Book Review 22 – A Less Boring History of the World by Dave Rear

Ever wondered about the beginning of the world? Want to know more about dinosaurs? About the beginnings of man? Monarchy? Empires? What were the crusades actually about? If you’ve ever wanted to understand more about our origins then ‘A Less Boring History of the World’ is an excellent starting point. I wasn’t even meant to read this book this week. I had got ‘The Help’ from the library and was going to make a start, but this book caught my eye. My mum had given it to me several months ago and I had always meant to read it so I just picked it up and started to flick through. A few hours later I finally surfaced to find myself a third of the way through the book and I realised that ‘A Less Boring History of the World’ had chosen itself as my book for this week.

The clue was in the title, I suppose. This version of history is certainly not boring. What it is however, is ever so slightly opaque. In injecting humour into historic events, Dave Rear has succeeded in creating an engaging narrative but  his penchant for the use of levity in place of facts leaves the reader floundering in places. Take his explanation of human evolution for example. He says that Homo Sapiens devolved back to Homo Erectus, a situation which continues to this day… and I took him seriously. Luckily a quick Google search has confirmed that I am still a Homo Sapien – phew! From thereon I learnt to take Rear with a pinch of salt. He hasn’t written a text book. (And let’s be honest we wouldn’t want to read it if he had.) What Rear is trying to do is pique the readers interest in the basics – for everything else there is Google!

So where I struggled to pick my way through the jokes, I used the internet to settle the facts and for the rest I enjoyed my lesson in world history. I wonder what my history teachers would had made of Rear!

History, both inevitably and unfortunately, includes quite a lot of politics and it is in the last pages of the book that it struck me how much of a shift in political landscapes is missed by a book written in 2012. This is a pre Brexit, pre Trump book. The world had an entirely different outlook back then. The questions we were asking ourselves were not the same. I’m intrigued to know what Rear makes of Brexit, what he has to say about Trump. If anyone comes across him on their travels do ask him to drop a comment on my blog! 😉

I finished this book with a sense of rejuvenated interest in history. I have a memory like a goldfish so I can’t exactly remember everything I’ve read but it’s fantastic that such a book exists that makes a potentially dry subject so much fun. I recommend it to anyone who wants a gentle start on historical events.

Next week I am going to make a start on reading ‘The Help’ by Katherine Stockett after all. Till next Monday Adios Amigos!

Book review 21 – Sometimes I Lie by Alice Feeney

It is an exercise in trust reading a book called ‘Sometimes I Lie’. You never quite know what not to believe. Mind you, mid-way through the book something happened to make me believe the protagonist and, like the total rookie I am, I completely forgot the books title.

‘Sometimes I Lie’ is a brilliantly tense debut novel by Alice Feeney. Feeney has designed such a web of twisted relationships and manipulation that by the end of the book you wind up believing that up is left, and right is behind you. I must confess myself totally bamboozled by the time I turned over the last page. I didn’t really know what was going on and ending up Googling “Sometimes I Lie ending” to see what other people had to say. I found some explanations and an awful lot of very confused people out there. Some people were hacked off that they had to go to these extremes to work out what was happening. If you like straightforward answers then this book is not for you and I must say that there was a level of closure that I didn’t really achieve. It’s as if I’ve just put the book aside while I hang about in limbo. On the other hand if you enjoy a rollercoaster ride and don’t mind some question marks hanging over the end of a story then this will be right up your street.

‘Sometimes I Lie’ centres around Amber who is in a coma and drifting in and out of a level of consciousness whereby she can hear the people around her. Alongside this and Amber delving into her past we begin to piece together the events that have brought her here. But nothing is straightforward, no-one is as they seem and everything is open to interpretation.

I spent marathon sessions reading this book. I just couldn’t wrench myself away from it. The twists and turns are mind boggling and it is definitely one of those books that if you are so inclined you may wish to read again as soon as you have finished it. Personally I have a 52 book challenge to get on with so I will just allow my mind to draw its own conclusions or not as the case might be…

Next week I’m reading ‘A Less Boring History of the World,’ by Dave Rear. It definitely is NOT boring so come by next Monday and see what I have to say for myself!

