Wings of Fire; The Dragonet Prophecy – Tui T. Sutherland

February 26, 2020 at 14:36 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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Chillikebab junior the first turns ten years old soon. I asked her what theme she wanted for her birthday party, and she wanted it dragon themed. Specifically Wings of Fire themed. There had to be a quest, and a prophecy, and dragon eggs, and fire, and magic. I enthusiastically joined in with this, suggesting a range of cool things I could do – from making dragon eggs to creating an escape room to brewing magic potions and so on. My imagination ran wild, whilst Chillikebab jnr’s eyes grew wide and she proclaimed that it was going to be cool. (I had, at the time, consumed a fair number of alcoholic beverages, it should be noted.)

I should take this, I suppose. Once she turns ten, I doubt her dad will ever be cool again. But in the cold light of day, the scale of what I had suggested and the expectations I had set up were a little daunting. I had a lot to do… (I’ve also stopped drinking. At least for a while. Remind me not to start again until after Chillikebab junior the second’s birthday.)

Anway, I am now engaged in mounding dragon eggs out of paper mache, googling where I can buy dry ice and writing prophesies in rhyming couplets. Ho hum.

In order to ensure verisimilitude in my approach to the prophesy writing (it’s not easy being a prophet, let me tell you), I read the first book in the Wings of Fire series. They are kids books, but also popular with adults it seems. they are New York Times bestsellers, no less.

I don’t know what to say about it really. It’s non-stop violent action from start to finish. Battles, fights, sadistic torture, imprisonment, gladiatorial arenas, horrible deaths, mutilations and poisonings. There’s a sort of story about five young dragons that are going to save the world, there’s a war happening, and there’s some mysterious goings on. That’s probably all you need to know. It rattles along at a cracking pace, and I can see why my daughter likes them – they are action packed.

There’s not much scenery, however. The world the dragons inhabit is barely sketched; this is not an immersive and intriguing universe that you can visit in your head. There’s also a load of glaring inconsistencies that left me scratching my head; the dragons have rather clumsy claws but are also able to put a hand on each others’ shoulders; they move things by awkwardly pushing them around with their snouts but somehow they also have magnificent castles and complicated metalwork; their bones are stronger than diamond and can’t break, yet they do break when they fight. And so on. Perhaps I’m too much of a pedant.

Anyway, I now have a better idea of how to plan this party. Perhaps some kind of death match where the last child is left standing…

Identity Crisis – Ben Elton

February 19, 2020 at 15:00 | Posted in books | 1 Comment
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This book is very Ben Elton. You know – take a current societal conflict or controversy, dial it up to some sort of extreme, and create a satirical comedy about it that also acts as a pointed commentary on the ills of the world and our relentless slide into conflict, nihilism and catastrophe.

The topic for this book is ‘culture wars’, and the way bad actors manipulate public opinion via social media campaigns in order to sow discord and win elections, with side tours into reality TV, policing and race.

It’s OK. Elton’s books are very readable, and it rattles along in fine style, with plot twists and cliffhangers aplenty. But somehow I feel it doesn’t quite connect with its targets; many of the characters are not quite right and at times I get the distinct impression that Elton is dealing with subjects that he does not properly understand himself – and his pointed satire about how tone deaf we all are comes off as a bit, well, tone deaf.

Hey ho. If you are unaware of the link between social media, fascism and populist election wins, then you might learn something from this book. (Of you could read what actually happens – I suggest starting with Carol Cadwalladr.) But for me this wasn’t one of Elton’s best.

 

The Binding – Bridget Collins

January 24, 2020 at 12:48 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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The Binding is apparently a genre called ‘magical realism’, which seems like an oxymoron to me, but hey. It was a Christmas present, and I read it over the holidays. It’s set in a sort of quasi-19th-century parallel universe, where books are not as we know them – rather they are magical objects, created by ‘Binders’, and they contain real human memories. If you go to a Binder and have your memories put into a book, then those memories are erased from your mind. I thought this premise was quite intriguing, and certainly quite thought provoking.

