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Book #41:The Dark Half by Stephen King

Number of pages: 461

George Stark
1975 - 1988
Not a very nice guy

I felt there was probably something semi-autobiographical about the premise of this book, in which the main character, Thad Beaumont, "kills" his alter ego George Stark, the pseudonym under which he wrote a number of ultra-violent pulp thrillers.

Stephen King himself used to write under the pen name Richard Bachman; I haven't read any of the books he wrote as Bachman, so I don't know how they compare to his other books (except that I doubt any are more shocking than Pet Sematery, which he didn't write as Richard Bachman). I do know that some writers like to use a different style when using a pseudonym - Ruth Rendell writing profanity-laden detective novels under the alias Barbara Vine, for example.

This book quickly turns into a brutal pulp horror novel, as several people are murdered in ways that ape killings from George Stark novels, and it quickly becomes clear, to Thad at least, that George Stark has somehow taken on a physical form and is attempting to prolong his own existence. It turns out that they are linked in more ways than one, in a manner that relates to the book's prologue, set during Thad's childhood.

The book gets very creepy quite fast, with sparrows becoming menacing in a way that consciously mimics Hitchcock's The Birds (and presumably the novel it is based on), although most of the unpleasant stuff comes from the fact that Stark starts to physically deteriorate, taking on a more and more gruesome visage.

Overall, it's quite a simple story, made more exciting by Stephen King's recognisable style, with the usual pop culture references (I have noticed that he likes to mention cartoons a lot), and I doubt any other writer would come up with the chapter title, "The Psychopomps are coming". I had read this before years ago, but couldn't exactly remember the plot very well. I found it to be gripping from start to finish.

Next book: Middlemarch (George Eliot)

Book #27: Jamaica Inn by Daphne DuMaurier

Number of pages: 302

Mary Yellan arrives at the eponymous Jamaica Inn following the death of her mother. This is the home of her Aunt Patience, who is living in fear of her aggressive husband, Joss Merlyn. The story largely revolves around Mary's struggles with her family, while Joss is revealed to be a smuggler; it sets up a gothic story that also involves hints of romance between Mary and Joss' brother Jem.

I read this book again because I recently watched the BBC's adaptation of the book, which was largely criticised for having actors who mumbled a lot (I didn't notice this at all); I found it good to read it just after watching the TV version as it helped me to visualise what was happening, and I found the book to be just as enjoyable as when I read it before, with the sense of atmosphere and the build up of excitement, with some shock revelations before the book's climax.

The copy that I read has a blurb that compares it to gothic novels like Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, and I could definitely see this, both in the settings of the book and the brutal nature of many of the scenes. It also has some nicely unexpected twists that you probably won't see coming, and it is very easy to care about Mary right from the start.

This book was written in the early 20th century, although it does have the feel of something written in the mid-19th. I feel that I should probably read some more of Daphne DuMaurier's novels.

Next book: Doctor Who: The Vault (Marcus Hearn)

Books 15 & 16 - 2013

Book 15: The Age of Miracles by Karen Thomson Walker – 369 pages

Description from
'It is never what you worry over that comes to pass in the end. The real catastrophes are always different - unimagined, unprepared for, unknown...' What if our 24-hour day grew longer, first in minutes, then in hours, until day becomes night and night becomes day? What effect would this slowing have on the world? On the birds in the sky, the whales in the sea, the astronauts in space, and on an eleven-year-old girl, grappling with emotional changes in her own life? One morning, Julia and her parents wake up to discover, along with the rest of the world, that the rotation of the earth is noticeably slowing