Book Review 20 – The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

I read a blurb for this book somewhere and was determined to read it. It sounded like it was full of adventure, emotion and human determination. There was one other thing it should have sounded like if I hadn’t fallen prey to my fallible memory. It should have sounded like the film that I had watched a couple of years ago… Sigh!

It was around page 32 that I remembered the film and, honestly, my heart plunged. I felt like the joy of the book had been stolen away from me by watching the film beforehand. Luckily I decided it was too late to go back now and that I would just have to see this book through. I’m glad that this is the course of action I chose because the book was delightful. The detail, the imagery, the spirited young protagonist had me reaching for the book at all hours of the day. And the experience of reading the story was different to that of watching it. Having said that, the film really set the imagery of the place and the characters for me so that in many ways having watched it beforehand became a sneaky little bonus. I know – I’m so contradictory!

Growing up in the UK, we are used to hearing stories of wartime Britain. Air raids and bomb shelters, rations and nights spent on underground train platforms. Of course similar events were playing out for ordinary Germans while the Nazi’s had their grip on power during the war. Many of these events have made their way into fiction. ‘The Book Thief’ plays out against this political backdrop.

Leisel Meminger is a German girl who has been sent to live with foster parents in the small town of Molching. Her foster father, the kindly Hans nurtures her and helps her along with her reading, whilst her formidable foster mother provides her with equal doses of beatings with a wooden spoon and unwavering affection. On the whole it’s not such a bad life, but Nazi Germany is not a good place for those who sympathise with Jews, like Leisel’s foster parents. A treacherous path lies ahead.

As to the title of the book. Leisel is a book thief. Not a particularly prolific one, it must be added, but a book thief all the same. In amongst the poverty of wartime Germany, for people like Leisel and her family books are not easy to come by, but Leisel manages to get her hands on them and each book she owns, whether pilfered or gifted shapes Leisel in some way.

The book is narrated by a surprisingly affable Grim Reaper. You get the sense that the poor guy is just doing a job and that he gets rather a bad wrap in general. He sees people as they really are. The community he depicts is haunted by war, scarred by their experiences and yet there is so much affection and solidarity amongst them that it makes him see the best in us. In the words of Death himself ‘I am haunted by humans.’ The Book Thief is a beautiful, magical book and one that I am very glad I took the time to read.

Next Monday I will be reviewing ‘Sometimes I Lie’ by Alice Feeney. Do come by to check it out!

Book Review 19 – Winter by Ali Smith

Early on in the 52 week challenge I reviewed ‘Autumn’ by Ali Smith. ‘Winter’ is the second book in the four part series and it was a pleasure to return to this brilliant author to get some more of what she has to offer.

Having not only read Autumn but also seen Ali Smith read an excerpt of it at the Man Booker Prize Readings last year, I have begun to feel a sense of familiarity with Smith. Through her interview and reading, her sense of humour really came through. While reading Winter I could hear Smith’s voice. Her wry sense of humour was woven right through the book.

Winter, like Autumn before it is not so much a book where things happen but where thoughts are chewed upon. If a poem were a novel how would it look? It would look like this. Ideas floating through paragraphs. Thoughts cascading through chapters and before you know it you have traversed an entire book and are left wondering what you are doing here at the end. Perhaps you could go back and start again?!

That said, it is not all abstract ideas. There is always some kind of story to hang everything on. In this instance Smith introduces Art (short for Arthur) who is dreading taking his girlfriend to his neurotic mother Sophia’s home for Christmas. The situation is compounded by the fact that he has recently argued with his girlfriend and now doesn’t want to go alone. So he takes Lux, a girl he meets entirely by chance. And it is Lux who ends up placating and pacifying family members and steering potentially explosive situations. To add to this Christmas melee they end up calling Sophia’s long estranged sister Iris to come and stay.

There is a message here about families and coming together at Christmas. It was evident that whilst there was a lot of animosity in the various relationships, here were three people who had a genuine bond. There was real affection lurking under the argumentative facade of family life. It was touching to see Sophia and Iris reunited in their own prickly ways.

Art also came in for a bit of self realisation as the story progressed. He had a tendency to take himself a bit too seriously in the beginning which thankfully waned a little over time. Call me finickity, but I don’t have much time for characters that have too much time for themselves. They tend to monopolise situations. In real life you can just walk away from these sorts of people, but in a book you are forced to listen to their diatribes. I was glad that Smith didn’t allow him to take centre stage for too long.

