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Archive for the tag “book reviews”

The Rule of Four (book review)

The Rule of FourThe Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

We were rushing off somewhere else when we called at the library to change our books so I grabbed this one off the shelf rather quickly. The blurb compared it with Umberto Eco, but it also compared it with Dan Brown. There was no time to look for another, however, so I just took it and hoped for the best.

When we got home my son, who had worked in a bookshop, recalled that it had been compared a lot with Dan Brown’s books about 12 years ago, so I was prepared for the worst, but was rather pleasantly surprised. Umberto Eco it isn’t. I gave five stars to Foucault’s Pendulum, and one star to The da Vinci code, but i think this one warrants three=and-a-half.

The rule of four is about four friends, final year undergraduates at Princeton University, two of whom are majoring in literature, and one of them, Paul Harris, is studying the Hypnerotomachia while another, the narrator, Tom Sullivan, is the son of a student of the same book, though he himself is working on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

It appears that the Hypnerotomachia, is a real book about Poliphilo’s dream struggle for the love of Polia, so it’s not a fictional one like the one mentioned in The da Vinci code, which my son said people kept coming into the book shop to ask for, and would not believe him when he told them it was a fictional work in a work of fiction. Even when I got to the end of this book, however, I found it difficult to pronounce the title.

Paul Harris believes that the Hypnerotomachia contains a secret code, and much of the plot of the book is devoted to discovering what it is, which I suppose accounts for the similarity with The da Vinci code, but it is not nearly as facile as the latter. The plot also involves academic rivalries which lead to murder, and at some points that is rather unconvincing, and the narrative seems to jump about rather inexplicably.

It none the less kept my interest to the end, even though some parts seemed rather implausible. The book has several illustrations in it, and it would have helped if a map of the Princeton campus had been included among them.

I find I rather like books of this genre — books about literary studies of other books, or authors, where there was some mystery about them that needed to be solved. There didn’t seem to be a list for that genre on Good Reads, so I created one, and hope others will add similar books to the list, so I can add them to my to-read list.

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Swallows and Amazons

Swallows and Amazons (Swallows and Amazons, #1)Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s almost exactly 50 years since I last read this book, and I’ve given it another star. I think I’ve read it three times, and found it better each time. I tried reading it as a child, and I think I also read Coot Club and Missee Lee as a child, but did not find them particularly good. And after 50 years I had forgotten most of the plot of this one.

So reading it the third time round it was almost like seeing it with fresh eyes, not least because about halfway between my last reading and this one, in 1993, I had read The Life of Arthur Ransome, and found that his life was much more interesting than the books he wrote.

For those who don’t know it, Swallows and Amazons is about four children of the Walker family, aged from 7 up, John, Susan, Titty and Roger, who go camping on an island in a lake in Cumbria, and sail there in a boat. I suppose that a book that featured a girl called Titty was one of the things that put me off as a child. And also that a camping holiday that involves going to an island in a boat would be far more interesting to do than to read about. Reading it this time, I realised that Titty was by far the most interesting character in the story.

And thinking about it, it seems to me that children’s books of that era (between the world wars) seem to have been the kind of books that adults think children should like, but adults actually enjoy them more. These children had imaginary adventures in the middle of their rather prosaic and humdrum life. Most children do, I suppose, but would prefer to read about the real adventures of fictional children than imaginary ones, because they already have imaginary adventures of their own.

I had the same problem with the “William” books by Richmal Crompton, which belonged to the same period. I read several of them as a child, but always found them rather unsatisfactory. Some of them were written in war time, and William and his friends would imagine themselves capturing German spies or themselves spying on Quislings, but there usually turned out to be a more prosaic explanation. As a child, however, I did learn the significance of words like “Quisling”.

I once picked up one of the “William” books as an adult, and read a couple of the stories in it, and was initially surprised at the language. Richman Crompton did not write in simplified Enid Blyton language for kids. She wrote adult prose. But I was also struck by the adult view of children. There was a thread of adult amusement at the antics of children running through all the stories. They were laughing at children, not with them.

Arthur Ransome does better than that, but his books still strike me as an adult’s idea of what children like than what children actually like. There are books about children written mainly for adult readers that take that a bit further; Lord of the Flies, for example, which is also about children camping on an island, but viewed somewhat differently.

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Review of “Cell” by Stephen King

CellCell by Stephen King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Clayton Riddell was having a good day. He had travelled to Boston and just sold some of his art work for a publication, and was on his way back to his hotel when disaster struck. An electro-magnetic pulse sent through the cell phone networks scrambled the brains of all cell phone users, and most of them became mindlessly violent. Cars crashed, and when drivers not using cell phones phoned to explain that they’d been in an accident or were held up by one, they lost their minds too.

