Having just missed one hundred books in the first year of The Book Challenge, in 2010, I made the full tonne. Still reading, but without the challenge, take a look at the reviews for the books that I have read this year.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Book 28 - The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Book - The Curious Indcident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Author - Mark Haddon
Year - 2003
Genre - Fiction
Bought for me originally by John Gompers

Here is an interesting fact for you - and this is one that Pat told me, so a proper fact,  not one of my own semi-plausible random facts.  During the past ten years, the top twelve best selling books in this country were written by just three authors.  You can take all seven of JK Rowling's Harry Potter books as a given, and I doubt too many people would be surprised to hear that four of the other places are filled with Dan Brown's first four books, but I must admit to being somewhat surprised that this book by Mark Haddon is the only other one to fill out the list.  Not becuase it is a bad book - far from it - but because I didn't realise just how much other people had realised it is a great book.

The book is written from the point of view of Christopher, a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder.  He has difficulty understanding how other people feel by their facial expressions, hates the colours yellow and brown, and has a massive capacity for maths.  The story follows him as he tries to investigate the death of a neighbour's dog, and takes him on a strange journey.

The writing of this book is phenomenal.  When I first read this book, I knew next to nothing about autism and its various degrees.  Now that I work in a primary school, I know many more children with ASD, but I would never presume in a million years to understand how they think.  The joy of the book is that Mark Haddon makes you feel that you can understand how Christopher thinks, and whilst the lead character displays very little emotional response in the book other than being scared or confused, you feel very emotionaly connected to him.

All of this would be for naught if there was not a strong story to back it up, and Haddon again provides, with a story which is - although somewhat far fetched - truly gripping.  Interspersing the action with Christopher's takes on maths problems, or a list of reasons why he hates yellow, help to keep the book massively interesting, and even on a second readthrough, almost impossible to put down.

Quite simply, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is not just a book which I would reccomend to anyone, but one of a small selection of books that I would label as 'must read' books for absolutely everyone.  If you haven't read it, please pick up a copy now and get going!

10/10

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Book 27 - Lawrence Dallaglio's Rugby Tales

Book - Lawrence Dallaglio's Rugby Tales
Compiler - Lawrence Dallaglio
Year - 2009
Genre - Biographical
Bought for me by Mark Holdaway

Contrary to what I believed when picking up this book, Rugby Tales is not in fact the autobiography of Lawrence Dallaglio, but is instead a compilation of anecdotal stories from various figures involved in world rugby.  The aim of the book is to raise money for a rugby player's benevolent fund, and is actually a brilliant idea.  As I read the premise, I thought of the other fields in which this would be interesting - imagine a collection of stories from football players such as Beckham, Gascoigne and Shearer, a book of tales from the great tennis players such as MacEnroe, Laver and Agassi or a collection of hilarious anecdotes from world leaders such as Blair, Mandela and Thatcher.

As anyone with any knowledge of rugby will have probably guessed, most of the stories have less to do with sport and more to do with getting very, very drunk.  To this end, the book is more accessible.  I like rugby, but would by no means consider myself a particularly big fan - I could recognise a few of the World Cup winners, and I can appreciate a good match when it happens to be on, but not a lot more - but found many of the stories pretty amusing.  However, to a rugby fan - and particularly one who was following the sport before it became professional in the mid-nineties (a fact I learnt from this book) - a new dimension would be added.  Knowing who the stories are about would surely improve the book over being some funny things that happened to some people, to finding out more about people you have followed for years.

The writing style and quality varies throughout the book, but is pretty accessible throughout.  This is definitely worth a look at if you are a rugby fan, but if not then do not be dissuaded by the title - I think that you would still take something from the book.

As a final note, I couldn't help but pick up on a writing trait of Dallaglio's.  Each contributer's story is preceded by a quick summary of the man by our author.  Without exaggeration, I believe roughly three quarters of them to be described as a 'top man'.  This is hardly relevent at all, but it made me smile a little each time I noticed it.

7/10

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Book 26 - The Thing With Finn

Book - The Thing With Finn
Author - Tom Kelly
Year - 2007
Genre - Children's

I have always been of the opinion that the phrase 'Never judge a book by its cover' is a load of rubbish - well, when specifically relating to books at least.  I say instead 'Feel free to judge a book by its cover, so long as you read it and then make an informed opinion afterwards, because at the end of the day, at least you will have a good looking book on your bookshelf, even if the book itself is a load of crap.'  And therein lies one of the many reasons I don't invent sayings.

