Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Politically Incorrect Parenting by Nigel Latta

Title: Politically Incorrect Parenting by Nigel Latta
Genre: Self-help
Rating: 10/10
Comments: I read an interview with Nigel Latta in The Age and instantly knew I had to get his book. His common sense attitude dovetailed with my own views of parenting and I could use some practical tips from someone more experienced in the game. The book is laugh out loud funny but packed with sound information and advice. It is very easy to read - I read it from cover to cover in 2 days while juggling full-time work and a screaming baby.

Monday, 31 May 2010

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll

Title: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll
Genre: Children's classic
Rating: 10/10
Comments: As part of our bedtime routine I read Hannah a chapter of a book each night even though she is too young to understand anything yet. This gets her used to my voice and to the concept of reading and signals that it is time to go to sleep. After getting bored senseless reading about Spot the dog I decided I would only read what I enjoyed - a bored reader does not transmit a love of books to the listener.

I have now decided that Alice is a book(s) best enjoyed read out loud - it's hard to appreciate the poetry and verse when read silently to one's self. It's clearly a book designed as much for adults as children with its clever puns and delightful nonsense more than standing the test of time and repeated reads.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Big Women by Fay Weldon

Title: Big Women by Fay Weldon
Novel, sociology, feminism
Rating: 8.5/10
Comments: Like all of Fay Weldon's works this is an eminently readable novel with simple straightforward prose that disguises the power and depth of the story underneath. Weldon traces the rise, evolution and subgroups of activist feminism from the 1960s to the 1980s through the vehicle of a feminist publish house and the women who run it. She skilfully- and somewhat cruelly - portrays many of the feminist stereotypes -including the detached academic, the wealthy woman of independent means who can indulge her interests, the man-hating lesbian extremist and the put upon women who do all the grunt work. An entertaining read.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Comfort reading - Agatha Christie: 2010

