How does my bike work? – Jan McPherson

May 6, 2017 at 17:06 | Posted in bicycles, books | Leave a comment
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With the junior Chillikebab’s now at school, we have the joy of school readers. Books they bring home to read to us – full of the joy of them learning to read, and the crushing monotony of the repetitive sentences.

The other day, one of the juniors brought home this one – ‘How does my bike work?’. This book I of course approved of. Nothing like some good early education about bike maintenance. Junior read it with aplomb, and I ticked it off on her reading list.

However, it’s not a book I would necessarily recommend as a bike maintenance primer. Take this, for example:

Brake pads press against the tyres? I hope not; that’s a recipe for tyre blow-outs. I resisted the urge to cross this out and change it to ‘rims’ – which in any case I would say is phonically much easier to read…

Still, it’s always exciting to write a post that I can categorise in both Books and Bicycles!

Kowloon Tong – Paul Theroux

February 10, 2017 at 21:08 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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kwoloonThis book has been on the shelf, and sort of looking at me for years. Lots of years. I don’t know where it came from, who bought it or when, but I’ve been sort of aware of it’s presence on the shelf for, well, a long time.

So I decided to read it. This was, in part, due to a desire to road-test my reading glasses. Yes, that’s correct, folks. I an officially old. Visiting the optician recently, I was told that reading glasses might be beneficial, especially when I am tired. So I got some, in the (perhaps vain) hope I might read more in the evening, a time when, if I am honest, my eyes are a bit tired for reading. Wanting to test this out a few days after receiving my new glasses, I pulled this book of the shelf, and started to read.

Actually, I have to say, it was rather good. I’ve never especially felt like I had eye-strain, but it was certainly much more restful; I was able to read up until bedtime without feeling like my eyes were more tired than the rest of me.

Enough of all that, how was the book?  Well, I think I enjoyed it. It’s set just before the handover of Hong Kong from the British to the Chinese, and follows the story of ‘Bunt’ – a Hong-Kong-born British ex-pat, as his (recently inherited) family business is bought, against his wishes, by the shady Mr Hung, a representative of the Chinese state army. Bunt is a very weak man, under the thumb of his overbearing mother, who spends his days working at the factory and visiting ‘blue hotels’ with prostitutes. Just as he starts to discover love (an affair with one of his factory workers), his world collapses. It’s a bleak novel, and Bunt’s ultimate weakness and impotence are painfully laid bare.

There’s really no characters in this book to like. Bunt and his mother are smug, racist ex-pats. Mr Bunt is alarming and menacing. The are also a range of other unsavoury characters who seemingly abandon all morals in the pursuit of money and success.

As I said, I think I enjoyed, it. I certainly kept turning the pages; it’s gripping in a sort of dreadful way. But it’s also strangely unsatisfactory; there is so little humanity and colour on offer that it leaves a thin, sour taste. Interestingly it has a very even spread of reviews on amazon from 1 star up to 5, so I guess it’s a book that elicits a range of opinions.

Still, as a test run for my new glasses, it worked very well. Now I will see if this prompts me to do more evening reading…

 

One Man and his Bike – Mike Carter

November 16, 2016 at 04:04 | Posted in bicycles, books | Leave a comment
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one-man-and-his-bikeAnother uplifting and happy cycling story, as promised. Actually, this one isn’t really about me cycling. But I reckon reading about someone else cycling, and enjoying it, probably counts. And it’s sort of cool that I get to put this post in both the ‘books’ and the ‘bicycles’ category on my blog.

Mike Carter is a bloke who was unhappy with his life; unsure what he wanted and where he was going. So he got on his bike, and pedalled all the way around Britain. Along the way he met a lot of very nice people, had a lot of lovely experiences, and met a few not so nice people sometimes.

It’s an easy book to read with a gentle, self-deprecating humour. And the key themes that come out are:

  • Riding a bike is the best way to travel
  • Most people in the world are very nice
  • The secret of happiness is less stuff, and more connectedness with other people. And to ride a bicycle.

In a world that seems to be going increasingly crazy, perhaps those are things we should all reflect on.

Two Brothers – Ben Elton

November 10, 2016 at 12:19 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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Mben-elton-two-brothersotormouth stand-up comic, social activist and novelist; Ben Elton is a man with many strings to his bow. Usually his novels are satirical reflections on the state of society – fun, fast-paced and a bit preachy. Much like his stand-up routines.

However, in this novel (billed as ‘his most personal to date’), he assumes the mantle of a more serious novelist, tracing the story of two brothers brought up in pre-WW2 Berlin in a Jewish family. The twist, though, is that one of them is not Jewish at all, but adopted at birth to replace a twin that was stillborn.

