Saturday, 29 November 2008

Where Underpants Come From - Joe Bennett

Joe Bennett is an English-born travel writer and columnist who lives in New Zealand with his dogs. I particularly enjoyed his collected columns, which are published in Fun Run and Other Oxymorons and Bedside Lovers (and other goats), and he's also written a couple of enjoyable travel books covering New Zealand and the UK.

Where Underpants Come from: From Checkout to Cotton Field - Travels Through the New China starts with the author buying a five-pack of 'Made in China' underpants, along with a sixth pair for "special occasions", in his local New Zealand branch of The Warehouse for just $8.59. This prompts him to wonder how anyone could be making a profit on a product that has had to travel half way around the world to get to him. To learn more, he decides to track back his new pants to their source and embarks on trips to China and Thailand to try to trace the manufacturing process of these pants.

As well as visiting, and describing, several factories in China, he also covers some of the history that has helped the country become a world economic superpower. This did help to place the journey Joe was taking into economic context however also made this book feel a bit different to his usual work. Whilst interesting there was not as much gentle observational skill and humour in this book as I have found in his previous ones.

This book was at its best when he is describing the people he meets, the views he is seeing and his (very amusing) experiences of ordering food and attempting to master chopsticks. Joe Bennett comes across in his columns as having a very keen eye for human foibles and is able to handle writing about genuine emotion with great skill. Where this comes through in this book (if you've read it, I am thinking about his trip to Thailand here) it's an absolute delight to share his journey with him however when he switched to "teacher mode" his personality got lost and that's a shame.

I was delighted to track down the photos featuring Joe in his pants in a Chinese cotton field, as demanded by his publishers and humorously described in his book and, if you are feeling up to it, you can see them here and here!

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Revelation Space - Alastair Reynolds

After reading lots of "proper" grown-up books so far this month, I felt in need of some space fiction and luckily my October charity bookshop haul was able to supply me with a book, by an author I'd never read before, that fitted the bill.

Alastair Reynolds is one of the Sci-Fi authors that I suspect I should have read by now. Revelation Space (Gollancz S.F.) is his first novel and was published in 2000.

"Dr Dan Sylveste, an archaeologist who has for years been fascinated with the long-dead alien race the Amarantin, is about to discover something that could change the course of mankind. But before he can act on anything his wife is killed and he is captured when a coup sweeps across the planet Resurgam.

Meanwhile, an astonishing ship bearing a crew of militaristic cyborgs and a kidnapped Gunnery Officer is bearing down on Resurgam, crossing light years of space to enlist Sylvestes help to save their metamorphosing Captain. Only Sylveste, or, more accurately, the software programme containing his fathers knowledge that he carries in his mind, can save the Captain. None of them can anticipate the cataclysm that will result when they meet, a cataclysm that will sweep through space and could determine the ultimate fate of humanity.

Although I found the book hard work at the outset as there are some initially confusing names (see above!), lots of science, different planets, a large cast of characters and a rotating character point of view once I had settled in, I found it enthralling. Reynolds is (or was) an astrophysicist for the European Space Agency and he has clearly expended a lot of effort in infusing his Universe with a huge amount of detail. It's set in the not-too-distant future and it all feels very plausible, if sometimes in a little too much detail, and I quite fancy taking a lighthugger ship to explore!

Given this was his debut book, I can forgive the sometimes clunky dialogue as the quality of the world building is so high and I enjoyed the plot - especially when the strands started to come together. I look forward to reading the next instalment (hurrah - four more to go!) and I'm glad that I eventually got around to reading a Reynolds book.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Black Boxes - Caroline Smailes

Scott Pack recently offered to send out five copies of the new book from Caroline Smailes, Black Boxes, and I was lucky enough to get my name to him nice and early. I received the book a couple of weeks ago and, I'll be honest, my first impression was to look at the layout of the first chapter and think "crumbs - this looks like hard work" and I moved it into the "must read but not just yet" pile. Before I go any further I shall explain that I was entirely wrong and that the layout, although very different from a standard novel, is so incredibly effective that the reader is utterly immersed in the heartbreaking life of Ana and her teenage daughter Pip.

