Category: book review

book review: Box of Delights by John Masefield

Christmas time is the perfect moment to choose a story to read that is dripping with yuletide references and a classic battle of good versus evil.

Kay Harker is coming home from school for Christmas and bumps into a punch and judy man and a couple of curates on the train and his adventure begins. The old punch and judy man, Cole Hawkins, asks him to do him a favour telling an old woman in the village that the wolves are running and from that moment on the young Kay is drawn into the protection and magic of the box of delights.

Kay is up against Abner Brown and his gang that are based in an old missionary college and choose to dress as clergymen when not running around the countryside as wolves or flying through the air in quiet mysterious airplane cars.

The Box of Delights contains a way into the past and can help the owner go small or fly through the air, both options Kay uses widely as he discovers the plot of Abner Brown and his gang. Brown wants the box for its magic and having kidnapped Hawkins then starts to work back through everyone the old man might have met taking them captive in the cells in the cellar of the old missionary college hoping they will tell him the location of the box.

He never chooses to scrobble Kay because the boy’s former governess is Brown’s mistress and she informs Abner that the boy was stupid and couldn’t possibly have been trusted with such an important object.

Through a series of magic moments in the present, with mice, fairies and rats all emerging from the hidden places, to adventures in the past Kay is brought to a climatic fight with Brown.

Reunited with Hawkins the magic of the box helps them escape but it is plain and simple greed and double crossing that see off Abner.

Despite snow and the capture of the clergy the box comes to the rescue and the Christmas Eve service, the 1000th at Tatchester Cathedral, is saved.

The story is a wonderful Christmas read and the BBC made it into a drama back in 1984 that is still enchanting despite the dated look of the special effects. One thing sticks in my mind, which is why even when he makes his friends small and they meet fairies etc, why do they never talk about it afterwards? Was it all a dream? Perhaps.

book review: The Passport by Herta Muller

Sometimes the joiner’s wife is summoned to the priest because of the baptismal certificate, sometimes to the militiaman because of the passport.
The night watchman has told Windisch that the priest has an iron bed in the sacristy. In this bed he looks for baptismal certificates, with the women. “If things go well,” said the night watchman, “he looks for the baptismal certificates five times. If he is doing the job thoroughly, he looks ten times. With some families the militiaman loses and mislays the applications and the revenue stamps seven times. He looks for them on the mattress in the post office store room with the women who want to emigrate.”

Imagine a small, claustrophobic and corrupt community that offers only one release through a passport and movement abroad. Add to the misery the environment of a dictatorship and the prospect that life in the West might not be much better and it is a world of pain and disappointment that tests the human resolve to the limit.

Muller uses the story of a miller, Windisch, and his attempt to get his wife and daughter passports to get out of the Romanian village into Germany as a tale that could be applied to thousands elsewhere.

The miller bribes the mayor with corn and hopes that he is inching closer to getting his passport but the only real bargaining chip he has is his daughter who he will have to send to sleep with the customs and parish officials who can speed through the paperwork.

The bitterness that leaves and the damage it does to the family is taken with them as they finally manage to leave.

But there are other things that you are left with as an experience reading this book. One is the idea that people can react differently to dictatorship and some will unfortunately close their minds to the ambition to gain freedom and will choose to remain victims.

The other is the style. Having read the Land of Green Plums the same lyrical, poetical style is on display here and although it is perhaps initially difficult to get into the Muller groove, once there the book flows along.

This might be a fairly slim volume but it is describing a world that most of its readers in the West would never have experienced and one that shows that even in the darkest despair there is always hope and the pull of freedom is an incredibly strong one.

book review: Rumpole at Christmas by John Mortimer

‘All that does is make you fat, Rumpole.’
‘You’re telling me I’m fat?’ The thought hadn’t really occurred to me, but on the whole it was a fair enough description.
‘You’re on the way to becoming obese,’ she added.
‘is that a more serious way of saying I’m fat?’
‘It’s a very serious way of saying it. Why, the buttons will fly off your waistcoat like bullets. And I don’t believe you could run to catch a bus.’
“Not necessary. I go by Tube to the Temple Station.’

