Author Archives: bagpussjanet

City of Thieves by David Benioff

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City of Thieves by David Benioff

The ‘blurb’
In the coldest winter in history, in a starving city under siege, two prisoners are thrown together on a desperate adventure.

Lev, a shy, chess-loving teenager and Kolya, a charismatic chancer.

They are given one week to complete an extraordinary mission: to scour the ravaged countryside to find a dozen eggs.

Or come back empty-handed, and die.

I picked this up in Waterstone’s because it had a banner on it saying that if the reader didn’t love it then they could claim two books free of charge – but the publishers needn’t worry – I won’t be claiming my freebies!

For Lev, the journey is not only about survival but also about coming-of-age. Kolya is very wordly-wise and is the perfect companion for Lev on this journey, even though Lev finds Kolya rather annoying at first!

I imagine this is semi-biographical, about the author’s Grandfather, perhaps – as Lev’s surname is Beniov. Some of the subject matter is rather disturbing, but that’s only to be expected and it’s not graphically written – there are funny parts too, which help to balance the book.

I’ve not read anything about the Russians’ involvement in World War 2 before, so I don’t know how factually correct the novel is, but it’s a cracking read. One really gets the sense of the struggle ordinary people had in order to survive in war-torn Russia.

The ending might be slightly predictable but that doesn’t take anything away from the experience. I’d definitely recommend this and will look for some more of this author’s work.

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The Gold Bug / The Sphinx / William Wilson – Edgar Allen Poe

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The ‘blurb’ (inside the front cover)
Believing William Legrand to have gone insane following an insect bite, his friend initially decries his quest for gold as the ramblings of a madman. Yet when Legrand’s conviction refuses to waiver, they set off on a bizarre journey, accompanied by Jupiter, Legrand’s loyal and equally sceptical servant. What follows is a strange tale of coded messages, hidden treasure and uncanny prophecy that will both baffle and enthral even the most perceptive of readers.

Part horror story, part detective fiction, ‘The Gold Bug’ is an ingenious and imaginatively told tale bearing all the hallmarks of Poe’s remarkable narrative skill. It is presented here alongside two other stories of obsession, ‘The Sphinx’ and ‘William Wilson’

This is my first taste of Poe and this collection actually contains three short stories, although the only mention of this fact is inside the front cover!

The main story is narrated by an unnamed friend of Legrand who observes how his friend becomes obsessed with finding treasure after being bitten by a golden coloured scarab-like beetle. After finding said treasure, Legrand then explains how he went about solving a cipher which would eventually lead him to the hiding place.

Legrand’s servant Jupiter is a black man, whose dialogue is written phonetically and sometimes I found it difficult to follow so had to read it quite slowly! The way Jupiter is portrayed has been criticised as being stereotypical and that his accent is inauthentic, but I think one has to remember that when the story was written (1843) this portrayal would have been entirely acceptable.

Although I enjoyed it I didn’t think of it as being a ‘horror’ story at all like the ‘blurb’ suggests.

The second story in the collection, The Sphinx, is only 6 pages long (and can be read online here ). I won’t say too much about it as I don’t want to give anything away, but I thought it was great – very clever!

The final story, William Wilson, is a story of doppelgangers – William Wilson attends school where another boy with the same name of him joins the school on the same day as him and shares the same birthday! He also looks quite a lot like William.

Wilson leaves the school and after spending time at home, he enters Eton and then Oxford where his lifestyle becomes more and more debauched. His obsession with his double, who seems to turn up at every opportunity, consumes him and eventually leads him to attack his double. This was definitely the darkest of the three stories and also my favourite and I shall definitely be looking out for more by this author.

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African Diary – Bill Bryson

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The ‘blurb’
Bill Bryson goes to Kenya at the invitation of CARE International, the charity dedicated to working with local communities to eradicate poverty around the world. Kenya, generally regarded as the cradle of humankind, is a land of contrasts, with famous game reserves, stunning landscapes and a vibrant cultural tradition. It also provides plenty to worry a traveller like Bill Bryson, fixated as he is on the dangers posed by snakes, insects and large predators. But on a more sober note, it is a country that shares many serious human and environmental problems with the rest of Africa: refugees, AIDS, drought and grinding poverty.