I've read Agatha Christie's detective/mystery books so often - they are the reading equivalent of comfort eating for me. Most stand the test of time remarkably well, although there are a few duds in there. So far this year I've re-read:
  1. The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding (shortish slightly self-indulgent stories) 8/10
  2. The Mysterious Mr Quin (short stories with common theme - a supernatural element running through them that is somehow connected with the mysterious appearances and disappearances of the enigmatic Mr Harley Quin.) 8/10
  3. The Sittaford Mystery 8/10 (classic detective story from the 1930s)
  4. Ten Little Niggers (the original non-PC version of Then There were None - brilliant thriller and murder mystery) 10/10
  5. The Seven Dials Mystery (a thriller set in the upper classes of the 1930s - not one of the best) 6.5/10
  6. Evil Under the Sun (brilliant murder mystery set on island off Devon) 10/10
  7. Miss Marple's Final Cases (short stories) 8/10
  8. Cards on the Table (OK Hercule Poirot detective) 7/10
  9. Destination Unknown (thriller, doesn't stand the test of time but not bad either) 7/10
  10. Parker Pyne Investigates (short stories that start out by being more about love and romance but gradually take on a more serious detective note) 7/10
  11. Murder in Mesopotamia (very good HP detective novel set on archaeological dig in the 1930s) 9/10
  12. Poirot Investigates (short stories) 8/10
  13. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (which established Christie as a detective story genius. Although it has lost a little of its lustre over time, her characters and descriptions are masterful) 9.5/10
  14. Three Act Tragedy (Hercule Poirot detective novel from the 1930s, set amongst the theatrical crowd of the times) 8.5/10
  15. The Mystery of the Blue Train (Hercule Poirot novel first published in 1928. OK detective story but reflects the ingrained British xenophobia and anti-Semitism of the times, making it interesting in terms of understanding the cultural context of Europe in the years leading up to WW2.) 7.5/10
  16. Hickory Dickory Dock (Hercule Poirot detective published 1955. Agatha Christie's Golden Age was the 1930s-1940s. Here she was trying to reflect the London student life of the 1950s but the setting is far from convincing. Stereotyped characters do not help although as usual the actual detective story is OK.) 7/10
  17. The Labours of Hercules (short stories first published as a collection in 1947 with some stories dating back as far as 1939. Cute idea of Hercule Poirot completing a final 12 cases for his career, each reflecting an intellectual equivalent of the original Labours of his namesake, a the brawny hero of ancient Greece. An amusing if not brilliant collection.) 8/10.
  18. Murder in the Mews (four Poirot cases first published in 1937. Christie is trying out ideas, some of which are used in later - the most obvious being 'Triangle at Rhodes' which evolved into 'Evil Under the Sun'.) 8/10
  19. The Pale Horse (Do the occupants of The Pale Horse really use witchcraft to convince others to die by natural causes or is it a new form of technology hidden in a wooden box? Or something far more traditional and prosaic? With a central character inspired by one of her former colleagues and claims that a real-life would-be killer used information from this book in his deadly plans, implausible as it might seem, this novel may be the closest Christie ever comes to a true-crime read.) 8/10
  20. Sparkling Cyanide (a beautiful, wealthy but vacuous socialite wife dies after drinking a glass of poisoned champagne at her birthday dinner in the heart of a fashionable restaurant. Was it really suicide due to depression after influenza? Suicide due to an unhappy love affair? Or murder?) 8/10
  21. N or M? (rather silly Tommy & Tuppance WWII spy thriller.) 6/10
  22. They Do it with Mirrors (At the behest of an old friend concerned there is something wrong, Miss Marple goes to stay with the idealistic Carrie Louise who along with her husband is running a rehabilitation program for 200 juvenile delinquents. But is Carrie Louise really in danger - or is someone else?) 8/10
  23. The Body in the Library (When a young blonde girl in cheap finery is found strangled in the library of Gossington Hall, its owners Colonel and Mrs Bantry claim they have no knowledge of who she is. As rumours begin to circulate Mrs Bantry calls in her friend Miss Marple to track down what really happened.) 8/10
  24. Towards Zero (When Neville Strange proposes visiting his childhood home with his new wife at the same time that his former wife will be staying, eyebrows are raised and disaster predicted. But no-one could have predicted the vicious murder of their hostess, the elderly Lady Tressalin. Christie at her best.) 10/10
  25. After the Funeral (No-one considers the death of Richard Lansquenet suspicious until his sister, Cora, makes a comment after the funeral "He was murdered, wasn't he?" While disconcerted, no-one appears to take her statement too seriously - until Cora herslef is murdered the next day.) 8/10
  26. Passenger to Frankfurt (implausible thriller published in 1970. British diplomat Sir Stafford Nye en-route home after yet another meaningless boring conference is persuaded by a compelling young woman to allow himself to be drugged and robbed of his passport. Safely hoe he endeavours to meet her again and is drawn into a complex international intrigue that sees the pair travelling all over Europe.) 6/10
  27. The Moving Finger (Recuperating from a flying accident, Jerry Barton and his sister Joanna move to the village of Lymstock determined to immerse themselves in small town country life. But they soon discover the village is awash with nasty anonymous letters and even as strangers they are not immune. Following the death of a recipient in possession of one of the letters, the police and others are determined to track down the writer. Then another body is found. Classic, high quality mystery with a touch of romance.) 9.5/10
  28. Third Girl (A young girl visits Poirot at breakfast one morning and announces that she might have committed a murder. Is she a murderess, mentally disturbed, a victim or what? Poirot and his friend novelist Adrienne Oliver are determined to find out. Written and set in the 1960s, this is not one of Christie's best in terms of setting but the underlying detective story is quite satisfying.) 8/10
  29. Postern of Fate (Agatha Christie's final book and the wanderings of an elderly mind are clearly evident. Another very silly Tommy and Tuppance espionage thriller with less relevance than even N or M? Very hard to follow, let alone see the point of.) 4/10
  30. Problem at Pollensa Bay and Other Stories (collection of short stories published in 1991 including four that were written for newspapers/magazines in the 1920s & 30s and hadn't previously been published in a book.) 8/10
  31. The Secret of Chimneys (Adventurer Anthony Cade agrees to help a friend in delivering a manuscript to London and returning some incriminating letters to a lady. But the tasks turn out to be more complex than they first appeared with multiple players interested in both and dead bodies accumulating. Readable nonsense which, like many of Christie's early books, contains a disturbing amount of background xenophobia and anti-Semitism which was clearly both rampant and accepted in England in the 1920s and 1930s.) 7/10
  32. Endless Night (Mike Rogers tells the story of his fateful meeting with American heiress Ellie Guteman at Gypsies' Acre, where an underlying threat of doom haunts their fairytale romance and home. One of her better offerings from the 1960s.) 7.5/10
  33. Cat Among the Pigeons (A coup in the Middle East, missing jewels, a kidnapping and the murder of three teachers at an exclusive English school all feature in this 1959 offering.) 7/10.
  34. A Caribbean Mystery (A long-winded Colonel tells Miss Marple a story about a murder and offers to show her a photograph of a murderer. He is interrupted before he can show Miss Marple the photo - and the next day he is dead. A fairly silly and implausible story - Miss Marple does not fit comfortably into the island background.) 6/10
  35. One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (Shortly after a routine visit, Hercule Poirot's dentist dies of a gun shot wound, apparently self-inflicted. That afternoon one of his patients dies of a massive overdose of a medication used in dental injections. A few days later another patient disappears. Suicide, accident and coincidence? Or murder? ) 7/10

