peter Ames Carlin - 22
Whilst there is nothing new in this book, it does give a decent insight into the career and character of the sainted Macca who, along with Sir Cliff Richard, is one of the most endearing of British rock stars.
It is difficult to believe that McCartney is now 67 years of age and still rockin' like a good un.. Peter Carlin has written a mainly affectionate biography whilst not evading the flaws in Macca's character which can see him veer from good old fashioned Scouser bonhomie to a more aggressive and difficult character.
It underlines the feuds that existed between the Beatles and McCartney's often fractious relationship with John Lennon. It does show the subject, however, as the driving force behind the Beatles and the man who often made things happen whilst the other three were resting on their laurels.
This is an extremely interesting account of one of the greatest songwriters the world has ever known and thankfully it doesn't shy away from commenting on some of McCartney's less than brilliant work as both a solo artist and with Wings.
Not surprisingly as he hails from the USA, Carlin does at times show a lack of understanding of the British character and places - at one point he refers to the city of Lincoln as an English hamlet. But I can forgive him these slight peccadillos given the overall feel of the book.
The Private Patient by PD James - 17
Stodgy is the word I would use to best describe this book. Firstly we have to tip our hats to Phyllis James for writing novels in her late eighties but sadly this is a rambling book that just loses its way and I had a number of problems with it.
Firstly the plot is pretty thin and is stretched over 497 pages when good editing could have cut it down to about 300
Secondly the characters are wooden, mostly upper class with silly invented names like Mog, Rhoda, Candace.
Thirdly Commander Adam Dalgleish doesn't actually detect the crime. The murderer leaves a suicide note as the novel grinds to a halt and eventually just peters out.
Fourthly the author seems more intent on description than plot. Irrelevant characters and situations are described over numerous pages which are uninteresting. The author seems obsessed with describing meals and food. On page 370 when the novel should be reaching its climax we have a silly page about the scrumptious taste of home made biscuits. Similarly the description of a murder is broken up by a description of sizzling pork sausages, baked beans and mashed potato. All too silly for words.
I managed to keep going but only just and at the end I realised that the plot was poor and just didn't warrant the amount of time I spent churning my way through it.
Ove Fundin Speedway Superstar by John Chaplin - 21
Surely I am allowed some self indulgence once in a while. When I was very young (around 10 or 11) I was regularly taken to Norwich speedway by my cousin's boyfriend of the time. Norwich were one of the top teams in the country and Ove Fundin was an absolute legend. So much so that he is still remembered by many with great affection in the city. A couple of years ago he was given the freedom of Norwich. He also did a signing session in a local shop where the queue to meet him ran through the store and round the block.
It may be a long time ago but from 1956 until 1967 Fundin was world champion on five occasions and finished in the top three for 10 years out of 11. Of course as a child I didn't understand any of the politics affecting speedway (and probably every other sport as well). All I saw was a Swedish rider who took on the world and beat virtually every other rider out of sight - so much so that they introduced a handicap system which saw Funding start behind virtually all the other riders. He had still caught them up by the first bend.
There was something about Fundin, that looking back, I didn't quite feel right about. I always preferred his Swedish teammate Ollie Nygren who also rode for Norwich. This book goes a long way to explaining just what this was. For Fundin had a win at all costs attitude that made him at times an aggressive, ill tempered and self centred character. Perhaps somehow this took its mental toll on me. Today Fundin is celebrated as a true gentleman who, despite being in his 70s, is still super fit and still rides both motorbikes and cycles.
A biography of the man was long overdue and it is amazing that, in a modern era where virtually anybody who sneezes has to tell us about his or her life, it took until 2006 for this book to be brought out.
It brought the memories back to me of the great days at the Firs before they turned it into housing. Over the years there have been constant rumours of speedway returning to Norwich but I can never see that happening. So all we are left with are our memories of the golden 1950s and 1960s. This book helps to jog the memories but if it has a fault it is its tendency to shoot all over the place with time scales disintegrating as stories of the 60s morph into the 70s and 80s so at times you just aren't sure at what stage in Fundin's career you are at. It also gets bogged down in too much trivia.
Chaplin has done a thorough job in interviewing Fundin's teammates and opponents, many of whom openly disliked him before his retirement but who now look upon him as a gentleman and friend and perhaps this is where the book falls down. He seems determined to get every piece of an interview into print, even the inconsequential passages. This poses a problem of destroying some of the feel on the biography. Indeed the final chapter is entitled innerviews and consists of snippets of conversations that didn't fit into the main text. What does come over is the man's single minded determination throughout his life to become the best - something he achieved in his chosen field.