Travelling around the country, Bryson casts his inimitable eye on a continent new to him, and the resultant diary, though short in length, contains the trademark Bryson stamp of wry observation and curious insight. All the author’s royalties from Bill Bryson’s African Diary, as well as all profits, will go to CARE International.

There has been some criticism about the length of this book – but the whole point of it is to raise awareness of the sterling work done by the charity ‘Care’ – as Bill Bryson puts it, you’re making a donation of £7.99 to Care – and getting a free book in return!

I bought it for that very reason, and also because I sponsor a child in Kenya (albeit through a different charity) and therefore have a personal interest in reading about the country.

There isn’t really very much to add that the ‘blurb’ (which is nearly as long as the book! :p ) hasn’t mentioned. It’s definitely worth a read if you like Brysons writing (which I really do). His ramblings about his experiences of light aircraft had me laughing and cringing in equal measure – and as someone who *hates* flying – even on a ‘proper’ aircraft – makes me even less likely ever to set foot in one!

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English Passengers by Matthew Kneale

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English Passengers by Matthew Kneale

The ‘blurb’
It is 1857 and the Reverend Geoffrey Wilson has set out for Tasmania, hoping to find the true site of the Garden of Eden. But the journey is turning out to be less than straightforward – dissent is growing between him and sinister racial-theorist Dr Potter, and, unknown to both, the ship they have hurriedly chartered is in fact a Manx smuggling vessel, fleeing British customs. In Tasmania the Aboriginal people have been fighting a desperate battle against British invaders, and, as the passengers will discover, the island is now far from being an earthly paradise …

It is 1857 and the Reverend Geoffrey Wilson has a dream, in which he is told that the Garden of Eden is not, as is usually accepted, in the Middle East but is in fact in Tasmania. He decides he must explore the island to see if this is true, and after receiving financial backing, he sets about chartering a ship to take him to the other side of the world.

Meanwhile, Manx Captain Illiam Quillian Kewley’s ship has been holed-up in port in London by customs officials who suspect him of smuggling, but despite extensive searches of the vessel, they find nothing. Undeterred, and still suspicious after finding sheets from a French newspaper, they give Kewley a £200 fine. In order to pay this, the captain and crew decide to offer Sincerity for charter, and she’s hired by none other than Rev’d Wilson.

They are joined on ship by Dr Potter who is keen to join the expedition to ‘Eden’ to find specimens to help him write his book on the races of man.

So begins an epic voyage that will take them to the other side of the world.

In the meantime, through Peevay, an Aboriginal, we hear of the effect on Tasmania and the Aboriginal population of the settlement of white men through transportation and those associated with it who took over their land and tried to civilise the native population.

These two main stories are overlapped throughout the book, as it jumps from 1830 to 1859 and back again, until coming together in a wonderful conclusion.

I loved this book. It was recommended to me because I enjoyed The Secret River by Kate Grenville, but I found this book to be far superior.

The characterisation is fabulous, from the pious Rev’d Wilson to the angry and bitter Peevay to the likeable and amusing, if not entirely honest, Captain Kewley, all of whom are totally believable and provoke different emotions. There are many other peripheral characters, all of whom are well-written and have their parts to play in this rich novel.

Having read this and done some research into transportation/colonisation on the internet, I cannot believe the audacity of the English to go to another country and try to change the people who live there – or worse still, remove them all to an island in an attempt to colonise them whilst taking over their land!

The sad fact is that the indigenous people of Tasmania died out as a result of this take-over of their lands, although some people are descended from them as a result of the white men abducting Aboriginal women for sexual partners.

Excellent!

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The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

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The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

The ‘blurb’

’Excuse me, sir, but may I be of assistance?
Ah, I see I have alarmed you.
Do not be frightened by my beard
I am a lover of America…”

So speaks the mysterious stranger at a Lahore café as dusk settles. Invited to join him for tea, you learn his name and what led this speaker of immaculate English to seek you out. For he is more worldly than you might expect; better travelled and better educated. He knows the West better than you do. And as he tells you his story, of how he embraced the Western dream – and a Western woman – and how both betrayed him, so the night darkens. Then the true reason for your meeting becomes abundantly clear…

The events of this novella take place during a single evening as Changez, the protagonist, starts chatting to a nervous, unnamed, American in a café in a bustling Lahore market. Over the course of the evening, Changez recounts his experiences of America where he studied at an Ivy League university before getting a job with a prestigious business evaluation firm and where he fell in love with Erica.

