Sunday, December 2, 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows J.K. Rowling

So here we go then, the seventh and last installment of the Harry Potter saga. Can J.K. Rowling bring it all to a satisfactory conclusion with everything sorted out and finished off in such a way that we really do believe this is The End? Well, for my money, she can and she did. Just about. The last in the series stayed true to the preceding six books and for those who like it, which I do, there was plenty more of the usual stuff going on. I enjoyed the unconventional handling of the three principles' quest for the Horcruxes and found the staging of the grand battle towards the end of the book effective. Although it was widely trailed that several characters would die in the final book, I was surprised at the choices of who to kill off and especially sad about one of them. The ending worked for me and the epilogue was cute so, all in all, I was pretty happy to have read this. A fitting last chapter of a substantial achievement.


Sunday, November 18, 2007

Departures and Arrivals - Eric Newby

Newby's 'A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush' is possibly my favourite travel book ever but this collection of short pieces from the other end of the author's writing career is much more uneven. In many of the items, the author's distinctive style comes through with clear and engaging depiction of the scenes and action but several of them seem to be rather damp squibs that don't really get going at all. The first piece, about growing up in Barnes, and the description of a journey through Syria are especially fine. So, not vintage Newby but worth a detour all the same.


Under the Greenwood Tree - Thomas Hardy

The first and, by some way, the shortest of the Wessex novels shows that the special tone of these books was fully in place right from the start. The story is relatively straightforward and the feel-good ending achieved without major threat but Hardy's great theme of the crossing of social boundaries is already present in the love affair between the carter's son Dick and the gamekeeper's daughter Fancy. There is none of the brutality that figures in the finales of 'Tess' and 'Jude' and the lack of bitterness behind the writing makes for a more enjoyable read.


The Barber of Seville & The Marriage of Figaro - Beaumarchais

Now mostly famous for their inspiration of opera masterpieces by Rossini and Mozart, these two plays are (in John Wood's translation for Penguin Classics) highly readable and thoroughly entertaining in their own right. In his introduction, the translator draws parallels between the character of Figaro and that of his creator and it's Figaro's resourceful and determined challenging and outwitting of the established order of the day that drives the action of both plays. Great fun!


Blackbird Singing - Paul McCartney

It's perhaps a pity that many of McCartney's song lyrics, written for the Beatles and subsequently, are intermingled among the pure poems in this collection. For me, at least, the poems struggled for impact in that exalted company and would have made more of an impression on their own. The writing is sincere, often well crafted and, at its most successful, touchingly direct but I didn't once get a sense of that touch of genius that frequently marks out McCartney's song writing.


Sunday, October 14, 2007

Jacob's Room - Virginia Woolf

Once it gets into its stride, this is an astonishingly evocative read. By dint of outward descriptions from other characters' points of view only, we build up a deep picture of the inner life of Jacob Flanders. Some of the passages describing daily living in London are so vividly real and present it's spooky just how powerfully they evoke memories of places and memories of feelings. In terms of the quality of writing this is head and shoulders above the bulk of what I read and I'm in awe of the insight and skill deployed here.


Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Miss Mapp - E.F. Benson

This second volume of the famous series of "Lucia" books actually doesn't feature Lucia herself. From Riseholme we move to Tilling and a whole new cast of characters, led by the eponymous Elizabeth. Constantly in ferocious social competition with Diva Plaidstow, with a full cast of supporting characters every bit as varied, outrageous and hilarious as those populating the first book, Miss Mapp comes close to losing her grip but finally survives the volcanic intrusion of the real life Contessa and the normal order of Tilling society (if not peace and goodwill) is restored by Christmas. Sharp, wicked and tremendous fun.


The Exile and the Sorceror - Jane Fletcher

Now marketed as "Book One of the Lyremouth Chronicles" this book covers the first half of Lorimal's Chalice which I enjoyed so much when I read it back in 2004. We first meet Tevi, the exile, and follow her adventures as she abandons her island home and starts to make a new life in the lands of the Protectorate. In the second half of the book we meet Jemeryl, the sorcerer, who has to abandon her comfortable life of research to accompany Tevi on the quest to recover Lorimal's chalice. The quest proper follows in the next volume but this first part is nonetheless a very readable and thoroughly enjoyable trip back and forth across the Protectorate.