The Thing With Finn is a book that I judged by its cover.  As you can see above, it is a pretty funky cover which looks fun.  The copy I bought was also swayed by the part of the cover that said '75p', but the fact remains that I could judge this to be a fun book just by a glace at the front of it.

What I didn't expect from the cover was for the book to be quite moving.  The story is written from the point of view of a ten year old boy called Danny.  From the beginning we learn that things have never been the same since 'the thing with Finn', and that Danny is having some very definite issues - culminating in his destruction of a stuffed otter sitting in the window of an old man's house.  We follow Danny as we learn what has happened to him, and as he struggles with his feelings on it.

From a description like this, it feels like it could be a dark, Piquolt-esque book, but the style of writing is unmistakably that of a ten year old boy.  More time is spent talking about farts, weeing and the joys of Cheesy Wotsits that dwelling on anything sinister, and the juxtaposition of this with the growing realisiation of his situation is fantastic.

Aimed at kids, this is definitely a prime example of the kind of book that trancends age, and would appeal to most adults.  Yet another example of the wonderful vein of amazing children's literature that is out there, and many adults are yet to touch.

8/10

Book 25 - The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Book - The Reluctant Fundamentalist
Author - Mohsin Hamid
Year - 2007
Genre - Fiction
Bought for me by Mark Holdaway

Reaching the quarter mark in my hundred book challenge, I found myself reading something a little different to the standard fare of fantasy that I have been imbibing this year.  A certain something can usually be read into any book that has the phrase 'Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize' emblazoned on the front cover, and thus I was looking forward to reading this one.

The basic premise of the book is that an American man meets a very polite Pakistani man in a cafe in Lahore.  Changez then procedes to explain pretty much his full life story to the American, about how he was born and raised in Pakistan, before studying at Princeton, and going on to become a powerful business analyst in New York.  The reader is left guessing for most of the book as to what Changez is now doing back in Lahore, and who the American he is with is.

The most striking thing about the book is its delivery.  The whole story is written in Changez voice as he speaks to his American friend.  This means that interrupting the descriptions of his life in America are mentions of how they are running out of tea, or that he really should try the local delicacies, or that it is quite usual for the lights to black out occasionaly in his city.  This is, for me at least, an incredibly original way of writing, and with one or two exceptions where the diversions become a little distracting, I thought that it worked marvelously.

Instead, the problem lies within the actual story itself.  The idea of writing a book about relationships between America and Pakistan is fairly common, particularly in this 'post 9/11 climate' (a phrase which particularly annoys me) and so I feel that the story needs to be particularly strong.  Unfortunately I don't think this one is.  The relationship Changez has with America seems a little forced at times, and whilst I understand that the author is trying to show how difficult it is for him to understand his place as a Pakistani man in America, some of his actions seem to be massively out of character.  The entire secondary plot relating to the relationship he has with an American girl - Erica - is sweet and touching, but ultimately so unrelated to the thrust of the book that looking back, I am unsure as to why it is there.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is by no means a bad book, and for what it is, I quite enjoyed reading it, particularly the style of the writing.  Maybe I just missed the point somewhere along the way, but with the Man Booker nomination and the glowing reviews written all over the front and back covers, I expected something quite special as opposed to an easy reading, slightly sparse effort.

6/10

Monday, 12 April 2010

Book 24 - Fool Moon

Book - Fool Moon
Author - Jim Butcher
Year - 2001
Genre - Fantasy Detective
Series - The Dresden Files
Bought for me by Rob Hyde

One of the new series that I have started reading this year is The Dresden Files featuring wizarding detective Harry Dresden.  The first book, Storm Front, which I reviewed last month indroduces him fighting an evil dark wizard.  In this second book, he is back and fighting werewolves.

With a set up such as the book has, it would be easy to discard it as a fun, but throwaway novel - stick some magic, and some big hairy man-wolves in there, and the blokes will be sorted - and to a certain extent, no matter how much I enjoyed the first book, that is what I did.  This would be a massive mistake however.  The twists are fantastic, the tension that is built up is phenomenal, and in only two books Butcher has already introduced upward of a dozen recurring characters that I feel I know a lot about, and have feelings about.

When I had written the blog on the first book, Rob - who bought the first two books for me at Christmas - made a comment that my score of 9/10 was a little high, just because it doesn't leave enough scope for the later books in the series.  On the basis of this second book, he may well have been right.

