Monday, March 17, 2008

Book Review: Five Weeks in a Balloon by Jules Verne

Five Weeks in a Balloon was Jules Verne's first novel, yet not one of his most famous. The story follows two friends and their man servant as they attempt to cross Africa, from east to west, in a hydrogen balloon. The structure of the story is somewhat formulaic and the characters quite recogniseable from other Verne novels (many see this as a prototype for "Around the World in 80 days"), but it is a successful and exciting formula which is employed, meaning that the adventurers move from crisis to crisis as they traverse the dark continent.

Dr Fergusson, the leader of the expedition, is a rather unflappable character who maintains that nothing can go wrong, although of course the novel consists of a string of events that are a consequence of things going wrong, and all three friends behave in that unimpressed, "stiff upper lip" attitude that was typical of English gentlemen of the period. Much of the text deals with scientific references and intricate description of scientific instruments and geographic features so typical of Jules Verne, who successfully turns fiction into something that could pass for fact.

Similarly to other Verne novels, events are dealt with in the briefest of fashions, so that those who like in-depth insights into the plot and characters would be disappointed, but those who like a good old-fashioned adventure story will be quite happy.

It is also interesting to note that although "Five Weeks in a Balloon" is not one of Verne's most famous stories, it has a fame of sorts as it seems to have crept into many film adaptations of "Around the World in 80 Days" which include a balloon trip, which of course does not exist in the novel.

I found this a more enjoyable story, with more likeable characters than "Around the World in 80 Days" and many other of Verne's novels, and although it is just a page turner with very little depth, it is a nice light read.

Score: 7.5/10

Friday, March 14, 2008

Book Review: How to Fossilise Your Hamster by Mick O'Hare

Although this may sound like a handbook for scientific young men of limited social skills, "How to Fossilise Your Hamster" is in fact one of those books that is full of unusual facts that are put together to amaze and disgust the reader.

Although this book follows the typical formula of this stocking-filler genre, it is in fact a rather good example of this type of book, following the theme of unusual and tangible scientific facts. Many of the scientific explanations related in this book are designed to accompany phenomena that can be initiated and observed in the home, and as such it does a good job of bringing science to non-scientists. Interesting points in this book include why bubbles form in beer as it is poured, why one shouldn't eat Mentos and drink Coke together and, of course, how to fossilise a hamster.

Whilst those who are looking forward to settling down in bed, or in front of a fire with an enthralling story won't wish to choose this book, it is certainly a useful gift for many types of people and an excellent book for those who only want to read short snippets in between doing other things: this would be an excellent choice of book for travellers, with many interesting conversation points within its pages.

I enjoyed reading the scientific strangeness in this book and would recommend it as a good example of this genre. However, those looking for a serious scientific text or a ripping yarn should stay away.

Score: 7/10

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Book Review: Around The World in 80 Days by Jules Verne

The story of Phileas Fogg and Passepartout can hardly be new to anybody these days, so often has it been turned into movies, television series and cartoons, however, I thought it worth reading the original just to see how accurate all the movies are.

This is a surprisingly short book which reflects the attitude of Mr Fogg in traveling around the world; he is more interested in the feat than the places he visits, and it also reflects the tone of the book which is very descriptive in its style. The constant chronology of travel connections is broken up by a series of problems, all of which are brushed aside remarkably easily and with a minimum of words on the author's part.

The saving grace of this story is Passepartout, who is an emotional and reactive individual and his interactions with Mr Fix, a detective who is stalking the travelers, make for some interesting reading. However, at times it feels like reading a travel schedule less than a novel with this book.

The way in which the characters behave reflects the society of the time and it was irritating to me that even though Passepartout effected the Indian Princess's rescue, it is Phileas Fogg as the gentle man who she becomes infatuated with.

Probably the best thing about Around the World in 80 days is the beautiful vocabulary and grammar used by the author and the sense of adventure it projects although the author never really injects much passion into this adventure.

I would recommend this book to readers who have enjoyed other Jules Verne novels and those who liked King Solomon's Mines by H.Rider Haggard.

Score: 7/10

Book Review: The Book of Dave by Will Self

The book of Dave is based around the premise that the written ramblings of a London taxi driver have been misinterpreted by a future, antediluvian English society, creating a culture of racism, sexism and of split families. This parody of religious beliefs interested me immensely but I found upon reading it, that this novel did not live up to my expectations.

Written with two parallel storylines, following both the London cabbie (Dave) and the future society, I found that it took a very long time for them to come anywhere near together. Perhaps this writer was too clever for me but I found that having to wait until very close to the end to understand every triviality was annoying.

Much of the storyline following the characters in the future (characters that I found indistinuishable from one another) is written in an irritating dialect which is in fact a form of cockney written phonetically and this just smacked of unoriginality - just a copy of Anthony Burgess's jargon in "A Clockwork Orange" although it was much easier to understand than that.

The Book of Dave is not all bad though, at its best it satirises the blind faith of religious groups and the breakdown of the family unit in many parts of the UK, but for me it took too long to make any of these points.

This book is certainly not for a mass audience and the more subversive reader will appreciate it more than others, although I feel it fails to live up to its full potential.

Score: 6/10

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Book Review: Saving Fish From Drowning by Amy Tan

A novel based upon a story received from the spirits by a medium is an unusual book indeed, but Amy Tan has done an excellent job in turning this into an enjoyable, amusing and thought-provoking story. In Saving Fish From Drowning the reader follows a group of 12 American tourists on their cultural tour of China and Burma, a tour which is doomed to disaster before it has even begun.

The story is narrated by the group's recently deceased tour organiser, who watches over the tour as a spirit and along the way makes amusing observations, gossipy asides and irritated remarks about her friends' constant ability to say the wrong thing, make impetuous decisions and generally approach the foreign cultures they encounter with an ignorant and patronising attitude.

What makes this book so enjoyable is that there are so many aspects to it - the author herself describes her work as a mixture of genres: murder mystery, romance, picaresque, comic novel, magical realsim, fable, myth, police detective and political farce. It is perhaps the ironic, comic and farcical aspects of the book that I most enjoyed and the way that the media and the Burmmese government react to and manipulate events was particularly amusing.

Some may say that this book takes a simplistic and ill-informed view of Asian cultures, but that would be missing the point that this was the effect the author was attempting to create. However, one criticism that I would make is that there are too many characters, some of which were quite indistinguishable from each other - on the other hand some of the characters were very enjoyable and with a little more time devoted to them, they could have been even more memorable.

This is an enjoyable, amusing and engrossing story which satirises tourism, cultural expectations and the regime in Burma - an easy and frivolous read. Those expecting deep insight into the situation in Burma will be highly disappointed but those looking for a well-written novel with an interesting story will be delighted.

Score: 8.5/10