“Master Georgie” by Beryl Bainbridge.
I remember once reading a tv review which said that all historical drama is from two periods: that in which it is set and that in which it is made. This book is set in the Crimean war so you might think that it wouldn’t date but I think that it has. It was written in 1998 and there is something about the style that feels a bit tricksy and modern (and therefore now dated, if you see what I mean). It is very well written but a bit too clever for its own good. There are a couple of very funny moments but I wouldn’t exactly say that it is unmissable.
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
This is my third attempt to enjoy a book written by Neil Gaiman. Success at last. Despite the macabre bloodshed, of which the author is alarmingly fond, I really enjoyed this story for teenagers. It’s about a little boy brought up in a graveyard whose guardian is a vampire. If you like this kind of thing (some people do, you know), then I guarantee you will love this. The edition I got also features illustrations by Chris Riddell who is the Observer’s cartoonist. Although I don’t like his Observer stuff much, I really loved these drawings which I thought were very endearing and really added to the story.
Dreams from my Father by Barack Obama
In case you are the person who hasn’t read the Obama biography, it is, like Gaul, divided into three parts. The first part deals with his youth, the second with his experience as a community organiser in Chicago and the third with his relatives in Kenya.
I read part one rejoicing that this man had been elected president of the US. Because, frankly, if he hadn’t I would have thought it a spectacular waste of time. He has an interesting background and he writes about it competently but dispassionately; he made good material dull. Part two, dealing with his work in Chicago which is, theoretically, much less promising material, is brilliant and by far the best part of the book. Part three deals with his family in Africa. I am good at working out who is related to whom but when every man has four wives it all gets too much for me. This part of the book would have benefited from a family tree. Mildly interesting. I don’t think that I’ll be reading about the audacity of hope.
“Out of a Clear Sky” by Sally Hinchcliffe
I should declare an interest here. I do not know the author but I have read her blog for a long time. Words of comfort – this is not the book of the blog (never a success, I feel). Her blog is about commuting (in London, by bike in Scotland) This is a birdwatching thriller. Enough caveats.
To recap, the story is set in the weird world of birdwatching and it’s a thriller. Neither of these things attracted me to it. I am pleased to report, however, that it is very well written and full of all sorts of clever things. A good start, birds or no.
There are three alternating/overlapping strands to the plot. One is that our heroine is being stalked, one is that she has split up with her boyfriend and one is her family life.
My favourite strand was about the heroine’s ex-boyfriend and there is a really excellent set piece in the pub early on. Dealing with the break-up is well done and engaging. Manda (our heroine) is a very interesting character and what I enjoyed most about the book was watching her change and learning about her past. I liked the way she developed from a relatively bland likeable character into someone who is disturbed and disturbing and, in some ways, pretty nasty. For me, the best parts of the book were those that described her relationships with other people: her sister, her father, her mother, her ex-boyfriend.
The stalker supplied narrative thrust and all that but he took time from the relationships which were much more interesting, I thought.
So, to summarise, I liked it and I think it was very well written and clever but I would have liked it much better, if it weren’t a thriller, however clever. I suspect that this may be my own distaste for thrillers coming through rather than any failing on the part of the author. [Mr. Waffle read it too and found it v. good - he likes thrillers].
Finally, must confess, that though the thriller bit failed to grab me, I was really interested in the whole world of birdwatching. Did you know that swifts are built for flight, that they sleep on the wing and only come to ground to mate? Neither did I. Mr. Waffle on being given this gorgeous piece of information asked whether they laid eggs on the wing too. I cannot say.
Keen to try the next offering in due course.
Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
I bought it. What could I do? Dreadful stuff. Irksome, uninspired, writing. But, yes, strangely compelling, damn it. Feather left the following comment on my blog when I mentioned I might give it a go:
“I know several very intelligent people who are totally in love with Twilight–which baffles me, as I can easily say that they were the worst books I read last year. Poorly written (literally hundreds of pages mooning about how beautiful Edward is) and ridiculously imagined (sparkly vampires?!?) is bad enough, but scratch the surface and the books are incredibly misogynistic. I swear, Edward and Bella’s relationship is so prototypically abusive it’s creepy–which is basically the only interesting thing about the books–reading them and making up theory about what the hell is wrong with women in our society that an obsessive-stalker-emotionally-abusive-deadly eternally adolescent boy is the new exemplar boyfriend. I can forgive the fourteen-year-old girls for being fooled, but the grown women?! No.”
This is a very fair comment. It is badly written. It is unintentionally creepy. But, yes,on the strength of it I went off and bought books 2 to 4 (three for the price of two). That will allow me to investigate the drinking game.