There then follows a rather unlikely story, involving the two brothers both falling in love with Dagmar, a Jewish heiress whilst maintaining a friendship with Silke, daughter of their maid. It twists and turns, with each brother taking the place of the other, into an ultimate scenario where one brother enlists with the Waffen SS and the other in the British army. Be clear, though, the brother in the SS hates Nazis, and is only joining it to save Dagmar. Who does Dagmar really love? Why does one of the brothers marry Silke? The plot has been described as ‘Archer-esque’, and indeed it does have echoes of a Jeffrey Archer novel.

It’s easy to read. But. It’s long and clunky, with far to many side-expositions, sub-plots, back-stories and lengthy discourses. Yes, we get that the Nazis are bad. Really really bad. Yes, we get pre-war Berlin was a crazy city. Yes, we understand the horrors of WW2. Whilst reading this book, I kept wishing great chunks of it could be excised or pared back. Elton can’t avoid preaching, and it gets in the way. Less could have been more, I think.

Elton can write with pace, and the story rattles along well enough. The historical backdrop is well researched, and vivid. But it’s not quite the novel I think he wanted it to be.

 

Nutshell – Ian McEwan

November 1, 2016 at 14:24 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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nutshellWhen I reviewed McEwan’s last book, I noted that it felt somewhat formulaic; a little bit too heavy on research and, dare I say, somewhat underwhelming.

Well whether stung by my review or simply fired with inspiration, Ian McEwan has released a book that you could never accuse of being formulaic. It’s a black comedy, inspired by Hamlet, narrated by a nine-month old foetus from the confines of his mother’s womb. Not one of the larger sections at Dymocks, that one…

It’s a terrific book. Audacious and joyful to read, it is a literary tour de force. (Literary skill that, as you can see by the use of such a hackneyed phrase, I lack.) The womb-bound protagonist offers soliloquys on everything from contemporary politics to enduring having his father’s brother’s penis thrusting inches from his nose, whilst we follow the plotting between his uncle, Claude, and mother, Trudy, to kill his father by means of a hipster smoothie laced with antifreeze.

It all sounds utterly preposterous, but the extraordinary writing and compelling narrative drive just sweeps you along – it’s an exhilarating read. There’s literary nods and winks a-plenty along the way, but all that cleverness and conceit avoids being, well, clever and conceited, and just adds to the joy of reading this slim volume.

I read somewhere that McEwan said he enjoyed writing this book, and it shows. It’s a cracker. Get yourself a copy.

Animal Farm – George Orwell

October 18, 2016 at 16:36 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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animal-farmDo you suffer from insomnia? Well, if you do I may have the answer. It takes the form of a BBC radio programme called ‘In Our Time‘, in which exceptionally plummy-voiced academics discuss incomprehensible subjects in soporific tones.

It just takes a little of Melvyn Bragg’s introduction (‘and joining me to discuss the influence of thirteenth century epic poetry on the development of the Romance languages are, Edwin Higginbotham, Emeritus Professor of Nearly Everything at the University of Somewhere….) and I’m asleep. It’s one of my favourite programmes, and I assume all this erudition is somehow lodging itself into my somnambulistic brain.

A little while ago, I stayed awake long enough to pick up that the following week’s programme would be about George Orwell’s Animal Farm. This prompted me to read the original book, which I’m not sure I had ever actually read.

The story is, of course, very familiar. The animals of Manor Farm rise up against the brutal and incompetent farmer, and after chasing him away begin to manage the farm for themselves as a sort of co-operative utopia. In those first very heady months everything goes well, with all the animals working together to improve their conditions.

However, it soon starts to go sour, as the pigs (the intellectuals of the farm) start to take more and more for themselves as they exploit and terrorise their fellow animals until, in the famous last scene, the pigs and men in the farmhouse appear indistinguishable from each other, the pigs having turned into the very oppressors they sought to overthrow.

It is a searing commentary on the events of the Russian Revolution, and the eventual rise of Stalin, although written at a time when Britain was in the throes of the Second World War, with Russia as an ally. Because of this, here was significant pro-Russian sentiment in the UK at the time, and Orwell struggled to find a publisher. It was eventually published just after the war, at a time when the pro-Russia sentiment had evaporated and the horrors of the Stalinist regime were becoming more clear.

However, the historical overlay is not necessary to enjoy the book; although it’s a bleak read. It has a kind of relentless inevitability about it; from the moment the pigs first take the milk for their mash the spiral down towards the final outcome seems somehow fixed. It is of course a classic, and worth reading again if you haven’t read it for a while.

Having read it, I then looked forward to the programme to further sharpen my appreciation of the book. But alas, I was asleep within a few minutes of it starting…

 

The After Party – Anton DiSclafani

October 2, 2016 at 19:49 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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afterpartyFollowing my resolution to read a book from the library every time I take the kids there, I picked up ‘The After Party’ from the display of new books by the children’s section, without really even glancing at it. It’s not a book I probably would have chosen normally, but I think this new ‘grab from the library’ strategy has quite a bit going for it, as you get to read some interesting and unusual books.

This book is set in 1950s Houston, and drips with period detail – the rich, bored, un-emancipated housewives of rich oilmen live in a dizzy world of socialising and manners. Their lives are at once luxurious and stifling.