Monday, 25 January 2010

Oryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood. Books 1 & 2, 2010

Titles: Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
Genre: Dystopia, sci-fi, climate change
Rating: 7.5/10
Comments: Both novels are set in a future time when climate change is already destroying the earth, genetic manipulation of plants and animals is commonplace, and the haves living in gilded compounds for their own protection while the have-nots struggle for survival. A fast-moving devastating plague breaks out killing nearly all humans and leaving only a handful of survivors whose future is far from assured.

Oryx and Crake looks at this period through the eyes of one of the 'haves', Jimmy who becomes friends with a brilliant but disconnected scientist and is left to chronicle the last days of humanity. The Year of the Flood looks at this time through the eyes of a couple of the 'have-nots', members of a scientific/religious sub-group known as the God's Gardeners who are working to survive both the current period and the time after a 'waterless flood' destroys much of civilisation.

The books augment each other very well and I found myself understanding and appreciating each better after reading the other. Margaret Atwood is an excellent writer and paints a uncomfortably believable dystopic future.

These books, however, will probably be too odd, depressing and sci-fi for many of her fans. The Handmaid's Tale is a far more accessible example of her brilliant rendition of a bleak future for humanity.

Friday, 1 January 2010

A Pocket Full of Rye by Agatha Christie - Book 84, 2009

Title: A Pocket Full of Rye by Agatha Christie
Rating: 8.5/10
Plot description: From Amazon
When an unpleasant businessman is taken ill at his London office and subsequently dies of taxine poisoning, authorities discover a house full of likely suspects: a young, sexy wife having an affair; a money grubbing son worried about his father's management of the family business; an angry daughter frustrated in love by her father's control. But no sooner do police suspicions begin to form around one of the three than murder strikes again--and then again--in such a way as to leave them baffled. Enter, of course, Miss Marple, who sets about uncovering a killer who may be a psychotic that is killing victims in accordance with the old "Sing a Song of Sixpence" nursery rhyme.
Comments: An enjoyable and easy read - classic Christie with an enjoyable twist at the end.

Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie - Book 83, 2009

Title: Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie
Genre: Detective
Rating: 6.5/10
Comments: One of Agatha Christie's earliest books that really doesn't stand the test of time. Accompanied by his faithful friend, Hastings, Hercule Poirot is summoned to the home of a millionaire - only to discover he has been murdered just prior to their arrival. His wife, found firmly bound and gagged, tells a strange story about two strangers who took her husband away demanding a 'secret'. But there are plenty of people close to the household who might have had a motive for his death.

Poirot has a major personality clash with the local police officer investigating the case - both display annoying levels of arrogant superiority in their own way. Hastings almost bungles the investigation through his romantic pursuits. And while no-one expects a book written in the 1920s to have high-level DNA forensics, if Poirot can identify a stab wound made after death, one would expect the examining doctor to do the same.

The Mirror Crack'd by Agatha Christie - Book 82, 2009

Title: The Mirror Crack'd by Agatha Christie
Rating: 8/10
Comments: One of Agatha Christie's later books featuring Miss Marple. A local woman dies suddenly at a party after drinking a drug-laced cocktail handed to her by an actress who has recently moved into the largest house in town. Was the poison meant for the actress herself? But who would have a motive for killing her - or the local woman?

