Tuesday, 28 January 2014

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

"There will always be, I realise,  those who would claim that any attempt to analyse greatness as I have been doing is quite futile."

I really wanted to like this more. This is one of those novels that I can appreciate in as much as it brilliantly conveys a character, but I just wanted something more/different. Admittedly it was difficult to get greatly enthused about things while waiting in a queue of some 50 people (after a long, long first day at my new job) at a medical centre because my finger was infected (damn nail salon),

The butler at the heart of the novel is a brilliant study of someone who has devoted so much of themselves to their job that they have almost lost their own identity and certainly their ability to relate to the greater public.
Actually, perhaps my reason for deducting a point of my score harks back to the fact that I've had a few jobs that have left me similarly detached from social norms by the level of devotion they required.

Now that I've reflected, I can certainly see how brilliant this work is, that doesn't mean I have to absolutely love it, but it certainly left me feeling a little blue - or perhaps that was just the fault of all the waiting while I read it.

 4 out of 5 trips in Somerset end up in a pub at some point.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Masters Of Sex by Thomas Maier

"As Bill Masters read further in the library, he realised the field of obstetrics and gynaecology had a peculiar aversion to matters of sex, as if doctors preferred only the happy outcome of babies being born, rather than the more indelicate matters leading to their arrival."

Having enjoyed the recent TV series, I was rather interested to learn more of this extraordinary couple who pushed the envelope in terms of research into subjects that were far from the usual reach of medical doctrine. While certainly easy to read, the book, as you might guess from the quote above, often comes across as rather quaint. I imagine there would be a huge challenge between relating the tale and offering the book up as a serious discussion rather than an opportunity for titillation ( territory the TV series quite entertainingly veers into often).

The book seems to focus more on Virginia, and I think this is in some measure to redress the gender balance and highlight how amazing her actions and accomplishments were for the time in which she lived. The show focuses more on the human relationships side, while the book attempts to bridge the gap between the personal and professional, discussing the ups and downs of the pair's research and private lives.

As a look back in history, it is particularly amazing to realise the change this couple were able to make on public perception. Their ability to enliven couples to the possibility that their issues in the bedroom were not beyond help, must have been a welcome relief to many a frustrated and stressed pair. It appears not all their research was "on the money" (actually that is probably not the best adjective to use), however, their trailblazing studies have definitely changed the understanding of sex beyond the perfunctory impetus to procreate. It is hard to imagine (perhaps I should say difficult) what magazines like Cleo and Cosmo would possibly have on their covers today to discuss had the Masters not come along.

 4 out of 5 masters of their own domain.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Jack Maggs by Peter Carey

"Jack Maggs was famously fast on his feet, but now he was half-crippled by his dead man's shoes."

How appropriate that I finished reading an Australian novel, and a past winner of the The Miles Franklin Literary Award on Australia Day -well the very early hours of it at any rate. This particular story was very helpfully lent to me by a generous friend and massive Peter Carey fan. While I confess it was not my absolute favourite book, however it was undoubtedly enjoyable.

A modern take on the Dickens novel proves for a great read, which is perhaps a little more accessible (being quite definitely smaller in size) than the original. Echoes of Magwitch, from Great Expectations are rife and yet this tale comes from a different perspective. 

Crime, mystery, lost sons, sleepwalking, there is quite a lot to take in and all delivered in an intriguing manner. This was a like, rather than a love from me.

 4 out of 5 Victorians object to their footmen drinking.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

"So this was the rest of his life. It felt like a party to which he'd been invited, but at an address he couldn't actually locate."

I'm beginning to feel like I've overdosed on dystopian fiction and it is a bit of a downer. Having said that, this particular novel is brilliant - go figure, Atwood is always great. It begins dropping hints about the strange world of its inhabitants and every time you think you might have a handle on what is going on, it throws you a curve ball.

Grim and gritty and peppered with rather unlikeable, troubled characters, the tragic future vision provided within the pages. Who is Snowman, how did he come to be and what is the story with the strange mutant creatures that abound?

The time periods bounce back and forth, compelling the reader to forge through and discover what exactly is going on. The extinction game the boys play takes on a much wider remit and chaos ensues. Is Oryx the catalyst that drives Crake over the edge, or was he always destined to rain down destruction?

