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, by George Orwell, 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 hierarchy 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 extreme left-wing ideology and remains as relevant today as it was on its publication in 1945 employing a plot which is engrossing and surprisingly simply told considering that 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 propaganda.

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 un-plucked chicken and carbolic soap has an amazing effect and creates an amusing jealousy from the family's old slave, Goldendelicious.

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 separated 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 villain 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.

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 beleaguered American president running for re-election against an opponent 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.

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, Heinrich 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.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Book Review: The Organ Grinders by Bill Fitzhugh

In this comic novel author Bill Fitzhugh tackles the subject of organ transplanting and genetic modification of organisms along with a splash of environmentalism in the same style as many other satirist 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.

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

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 among 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.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Book Review: Perfect Hostage by Justin Wintle

Aung San Suu Kyi came to represent the honourable struggle for democracy against dictatorship not only in her native Burma, but throughout the world. Even through years under house arrest, she continued 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 disingenuously 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. Author Justin Wintle takes the reader 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.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

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

Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less, by Jeffrey Archer, is the tale of how four strangers band together to trick a swindler out of the exact sum 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 attempt 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 and these alone make the book an enjoyable read.

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 the quality of the writing more simplistic on the second reading.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Book Review: Congo by Michael Crichton

Congo, by Michael Crichton, is the story of archaeologists being stalked by a previously undiscovered species of gorilla whilst researching ancient ruins in the rain forest 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 Crichton 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 story line 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!

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, author Giles 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.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Book Review: The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown, 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 assassin 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 criticized this novel as poorly written.

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

Animal Behaviour, by John Alcock, is a superb book taking 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, digestible 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.

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.

Criticized for its "lowness" when published, Tom Jones, by Henry Fielding, is a quite promiscuous character, something which is used to define Tom's class, and the novel goes on to mock the judgmental 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.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

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

Three Men in a Boat, by Jerome K. Jerome, 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 equipped to deal with the lack of luxury sleeping on a covered rowing boat delivers and most of the comedy 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.

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

Book Review: Mr Sampath - the printer of Malgudi by R. K. Narayan

First published in 1949 this book is now rated as something of a classic, and in dealing with some serious and sombre subjects with an overlying story employing a farcical style of comedy, it certainly deserves some recognition.

This is the story of Srinivas, a passionate editor of the one-man newspaper "The Banner" and Mr Sampath the printer who shoulders the financial burden of the newspaper and makes uninvited editorial comments. This relationship appears to work well for Srinivas until the Truth printing Works closes down and Sampath invites his friend to join him in the world of movie making. The novel becomes something of an insight into the chaotic world of Indian movie production and concludes with the rebirth of a stronger and more determined Banner.

I found this a very readable book due to its calm style and well-defined characters, with Srinivas being quite a naive but likeable character and Mr Sampath being something of a "wide boy". Whilst the characters and events are very interesting and the understated humour highlights some serious issues, I found that I didn't really laugh at this book at all. Furthermore, whilst the story promised much it fails to develop into anything of consequence and I felt that the author had run out of ideas half way through the story. Having said that, the ending is nicely rounded and it is pleasing to find that Srinivas has learnt from his past mistakes and found his true niche in life.

Overall I found this a good book that I wanted to keep picking up, but it didn't quite live up to some of the glowing reviews of it that I have read. However, anyone interested in Indian literature and/or culture will find it an excellent and memorable book.

Score: 7/10

Monday, October 8, 2007

Book Review: Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie

Midnight's Children is probably Salman Rushdie's most acclaimed novel, being a former winner of the Booker prize, even though he is probably best known as the author of the somewhat controversial "The Satanic Verses".

The midnight's children are those born close to the moment of India's independance, an accident of birth which gives them a variety of special powers including the ability to transport through mirrors, miraculous strength in the knees and the abilty to read minds, which is the power of the main character. The story follows one midnight's child whose troubled life reflects the problems of the fledgling nations of India and Pakistan and indeed the politics of these nations ultimately casuses the demise of the midnight's children.

Although extremely well written with a superb vocabulary, this book is not the inaccessible read that it may seem, in fact I was surprised how easy to read it was and found myself eager to find the next development of the powers of the midnight's children as indeed the main character discovers them himself and by the end of the book I had a real concern for he fate of the characters.

Much about this very original concept seems very familiar in the television series "Heroes" and many of the special powers in this program seem close enought to Salman Rushdie's creations to suggest that this book may have been a major influence, particularly as one of the pivotal characters in this series is an academic from an Indian university. There is also something about the way one of the midnight's children turns upon his own, allying himself to an evil power that is reminiscent of the Star Wars series. Essentially Midnight's Children is a great piece of story telling and highly original in doing so.

I would recommend this book to readers as a fine example that good books do actually win the Booker prize and for those who are curious about Salman Rushdie's ability as a story teller - I'm sure they won't be disappointed.

