Sunday, 29 April 2012

Book #40 Tiny Sunbirds Far Away by Christie Watson

Tiny Sunbirds Far Away

When I was 14, Alan Paton's Cry, The Beloved Country became my favourite novel. Nothing's changed. A South Africa set novel, I have always wanted to go to the continent of Africa since (never have) and when I come across an African novel look forward to reading it.

Tiny Sunbirds Far Away by Christie Watson is set in Nigeria. Siblings Blessing and Ezikiel live in Lagos, they have a comfortable apartment, a driver, and attend the International School. But, when their father suddenly leaves their mother for another woman, they find they must move to their grandparents compound in a small village.

The compound has no running water, no electricity, and the local school is cramped. Their grandfather Alhaji has converted to Islam and so must they. The life they lead is under constant financial strain and their safety is threatened by armed gangs that roam the jungle.

Blessing from whose perspective the novel is told makes a likeable protagonist as we see the events in their world and family life through her perspective. Alhaji is a bombastic frustrated man and yet he is loved by his family even with his flaws. Socio-political issues in Nigeria are dealt with with a somewhat "light" hand from armed militia groups, to the petroleum industry to the practice of female genital mutilation, and I would have preferred to have seen more depth of reflection here.

What didn't quite work for me was the level of culture shock and adjustment for these privileged city children, who seem to adapt to their circumstance a little too easily and without much complaint. However I loved the ongoing story arc of Blessing's relationship with her Grandmother and the portrait of loopy junior wife Celestine.

Overall it was engrossing enough to be considered a good read. Not the best I've read this year, but moving, enjoyable, and unusual nonetheless 8/10

Monday, 23 April 2012

Book #39 Rules Of Civility by Amor Towles

Rules Of Civility

Rules Of Civility by Amor Towles is a Thirties set society novel. It begins in the Sixties when protagonist Kate visits a photography exhibition with her husband. During the show Kate encounters two very different portraits of an old friend which sets her to thinking of her youth when she first knew him.

In the Thirties Kate lives in a Manhattan boarding house for women and works as a secretary. She rooms with Evelyn Ross who is from a wealthy background but wants to make it on her own. They are close and have a good social life.

When one night they encounter the wealthy and well connected Tinker Grey the girls find themselves rivals for his affections, but when tragedy strikes, the balance tips firmly one way. Or does it?

The frustrating thing about Rules Of Civility is its loss of focus which happens frequently. There are lots of dry passages, and uninteresting sections focusing on Kate's social circles and rubbing shoulders with the hoi polloi which isn't where the story really lies. These sections reminded me of Edith Wharton's The House Of Mirth, a novel I didn't enjoy.

In truth the most intriguing characters in this story by far are Evelyn Ross and Tinker Grey. Evelyn Ross is quite obnoxious but makes you extremely interested in her thought processes, motives, and ultimate life story. Kate's thought processes are often filled with university student type opinions on literature, and even as a literature graduate and keen book lover I found this deathly dull.

As the reveals come about Tinker Grey in the final third, I found myself wishing that the focus had been on him, or at least large sections of the book. Kate makes a dull protagonist and should really have been the bit player and not the lead, though the introduction with the photographs was a good way to start. Not sure if I'd recommend this or not, certainly not an instant must read but I reckon about 7/10

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Book #38 Call The Midwife by Jennifer Worth

Call The Midwife

Like most of the nation this past winter, I watched and was captivated by Call The Midwife on the BBC, the series based upon the memoirs of retired midwife Jennifer Worth.

Fans of the series will be pleased to learn that the book strikes the exact same tone and feel captured in the series and that the BBC did not deviate much in its adaptation.

Troubled Irish girl Mary is there, baby Grace Miracle, baby Ted and Chummy and her bike, but the novel also has other stories not used by the series so avoids being a total replica. There's Mrs Jenkins, and a far more detailed portrait of Sister Evangelina among others.

A lot of memoirs aren't well written, but this one really is, a cup of tea and slice of cake in book form, the only shame for me is that I didn't read the book prior to the series, but as there are follow ups I intend to read them before the series returns this winter.

Recommended 9/10

Book #37 All The Myriad Ways by Larry Niven

All The Myriad Ways

I wanted to read All The Myriad Ways by Larry Niven because its titular story is referenced in two physics books I greatly enjoyed Parallel Worlds by Michio Kaku and The Never Ending Days Of Being Dead by Marcus Chown. Perhaps I expected too much because the science behind that first story as explained by Chown and Kaku is vastly more entertaining and intriguing than the story itself.

It's a short story collection, but I found it bizarrely difficult to read and I shouldn't have because they were short, but they were often dull, badly written or unengaging. Even those which had great concepts fell flat in their conclusions, I think particularly here of the Inconstant Moon, a short story about the sun gone nova, a great starting point sliding into mundanity.

Another great concept wasted is Man Of Steel, Woman of Kleenex discussing the difficulties Lois Lane and Clark Kent would actually have had making love. Instead of the comic story I expected it reads like an academic essay. 10 for concept, nil for execution.

By far the best short story of the bunch is Unfinished Story #2, which comprises of one sentence!

After the high expectations discussion of this collection inspired in me it was a crushing disappointment. It is not hard to see why it is out of print. 3/10

Book #36 The Neurotourist by Lone Frank

The Neurotourist

I don't know what I expected from The Neurotourist but it wasn't what I got. In this book Danish scientist Lone Frank visits a variety of academic institutions and has conversations with a variety of neuroscientists and discusses how neurology impacts religion, ethics, sociology, crime, marketing and economics.