The book revolves around two characters in this world – Joan, from one of the oldest and richest families, and Cece, her friend, confidant and sometime chaperone. Joan is unconventional; straining against the barriers of convention. She is the darling of the gossip columns as she moves from one outrageous incident to another. Cece, desperately wanting to conform to  the expectations of society, is drawn to Joan and spends her life in Joan’s orbit, both enthralled and appalled as she attempts to understand and corral Joan’s behavior.

The novel explores the relationship between these two women as Joan’s life spirals out of control, and DiSclafani deftly explores their obsessive and stifling friendship, set against the backdrop of rigid societal expectations.

It’s an enjoyable book, but not exceptional, and the pace drags a little sometimes. It is an interesting window into both the era and the dynamics of female friendship.

Nod – Adrian Barnes

August 15, 2016 at 21:57 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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nod adrian barnesHurrah! I finally got around to reading another book. Regular readers would be forgiven for thinking that the ‘book’ part of my blog title seems rather irrelevant. Apologies for this, dear readers. I will do my best to make amends.

I picked up ‘Nod’ by Adrian Barnes from my local library, when I was there with the junior Chillikebabs. Aren’t libraries great! Just like bookshops, except the books are free, and there is fast wifi. We go there a lot, but only ever get out kids book. So my new resolution is borrow (and then read) at least one grown-up book on each visit.

Nod is a dystopian novel, set in a contemporary world where, suddenly, almost no-one is able to sleep. As sleep deprivation takes hold, society falls apart alarmingly quickly. A few lucky individuals, including the books main protagonist and narrator, Paul, are able to sleep – but they all have the same strange dream. And some children are also able to sleep – but are rendered mute and unemotional, moving to live rough in a park all together.

At all sounds very weird when I write it like that, and I guess it is; as the book progresses it becomes more and more dream-like, mirroring the decaying mental state of the ‘Awakened’ – those that are unable to sleep. Strange cults begin to develop, behaviour becomes savage and violent, and through it all glide the serene ‘Sleeper’ children.

I enjoyed it a lot, although felt it was just a bit short of being a great book. Some of the literary allusions are a bit too forced, and at times it descends into a zombie-horror-flick parody. However, those are minor criticisms, it’s a book that stays with you for a while after you read it and which has some thought-provoking themes.

 

The Secret River – Kate Grenville

October 13, 2015 at 21:06 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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The Secret River starts in 1780s Lsecret riverondon. William Thornhill, a small boy, born in the squalid slums of London, get a chance to create a life for himself as a waterman, ferrying people across the Thames. Then, when things go wrong for him, he, his wife and their son are sentenced to be transported to Australia.

Arriving in Sydney in the early days of the colony, Thornhill sets out to rebuild his life, eventually claiming land and settling on the banks of the Hawesbury river.

Of course, the settlers come into contact with, and conflict with, the Aboriginal people of the area. There is horrific violence and brutality, but also attempts at reconciliation and peace. The moral choices are often ambiguous, and the novel paints a vivid portrait of early colonialism.

It’s a gripping read, often uncomfortable, and certainly gives an insightful perspective into the struggles between the white settlers and the Aborigines – and ultimately how the ‘blacks’ were brutally subjugated.

I’ve read a fair bit of Australian history since moving here some years ago, but this novel really puts that history into human terms. There is a risk in reading it as history though, in that Thornhill is very unusual in terms of his liberal, tolerant outlook. This paints a rather romanticised picture of white settlement (although Grenville does not shy away from the uglier side of colonial attitudes in other characters). But that said, I still recommend this book to all seeking both a great novel, and also an insight into how Australia was colonised by Europeans.

The Casual Vacancy – JK Rowling

September 15, 2015 at 08:30 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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This is, of course, casual vacancy JK rowlingJK Rowling’s first adult fiction book, published to much fanfare in 2012. It explores the interwoven lives of the inhabitants of a small English village, touching on themes as diverse as racism, drug-taking, bullying, domestic violence, teenage sex, crime and prejudice.

Rowling herself has described it as a ‘black comedy’, which is an apt description of many of the characters. As in her children’s books, Rowling has a knack for creating extreme caricatures that somehow remain believable, and this cast of grotesques do have a certain dark, comedic quality. The plot and storylines, however, are far from humorous in their explorations of the darkest sides of human nature.

The cast of characters is large, and there are multiple storylines and plots that run throughout the book. Other reviewers have found this difficult to follow, but I didn’t find this confusing; the characters jump off the page and are so memorable it’s easy to keep up.

The writing, whilst somewhat clunky in parts, flows along well enough, despite the book’s length – although it does feel like it could do with a bit of judicious editing. There are some quite poignant moments, as well as some challenging ones – but there are also some rather long, tedious passages that could do with trimming.

It’s worth a look – it’s easy to read, and quite fun – but it’s not a great novel.

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