"Ana Lewis is trapped by her own expectations. Her intense relationship with fellow student Alex begins to crack beyond repair when she falls pregnant, and his subsequent withdrawal, emotionally and sexually are hard for Ana to bear. Eventually, following the birth of Pip and then Davie, Alex leaves Ana to a life of question and blame. Locked in her room for much of the time she woefully neglects her children, preferring instead to replay scenes from her life over and over, fighting the urge to blink for fear it should dissipate the memories."

The book is laid out in the form of two "black boxes". The bulk of the text is in the form of a transcript from an audio recording made by Ana after she has taken tablets in an attempt to end her life. The middle of book is a handwritten extract from Pip's diary that describes events in the weeks before Ana takes the tablets and subsequently we return to Ana's recording.

Whilst there is no doubt that Ana's descent into mental fragility is an incredibly sad story, it is the extract from Pip's diary that brought tears to my eyes. If I could have jumped into this book and protected Pip and her younger brother, Davie, from their mother I absolutely would have done. The diary is so convincingly written in Pip's voice that I really felt as if I was prying into her thoughts - especially as it's peppered with comments to her brother to stop reading it!

The technical execution of this story from Caroline Smailes is faultless. The different slant she takes in her way of telling the story of these who women is so effective that it's hard to believe that it's only her second book. Although a "difficult read" in terms of subject matter this is such a well written book that I would recommend it without hesitation.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

UEA Literary Festival - Richard Holmes

I should probably put my interest in history into some kind of context so that I can explain why I was so delighted to be going to see Richard Holmes speak at the UEA last night. I love history. There. It's out. I studied British and European medieval history for my degree so many years ago and the one thing that I really regret is that I just did not realise how lucky I was to have access to such incredible learning resources. What it did leave me with was a lasting regard for those who can spend years researching people and events and then presenting their work in an engaging manner.

The introduction that Richard Holmes was given last night could not have been more glowing with Prof. Chris Bigsby describing his latest book, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, which took nine years to research and write, as "spectacularly brilliant" and "demonstrating such skill and artistry" that it deserved to win every award going or there was no point in having them. High praise indeed!

In an engaging and entertaining presentation, Holmes described his book as weighing 0.958kg, 5 cm thick, having 483 pages including 69 "glorious" colour illustrations, featuring 64 writers and scientists and containing over 300 lines of romantic poetry". He was keen to emphasise that the "cast" of 64 includes several women as he wanted to bring them back to their "proper place" in history.

The lecture focused on three of the main characters that hold the thread of this book together - Joseph Banks, botanist on Captain Cook's first Endeavour voyage and later President of the Royal Society in London, the astronomer William Herschel and the chemist Humphry Davy who is probably best known for the Davy safety lamp.

He explained that his aims when writing the book were firstly to de-bunk the myth of Arts v. Science and to demonstrate that in this period they worked closely together and inspired each other. He also wanted to explore the concept of a group biography which he described as a "relay race of scientific stories" and finally (the clue is in the title for this one) to explore the romantic generations discovery of both the beauty and terror of science and to try to understand the roots of why most people now have an ambiguous feeling towards science.

This book sounds absolutely fascinating and really I'm looking forward to getting my hands on a copy. Richard Holmes ended the event by stressing his belief that, as citizens of the world, we all have a duty to make and effort to understand the science of our day and help to shape the decisions being made that will impact our socio-political lives (such as GM food, Climate Change, etc). A call to arms indeed so I'll be looking out for local lectures so that I can brush up as I left feeling slightly guilty that I make no real effort to understand the science behind the stories.

Links to reviews of Age of Wonder in the Literary Review, the Independent and the Times.

Booking Through Thursday

This week's BTT:

I’ve asked, in the past, about whether you more often buy your books, or get them from libraries. What I want to know today, is, WHY BUY? Why buy instead of borrow? Why shell out your hard-earned dollars for something you could get for free?

I don't know why actually owning a book is so important to me but it is - I like to think of myself as Smaug (the dragon from The Hobbit) curled up on top on my lair filled with books instead of gold...

I do use my local library, as it's fabulous, but if I borrow a book that I really enjoy then it ends up on my wishlist pretty sharpish! This is even though I know that my house contains so many books that I could genuinely open up a shop...

When buying books I do try to get good value for money so I will look around for the best price if it's hardback or expensive and I am always a fan of stumbling across a great second-hand haul. I say this to make my mountain of books sound somehow better! I do occasionally "prune" my collection of books and send some to live in a charity shop but it never seems to make a difference - there are still hundreds (erm - thousands) left.