Life is going very well for Changez until 9/11, where suddenly he’s viewed with suspicion and he, for his part, has a change of heart towards America. He becomes dissatisfied with his life and his thoughts turn to Pakistan, which is affected by the American invasion of Afghanistan and also feelings of unrest in neighbouring India, which are brought to the fore again by what he sees as American interference.

This is a very though-provoking, tense novel which shows stereotypes in all the countries mentioned. The writing style is unusual, it being delivered by monologue. It is a book which divides opinion and leaves some dissatisfied, but I thought it was great and it will stay with me for some time.

If you like your novels to have all the loose ends tied up neatly then this book probably isn’t for you as the ending leaves the reader to draw their own conclusions. It will stay with me for some time.

On a purely aesthetic note, I love the cover, both in look and feel!

Reviewed by Janet

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Love on the Dole by Walter Greenwood

Published in 1933, Love on the Dole became a huge influence on the British public’s view of unemployment and social deprivation, and even prompted an investigation by Parliament, leading to reforms. This is a work of fiction, but is very closely based on the lives of real people – Greenwood himself and the people he grew up with – and later studied from street corners – he always carried a notebook with him to make observations for later use.

Although the lives of the residents of Hanky Park seem bleak there is a real feeling of solidarity and community amongst them. They help one another out where they can, even though the majority of them having nothing much to offer. They exist by pawning items on a Monday morning – from the husband’s ‘Sunday best’ to their bed linen – and then reclaiming it on Friday when the men get paid.

Young lads got taken on as apprentices at the local factories at the age of 13/14, only to be laid off as soon as they reach 21 when they would have to be paid a man’s wage. After that, only a few lucky ones get jobs, the rest face life on the dole.

Eventually, even the dole was withdrawn if the ‘means test’ showed that other members of the family earned enough to ‘support’ them. This meant that quite often, daughters would end up supporting entire families – and in reality, her money was not enough to live on.

Despite the rife poverty and the feeling of ‘doom and gloom’ there is plenty of humour amongst the characters too, which is reflected in the story and prevents it from being entirely depressing – and things don’t turn out too bad for the Hardcastle family in the end.

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If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor

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The ‘blurb’
On a street in a town in the north of England, perfectly ordinary people are doing totally normal things – children play cricket, window-frames are painted, a couple argues, students pack up their belongings, and nameless people pass each other like every other day, interweaving yet never connecting. But a terrible event shatters the quiet of the summer evening and no one who witnesses it will ever be the same again.

Published in 2002, McGregor’s debut novel is a tale of suspense – of how a tragic event affects the lives of the people living in one street. The story alternates between present – the unnamed girl who was formerly resident on the street and was witness to the tragedy – and the past, where we see snapshots of all the residents on the day, including the girl, building up to the event.

The characters are largely anonymous throughout the novel which adds to the sense of detachment and helps to increase the feeling of foreboding. At times, the book feels rather mundane but at the same time, one wants to read on to find out what the tragedy is going to be. I did make a couple of guesses, one of which turned out to be correct, but it was as much about the build-up and the after effects as the incident itself.

The writing style is unlike anything I’ve read before – there are no speech marks, rather the ‘dialogue’ between characters goes like this:

He said are you alright then?
I said oh you know, I’m doing okay but could be better.
He said sorry to hear that

The book is full of rhetoric – similes and metaphors – there is plenty of enjambment which adds to the feeling of imminent doom. Reading this, I felt like I was back in A-level English Lit class!

Some things about the writing did annoy me. The use of ‘thankyou’ throughout the novel (apart from one incident which I noticed where thank you was used) really grated on me. Similarly ‘carpark’ and ‘numberplate’ and plenty of other incidents of bad writing (or editing?) – but that’s probably me being a bit anally retentive!

This book is our January Bookworms’ choice and I’m certain there is going to be plenty of good discussion! Did I enjoy it? Yes. Would I recommend it? Probably not, as I’m not sure the writing style would be to everyone’s taste!

