Friday, April 10, 2009

The Tiger That Isn't (Seeing Through a World of Numbers) by Michael Blastland & Andrew Dilnot

If you attempt to blank out the statistics that the media throw at us daily, you are not alone. Whether it is because you don't understand them, or because you don't trust them, this book will give you the critical skills to appraise them - and it does so in a completely accessible way, even for the non-Mathematician.

The tiger of the title is a reference to how when we see a pattern of stripes in the shadows, we panic and believe there is a tiger. The same thing happens when looking at statistical information.

Chapter by chapter the authors take example of how numbers get mangled and misunderstood and show you some simple questions to ask in order to see through the fog. Sometimes it is the desire for a great headline that makes a mockery of the facts. Sometimes it is a genuine error in compiling or interpreting the information. But once you have read this book, you are much less likely to be taken in.

I thoroughly recommend this book. Easy to read, easy to understand and a vital tool in our soundbite world.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Mistress of the Spices by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

A wild mixture of romance, magic and tragedy this book almost defies definition. Tilo's life has been one of change, and now she has vowed to help those who come to her by employing the aid of the different spices in her shop. But vows can be very hard to keep when you have your own needs and desires.

The immigrant experience in America is wonderful realised in this novel and juxtaposed to great effect with the idyll of Tilo's mystical island. The descriptions of people, places and perfumes give the reader a full sense of Tilo's world.

The book is one to savour and wonder over. Tilo's relationship with the people who come into her shop, her relationship with the new land in which she finds herself and her relationship with the spices themselves are powerful and beautiful.

Cracks by Sheila Kohler

This book is frequently compared to Lord of the Flies, but it is not about the breakdown of civilised behaviour outside of adult intervention. The adults in the novel are intrinsic to the events that unfold, events which have been covered over and only brought back into the light when the protaganists meet many years after they have taken place.

Obsession, jealousy and control feature throughout. The story describes a descent from polite convention to shocking betrayal and the reader is submerged in the claustraphobic atmosphere of a South African boarding school. The girls each have different reasons for needing to belongand the swimming team offers them that sense of self worth that they lack. It is this neediness that takes them all relentlessly to the catastrophe that will haunt their adult lives.

Atmospheric and engaging, Kohler's novel captures the desperation of puberty and the danger of suppressing your true self.

Waterlog by Roger Deakin

Subtitled "A swimmer's journey through Britain", this book charts the author's experiences swimming outdoors across the country. Not for Deakin the comforts of the municipal outdoor pool - he swims in untamed waters such as the River Avon, the Granta and Hell Gill. Foolhardy? Maybe. Brave? Perhaps.

Deakin's writing describes the fear and the exaltation of swimming outdoors. He describes the beauty of the natural world but also explains how once these were the only places to swim, and the modern culture of rosk-avoidance has robbed us all of these enriching experiences.

As a travelogue, as a nature guide, as a celelbration of the eccentric I heartily recommend this book. Roger Deakin's death in 2006 was a great loss.

The Drowned World by J G Ballard

In 1962 Ballard imagined a world in which global warming had destroyed civilisation in any recognisable form. The world is flooded, with fewer and fewer areas inhabitable. London is being looted and the last remaining scientists there are tormented with nightmares.

Ballard explores the psychological impact of the destroction of all vestiges of human existence by the heat and encroaching natural world, leading the reader to a dramatic and uncomfoartable finale.

The novel has been cristicised for lacking narrative drive. I feel this is an unwarranted criticism, made in ignorance. If you are looking for science fiction full of space battles and robots, then this is not for you. However, if you want a thoughtful and subtle work exploring the psychological effects of changes to the recognisable world, you will find few better examples.

Lunch by Karen Moline

This is definitely adult fiction, featuring the disturbing relationship between an artist and an actor, caught between passion and common sense. Their obsessive and, frankly, abusive relationship leads them both to the brink of destruction.