If you are looking for a bit of humour, tales that have an outcome that involves great insight into human character and heavy doses of coincidence and a bit of humbug then this is a great book to consume against the backdrop of tinsel and fairy lights.

This collection brings together a series of seven yuletide themed stories that have not been collected together like this before. Rumpole is the old but wise barrister who manages to win cases despite most of the legal establishment being against him. She who must be obeyed, his wife Hilda, provides light relief and bosses the old boy around when he is not in the Old Bailey.

Over the course of the stories Rumpole manages to get his clients off on lighter charges, solve a murder and spend one Christmas break with a judge he can’t stand.

There is some repetition that perhaps could have been edited out given that by the seventh story you know all about how the Rumpole’s spend Christmas and how Hilda gets lavender water each and every year. But once you get past that repetitive scene setting theses stories, which have a recent feel about them thanks to topical references to the internet etc, do take hold of you.

If you fancy buying a Christmas book at this time of year and are open to spending time with an aging and outwardly rude barrister who has a heart of gold and a flair for solving crimes and getting justice then this is a perfect choice.

book review: The Small Hand by Susan Hill

“Do I believe in ghosts? The question is common enough and, if asked, I usually hedge my bets by saying, ‘Possibly.’ If asked whether I have seen one, of course until now I have always said that I have not.”

Rather than scared the feeling on competition of this story was one of sadness. Mysteries of the past have the ability to emerge into the present and do great harm to those that thought they had left the past far behind them.

Having introduced the idea of a decrepit house and a ghostly presence of a child in just the few pages the story of the house and the small hand then unfold over the rest of the story.

The main character, rare book dealer Adam Snow, stumbles on the White House and its over grown and falling down house and garden on his way back to London from an appointment in Sussex. To get to the house he has to push past the brambles and the old gateway where visitors would have paid to visit the garden and in that quiet and chilly setting a small hand seems to enter his own. The presence of a child, a ghostly hand, that Adam feels as if it were real.

He then has to discover if he is going mad or whether or not the small hand is destined to haunt him for a long time. A well crafted story of hidden events of the past starts to unravel slowly and Adam suffers a few more spine chilling encounters before the truth is discovered.

Unlike the Woman in Black you don’t read this frightened to turn the page but rather hurry along wanting to find out how the story unfolds. It is disturbing and the question of ghosts is one that both the character and the reader would have to think about. Do you believe in them? That question dominates Adam and starts to nag at the back of your own mind.

As a yuletide ghost story to be read against a backdrop of cold dark nights it’s the choice of the moment and while it won’t have you frightened to close your eyes it delivers a slower scare leaving darker thoughts lurking in your mind.

book review: The Dead Beat by Cody James

“It clouds your vision of the present, of what you have, of what you’ve made of yourself. It colours everything with dissatisfaction. It points out every instance in your life where you have been disappointed, hurt and heartbroken. it jumps on every word out of place that you hear people say and shows you the bruises and bumps it has suffered along the way, demanding that you do something about it. It looks around and tells you that it can’t handle things this way, that things weren’t supposed to be this way, that this isn’t good enough. We’re always being told to hold on to our innocence. Well, let me tell you what I’ve learned: innocence is a dirty, conniving whore.”

How do you make a reader willingly and avidly read on about the lives of four house mates who are dragging themselves deeper into the dark depths of drug addiction? How do you make the reader care about these people and their black world even when described in all its horrific detail? Good writing with a solid voice and a cracking pace is the simple answer.

Cody James clearly knows what she is writing about and can portray the world of the falling apart without coming down on either side of the fence. She can tell you about Adam and his friends in graphic detail with humour and pain, but it is up to you to decide how you feel about them.

And feel about them you do. Adam, the main character, is heading for death and doing a very good line in self destruction. His friends Sean, Lincoln and Xavi are all gripped by the same addictions and sense of desperation. They each show it differently with Lincoln putting his hopes into a relationship that seems to have only remote prospects of lasting. Sean swings through bisexuality looking for satisfaction and Xavi trys to control his environment to bring some sort of sense of calm.

As Adam falls apart and takes his failings out on his friends and women he is involved with it would be easy to be turned off and hate the guy. But there is a part of you, perhaps all of us, that refuses to turn away until the light has completely gone out. You want to believe that Adam will sort himself out and recover some stability.