 5 out of 5 BlyssPluss capsules will deliver more than an outrageous time.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

The Dead by Charlie Higson

"From now on they're officially not zombies, they're sickos"

I started reading this and thought, hmm, maybe I've reached zombie overload. They seem to be everywhere these days - well, not exactly literally (although I might have seen a few possibles in the wee hours of the morning).

Usually, I prefer to read a series from go to whoa and was disappointed when I realised this was a sequel and that I was beginning it without having read the original. I was prompted to check this out after reading about it when the author listed his top 10 horror books for The Guardian.

There certainly are some hair raising moments and the concept that the zombie disease attacks only those over the age of 14 is an interesting one. I particularly loved the way that the author isn't afraid to kill off protagonists willy nilly - it certainly helps with building suspense.

4 out of 5 killer kids can really wreck havoc when adult zombies are about.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Lilith's Brood by Octavia E. Butler

"At one point, it beckoned to her with a sharp movement of head tentacles."

There are days when the mere thought of getting out of bed seems like a bridge too far to cross and then something wonderful happens. This epic novel ( well technically it is 3 novels published in one handy compendium) was the perfect antidote to the gut wrenching writer's block that was completely stifling my attempts to complete my university assignment. Less said on that front the better, just ecstatic that my worst ever academic attempt ( cringe worthy) is behind me and my reward is that I can wax lyrical about this amazing story that happens to be one of the best science fiction tales I have ever read!!

Don't doubt the exclamation marks. This hit me like a bolt from beyond and was thoroughly and delightfully unexpected. I mean, look at the cover - it looks like bad soft porn or something, but oh how it is not! The Earth has been ravaged by war and humankind's only hope is to be saved by the Oankali, a kind of parasitic race that spread out through the galaxy interspersing their genetic material with other races in a form of galactic genetics trade. Did I mention they have tentacles? It sounds like something from old school Dr Who doesn't it, but dare I say it, it is so much better.

This tackles real questions about what it means to be human and where our warlike impulses could really let us down. Everything about this world was so vivid and immediate and you could imagine the very real way having half alien children would leave you in a complete quandary. Needless to say, this one is, in my humble opinion, a must read. Ignore the dodgy cover and the unexciting title and get ready for one (well technically 3) amazing tale.

5 out of 5, get your hidden tentacle away from me young whippersnapper.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Island by Aldous Huxley

"Here was Pala, the forbidden island, the place no journalist had ever visited."

Imagine an island paradise, where all the inhabitants are completely happy, untroubled by frustration, greed, politics, guilt. They spend their time shagging and tripping on mushrooms - yep everyone is happy.

Perhaps it is a testament to good writing, the fact that this novel reads as crisp and immediate as perhaps it did 50+ years go when it was published. Was AI and genetics developed enough at that stage to be contemplated in the fashion that it is discussed in the novel? I'm not sure, perhaps, Huxley had a crystal ball.

Journalist, Willl, has found a way on to the forbidden island with its incredibly sated inhabitants, but can he convince them to enter the western world of oil trade and the like? 
One thing is for certain, there will be lots of talkative mynah birds sprouting "attention".

4 out of 5 islands sound like paradise to me.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

The Life of Lazarillo of Tormes by Anonymous

“I think it is good that such re­mark­able things as these, which may never have been heard of or seen be­fore, should come to the at­ten­tion of many peo­ple in­stead of being buried away in the tomb of obliv­ion."

Everyone has met someone in their life who tells a mesmerising yarn. They rabbit on and you remain thoroughly entertained and somewhat transfixed. Perhaps they are holding up the end of a bar somewhere, or a distant relative who makes family gatherings able to be endured, regardless, they will bear more than a passing resemblance to the delightful voice of Lazarillo.

It is impressive that such an old work ( admittedly with a modern translation) is so easily accessible - both literally and figuratively. You can get yourself a free copy on my favourite website - project gutenberg. The novella (incidentally, given time constraints and my ever decreasing attention span 2014 could be the year of the novella) is, put simply, a hoot. The twisting, picaresque tale of the eponymous 'hero' who is a delightful innocent that goes from one drama to another.

Critical of the church and in particular the inquisition, the work was banned by the Spanish Crown and put on a list of banned books by the inquisition (well according to wikipedia). Perhaps another reason why the author remains 'anonymous' - no not the internet group.