Clayton Riddell’s main desire then is to get back to his estranged wife and 12-year-old son in Kent Pond, Maine, to see that they are OK, and sets out with a couple of companions to make the journey on foot — the roads are blocked with crashed vehicles. They soon discover that the phone-crazies as they call them, are active during the day, but not at night, so much of their travelling has to be done at night. The book describes their journey, and the difficulties they face, dominated by Clay Riddell’s search for his son.

I find Stephen King one of the most unpredictable. His books range from very good (Needful Things) to very bad (The Tommyknockers). I’ve generally found his spooky books to be better than his science fiction ones, but this one, though science fiction, seemed to be one of the better ones. I was thinking of giving it four stars until about three-quarters of the way though, when he jumped the shark by introducing levitation, which didn’t seem to contribute to the plot at all. And I didn’t like the abrupt ending.

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The Secret of Killimooin

The Secret Of Killimooin (Enid Blyton's Secret Island Series)The Secret Of Killimooin by Enid Blyton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are some children’s books that adults enjoy as much as, or even more than children do. But Enid Blyton’s books are not among them. I’ve just finished reading The Enid Blyton story, which examines her life and work, and it also makes this point. Most children love her books, and most adults don’t. So I thought I’d re-read a couple of books by Enid Blyton to refresh my memory.

This one is the first Enid Blyton book I ever read, at the age of about 8 or 9 or so, and I’ve always thought it was one of her best, though when reading it again as an adult it looks somewhat different. One of the first things that one notices about many Enid Blyton books is what is nowadays called “food porn”. She goes into ecstatic descriptions of food. But then so does C.S. Lewis in Prince Caspian and in some of the other Narnia books. But Lewis is usually making a point about feasts being associated with celebration and community. In his descriptions of feasts there is usually some element of that, so that most of them have overtones of a Messianic banquet. In Blyton there is less of that. It is more food for the same of food.

Many books of advice to would-be authors of children’s books say that one should not “write down” to children. But Enid Blyton does “write down” to children. In The Secret of Killimooin almost every second sentence ends with an exclamation mark. She writes in exclamations: “…he had a surprise that was most unexpected!” Adults tend to notice such redundancies and to be rather annoyed by them, but children don’t.

In her dialogues Blyton even sometimes makes characters speak in exclamations, which real children rarely do — Oh, I say!… What a marvellous surprise!… golly, it will be grand! — yet real children also don’t seem to notice it much.

Yet I also have some vague and rather disturbing memories –that when I was younger and read a lot of these books I thought that perhaps I ought to speak like that, because that was the way proper children spoke, especially those who were destined to have adventures. Or is that just “false memory syndrome”? Or perhaps another grey moment.

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Disgrace

DisgraceDisgrace by J.M. Coetzee
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book won the Booker Prize, so someone must think that it’s great literature. I’m not so sure. I nearly stopped reading after the second chapter. I just didn’t connect with any of the characters.

It’s about a university professor who seduces a student. Her father complains and he is asked to resign and does. He goes to stay with his daughter in the Eastern Cape, and doesn’t really connect with her.

I didn’t connect with any of the characters, and their motivations seemed strange to me. Or perhaps their actions seemed to be unmotivated. I found the ending very sad.

That was about all I could say in my review on Good Reads, but I read it at a time when I was seeing a lot of posts about “farm attacks” and “farm murders” in social media. One of the scenes in the book is a “farm attack”, which which seems to link with what I was reading elsewhere, but that goes beyond what the book says, so I’ll say more about that aspect of it here.

One of the stories was this: Zuma should face the International Criminal court charges over murder of farmers: former Miss World Anneline Kriel:

Former Miss World Anneline Kriel has suggested President Jacob Zuma face charges of crimes against humanity in the International Criminal Court for failing to protect farmers in South Africa.

Her call‚ which includes the deployment of the military to protect vulnerable farmers‚ comes after a string of farm murders and the release of quarterly crime statistics‚ which revealed that there had been 116 more murders than the same period last year.

And I think, how stupid can she get. Zuma has many faults, but he did not give orders to criminals to murder farmers, as George Bush did to his air force to bomb Iraq, or Tony Blair and Bill Clinton gave orders for their air forces to bomb Yugoslavia. If they weren’t charged in the ICC why should Zuma be?

The increasing bombardment of racist propaganda about “farm attacks” as “white genocide”, seems calculated, by its very irrationality and its racist assumptions, to make one lose sympathy for the victims of farm attacks. The propaganda tends to create the impression that the victims of farm attacks were themselves as racist as the propagandists and that that they therefore somehow deserved what they got.

I wonder, why this singling out of one occupational group, and I want to say “all lives matter”, not just farmers’ lives, but then we are also bombarded with constant propaganda from a different quarter that it is wrong, evil and wicked to think that all lives matter.

