Saturday, December 29, 2007

My Christmas Books

Although I get Scrooge-like tendencies around Christmas these days I still look forward to the new books that I receive as Christmas gifts. This year I received a number of books and look forward to reading them soon.

The books I got this Christmas:

1. Asterix and Obelix All at Sea
2. Pipits and Wagtails
3. How to Fossilise Your Hamster
4. Why Do Moths Drink Elephants' Tears?
5. Why Is Yawning Contagious?
6.Do Ants Have Arseholes?
7. Borat: Touristic Guidings to Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan/Minor Nation of U.S. and A.

Book Review: The Mystic Masseur by V.S. Naipaul

In The Mystic Masseur V.S. Naipaul tells the story of Ganesh, the son of an Indian immigrant to Trinidad and a character with a strong disinclination to work. The story follows Ganesh's rise to fame which has been stumbled upon due to fate providing a steadying hand which counteracts many of Ganesh's questionable life decisions.

The characters are the highlight of this book with the plot taking a back stage, although the reader will quickly become enthralled as to how Ganesh has become a well-known figure in Trinidad. As well as the lazy but loveable Ganesh are a host of similarly amusing characters; Leela with the bizarre habit of punctuating every word, the excitable Ramlogan and the sage-like Aunt Belcher are the stars along with ganesh but a whole procession of weirdos pop up in this book which ends with ganesh's political career.

There is something about the style of writing in this book that makes the reader believe in the reality of the characters and the tale of Ganesh's fame seems like something that could happen to almost anyone. This was Naipaul's first novel and remains one of his most famous: deservedly so.

The Mystic Masseur is recommended to readers who like quirky tales and to those who wish to progress from popular fiction onto something more complex without taxing the brain too much. This is an amusing story with some interesting characters and it is not too long, something which many similar novels are guilty of.

Score: 8/10

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Book Review: London Fields by Martin Amis

London Fields is a dark, bleak novel, strangely laced with a black humour chiefly provided by the vividly portrayed and memorable characters. The plot, if there is a plot at all, is that Nicola Six has somehow foreseen her imminent and violent death and by playing the wife beating Keith Talent off against the married and polite Guy Clinch she keeps the reader wondering who her killer may be.

This book is not really about the plot though and much more about the characters. Keith Talent is one of the most memorable characters I have ever come across in a novel, both loveable and detestable at the same time and a devotee of the relion known as darts! Keith's philosphical rants, based around darts, are quite comical as well as depressing and form the backbone of the story, whilst the boudoir of Nicola Six acts as a focal point to which the two male characters are constantly drawn. Nicola becomes both the ultimate male fantasy and at the same time the ultimate male nemesis, appealing both to male and female readers alike.

Unfortunately London Fields is far too long and at times it can be difficult to maintain interest due to the meandering style and dubious plot, however, the excellent characters make up for this at least to some degree.

London Fields is recommended to readers interested in well developed characters but for those that are after a fast paced plot this is certainly one to leave alone. An interesting novel and one that is worth reading even if the reader comes to the conclusion that it isn't for them.

Score: 7/10

Monday, December 10, 2007

Book Review: Wild Food by Roger Phillips

My mother bought me this book when I was about 12 years old and I immediately set about trying as many of the suggestions for wild food it contains as I could get away with. This is somewhere between an identification book and a cookery manual and as such perhaps doesn't really do either properly, but for its superb photos and bizarre suggestions it is a great book, firmly rooted in the realm of the vegetarian so avoiding the squirrel stew or baked eel that so upset many people.

This book will make countryside lovers look at the species around them in a new perspective and even if readers do not try any of the recipes, just the knowledge that they are possible will be of interest. The suggestions for food vary between delicious and ridiculous, but are mostly fairly simple and easily tried, although some degree of caution is needed with the fungi section.

Amongst the best suggestions here are blackberry water ice and garlic butter made from Jack-by-the-hedge, whilst amongst the worst are chestnut soup (a really good way to ruin good chestnuts) and nettle beer which carries an alcoholic kick along with a sting!

This book is highly recommended to countryside lovers in the United Kingdom but those searching for hard-core survival recipes would do better to look elsewhere.

Score: 7.5/10

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Book Review: Five Hundred Mile Walkies

Five Hundred Mile Walkies is the true and highly humourous Tale of a man and a borrowed dog walking the south west peninsula path through Devon and Cornwall in order to impress a girl that the author met at a party. Such a mundane premise may sound like it has little to offer, but Wallington has a real knack of finding the farcical side of every situation and developing it into an hilarious aside. Added to that, the author combines a rather literary style with the common touch and the result is a very readable story but not one that is dumbed down.

Wallington himself compares his tale to that of Jerome K. Jerome in "Three men and a Boat", and his style is highly reminiscent of this famous book. More importantly, it compares very favourably to "Three Men and a Boat", but, similarly to that and many other humourous books, much of the fun and laughter occurs in the early part of the tale and towards the end it appears as if the author gets rather tired of writing.

The addition of the dog, Boogie, is one that may divide readers, however. Boogie's flatulence provides a running joke throughout the book and for some this may be a constant source of amusement, although for others such a cheap and repetative joke becomes a little stale.

These downfalls aside Five Hundred Mile Walkies is a very funny book and for some reason I was particularly amused by the excursion through Westward Ho! - the only place in Britain that has an exclaimation mark in its name.

I recommend this story to lovers of humour and travel literature, and it serves well as a light read between more challenging material whilst maintaining a semi-literary style.

Score: 8.5/10

Monday, December 3, 2007

Book Review: Tintin in The Congo by Herge

I am not a great fan of the Tintin series but bought this book, like many other readers, because of the controversy that surrounds it. There is a short introduction preceeding the story which explains, and attempts to apologise for, the less than flattering way in which native Africans are portrayed and the fact that Tintin goes around shooting at anything that moves. In reality the racial stereotypes are so ridiculous that surely they could cause little offense in today's world, and Tintin's attitude towards them simply comes across as foolish. Perhaps more disturbing is Tintin's attitude to wildlife, but again, in a more informed world his behaviour just strikes the reader as idiotic which does little to make the reader warm towards the character in this story.

Tintin in the Congo is quite lacking in story, with no real purpose from beginning to end, although a few little episodes are thrown in but not expanded fully and for me this book is not at all interesting. The only saving grace of Tintin in the Congo are the bright, colourful illustrations which will appeal to many people, particularly children. However, once again, I am not really a fan of Herge's drawings and together with the moribund dialogue and lack of story I don't rate this book very highly.

This book is for Tintin fans only and is of interest only because of its long-time ban: now Tintin fans can complete their collection. For others, I don't suggest reading this as your first Tintin story as it is poor in terms of plot and dialogue, and if you are easily offended then this is certainly a book to avoid.

Score: 4/10

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Book Review: George's Marvellous Medicine by Roald Dahl

George is a small boy who is left to look after his gorgon of a grandmother whilst his parents are away. Whilst other grandmothers are kind and buy gifts for their grandchildren, this one is despotically evil and twisted, whose face is described as a "dog's bottom". George decides that his grandmother requires a supplement to her normal array of medicines and decides to concoct his own brew, fuelled by a list of ingredients that is quite incredible. The results from taking this medicine are just hilarious and will delight adults and children alike.