Fletcher creates a fascinating and multifarious world featuring a believable balance of powers and guild mechanics. The two central women are portrayed very sympathetically and the reader's enthusiasm for the success of the adventures to come is fully engaged. A wonderful read.


Sunday, September 16, 2007

Night Watch - Terry Pratchett

Sam Vimes, perhaps my favourite of Pratchett's creations, gets sent back in time and takes the place of John Keel. Keel mentored the young Vimes in his early days on the watch and played a major role in Ankh-Morpork's insurrection as the Patrician before Vetrinari comes to power. This conceit allows us once again to enjoy seeing Vimes at his best, doing what he loves: being a damned good copper out on the streets of the city. A wonderful read from start to finish with a (for Discworld) straightforward plot and a lively assortment of Ankh-Morpork's colourful citizens doing their stuff. It's especially fun being introduced to characters we've known and loved for years, Vetinari and Dibbler for example, just starting out on their careers.


Monday, September 10, 2007

Mystery at Witchend - Malcolm Saville

Written and set in 1943, this is the first of Saville's twenty "Lone Pine" books. I adored these as a child and kept looking out for them as an adult but they seemed to be irrecoverably out of print. Not so, it seems, as the books are gradually being republished by an outfit called Girls Gone By. I was apprehensive at the prospect of re-reading this after more than forty years but delighted to find that the magic is still there. The writing is workmanlike rather than inspired but the depiction of the children is wonderfully true to life and the sense of location (the iconic Long Mynd in Shropshire) spot on. This latter point can't be over-emphasised: the picture of this landscape that I built up from reading these books as kid was so faithful that, when I finally visited the area for the first time last year, the place was just as I'd imagined it and felt completely familiar.

In this first book we meet the first five of the Lone Piners (four more are introduced in later books) and are introduced to the area which is the setting for many of the stories. The plot involves a group of German spies, highly topical at the time, and it's one of the strengths of the book that the children don't perform unrealistic feats and don't even prevent the baddies from achieving their objective. The children do, however, demonstrate courage and friendship and begin to form the bonds of respect and affection that will strengthen and deepen as the series progresses. I found it an engrossing and satisfying read and will be reading as many of the other titles as I can!


Sunday, September 2, 2007

The Grand Tour 1592-1796 - Roger Hudson

The 1993 Folio Society presentation volume is a selection of letters from seventeenth and eighteenth century gentlemen (and one or two ladies) relating their experiences touring Europe, primarily Italy. The selections are vivid and varied and the book is lavishly illustrated with relevant paintings and drawings.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Wainwright: The Man Who Loved the Lakes - Martin Wainwright

Published by the BBC to accompany a delightful short series of programmes about Wainwright broadcast earlier this year, the book is packed with gorgeous photographs of Lakeland which echo the bewitching beauty and grandeur of this most beguiling of English regions. The first part of the book's text is a potted biography of the man (although sharing a surname with his subject, the author is unrelated) which leads naturally into the second part: a survey of the subject matter of the Pictorial Guides that made Wainwright famous. The book is rounded off with a description of ten classic Lakeland walks as proposed by Wainwright. A delightful read for Wainwright fans and anybody fascinated by the lure of Lakeland.


Our Hidden Lives - Simon Garfield

Subtitled "The Everyday Diaries of a Forgotten Britain 1945-1948", this book presents extracts from the diaries of five contributors to the Mass Observation project that sought to capture the attitudes, desires and fears of ordinary people as an "anthropology of ourselves" during and immediately after the war. The picture of austerity Britain that emerges from these diaries is a sharp reminder of how hard life was in Britain in the immediate post-war years: we might have won the war but the nation was bankrupt and starving and the population no longer had the incentive of "pulling together to win the war" to help them through their privations.