The Old Boys Network A Headmaster's Diaries 1970-1986 by John Rae - 23
The problem with many school headmasters is the fact that they aren't really approachable. In the past this has particularly been the case with public schools where heads have been aloof. I went to a semi-public school and my first headmaster was a tyrant who ruled with a rod of iron which brought hatred from many of the pupils. His place was eventually taken by a much more modern and liberal thinker who changed many of the outdated Victorian rules and procedures,
John Rae was Head of Westminster School from 1970 to 1986. During much of this time he kept a diary. Rae was something of a Maverick, never afraid to take on the establishment or his own governing body. That helps to give a freshness to the diaries which Rae himself edited before his death in 2006.
It shows an approachable man, not always at one with himself or his staff but somebody who never shied away from the problems facing him. This is no cosy reminiscence but covers extensively the problems of drug taking at the school and the demands of parents - many of whom came from what might be termed the "upper classes".
Rae's diaries are liberally sprinkled with meetings with politicians, prime ministers and leading figures of the day. His was an extraordinary contribution to education and the book is very easy to read and a good way to end my reading year, having started it in January with a fictitious diary.
I do enjoy reading diaries. I find them comforting and a way of realising that everyone has problems in his or her life. Perhaps at times the entries are rather too sparse, having been edited too heavily with whole days missed out completely. Nevertheless it is a candid snapshot of a school written by an honest man who obviously cared about his pupils and school.
Books I couldn't Finish
One to Nine The Inner Life of Numbers by Andrew Hodges
Numbers have always fascinated me and I was looking forward to reading a book divided into chapters that ran through the numbers one to nine. Unfortunately I didn't get through the opening chapter - on the number zero, thus making the title immediately wrong. Instead of presenting the study in a fun, easy to understand format, the author produced a tedious chapter, far too academic in scope and I just gave up on it.
A History of Modern Britain by Andrew Marr
Simply got too bogged down with it to continue.
A Very Unimportant Officer Life and Death on the Somme and at Passchendaele - edited by Cameron Stewart
Another World War One Diary - they seem to be all the rage. Nothing remarkable about this one so I gave up halfway through.
The Gravedigger's Daughter by Joyce Carole Oates
Too involved and far too long.
Netherland by Joseph O'Neill
I tried and tried to get through this book but there seemed to be little plot, too much stream of consciousness and turgid writing by an author appearing to say "look how clever I am."
Stephen Fry in America by Stephen Fry
I have tremendous respect for Stephen Fry but unfortunately his travel writing has none of the fun or mischief of a Bill Bryson. This look at the individual states is nothing more than a snapshot - something like turning out for a three course meal only to find nothing other than a starter available. I gave up after about a dozen states.
Henry by David Starkey
I picked up an interest in Henry VIII and the Tudors from reading the Shardlake series of books by CJ Sansom - excellent portrayals of Britain of the times. So when I found this book I was extremely interested in learning about the youth and dazzling Prince that Henry became, long before tyranny, six wives and illness turned him into the bloated character he became. Sadly this book is two learned and too dull and I gave up halfway through, confused by the list of characters and the author's inability to actually focus on the early years of Henry VIII
26 Library of the Dead by Glenn Cooper
26 The Final Reckoning by Sam Bourne
26 The Road to Woodstock by Michael Lang
25 Mutiny on the Bounty by John Boyne
25 The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff
25 Sovereign by CJ Sansom
24 Revelation by CJ Sansom
24 Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson
24 At My Mother's Knee and Other Low Joints by Paul O'Grady
24 Look Who It Is by Alan Carr
24 Dark Fire by CJ Sansom
24 The Book of Illusions by Paul Auster
24 Gig by Simon Armitage
23 Mr Vertigo by Paul Auster
23 The Old Boys' Network by John Rae
23 The Timewaster Diaries by Robin Cooper
23 Slumdog Millionaire (also known as Q and A) by Vikas Swarup
23 Dissolution by CJ Sansom
22 Paul McCartney A Life by Peter Ames Carlin
22 Mudbound by Hillary Jordan
22 Engleby by Sebastian Faulks
21 Ove Fundin Speedway Superstar by John Chaplin
21 Positively Happy by Noel Edmonds
21 Parky My Autobiography by Michael Parkinson
21 A Matter of Life and Death or How to Wean a Man Off Football by Ronni Ancona and Alistair McGowan
20 The England Years by Sir Bobby Charlton
20 The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
19 The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale
19 One Flew Into the Cuckoo's Egg by Bill Oddie
19 The Alchemy of Murder by Carol McCleary
18 The Secrets of the Lost Symbol Unlocking the Masonic Code by Ian Gittins
17 The Reader by Bernhard Schlink
17 The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry
17 Death on a Branch Line by Andrew Martin
17 The Private Patient by PD James
14 The Birthing House by Christopher Ransome