The book is in three parts, and it revolves around to main characters (and is told in their voices) – Emmett Farmer, a farmer’s son, and Lucian Darnay, the privileged son of a wealthy industrialist.

The first part of the book is, I thought, slow going. It’s full of those ‘you aren’t allowed to know that’ tropes that can be intriguing, but actually sort of got so piled on they were in the way of the story. Anyway, eventually the real nature of books is revealed, and Emmett ends up, after a feverish illness, apprenticed to a Binder in a remote spot far away from civilization.

The backstory to this is revealed in part two, which is the best part of the book, I think. It’s a love story, although not a conventional one, quite nicely told.

Part three gets very dark; the sinister underbelly of this bucolic society is revealed and the role of Binding in hiding abusive behaviour is revealed. There were some exciting parts in this, but I wasn’t a big fan of the ending. Your mileage may vary.

Looking at reviews, this seems to be a book you either love or hate. I sort of mostly liked it, which I suppose puts me in the middle. If you like magical realism, then I think you would like this book. The premise is intriguing, the alternative world that Collins creates is sophisticated, well drawn and full of colour and detail, and the characters are vivid and alive. All this is a joy to read. But there are some niggles; some slow points, some internal inconsistencies and some pacing issues that prevented me, at least, from fully immersing myself into this book.

 

Rivers of London – Ben Aaronovitch

September 7, 2019 at 10:56 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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I got this book for Christmas, and finally read it. It’s a fantasy magic kind of thing. It is getting mostly rave reviews, and is billed as a kind of Harry Potter meets CSI.

It’s sort of fun, and it passed the time, but it’s not a great book in my opinion. The main character, Peter, just seems to sort of drift along, hordes of characters come and go and the ending is a bit of a muddle.

There is plenty to like; some good humour and the whole magic thing is quite well handled. It offers a rich taste of London life too, and it’s also nice to read a book with plenty of characters who are POC, but in a way that just so happens they are, rather than they being the point of their role in the story.

I doubt I’ll read any of the others in the series. But this would make a good holiday novel.

Kohinoor: The Story of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond – Dalrymple / Anand

March 29, 2018 at 12:05 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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I got this book for Christmas, and read it whilst on holiday in January, so sorry it’s taken so long to get to it. It’s the story of the Kohinoor; the ‘Mountain of Light’, one of the worlds most famous diamonds that was owned by various Persian kings and moghuls before eventually arriving in England and becoming part of the Crown Jewels.

It’s a well researched and well written book; the first section (the early history of the Kohinoor, as it passed between the Mughals, Afghans and Persians), and the second section covers its expropriation by the British, as they subjugated the Indian subcontinent. The first section is written by William Dalrymple, the second part by  Anita Anand.

The second part I think is actually slightly easier to read, though that is in part because the history is much clearer and the thread of the narrative more contained. The first section deals with early myths and possible mentions of the Kohinoor; its possible origin in India and the various wars and gifts that saw it passed around various different kingdoms and treasuries in the region. The extraordinary riches, expressed in gemstones, of the region prior to the British invasion is quite staggering.

The section dealing with the way the British treated those territories; the way those treasuries were plundered and the last remaining Punjab prince, the child Duleep Singh, is made unwittingly to sign over all of his vast riches to the British is quite movingly told.

The book finishes with some discussion of the various voices still calling for the Kohinoor to be returned to India.

It’s a great book, and well worth a read.

 

 

Two Caravans – Marina Lewycka

May 26, 2017 at 10:20 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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 Another book plucked from the shelf. So many good books on my shelves waiting to be read! This is Marina Lewycka’s second novel, and follows the fortunes of a group of itinerant workers who have come to England to pick strawberries. There is a memorable and hilarious cast of characters, from the shady Farmer Leapish who houses the workers in two broken-down caravans in his field to the naive nineteen year old Irina, fresh from Ukraine and hoping both to make a living and find a handsome English man like to match the dashing Mr Brown from her ‘Let’s Talk English’ textbook.