The glimpse offered of the private lives of these five ordinary people is deeply moving: the directness and unaffectedness with which they wrote emphasises that these are real diaries of real people and the experience of following them through more than two years of their lives left me feeling close to them, involved in their concerns and very sad to leave them in mid-stream.


Monday, July 23, 2007

The Valley of Fear - Arthur Conan Doyle

The last of the four book-length Sherlock Holmes stories pads out an interesting Holmes investigation of a murder in a country house with a lengthy back story set in the USA. Both parts of the book keep the reader interested in the twists and turns of the plot, with a final twist as the two parts are reconciled towards the end. I think the Holmes formula worked best in the shorter stories and in truth we don't get much more than a short story's worth of Holmes here but that doesn't mean this isn't a good read and a worthy member of the canon.


Amsterdam - Ian McEwan

Quite a short novel telling of the intertwined lives of the two protagonists (one the editor of a newspaper not entirely unlike the Times, the other a composer). We start with a funeral and end... well, we end in Amsterdam. Neither of the two men at the centre of the story impress as particularly nice people to know and as each faces a failure in his career it's perhaps hard to sympathise too much. Typical McEwan writing, great fun to read with characters and situations sketched in evocative shorthand that conveys just enough for us to feel it's real life being described.


Special Topics in Calamity Physics - Marisha Pessl

I'm not keen on stories that "just stop" and leave the reader to puzzle out what may or may not have been going on all along, so I found the ending of this extravagantly praised book unsatisfactory. Before then, however, I was thoroughly engrossed in the entirely alien (to me) world of the narrator's final year of American High School. Our heroine has led a bizarre life up to the start of the events described, and the year we spend with her fits right in to that pattern. We meet a large cast of highly obnoxious school students, a deeply troubled and troubling teacher and the narrator's peculiar father. Everyone seems to be hiding large parts of themselves and not much of what they say seems to be true. The weird incidents pile up and there is at least one murder but, if the author herself knows what's really been going on, she declines to share that knowledge with the reader. Fascinating and frustrating in equal parts but I'm glad I read it all the same.


Monday, May 28, 2007

Dynasty of Rogues - Jane Fletcher

Like To the Lighthouse, the latest of Fletcher's "Celaeno's World" series divides into three parts. In this case each of very different character. First off we are in the familiar surroundings of the Rangers, with a "difficult" youngster being given a final chance in a new unit and her bad reputation proving impossible to escape when a serious crime is committed: so far, all very reminiscent of The Wrong Trail Knife (now re-issued as Rangers at Roadsend). The second section sees our heroine in a surprisingly passive role in a Machiavelian scheme to free a prisoner, a scheme that runs like clockwork with no mistakes, no "plan B", no on-the fly adaptations: all works out just as the plotters predict. The final part is a gentle coda as the romantic side of the story comes to fruition, everyone returns home and all wrongs are righted. Unusually for the books in this series, there are no shocks or unexpected upsetting of expectations in the final workings out of the plot.


Monday, April 2, 2007

To the Lighthouse - Virginia Woolf

It was a while before I tuned in to the writing style, which captures in text something of the internal thought processes of the characters, but once I was comfortable with it the added dimension of realism proved very powerful. Again we are in "family in a country house" territory. In the first section the action is all in the characters' heads and almost nothing happens externally. In the middle section the style changes completely as much happnes off stage and much time passes, then we return to the initial setting and style for the final section; at the end of which the trip to the lighthouse is finally achieved. Rich, complex and rewarding writing which brings to life a varied cast of characters, illumnated from within rather than observed from outside.


The Hour - Michael Hutchinson

Michael Hutchinson's book is an account of his attempt to beat Chris Boardman's record for the greatest distance cycled in an hour. Hutchinson tells the story with flashes of humour and occasional lashings of irony. The book also provides a wealth of background information about cycling as a sport, the hour record in particular and the greats of cycling history. Thoroughly entertaining in a thoroughly British way and highly recommended.