A few years ago now I stayed up late one night and watched a film with a young Michael Hutchence taking one of the main roles. Dogs in Space was the title, if I remember rightly, and it centered on a collection of misfits sharing a house and trying to find happiness. But excess and tragedy mar the group and it is a movie with a lot of self reflection and growing up in its tale. Had expected this to perhaps go in the same direction but liked the way James left the characters open to your interpretation.

Ultimately Adam and company could go either way. That is perhaps the greatest irony of drug addiction as so well portrayed by James that even until the end there is a chance of pulling out of the nosedive. Would Adam have done it? You would like to think so but this story pulls no punches and so you are well prepared to accept that he wouldn’t.

book review: The Interrogative Mood A Novel? by Padgett Powell

“Can you cook? Can you fight? Can you lie? Can you do anything well? Have you acquired a sufficient stock of clothes from a mail-order seller that you can, if you want to flip through the catalogue to decide what to wear that day ? Do you know a peony from a petunia? What exactly does “Standard & Poor” mean to you? Can you hang ten? Do you dance?”

Life is full of questions and answers and each child goes through their why? period before learning that asking about things all the times causes both annoyance and frustration because the answers are usually far from satisfactory.

Imagine reading a book that from start to finish a series of questions. It might sound difficult reading, and in parts it is, but perhaps not for the reasons you think. One of the problems is the urge to mentally answer as many questions as you can and the other is to try, even though it’s clear one isn’t coming, to look out for a traditional narrative structure.

At the end you realise that of course life is a series of questions and a search for answers, for some sort of truth, and that those that ask with the sort of random determination of the voice in this book do so at risk of alienating themselves from friends caught in the questioning crossfire.

The questions ebb and flow and there is something almost symphonic about the way that certain themes recur through the reading. Questions about blue jays, poodles and haircuts crop up in different ways throughout the book.

There is also a sense of asking the reader to think about their perceptions of a novel. The question really is what is a novel? and although this comes hardbound at 164 pages looking like a novel is it one? Is this literature as art? Is this literature as a construction? The questions don’t stop at page 164.

As an exercise reading something different this reminds you that the narrative forms you take for granted are there to be challenged and in a way this succeeds where Tom McCarthy’s C failed to be an anti-novel. It might not be comfortable but it will make you laugh in places but more than anything it will make you think and that has to be a good thing.

book review: Roman Soldier’s Handbook by Lesley Sims

This review has been dictated to me by my eldest son who has really enjoyed this book:

“It is old modern history put into fun ways for children to understand. They have some jokes which are really funny. It is a really interesting book that I have enjoyed reading very much. It is quite history packed. At the back you have a map of the Roman countries and it is full of Roman facts.”

“I took this book into school, where we are learning about Romans, and showed my friends. They thought it was great and Samuel really wants to read it.”

“The best thing about the book where the way the pictures took you inside to places like the general’s house and they had horses and stables. That was the best part.”

This book gets a Roman thumbs up and four and a half stars out of five.

book review: Circus Bulgaria by Deyan Enev

“In the office, I took out my notebook and cigarettes and knocked off a story in a couple of hours. The endings were the easiest part for me. They’d hit the reader on the head like a hammer. Then, like any writer I needed to share with someone the miracle of creation.”

If the aim of this book of short stories, almost excerpts of daily life both real and imaginary, is meant to summarise the state of life in Bulgaria then a few words are conjured up in your mind including harsh, cruel, strange, magical, comical and hopeful.

There are plenty of stories that cover the harsh consequences of living in a country that has such a wide disparity between the poor and the wealthy. A boxer is hired by a mafia type boss to become one of his thugs and is shot when he refuses to hurt his own brother but at the graveside a bundle of notes is offered to clear any sense of debt to the grieving sibling.

The longest story about a film producer who arrives from England looking to tell the story of the woman who was kept living with pigs and raped by the farmer ends with a bitter twist that leaves the producer desperate to get out of the country.

There are moments where this is like reading a collection of dark fairy tales about boys who thought they could fly, ghosts who pass on watches to pawn brokers and mutes who believe that a miracle will restore their speech.

