« January 2008 | Main | March 2008 »

February 26, 2008

The Book Thief - Markus Zusak

The Book Thief - Markus Zusak

Book 11 of my 52 books in 2008

I'm a sucker, as I've said before, for reading books that are popular and prominently displayed in the bookshops. This one seemed to be getting good reviews, so even though it was one of "Richard & Judy's" book picks, I gave it a go.

I was also intrigued by the thought of a book narrated by Death, but this is just the SF/fantasy fan in me and Zusak didn't really give me much of a fix in that area. There is little cleverness here in the use of this trick, and in fact, Death is really just what other people would call an omniscient narrator.

How did 'normal' German people react to what was happening in their country during World War II? That could be the story told here,and was what I expected. It works to some extentr, except that there are very few actual normal people. A book full of normal people, and their reactions to extraordinary circumstances is possible, and I would have liked a few more of them. But this is in many ways written like a children's book. The characters are all larger than life, with many episodes constructed for slapstick comedic effect. On the other hand, maybe this is needed in a book otherwise fo full of dreadful themes. That's my main problem with the book; when thinking about it, I hate it, and I like it, and I think some things should be changed, and then I think maybe they are needed after all.

To the story. A young girl called Liesl is the titular Book Thief. She is adopted by a family near the German town of Munich in 1939. Her mother has abandonded her, and her tragically sad journey gives her nightmares for many months.

She soon adapts to the new life, but only really makes one new friend, a boy called Rudy. As 1939 turns to 1940 and onwards, the effects of the war are very strongly felt. There is rationing and everyone is very poor. Lisel is taught to read by her new Papa, and though she cannot afford books, manages to steal some, and these become the only things she treasures. I thought the whole book theme, paradoxically, was the worst part of this novel. It feels contrived and unbelievable.

Many of the shocks the book throws at us are cushioned beforehand. So when a major character is injured or dies (there is a war going on, remember), you are prepared, and it's not quite so upsetting. This gets overdone, and is almost annoying. I think the author is trying not to upset his younger readers.

In summary, I liked it a lot at the end, but many parts were clumsy. It was very readable, and never had a chance to get boring - the 500 pages do fly past. but it's more of a teenagers book probably than an adult one.

[This review has been the most difficult I've written recently, and has actually taken several re-edits to get even close to being finished, and I'm still really unhappy with it. So it goes]

Posted by se71 at 12:43 PM | Comments (0)

February 17, 2008

Diggers - Terry Pratchett

Diggers - Terry Pratchett

Book 10 of my 52 books in 2008

This is the second instalment of a small trilogy of books that are primarily aimed at children - "The Bromeliad". [1]

In the first, "Truckers", a group of Nomes (small people that live under the floorboards in a large department store) escape from it's imminent demolition by stealing a truck. This is not a mean feat when you're only a few inches tall.

Now they are living in a disused quarry, and in case you haven't guessed, a digger might well be a key part of the plot. Looking forward to re-reading the third one - "Wings", wonder what that will be about :-)

Like all Pratchett's books, this one is funny and clever, entertaining but also with a lot of intelligent things to say about people and the world in general. I first read this trilogy in the early 1990s, and at the time I was struggling with the idea of becoming a fully fledged manager at the company I was working at. These books actually helped me to understand a lot about the nature of leadership believe it or not, and I guess persuaded me I didn't really want it. I left the job soon afterwards.

Highly recommended for children of all ages.

[1] very interesting name for a trilogy - see here

Posted by se71 at 10:52 AM | Comments (0)

February 15, 2008

No Country for Old Men - Cormac McCarthy

No Country for Old Men - Cormac McCarthy

Book 9 of my 52 books in 2008

I'm going to have a lot of trouble reviewing this without spoiling the story for you. I'll try, but am not promising anything, so if you haven't read it, or seen the multi Oscar nominated film version from the Coen brothers, then look away now.

This is a bleak story, which starts off violently, continues in that vein, then somehow manages to get even grimmer by the end. If you're looking for some glimmer of hope, some redemption, you're going to be disappointed, because just about everyone loses in one way or another in the end.

It starts off fairly conventionally. A man named Moss finds a pile of money that was supposed to be used in a drugs transaction, and he takes it. The people who own the money want it back, so he goes on the run. A violent psychopath called Chigurh is one of the people chasing him, and this man is one of the scariest people you'll encounter in fiction. The local sheriff tells quite a lot of the story in first person, and the book is really about him. The story however climaxes a bit too soon, and the rest of the book then clears up a few loose ends (though nowhere near all) and judders to a kind of stop.