Ring - Koji Suzuki

The trouble with reading novels in translation is that it's not clear where the boundary lies between the original author and the translator. When all seems to work well, as with Philip Gabriel's translation of Haruki Murakami's "Kafka on the Shore", it can be ignored but in the present case I wonder how my dissatisfaction should be shared between Koji Suzuki and Robert B. Rohmer/Glynne Walley. Certainly there seem to be many extraneous Westernisms that don't sit comfortably in a novel so firmly set in Japan, both geographically and psychologically. One assumes these may be laid at the translators' door. That the novel fails to generate a sense of horror, in spite of reiterating frequently that the protagonist feels the pressure of impending doom is more difficult. Wherever the blame ultimately lies, the book fails to engage and the supposed mechanism of death is unconvincing.


Atonement - Ian McEwan

The significance of the title only really comes through at the end of this evocative and involving novel. Before that we are treated to McEwan's spin on the "family in the country house" story and an intense portrayal of soldiers involved in the British retreat to Dunkirk at the start of World War Two and the nurses in England receiving the casualties on their return to Britain. The writing is masterful and the perspective thrown on the rest of the book by the final scenes is thought provoking and affecting.


Sunday, March 18, 2007

Thief of Time - Terry Pratchett

The story of the History Monks who manage time on the Discworld and the clock-maker who builds the most accurate clock possible. Pratchett weaves together several interesting strands of the story that only meet up at the climax. Along the way there's a major role for Susan, Granddaughter of Death, brief cameos from Nanny Ogg, and we get to meet Ronnie - the fifth horseman of the apocalypse (who left before they became famous). Great fun in the typical Pratchett style with some sharp digs at the "auditors" and several dreadful punning names. The climax is genuinely gripping and the final resolution thoroughly satisfying.


Sunday, March 11, 2007

Tropical Treasure - Kira Lerner

Lisa gave me this as a Christmas gift; it's a "personalized romance novel": think Harlequin (US) or Mills & Boon (UK) but printed to order with major characters' names and characteristics chosen by the purchaser. So, in my copy, Lisa & I are the romantic leads and there are supporting roles for Lisa's friend, Pamela, and one of our cats, Thomas. I'm almost ashamed to admit that I enjoyed reading this: the story-line and writing are laughably stereotypical but, at least on my first encounter with the phenomenon, the familiar names kept my interest alive through the 180 pages.


Saturday, March 10, 2007

Queen Lucia - E.F. Benson

The first of Benson's six hilarious novels recounting the quintessentially English Lucia and her Machiavellian approach to staying top of the society heap in "her" village, Riseholme. Charm and irony abound as the cast of village denizens grapple with an Indian Guru, a Russian Princess and the arrival in their midst of the free-spirited opera diva who, all unwitting, nearly dethrones Lucia before the natural order is restored.


Monday, March 5, 2007

Kafka on the Shore - Haruki Murakami

A strange story about a boy called Kafka, a man who talks to cats and a small supporting cast. Quite what the book is "about" eluded me but I enjoyed the writing and the way the strands of story gradually converged. By the end of the book Kafka has exorcised some personal demons and (possibly for real, possibly metaphorically) passed through a number of mythic rites of passage to adulthood. Or something. A compelling read, for all that much of what was in it passed me by.


Monday, February 5, 2007

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell - Susanna Clarke

Huge debut novel about two magicians at loggerheads in nineteenth century England. It took me almost six months, off and on, to get through this but that doesn't mean I wsn't enjoying the book. However, I did find that, until about two thirds of the way through, the story was moving forward so slowly that it was easy to put the book aside for days at a time. Towards the end, though, the pace picked up a lot and I was keen to press on to the conclusion. The ending is rather sad and I was sufficiently bound up in the characters by then to feel down for a few days as a consequence. Comparisons with Jane Austen seem to me closer to the mark than those to J.K. Rowling but Clarke lacks Austen's irony.


Beyond the Lone Pine - Mark O'Hanlon

Self-published biography of the writer Malcolm Saville, whose "Lone Pine" books were great favourites of mine as a child. Strictly for fans only (Saville's life was pretty mundane) but, as one of that number, I found it a fascinating read.