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.