10/10

Friday, 9 April 2010

Book 23 - Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Book - Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Author - JK Rowling
Year - 2000
Genre - Fantasy

In the whole reread of the Harry Potter series, it is Goblet of Fire which I have most been looking forward to reading again.  When I first picked up the series I whizzed through them in a week, and this book had only been out about six months, leaving me with the long wait for the next book to come out.  The first three were great reads, but this one had me absolutely captivated, and was the reason that I was there at midnight outside WH Smiths when the fifth book came out.

Reading it again, I was still totally spellbound.  This book is the fulcrum on which the series turns from a happy, primary coloured children's series, into a darker, brooding series which is truly for all ages.  Most of you will know the twists, but I still won't spoil them here, but rest assured, they make a massive difference to the series as a whole.

However, deeper than that, the book stands up as a wonderful story.  From the crowded scenes of the Quiddich World Cup at the beginning, through to the big event at Hogwarts which takes up most of the narrative, there is always something happening - a change in relationships between the characters, a chance discovery, a subtle hint at something that will happen in a later book - which for me makes this the most exciting of Rowling's books.  The end scenes of the book are proper edge of the seat stuff, and even knowing full well what was about to happen, I found myself in the same boat as I was when I first read it, and tried to read the pages quicker than it was possible to do. 

Consindering the massive popularity of the series it would be almost pointless for me to recommend Harry Potter - you will probably have either read them by now, or never will do - and of course, they would need to be read in order, but if I left these fairly important things aside, it would be Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire that I would be recommending to everyone.

I have been trying to leave a bit of a gap between each of the Harry Potter books so that I am not just piling them all up into one go.  It's been tough as once I get going with them, I want to just keep on reading straight through without stopping.  Luckily, the mass of paper that is the fifth book is sitting ominously on my bookshelf at the moment, looking all of the black sheep of both my 'to be read' pile and the whole Potter series.  I think that this will be the easiest moment to take a break.

10/10

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Best Bookshops in Britain!

On top of the chest of drawers in my bedroom, I have a pile of all of the books I have lined up to read.  I say a pile - what I actually mean in six piles.  There is upwards of seventy books sat there just waiting to be read.  Some of them are brand new, such as the wonderful books I recieved for my birthday.  Some of them have been sat in the 'to read' pile for many many years - one day I will read you Lord of the Rings.  Some of them are books that I have read, but when trying to find an elusive book on my bookshelf, I have picked up again and popped on the pile to read again.  Suffice to say, I am not too far off of being able to comfortably finish my challenge this year without buying another book.

Unfortunately for the strain being exerted on the feet of my chest of drawers, I can't help myself in buying books.  I love it.  Whether it is a book I have always been meaning to read, something with a witty title or clever front cover that makes me read the blurb, or a book by a favourite author that I didn't realise existed, there is something quite special about going out and buying new books, and much like my mum, I have a bit of a tendancy to buy them at a faster rate than I can read them.

All of this could potentially lead to a massive financial problem.  Okay, so books are not the most expensive things in the world, and buying them is definitely a cheaper hobby than the maintaining the shoe collections that some of my friends have, but at seven or eight pounds a pop, the costs quickly mount up.  Multiply that by my hundred books, and you quickly end up with a months wages - or as a lowly teaching assistant, an annual salary.  Luckily, I have found the best, and the cheapest bookshops in Britain.  Charity shops!

Often seen as the refuge of dust collecting bores and overtly artsy drama students (both of which I have been at some point), charity shops are an absolute treasure trove of brilliant books at amazing prices.  I went out today in search of a copy of the fourth Harry Potter book - goodness knows where my old copy is - and came home with not just a copy of the book I was looking for, but a pile of ten more books.  And quite brilliantly, the amount of money that I spent was but 9p less that the cover price of Goblet of Fire.  I picked that one up for £2.50 - expensive in charity shop terms, but a pleasing £4.50 less than in Waterstones - and managed to collect the third Potter book, which anyone who read my review will know was one that I had to borrow, for just ten pence!  Yes, ten pence!

Add to that a copy of How To Talk To A Widower, the best book I have read so far this year, for just 80p, meaning I now own a copy I can lend out to people, two Robert Rankin books for just 75p each, and a copy of Roald Dahl's My Uncle Oswald (filthiest book ever - don't buy it for your kids!) for 10p, plus several other assorted bargins, and I now have my urge for book buying sated for a week or two, and all for under seven quid.  When you consider that all of the money I parted with today will also be going to good causes, I feel this was quite a sucessful day.

