Friday, May 13, 2016

Book Review: The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo

It is interesting to note that Victor Hugo never wrote a novel called "The Hunchback of Notre Dame", this is an English translation of the original title which would better be named "Notre Dame of Paris". This title far better introduces the reader to the content of the book which focuses on the cathedral rather than Quasimodo, the hunchback.

Unfortunately this also draws attention to one of the main drawbacks of this famous work of fiction, that it dwells far too long dwelling upon the atmosphere of the cathedral and its surroundings in neglect of the plot of the book. Some may say that this is a masterpiece of literature in the way it paints a portrait of life in this area at that time but in my opinion it takes far, far too long to get to the point and becomes very boring, a chore to read rather than a pleasure. I have taken great pleasure in the past in novels which employ wide vocabularies and create an atmosphere through description but this is alongside a plot, which for great swathes of its pages, The Hunchback of Notre Dame lacks entirely.

When this book finally gets to the story of La Esmerelda and Quasimodo much of what happens seems to lack any reason and most certainly the characters are not very lovable at all. For this reader it had taken so long to get to what is a very weak plot to make a very elementary point that I was totally bored and only read to the end because I had gone so far. In keeping with other classics by French authors I found this book to ramble on for far too long and that nothing profound was imparted at all; certainly nothing enjoyable.

I would recommend this book to those who have enjoyed other classic French authors and to those who enjoy huge descriptive chapters where nothing happens other than the creation of an atmosphere of the time. As with "The Man in the Iron Mask", "The Count of Monte Cristo" and "The Three Musketeers" this is one of those rare cases of the movie being better than the book. For me those French classic authors really knew how to use a thousand words when one hundred would suffice.

Score: 3/10

Book Review: Mogadishu Diaries, Bloodlines by Eddie Clay Thomkins III

"Mogadishu Diaries, Bloodlines" follows the exploits of a group of US Marines during the conflict in Somalia in which time local warlords were targeted by the US and UN in order to restore stability to this East African country. In this book Eddie Clay Thomkins III gives an account of the events in Somalia that precede those made famous in "Blackhawk Down".

In Bloodlines the author has created a book which is both interesting and easy-to-read, not getting bogged down in superfluous information but just getting straight into the action. Indeed, so easy it is to read that it actually feels a bit light for the subject matter and it is testament to the way that the events are described that the reader is left feeling a little short-changed in terms of the amount of content here.

The strength of this book is the straight-talking narrative that really makes the reader feel the authenticity of the material but it must be said that it becomes rather confusing at times whether this is a biographical work or a piece of fiction due to an unusual style; although I found this odd at times it does add to the book in terms of originality. The dialogue here is delivered as it was said which does occasionally lead to one of the problems that many such books fall into: jargon. Military jargon is used which means that readers may want to have access to the internet while enjoying this book so they can find the meaning of a number of terms. However, I did not find that this really imposed on the readability of the tale and several situations were quite amusing.

I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the US military involvement in Somalia although for those looking for a book which is plot-driven should maybe look elsewhere.

Score: 6/10

Book Review: Slam by Nick Hornby

"Slam" is an amusing insight into the life of a teenager who is cruising through life, happy with his lot, until a small mistake changes his life forever. Nick Hornby is well-known for his books in which he writes about the feelings and emotions of the characters dealing with the type of situations that effect every day people and in Slam he does an incredible job of writing in the narrative of a teenager obsessed with skate-boarding.

This story is about how the main character, Sam, has to deal with the consequences of his actions as he is dealt with the problems of a man while still a teenager - the increasingly familiar issue of teenage pregnancy. What is interesting in this book is how Sam's perception of living with the consequences of his actions contrast with an alternative version of what could happen and how Sam, in the absence of a father figure, turns for life advice to the unlikely guru-like figure of the skater Tony Hawk.

What I like about "Slam" is that it is equally driven by the plot and the lives of its characters, one is not dispensed with for the other unlike in so many other novels. This book has an interesting story, certainly this reader was intrigued what would ultimately happen to Sam, but it also has some very interesting characters from the central Sam, Alicia and Sam's mother to some of the peripheral characters - Sam's father, Rabbit, Alicia's parents and Rubbish. Not only is this a thought-provoking book it is also an easy read and compelling story with some amusing moments.

