Tag Archives: characters

Book Review: Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally

Schindler's Ark

This is the Booker prize winning novel on a very serious subject of the holocaust.  And I didn’t finish it.  I feel bad, like I was obliged to find it brilliant and moving as so many other people have.

The subject matter really is moving and the darkest subject there is.  The story has an element of hope too however.  It tells the story of Oscar Schindler a Czechoslovakian businessman living under Nazi rule during World War II.  He uses his wealth, power and influence to save as many Jews as he can.  The book was made into a film, retitled Schindler’s List, which won a record number of Oscars.  It is based on a true story and real people.

I guess with the subject matter it’s not the kind of book you expect to enjoy but I have to say I didn’t find it hugely moving or engaging either.  The style didn’t pull me in.  Keneally moves between short, often harrowing, stories of Jewish families before quickly moving on to another individual’s or group’s story.  The only constant character is Oscar, but I never really felt I ever really got to know him well either.  I think it is probably intentionally arranged like this, it would be easier for the reader to follow if we stuck with one group of characters but perhaps part of Keneally’s take is to show how many horrifying stories there were and not give any one the focus of the book.  There was one tale I particularly liked with elements of joy about a couple who fell in love and married while confined to a work camp, their friends and family help them court, marry and even attempt a wedding night all in secret without the guards finding them out – it was almost funny!  Then we left the couple after only six pages or so – I was left wanting to follow their story for good or ill.  Other books I have read about the Holocaust recently have been Diary of a Young Girl and The Boy in Stripped Pyjamas, these tales make the holocaust human and almost manageable by focusing on a small tight experience, Keneally leaves the holocaust vast and hard to imagine or relate to.  It’s admirable but it just wasn’t for me, I constantly found myself wishing I was reading a factual book instead or that it would start to take on a more conventional storytelling approach, I found myself having to be disciplined about picking it up and reading it was slow going until I eventually gave it up with about 100 pages to go.

I’m not sure if I failed or the book did.

2/5

Zoe

holocaust memorial

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Review, books, Historical novel, Modern Fiction

Book Review:  All That Man Is by David Szalay

This is a great book.  It consists nine short stories about men.  It seems pretty random at first as the men are from all different countries, different classes and the stories are different; some funny, some sad some kind of just incidental.  After the first few though you realise that the age of the man goes up by a few years in each story, so I guess if you are looking for a theme this deals with the stages of life; the first main character is boy who has just finished his A-Levels and the last an old man facing declining health and the end of his life, in between you find young men exploring their sexuality, facing unwanted fatherhood, struggling to find career success, relationship breakdowns and disappointments  – life basically.  Some men are rich, some poor, some reasonably happy, others totally depressed – there was heaps of variety.

all that man is

I guess the downside of such a mix is that you are bound to relate to some stories and characters more than others.  My favourite was the second tale about a young French man who goes on an 18-30 style beach holiday to Cyprus on his own after his intended companion drops out last minute.  A bit of a saddo, he struggles to make friends when he gets there and ends up being taken under the wing of an obese mother and daughter from England.  Not cool!  I have never been a male French youngster but could really relate to the concerns, possibilities and awkwardness of youth that Szalay portrays.  This section was funny enough to have me laughing out loud and gasping with joyful shock during my commute.  It was also strangely touching about finding something rather nice in unexpected places – places that really are not cool!

After this classic the rest could only really go downhill unfortunately although I did still get a lot out of some of the other stories, my second favourite was probably the one about the young academic meeting up with his Polish girlfriend during a road trip and having to deal with her unplanned pregnancy.  In this tale I felt so sorry for both characters, one wants the child and one doesn’t and, in my opinion, neither one of them is ‘wrong’ but there is no compromise position and one of them is about to have their whole lives effected against their will.  They clearly care about each other but you can feel antagonism grow as he realises he may be forced into fatherhood he doesn’t want (an absent father is still a father) and she realises he is trying to persuade/bully her out of the motherhood she now craves.  It is very well written.

I also enjoyed the one about the poverty stricken British loser living with a few other oddballs in an unglamorous Croatian town remembering his glory days in the 1980s when he was briefly quite successful and owned a nice car.  He drops into every conversation the old car he used to own 30 years ago – and I can’t even remember the make as I have zero interest in car brands.

Overall though I would say I felt the stories were best when concerning young men.  They were more entertaining and rang truer than the later stories. I wondered if that is perhaps because I am still relatively young and can relate to the concerns of youth better than those of late-middle age and old age.  Or perhaps the same could be said of the author who is only a few years older than myself.

A very good read and easy to get into as the stories work stand alone so there is no effort involved remembering complicated plots or huge casts of characters – which (sorry to sound lazy) can be a relief if your reading time is made up of a few pages here and there on lunch breaks and commutes.