This is one of Dahl's most irreverent and mischievous novels and children will shriek in delight at some of the vocabulary Dahl uses to describe the grandmother. The writing style is typical Roald Dahl with a superb range of deliciously rude description and a series of events that are simply incredible but wonderful. Add to this the quite sinister but funny illustrations by Quentin Blake and you have a book that is made for parents to read to their kids.

This is most certainly one of Dahl's best and most memorable books and the only complaint I have about it is that it is too short.

I highly recommend this delightful tale to all readers, no matter how old they are and any parents who do not buy it to read to their children should be charged with neglect.

Score: 10/10

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Book Review: Guinness World Records 2008

The newest edition of the Guinness book of records boasts a reflective cover and glow in the dark features which make it stand out both in the shops and at home. The layout of this book has improved somewhat since my last edition way back in the early 1990s, with attractive designs and excellent pictures punctuating the text which outline an enormous number of unusual and interesting facts. Many of the tried and tested categories return in this edition including sports records, animal world and entertainment although my personal favourite, words and literature, is missing. How are people now supposed to learn about Taumatawhakatangihangakoauauotamateaturipukakapiki-maungahoronukupokaiwhenuakitanatahu in New Zealand or the Mohawk for "The praising of the evil of the liking of the finding of the house is right"? I think the book is sadly lacking something without such records.

However, the inclusion of how to submit a record and how records are verified and measured is an excellent addition and the interviews with celebrity record setters are interesting. Some of the multiple page spreads are very nice - attractive and informative along with the glow-in-the-dark features. Also interesting are a number of modern categories including internet records and robotics although there is a lot of emphasis on celebrity culture which hints at dumbing down of the Guinness Records brand.

Overall, this book has improved a lot since its early days, particularly in its presentation, although it does appear to have been simplified for the masses, although others would call this, "modernising".

This book is recommended as a Christmas gift as its lists of bizaree and interesting facts would be a very nice way of bringing the family together after a huge lunch. The Guiness World Records 2008 appeals to the nerd in us all and may even inspire some to rise to new heights of nerdiness.

Score: 9/10

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Book Review: Giraffe by J. M. Ledgard

In this novel a herd of giraffes are captured in Africa and shipped to a zoo in Czechoslovakia in 1975. After settling in well a contagious disease is discovered to have accompanied the giraffes and a saddening ending is the result. Seemingly this is a book about the secrecy, laziness and inefficiency of a communist state, but in reality it is a book about nothing at all. The problem with "Giraffe" is that nothing happens and the characters do almost nothing and do not interact with anyone until the final few chapters. The author, instead, fills the book with 200 plus pages of dreamlike waffle and irrelevent observations, over -reliant on metaphor and simply boring: I found it very difficult to maintain an interest in large portions of the book, although this didn't prevent me from following the story as there is no story.

A first person narrative is used throughout and the usage of fistfulls of short sentences all beginning with "I" make for a very uninteresting style. Pages and pages of narrative such as " I see a man. I pass the man. I am reminded of an old friend. I miss my friend". etc. drove me to boredom and I found myself longing for the end from about page 80 - I don't know where I managed to gain the stamina to finish this book from. In addition to the dull narrative, the characters are all very similar with almost identical non-personalities and identical viewpoints on the world around them - all wander around in a dreamlike stupor making irrelevent metaphorical observations.

The ending is the only point at which this novel comes alive, although it is one of the most grotesque endings of senseless violence that I have ever read. This senselessness is obviously the message the author intended to get across but ridiculous references to the holocaust and Christ spoil any message that is delivered. Whilst the ending does at least allow characters to interact and something finally happens, scenes are very repetitively described and reported from three points of view which might be interesting if the events themself weren't so distasteful.

A very boring book with no plot whatsoever.

I would not recommend this novel to anyone and would suggest that anyone who loves graceful giraffes will find it quite horrible. Those with a connection with Czechoslovakia may find something to reminisce about but to those who have not, the large number of Czech place names will just confuse. If you like reams of reflective description of things that characters notice as they pass through their dream world then you may enjoy "Giraffe" but for those that require a plot of some sort in a novel this is just tedious.

Score: 2.5/10

Monday, November 26, 2007

Book Review: Collins Bird Guide by Lars Svensson and Peter J. Grant

In a highly competitive field, Collins Bird Guide stands out as a leader not only because of its visual impact but because of the quality of the contents, concise but informative, detailed but not over-analytic. Beautifully illustrated plates show all the species of Europe in detail and the text does an excellent job of outlining habitat preferences, calls and behaviour in a way that assists identification. Range maps are also included for all regularly occurring species to add to the holistic approach to identifying birds taken in this book: this is a book for birdwatchers by birdwatchers.

Certain groups of species are dealt with particularly well in this book; gulls, shorebirds and raptors are particularly well illustrated in a variety of poses, plumage types and ages. In addition to this, there are nice identification tips for certain sections such as the ageing of gulls and identification of divers in flight. For those advanced birdwatchers, many species of vagrants and occasional migrants are also included with a list of accidental and introduced species at the back.

With this level of detail it may seem that Collins Bird Guide is a book for experts only, and whilst it is the choice of most regular birdwatchers it is also the best choice for beginners because of the superb layout and illustrations as well as the selectivity of the text. That this book is endorsed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds says much about its quality for experts and beginners alike.

There are a few problems with this book however, including some minor inaccuracies in some range maps, which may confuse beginners, and the fact that gull classification has advanced since publication. Despite these small problems, Bird Guide's subtitle, "The Most Complete Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe" is almost certainly true.

This book is highly recommended for beginner and advanced birdwatchers in Britain and Europe, either in its small, field guide, size or in its large, reference book, size.

Score: 9.5/10

Sunday, November 25, 2007

My wonderful dictionary

Quite often I come across words in the books I read that I don't know (or have shamefully forgotten), particularly in works that would be classed as modern or classic literature. Fortunately, I have never had to search for a good dictionary as a friend left a very battered copy of "The Concise Oxford Dictionary" in my flat when I lived alone in Bangkok.

I acquired this dictionary in 1999 or early 2000 and it has been a loyal servant ever since - only once did I come across a word that I couldn't find in it and the dictionary perhaps became most useful when I read Tom Jones by Henry Fielding which uses an unusually wide vocabulary. Some of my favourite words and terms that came from Tom Jones and that I found in my bashed up old dictionary are niminy-piminy, rodomontade, ipse dixit and zeugma.

This old dictionary continues to serve me well and is always beside me when I read: it will most certainly be coming with me when I move in a few months.

Don't get a new dictionary, get an old one!

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Book Review: Animal Farm by George Orwell

Animal Farm is the allegorical tale of how a group of mistreated animals successfully revolt against the human occupants of a farm and set up their own state where "all animals are equal". However, it does not take long before a new hierachy is established and the pigs take over the daily running of the farm, quickly becoming corrupted by luxuries such as television, beds and alcohol.