By turns erotic and unsettling, Karen Moline has created a book that is neither top shelf nor high literature, but exists in some category in between. It is likely to be a novel that divides opinion, as will the subject matter, dealing as it does with powerplay and control. As a titillating exploration of the dangers of desire it succeeds, although I fear ythe author intended more from it.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Circus Outing from Saronti - 10% off!

What a great idea! I've seen books that a personalise for a child before, but never one that includes the whole family!

With Saronti you can include up to 7 people, and each one is an integral part of the story. From lion taming to elephant riding, your family can have an amazing and very funny adventure.

I read it as a bedtime story to my 3 year old daughter, and she couldn't stop giggling. The illustrations are colourful and fun, and the rhyming text is genuinely funny and easy to read. (I found my 7 year old reading it to herself, curled in a chair).

Circus Outing is just one of a range of stories you can arrange to have personalised, including one to commemorate a child's time at Pre-School. Any one of them would make a treasured gift - for a child or their parents! And if you use the code SHOESINHERTS at the Saronti website, you will get 10% off!

The Great and Secret Show by Clive Barker

This book is nearly 20 years old and while rereading it I did wonder how modern technology would have affected the plot. The internet, mobile phones - they do take the cliffhanger out of a story!

There is no denying the weight of this book. At over 700 pages, it will make your arm ache when you read it in bed. However, I do question the need for so many pages. It is a complex plot, with many characters, and yet there are passages which seem to neither illuminate character nor move the action forward. Because of the length, Barker allows characters to drop out of the action for extended periods. This is disorientating, and is the books major failing.

It is, however, a book full of intriguing ideas and haunting images. Quiddity, the dream sea which we visit just 3 times is a concept that seems to carry a resonance that makes you wonder whether Barker has some knowledge that we don't share. It is worth reading for the thought-provoking images and the sense that some of it is true. It is worth reading to understand how all the elements fit together and how the seemingly unstoppable chain of events play out.

I just wish it was a bit more succinct.

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffeneger

This complex book will remain with you, long after you have finished reading it. It is about love and loss, beginnings and endings, foreknowledge and the unforeseen.

I usually avoid books that are on recommended lists - when all the commuters on the train were reading Angela's Ashes I shunned it. This was one of Richard and Judy's selections, and once I began reading it, I could see why it was worth telling people about.

It is closely plotted, with the interlinked events of the characters' timelines ordered to gradually reveal their relationship and the important events which shape it. It is beautifully written and has a haunting quality which could so easily be missing from such a complex story. As the story progresses the difficulties which are created by the unique situation are explored without forcing it and with great naturalness.

I wholeheartedly recommend this book. Its proposition is a simple one, but the execution is excellent.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

Most books that aim to teach children moral lessons are not enjoyable. They are preachy, they are dull, they are smug. Not this one!

Bored Milo goes on the adventure of his life, and learns that life is what you make it. Sounds too worthy, doesn't it?

This book is full of puns and plays on words, surprises and jokes. It pits words against numbers, it takes cliches literally and it zips along at a fantastic pace. I have read this book many times, starting from when I was about 10, and each time I read it I find more that I had not noticed before. My 7 year old daughter loved it, even though many of the ideas and jokes were beyond her.

This is a book that every child and adult should read. There is a film of the book that I saw once many years ago, but as is so oftern the case, the book is far superior. If you have never read it, get a copy now!

English Passengers by Matthew Kneale

This novel is humourous and moving by turns. Dealing with the English colonisation of Tasmania and the cruel displacement and distruction of the indigenous peoples, it is written from multiple viewpoints: various English travellers on their way to prove that Tasmania is the site of the biblical Eden; the ship's crew from the Isle of Man who take them there; one of the indigenous Tasmanians and various minor characters alomg the way.