So. Why do I buy rather than borrow? Not sure but there's definitely a pleasure to be had in book ownership and I do like gazing at my meters of books with Smaugish satisfaction!

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Little Brother - Cory Doctorow

I've been dying to get my hands on Little Brother for months - in fact, ever since Neil Gaiman mentioned it on his blog in such glowing terms. For some reason I got it into my head that it was only being released in the UK this month so didn't realise that I could have read the hardback edition months ago which is a little frustrating. There is a silver lining to this sad tale though as I managed to get my paws on a signed paperback edition instead.

Before I move on to talking about the book itself, I'd like to point out to anyone thinking about giving this book a try that the book is available from Cory Doctorow's site as a free download and feel free to discover for yourself why an author would choose to give away his books! He's recently written an interesting, and more in depth, article about his views on copyright for Lotus Magazine.

The title of this book is an obvious play on George Orwell's Big Brother which is pretty apt given that this is a novel about living under state control and constant surveillance.

"Marcus is only seventeen years old, but he figures he already knows how the system works - and how to work the system. Smart, fast and wise to the ways of the networked world, he has no trouble outwitting his high school's intrusive but clumsy surveillance systems. But his whole world changes when he and his friends find themselves caught in the aftermath of a major terrorist attack on San Francisco.

In the wrong place at the wrong time, Marcus and his crew are apprehended by the Department of Homeland Security and whisked away to a secret prison, where they're mercilessly interrogated for days. When the DHS finally releases them, Marcus discovers that his city has become a police state, where every citizen is treated like a potential terrorist. He knows no one will believe his story, which leaves him only one option: to take down the DHS himself."

This book has a much wider appeal than the teen market it was written for (even for the untrustworthy over-25s such as myself!) and it is an enjoyable, well written and fast paced adventure with plenty to keep the reader hooked. But it is so much more than that. It is also an extremely thought provoking illustration of just how easy it is for us to voluntarily relinquish civil liberties in the name of the common good and also how utterly ill-equipped the majority of people out of their teens are to recognise that it's even happening. I appreciate that some of the geek/tech content of the book could leave the uninitiated a little confused but I think that's the point. People are voluntarily allowing themselves to be out of the loop in terms of how technology is advancing and how it's being applied and I feel that, if nothing else, this book has re-opened my eyes to just how vital it is to be aware of developments in the world around us.

At the back of the book are two short essays and incredibly informative, slightly chilling, bibliography that gives a comprehensive view of books and places to visit online that will tell you more about why this topic really matters. It's well worth following those links and a good site to start is the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

An extract from an essay by Cory Doctorow about why he feels this is so important: "The difference between freedom and totalitarianism comes down to this: do our machines serve us, or control us? We live in the technological age that puts all other technological ages to shame. We are literally covered in technology, it rides in our pockets, pressed to our skin, in our ears, sometimes even implanted in our bodies. If these devices treat us as masters, then there is no limit to what we can achieve. But if they treat us as suspects, then we are doomed, for the jailers have us in a grip that is tighter than any authoritarian fantasy of the Inquisition. It’s my sincere hope that this book will spark vigorous discussions kid/adult about security, liberty, privacy, and free speech — about the values that ennoble us as human beings and give us the dignity to do honor to our species. Thank you for sharing it with the young people in your life — and for being a guide at a time when we need guides more than ever."

He also covers this in a Q&A with Publishers Weekly. IMHO, this is a book that richly deserves to be shared with the young, and old, people in my life as it is most certainly a worthy catalyst for an overdue debate on the steady erosion of our civil liberties in the name of protecting them.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

The Land of Green Ginger

Seeing Oxford Reader's recent post about books you loved in your childhood, I dug out my copy of Noel Langley's The Land of Green Ginger.

I remember this book with enormous fondness and I am glad that on re-reading, it retains the magic it held for me as a child. I first read it whilst staying with my Grandparents and I just loved it. When I started reading this again last night the details came flooding back (I even recognised dialogue from really minor characters) so I suspect that I might well have read this several more times than the couple I thought I had...

"When Prince Abu Ali, son of Aladdin, is born his destiny has already been foretold: he is the one that has been chosen to break the spell of the mysterious Land of Green Ginger. His quest brings him into contact with flying carpets, button-nosed tortoises, magic phoenix birds - and two very villainous princes."