This is a wonderful satire of communist Russia and all the better for its prophetic plot; a plot which is engrossing but surprisingly simply told even though it deals with fairly complex political issues. The characters are equally as memorable as the plot, with only the hardest reader failing to be moved by the demise of Boxer, the hard working horse who tries his hardest to increase productivity. Similarly, the dictatorial Napoleon becomes a loathsome character backed by his secret police of the guard dogs and his "minister" of propoganda.

Unhappily, the point that this novel makes is all too relevant today as it was on publication and the inequality that results and the arrogance of the pigs is not limited to communist states. For me, the best scene is when the working animals stage a protest over who gets the milk and apples which is quelled when the pigs order the guard dogs to drag the television into the barn. This symbolism is reflected across most of the world where mobile phones and other gadgets keep people from thinking about the things that really matter.

This is quite simply one of the best books I have ever read and surprisingly easy to read - simple enough for it to be a bedtime story for children aged as young as 7 or 8. Brilliant.

I would recommend this to all readers and with a book of this quality and accessibility it should be far more widely studied in schools. If you have not yet read this book do so; if have read it before, read it again - one read good, two reads better!

Score: 10/10

Friday, November 23, 2007

Rereading Books

Rereading books is something that often divides book lovers with some that regularly reread and others that vow never to go back to a book. Personally, I sometimes reread books that I really enjoyed particularly humourous books and novels with a high level of allegory or a philosophical message in order to get a better understanding of it or just to remind myself of what it was saying. I rarely, if ever, reread novels that are plot-driven unless it was exceptionally good and enough time has passed for me to forget much of the story.

Books that I have reread include:

There are probably some others that I cannot remember. Most of the above books have proved just as good if not better second time around, but a few have proved less enjoyable, particularly the humourous novels which often aren't as funny second time around.

Please leave your favourite reread books in the comments section.

Book Review: Asterix and the Laurel Wreath by Goscinny and Uderzo

From start to finish this book is full of fantastic illustrations, clever humour and adventure. An hilarious start to the story sees the Gaulish chief, Vitalstatistix, making a drunken bet with his brother-in-law that he can serve a stew garnished with Caesar's laurel wreath. In order to lay their hands upon the wreath, Asterix and Obelix enter themselves into slavery, being sold in the boutique slave emporium "The House of Typhus", but they find themselves with little opportunity to get close to Caesar himself.

There are some fantastic illustrations of Rome in this book and some of the crowd scenes have some brilliant little jokes hidden away in them, but it is the relationship between the Gauls and their new owners that brings most of the laughs. A superb cure for hangovers involving peppercorns, an unplucked chicken and carbolic soap has an amazing effect and creates an amusing jealousy from the family's old slave, Goldendelicious.

Full of puns, the Gauls end up in a Roman courtroom drama parody where the defendents are required to convince the jury to convict them so that they are thrown to the lions in the coleseum where they plan to rob Julius Caesar of his laurels. Unfortunately for the Gauls and the lions, Caesar is not present and Asterix and Obelix refuse to go to the lions which then eat each other.

This is a graphic novel at its best, in terms of the artwork, the story and the jokes, and this is a book that one can go back to again and again finding something new or forgotten to amuse the reader.

Highly recommended to Asterix fans and to those who have never read any of the series. For fans of graphic novels this is most certainly one to have in the collection and because of the quality of the story and drawings this will delight both children and adults. This is one of the best Asterix books.

Score: 10/10

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Book Review: A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian by Marina Lewycka

A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian is the book within a book that Nikolai, the 84 year-old Ukranian-born widower writes as a therapy to the stress to which he is subjected by his new, 36 year-old wife in their marriage of convenience. Only two years previously bereaved of his wife, Nikolai marries the full-bosomed Valentina in what he sees as an heroic act, but her interest is only in a British passport and Nikolai's money.

This somewhat cliched premise is punctuated by flashbacks to life in Ukraine during World War Two and Stalin's Soviet Union and also by excerpts from the history of tractors. Unfortunately the writing style rather stutters along with lots of short paragraphs seperated by long periods of time and the flashbacks at first seem to have little, if any, relevance with the excerpts from the tractor manuscript feeling like even more unwelcome intruders than Valentina herself becomes. However, as the story progresses one begins to feel for the nearly senile Nikolai and Valentina becomes a villian of Cruella De Ville proportions; by the end even the flashbacks and tractor story are revealed to have some relevance, if somewhat tenuous. In fact the flashbacks to life in Ukraine do little to illuminate the somewhat two dimensional characters and their inclusion to justify a fairly trite message at the end makes them feel like they were added to flesh out a story that could have been told in half the time.

Having said that, after labouring my way through the first half of the book, I began to enjoy the story of how the family unites to rid Nikolai of his unwanted wife and the crisis brings together his two daughters who have been feuding since the death of their mother. The story becomes almost farcical towards the end but I didn't find myself laughing at this, just thinking how stupid the situation was and I could not find the humour in this book that many reviewers have talked about, but I did find this a fairly interesting, if sad, portrayal of old age - whether that was intended by the author or not I am not sure, and it is possibly just a by-product.

Whilst I did find something to enjoy in this book, mainly the plot, the author takes too long to get the reader into the story and the first half is quite boring. Many of the characters are just annoying, particularly the sisters, and I found it difficult to know if the author was poking fun at middle class ignorance or if the whole book was just a rant by a Daily Mail columnist.

Worth a look for dealing with a fairly interesting topic and its portrayal of an elderly and confused man trying to cope with the consequences of a late-life crisis. However, prepare to stuggle through the first half of the book and to be irritated by the breaks in the story created by almost irrelevant flashbacks. Not bad but nowhere near as good as many reviews suggest.

Score: 6/10

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Book Review: Deception Point by Dan Brown

This, Dan Brown's third novel, is a story of political conspiracy presented in the form of a techno thriller. Deception Point sees the beleagured American president running for re-election against an oponent intent on slashing the NASA budget. If the President can confirm the existence of an alien life form he can guarantee re-election by announcing a flood of money for NASA; caught in the middle of this is the heroine - Rachel Sexton.

The problem is that despite numerous assassination attempts and death-defying rescues, one finds it hard to care about her or any of the other feebly portrayed characters here. So much of this novel is hackneyed and cliched that one is put in mind of a really bad action movie and the author adheres to a very formulaic structure with cliffhangers every few chapters and flimsy characters that have appeared in a hundred pulp fiction novels in the past. Another very poor facet of Deception Point is the writing style which lacks any originality or flair and uses an impoverished vocabulary that is embellished by an over-reliance on scientific jargon.

There is something about this tale that keeps the reader turning the pages, whether it is genuinely captivating or whether the reader just clings on to the hope of something credible and interesting happening must be left to the individual but the ending becomes a ludicrous series of events bolstered by submarines, fighter jets and a "twist" that can be predicted by about chapter 5.

The first few chapters of this book gave me quite high expectations, based as it is upon a real-life "discovery" of alien life, but I rapidly lost interest in the story which became more and more cliched as I progressed. By the end I had decided that this was one of the worst five books I had ever read and I vowed never to read anything by Dan Brown again: a vow which I have not yet broken.