Reading Winter was also one of those experiences when you say to yourself ‘well you learn something new every day’! In Autumn the focus was on pop art. This time there is discussion of the nuclear arms race, a continuation of the conversation on Brexit and some discussion of literature. At one point Lux begins to describe a Shakespearean play that sounds rather like the plot of Snow White and I, like Art, was thinking that she was about to make a fool out of herself. How wrong we both were (now who’s taking themselves too seriously!) But you can forgive us both for our misdemeanour, has anyone reading this ever heard of Cymbeline? This was the play that Lux was describing and as I happen to be the owner of a barely thumbed Compilation of all of Shakespeare’s works, I went and hoisted this book off the shelf to find the play – and there it was: Cymbeline, who’d have thunk it?! The plot sounds great by the way. I don’t know why this play isn’t more well known.

All in all I came to the end of Winter thoroughly satisfied. I felt like I’d experienced these characters’ Christmas with them. We’d mulled over things together, we had become one disjointed, dysfunctional, but loving family. I can’t help but like Smith, I can’t help but marvel at her skill and the warmth her books exude. I won’t be reviewing many series on this blog, but Ali Smith’s will be one of them so look out for ‘Spring’ later on in the year!

In the meantime, closer to hand look out for next week’s book review. It’s one you may have already read, or indeed watched. ‘The Book Thief’ by Markus Zusak will be coming your way next Monday.

Book review 18 – Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Cristie

Happy New Year everyone! I hope you’ve all started the year with renewed enthusiasm to tackle those resolutions. I have to admit to feeling a tad smug in this regard. Having started my own 52 week reading challenge back in September, I am now 18 weeks in and going strong. This is all smoke and mirrors of course. Come April everyone else will also be 18 weeks into their resolutions (by which time I will be a further 18 weeks in 😉) but it does feel good to get past the initial few tentative weeks.

So my fellow bookworms, I wonder how many of you may have turned out the following phrase:

If you are one of these purists you will appreciate my determination to read ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ by Agatha Christie before watching the film. The only slight snag was that since the film came out all the libraries that I frequent seemed to be remarkably bereft of copies of this particular book and so it has taken till now for me to read it. I believe the Curzon in Victoria is still showing the film… I’d better hot-foot it down there before even they stop!

Not having read any of Agatha Christie’s work before, I was tickled to discover that Hercule Poirot is a character of hers. I remember the almost comical, moustached little man with a black top hat that appeared on films on TV. I never really took much notice, but I must say I am inclined to now go and hunt down some of those old films and watch them in a new context.

Murder on the Orient Express is a delightfully put together book. The story takes place on a train making its way from Istanbul to Calais. The journey is set to take three nights but a snowdrift grounds the train mid-route and a gruesome murder is discovered. The conundrum is who killed this man in his sleeper compartment and then managed to escape whilst locking the door from the inside? The legendary detective Poirot happens to be travelling on the train and he is tasked with getting to the bottom of the mystery.

Every good detective has to have a side-kick or two to bounce off and Poirot finds these in the form of the Director of the train company who is an old friend of his and a Doctor. Together the trio question the passengers and sift through the evidence. I think I was lulled into a false sense of security by the two hapless sidekicks, one of whom suspected a man of being the killer for no other reason than the fact he was Italian and so it suited his Latin temperament… I mean seriously?! 

This put it into my head that everything about this book was going to be a bit dumbed down and in no way comparable to sophisticated modern day mysteries such as Jonathon Creek which I have never yet been able to work out. But it was foolish of me to think this or perhaps I just fell into the trap that Christie had set for me. The end was jaw droppingly unexpected. I simply did not see it coming and I never even had a theory as to whodunnit. In fact just like the Jonathan Creek’s of this world, I’m pretty sure no-one would be able to work this one out other than Poirot, Jonathon Creek, Sherlock Holmes etc. themselves. 

All in all this was a fantastic page turner that I devoured within a few short days. Age has not diminished the appeal of this fantastic murder mystery, so whether you are holding off the film like me or whether you have already seen it, I think there is something here for everyone.

I hope you’ll join me next Monday. I’ll be returning to Ali Smith to review her latest book ‘Winter’.