By the Pricking of my Thumbs by Agatha Christie - Book 81, 2009

Title: By the Pricking of my Thumbs by Agatha Christie
Rating: 7/10
Comments: Not my favourite Agatha Christie book but very well written (as all her novels are). Tommy and Tuppence Beresford visit Tommy's elderly aunt in a nursing home, where another patient, Mrs Lancaster, poses a cryptic question to Tuppence about a child buried behind a fireplace. Three months later Tommy's aunt is dead, Mrs Lancaster has been whisked away by relatives, and Tommy and Tuppence have inherited a painting that was apparently given to Tommy's aunt by Mrs Lancaster. The pair try to track down Mrs Lancaster to return the picture to her but she seems to have vanished into thin air. Tuppence becomes obsessed with the painting and is determined to track down the house featured in it. In the process she finds a village with more than its fair share of past mysteries including a history of child murders and the suspicious disappearance of the local landowner's wife.

What annoyed me most about the book was the very thin premise and coincidences used to lead into the main story. I found it too hard to suspend disbelief about how Tuppence could recognise the significance of a common landscape painting, not to mention identify the house in it from her past.

The Tripods Trilogy by John Christopher - Books 78-80, 2009

Titles: The White Mountains, The City of Gold and Lead and The Pool of Fire by John Christopher
Genre: Sci-fi/Young Adult
Rating: 9.5/10
Plot description: (from Wikipedia)

The Tripods is a series of novels written by Samuel Youd (under the pseudonym "John Christopher") beginning in the late 1960s...

The story of The Tripods is post-apocalyptic. Humanity has been conquered and enslaved by "the tripods", unseen alien entities who travel about in gigantic three-legged walking machines (the unsophisticated humans believe the walking machines themselves to be their living overlords). Human society is largely pastoral, with few habitations larger than villages, and what little industry exists is conducted under the watchful presence of the tripods. Lifestyle is reminiscent of the Middle Ages, but artifacts from previous ages are still used, giving individuals and homes a rather anachronistic appearance.

Humans are controlled from the age of 14 by implants called "caps", which suppress curiosity and creativity and leave the recipient placid and docile, incapable of dissent. The caps cause them to adore the tripods as their saviours. Some people whose minds are crushed under the pressure of the cap's hypnotic power become vagrants who wander the countryside shouting nonsense.

In The White Mountains Will is a 13-year-old boy who will be capped in the next few months. He finds himself having doubts about the whole capping process and meets a "vagrant", who is nothing of the sort but a free man with a false cap, who tells him of a place far south in the white mountains where people live without caps and are fighting the tripods.

Will sets off for these white mountains accompanied by his cousin, Henry, who is also having doubts about the capping process. In France they take up with a third runaway, a tall thin scientifically-minded youth called Jean-Paul, who is immediately nicknamed 'Beanpole'.

The City of Gold and Lead, Will volunteers for a dangerous mission to enter the tripods' city and learn more about the new rulers of earth. Here he discovers that the tripods are mere vehicles for an alien race that are unable to handle earth's atmosphere or gravity and the aliens have plans to permanently change these, killing all human and other life on the planet in the process.

In The Pool of Fire, the free men decide to invade the tripods' cities and destroy the infrastructure that keeps the aliens alive. But once they destroy the common threat to all humanity, it becomes apparent that they must still deal with a bigger crisis - learning to live with one another and work together without a common enemy.

I first read The White Mountains in primary school and loved it but was frustrated to discover it was part of a trilogy and hence I wouldn't find out the answer. In the days of limited pocket money, access to only the school and a local library and no internet/Book Depository it seemed as if I would never find out 'what happened next'. But I kept the book and nearly 30 years later stumbled on The City of Gold and Lead in a local second-hand bookshop. As the virtually unsaleable second book in a trilogy I picked it up for a dollar. I re-read The White Mountains and The City of Gold and Lead and decided I wanted to finish the series. As is often the case, the Book Depository came to my aid.

When the biggest complaint one has about a series is that the author leaves you wanting more, it is the sign of a very good book. My only real complaint is that the protagonist/narrator Will shows virtually no emotional development over all 3 books and 5-6 years in time. Other characters mature from boys into adults but Will remains as childish, impulsive, self-centred and irresponsible as ever from the age of 14 to 20. This becomes particularly frustrating in the final book, The Pool of Fire.