Posts Tagged With: book review

Book Review: Great Expectations

BackToTheClassics2016So it’s back to ‘Back to the Classics’. I had no difficulty choosing what book I wanted to read for the ‘re-read a classic from school’ category. I could only think of one book that met the guidelines of the challenge, that I hadn’t re-read since school. I’m counting Great Expectations – even though it wasn’t a set text, it was the book I chose for a free choice assignment in year 12 literature.

I have always had trouble with Dickens… I’m not sure why. At this point I think it must be some sort of mental block, because once I got going on Great Expectations I finished it relatively quickly (I won’t mention the three weeks it took me to get through the first 200 pages, the last 200 only took me a couple of days). I remembered very little of the book from the first read (which was 15 years ago). I don’t remember either loving or hating it, but merely forcing myself to finish it because I had to. This time around it was much the same.

The Plot:

Philip Pirrip junior, known as Pip, spent his childhood as an orphan living with his shrewish sister and her dull, blacksmith husband, Joe. Living near a river where some prison hulks are moored, he has several uncomfortable encounters with escaped convicts. For a time before he is due to be apprenticed to his brother-in-law, Pip is employed to entertain Miss Havisham, a wealthy recluse who lives in the nearby village with her adopted daughter, Estella. One day Pip is visited by a London lawyer, who informs him that a mystery benefactor has named him heir to substantial property. Pip is whisked away to London to learn the ways of a gentleman in preparation to receive these great expectations…

That’s it, really. The rest of the story is taken up with Pip’s life in London, and the eventual discovery of his benefactor. While the story has all of Dicken’s usual biting social commentary, I wouldn’t say that it was particularly eventful or memorable. It is unlikely I’ll be reading this a third time – at least, not for another 15 years!

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Book Review: Journey to the Centre of the Earth

BackToTheClassics2016This will be a quick review, as befits a quick read. Was it an easy read? Well there I’m not so sure.

I read this book to fulfill the requirements of the ‘classic fantasy, sci-fi, or dystopia’ category of the ‘back to the classics’ challenge. It is most certainly ‘science fiction’, but in some ways I felt that the science was more evident than the fiction. Clearly the premise is unlikely: a young man – the narrator, Axel – accompanies his uncle on an expedition to follow the footsteps of an early alchemist who had claimed to have visited the centre of the earth. Most of the novel is taken up with these two arguing about the feasibility of the journey, each relying on various scientific principles to back up their opposing opinions. The remainder of the novel is dotted with Axel’s complex descriptions of the various geology, flora, fauna and atmospheric phenomena that they encounter.

I don’t think I’ll be reading this again. The pacing was probably fine for a story originally published in serial form, but didn’t translate well to a single novel. I can’t decide whether I was more annoyed by Axel’s whinging or his uncle’s pig-headed determination, but I certainly didn’t care enough about either of them to be moved by the perils they faced. If you want to read Jules Verne, I’d suggest Around the World in 80 Days.

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Book Review: The Pink Fairy Book

BackToTheClassics2016Published in 1897, The Pink Fairy Book was my choice for the Classic Short Story Collection in the Back to the Classics Challenge for 2016.

The Pink Fairy Book is the 5th in a series of twelve collections edited by Andrew Lang, and follows on from the Blue, Red, Green and Yellow Fairy Books. Each of the twelve books contains about 40 stories collected from various oral traditions around the world. The 41 stories in the Pink Fairy Book are primarily drawn from Scandinavia, Germany, and Italy, however there are also several stories from Japan, Africa, France, and Spain. (Previous volumes in the series have also included stories from – among others – the Middle East, China, and Russia.)

Most of the stories follow the classic fairy tale template of ‘young person goes out to seek their fortune, and through showing kindness to disguised fairies or enchanted animals enlists their aid against corrupt monarchs or wicked witches’. *Spoiler alert* the good characters end up living happily ever after, while the evil characters end up being suitably punished.

You won’t find any of your favourite Disney princesses in this one, (most of them can be found in the Blue and Red Fairy Books) but some of the stories here are very similar to those that appeared in the previous coloured fairy books – as Lang freely admits in his preface. The series as a whole is amazing, and beautifully illustrated, but, perhaps as a result of the repetitions, the Pink Fairy Book doesn’t hold up quite as well as some of the previous volumes.


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Book Review: A Man Lay Dead

BackToTheClassics2016In 1931, Ngaio Marsh spent a rainy afternoon reading a detective story. She wondered to herself whether she could write a novel in the style of Agatha Christie or Dorothy L. Sayers, and aimed to create a detective without the stereotypical eccentricities of Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot.

She certainly proved her ability in the genre, as A Man Lay Dead was published in 1934 and spawned over 30 sequels.

