Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis

Rating: 8/10

Published: 1949
Number of pages: 89

Started: 25 April 2008
Finished: 27 April 2008

Summary (taken from Dymocks website):

When Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy are sent to stay with a kind professor who lives in the country, they can hardly imagine the extraordinary adventure that awaits them. It all begins one rainy summer day when the children explore the professor's rambling old house. When they come across a room with an old wardrobe in the corner, Lucy immediately opens the door and gets inside. To her amazement, she suddenly finds herself standing in the clearing of a wood on a winter afternoon, with snowflakes falling through the air. Lucy has found Narnia, a magical land of fauns and centaurs, nymphs and talking animals - and of the beautiful but evil White Witch, who has held the country in eternal winter for a hundred years.

I'm told by a childhood friend that we both read this story in primary school but I had no recollection of it so I was looking forward to reading it (again). I wish I had paid more attention and read the entire Chronicles of Narnia when I was a young'un so perhaps I could experience the magic a bit better. Reading the story as an adult is fun, and it was a good read, but I feel I was missing something that can only be experienced by a child.

I enjoyed the story for what is was, and didn't notice too much of the religious symbolism until afterwards, when I'd stopped to think about it and read other reviews. This is my favourite way to approach a story, especially for the first time. If I want to delve deeper into the symbolism I'll have a re-read at a later date.

Overall, a very pleasant read and I look forward to reading the rest of the Chronicles.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Garden of Rama by Arthur C Clarke & Gentry Lee

Rating: 8/10

Published: 1991
Number of pages: 593

Started: 17 April 2008
Finished: 25 April 2008

Summary (taken from blurb):

In the year 2130 a mysterious spaceship, Rama, arrived in the solar system. It was huge - big enough to contain a city and a sea - and empty, apparently abandoned. By the time Rama departed for its next, unknown, destination many wonders had been uncovered, but few mysteries solved. Only one thing was clear: everything the enigmatic builders of Rama did, they did in threes.

Eighty years later the second alien craft arrived in the solar system. This time, Earth had been waiting. But all the years of preparation were not enough to unlock the Raman enigma.

Now Rama II is on its way out of the solar system. Aboard it are three humans, two men and a woman, left behind when the expedition departed. Ahead of them lies the unknown, a voyage no human has ever experienced. And at the end of it - and who could tell how many years away that might be? - may lie the truth about Rama...

The Garden of Rama is the third book in the Rama series and is the most monumental work yet. I thought it was a great read and it doesn't suffer from a lack of characterisation as many other science fiction novels do. It's largely because of this that you can tell it is more heavily influenced by Gentry Lee than Arthur C Clarke. This is both an advantage and a disadvantage. While it has the characterisation, it also lacks a little in Arthur C Clarke's sheer brilliance.

The story spans many years and many adventures and overall is a rollicking good, light read. It was particularly interesting to see how the humans reacted to their new environment onboard Rama and what they made of their chance to begin a new civilisation and avoid the mistakes that mankind has made on Earth. I can't wait to read the final book, Rama Revealed, to find out how it ends.

BTT: Springing

Do your reading habits change in the Spring? Do you read gardening books? Even if you don’t have a garden? More light fiction than during the Winter? Less? Travel books? Light paperbacks you can stick in a knapsack? Or do you pretty much read the same kinds of things in the Spring as you do the rest of the year?
My reading tastes don't change according to the weather or time of year. I try to spread my reading out over genres and time periods: a long classic here, a shorter children's novel there etc.

I think from now on I'll just answer BTT questions that appeal to me. My answers have been getting duller by the week ;)

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

BTT: Vocabulary

I’ve always wondered what other people do when they come across a word/phrase that they’ve never heard before. I mean, do they jot it down on paper so they can look it up later, or do they stop reading to look it up on the dictionary/google it or do they just continue reading and forget about the word?
I usually get the general gist of it by reading the surrounding text, but if I'm in my bedroom with my dictionary close by I'll pick it up and search for it. Even if I pretty much know what it means, I sometimes like to look a word up to confirm it and to see 'exactly' what the dictionary says. If I'm reading at work I'll use my dictionary widget to look it up.