Kneale creates a believable voice for each of his characters, and the multiple viewpoints weave together a story more vivid and revealing than a single authorial point of view could achieve. The humour comes from the increasingly ridiculous Europeans, blinkered to the extreme and forcing events to fit their pre-existing world-views. The profound sadness comes from the destruction of a complex society through misguided and often wilfully cruel and inhumane actions.

The endings are surprising, the journey there engaging. This book may not be a true historical document, but it certainly gives a believable insight into how such an atrocity could have come about. A rich and well-crafted read.

Eucalyptus by Murray Bail

The premise of this book is one of classic fairy tales - the suitor must perform a task to show he deserves the princess's hand in marriage. This challenge is to name hundreds of species of Eucalyptus.

At this book's heart is storytelling and identity. Each chapter is titled for one of the trees to be named and a characteristic of that tree is illustrated within. The enigmatic storyteller with whom Ellen falls in love is the one person who treats her as an individual rather than a possession, trophy or symbol. Why would she not love him?

It is an odd novel with a dreamlike quality. Ellen's fatalistic acceptance of her father's decree is so unlikely as to place the book firmly in the realm of symbollic fantasy. I really enjoyed immersing myself in it.

The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi

As a document of the late 1970's in London, this book is very successful. It captures the change of youth culture from prog rock to punk as Karim moves from school to acting, from the family unit to a broken home and independence. In the course of his journey he falls in love with men and women, he has his heart broken and he is forced to confront his mixed race identity.

Karim is the narrator of the novel, and it is this that gives the unique voice that is both powerful and irritating. He is young, he is pretentious, he is not able to see himself clearly. In the early stages of the novel when he is still at school this is apt and draws the reader into the South London world. However, towards the end of the novel when Karim has experienced so much, he still remains naive and lacking in self awareness. This means that his betrayal of his friends and family is for nothing, as his character has not learnt from his experiences.

There is a definite lack of development of Karim's mother. You are left with impression that she ceases to exist for large parts of the book, whilst the character of his father is so vibrant that he has a presence throughout the novel, even when he is not actually there. This lack of development of the female characters is a weakness.

The theatre scenes are very uncomfortable to read. Firstly this is due to Karim's plundering of his friend's character for comic effect. His impression is cruel and yet he continues with it in order to improve his status in the cast. The other reason why this section is uncomfortable is the charcatured theatre director, abusing his cast and preying on them sexually. Kureishi has apparently admitted basing this character on Howard Kirk in Malcolm Bradbury's The History Man, and it is easy to see how closely based he is.

This book is not the masterpiece that is is sometimes made out to be.

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

This novel is frequently referred to in university English departments, both for its exploration of one of literature's most famous unseen characters and for its exploration of the cultural questions raised by Bertha's heritage. However, whilst the idea is obviously an interesting and clever one, and it is intellectual heresy to say it, I will admist that I found the text of this novel almost impenetrable. In places it felt as if I was reading a story in which around a quarter of the sentences had been deleted.

The earlier part of the book are most successful, with descriptions of Caribbean sights, scents and sounds powerfully described. The latter sections which most immediately preceed Jane Eyre are the most difficult to read, not least because of the experiment in stream-of-consciousness writing which is used to indicate Bertha's loss of sanity. The tone of the entire book is unremittingly dark.

This is a book to read for completeness and to gain points on your intellectual scorecard. It is not a book to read for pleasure or escapism.

The Soldier's Return by Melvyn Bragg

This book quickly establishes a strong sense of place, which is maintained throughout. The descriptions of Wigton and its streets and landmarks are maplike in their detail. The evocations of the post-war era and the attitudes of those who lived through the war towards the men returning are strong, although the characterisation of Ellen was less developed than she deserves. This woman has taken on the role of head of family while her husband has been away, she has raised their son and earned a living, and yet as the novel progresses she becomes increasingly just a personification of the lack of understanding faced by Sam.

Overall, however, I enjoyed this book. I finished it with the feeling that I had learned something about the world that my parents and grandparents had lived through and that is not mentioned in the usual "returning hero" genre of films and books.