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…

 

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 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.

Fly6 rear bike camera review

August 21, 2015 at 16:17 | Posted in bicycles | 1 Comment
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fly6boxAs will have been apparent to regular readers, a little while ago I kitted myself out with a rear-facing camera – the Fly6.

This has already been the subject of numerous reviews – not I’m not going to let that stop me offering my own opinions! What attracted me to it was that is is uncompromisingly designed for cycling – this is not an ‘action camera’ that also works for cycling, but was designed from the ground up for putting on the back of a bike.

To that end, it has an integrated rear light (with the usual flashing and steady modes), the necessary fixings for a seatpost and is waterproof. This last point is crucial – a fair weather camera is no good to me, and given it’s position above the rear wheel it’s going to get pretty drenched in the rain.

The other thing I liked about it is that is records video on a loop, automatically deleting the oldest footage once the memory card is full. This means you never have to worry about having to delete old files, or it stopping recording because the memory is full. As far as I know this is the only such camera that has this small but exceptionally useful feature. It records in 10 minute segments, each recorded as a different file, which does mean if you want to make an epic movie of your ride you will need to stitch them all back together in a video editor. It also means it’s much easier to locate the footage of a particular bit of your ride, and the file sizes remain manageable, which I think is on balance more helpful.

It has a an integrated rechargeable battery that is good for about 5 hours of recording, and good for several more hours of just lights after that – claims that seems about right from my general use. Hence you don’t need to be recharging it too often – twice a week is fine for me. The various bleeps and flashes when you turn it on tell you the current battery level, and are clear and easy to understand. Once the battery is getting low the recording stops, but the light remains working for several hours – another bonus, and much better than my other rechargeable lights, which have a habit of dying mid-ride.

It comes packed in a lovely box with every accessory you could imagine – shims for different seatpost angles and also for aero posts (for those hardcore time triallers out there). There are two clips, so you can have a clip on a couple of bikes, a charging / data cable and a 2GB memory card (enough for about 1.5 hours of recording). There are also a bunch of stickers, and a small manual to get started (the full manual is available as an online download).

fly6 cameraThe video quality is I think good. It’s up there with the lower-end action cameras  – it records at 720P, which for some purists is not good enough, but it’s plenty OK for most purposes. Details are crisp, number plates are easy to read. You can see some footage here, but there’s plenty more around on the web. In the dark obviously things are a bit less successful, but by no means useless; on a street with good streetlighting you can still make out most of the details. If it is very dark, then things do just become a blur of points of light, but I guess for a sub-$200 camera that’s asking a lot. The sound is OK – it’s never going to be that good on such a small device, but it is better that I expected, without too much wind noise. It will pick up intelligible speech in the vicinity, providing there isn’t any background noise – so essentially sound recording works if you are stopped (if you are moving, then it’s unlikely you’ll hear anything over the wind / tyre / traffic noise).

Since I’ve had it, I’ve used the footage once to go to the cops to report someone for poor driving, and taken many many hours of entirely boring footage of me cycling to work. It’s been drenched by heavy rain, with no problems at all, and the battery life holds up well.

fly6 on bikeSo it everything unrelentingly positive, then? Well, there are a few niggles. The clip design is not the best. As I mentioned, it comes with two clips. I mounted it into one of the clips to fit to the bike – and it was immediately clear that it is very unwilling to come out of that clip. I’ve been at it with some tools, lubricated it with oil, hauled at it – but it took a lot of effort to get it out. (top tip – do it with the clip mounted on the bike). It’s also impossible to get out without some sort of tool such as a small screwdriver (or the tip of a key), as you can’t push back the tab on the clip with your finger whilst pulling the unit out of the clip. All this means that half the time I just use the rubber straps to take it on and off (which is easy to do in any case), but it does mean the little rubber shim can get lost (if has a sticky pad to hold it to the clip, but repeated taking it on and off loosens this quite quickly).

I also had a bunch of problems connecting it to my PC. When I got it, I connected it, and it appeared as a drive, and I was able to set the time and date and so on. But then, a few days later, it stopped connecting. My PC then started reporting ‘USB driver failed to load’ when I plugged it in. I tried it on several PCs, and got the same result each time. Reading the Fly6 forums, this is not an uncommon issue.  Since then I have upgraded the firmware on the device (which entailed using a different PC it apparently would connect to) which seems to have helped, as it now connects to my home PC. My work PC still won’t connect though (although it did once, but never again, so I don’t think it’s a permissions thing). Not a major drama as I can just remove the memory card to get the footage, but it’s a bit frustrating.

Those gripes notwithstanding, I am very happy with my purchase. It does what I need it to to do with a minimum of fuss, is low-profile and discreet and is easy to use.

Apparently there is a Fly12 front camera in the offing. Something to consider….!

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