4/5

Zoe

Zoe

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Review, books, Modern Fiction, Short stories

Book Review: Moonraker by Ian Fleming

This is a fantastic Bond book.  A classic in every way (and my personal favourite).

The story begins with Bond in London tied up in boring paperwork (yes paperwork!  Something they don’t show you in the films.  But he is a civil servant as well as a spy).  As there is not much action going on M asked for his help in a personal matter.  An eminent man, war hero and top industrialist, Sir Hugo Drax, is suspected of cheating at cards in M’s posh London club.  The scandal it could cause!  Bond, the gambling expert, is asked to teach him a lesson at the card table to put him off cheating and avoid a scandal.  This relatively mundane beginning leads unexpectedly to action and drama and the whole city of London under threat.

After successfully deterring Drax from cheating ever again Bond dismissed the affair as the quirk of a brilliant man and agrees to go down to Drax’s factory in Kent to help out with a security matter.  Drax is developing the Moonraker, a powerful weapon that will ensure Britain’s military supremacy.  The project is so important that Bond is happy to let bygones be bygones and work side by side with Drax, but poor Bond doesn’t realise Drax’s true intentions or recognise what a dangerous enemy he has made…

bond_moonraker

I like this novel so much as we get to see so many different sides to Bond and his world.  One thing that is missing is the jet-setting as this is the only novel where he doesn’t leave the UK, all the action is in London and Dover (how glamourous.  Not!)  But there is ‘glamour’ provided by the mysterious (well, mysterious to a working class woman living in 2018) world of the old-fashioned gentleman’s club where careers are made and broken, fortunes made and lost at the bridge table and copious amounts of very expensive French Brandy consumed.  It is a world so well constructed by Fleming that I could almost smell the cigar smoke even while reading the novel on an Italian beach!

It is also a great novel for action.  Bond is completely black and blue by the end of the adventure as he gets into so many scrapes!  A cliff explodes on top of him, he’s beaten to a pulp while tied to a chair, run off the road in his Bentley and gets sprayed by a high pressure hose while hiding in a metal pipe!  The long car chases are particularly exciting.

As a contrast to this there are wonderful quiet moments.  Seeing Bond bored at his desk thinking about what he’s going to have for lunch makes you feel like you are being shown life behind the scenes of our hero.  The card game at the beginning is also fantastically detailed and tense.  You almost feel the same tension as when his life is at stake even though all he is risking at the card table is pride and an awful lot of money.

The other characters are top class.  Drax is a wonderfully villainous villain, who does the ‘classic’ of telling Bond his entire backstory and plan before leaving him to an elaborate death!  And Gala, the Bond girl, is the epitome of what a Bond girl should be: beautiful, clever, sexy, brave and attracted to but not intimidated by our hero.  She’s an undercover police officer and a full player in the action, certainly no damsel in distress.

5/5 – perfect if you are looking for action and adventure.

 

Zoe

2 Comments

Filed under Book Review, books, James Bond, Secret Service, Thrillers

Book Review: If You Go Away by Adele Parks

If you go away

I’m afraid this book has gone on to my small life is too short pile of unfinished books.  The book was highly recommended to me by a friend so clearly not everyone feels this way!

It was just so humdrum and dull (IMO).  I gave it a fair chance, I got to page 233 before I decided that I had no interest in finding out what happened to these characters and would quite easily shut the book and never think of them again (obviously I’m thinking of them now – but only because I’m writing the review).

The book gives us alternate chapters following our heroine then hero over the same time period.  Our heroine is Vivian a very beautiful (we’re told this repeatedly) and slim (which we’re told over and over again) debutant.  Slim, beautiful Vivian is a popular girl who hopes to make a good marriage and help raise her family’s flagging fortunes but then when she fears she is losing the attentions of the man she has set her sights on she has sex with him in an attempt to seal their relationship.  This is a shocking thing for a high born young woman do to in 1914 and, although it is not clear that the details of her indiscretion are widely known, her reputation is damaged so her family rush her into a hasty marriage much more lowly than they had hoped for.  Her husband is not cruel or anything but he is cold and unaffectionate so their marriage is rather unsatisfactory.  It gets worse for Vivian when war breaks out her husband goes to war and it’s decided she should relocate from London to their relatively modest country home in the midlands where she is very lonely and isolated.

Our hero, Howard’s, story runs concurrently.  He a handsome (we are told this repeatedly), tall and manly (we are told this again and again) playwright who has a promising career ahead of him.  But then war breaks out and Howard is pressured to sign up, he resists because he does not agree with war and instead goes to the trenches as a journalist.  There he sees the horrors of war first hand and becomes even more convinced of the futility of war.  He returns to England just as conscription is introduced.  He becomes a conscientious objector and is imprisoned because of this.

trenches

Howard witnesses the horrors of life in the trenches

At this point I felt the time was coming for our heroes to meet as Vivian had befriended Howard’s mother in the country and she had started to talk to Vivian about the plight of her son.  That’s when I decided I just couldn’t go on.