If you are already a Nick Hornby fan then I would certainly recommend this book to you as well as those who are looking into reading this author. I would also recommend this book to those who enjoy interesting stories about people's lives combined with humour and some unusual moments.

Score: 8/10

Book Review: Whatever Loves Means by David Baddiel

Author, David Baddiel, sets "Whatever Love Means" at the time during the hysteria surrounding the death of Princess Diana, where a difference of opinion on this event drives the initial wedge between a married couple and begins a process in which several close relationships are destroyed.

Played out to the backdrop of a national event in which many people try their best to be invested in, a real tragedy occurs in the life of Joe as his wife mysteriously dies leaving him with their small child to look after. Not accepting the circumstances of his wife's death Joe delves further into the tragedy only to find that he has been terribly let down by all those who were closest to him.

This book is about the power of sex over loyalty and while it is thought-provoking and tragic at times it is also amusing, perhaps not as laugh-out-loud as some of Baddiel's early television work, but similar enough in style to please fans of this comedian. The plot of "Whatever Loves Means" weaves a complicated trail through the relationships between the central characters, whereby the reader knows the twists of the story before many of the characters do; it is in finding out what lies behind his wife's death that Joe's story leads to an interesting climax.

The characters in this book are very distinct and in particular Vic is a very recognizable type, probably everyone knows a guy as egotistic and irresponsible as this and it is the consequences of his actions that should make many readers stop and think about their own.

If you are a fan of similar authors such Ben Elton, Alexei Sayle, Stephen Fry and other British comedians turned author, then I recommend this book to you. I would also recommend it to readers who enjoy thought-provoking but easy-to-read modern novels; this is quite a compelling book that makes the reader turn the pages quickly.

Score: 8/10

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Book Review: The World According to Bertie by Alexander McCall Smith

The "44 Scotland Street" novels are one of the series of books that Alexander McCall Smith is known for and this is the fourth installment. Set in Edinburgh the reader follows a snapshot of the lives of the inhabitants of Scotland Street, with the young Bertie as a central character, a boy who is unfortunate enough to have an over-protective and over-ambitious mother pushing him into music classes and yoga lessons when all he wants to do is be a normal little boy.

The strength of this book lies in the characters. Seldom have I read a book with so many interesting and unusual characters that quickly make the reader want to know more about them and find out where their story is going to end up; the art dealer and his new girlfriend the teacher, the Jacobites, the woman whose father "buys" her a husband and little Bertie himself. Unfortunately, this leads to the major weakness of this book; the reader never gets very deep into any of the characters lives, they are spread rather thinly through the book and not one of them has their narrative concluded. In other words there is no plot at all.

Although I prefer plot-driven novels this book makes pleasant and intriguing reading, in fact it is very much like a literary soap opera which is indeed more-or-less what it is as this series of novels were originally serialized in a periodical and they are probably best read from the first book all the way through the series to get the most out of them. Another point of interest in the writing here are the pseudo-philosophical dialogues delivered by multiple characters which at first seem like they may be developed but later just made me think that the author had substituted his own soliloquies for any meaningful dialogue.

I would recommend this book to those who have read earlier parts of this serialized set of novels and enjoyed them as well as those who enjoy fiction driven by the richness of the characters rather than the plot. This novel is light reading at its lightest and perfect for winding down when on holiday or for reading between more thought-provoking material.

Score: 5.5/10

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Book Review: Martyr by Rory Clements

Rory Clements' first novel, Martyr, is an intriguing crime thriller set in Elizabethan England. John Shakespeare is one of Francis Walsingham's intelligencers, charged with tracking down Catholics and protecting Sir Francis Drake as England approaches war with Spain. In this novel Shakespeare investigates the mysterious death of one of the Queen's relatives and this drags him into the murky underworld of London and pits him against another of the Queen's powerful agents.

