Small Great Things – Jodi Picoult

August 15, 2017 at 10:24 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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I picked up this book at the airport, as a fairly easy read on the plane. Jodi Picoult is of course a very well known and prolific author, although I’d not read any of her books before.

As I expected, this is a well-written, easy to read book that rattles along. The theme it tackles, however, is far from lightweight; it is an examination of racism and racial tensions in contemporary USA. Against the backdrop of racially-charged police shootings, the rise of Trump and issues around immigration and American values, this is both a necessary and brave book.

Necessary, because these issues need airing constantly, and brave, because Jodi Picoult is a privileged, affluent white person – and writing about race is a challenge to do authentically and fairly when you have no lived experience to draw on.

The story revolves around Ruth; a black neo-natal nurse who is on duty when an medical incident occurs to the newborn child of a white supremacist couple. The baby dies, and Ruth is suspended by the hospital, and charged with negligence and murder. She is defended by a public advocate, and over the course of the novel the motivations, lives and prejudices of all the characters are examined. The book ends with a climactic courtroom scene which, whilst gripping, as a rather over-the-top twist right at the end that to me felt very forced.

It’s a novel that certainly illuminates the racial divide in today’s America. Picoult did a lot of research prior to writing this book; she details much of this in an essay that appends the novel. Aware of the sensitivity of the subject, she tries to do the right thing, and also apologises for any missteps she may have made. Racism is an issue that affects all America (and perhaps the whole world), and Picoult makes the point that this is a book to get whites reading about and understanding at least some of the issues – even if her voice is not the most authentic or original. It is notable that the black characters in the novel come across as the least nuanced and most two-dimensional.

I was interested when finishing the book to read the reactions of black reviewers to the novel. For the most part they are generous and understanding – this is not a ‘black novel’, but as a book that adds to the debate and might break through to some readers who would otherwise not consider the issues raised it has been for the most part praised.

I enjoyed this book a lot; it is a rattling good yarn as well as being very thought-provoking.

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The Restorer – Michael Sala

July 19, 2017 at 15:18 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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The Restorer is Micheal Sala’s second novel, and is set in Newcastle, a small city a few hours north of Sydney in Australia. It’s a novel about one family, as their father, Roy, attempts to heal the rifts in their past by buying a near-derelict house in a new city and restoring it – and, he hopes, his family too.

At first, things seem to improve, but the bubbling tensions below the surface continually threaten to erupt, driven by Roy’s unpredictable, brooding violence. This is a very bleak book, and we are drawn into the struggles, dysfunction and violence of both this one family, and the wider society they inhabit.

One of the strengths of the book is that we end up empathising with all the characters; they are all in some way trying to overcome their flaws and break free of their pasts. However, ultimately Roy is unable to contain or tame his violence, and as the book progresses it crescendos towards a devastating finale. This is an intense portrait of a violent family, and has its roots in Sala’s own upbringing, and the fear of provoking his violent stepfather. It’s a beautifully written yet brutal story, and is utterly compelling.

New York 2140 – Kim Stanley Robinson

July 4, 2017 at 14:22 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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I bought this as an easy read for a long plane trip, and it served its purpose admirably. It’s a sci-fi book (something you might possibly deduce from the title…) set in a world where sea level has risen forty feet as a result of global warming, and the world is finding a new equilibrium. Much of Manhattan is now underwater, but life in the most solid tall buildings goes on, with the streets becoming a sort of Venetian canal network. The weaker, smaller buildings are gradually slumping into the water, whilst even larger skyscrapers are constructed on higher ground. It’s quite an evocative picture of a possible near future, with humanity living both differently yet also rather similarly to today. One similarity is the global financial markets; still managing trillions of dollars of money, all leveraged and borrowed, and ripe for collapse. Both financial and literal liquidity are woven together neatly throughout the book.

Into this scenery is placed an eclectic cast of characters; software coders, a tough policewoman, a social lawyer, a banker, a TV reality star, two savvy street kids and a lugubrious building supervisor. The opening of the book is strong, as these characters are sketched out, and it becomes clear that it is one of those books where the lives of these characters gradually become entangled and drawn together. Ultimately, however, the way this happens and the end result is a bit unsatisfactory – it’s all rather rushed and much too neat. Still, as a book to pass the time its certainly to be recommended, and threaded through it is a commentary on our own time, and our negligence in dealing with the climate crisis the world is currently in.

Postscript: I read the final chapters of this book as the results of the June 2017 UK general election were coming in, and there was a certain frisson in seeing the people perhaps rise up and smash the neoliberal order that has held the world in such a grip since the 1980s – exactly as was happening in the chapters I was reading. Alas, the UK election result was rather more messy and did little more than rattle the hegemony a little, unlike the all-too-neat ending of this book.

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.

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…

 

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