But then I think about my own personal experience. As far as I can recall, I knew four people who were murdered. They weren’t close friends, but they were people I had known and talked to. And three of the four were murdered in farm attacks. The fourth was murdered in a town attack. Those are the ones I can recall now. Neil Alcock, Theo Vosloo and Jan van Beima were murdered in farm attacks; Fritz Bophela was murdered in a town attack (a drive-by shooting). So among the people I have known who have been murdered, farm attacks outnumber others by 3:1. But all of them were pre-Zuma, and that is just my experience. Other people may also know people who were murdered, but possibly in different circumstances.

And that brings me back to the book.

It did not make racist propaganda about the farm attacks, such as one sees on social media. But nevertheless there was a racist subtext. The only black people in the story are described in a racist way, not directly; it is a subtext, not the main text, but it does tend to leave the reader with the impression that all black people are like this.

It is also from the viewpoint of the protagonist, and the protagonist’s viewpoint is not necessarily the author’s view. It is sometimes too easy to think that it is — I’ve seen people attributing views to Dostoevsky through quotes from his novels, but they were quotes from his characters, not from Dostoevsky himself. So it is dangerous to attribute the views of a fictional character to the author. Part of the skill of a novelist is to create believable characters with their own views.

Nevertheless, at the end of the book, the reader, or at least this reader, is left with the impression of black people that “give them an inch and they’ll take a yard”. That’s a common white racist stereotype. Yes, it’s the view of one character, but it’s also the impression created by the book as a whole.

Perhaps it did not strike the people who awarded the Booker prize like that, but that is how it struck me.

 

 

 

 

The Tudors

The Tudors (British Monarchy)The Tudors by Geoffrey Christopher Morris
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

There is a chapter on each of the Tudor monarchs of England, a dynasty that lasted from 1485-1603. Each chapter deals with the character and relationships of the particular ruler, derived from contemporary sources.

One of the most interesting of these sources was Edward VI’s diary. He came to the throne at the age of 9, and died before he was 16, and was one of the earliest English diarists.

The biggest problem I had with the book is that it assumed the knowledge one expects to gain from such a book. It is not really a history, or even a series of biographies, but a series of character sketches of the reigning monarchs. It is therefore best to be familiar with the history before reading this book.

For example, it says that Henry VII, the first of the Tudor monarchs, came to the throne not so much because of a hereditary claim, because his claim was weaker than that of some other candidates, but because he won the Battle of Bosworth. It does not, however, explain what his hereditary claim was, not even in the genealogical tables at the end of the book, or who the other claimants were. Nor does it explain the Battle of Bosworth, who the combatants were, or what they were fighting for, other than the throne of England.

I knew some parts of the history, having studied Church History at an English university, though that was 50 years ago. The period was that of the English Reformation, and the character sketches of the monarchs throw some light upon that, but this book is best read after reading a more general history of the period. Or else be prepared to interrupt your reading by Googling such things as the Battle of Bosworth.

The Background section of the Wikipedia article is the kind of introduction that should have been included in this book, but wasn’t. The lack is all the more remarkable since, when the book was first published, neither Wikipedia, nor Google, nor the Internet itself would have been available.

And since Wikipedia is now available, I suggest reading the Wikipedia article on The House of Tudor before reading this book.

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A copy of this post may be found at my old blog here.

I originally intended to post it here, but could not find the functional WordPress editor, which had been hidden again, and only the new enhanced dysfunctional one was available. Eventually I did find the working editor, so was able to post it here too.

Adam Bede

Adam BedeAdam Bede by George Eliot
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s a love story.

It’s set in the fictional English county of Loamshire at the end of the 18th century, which is some kind of rustic paradise until things start going wrong about halfway through the book. Unlike Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer, whose romance novels are peopled with the landed gentry and their urban equivalents, this one is set among the yeoman class.

The book has been on our shelves forever, and I’ve been meaning to read it some day but kept putting it off, partly because of things I’d read about George Eliot, and partly because of plot summaries I’d read. Reading plot summaries can be a bad idea. It made it sound too simple, and a 600-page novel with such a simple plot must be boring, mustn’t it, with all that padding?

But Eliot’s descriptions of country life, though perhaps too idyllic, are part of the interest of the book, and she makes the characters sound interesting. I don’t know how accurate her description of early Methodists is, but she probably knew several of them personally and perhaps some of her description is based on their recollections.

It’s when the action starts that the plot holes appear. The reader is kept ignorant of some things, which is a common device in fiction, but when the characters themselves appear to be ignorant, the suspension of disbelief gets a little strained. At one point there is a rather improbable Deus ex Machina, but it’s still a good read.

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Queen Sheba’s ring

Queen Sheba's RingQueen Sheba’s Ring by H. Rider Haggard
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

H. Rider Haggard was a writer of adventure novels, often set in imaginary locations, and has been credited with creating the “lost world” genre of literature. Like many of his books, this one is set in Africa, in the imaginary kingdom, or perhaps one should say queendom of Mur, ruled by Maqueda, a descendant King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.