Astonishingly poor, with dreadful characters, a formulaic plot, a banal style and one of the most predicatble endings ever. If you are a fan of Dan Brown or similar books which consist entirely of scenes cut and pasted from similar pulp fiction then I dare say you might find something in this book to entertain, but for anyone else avoid this rubbish at all costs.

Score: 1/10

Friday, November 16, 2007

Book Review: Seven Years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer

This is one of the most extraordinary stories one will ever read. Already a famous downhill skier and mountaineer, Harrer was interned by the British in India at the onset of World War 2. Even without Harrer's adventures in Tibet, the story of his repeated attempts at escape would be amazing and finally he manages to flee the British, with his companion, by heading over the Himalayas into Tibet. At this time no foreigners were allowed into Tibet and the two wandered around the Tibetan hinterlands for years, being harassed by brigands and unfriendly nomads before eventually entering Lhasa in secret. If this wasn't enough to make a superb story, Harrer proceeds to become tutor to the young Dalai Lama and the reader is treated to an insight into the relationship between the two.

The series of events that make up this story are incredible and the author describes many aspects of the Tibetan landscape and culture with superb clarity. Some have accused Harrer of making up some of the events in this epic, and it is likely that sometimes the truth is at least stretched, but somehow that does not matter - this is just a great story. Similarly, the amazing tale makes up for anything lacking in Harrer's literary style which is largely descriptive and not very emotive at all.

This is simply an account of an epic adventure into a previously undescribed country with the added intrigue of Harrer's relationship with the Dalai Lama and the tragedy of the Chinese invasion and annexation of Tibet.

This book is highly recommended to any reader who loves stories of adventure and unbelievable hardship described in detail. Readers after a story with flambouyant and poetic descriptions will perhaps be disappointed, however, I would urge everyone to read this epic adventure just for the facts alone.

Score: 9.5/10

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Book Review: The Organ Grinders by Bill Fitzhugh

This comic novel tackles the subject of organ transplanting and genetic modification of organisms along with a splash of environmentalism in the same style as many other satiristm authors. This, however, is a little different in that it not only has an interesting and surprising plot but it is truly thought provoking in highlighting some valid moral dilemmas that originate from modern science.

The organ grinders is a story about a super-rich businessman, Landiss, who uses his wealth to stretch biotechnology to its limits in order to reverse a disabling illness that has afflicted him. He achieves some amazing results but not without going to shocking lengths to do so. The hero of this novel is an environmental activist that stumbles upon Landiss' project and determines to stop it. Environmental terrorism comes into play in this novel and this creates a black humour mocking the moral high ground taken by both parties in their efforts to achieve their goals.

This is a funny and intelligent story and I really enjoyed reading it. Fitzhugh's style is both witty and serious and here he has created a very readable novel with some laugh-out-loud moments. I was delighted to find, amongst the humour and enjoyable plot, some interesting quotes and references which I was able to follow up and include in my degree assignments.

I recommend this to readers looking for something light-hearted and easy-to-read but not formulaic pulp fiction as well as those after something thought provoking but not hard going. Funny and intelligent: a bizarre story!

Score: 8/10

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

10 Dickens Novels available for 1p each

I have read a couple of Charles Dickens most famous novels and thouroughly enjoyed them. On many of his most famous stories are available for just 1p per book, not a bad deal to read one of the world's greatest ever authors.

Here are the ten:

1. Great Expectations
2. A Christmas Carol
3. David Copperfield
4. Oliver Twist
5. A Tale of Two Cities
6. Bleak House
7. The Old Curiosity Shop
8. Nicholas Nickleby
9. The Pickwick Papers
10. Martin Chuzzlewit

Don't forget though that one must pay the postage and packing on any orders made!

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Win Rattlesnake Mesa: Stories From a Native American Childhood by EdNah New Rider Weber

The monthly book giveaway at Lee & Low Books website has three copies of Rattlesnake Mesa: Stories From a Native American Childhood by EdNah New Rider Weber available. Just visit their website and fill in a few details and wait to see if you are the lucky recipient of the book. Previous winners of the competition are barred from entering so someone different is guaranted to win every month.

For those not lucky enough to win a free copy, the book can be purchased on Rattlesnake Mesa: Stories from a Native American Childhood.

Book Review: The War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts by Louis de Bernieres

Louis de Bernieres has created a quite unusual novel here which is essentially about the battle between a corrupt military and the increasing opposition from simple villagers and forest dwellers. There is, however, much more in this book than that, with a multitude of characters who must deal with such upheavals as kidnap, death of loved ones and violence. In fact one of the weaknesses of this book is the fact that it deals with so many themes and characters that none of them are properly explored and the simple plot becomes lost amongst them.

Having said this, I did laugh out loud a number of times at the author's sardonic humour and he does an excellent job of giving the reader a satirical look at the machinations of the military regime. One character that is well developed is the army captain who accidentally becomes a torturer, rapist, kidnapper and murderer in his attempt to complete his job efficiently - a real insight into how people become part of an oppressive regime.

Towards the end of this story all sorts of weird things begin to happen, a plague of magical cats being the most notable, and the reader will either delight in this or despise it. The author does, though, bring all his characters together at the end when all who oppose the military flee to the forest in order to escape repercussions for their defiance of the army.

This is an interesting book with some great ideas and good humour although at times I was on the verge of putting it down, particularly throughout the slow beginning. I would recommend this book to readers who like a degree of insight and philosophical themes in their reading but for those just after a riveting story this is not the book to read.

Score: 7/10

Monday, November 12, 2007

Book Review: Perfect Hostage by Justin Wintle

Aung San Suu Kyi has come to represent the honourable struggle for democracy against dictatorship not only in her native Burma, but throughout the world. Even though she remains under house arrest, she continues to be the figurehead of resistance against the military regime in Burma. This book appears to be the story of her life, but is actually much more than a simple biography but at the same time it is not even as much as that.

The face of Aung San Suu Kyi is slightly disengeniously used to market a book which would more accurately be titled "The History of the Burmese Freedom Movement", but is none the less interesting for it. The reader is taken through the history of Burmese leadership from the pre-colonial kings, through British and Japanese occupation to the present ruling junta of generals. Aung San Suu Kyi's importance as a figurehead to the Burmese democracy movement is explained by highlighting the part her father played in the independence of the country and the author outlines the most important events in her life without ever going into much depth into her character.

Those hoping to gain an insight into Suu Kyi's personality and learn more about her life away from the democracy campaigning will be disappointed as this is a biography written by someone who has studied the life of Aung San Suu Kyi rather than someone who has had access to his subject. The author shouldn't be castigated too much for this as, of course, it is virtually impossible for anyone to have access to her. Instead of the details of Suu Kyi's life, the reader is treated to a detailed and, at times, upsetting account of how the ruling junta has dealt with students, actors, ex-soldiers and every other type of political opponent with dramatic accounts of some key moments when she led face-offs with her military oppressors.