Most recently I looked up 'foppery' after reading it in A Picture of Dorian Gray. It's my new favourite word and one that can be used to sum up the entire novel. Don'tcha just love words?

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Rating: 9/10

Published: 1890
Number of pages: 200

Started: 13 April 2008
Finished: 17 April 2008

Summary (taken from blurb):

Dorian is a good-natured young man until he discovers the power of his own exceptional beauty. As he gradually sinks deep into a frivolous, glamourous world of selfish luxury, he apparently remains physically unchanged by the stresses of his corrupt lifestyle and untouched by age. But up in his attic, hidden behind a curtain, his portrait tells a different story...

A wonderfully dark and Gothic novel. Dorian starts the story as a young, innocent man who is more or less unconcerned by his extraordinary beauty. Then he meets Lord Henry, who derives great pleasure in imparting his theories on aestheticism to the impressionable young man. Dorian drinks it all in and begins a life of debauchery and depravity, which leads to tragedy for everyone he comes in contact with.

The Picture of Dorian Gray misses out on a perfect 10 only because I found Lord Henry's ramblings a little hard-going at times. He's a very quotable man (or should I say, Oscar Wilde is a very quotable man), not that I agreed with much of what he said. It took me a while to get into the book, but once the story picked up, it flew along. Has one of the best endings to a story that I have ever read.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Rating: 9/10

Published: 2003
Number of pages: 436

Started: 6 April 2008
Finished: 12 April 2008

Summary (taken from blurb):

Pigs might not fly but they are strangely altered. So, for that matter, are wolves and racoons. A man, once called Jimmy, now calls himself Snowman and lives in a tree, wrapped in old bed sheets. The voice of Oryx, the woman he loved, teasingly haunts him. And the green-eyed Children of Crake are, for some reason, his responsibility.

A very enjoyable, yet disturbing, read that contains all the elements that earmark a terrific piece of dystopian literature. It brings to mind some of the greats (Huxley, Orwell) and is a credible take on a world in the near future in which science has gone too far. Any novel that makes you despair for the future of mankind has done a pretty good job, in my opinion.

The story begins with Snowman (aka Jimmy) who may be the last living person on earth (apart from the Crakers). The story jumps between past and present as Atwood slowly unveils the circumstances and events leading up to Jimmy's current situation. Oryx and Crake are mythologised by the Crakers and revered as gods, but the reader is privy to their all-to-human faults.

Margaret Atwood has clearly done a lot of research for this novel, and it shows. Along with the knowledge of genetic engineering, she has done a terrific job of bringing her characters to life. The more I think about this book, the more I realise what an incredible job Atwood did with it. Highly recommended.

Monday, April 14, 2008

BTT: Writing Challenge

(From 10 April 2008): Pick up the nearest book. Turn to page 123. What is the first sentence on the page? The last sentence on the page? Now . . . connect them together….
Another cope was of green velvet, embroidered with heart-shaped groups of acanthus-leaves, from which spread long-stemmed white blossoms, the details of which were picked out with silver thread and coloured crystals.
After a few years he could not endure to be long out of England, and gave up the villa that he had shared at Trouville with Lord Henry, as well as the little white walled-in house at Algiers where they had more than once spent the winter.

Trust me to pick the two longest sentences out there! I think I'm supposed to write something of my own in between to connect them, but I really can't be bothered.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Bookish Articles

Interesting article from the NY Times about the roles that books play in our relationships.

Long live the semi-colon! The world would be a poorer place without them. I do my part in keeping them alive when I'm proofreading papers.