Richard Adams, a British medical doctor, who had wandered the world practising his trade, met and married an Egyprian woman in Cairo, and also met an Egyptologist, Professor Ptolemy Higgs, whom he cured of typhoid, thus earning his gratitude. Adams’s wife dies, and their only son is kidnapped, and many years later Adams has news of his son who is a slave of the Fung tribe in North Central Africa. Maqueda’s people, the Abati, are traditional enemies of the Fung, and avoid being conquered by the Fung because they live in an inaccessible valley surrounded by mountains. Maqueda tells Adams of a prophecy that the Fung will leave if their sphinx-like idol is destroyed, and if Adams does that, the Abati will help him release his son.

Adams returns to Britain, taking the Queen of Sheba’s ring to prove his bona fides, and enlists Professor Higgs (who is drawn by Adams’s stories of ancient artifacts) and a soldier, Captain Oliver Orme, with his sidekick Sergeant Samuel Quick, and they return to Mur with the explosives needed to blow up the idol, with the two soldiers having the necessary expertise in their use.

Unlike some of Haggard’s earlier books, this one seems rather contrived and unconvincing. Queen Sheba’s Ring was first published in 1910, by which time most of Africa had been colonised by European powers, and very few parts remained unknown to Europeans. Perhaps Mur was in the south of Libya, which had not yet been colonised by Italy. Soon after this book was written, modern communications ensured that most educated people in most parts of the world were at least aware of the existence of places and peoples living in continents other than their own, though I am sometimes surprised by the degree of geographical ignorance displayed by contestants in quiz shows. So Rider Haggard was pushing the “lost world” trope a bit hard, though the success of Tarzan stories, and later Indiana Jones, showed that there was still a little juice that could be squeezed out of it. But most writers looking for imaginary settings moved their stories to other planets, which gave them more scope for developing exotic civilizations.

In reading this book, however, I was constantly being reminded of the time in which it was written, because if strongly reflects the arms race that preceded the First World War.

In Britain, the Liberal Party, especially, reacted against the aggressive imperialism and violence that had led to the Second Anglo-Boer War. In Queen Sheba’s Ring Haggard shows himself as a convinced militarist, stressing the need for arms production and military training and conscription. At times I wondered if he had been asked, or even paid by the “hawks” in the Conservative Party to write a book that would do this.

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Nostromo

NostromoNostromo by Joseph Conrad
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Our local library has a table with unwanted books, probably donated from deceased estates, and I saw a copy of Nostromo, which I hadn’t read, and paid R2.00 for it, which is probably three times the price it would have cost new when it was printed in 1955, but seems like a bargain today.

I tried not to read it with any preconceptions about the content, and it struck me as strange. It started with a description of the town of Sulaco in the fictional South American republic of Costaguano (does that mean what I think it means?) where a citizen of English descent inherits a concession to a long defunct silver mine. He is possessed by the entrepreneurial spirit, reopens the mine, begins to work it and makes it pay, His wife, who is compassionate, cares for the families of the miners, and worries about what it is doing to her husband. The mine provides employment for many, and profits for its overseas backers.

Then there is a revolution, and the upper classes of Sulaco together with the European expatriates, think that it will be better if the Occidental province becomes independent. Nostromo, an Italian sailor and supervisor of the local stevedores, is entrusted with the task of taking the silver output of the mine out to sea to keep it out of the hands of the revolutionaries and to buy arms for the separatists.

Up to this point the story seemed a bit slow, and it wasn’t clear where it was going. Then the pace picked up, though it still wasn’t clear where it was going. Was it the story of a workaholic businessman who opened a silver mine? Was it the story of a revolution? Was it a story about a bold war-time heist of silver? In the end it was none of these things and all of these things. And it ended up as a love story, which one would never have expected from the beginning, or even the middle.

The point of view of the story shifts from one character to another, and each of them sees the events in a different way. And having reached the end of it, I think I might start again at the beginning to see where it went and how it got there.

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The Anatomy of Crime

What I do, see, hear, eat and drink.

I don’t read much crime fiction so the work of Val McDermid was not known to me.  I started reading, Forensics, The Anatomy of Crime, as an exercise in Criminology.  From the outset I was stunned at how readable the work was.  It was only then that I realised that Val McDermid is a practised and experienced genius in the field of writing entertainingly about crime.

Forensics

So, here we o find her engaged in explaining the work of forensic scientists to lay people. Along the way she explains the history of each forensic field from the first recorded autopsy (that of the body of Julius Caesar) to the Great Fire of London and modern advances which allow crimes to be solved years after the case has officially been closed.

She works through twelve chapters, all equally interesting.  Theintegrity of the crime scene, fire investigation, entomology (probably best not to…

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