Whilst this is a comprehensive account of the facts and events that have led to the current situation, the author would have done well to deal with the roles that other governments around the world have had in keeping the military junta in power whilst paying lip service to being against it.

This book is thouroughly recommended to readers who have a little knowledge about Aung San Suu Kyi and the situation in Burma and wish to learn more but for those who expect a deep insight into her personal life I suspect this book will be a disappointment.

Score: 7.5/10

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Book Review: Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less by Jeffrey Archer

I first read this story as a teenager on the recommendation of a friend and really enjoyed it; I read it again as an adult and it was just as fun but I found it less than perfect. This is the tale of how four strangers band together to trick a swindler out of the exact some of money that he extorted out of them. The entertainment of this book is in the ingenious, but fairly implausible, ways in which the four manage to regain their lost money and although the reader never learns anything much about any of the characters and the style of writing is not particularly intricate, the sheer audacity of these schemes is enough to make up for this.

Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less can most certainly be classified as pulp fiction but, in my opinion, it is one of the best in this often diabolical category. The plot is certainly only loosely linked, lurching tenuously from one confidence trick to the next, but the elaborate nature of these tricks and the intense desire for revenge that the four characters possess are the strengths that counter any weaknesses in this novel.

An easily read story which works nicely as a light read in between more challenging material, this is an enjoyable and memorable story, just don't expect anything more than mindless entertainment.

I would recommend this book to people who are looking to read something quick and not too challenging and it is certainly suitable for teenagers as well as adults. If you are looking for a novel with interesting and developed characters, this is not for you and it could certainly never claim to be literary in style - just good fun.

Score: 6.5/10

Friday, November 9, 2007

Book Review: Congo by Michael Crighton

This is the story of archaeologists being stalked by a previously undiscovered species of gorilla whilst researching ancient ruins in the rainforest of the Congo. The plot is dull and padded out with even duller dialogue which is over reliant on techno speak and jargon along with one-dimensional characters straight out of the pulp fiction writers' guidebook. So hackneyed is the plot that one has a feeling of deja-vu when reading Congo, but surely the reader wouldn't be so foolish as to read this rubbish twice? Indeed not, but with such a limited vocabulary and formulaic approach to writing it feels like Crighton threw a load of similar books into a blender and published the resultant pulp.

The style of writing in Congo is weak and it feels as if a teenage student had a large part to play in its authorship. So poor is the storyline here that by the time one has reached the end it is not apparent how ludicrous this ending is, having got used to the lack of realism and originality throughout the novel. The constant waffle about Bas-reliefs bored the pants of off me well before the ending and as for the gorillas......just stupid!

Having enjoyed the movie of Jurrasic Park I had hoped for something good in Congo but was severley disappointed, even annoyed that a writer could make so much money out of such dross.

Do not waste your time or money on this book, it is an insult to literature. The worst book I have ever read in my life bar one. However, I suppose this might be a useful read for aspiring authors to see what not to do when attempting to create an interesting and enjoyable story.

Score: 0/10

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Book Review: The Last King of Scotland by Giles Foden

Set in Uganda, the rather tenuous link to Scotland refers to one of Idi Amin's most bizarre self-bestowed titles, due to his defiance of the British Government. This novel, Foden's first, sees a Scottish doctor, Nicholas Garrigan, caught up in the events that ravaged Uganda from the beginning to the end of Amin's reign, eventually becoming personally involved with the dictator himself.

The story begins slowly, with Amin's seizure of power simpy a background to Garrigan's life as a village doctor, but as conflict becomes more a part of his life, his life becomes linked to Amin's and eventually lies subject to the ruler's whim. Garrigan finds himself strangely drawn to Idi Amin, despite random acts of brutality and the systematic destruction of Uganda that occurs and readers are treated to a superb portrayal of Amin's schizophrenic character.

Whilst this is a very well written novel, much of the excitement is due to the drama of the real events that the main character becomes involved in. I had only a vague knowledge of these events and found the book hard to put down, but others, more familiar with the conflict in Uganda and the israeli raid on Entebbe might find The Last King of Scotland a little like reading old news bulletins. Foden undoubtably creates an exciting, and at times amusing and even grotesque, novel, perhaps this is largely due to the time and place it is set within? Indeed, that Foden's consequent novels have not lived up to this one suggests that this is true.

This book is highly recommended as an historical novel, with an excellent character portrayal of one of the world's most brutal and bizarre dictators. The Last King of Scotland is a highly enjoyable book but readers should be prepared to encounter a plot which relies heavily upon real-life events.

Score: 8.5/10

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Book Review: The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

The Da Vinci Code is a story of a quest for the Holy Grail, but unlike most similar stories it is set in modern times, beginning in Paris and finishing in Scotland. The story involves a relentless chase and an intricate web of conspiracies stretching back to the time of Jesus. Much has been made of these conspiracies and much of the interest in this book surrounds the nature of how some aspects of the life of Jesus have been "hushed up" by the church. Furthermore, in this story a christian sect dispatch an assasin to kill the keepers of this potentially damaging secret.

Dan Brown has certainly written a high-paced story which is essentially a treasure hunt as the main characters go from location to location to decode a series of clues and it is possible that this novel was written with a movie in mind: it certainly feels like this to the reader. Whilst the Da Vinci Code is something of a page turner, I found that mostly I was disappointed with what I found out and the style of the book reminded me of something a teenager might write and indeed many have criticised this novel as poorly written.

A number of the secrets and codes to be broken are interesting, but are all too easily cracked and the way the French police continue their pursuit into Britain is ridiculous. The characters in this story accept a whole host of fairly implausible coincidents as fact and become believers of a conspiracy theory without question all to easily, something which has, unfortunately, spread to a large number of readers - it is important to remember that this is a work of fiction.

Although on a first read the Da Vinci Code is an enjoyable novel the ending is hopelessly disappointing and changed my whole view of the book. Any attraction this tale has is in the discovery of what happens next and I believe that reading it for a second time would reveal to most readers that it is weakly written and formulaic.

I would recommend the Da Vinci Code as an easy read between other more meaningful books, but don't expect anything other than a simple storytelling style and be prepared to be extremely disappointed with a pathetic ending. Most importantly, do not take everything that one reads in this book as fact.

Score: 5/10

Book Review: Animal Behaviour (7th edition) by John Alcock

This superb book takes an evolutionary approach to explain a wide variety of intriguing animal behaviour, making frequent use of interesting and well illustrated case studies in order to clarify complex points. This is essentially a text book but is so well presented in short, digestable sections of information, along with a large amount of pictures, that it is an interesting and engrossing read for anyone with even just a passing interest in this subject.

Such is the depth of coverage of topics such as feeding behaviour, reproductive behaviour and social interaction that this book is essential reading for students of ecology, environment, biology and a whole host of other related subjects and the final chapter upon human behaviour is a fascinating insight into all facets of human life that lends a controversial aspect to this publication.

Visually this is an excellent attempt to bring hard science to a wide audience and interesting photographs, illustrations and graphs are used effectively to dispense information and are superbly positioned to create a welcoming feel to the book, where many other similar text books can appear intimidating.