It’s hard to put my finger on why this was so rubbish.  I guess in a way it wasn’t terrible just so so, it seemed to have nothing to offer that hadn’t been done better elsewhere.  There have been better books about lonely neglected wives and much better books about the horrors of war.  The characters were very two dimensional with nothing about them that drew you in or made you feel an emotional link to their journeys.  I just thought they both sounded fairly inoffensive but dull and I couldn’t imagine having an interesting conversation with either of them (even though I’m sure they would have been very nice to look at!)

I’d really like to hear from anyone who strongly disagrees with me on this.  What is it about this that you liked so much?  Does something extraordinary happen in the second half to make it all worthwhile?!

2/5

Zoe

3 Comments

Filed under Book Review, books, Historical novel, Modern Fiction

Book Review: Heresy by S.J. Parris

Cityread starts next month and you may already know that Prophesy by S.J. Parris has been chosen as this year’s title.  Hope you are planning to read it next month!  It is part of a series so I thought I would take a look at the first book in the series in preparation (Prophesy is number two in the series).

Heresy

The sequence starts with Heresy, the first of five novels (so far) set in the late sixteenth century and following the story of Giordano Bruno, former monk turned travelling academic and part time sleuth!  Giordano Bruno was a real person and although all the novels are works of fiction they are littered with real characters and events.

The novel begins in Bruno’s youth as a monk in Italy and gives us a nice background into his character and situation.  Expelled from his monastery for reading banned books he has to go on the run and is then later excommunicated for his own controversial writings – making his existence even more perilous.

giordano-bruno

Portrait of the real Giordano Bruno

Despite his fugitive status he does find favour with some powerful people due to the brilliance of his philosophy and scientific ideas.  While this is a time of religious extremism and control it is also a time when learning and new ideas were embraced – these contradictions feature throughout the novels reflecting the confusing times he was living in.  After an exciting life on the run, including time spent working for the King of France, Bruno travels to England to a debate at Oxford University he is also hoping to locate a rare book he is eager to read – this is where the meat of this particular story begins.

Before travelling to Oxford Bruno is asked by Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster, Walsingham, to keep an eye out for Catholic Heretics while in Oxford.  Bruno admires Walsingham and also needs the money offered for the task!  He accepts with some reservations.

So you can see he’s in a bit of a pickle before he even begins!  He’s hated by some in Protestant England because of his Catholic background.  Hated by others because he has been excommunicated.  People tend not to trust him because he’s a foreigner.  He is eager to impress in a prestigious academic debate even though he doesn’t know the English debating style.  He wants to find a book, but can’t ask openly about it as it concerns elements of sorcery and could see him accused of witchcraft.  He has been told to look out for Catholics and report them to the authorities but his own instinct is for religious tolerance.  As soon as he arrives in Oxford he finds himself attracted to the beautiful and clever daughter of the University Rector – and she is very much out of bounds to a foreign former Catholic!

There is enough here for an exciting novel already…but then there is a grisly murder!

I won’t go into too much detail about the crime as this is basically a plot driven whodunit and I don’t want to spoil it for anyone.

I do definitely think it is worth a read.  The novel really immerses you in this fascinating era and the plot is pacey and exciting.  I suppose my only criticism is that, now I have also read Prophesy, the second novel is considerably better!  But this is a good sign as it hopefully means the series will develop and improve as it goes on.  In Hersey, while the ideas and feelings of the era seem well described, I often found it difficult to imagine the physical surroundings as S.J. Parris describes them (whereas in Prophesy the setting of Elizabethan London is extremely vivid).

3.5/5

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Review, books, Brent Libraries, Cityread London, Heresy, history books, Libraries, Modern Fiction, Mystery, Thrillers

Halloween Blog- 3 Favourite Witches and Wizards of Literature

Of all the monsters and heroes that people often dress up as at Halloween, the favourite for everyone are witches and wizards. They both appear in literature sometimes as protagonists and support characters, but most often they are the villains of the story, witches more often than wizards. The rabble of characters I have selected for my list are all the stars of their respective stories and all have a thing in common with each other, see if you can spot it in the list!

worst-witch

  1. Mildred Hubble – The Worst Witch Series – Jill Murphy

My personal favourite character on this list, Mildred is presented to us in Jill Murphy’s 80’s book of the same name as a bumbling, accident prone girl, a “worst witch” as you will. Everything seems to not go to her favour, from messing up in Potions class to not getting a black cat like the other girls but instead a grey coloured cat she calls ‘Tabby’. Mildred’s bumbling is actually her greatest strength in the books as she (unknowingly) saves the day in each one, with accidental consequences of course! What made Mildred my favourite over the years is that she was very gloriously average. Most characters I have read about up until then were Greek in their ways, flawless and ones to model ourselves after. Mildred in a way was us, and we were following her journey with her. I also thanks to Mildred, grew quite fond of tabby cats and used to always carry a beanie baby tabby cat with me and pretend I was Mildred, in fact I was her for Halloween three times in my life! Re-create the look by getting a black pinafore, thin scarf, blue shirt and witches hat. And don’t forget those famous plaits!