And here's an article about a previously unpublished (and incomplete) manuscript by Alexandre Dumas (author of the brilliant The Count of Monte Cristo) called The Last Cavalier. It was completed by a French scholar named Claude Schopp and published in France; it became an instant best-seller. I think it'll be published in English some time this year. If you follow the links, the first 6 chapters have been posted online. I'll look forward to reading this when it's published in full!

And here's a cute Rights of the Reader poster, illustrated by Quentin Blake. I've printed it out and hung it on my desk at work. I'm such a nerd :)

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Third Man & The Fallen Idol by Graham Greene

Rating: 9/10

Published: 1950
Number of pages: 137

Started: 4 April 2008
Finished: 5 April 2008

Summary (taken from blurb):

The Third Man is Graham Greene's brilliant recreation of post-War Vienna, a 'smashed dreary city' occupied by the four Allied powers. Rollo Martins, a second-rate novelist, arrives penniless to visit his friend and hero, Harry Lime. But Harry has died in suspicious circumstances, and the police are closing in on his associates...

The Fallen Idol is the chilling story of a small boy caught up in the games that adults play. Left in the care of the butler and his wife whilst his parents go on a fortnight's holiday, Philip realises too late the danger of lies and deceit. But the truth is even deadlier.

I had been after this book for a long time so I could see how it matched up to my favourite movie, and I wasn't disappointed. The film was, for the most part, very true to the book. The only slight difference was to the ending, of which I prefer the movie version.

The book and movie are now so intrinsically linked in my mind that I think any attempt at a review of the book will just turn into a review of the movie. :grin: Needless to say, the book is terrific and (dare I say it?) the movie is perhaps even better. But then, how could it fail with Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton and Alida Valli being directed by the brilliant Carol Reed?

Both book and movie are very highly recommended. Usually I would recommend reading the book first, but in this instance I think seeing the movie first is a better idea because there are a few brilliant scenes that pack more of a punch on screen than on a page.

As for the short story called The Fallen Idol, I thought Graham Greene did a great job of building up the tension - it was enjoyable, if somewhat disturbing. It'd be interesting to see the film version of this - it's such a short story that I think they would have to flesh it out quite a bit for a movie.

BTT: Lit-Ra-Chur

(From 3 April 2008): When somebody mentions “literature,” what’s the first thing you think of? (Dickens? Tolstoy? Shakespeare?) Do you read “literature” (however you define it) for pleasure? Or is it something that you read only when you must?
I probably do tend to think of it as the classics and the authors who wrote them, although I acknowledge that it's a term that can refer to anything really (trashy as it may be). If I'm going to define it as the 'classics', then I certainly do read it for pleasure. I haven't had to read any particular book since I left school.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The Book of Evidence by John Banville

Rating: 10/10

Published: 1989
Number of pages: 220

Started: 26 March 2008
Finished: 3 April 2008

Summary (taken from blurb):

Freddie Montgomery has committed two crimes. He stole a small Dutch master from a wealthy family friend, and he murdered a chambermaid who caught him in the act.

He has little to say about the dead girl. He killed her, he says, because he was physically capable of doing so. It made perfect sense to smash her head in with a hammer. What he cannot understand, and would desperately like to know, is why he was so moved by an unattributed portrait of a middle-aged woman that he felt compelled to steal it...

I thought this was a brilliant novel. Banville has a knack for getting into a character's mind and imparting all sorts of truths about human nature in the process. I can see why he has been compared to Vladimir Nabokov, and it also reminded me of Crime and Punishment in some ways. John Banville has said that he tries to give his prose 'the kind of denseness and thickness that poetry has', and I think he succeeds admirably.

Freddie Montgomery tells his story in the form of a written confession to a courtroom. He intersperses tales of his childhood with his current situation, giving the reader an insight into his personality and reasoning behind his decisions. It's a little disturbing and also a little amusing in places.

Often I feel a little let down after reading 'modern' literature. They never seem to measure up to older 'classics'. Happily, this is not the case with John Banville and I will certainly be reading more of his work in the future. I can already hear 'The Sea' calling to me from my TBR pile.