New Moon by Stephenie Meyer
Somewhat to my chagrin given that I now own the next two volumes also, this is quite dull. It does not, in my view, live up to the promise of volume 1. If I am promised a book about vampire romance, I do not want my vampire to disappear on page 73 and not reappear until page 449. What else, you might ask, can I expect from a woman whose first name is misspelt?
The Wasted Vigil by Nadeem Aslam
This was a bookclub book. It was recommended by Eileen Battersby, the Irish Times’s literary critic. My experience of Eileen Battersby is that, if she likes something, I will not. I did not like this book. Neither did any of the other book club people.
It’s set in Afghanistan. It is written in the style of a book from the Indian subcontinent. Lots of adverbs and adjectives. No one ever just walks to the door and opens it. This passage describing picking up a bottle of perfume, selected at random, is pretty typical:
Bracing his arm against the stone mouth he bent down to retreive a small vial of glass from the floor. So much destruction and yet this had survived. A four-line poem in Dari was etched on it. He removed the stopper the size of a lark skull and sniffed it, remembering that containers discovered in Eqyptian tombs were still fragrant after three thousand years.
If you like this kind of thing, then there is plenty of it. There is also lots and lots of plot. The book is full of weird co-incidences which fail to convince. Most annoying though, it has an extremely strong didactic bent. At the start of the book there is a quote from President Carter’s national security advisor:
What is more important to the history of the world – the Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? A few agitated Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?
Mr. Aslam’s aim is to show us how wrong Mr. Brzezinski was. Did you know how many inventive and cruel ways the Taliban discovered for making life miserable in Afghanistan? Well, you’re about to discover that, and also, the many, many different unpleasant ways people died. In gory detail. I think this could have been a lot more effective, if the book had not been written on the patronising assumption that its potential readers were likely to know nothing even general knowledge. Parts of it read like the history snippets you get in tourist guidebooks. I did not like it.
On the plus side, I did not buy it. On the advice of my sister-in-law, I went and reserved it online. I forked out 50 cents and Dublin City Library, rang me up, told me they had it and held it at the issue desk for a week for me. I was most pleased. It means I get to bring it back too. Hurrah.
“The Reluctant Fundamentalist” by Mohsin Hamid
The problem/advantage of book club books is that they are often things you would never read yourself. This is one of them. It was recommended by my friend D who once sincerely and enthusiastically recommended to me a long biography of Hildegard of Bingen. This gave me pause when picking it up but she reassured me that it was short. It is short.
It’s alright; it didn’t really set my world on fire and I’m not sure that it had any particularly piercing insights but at least it was well written and undemanding. We like that. Having just finished off “The Wasted Vigil”, one thing that struck me was how two Pakistani men (both living in London, I think) write about the Taliban in different ways. Mr. Aslam’s characters are largely down on the Taliban and in many ways his book is a polemic about how ghastly they are. Mr. Hamid’s narrator, as befits a reluctant fundamentalist, is more ambivalent. He is annoyed when he sees a foreign power (the Americans) raining down bombs on his neighbours and allies. He doesn’t really appear to have any strong views about the regime. I think this is part of the problem with the book; I am never convinced by the narrator. The whole book is, I suspect, an intellectual effort by the author to show how someone like him (the narrator has a very similar CV and I can’t help feeling that the author like the fundamentalist, felt a sense of very guilty schadenfreude when the twin towers went down) could be become a fundamentalist and as an intellectual exercise, it does succeed to an extent. As a human exercise, not so much, I feel.
Autumn Term” by Antonia Forest
When I was in Cork recently, my aunt asked me whether I still read school stories. When I was younger I loved all boarding school books. She did too. She liked the Chalet School which was more upmarket than the Enid Blyton St. Clare’s series which I favoured but we both read anything. My mother, who went to boarding school herself was, I think, keen to give me a go at it based on my enthusiasm but I assured her that it was purely theoretical.
“This is good,” my aunt said to me. I picked it up. My aunt does not lie. This is good. You have to like this kind of thing but if you do, this is an excellent example. It reminded me forcibly of why the Harry Potter books have done such a roaring trade. It doesn’t really matter whether the end of term event is putting on a play or defeating Voldemort, it is still all anticipation. This book was particularly good on shades of grey. The characters are very nicely fleshed out and both good and bad; people’s motivations are mixed as they are in real life. I would like to read more of this woman’s books and I would like to give them to my children when they are older. No greater praise.
“Eclipse” by Stephenie Meyer
What can I say, I can’t stop myself. This is better than book 2. I am facing into the enormous book 4 with, if not renewed enthusiasm, at least less trepidation.