  1. Wizard Howl – Howl Series – Diana Wynne Jones

I admit I did not know who Diana Wynne Jones was as a child and I first came across her as
a teenage anime fan, seeing the movie adaptation of her book Howl’s Moving Castle. But we are not here to talk about the movie version as this is a library blog. Howl is somewhat of a mysterious character when you are first introduced to him. Although the book is called ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ you are seeing the events through the eyes off a milliner called Sophie Hatter. Sophie is turned into an old woman for much of the story, and her meeting Howl is a happy accident. Howl is presented to us as a vain if quirky wizard who is supposed to be this ‘heart eating demon’. Throughout the book, you see (through Sophie) Howls personality change from that to a selfless hero who is a powerful wizard. Complete the look for Halloween by finding the dandiest suit you can find and putting a blond wig on.

  1. Hermione Granger – Harry Potter series- J.K Rowling

This series does not need any waffling from me to introduce it does it? Even though Harry is the main star of the series, it was his clever friend Hermione Granger that I always was in awe of. She was the straight woman of the 3 Man Band of Harry, Ron and herself. She would always use her cunning intelligence to get Harry and Ron out of trouble and lets face it, she was the real hero of the stories. Get the look by purchasing a Harry Potter Hogwarts uniform set from any fancy dress shop and letting you hair go wild.

 

Brent libraries are running Halloween events all half term so check brent.org/events for more details.

 

By Solmaz

Leave a comment

Filed under books, Brent Libraries, Children's Fiction, creativity, Libraries

150 Years of Beatrix Potter

beatrix-potter

2016 marks the 150th birthday of beloved children’s author Beatrix Potter, famous for her whimsy tales of animals doing everyday things that had that English charm about them. Each tale featured a titular animal, often in clothes having many adventures in the countryside, in which Potter was most fond. Most of her stories contained rabbits, in which the two most famous ones, Benjamin Bunny and Peter Rabbit were modelled after two rabbits Potter had as a child. She loved her rabbits, often taking them on family holidays to Scotland and walking the, on leashes.

The most famous book and the one that launched her to national (and later worldwide) famepeterrabbit was of course, The Tale of Peter Rabbit. The story begins which our plucky hero Peter wanting to explore the world around him. His mother warns him that Mr. Macgregor’s vegetable patch is dangerous. His sisters, The Cottontails, obey but Peter’s thirst for adventure gets the better of him. He sneaks into the garden and starts to eat all the vegetables he could find. Not before long the garden owner Mr. Macgregor catches sight of Peter and tries to capture him. Peter quickly makes a run for it but gets stuck in the fence. Lucky for Peter he gets saved by Benjamin Bunny and then promises his mother never to wander far again.

Today, Peter Rabbit has an empire, from books, games, décor and even his own animated series!

foxy-gentlemanMy personal favourite Beatrix Potter tale was the one of Jemima Puddle Duck. I do not know what drew me to this what some might see at first glance a melancholy tale of a duck desperately wanting to have a family. Nevertheless, I watched the video every day and carried around a plush of her everywhere I went. As I grew older, I came to look at Beatrix Potter’s tales with new eyes and when I started working here at Brent Libraries, re-discovered the books I read in my youth. The charm of her books is that all ages can enjoy and take away their own views of the tales. Throughout her life, Beatrix Potter wrote 23 of them, each featuring animals that she would see on her walks across the countryside and later on at her very own farm, Hill Top.

Brent Libraries will be holding a number of events this autumn to mark her 150th birthday. We will have a selection of her books out on display, including her “lost” tale, The Tale of Kitty in Boots, illustrated by Roald Dahl’s favourite, Quentin Blake. The Children’s Libraries across Brent will also be hosting craft sessions to celebrate, so why don’t you come along with your children and make their favourite character from the tales including the famous Peter Rabbit and my favourite always, Jemima Puddle Duck. The events will be on at the end of October so please check www.brent.gov.uk/events for your nearest library.

What is your favourite Beatrix Potter tale? Do you wish she made a tale from your favourite British animal? Please comment with your views.

 

By Solmaz

Leave a comment

Filed under books, Brent Libraries, Children's Fiction, Libraries, reading