Plot: Sir Hubert Handesley invites a group of bright young things to a weekend party at his country house. The main attraction is to be a ‘murder’, a game that is currently all the rage in fashionable society. One of the guests will be secretly handed a token denoting them the ‘murderer’ – they in turn will attempt to get one of the other guests alone and inform them they are the ‘victim’. The remaining guests then hold a ‘trial’ to see if they can unmask the villain.

Shortly before dinner on the second evening, the agreed upon signal that the murder has occurred is given, but when the guests assemble around what they assume is a fake corpse, the antique knife sticking out of his back turns out to be all too real. Enter Detective Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn…

On the plus side, A Man Lay Dead was a short and entertaining read. It followed the formula of a typical 1930s whodunit, with a number of suspects who all had reason to want the victim dead.

On the negative side…

  • Alleyn’s investigations are methodical, but he really doesn’t find any useful clues
  • Some of the forensic details are laughable (for example, rather than asking all the suspects to give their fingerprints for comparison, the police choose to assume that fingerprints found in bathrooms belong to the occupants of the adjoining rooms – even though it is stated quite clearly that the bathrooms are being shared by multiple guests)
  • A good half of the narrative is taken up with a sub-plot which basically goes nowhere – while it exonerates a couple of the suspects it provides no insight into who the actual murderer might be.

These aren’t really fatal flaws, and I’m not saying don’t read it. I’m just saying the ending of A Man Lay Dead probably won’t come as a surprise. Since I read this in an anthology edition with the next two books in the series, Enter a Murderer and The Nursing Home Murder, I’ll be rolling on and reading those two next. Hopefully I’ll find them a little harder to crack.

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Book Review: The Martian

Can I just say…wow.

I read Andy Weir’s The Martian in one sitting. It was that engaging, I just couldn’t put it down. For those of you who’ve been living under a rock the past few months, and haven’t seen the trailer for the new movie adaption of this book starring Matt Damon, the story is pretty simple:

Mark Watney is part of the Ares 3 mission, doing experiments on the surface of Mars, when the astronauts are ordered to evacuate due to dangerous winds approaching their base. As the crew race to their shuttle, Mark is hit by a flying piece of unsecured equipment. The bio-monitor in his space-suit shows no life signs, and the rest of the crew make the difficult choice to leave the body behind and save themselves. Hours later, Mark wakes up alone on an inhospitable planet, facing the prospect of surviving for four years with only the supplies that have been abandoned with him, until the next scheduled mission to Mars arrives.

I’ll be honest, there’s a lot of science in this, and sometimes the explanations of the things that Mark does to survive were a bit technical. On the other hand, the story was so compelling that I kept on reading, because I was so invested in finding out how he could possibly survive.

This is realistic science fiction. There are no aliens, no time machines… we are a long, long way from Doctor Who here. That said, it was fascinating and I’d definitely recommend it – just make sure you clear the rest of your day before you start (and don’t be surprised if you close the book and find it’s morning already like I did!)

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Book Review: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

16-year-old Jacob Portman lived a perfectly normal life in Florida, USA, until his grandfathers’ sudden death. Desperate to shake the nightmares and discover the truth about his grandfathers’ mysterious past, he travels half-way around the world to the tiny Welsh island where Miss Peregrine ran a children’s home during WWII.

That’s all I’m giving you. To tell you any more might be giving away too much. Ransom Riggs blends together a series of strange black & white photos into a cohesive story that kept me hooked until the very end (which turned out to be a bit of a cliff-hanger… now I NEED to get my hands on the sequel, Hollow City).

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children was in many ways unlike anything I’ve read before, so I’m finding it hard to make a recommendation. While it appears to be aimed at a young adult audience, it certainly has plenty in it for adults to enjoy. I would point out that as the title suggests, some peculiar things happen in the story, so if you don’t enjoy speculative fiction this probably isn’t for you…

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Book Review: All the Light We Cannot See

Marie-Laure LeBlanc was only 6 years old when she lost her sight to severe cataracts. She lives in Paris with her father, a master locksmith who created a scale model of their local area so that she could memorise the roads, buildings, trees, benches and storm drains by feel, allowing her to safely navigate between his office at the natural history museum and their home.

Werner Pfennig is an orphan who lives in Frau Elena’s children’s home with his sister Jutta. One day he finds and brings home a broken radio set, and by pure instinct takes it apart and repairs it. Soon he becomes a highly sought-after radio repairman – even though he is only 13 years old. His talent for electronics comes to the attention of local authorities, who recommend him for admission to an elite academy that prepares German boys for military service.

When Marie-Laure is 12, the German army invades Paris, forcing her and her father to flee to Saint-Malo, where her Great Uncle has hidden himself away since coming back shell-shocked from the First World War, with an extensive collection of radios of his own. As the war draws to a close, Werner also finds himself posted in Saint-Malo…

Both Marie-Laure’s and Werner’s stories are told in a series of flash-backs and flash forwards, revisiting episodes from their childhoods and their wartime experiences, focusing on the final days before the liberation of Saint-Malo by the Americans. In spite of the fractured nature of the storylines, I didn’t find it at all hard to follow. Anthony Doerr has created characters who are well-rounded and easy to care about. Marie-Laure is a bright and inquisitive girl who rarely allows her limitations to get the better of her. Werner is also extremely clever, and his party loyalty is often challenged by his disgust of the injustices he sees occuring around him, and his fears for his sister’s safety.