6½/10

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All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

The ‘Blurb’
In the trenches, one by one the boys begin to fall…

In 1914 a room full of German schoolboys, fresh-faced and idealistic, are goaded by their chauvinistic schoolmaster to troop off to the ‘glorious war’. With the fire and patriotism of youth they sign up. Their disenchantment begins during the brutal basic training and then, as they board the train to the front, they see the terrible injuries suffered on the front line – their first glimpse of the reality of war

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Probably the most famous anti-war novel about the horrors of the Great War, this book tells the story of Paul Bäumer, a young recruit who leaves for the Western Front with a group of school friends.

Not only set at the front, the novel also focuses on the feelings of detachment that soldiers felt when returning home on leave, which was a rare event and left the soldiers feeling unsettled – wanting to return to the familiarity of the trenches, and yet knowing they were returning to certain death.

Although largely about the futility of war, and the horrific suffering of the soldiers, there are also light-hearted moments in this book.

Having read quite a few novels about WW1 for my A level, it was good to read one from the German perspective which shows that the German soldiers were just lads like our own – just ordinary men that became unwitting pawns in a bigger game.

I really enjoyed this – it’s just a pity that my dentist decided to tell me a huge spoiler when I was only on page 42!

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Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

The ‘Blurb’
Innovative in style, its humour by turns punchy and tender, Oranges are not the only fruit is a few days ride into the bizarre outposts of religious excess and human obsession. It’s a love story too.

This is a semi-autobiographical novel, loosely based on Winterson’s childhood/teenage years.

Jeanette’s mother has a “mysterious attitude towards the begetting of children; it wasn’t that she couldn’t do it, more that she didn’t want to do it. She was very bitter about the Virgin Mary getting in first…”

This is a novel about religion and sexual awakening. The story deals with Jeanette’s feelings of confusion over her love for God and the conflict between that, and her developing feelings towards females. Her mother, a staunch evangelist, doesn’t like sex, in any of its forms and so when she discovers her daughter’s attraction to the same sex, she and the church decide action must be taken to stamp it out.

This book, which won the Whitbread Award for a First Novel in 1985, is both funny and poignant and was an enjoyable read.

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Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

The ‘Blurb’
Pride and Prejudice, which opens with one of the most famous sentences in English literature, is an ironic novel of manners. In it the garrulous and empty-headed Mrs Bennet has only one aim – that of finding a good match for each of her five daughters. In this she is mocked by the witty cynicisms of her indolent husband.

One of her daughters, Elizabeth, becomes prejudiced against her future suitor Darcy, because of his arrogance and uncalled-for interference with his friend Bingley’s courtship of her sister Jane. In spite of this, Darcy falls in love with Elizabeth – a blow to his pride – proposes, but is rejected. However, his sensitive assistance when Lydia Bennet elopes, dissolves Elizabeth’s prejudices, and the two are reconciled.

Oh wow. I can’t believe just how my feelings for this book turned round. I went from feeling so indifferent to it at the start that I kept finding excuses not to read it to wanting to read it slowly in order to make it last.

I wanted to slap some of the female characters hard to start with. My head could tell me that the ladies would have behaved that way in 1813 when the novel was first published, but my heart couldn’t stand the way they were so pathetic! However, I soon got over that and warmed to them.

I especially loved the characters of Lizzy, Mr Darcy (despite never having seen P&P on the TV, I still pictured Darcy as Colin Firth – which is no bad thing!) and Mr Bennet. Oh, and Jane.

I wanted to slap Lydia for being so selfish, and give Mrs Bennet a damn good shake by the shoulders for being such an embarrassment.

It had humour in spades. It was sad too. Mr Bennet being trapped in such a loveless marriage was a tragedy considering his lovable and amiable nature.

I have quite a few ‘favourite bits’, but I think the one that stands out for me was where Jane stood up to Lady Catherine when she came to dissuade Elizabeth from having a relationship with Darcy – this bit showed just how strong the character of Lizzy really was.

As a ‘modern’ woman, it seems very strange to me how society worked back then. For Charlotte to marry someone after only knowing them for such a short time to secure a future for herself seems very alien!

I don’t think a book has caused so many different emotions in me for a long, long time. After feelings of total indifference I simply grew to love this book.

10/10

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