When I was a child I thought this book was absolutely hilarious and even as a proper adult I still found it an amusing take on a children's fairytale. Apparently the re-printed edition I read is 70 pages light of the "proper" version and this could explain why the story moved along at a much faster pace than I remembered so I shall have to keep my eye out for the 1966 older edition with the original text as I think that must have been the version I found in my Grandparent's bookshelves.

All in all a charming story that I am delighted retained its magic for me. It was also just what I needed after a week of reading that included The Almost Moon and A Mercy.

Friday, 7 November 2008

A Mercy - Toni Morrison

As I mentioned last week, I had the honour of hearing Toni Morrison reading from this book at the UEA LitFest and I am so glad that I did. She mentioned that she writes for the ears as well as the eyes and I found myself reading sections aloud to myself to fully appreciate the lyricism of this beautifully crafted book. Try it yourself - it really helps!

A Mercy is a slim book that I find really hard to explain so I will steal the blurb from the back:

"In the 1680s the slave trade was still in its infancy. In the Americas, virulent religious and class divisions, prejudice and oppression were rife, providing the fertile soil in which slavery and race hatred were planted and took root.

Jacob is an Anglo-Dutch trader and adventurer, with a small holding in the harsh north. Despite his distaste for dealing in “flesh,” he takes a small slave girl in part payment for a bad debt from a plantation owner in Catholic Maryland. This is Florens, “with the hands of a slave and the feet of a Portuguese lady.” Florens looks for love, first from Lina, an older servant woman at her new master’s house, but later from a handsome blacksmith, an African, never enslaved.

There are other voices: Lina, whose tribe was decimated by smallpox; their mistress, Rebekka, herself a victim of religious intolerance back in England; Sorrow, a strange girl who’s spent her early years at sea; and finally the devastating voice of Florens’ mother. These are all men and women inventing themselves in the wilderness."

Each chapter in turn focuses on each of the four women living on the farm and, as time moves back and forward, we see how they ended up at this place in this time. The themes of religion race, gender, poverty and (or course) slavery in the context of the early years of America are dealt with intelligently and movingly. This is a beautiful, and deceptively simple, book that is absolutely going to merit a re-read so that I can appreciate the layers of the story.

Reviews from the Guardian, the Independent, the Sunday Times and the Telegraph.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Booking Through Thursday

This week's BTT:

What, if any, memorable or special book have you ever gotten as a present? Birthday or otherwise. What made it so notable? The person who gave it? The book itself? The “gift aura?”

Gosh. There are a few instances that spring to my mind.

When I was somewhere in my teens, I got the centenary edition of Lord of the Rings for Christmas from my parents. It's a huge combined volume with illustrations that I just neeeeeeded and had drooled over in bookshops for months. I was pretty sure that there was no chance my parents were going to buy me a book that I already owned so it was a lovely surprise and, I think, also the first book I owned that was an object of beauty too.

Last Christmas Mr B managed to buy me two amazing books. One was a signed edition of Dirk Gently by Douglas Adams. We'd actually seen this in a holiday cottage we stayed in Northumbria during November and he knew I was 1) shocked it was in a holiday cottage bookshelf and 2) that I neeeeeeeeded this one too so he contacted the owners and bought it from them. What a hero. He also bought me a copy of the Subterranean edition of Coraline which is gorgeous and I just love it! A man who definitely knows his target audience when present buying!

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Whatever Makes You Happy - William Sutcliffe

According to amazon's book categorisation system, this is officially Lad Lit. A sub-genre I had no idea existed but you live and learn! Whatever Makes You Happy is by William Sutcliffe who's written several other very enjoyable novels (New Boy, Love Hexagon & Bad Influence).

This book features "three men in their early thirties who are not (in the eyes of their alienated mothers) properly settled. Matt works for lads mag BALLS! and is a serial dater of girls half his age. Paul is an experienced hand at lying and evasion to keep his life choices a secret from his mother. Daniel spends his Saturday nights alone in his flat reading novels, pining for ex-girlfriend and love of his life Erin. The mothers decide to launch a co-ordinated attack: they will arrive, without warning, to stay with their sons for one week with the intention of man-handling them back onto the right path."