Some of these subjects are interesting but it's very much theory-lite. I covered Bentham, Mill and Kant for example in my A Levels and Frank did not add to my knowledge there. I've read the books on lying by Paul Ekman so discovered nothing really new in the crime section either. Neuro-marketing is interesting, the idea that in the future individuals will be sold things according to what their neurons react to, a real Big Brother is watching you idea. Other ideas such as whether you'll be refused for a job because your neurology reveals you may develop Alzheimers or schizophrenia have been covered in a deeper way than Frank achieves by genetic ethics in other books and novels.

I read this book because I was interested in knowing more about neuroscience, but my enthusiasm for the book quickly dwindled due to the manner in which Frank inserts herself, her feelings and her opinions into the narrative. This isn't just the latest Science in the field as say a Chown or a Kaku book is about theoretical physics. Frank in discussion about religion and neurology manages to segue onto a lengthy diatribe in support of Richard Dawkins, going off on a complete tangent. A strong atheist herself, proudly promoting it as confirmation of superior intellect, she stands on a total soapbox throughout this section.

Later, when she meets an eminent highly respected academic in Wisconsin, he speaks of his Buddhist views and she goes on to sneer at him behind his back by being sarcastic about his beliefs to one of his students. Via these two sections she reveals an unpleasant arrogant side to herself and makes it difficult to want to be in her company.

I strongly felt that the information she imparted in certain areas was heavily tilted to promote her personal views.

Also in this book, apparently about neuroscience, there is a tendency towards 'all about me' by Frank, particularly when she has a brain scan which reveals an average brain. I was taught that once a piece becomes about the person writing it rather than the subject it is on then it has failed.

By the end of this book, an end which I found myself willing to occur, I found I despised Lone Frank and I would not read further work by her 3/10

Monday, 2 April 2012

Book #35 The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

The Lifeboat

In The Lifeboat, we meet Grace Winter who is standing trial alongside two other women for an unspecified crime in the 1910's.  Via flashback it transpires that Grace Winter survived the sinking of the Empress Alexandra and got away on a lifeboat just in time.

In the 100 year anniversary of the sinking of Titanic, there are obvious and most likely deliberate comparisons to be drawn between the actual disaster and this fictional one, though the Titanic itself is referred to as a prior tragedy known to these fictional victims.

I really liked this fresh angle on such events which usually focus on the run up to or the actual disaster itself. As far as I know focusing a full story on those who got away has not been done before, and so has something new to add and say.

The characterisation is very well done, from fearsome but necessary sea dog Hardie, to Mrs Grant: mother hen or puppet master? to Grace Winter herself, is she fragile and suggestible or is she made of hard steel under a soft appearance?  

Though the setting of the book and the characters is really unusual, there are unfortunate but not total similarities to the third act of Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch. There is a difference though, whilst Jaffy and Tim were young sailors shipwrecked, these survivors are largely upper class women, who throng together to survive, but, are they just doing the best they all can or has evil sprung up in their midst?

A good, original, well written debut piece 9/10

Book #34 The Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings

The Descendants

The Descendants was recently turned into a George Clooney film weighed down with nominations for awards. I missed it at the cinema and have yet to see it though I'm rather glad I didn't because I came to the book fresh.

The Descendants is about Matt King whose wife Joannie is in a coma following a boat accident. As hope for her dwindles, Matt realises he must become the sole parent of their daughters Alex and Scottie. With this realisation comes a second realisation, having been an indifferent uninterested passive father all their lives, he does not know them at all. He doesn't know who they are, he doesn't even know what food they like. There is a great moment of pathos in the book where Matt King hopes they won't ask him what he loves about them because he has no idea what to say.

When Alex drops the bombshell upon him that Joannie was having an affair, in search of some kind of purpose Matt takes his girls on a road trip to track down her lover so he too can say goodbye.

The Descendants is a really good book about fatherhood and parenthood and the things we pass down to the next generation. Though his family comes with a unique ancestral history, Matt King comes to realise that all he has given his girls is a story and he has never given of himself. It's a rites of passage book for a father, and provides some lovely psychological insights into the confusion and dismay of King, as well as some great emotional truths about preparing for the coming of death.

Often it is witty, but a lot of times there is sadness underneath the humour. It's well crafted too, but, even with these things, it doesn't really 'Wow' as a book, it falls short. It's worth reading but I won't be treasuring it as a beloved classic, be purchasing it for others or reading twice 8/10

Book #33 Headhunters by Jo Nesbø


Following the premature death of Steig Larsson, British publishing houses scrambled around for the "next big" Scandinavian author and alighted upon prolific Norwegian Jo Nesbø who has written many books in a series about detective Harry Hole, as well as some children's books and a number of stand-alone novels of which Headhunters is one.

His books are everywhere in every bookshop you go in. But, are they any good?

I chose Headhunters because there's a film adaptation of this coming out shortly starring Nikolaj Coster-Waldau from Game Of Thrones so I thought I'd give it a go.

Central character Roger Brown is a recruiment Headhunter, but he isn't just any headhunter - he's the best headhunter in town with a stellar reputation. If Roger Brown recommends a candidate for a job, they get the job, and he's always on the lookout for perfect specimens.

Roger Brown is arrogant and showy and though he has the trappings of wealth, the house, the suits, the right kind of watch; having not come from money, there is an indication he lives beyond his means.

Roger Brown has secrets. But what are they?

When Roger meets Clas Greve, he believes he is in luck, little does he know he has met his match.

The thing about this book, a thriller set in the corporate world is that as you are reading it, it is thrilling and rattles along at a great pace; Roger and Clas and other characters are well drawn, and it is well written, but when you finish the book and actually stop to think about what just happened, you realise the entire story is utterly preposterous and laughably so. Really incredibly silly particularly in the third act.

Despite this it is an enjoyable example of the genre, and I recommend it as a great airport or holiday purchase.