I would recommend this book to readers interested in any aspect of wildlife and in terms of conservation of animal species, this contains all the information required to understand the courses of action that are often selected in the field.

Score: 10/10

Friday, November 2, 2007

Book Review: Tom Jones by Henry Fielding

This is the long and intricate life story of the foundling, Tom Jones, from his birth to the finding of his fortune. This story has something of an episodic feel to it, being a series of many amusing incidents where Tom makes the aquaintance of a large number of memorable and humourous characters such as the Reverend Thwackum and Squire Western. Tom Jones is one of the pinnacles of English literature and a rarity in that it is as enjoyable as it is long with a superbly worked story that brings all the many storylines together at the end.

Critisized for its "lowness" when published, Tom Jones is a quite promiscuous character, something which is used to define Tom's class, and the novel goes on to mock the judgemental upper classes' view of such people. Whilst a book of social commentary, Tom Jones is also a highly comic story, which remains funny to this day.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of this novel, for me, is the luxurious use of the English language with a comic turn of phrase and a catalogue of superb words to add to ones vocabulary: rodomontade, supernumary, ipse dixit and so many more wonderful terms. For those that enjoy classic literature this is a must read for its humour, characters, plot and style - truly a masterpiece and one of my favourite books.

I highly recommend this book to lovers of the English language and humourous stories. With a superbly intricate plot and social commentary this novel can be enjoyed at many levels and in terms of the cost per word, this must be one of the cheapest stories available!

Score: 10/10

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Book Reviews: Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome

Three Men in a Boat is the classic story of three friends and a dog taking a boat/camping trip along the River Thames from Kingston to Oxford, and is a masterpiece of understated humour. The three Victorian gentlemen are not well equiped to deal with the lack of luxury sleeping on a covered rowing boat delivers and most of the humour is derived from the ridiculous mishaps that occur.

The style used by the author is very understated and "Three Men in a Boat" is a masterclass of how to go off on a comic tangent and enhance the story instead of detracting from it. I particularly enjoyed the tangents when the author believed himself to have every ailment in the medical dictionary bar one and the farcical description of his uncle putting up a picture. The beginning of this book is full of comic moments as the friends prepare for the trip and get used to their new routine on the boat, but the humour fades a little as the book goes on.

This is classic literature at its most readable and enjoyable but most of the highlights are in the first half of the book, with the second half taking on a rather descriptive style. Whilst enjoying this story immensely I found it a little overrated because it feels a little less than complete, even though it has a number of laugh out loud moments.

I would recommend this story to all readers from the age of about 10 upwards and of particular interest to those who like humourous novels. For readers considering tackling something from the classic literature genre, this would be a perfect book to start with because of its easy-to-read style and funny incidents.

Score: 8/10

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Book Review: So Shall We Reap by Colin Tudge

Food continues to become cheaper and accessible through supermarkets, but is it getting better, and is the current supply sustainable? In "So Shall We Reap" Colin Tudge deals with such questions by linking gastronomy, the hunter gatherer and the rural economy to oil production, health, animal welfare and cut-throat business practices. In this book the reader learns about the global food industry and how it has changed throughout the last century and how these changes have resulted in the call for Genetically Modified Organisms by parties set to benefit economically by their introduction.

Although written by a scientist, who is able to rely on countless disciplines for his arguments, this book is an enjoyable and informative read, linking from one topic to another with great skill in something of a revelationary style. This book is the story of how modern agriculture is nowhere near as "efficient" as many politicians would have us believe, burdened as it is by its link to the availability of cheap oil, pollution, the demise of the rural economy and the uneven distribution of wealth.

For anyone interested in cuisine, social equality, conservation or agriculture this book is an essential read and one can only feel that if those involved in agricultural policy making had an awareness of how all these issues fit together as acute as the author's then humanity might not be languishing as it is. This book is logically argued and the author does well to counter arguments against his philosphy before they are raised. Some points, however, are a little repetatively argued but, as the adage says, if a point is worth making once.........

I would suggest that to students of agriculture, ecology, conservation, politics and social affairs this book is essential reading and readers with an enquiring mind will find it surpringly interesting. The themes covered here affect everybody and as such it will be enjoyed by any reader who enjoys intelligently argued writing.

Score: 9.5/10

Monday, October 29, 2007

Book Review: Barcelona Plates by Alexi Sayle

A collection of 14 short stories by the anarchic Alexi Sayle might seem like a strange combination, considering the general blandness of this genre. This collection, however, whilst varying greatly in quality, cannot be said to be bland with some quite provocative mini plots and taboo subjects dealt with. Indeed, the opening story may offend some readers as much as it delights others and one story about a cannibal is like an Edgar Allen Poe story for the modern world. Unfortunately, not all the stories in this collection are of the highest quality with a few seemingly pointless tales, punctuated with irreverant views or bad language to spice them up. Indeed a few of these "stories" could not really be said to be stories at all, simply observational rants.

These shortcomings aside, Barcelona Plates is at times an enjoyable read and fans of black humour will find something to chuckle about in a number of the stories - I particularly liked the idea of how employees for Disneyland were enslaved and the title story is a sick "up yours" to all the Diana conspiracy theorists of the world.

As collections of short stories go, this is one of the better ones I have read, indeed, one of the few I have bothered to get to the end of. Alexi Sayle, whilst struggling to find a point in a couple of these stories, has most certainly breathed life into the largely moribund genre of short stories.

I would strongly recommend that anyone interested in the Princess Diana story read the Barcelona Plates title story, along with those who find her story as boring as I do - Sayle has written an excellent alternative explanation for her death. For those readers looking for something they can pick up and put down with long breaks in between, this collection of short stories is a useful book.

Score: 6.5/10

Book Review: Making History by Stephen Fry

Making History is the story of an alternative reality brought about by the prevention of the birth of Hitler - a very interesting and thought provoking premise. The way in which this alternative reality is brought about is bizarre and makes for an interesting story involving a time portal created by a machine invented by a professor with a guilt complex over the holocaust.

Although the opening few pages are less than gripping, it is worth persevering with the story as Fry quickly creates a humourous yet engrossing story. The story set in the present is punctuated with chapters telling the story of German comrades during and after the First World War and the rise of a despotic leader in the troubled country it had become.

Fry's style of writing is amusing, occasionally developing into a rant, and an intricate story develops although his occasional lapses into film script disrupted the flow of the novel and I found them quite irritating and, in one case, drawn out. This is a shame as otherwise Making History is an original and interesting story with a flow to it that makes the reader keep turning the pages and there is an interesting turn to the ending which is gradually hinted at from the very beginning, although that is only apparent upon reaching the end.

making History is a good book and I would recommend it to those who enjoy interesting stories and to those who like a thought-provoking theme to their books. I enjoyed this novel immensely when I first read it, although I wasn't quite as impressed upon a second reading - still, it was good enough to make me read it twice!