I have been a fan of detective novels since reading Sherlock Holmes as a teenager but have grown slightly tired of the standard crime novel recently so this mystery with an Elizabethan twist was a nice change. In this period there are no need for arrest warrants, information can be extracted through torture and threats while suspects can go missing without trace in the squalid prison system. The reader will find no subtle and scientific inquiry methods here, just rudimentary investigative skills, brutality and corruption; a wonderful change from jaded cops and high-tech forensic experts.

In Martyr the author does a wonderful job of recreating the political intrigue surrounding the execution of Mary Queen of Scots setting this alongside the filth and deprivation that most of England's inhabitants lived in at the time. This serves as an interesting backdrop to an intricate and well-developed plot in which Shakespeare gradually unravels the mystery surrounding the death of a noble lady while at the same time trying to protect Sir Francis Drake from assassination.

Many of the characters within this novel are memorable and engaging although it is a little frustrating at times that the main protagonist, John Shakespeare, is bested so frequently. However, having a slightly incompetent main character allows the author to use this to create suspense in what is a very enjoyable book which leaves this reader looking for the next book in the series.

I would recommend this book to those who like historical novels and to those who like mysteries but are slightly tired of the hackneyed way in which many of these are written. This is a well-written mystery, thriller with an interesting portrayal of some historical characters (the personalities of Sir Francis Drake and William Shakespeare are rather surprising), the squalor of Elizabethan England as well as some bawdiness.

Score: 9/10

Monday, July 8, 2013

Book Review: Siege by Jack Hight

Siege is author, Jack Hight's, fictional dramatization of the real-life fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire in 1453. In this novel historical characters are portrayed in the years preceding the battle of Constantinople and the defense of the city.

This book tells this historical tale from several years before the events of the battle and the author builds the political intrigue well and introduces a set of characters that the reader can believe in as well as care about on both the Christian and Islamic factions that are a part of these events. Even though the events preceding the battle perhaps occupy too much of this book, this part of the novel is well-written and the reader becomes engrossed in the small events that shape the lives of the main protagonists.

The plot of the story, of course, is rather pre-ordained by history but the author does well to build up the suspense in a number of ways with political tugs-of-war on both sides of the conflict, traitorous scheming and   romantic sub-plots that keep the reader wondering how the lives of those involved will play out after the epic battle.

For those who love novels which describe historical battles, this book will be very enjoyable as many episodes from this historic siege are included in exciting and dramatic detail, although some are totally fictional and are extrapolations on what is known.

Perhaps the biggest complaint I had about "Siege" is that the actual siege itself is rather long in arriving; whilst the suspense is built up throughout the book, the reader is perhaps ready for the main event long before it is served up by the author, although this does allow for interesting characters to be outlined, around which a story is woven and this prevents the book from being a simple description of historical events.

I would recommend "Siege" to any readers who like historical novels, particularly those who enjoy medieval history. Also readers who would like to try out this genre will perhaps find this book a good place to start.

Score: 8/10

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Book Review: Beatrice & Virgil by Yann Martel

In Beatrice and Virgil author, Yann Martel, introduces the reader to a writer who has become famous for a novel that is about animals but finds producing his follow-up book too much of a challenge, particularly as he wants it to be an original look at the holocaust. After rejection Henry moves his family to another city and meets another writer who is struggling to write his own allegorical representation of the holocaust using animals in a play.

I am a great fan of Yann Martel's most famous book, The Life of Pi, so I was looking forward to another piece of masterful storytelling; unfortunately I read Beatrice and Virgil instead.

This book starts off as an easy read, exploring the writing career of Henry, setting his back story but this takes far too much of what is a very short book and part the way through this section one begins to tire of a highly narrative and, in fact, immature writing style - it reminded me of the sort of dross I would produce when I was at school. As the reader progresses the hope is that there is some highly profound message later on to make up for this. There is not.

Henry meets a struggling play writer and attempts to help finish the script, which then condemns the reader to  dealing with many pages written in play form, with moribund dialogue that one can hardly be bothered to read and allegories so esoteric that the author must explain what they mean lest the reader be left in the dark.

This novel does make readers turn the pages, partly because they want to discover what will happen and that there must be some kind of twist in the end, partly because they want to skip the boring play dialogue. It is perhaps ironic that in this book there are two authors who try to represent the Holocaust in an original way and fail, because this author does exactly the same.