Score 8/10

Book Review: Mr Vertigo by Paul Auster

For those who appreciate old-fashioned tall tales that are the product of a fertile imagination then Mr Vertigo, by Paul Auster, is an excellent choice of book for a wide range of readers. This is the story of Walt, an orphan, who is plucked from a miserable existence to be groomed for stardom by the mysterious Master Yehudi and the two form an unlikely bond through the sharing of a magical power.

Through Yehudi's torturous tutelage, which includes burial alive and the amputation of part of a finger, young Walt is taught, inch by inch, the secrets of levitation. For anyone who, similarly to myself, has ever had a dream which includes levitation, the style of flight Walt achieves is instantly recognizable, but it is not until he has mastered both altitude and locomotion that the pair are ready to take this amazing spectacle on tour.

Book Review: Between a Rock and a Hard Place by Aron Ralston

This is the incredible story of a young "outdoorsman" forced to cut off his own arm at the elbow to free himself from entrapment by a fallen boulder, and a fantastic example of how to make an interesting story seem boring, something which should be evident from the hackneyed title of the book. Whilst the ordeal that Aron Ralston underwent is an amazing and excrutiating tale, it is one that could have been told more effectively in a magazine article instead of dragging it out into 342 pages that become as painful to the reader as the ordeal must have been for the author.

Whilst the tale of the 5 days trapped in a remote canyon is certainly intriguing, it is unfortunately interspersed by countless flashbacks into previous outdoor adventures where the author's continuous foolhardiness puts himself and his companions into life threatening situations, which, in one case, results in a group of skiers vowing never to accompany him on an outdoor trip again.

Further to this annoying padding out of the story the constant use of climbing jargon and a writing style that attempts to create an air of "coolness" both become extremely irritating and I found myself consistently wishing the author would get on with the story I thought I was going to read about. Indeed, the author's verbose attempt to stretch out a story makes the mistake of thinking the reader is more interested in himself rather than the facts.

So irritating is this combination of poor style and an arrogant disregard of safety that by the end of the book it made me want to cut off his other arm. Mr Ralston seems to be one of those foolish people that put the lives of rescue teams at risk through their cavalier attitude towards their own safety: consequently I have very little sympathy for him.

Whilst the story of Aron Ralston's survival through an incredibly distressing situation is amazing, it is fairly difficult to find in this dreadfully padded out book. Try to find his story in a magazine article somewhere on the internet instead. The fact that I found this book in a "bargain bookstore" says much about its quality.

Score: 2/10

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Book Review: Swinesend, Britain's Greatest Public School

Billed as the indespensable handbook to one of Britain's premier boarding schools, this is a very amusing parody of the public school system in the United Kingdom. For those who have experienced this system first-hand this fiction may be almost too close to the truth for comfort with its absurb rules, sadistic teachers and legitimised bullying.

An interesting school history explains the origins of traditions such as "steg burning" and toasting the "simpletons" as well as how the school reached its reputation as one of the most brutual institutions in the country.

Punctuated with amusing flow charts that mimic the incomprehensibility of their in scholl counterparts prospective students are introduced to many of Swinesend's attractions including world class cage fighting facilities, membership of the Self-Abuse club and the "Hackers" team.

Over 160 pages of satirical information provide plenty of laughs for the reader and the style of the book, which is split into various topic-related sections, makes this publication readable from front to back or in short, laughter filled, snippets.

For anyone who has ever been to a boarding or fee-paying school this is a must read and it could easily reach legendary status amongst both staff and students of such institutions. For those who have been fortunate enough to avoid an education in such a "character building" institution this book reinforces all the stereotypes of such a school and creates some new ones of its own.

Score: 7.5/10

Book Review: Candide by Voltaire

Whilst anything by a French philosopher, published in the 18th century may sound like an intimidating read, this is actually a very easy-to-read and highly amusing story and one of my favourite books.

The story follows the wanderings of Candide, a somewhat naive individual who has been taught to believe that "all is for the best, in this, the best of all worlds". The hilarious adventures and misfortunes that Candide encounters come so quickly that within the first few pages he is kicked out of his home, press-ganged into the army, beaten with sticks and forced into battle, whilst at all times remaining convinced that all is for the best. Indeed, Candide remains true to this philosophy even when faced with absurd examples of suffering, injustice and cruelty towards himself, his friends and other passers by.

Although this novel was written nearly 250 years ago it is easy to see that the same philosophy is applied to life today to keep the "have-nots" in their place by the "haves", making it a thought provoking story as well as an hilarious piece of comedy. At times, the series of injustices and the ridiculousness of the situations becomes farcical and it is very refreshing to read philosophy tackled in such an enjoyable fashion.

Candide remains one of my all time favourite novels and I have recommended it to a variety of people who have all enjoyed it. A superb, easy-to-read and surprisingly short book that can be enjoyed on a number of levels by many different readers.