Score: 7/10

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Book Review: Asterix and the Falling Sky by Albert Uderzo

Asterix and the Falling Sky is the 33rd book in the Asterix series and this time the Gauls must deal with alien invaders as well as the Romans. Whilst, as a lifelong fan of Asterix, it was nice to see a new adventure involving Asterix, Obelix and friends this story is rather poor by the standards set in the past. Whilst the illustrations have developed over the years, the storylines have become rather tired and as this one does not leave the Gaulish village, the opportunity to meet interesting characters is limited if not non-existent.

There are none of the puns in character names, beyond the regulars, that make the Asterix series so amusing and the visitng aliens are totally uncharismatic. In this book the Romans and the Pirates are confined to bit parts - token appearances really - and the story does not go beyond two warring alien tribes bringing their battle to the Armorican village whilst the Gauls are confined to being onlookers most of the time.

Unfortunately it appears that Albert Uderzo has finally run out of ideas, and although the quality of the illustrations is superb, the story is feeble. Kids will like the colours and Asterix fans will be happy to get their hands on a new book, but I am afraid they will be very disappointed.

Asterix fans will want to buy this issue to complete their collections but if you are a newcomer to the series then I suggest trying one of the older books.

Read about all the Asterix books here: The 33 Asterix Adventures by Goscinny & Uderzo.

Score: 4/10

Book Review: Lost Horizon by James Hilton

Most people will have heard the phrases "Lost Horizon" and "Shangri-La" without perhaps knowing where they came from: well, this is the book that invented both terms. Four westerners find themselves on a highjacked airplane, flying over the Himalayas which consequently crash lands amongst snow-capped mountains somewhere in Tibet. They are taken to the mysterious and inaccessible lamasery of Shagri-La where they are greeted with a peaceful hospitality. It seems that the four "guests" have found a paradise away from the harsh reality of life in the outside world. However, it soon becomes apparent that they are prisoners more than guests and there are difficult choices to be made.

Lost Horizon is the story of utopia, long-life, peace and complete hapiness and the choices man makes when faced with these. This book is beautifully written, using a slow, peaceful style which is in keeping with the picture it attempts to paint and has become a modern classic. The author also demonstrates the differences in eastern and western attitudes in the clashes between the serene lama, Chang, and the impetuous Mallinson. As the characters learn more about Shangri-La they are more and more astonished at what they find and this air of mystery compels the reader to find out more.

This story is a wonderful tale of a mysterious world which leaves many aspects of Shangri-La shrouded in mystery, and in a way this is one of the beauties of this book - it leaves the reader wanting more. It is obviously a book about choices but it is also a nice story which makes an enjoyable and easy read. Some of the characters are not developed as well as the reader may wish and although I was entranced by the idea of this isolated world I felt the ending something of a disappointment which feels like it was written in a hurry. However, it may have been the intention of the author to create an ending like this to make the reader think about the choice they may have made.

I found this novel an excellent quick read and would recommend it to all readers from about the age of eleven upwards. Although the ending is perhaps a little weak, the story is very enjoyable and the characters are quite mysterious - it may also make the reader think a little about their own life.

Score: 8.5/10

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Book Review: Magic Seeds by V. S. Naipaul

Magic Seeds is the story of Willie Chandran, a former writer who left England for Africa. Willie turns up in Berlin where he is persuaded by his siter to go to India and become a revolutionary. After many years in the jungle he is arrested, spends time in prison and is unexpectedly released to return to England which he finds has changed for the worse.

I found the first half of this novel quite interesting and a pertinent observation upon the real nature of revolutionaries and what they represent. However, I was very disappointed in the second half of the book where the themes of how someone returning to a country after many years finds life difficult are not explored in an enlightening way.

After reading Magic Seeds I found out that it was the sequel to "Half a Life" which tells the first half of Willie's story, and perhaps Magic Seeds would have made more sense had I read part one. In this way, I found that this book was not a novel of its own, but just the second part of a story. There were a number of things I couldn't really understand, probably explained in "Half a Life" such as why Willie's sister wanted him to become a revolutionary and why he was so easily convinced - quite frankly he came across as semi-retarded in the making of this decision.

However, the part of the book which deals with Willie's return to England I found quite poor. The author fails to give the reader an insight into Willie's mind and I would imagine that any conclusions one can draw can only be made in comparison to Willie's time in England in "Half a Life". Instead, the focus is upon a friend's seedy affair with a younger woman which serves to reinforce the message that people should not be so easily swayed when making choices. Unfortunately the message becomes the author's priority over the story and the book just fizzles out into nothing.

I would only recommend this book to those who read and enjoyed "Half a Life" which is, it seems, in fact the first part of the same story. I found this book began interestingly and died halfway through and wondered if the reviews I had read were even about the same book. If the prequel was named "Half a Life" then perhaps "Magic Seeds" should be called Half a Story. A very disappointing novel by a winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Score: 4/10

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Book Review: Animal - The Definitive Visual Guide edited by David Burnie

"Animal" is a beautiful book of remarkable visual impact that illustrates and describes the amazing range of creatures that comprise the animal kingdom. The format and extensive number of fantastic photographs suggest that this is essentially a coffee table book; if it is indeed a coffee table book it is arguably the best one ever published.

An excellent 80 page introduction deals with all the major habitats of the world outlining the particular challenges that living in these places presents. The introduction alos has excellent pages on evolution, environmental issues, life cycles, animal behaviour, classification and behaviour. The main body of the book is arranged into sections for mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates and the beginning of each section contains interesting information about each group. It is probably the mammals section which makes this book most worth its cost, with an incredible array of species photographed along with range maps and information, and many of the most popular species, such as tiger and elephant, have fantastic double page spreads.

The only possible criticisms I have of this book are that it has split species which are still being debated by many scientists and that it has perhaps tried to do too much in one book. Such is the quality of information here that it may have been better to have made a book for each group of animals so that each book could expand further upon their subjects. These criticisms aside, this is a wonderful gift for older children and adults who love animals and love to browse through beautiful books.

I would thouroughly recommend "Animal" to all those interested in wildlife and particularly to those who are interested in expanding their knowledge of the amazing range of creatures that exist.

Score: 9.5/10

Monday, October 22, 2007

Book Reviews: A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

In a category of its own, Clockwork Orange is the tale of Alex, a 15 year-old gang leader who delights in random acts of violence and robbery along with his gang members, who is eventually arrested for murder. Once within the custody of the police Alex is exposed to the Ludovico technique aversion therapy which leaves him feeling violently sick at the slightest thought of violence.

A Clockwork Orange has been banned and highly criticised since its publication in 1962, for its portrayal of mindless violence and usage of a fictional slang. However, this slang, which is used throughout the book, makes this novel unique and does much to create a realistic atmosphere of gang culture and the violence within the story is all too recognisable from events happening around us now. Essentially this is a story of crime and punishment and how violence or non-violence is a choice we all must make, both as individuals and as a nation, and anyone who enjoys reading novels about moral issues should try this book.

Although at times Clockwork Orange is difficult to read, both because of its slang and graphic violence, this is a story worth persevering with as an important piece of literature and for its unique narrative. This is a thought-provoking book and should have been praised for bringing to light a real social problem instead of being berated and buried for so long whilst moral decline slowly imposed itself on society whilst society remained in a state of denial.