Like a lot of fiction, the narrative action itself isn't really the thing that's most important. It's what keeps you reading of course, an essay on the topic wouldn't have the same, or anywhere near as large an audience. No, what you'll take away from this is the sense of despair of a man nearing retirement looking at his country falling apart. He looks at the drug related killings, and thinks that things have gotten much worse since he was young. People have changed, the world is going to hell, and there is nothing he can do about it.

McCarthy repeats his prose style from the last novel, "The Road". It's sparse, sort of stilted. People have conversations where they say things without really saying them. And there are no quotation marks so it gets very tricky to tell sometimes who is saying what. There are whole scenes where you have to pick up clues to know who they are about, which is a bit annoying, and I found myself rereading several pages once when I realised I'd gotten it completely wrong. When it's good though, the scenes are startlingly real and intense, and the book is unputdownable at those times. Chigurh likes to talk to people before he kills them - and maybe he'll let them live, you are never quite sure.

And like the original and only good, Rambo story "First Blood" (even if you don't like Sylvester Stallone, you owe it to yourself to go back the the source novel by David Morrell), this is a book about the alienation of America's young men returning home after a war. Vietnam is the obvious one here, but WW1 and WW2 are also represented. I spent a lot of time guessing the time period in which the book is set, from the ages of the characters, and the wars they were in, and I came up with early 1980s - McCarthy really makes you work for it.

It's a good book, but the pacing needs workm and I expect it will make a great film. It feels like it was written especially for the screen, and in fact, especially for the Coen brothers. I look forward to watching it, but I think I'll need a stiff drink afterwards.

Posted by se71 at 09:40 AM | Comments (0)

February 12, 2008


So, the divorce of the decade is on, and the papers are already having a punning time of it. I decided to give them a little hand with some other Beatles tracks they might like to use...

We Can't Work it out
All you Need is Cash
The Ballad of Paul and Heather
Being for the Benefit of Ms Mills
The Fool and the Mills
Got to get you out of my Life
Hey Judas
I Want to Own Your Land

err, that's enough to be going on with in the A-J part of the alphabet.

Posted by se71 at 02:41 PM | Comments (0)

Animal Farm - George Orwell

Animal Farm - George Orwell

Book 8 of my 52 Books in 2008

This is cheating a little, as it's a very short book, and also a reread. I wanted to refresh my memory of it before passing it along to someone else, so that we can discuss it meaningfully together. It's at least 20 years since I read it, and I'd forgotten many of the small points, so I'm glad I read it again.

What can I say about it that has not been said thousands of times before. Not much. Everyone knows that this is, as it's subtitled in fact, a "Fairy Story" about farm animals taking over their farm from a farmer. Everyone also knows that this isn't what it's about at all, it is a story about politics and how workers are controlled by their leaders.

I'm not that hot on different political systems. Communism is the main target here; I know this from my meagre back knowledge of Orwell and the history of the Russian Revolution. The animals overthrow their oppressive owner, but gradually, their new society reverts to a similar, or even worse, condition. The pigs, as cleverest, set themselves up as leaders, and like it a bit too much. They use misinformation, distraction, and eventually terror to force the other animals to obey them. It happens quite gradually, and it's really very clever and it is satisfying to watch the plot work out, even when you know how it's going to end.

Any government is in danger of exhibiting the dangers seen here. This novel is as relevant today as it was during World War II when it was published. As a story for children it is very violent and callous in places - but then, so are many traditional fairy stories. I highly recommend this then to all ages, and in fact, will now look out for one of the animated versions on DVD to play at home.

Posted by se71 at 10:30 AM | Comments (0)

February 08, 2008

The Songs Of Distant Earth - Arthur C. Clarke

The Songs Of Distant Earth - Arthur C. Clarke

Book 7 of my 52 books for 2008

I've had this book kicking around my house for years, and picked it up this week because I couldn't really decide what else to read, and it's quite short, and I really do need to read what I've bought before buying too much more.

When I first stareted reading SF, I devoured Asimov and Sheckley and Heinlein, but for some reason only managed a couple of Clarke's books (2001/2010). More recently I read "Rendezvous with Rama", as it's regarded as a classic, and it was OK but utlimately a bit unfulfilling. Sadly, I feel the same way about this novel.

The premise is that in the future, life in our solar system becomes impossible, and so seed ships are sent to planets around other stars. They are automated, and contain enough genetic material that machines can recreate humanity and other forms of earth life and plants in the new world. On one such planet, Thalassan, people have thrived on a world mostly covered with water. 700 Years after they arrived, something thought impossible happens; a ship full of real people from Earth arrives.

The narrative follows the interactions of these two different cultures. There is some future history of Earth, some philosophy on the nature of God, a bit of genetic nurture/nature talk. Interesting topics of course, and intelligently handled.