Very highly recommended.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Recently Acquired Books and Books Added to Wish List

I bought the following today:

Margaret Atwood: Cat's Eye
John Banville: Athena
John Banville: Doctor Copernicus
John Banville: Kepler
John Banville: Mephisto
Susanna Clarke: The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories
David Mitchell: Black Swan Green

And added a couple more to my wish list:

Alexandre Dumas: The Last Cavalier
Alexandre Dumas: The Three Musketeers
Jack Kerouac: On the Road (The Original Scroll)

BTT: The End and Cover-up

(From 20 March 2008): You’ve just reached the end of a book . . . what do you do now? Savor and muse over the book? Dive right into the next one? Go take the dog for a walk, the kids to the park, before even thinking about the next book you’re going to read? What?
Depends on the time of day that I finish the book. If it's early, and I have another book on standby, I'll jump straight into the next one (time waits for no-one!). If the ending has packed a powerful punch, I might ponder it for a minute or two, but generally I don't give it much thought until a few days later when I sit down to write the review.

(From 27 March 2008): While acknowledging that we can’t judge books by their covers, how much does the design of a book affect your reading enjoyment? Hardcover vs. softcover? Trade paperback vs. mass market paperback? Font? Illustrations?
It doesn't affect my reading enjoyment at all. Sure, I may prefer certain editions of books over others, but ultimately it doesn't affect the way I read so I don't pay very close attention to the way the book looks.

I prefer softcovers, but only because they're easier to handle and carry around. Judging by my bookshelves, I prefer mass market paperbacks to trade paperbacks - I guess they're smaller and easier to store (also cheaper). Font doesn't bother me, so long as it's readable. Not sure if illustrations refer to those internally or externally, but I like 'em either way.

So there are my two thrilling answers to a couple of BTTs. I hope I haven't bored you to death (because I'm just about asleep at my keyboard).

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

What Will Life be Like in the Year 2008?

I found an interesting blog containing scans of an article written by James R Berry in 1968 for Mechanix Illustrated. It contains his predictions for 40 years into the future, which would make it...right about now (funk soul brother). Check it out (now):

40 Years in the Future

Some predictions are eerily true (GPS, internet) while others are a bit off the mark. I love the accompanying illustrations. Very Jetsons-esque. Man, I love that cartoon! I have the first season on DVD but I really want that episode that does a take on Dickens' A Christmas Carol. When, oh when, are we going to be able to fly to work?

The dome in the pic also reminds me a little of Arthur C Clarke's 1956 The City and the Stars, one of my fave sci-fi novels, in which the city of Diaspar is completely enclosed in a huge dome. As far as the residents know (not that they care or give it much thought), they are the only humans left on earth. A terrific read. I think it has dystopian elements to it as well - I'm not quite sure why it isn't on Wikipedia's giant list of dystopian literature. It's certainly more worthy of the title than some of the others they've got on there! That books is well overdue for another re-read.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle

Rating: 8/10

Published: 1962
Number of pages: 217

Started: 28 March 2008
Finished: 30 March 2008

Summary (taken from blurb):
Charles goes searching for his lost father through 'a wrinkle in time' with his sister Meg and friend Calvin. They find themselves on an evil planet, where all life is ruled by a huge, pulsating brain known as IT.

The story of their journey through a myriad of dangers is now established as one of the most compelling fantasy classics of our time.

A charming book and utterly enjoyable. As far as I was aware, this was the first time I'd read [i]A Wrinkle in Time[i] and yet I had a strange moment, as the children were first walking along the streets of Camazotz, when I realised that it was all sounding very familiar - I'd read this book before! It was such a strong feeling that I'm sure it must be true, in which case I'm glad I'd forgotten the plot as it gave me a chance to read and appreciate the story anew.

I loved all of the characters, particularly Charles Wallace. A lot of questions were left unanswered, but I hope that if and when I read the rest of the series these might be resolved. A very pleasant read.