This book did not feel as satisfying as some of his earlier work and actually did feel like it belonged in a Lad Lit category. Some of the character stories were stronger than others (I wanted to know so much more about Matt's mother!) and I felt that these could have been plot lines for three novels rather than one linked by the tenuous thread of three simultaneous mother visits.

Nevertheless, it was an easy, enjoyable read with some food for thougt that made me really glad that my Mother lives around the corner and there's no chance she'll come and stay with me for a week to "sort me out"! I think...

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

The Almost Moon - Alice Sebold

Alice Sebold is the author of the excellent ( and hugely successful) Lovely Bones who, I discovered in the acknowledgements, is married to author Glen David Gold who wrote Carter Beats the Devil which is a book I really enjoyed a few years ago.

I had no idea what The Almost Moon was about before picking it up to read however with the first line of the book being "When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily" I realised that this was not going to be an easy read.

The Almost Moon is the story of Helen and her complex, painful relationship with her mother, ex-lingerie model Clair Knightly, and with her also deceased father. We see the steps that led her to take her mother's life and follow her over the next twenty-four hours as she comes to terms with the consequences of her actions and understand the events in her life that led her to take this action.

Helen's murder of her mother in the first few pages puts the reader into a deliberately awkward relationship with the main character which perhaps reflects the difficult relationships Helen herself has experienced during her lifetime. Although I can imagine how easy it would be to take the life of someone you loved (and Helen does love her mother) and justify it to yourself as being in their own interests as their quality of life is so awful there is no attempt to justify the killing on these grounds and I respect Sebold's decision to take that line. Using flashbacks, she guides the reader to an understanding of the various pressures that Helen was put under throughout her life and the damage that her mother's mental illness has caused to her other family relationships.

This is a challenging, and sometimes uncomfortable, book to read that handles the subject in a thought provoking way. Alice Sebold did an excellent job of challenging standard ethical views on matricide and it was impossible not to empathise with Helen's plight as you understand how difficult her life has been.

There's an interview with Alice Sebold on the publisher's site and a thought provoking article on the book from vulpes libris.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Ferney - James Long

I feel a little guilty as I write up this not-a-review-at-all of Ferney by James Long as it is now over a month since I read the book and I am quite confident that the detail of my experience has escaped me. Perhaps I should start scribbling notes in books as I read them? I am going to cheat though and set the time-stamp for this post back to the start of November so that we can all pretend that I am organised and up to date with my posts...

I think I first heard about Ferney a while ago over at dovegreyreader's blog and was really pleased when I managed to pick up a copy of the book in a charity shop. It was out of print for a few years but seems to be making a well-deserved resurgence. Although the blurb is not very good at explaining what this book is actually about (and I don't envy whoever had the task of trying to do that!) I'll use it here to try to describe the book's plot.

"When Mike and Gally move to a new cottage in Somerset, it's to make a new start. But the relationship comes under strain when Gally forms an increasingly close attachment to an old countryman, Ferney, who seems to know everything about her. What is it that draws them together? Reluctantly at first, then with more urgency as he feels time slipping away, Ferney compels Gally to understand their connection - and to face an inexplicable truth about their shared past."

Seriously. I can't actually explain what this book is about without either ruining the plot or writing 1,000 words which will also end up ruining the plot! This very original novel is set in the real Somerset village of Penselwood, which I am desperate to visit now, and there is a charming love story at the centre of the book. The historical detail, centred around the village, felt very well researched and gave the book some real authenticity. I really must read up and see how accurate it was!

Apparently James Long is writing a sequel. I am not entirely sure how he is going to tackle that given the way the book ends but I look forward to finding out as this book is such a gem.

Saturday, 1 November 2008

October Reading List

Another month, another reading list. I love keeping track of all the books I read and seeing emerging reading trends. This month has been quite R.I.P. read heavy but I've really enjoyed participating and I've slipped in some nice contrasting reads too.
I've not had a "pick of the month" book for a couple of months and I think that's because I find it too hard to pit different types of books against each other. David Lodge's trilogy were an unexpected pleasure, I'd been looking forward to The Graveyard Book for what feels like months and I am delighted that Terry Pratchett's Nation was so good. Add into that mix a couple of really atmospheric R.I.P reads in the form of We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Woman in Black and I really don't see how I could choose just one. So I shan't. :)