I would recommend A Clockwork Orange to adult readers who enjoy an inventive story telling style and though provoking novels, although if you are easily offended perhaps this is not the book for you.

Score: 9.5/10

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Book Review: My Uncle Oswald by Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl is, of course, most famous for his excellent children's books; the content of My Uncle Oswald, however, is the very antithesis of a children's story, invloving a series of sexually manipulated frauds in order to set up a sperm bank of the world's most marketable semen. Victims are plied with the world's greatest aphrodisiac, the Sudanese Blister Beetle, in order to encourage them to inadvertantly donate their seed - these victims include H.G. Wells, Stravinsky, Rachmaninov and Picasso!

This is an extravagant story, full of silliness and fun with a highly original and inventive purpose behind the tale - truly Dahl's most acomplished attempt to transfer his children's storytelling to an adult audience, retaining much of the inocence and humour he was famous for. One should not expect high class literature in this book, but for sheer entertainment value this is one of the most enjoyable books I have read and, incidently, reread.

Whilst I found this a highly enjoyable book, particularly the first half which had me turning the pages to find out what the next twist would be, one crticism I would have is that at one point it becomes fairly repetative, which is acknowledged by the author within the story, and it appears that the plot has run its course - however, Dahl turns this around with a fine, imaginitive ending.

This is highly recommended to any reader looking for a light and highly entertaining book, particularly those who have read and enjoyed many of Roald Dahl's superb children's books.

Score: 8.5/10

Friday, October 19, 2007

Book Review: Earth in the Balance by Al Gore

Earth in the Balance (subtitled "Forging a New Common Purpose") is a superbly researched, comprehensive and holostic discussion of worldwide environmental policy, written in an accessible and readable style. Al Gore himself says that, "writing this book was part of a personal journey in search of a true understanding of a global ecological crisis and how it can be solved", and the style in which it is written takes the reader along a logical path of discovery themselves. Gore's style is to lay out the facts for the reader to see themselves and to argue logically what problems these lead to and what solutions might be sensible without preaching.

Gore makes use of diagrams and graphs to illustrate his point, but only where necessary and does well to avoid turning this book into a scientific treatise, particularly when covering subjects such as global climate change, soil erosion, peak oil production and genetically engineered organisms. It is also worth noting that this book was published in 1992, which clearly refutes any accusation that Gore's Nobel Peace Prize was won on the back of "jumping on the bandwagon" - this is a life's passion, not a populist move.

I came upon this book by chance, when a friend left it in my apartment and I found it an interesting and enlightening read. For those who wish to learn more about how environmental and economic issues fit together this is a great book to read, although at the end one may find oneself rather depressed when reflecting upon the isolated and reactionary ways our serving polititians attempt to bungle their way towards dealing with these issues. My only criticism of this book is that towards the latter third, Gore tends to repeat himself, perhaps in an effort to get his message through, but he makes it so compellingly in the first place that repetition is a little annoying.

I would highly recommend this book to budding environmentalists (it certainly proved useful during my degree in conservation) and to eco-sceptics alike so that both parties can form enlightened arguments.

Score: 9.5/10

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Book Review: Blokes and Birds Edited by Stephen Moss

Blokes and Birds is a collection of 40 birdwatching anecdotes from some of the United Kingdom's most active birdwatchers. Each anecdote is written by a different birdwatcher and accompanied by a short biography and photograph. A short and amusing introduction is written by the television presenter Bill Oddie.

Blokes and Birds is an amusing and light-hearted, short book which is the sort of thing that one can just pick up, read a short section and come back to later, and contains anecdotes which outline the obsessive nature of many birdwatchers. The tales of bird nerding include brushes with foreign police forces, hiring helicopters to arrive in time to see birds and arrest as suspected spies (something which appears remarkably common in birdwatching circles).

Whilst Blokes and Birds is really of interest only to birdwatchers and perhaps other wildlife enthusiasts, it is nicely written and the anecdotes within are interesting and fairly funny. This is the sort of book that makes an ideal small gift for birdwatchers and should not be mistaken for the more educational bird books that one usually comes across in book stores.

For what it is, Blokes and Birds is a nice, amusing little book that birdwatchers will enjoy reading and will reread time and time again ,and perhaps it will also amuse those that find it hard to understand the obsessive behaviour of birdwatchers.

Score: 7/10

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Book Review: Green Eggs and Ham by Dr Suess

The story of Green Eggs and Ham uses a vocabulary of just 50 words to teach us not to judge things before trying them. This wonderful book is most certainly one of the best from Dr Suess and was read aloud by the Reverend Jesse Jackson on television as a tribute to the author upon his death in 1991. The persistent Sam-I-am attempts to foist the rather unappealing dish of Green Eggs and Ham upon his nameless victim and Sam-I-am's persuasive technique has often been interpreted as an allegory for methods used by telemarketers.

This amusing tale begins with Sam-I-am proffering Green Eggs and Ham in a fairly conventional fashion, but quickly progresses to tempting the sceptic to try the meal in more adventurous surroundings including within a box or with a mouse as a dining companion. As the story progresses the situations in which the poor victim is asked to try Green Eggs and Ham become progressively more ridiculous such as in a tree or with a goat.

The crazy situations Dr Suess dreams up along with the wonderful rhyming text creates a very funny story for both children and adults alike and the wonderful expressions on the faces of all the characters in the illustrations are memorable in themselves.

I would recommend Green Eggs and Ham to anyone who enjoys books and of course, the kids will love this, as I did when I was a child, and parents will love reading this to their children. However, if you have never read Green Eggs and Ham you must do, whether or not you have children.

Green Eggs and Ham - Information about the characters, video clips and Green Eggs and Ham products.

Score: 10/10

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Book Review: The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin

Since its publication in 1859 The Origin of Species has caused controversy and remains the subject of much debate today. Despite being demonised by many religious groups, both past and present, Darwin believed in God and wrote this book in layman's terms to describe his findings from years of studying, not only in the Galapagos islands but from his back garden in Kent and at no time does he attack religious beliefs of any kind. This book is simple in its aims: to describe the observations that Darwin made and explain, in a logical process, how they point towards the conclusions he made. It all makes sense and fits into any system of beliefs with a little adaptation.

This book is probably one of the most influential ever written and is worth reading for that reason alone. The easy-to-understand language make all the arguments within simple to grasp and I would emplore anyone who has an opinion on either evolution or creationism to read the origin of species so that they can make an educated argument for whichever cause they represent: for too long people have argued about this book based upon poorly informed accusations that have been levelled at it.

Having said that, the biggest downfall of this publication for me is that although when it was published the contents were boldly original, now it appears hackneyed and cliched. Of course it is not, just that what was once profound is now mostly common knowledge, with terms such as "survival of the fittest", "natural selection" and "struggle for existence" cropping up on most natural history programs.

Despite being one of the greatest books to be published in terms of its impact on the way we understand the world around us, I found it quite dull, despite studying ecology and having a deep interest in such topics from the youngest of ages.

Highly recommended in terms of its historical impact, but don't expect to learn much that you didn't already know, which is testament to the success of this publication.

Score: 7/10