Score: 10/10

Book Review: Chart Throb by Ben Elton

Chart Throb is a satirical novel based heavily upon the television talent show "The X-factor" and to a lesser extent, other television talent shows. Readers who have enjoyed other books by Ben Elton might expect a bucketful of laughs from the very beginning, however, for me, these were not forthcoming and it was only later in the novel that I did find myself laughing out loud.

Unfortunately, I would say that Chart Throb is not up to the high standards of Ben Elton's earlier novels, such as Stark and Gridlocked, and at times it can feel that the author is trying to "reveal" the fake aspect of these so-called reality television talent shows, aspects that most viewers would have worked out for themselves long ago. Ben Elton also makes constant use of a few phrases such as, " I want it so much", "you owned that song" and "that song was too big for you" which to some readers may become irritating. However, I found this technique to parody the banality of the competitors' and judges' comments on the real X-factor incresingly amusing the more they were used. However, this could be interpreted as a lack of imagination from the author.

At times, in the early stages of this story, there is the hint of something quite unique to come, particularly with the inclusion of the Prince of Wales who is wonderfully characterised without being ridiculed, but, disappointingly, the plot fails to deliver. Some of the characters, whilst being portrayed as fictional, are far too obviously copied from their real-life inspirations, even though they are quite laughable and ridiculous.

Most of the characters within this novel are easily recognised from television talent shows, including the blind competitor, the girl with attitude, the group who have "paid their dues" and the evangelical rappers. Some of the characters are amusing, such as The Quasar and the Prince of Wales, but others are simply annoying, or perhaps they are supposed to be.

Whilst this is not one of Ben Elton's best creations, it is a sufficient parody of the ridiculous genre of TV talent shows to have made me laugh out loud on a number of occasions.

Score: 6/10

Friday, August 24, 2007

Book Review: A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

A Brief History of Time is Professor Stephen Hawking's attempt to explain scientific theories of space and time in layman's terms and in doing so he attempts to answer the questions: Where did the universe come from? How did it begin? Will it end and how?

In just 182 pages he explains topics such as black holes, the formation of the universe and the structure of space-time in the simplest terms. However, these simple terms are far from easy to understand and although the main concepts are easy enough to understand, some of the detailed arguments are not so simple to comprehend. This shouldn't put readers off; there was very little that I could not get my head around after two or three reads of a paragraph, and the revelatory nature of some of the facts in this book should not be missed. The affirmation that time is not constant throughout the universe but relative to one's position within it astounded me. In practical terms this means that time runs faster at the top of a mountain than it does at lower altitudes!!!!! This book is worth reading just to get an understanding of this fact alone. Similar mind boggling topics discussed in this book are the possibility of the universe containing 11 dimensions and whether time could run backwards at some point in the universe's evolution.

A Brief History of Time is a rare opportunity to attempt to understand the work of the most brilliant theoretical physicist since Einstein. I have often attempted to understand the concept of the big bang and an expanding universe, and anyone who has had similar thoughts should read this book in order to understand these concepts just a little better.

Score: 8/10

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Book Review: Phaic Tan - Sunstroke on a shoestring by Jetlag Travel Guides

This is the second guidebook by Jetlag Travel Guides and this time they humorously familiarize travelers with the cultural nuances of the fictional nation of Phaic Tan. This hilarious book satirizes the cultures of a conglomeration of Southeast Asian travel destinations while at the same time lampooning the whole travel guide genre and backpacker culture.

The format of this book is exactly the same as many popular travel guides with an introduction into Phaic Tanese culture and history to begin with, including an amusing diagram illustrating the political structure of Phaic Tan, from Coup Leader down to Chief Bribe-taker. To follow are detailed sections, full of silliness and parody, describing the four regions of the country all named with wonderful puns: Bumpattabumpah, Thong On, Pha Phlung, Sukkondat.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Book Review: Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Yann Martel won the 2002 Man Booker Prize for the Life of Pi and for many people this would be reason enough not to read it. Those that equate winning the Booker prize with unreadable highbrow twaddle should think again, because Life of Pi is a most readable and original story with an ending that leaves the reader as unsure as some of the characters about its real meaning; a clever twist to a very unusual tale.

A friend of mine recommended this book to me and as I was curious to see what sort of book wins the Booker prize, I bought a copy from I was pleased to find it beautifully written in an interesting style, but moreover, it is an extremely readable book which could be enjoyed by a wide range of readers, and would certainly provide an enjoyable alternative read to weary English literature school students.

From the beginning the main character of Pi is sketched out as one with rather a curious background: a child who embraces the religions of Hinduism, Islam and Christianity all at the same time. However, the adventure really begins when Pi's father decides to move the family's zoo to Canada, a decision which ultimately results in Pi being stranded in a lifeboat with Richard Parker: a 450 pound Bengal Tiger!

This extraordinary tale of survival is full of surprises and almost halucinogenic incidents including a chance meeting with a French chef and a stopover on a floating island of seaweed, inhabited by meerkats.

I could hardly recommend this book more highly; the peculiarity of the story along with the readable style make this one of my favourite books and one I would encourage anyone to read.

Score: 10/10