So what's the problem? All the elements for a great story seem to be here. Part of the answer lies in the age of the piece. It's based on a novella from 1957 (this updated/extended version was written in 1985). In the 1950s it was easier to get away with throwing in a few speculative ideas, a spaceship, and a couple of aliens to make a story. I've become spoilt recently with Alistair Reynolds, Iain M Banks, and Stephen Baxter [1] who manage to fit a whole lot more into their fiction - mystery, excitement, violence, mind boggling ideas, and really wild things. It's hard to go back to the old 'classics' which read a bit like children's stories of the future to me now.

Secondly and related to the first point maybe is that all the characters behave in such a caring and supportive way to each other that it's just a bit boring. Some evil thoughts are revealed, but nobody actually actions them. You would think that a threatened ship's mutiny would be a bit interesting, but it's all over amicably in a few pages. One thing I did quite enjoy was the outrageously unsubtle digs at religion we get in here.

I've often thought that I'd have time eventually to get round to reading a lot of 1950s-1970s SF that I missed. However, when I do, I'm quite often disappointed like this. Yesterday's futures have a hard job of staying fresh, and unfortunately The Songs Of Distant Earth has gone stale.

Not long after writing this, Arthur C. Clarke died. I felt a bit bad that I'd just given a fairly poor account of one of his books. I'm going to stand by it though, and really hope I can find a novel of his that I like more. Clarke did a lot of good for science fiction, probably more than any other author. Surely his whole reputation isn't based on 2001 (and that geosynchronous orbit thing) ?

[1] Baxter and Clarke have collaborated, maybe I should try one of those books

Posted by se71 at 10:29 AM | Comments (0)

February 05, 2008

The Woods - Harlan Coben

The Woods - Harlan Coben

Book 6 of my 52 books for 2008

After what I thought was a bit of a disappointing read last year, "Promise Me", this one is more of a return to form for Corben, in fact surpassing anything else I've read by him.

This one is about a violent crime 20 years in the past that left four teenagers dead and tore apart several families. Paul Copeland is a prosecutor trying an important case when his past comes back to make him doubt what really happened in the woods all those years ago.

The opening few pages are terrifically emotionally charged, and Corben keeps piling it on throughout the book. The only annoying thing is that his characters make amusing quips at the most inappropriate of moments. I completely lost my sense of disbelief at these times as it's so jarring, and so not what people would really do.

As well as the solving of the mystery, there are thought provoking ideas of what is right and wrong morally. Is it better to tell the truth or tell a white lie that keeps your relative out of prison. Would you stand up to corruption if your life was threatened? What about your child's life. What would you do to protect them? Happily, the days of black and white are long behind us, and we get many shades of grey here.

As the mysteries gradually unravel, and the skeletons (almost) literally come out of the closets, it all gets a bit complicated, and barely believable, but just manages to stay on the right side of plausibility. This is as it should be, a bit of mind stretching is good exercise.

Something Coben does well is to include new technology in his books. In a lot of fiction you'd think that mobile phones had never been invented, nevermind the internet. Here phones go off all the time, just like real life, and when someone wants to track down an old flame, he Googles for her and gets a photo from her work website. Since CSI, TV have made progress in this area, though they go a bit far into what's actually possible. But people do use Google for all sorts of things these days. It's become part of the language, so authors who want to reflect real life ought to reflect that.

It's a really good thriller, and commendably for this genre, manages it without trying to gross the reader out.

Posted by se71 at 01:51 PM | Comments (0)

Galactic North - Alastair Reynolds

Galactic North - Alastair Reynolds

Book 5 of my 52 books for 2008

This is a collection of about eight short science fiction stories. They are linked, some more closely than others, and all are set in the same universe as the Revelation Space series of novels. In fact, many of the same characters appear in these stories, so it's requiered reading if you want to see what those conjoiners, demarchists and ultras are getting up to.

For the uninitiated, the galaxy has been colonised, and people travel between the stars in suspended animation. Some of these people have to a lesser or greater extent modified their minds and bodies to include cybernetic enhancements. They don't get along with each other that well.

These stories follow a sort of progression into the future, even the far future. Each is packed full of interesting science, have satisfying and sometimes unexpected conclusions, and are just the right length to be meaty enough to have substance, but not too stodgy to leave you bloated.

Very enjoyable, recommended, but mostly will be enjoyed by dedicated Reynolds followers.

Posted by se71 at 01:34 PM | Comments (0)

February 01, 2008

52 Books in 52 Weeks - January 2008

Progress so far in my quest to read 52 books in 2008

1. Midnight Falcon by David Gemmell
2. On Chisel Beach by Ian McEwan
3. Origin by Stephen Baxter
4. The Rotter's Club by Jonathan Coe
5. Galactic North by Alastair Reynolds

Posted by se71 at 05:29 PM | Comments (0)