Lazarillo's journey involves more job titles than your average arts graduate ( I'm allowed to make that joke - I am one). After leaving his mother he goes to work for a rather nasty blind man - fear not he cheats him - yes, there's no stone casting around here - everyone is a little full of sin. Even his marriage is blemished by his wife's affair with an elder of the church and the fact that his child turns out not to be his after all. The poor sop is so convinced his wife is well behaved that he tells her  
 " it made me happy -- for her to go in and out of his [the Archbishop] house both day and night because I was so sure of her virtue. "  

Actually, that plot line could easily have come from a modern soapie or the like. 

Lazarillo has a bad track record with women, at one point, he almost loses his 
crown jewels  
"[w]hen I saw my precious stones in danger, I pulled so hard that I broke a rope and one of the bedposts".
That was just a taste of some of his misadventures! For a short and entertaining read, check it out for yourself.

 5 out of 5 badly dressed squires are forced to flee.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Guards! Guards! By Terry Pratchett

To his amaze­ment, Vimes found that he was rather pleased about this. As far as he could re­call, noth­ing in his life be­fore had thought him worth a burp.”

This 8th instalment of the Discworld anthology is a corker. There be dragons folks!! Call me a Daenarys lover, but I loves me some dragons (even if there is only one that’s been summonsed by some old magic from a special book).

It isn’t every day that a hero comes along called, wait for it… Carrot. A huge, hulking man who thinks he is a dwarf and is a little on the naive side. Could he be more than he seems, will his by the book attitude fit in with the crazy inhabitants of Ankh-Mor­pork and will the librarian ape get a look in? Stay tuned for a hilarious time.

5 out of 5 dragons are female.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis

‘Gwen, really there’s nothing to talk about. Nothing  happened’

Imagine if you will an author who could recreate the everyday in such detail that reading his book seems at once overly familiar and a little strange. The characters of this novel like to drink…. a lot and when they’re not drinking (and even when they are) they are telling tall (or occasionally true) tales to and about each other.

There is something so vanilla and lifelike about this prose that it is akin to the shaggy dog tales my mother recounts, where my eyes glaze over and I look off into the sunset imagining I’m poolside in a resort, sipping on a frozen cocktail somewhere. That being said, it takes a rare talent to render the mundane with such proximity and by that measure, I’ve given this book a rather decent score. Others have been far more generous in their praise and this book was a Booker Prize winner.

I was not massively entertained, nor was I particularly bored by this entry in the 1001 books you must read list. This reminds me of the kinds of scandals that groups of friends endure after years in each other’s company. I’m writing this review quite a few days after having completed reading the novel and my memory of it is sparse – not a great sign I imagine.

4 out of 5 drunken Welshmen can fill more than 300 pages with their antics.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Blood Noir by Laurell K Hamilton

If you could ask the dark­ness any­thing, would you ask?”

Well another bite of the Anita Blake cherry and this time it takes the form of a visit to on-again-off-again friend with benefits, Jason’s home town.

Jason’s cranky pants dad is on death’s door but there is way more drama instore in a town where everyone looks suspiciously alike.

Anita seems to have completely left her day job behind – go resurrect some more zombies lady! Now she seems to have developed some were-tiger abilities, and those tigers are a jealous lot.

Bad press, vampire politics and more hanky panky with Jason. That about sums this one up.

3 out of 5 paranormal marshalls go on benders when on holidays.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Collected Stories by Peter Carey

“In nights of Valium and wine he remembers times when he held her in his arms and pressed his body full of dreams.”

Woah, short story fans are in for a treat with this one. Such an eclectic bunch of tales, so well realised, aren’t I fortunate to have a friend with the good taste to lend me this impressive book?

The subject matters are so varied that it almost seems impossible that the breadth of storytelling could develop from one brain alone. It took me a while to get into the book as a whole. The first few stories didn’t fire up as much as some of the subsequent ones. Ancient Greeks, War Criminals, Alien Birds, Unicorns, there is so much going on here and yet there does seem to be an innate sense of cohesion which is hard to define.

Some of my favourites included, The Fat Man in History, which had a Roald Dahl –esque sense of black humour to it, The Chance,  which plays with ugliness and Exotic Pleasures, about stroking a rare bird and that’s not a euphemism.
In summary, this is an astounding collection of short tales that transport you to strange places and lifestyles to entertain, delight and make the reader question and after all, isn’t that what all great fiction should do?

5 out of 5 vampire girlfriends will leave you drained.