Incidently, all of this is a massive precursor to me letting you know that this year, all of your Christmas presents will be bought for you from charity shops, the Best Bookshops in Britain!

Book 22 - Wit of the Nation

Book - Wit of the Nation
Author - Richard Benson
Year - 2007
Genre - Quotations
Bought for me by my Mum and Dad.

This is effectively a big book of quotations from famous people - with the slant being that they are all British.  In lieu of a full on review - I think you can get the gist from the opening statement - here are some of my favourites that I flagged as I was going through.


You can always count on Americans to do the right thing - after they've tried everything else.
     Winston Churchill

Television is a medium of entertainment which permits millions of people to listen to the same joke at the same time, and yet remain lonesome.
     T.S. Eliot

New ideas pass though three periods: 1) It can't be done. 2) It probably can be done, but it's not worth doing. 3) I knew it was a good idea all along!
     Arthur C. Clarke

I don't believe in astrology; I'm a Sagittarius and we're sceptical.
     Arthur C. Clarke

The only way to be sure of catching a train is to miss the one before it.
     G. K. Chesterton

Virtue is more to be feared than vice, because its excesses are not subect to the regulation of conscience.
     Adam Smith

Real ale drinkers are just like train spotters only drunk.
     Christopher Howse

And God said 'Let there be light' and there was light, but the electricity board said He would have to wait until Thursday to be connected.
     Spike Milligan

I am ready to meet with my Maker.  Whether my Maker is prepared for the ordeal of meeting me is another matter.
     Winston Churchill


7/10

Book 21 - The Art of Standing Still

Book - The Art of Standing Still
Author - Penny Cullifford
Year - 2007
Genre - Crime
Lent to me by Anna Culliford, and written by her Mum!

Reading a novel by the Mum of a friend is a scary prospect - especially when you know that you have to write a review at the end - so it was with a little trepidation that I started The Art of Standing Still.

The story centres around two women - Jemma Durham, a local news journalist, and Ruth Wells, a forty-something vicar in a small country town in Kent.  Ruth has spent the past few years translating and modernising a cycle of local mystery plays, and Jemma - as part of her job - is tasked with playing the role of Mary Magdalene.  As the book progresses, faiths are found, or shaken, love is searched for, and a mystery of its own begins to unfold.

Writing about the mystery cycles is a great move - I studied them a little at University, and they are an often forgotten form of community theatre which would have involved entire towns beck in the middle ages.  I particularly liked the seperating of the book into not chapters, but Acts and Scenes.  The biggest issue that I had instead was the girliness of the beginning of the book.

It starts out much like a romance novel with two singletons, one newly seperated, and the other a vicar who reads pulp romances in her quiet moments.  The tone is unmistakenly female, and several times my mind switched into typical bloke mode, sighing at the psychoanalysis by the two female leads of the little things that men do.  However, the writing is strong, so that whilst I could accept that it was not my cup of tea, I still found myself caught by the book.

Around halfway through, the tone of the story changes from romantic to a whodunnit.  For me, this is where the book steps up, and becomes somewhat of a Rankin meets Emmerdale.  Teh second half of the book becomes a real page turner, and I was mildly annoyed when twenty pages from the end, I was rudely interrupted by needing to begin a rehearsal.  So in other words, real life.

It is worth mentioning that the book has a very strong Christian message throughout, so any of you with a religious mind will certainly take even more from The Art of Standing Still.  What is also nice, is that as well as the predominantly Christian character base we are introduced to a Sikh couple and an elderly Jewish woman, both of which are close with the vicar, and which pushes to show the similarities in faiths.

All in all, a very enjoyable book, and one that I am pleased to have been able to have read.

8/10

You can find Penny Culliford's website here.

Book 20 - Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Book - Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Author - JK Rowling
Year - 1999
Genre - Fantasy
Leant to me by Ellie Walsh a couple of years ago when I did my last reread.  Sorry Ellie!  You can finally have it back!