Whilst a highly comedic novel, it does shed an uncomfortable light on the conditions endured by such migrant workers, as well as the lack of security and risk of being trafficked they face. The use of language is sublime, with the various characters somewhat broken English adding to the atmosphere; for example the hard ‘mobilfonmen‘ who control the workers, and the sinister Vulk, who calls Irina ‘little flovver‘ as he kidnaps her with nefarious intent.

The first half of the book has a wide ensemble of characters, and follows them as they move around the country (driven away from Leapish’s farm when his wife runs him over in her sports car after finding out he has an ‘arrangement’ with Yola, the Polish supervisor). Along the way they acquire a dog (called Dog), and the pace and humour in this part of the book make for a rattling read.

About half way through, most of the characters disappear, and the book becomes a love story between Irina and Andiry, as they attempt to find stability and peace whilst pursued by Vulk. This part of the novel is less successful, to my mind, and it becomes more forced.

Still, it’s a fun book to read that I recommend. And one that will certainly open your eyes to the conditions endured by the immigrant underclass who make up much of the low-paid workforce.

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…

 

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 Man who invented the Future – Franz Born

July 8, 2015 at 06:12 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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inventedfutureAnother holiday read plucked from the shelf of a rented holiday house. This accessible biography of Jules Verne was actually quite entertaining. He led an interesting life; initially not really sure what he should be doing so filling his time with voracious reading covering many topics of science and geography.

After some failed attempts at scientific adventures of his own (such as building a huge hot air balloon) he finally turned his hand to writing fiction, and the rest, as the say, is history.

His breadth of knowledge on all matters scientific meant that his fiction had a solid basis in real fact, and many of the fantastical machines he created in his imagination – from submarines to videoconferencing – are of course now real and everyday. (There’s an article here covering many of them). In that sense he was a true science fiction writer, constructing worlds which relied on the laws of physics, rather than the now rather more fashionable fantasy writers who rely on magic and agency.

The funny thing about this book, interesting though it was, is that it was written in the mid nineteen-sixties; a time of great technological excitement. It is sprinkled with gushing predictions, such as ‘and in a few years, when regular space traffic is established, we will see even more how Verne’s predictions were correct‘ and so forth. It seems Verne was somewhat more adept at predicting the future than his erstwhile biographer..!

Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck

June 8, 2015 at 20:53 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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miceandmenThe Chillikebab family went on holiday recently (well, not that recently really, but I’ve not been keeping up with my blogging recently…), enjoying a peaceful week in a rental house on the South Coast. The sun shone (mostly), the beaches were sandy, the beer was cold and there was time to relax. I always enjoy browsing the books on offer in such houses; usually a mix of yellowing paperbacks from the 1970s, strange non-fiction titles on random topics (‘How to build a Minibike’, ‘Advanced Topiary’, ‘Midwifery Careers for Modern Girls’ and so on), and a few bodice-rippers left by previous holidaymakers.

One of those yellowing paperbacks was Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’. I pulled it down from the shelf, settled down into the soft brown cord of the 1970s sofa and began to read. (I’d like to say I was driven by a great literary urge, as desire to improve myself, but in reality it has as much to do with the fact that it was a rather slim volume…)

This book is of course a classic, and with good reason. On the one hand a story of loyalty, courage and love, and on the other a horrifying tale of blank, hollow lives lived as victims of circumstance. It is concise and pithy, with rich characters and sparse, taut dialogue. As George and Lenny chase their dream; to own their own rabbit farm, it is always obvious that they will not succeed; there is a kind of awful inevitability about the ending that makes it no less arresting when it does.

If you haven’t read this as an adult, and only know of it from adaptations or schoolwork, it’s worth picking it up.

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