But what weaves through even the darkest tale is a sense that those involved want to change their lives and futures and as a country perhaps this is the post communist ambition. There is a strangeness about some of the customs and traditions held by the people described in this book. But there is also a sense that the strangeness and fear of change is a very real one that is felt by everyone from the poorest right up to the other end of the scale.

Enev displays a blackest of humours, which is how some of his characters handle the brickbats that life throws at them. The writing here is sharp, delivers the endings that hit the reader on the head like a hammer and is almost cinematic in the ability to conjure up images in your head that you know will stay for a long time. Some are welcome but the majority are going to be challenging for some time to come.

book review – Who Killed Palomino Molero? – Mario Vargas Llosa

“Why couldn’t Alicia Mindreau fall in love with that skinny kid who played the guitar so beautifully and sang with that tender, romantic voice? Why was it impossible for a little white girl to be in love with a little cholo? Why did the colonel see that love as a tortuous conspiracy against him?”

There is something almost knee-jerk about wanting to read a book by a Nobel winner and as an introduction this slimline volume is an ideal start.

In a nutshell a man is killed, but tortured in a fairly brutal way before dying, and two local policeman Lituma and his boss Lieutenant Silva set about solving the case of who murdered Palomino Molero. Set in 1950s Peru this book is as much about racism and class as it is about crime solving and the two policemen come up against barriers throughout their investigation.

The first barrier is the victim’s status as an airman because it means that the investigation has to take place involving the airfield personnel who are determined not to help.

The second barrier is one of racism with the victim being a cholo and looked down on by the white officers at the base. Part of the reason for his death is his racial background not being good enough.

The third barrier is one of understanding. Although Lieutenant Silva is very good at reading people he fails to fully understand the mental illness that Palomino Molero’s girlfriend is suffering from. Her delusional state means that the relationship was probably doomed even before it was ended by murder.

Good books and great writers manage to say a lot of things in a small space without bamboozling the reader with too much information – deep but a light touch. Vargas Llosa shows here that he is able to use a murder story as a way of illustrating several points. Throughout though you want to know how and why the crime was perpetrated and long for justice.

it is perhaps the way that the divided society fails to accept the outcome that highlights more than anything else just how deep the resentments against class groups goes and how even when a crime is solved there can be those who remained unsatisfied.

book review – The Ministry of Fear – Graham Greene

“‘Your old fashioned murderer killed from fear, from hate – or even from love, Mr Rowe, very seldom for substantial profit. None of these reasons is quite -respectable. But to murder for position – that’s different, because when you’ve gained the position nobody has a right to criticize the means. Nobody will refuse to meet you if the position’s high enough. Think of how many of your statesman have shaken hands with Hitler.'”

Set against the terror of a blitzed out London one man has to solve a mystery that not only threatens his own life and sanity but potentially the safety of Britain in it’s battle against the Nazi’s.

Arthur Rowe starts off by buying a cake in a raffle by being tipped off by the fortune teller to its exact weight. He isn’t the man meant to get the cake and soon afterwards a whirlwind journey begins that first sees someone attempt to poison him then to have Rowe framed for the murder of a man at a seance.

A bomb dropping and wiping out his memory saves him from being killed but the sense that he will solve the mystery surfaces again and in a story that reminds you of 39 Steps and in moments of some of the Bond’s the book moves to a gripping conclusion.

To say anymore would give too much away and spoil the enjoyment for others but what is safe to say is that Greene is having fun here. The plot weaves and runs with the reader, as well as Rowe, never knowing who can be trusted and which side is good or evil. The fact Rowe is himself is a murderer is a brilliant twist that establishes that confusion about which side to back.

Despite his past the reader sides with Rowe and wants him to succeed. To a degree he does but finding out who you really are can be a terrible price to pay.

One of the other highlights of the book along with the plot is London itself. Greene describes a bombed and fearful London in a way few other writers have and manages to place a reader into a world where a sound overhead could mean death or a near miss.

Taking you down into the strange world of those who sleep on the underground Greene uses London brilliantly to evoke the sense of shifting ground and danger that is also being played out between Rowe and those determined to find out what he knows and kill him.