I recently had a chat with the aforementioned Ellie about the order in which we would rank the Harry Potter books.  Some, such as the last placed book (Order of the Phoenix, we are looking at you!) we agreed on completely, but there were little differences here and there.  The one that surprised me was that Ellie had this third book at the top of her list (I think.  It was many hours into my birthday drinks that we had this discussion)

Having finished reading the book again however, I am no longer surprised.  For me it won't overtake the book that follows it, but it actually is an even better book than I remembered.  The ending particularly is a marvelously woven thread which, whilst not being the most complex thing in the world, is quite magically done, and is pretty advanced for a book supposedly aimed at children.  Along with the seemingly hundreds portents to later books that crop up throughout, this turns into a brilliant novel, and another great example of why the Harry Potter series is one of the best around.

10/10

Monday, 5 April 2010

Book 19.5 - Mr Tall

Book - Mr Tall
Author - Roger Hargreaves
Year - 1978
Genre - Children's
Bought for me by Ellie Beaumont


As part of this challenge, I feel it is important to read the classics of modern literature, so it was with great pleasure that I unwrapped a copy of Mr Tall for my birthday this year.  A heartwarming redemption story featuring our protagonist, the eponymous Mr Tall reaching the conclusion (SPOILER ALERT!) that being so tall is not the worst thing that could ever happen to him (SPOILER END).

Each of the introduced characters has a well defined persona - Mr Nosy is nosy, Mr Greedy is greedy and so forth - and it is partly due to this, and partly due to the fact that each page has an average of about thirty words on it, that this is a real page turner.

If I have any critisisms of this book, then they are that the alluded to bromance between Mr Tall and Mr Small is not really developed in any real detail, and that not enough thought has gone into the socio-economic or political climates in which the action occurs.  However, I still believe that this is a book which should be listed amoungst the classics such as Black Beauty, Tale of Two Cities, Grapes of Wrath and Angel by Katie Price.

10/10

Friday, 2 April 2010

Book 19 - The Fall

Book - The Fall
Author - Garth Nix
Year - 2000
Genre - Young Adult/Fantasy
Series - The Seventh Tower

I have already mentioned in my blog how I am a fan of Science Fantasy, and of Young Adult Science Fantasy as well.  Garth Nix is, in my eyes, one of the most underrated authors of this genre.  Some of his books, such as Sabriel and The Keys To The Kingdom series are absolutely screaming out to be made into films, and I am not sure why - to the best of my knowledge - they as of yet haven't.  So I was pleased to find this book - the first of The Seventh Tower series.  I thought it would be a great new series of his to get started on.

Unfortunately, it isn't quite as good as I hoped.  Following Tal, a thirteen year old 'Chosen' who manages to get into some trouble with the higher ups of his world, and finds himself falling from the top of a massive tower.  The book is split into two halves, the first charting how he got there, and the second charting what happens after.  As ever, Nix creates a wonderful world, and where The Keys To The Kingdom focuses on a world based around time and the seven days of the week, The Seventh Tower focuses on a world of light and the seven colours of the spectrum.  However, the book - whilst being not terrible by any means - is not the most gripping of stories ever, and the last quarter in particular being a bit of a drag.  It's not a tough read, and hopefully the series will improve, but for now, not the greatest book I've ever read.

6/10

Book 18 - K-PAX

Book - K-PAX
Author - Gene Brewer
Year - 1995
Genre - Fiction (with a bit of Sci-Fi)


This was a random book I pulled off of a shelf in a charity shop recently based purely on the fact that I knew that a film had been made of it with Kevin Bacon in, and was something to do with an alien.  This was all I knew about it, but seeing as my knowledge of cinema is nothing to boast about, it seemed a good enough basis to spend out 50p on a book.

K-PAX is written from the point of view of a psychiatrist who is presented with a case of a delusional man who believes himself to be a visitor from another planet - the eponymous K-PAX.  The book follows the doctor as he tries to find out more about his patient, and as the patient himself - 'prot' as he calls himself, lower case first letter and all - tries to find out more about the world that he has ended up on, our very own Earth.

The strength of the book lies in the strength of the two main characters.  Dr Brewer has nearly as many issues as most of his patients, but will coolly refer to them in a professional manner whenever they arise.  For his part, prot is a character that is instantly likable, and throughout the whole book ambiguous enough to keep the overall story arc an incredibly page turning quality.

I was expecting this to be a bit of a throwaway sci-fi-ish novel that I would be mildly entertained by, but not really remember much about just a few months down the line.  Instead I found a clever and interesting book which once I found out there are two sequals to, meant that I would probably be thinking about for a while to come.

9/10

Find the author, Gene Brewer's website here.