I would not recommend this book to anybody other than those who are attempting to write their own books and are tempted to try and be more intellectual than they need to be by introducing pointless allegories that do not contribute to the story at all, so that they can see how not to write. More than anything this book is just boring. Read The Life of Pi, it is wonderful, but leave this alone.

Score: 2/10

Monday, April 22, 2013

Book Review: Tooth & Nail by Ian Rankin

Tooth and Nail is one in the series of novels by Ian Rankin that features the character Inspector Rebus. Scottish detective Rebus is summoned to New Scotland Yard, in London, to help catch a serial killer, named by the media "the Wolfman". At first Rebus is out of sorts off his home patch and this is not helped by the frosty reception he is given by his colleagues but when he makes a couple of allies he gets on the trail of the killer and rather than wait to react to the crimes he attempts to provoke the killer into providing some clues.

This book was one of the earlier serial killer novels and it does not fall into the many cliches that are often found in more recent publications. The reader will find themselves eager to learn about the main characters as they are developed in the early part of the story whilst at the same time the fundamentals of the investigation are outlined. The investigation proceeds as more killings occur and some help from an unexpected source adds the mystery and finally the twist that readers come to expect from a detective/thriller novel.

Apart from being a thoroughly readable story, one of this books best assets are the characters. Detective Rebus  is real. he is not some all-knowing super hero and neither is he the stereotypical worn-out investigator. His London counterpart, George Flight, is also recognizable as a real person and not a cliched character; a good policeman, friendly and polite but also with reservations. The third main character, Liza Frazer, is also interesting and someone with talent yet not quite the finishes article in terms of her criminal investigation skills are concerned.

Tooth and Nail is a book which really made me turn the pages and believe in the characters and the investigation, in fact one of this book's downfalls, in my option, is that it is not long enough to deal properly with the situation the author creates. This leads on to the biggest disappointment here, for me, which was the sudden way that Rebus puts the case together; as if by magic he solves the case and an otherwise excellent book is wrapped up too quickly for my liking, although the ending does contain a skillful plot twist by the author.

I would recommend this book to fans of Ian Rankin and his character Rebus. Although I have never read any of the others in this series, the quality of the writing and plot are good enough to please fans. Readers who enjoy detective stories and serial killer novels should read this offering from a skilled writer but it falls short of being a classic for me.

 Score: 8.5/10 

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Book Review: The First Casualty by Ben Elton

Ben Elton is best known for his comedy and humorous novels but in The First Casualty the author delivers a murder mystery set amidst the worst fighting of the First World War. Detective Kingsley goes to prison for refusing to fight in a war he considers unjust but finds himself in the trenches anyway, investigating the murder of poet and hero Viscount Abercrombie who had been suffering from shell-shock. The murder investigation proceeds slowly whilst the many distressing situations of the war are dramatized.

One of the strengths of this book is that it contains Ben Elton's typically anti-establishment attitude in the way he portrays the way that World War I is conducted and the politics of Britain at the time; this is hardly surprising considering the way that this period of time is widely regarded in modern times. In fact The First Casualty seems largely to be a vehicle for portraying the hardships of the time, touching on subjects such as the treatment of conscientious objectors, suffragettes, police brutality and the working classes, whilst taking a very long time to actually tell a story.

The plot of this novel is a pretty standard investigating of a fairly standard murder situation but the way the investigation is conducted and the lengths to which the military policeman has to go to collect evidence makes this quite an original detective story. Unfortunately, whilst these aspects of the book make the reader turn the pages, the author really does not capitalize on these themes and the plot is very light indeed whilst the imagery of the war seems to take centre stage.

The First Casualty contains some interesting characters including an investigator with confused priorities, an unusually forthright leading lady and a hateful villain. Whilst some of these characters are quite strong, many of the peripheral characters are quite cliched and will be recognized from countless World War I stories, movies and TV series.

Those who enjoy Ben Elton's writing will find The First Casualty an interesting read even though it does not contain his trademark humour and it is not one of his best books. However, I am not sure that those who are interested in World War I will find this novel particularly illuminating.

Score: 6.5/10