I won’t say much more, except that I really enjoyed All the Light We Cannot See, and would recommend it to fans of dramatic novels and wartime stories.

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Book Review: Elizabeth is Missing

Maud is 82 years old, and she forgets a lot of things. She goes to shops, and then can’t remember what she was there for. She can’t always tell you the day of the week, or when she last ate. Sometimes she doesn’t recognise her own family members. She has pockets full of notes to remind her of things, but she’s not sure whether the notes are old or new. Maud is sure of only one thing. Her friend Elizabeth is missing.

This book wasn’t exactly what I thought it would be at first, but it was still amazing. Emma Healey tells the story through Maud’s eyes, and creates a sense of equal parts confusion and frustration throughout that feels very authentic. (My grandfather is 83, and he forgets a lot of things. He is often confused and/or frustrated, so I can relate.) As Maud’s short term memory slips away, she often finds herself drawn back to memories of her youth: the end of World War II, rationing, black market supplies, and her sister Sukey.

I’m going to have to stop there, as I don’t want to go spoiling it for anyone. I won’t say, ‘I couldn’t put it down’, but there were times when putting it down was a struggle… Read it if you like… actually, I’ve never read anything quite like this before, so I don’t really know what to compare it to. I guess I’d describe it as understated family drama, but don’t let my inability to classify Elizabeth is Missing put you off reading it!

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Book Review: Richard III

backtotheclassics2015BUTTONI’ve been really struggling with this challenge this year… 8 weeks in, and I’m still only a quarter of the way through the first book I started, so I thought I’d take a break from it and try Shakespeare’s Richard III instead. After all, a play only takes three hours to perform, it should only take a few hours to read, right? Turns out, no.

Usually I love Shakespeare. I love the comedies, I love the tragedies. I even liked Henry V (the only other one of his histories I’ve read). Richard III disappointed me.

I chose Richard III for the ‘classic play’ category for several reasons. There’s been a lot of public interest in the life of King Richard III since his corpse was recently re-discovered. Some of Shakespeare’s most famous lines come from Richard III. Then of course, there’s one of my all-time favourite songs from Horrible Histories.

(From Horrible Histories – BBC)

Honestly… you’d think if Shakespeare really was making all of it up, it would be a little more interesting. It seemed to me that the whole thing was politics, politics and more politics – and every once in a while someone would come on and announce that another character’s death had occurred offstage.

Please don’t misunderstand me… I am well aware that Shakespeare is a genius, and I really do love some of his plays, but as anyone who’s read my review of The Man in the Iron Mask will know – too much politics in a story turns me right off…

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Book Review: The Pianist

This is going to be a short one… Wow.

Wladyslaw Szpilman was a well-known Polish pianist and composer, who performed frequently on Polish radio. He was also a Jew, and after the German invasion of Poland in 1939, he became one of the millions of people subjected to Hitler’s anti-semitic laws. After several years living in the Warsaw ghetto, his entire family was sent to the extermination camp at Treblinka, but Wladyslaw was saved by a policeman who was apparently a fan. He then joined a crew working construction in the ghetto for several more months, until he was able to contact friends on the other side of the walls, who helped him escape and hid him in a series of apartments in the city. As the war drew to a close, Warsaw was almost emptied, leaving Szpilman to fend for himself. He then met Wilm Hosenfeld, a German officer who saw no sense in the atrocities he was being ordered to commit and did what he could to keep Szpilman alive until the Russians arrived to liberate Poland.

There is little literary merit in this one. Szpilman was a musician, not a writer. There are just the raw facts, which make for a harrowing story of survival. Written almost as soon as the war was over, it was soon withdrawn from publication by the Russians, who did not approve of the accusations of collaboration with the Germans by Ukranian and Lithuanian mercenaries. It was not until late in the 20th Century that Andrej Szpilman, Wladyslaw’s son, found a copy on his father’s shelf and submitted it for re-publication. The story is shocking, and at times almost unbelievable. It is not surprising that, towards the end, Szpilman frequently contemplates suicide, even going so far as to plan his methods. On one occasion he is convinced the Germans are coming to get him and actually swallows a whole bottle of sleeping pills, but fortunately he wakes up the next morning.

I have read quite a few memoirs by people who survived Hitler’s tyranny in Europe, both Jews and the people who were arrested for hiding them. Every time they are painfully familiar, but each still has something new to offer. The Pianist is certainly worth reading, but it’s not a pleasant bed-time story.

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