This was not a good book to read during my audit busy season. That’s not to say it’s not a good book. Because it is. In a weird kind of way. But it’s depressing. It’s sad. It’s the kind of book that comes back to you when you feel a little down, or when you are lying in bed at two in the morning, unable to sleep. Or when something goes wrong in the world, and it takes a while for the powers to be to work out why. The premise of the story is that the Earth begins to slow on its axis, spinning slower and slower with the inevitable implication being that it will eventually stop. Gravity won’t work properly should the Earth stop. The beautifully precarious relationship we have with our planet comes into question in this debut novel. I’ve always felt that we – as in humanity – don’t truly appreciate the wonderful gift that is our planet. Not in a tree-hugging, do-gooder kind of way, because I truly believe that if we were to be ripped from this world tomorrow our world would be as if we’d never existed in a 100 years – a mere blink of the eye in planet life terms. But more in a ‘we are nothing in the scheme of things, and yet we have this amazing sphere flying through space to live on and its perfectly equipped to support us’. A too-near-flying asteroid could wipe us out tomorrow. And yet we all stress about our little problems in our little lives, and forget we are less than a drop in the ocean that is our universe. To my mind, this book looks at the idea behind ‘what if our planet decided our time was up?’. Over the course of the book, the Earth turns on humanity. Food becomes more and more difficult to grow, the days become hotter and the nights colder, the beautiful balance our bodies have with the rise and fall of the 24 hour day becomes increasingly irrelevant. And humanity struggles on, desperately trying to turn the Earth to facilitate our existence. Of course, some people try to adapt to this new world, in particular, the hours of day and night, trying to stay ‘off the clock’ and stay awake during days that stretch for days, sleep through nights of an equally long length. But the rest of the world very quickly moves to a 24 hour clock at complete odds with the rise and fall of the sun.
Don’t get me wrong. There are things about this book I didn’t like, despite my musings above. The story is told through the point of view of Julia, who is eleven. To be honest, I didn’t care all that much about Julia. I cared about the Earth, and Julie is a means through which to tell Earth’s story. But to me, the story is Earth’s and not Julia’s, even though I think the author did not intend it to be that way. I don’t care about an eleven year old, and I think the idea behind this story has so much potential and so many interesting questions that it would have been better served through a different protagonist. Or maybe not a protagonist at all. Then again, maybe it is Julia that gives this story its wistfulness.
I also had some problems with some of the effects of the slowing. To be honest, I’m not a hundred percent sure they are accurate or reasonable. But I can look past them. It’s not like there’s a lot of literature out there on the impact on the potential slowing of the Earth. I also felt the slowing happened too quickly; it seemed to jump from a few minutes of extra time to a whole day to several days quite quickly. But again, I can look past this. Overall, the idea fascinated me, and like the very best ideas (and I say ideas, not stories, because a great story can be a very simple, ordinary idea, and a great idea can be told in a story that is not at all interesting or enjoyable to read) it crawls under your skin and stays there, popping up to remind you of its existence whenever it feels it should. A fascinating debut with some flaws inevitable when trying to draw an Earth-changing idea into a mere 369 pages.

15 / 50 books. 30% done!

5727 / 15000 pages. 38% done!

Book 16: Alice in Zombieland by Gena Showalter – 394 pages

Description from
"She won't rest until she's sent every walking corpse back to its grave. Forever." Had anyone told Alice Bell that her entire life would change course between one heartbeat and the next, she would have laughed. From blissful to tragic, innocent to ruined? Please. But that's all it took. One heartbeat. A blink, a breath, a second, and everything she knew and loved was gone. Her father was right. The monsters are real. To avenge her family, Ali must learn to fight the undead. To survive, she must learn to trust the baddest of the bad boys, Cole Holland. But Cole has secrets of his own, and if Ali isn't careful, those secrets might just prove to be more dangerous than the zombies.

Alice Bell’s father is insane. Her mother won’t stand up to him, won’t leave him, just exists beside him. And her little sister Emma is Alice’s light, the one thing in her tormented life that she adores. But there’s a reason for Alice’s father’s insanity, and it’s not till the events of an evening that steal Alice’s family from her, that she understands what this reason is. There are zombies. And Alice’s father knew this, but not how to fight them entirely. It’s after her family are taken by the zombies that Alice is able to see them. At first she thinks she is going insane. But when she moves to a new school, she discovers that there are others like her. Including the very attractive Cole Holland, whom Alice seems to have some mystical connection with. The zombies are real, but can only be seen by some, and those some fight the zombies at night. So Alice is recruited into their little group, and oh yes, there might be something romantic going on with that Cole boy.
This is a pretty good book for a young adult novel set in the real world. I often find these kind of books make the teenage protagonists so annoying that they distract from the story (I much prefer young adult novels set in, essentially, another universe. The teenagers are, often, basically teenagers only in age.). The teenagers in this book manage to not be too annoying in this one (they get worse in the sequel) though Cole has a troubled past and Alice is still recovering from the death of her family. Setting off these two is Alice’s new friend Kat, who clearly has some health issues that she’d prefer to keep herself. Showalter doesn’t shy away from the inevitable practical problems that arise when one is fighting zombies at night – for example, missing schoolwork – and there is a nice sense of camaraderie among the zombie fighters even when half of them have dated the other half. The actual zombie fight that drives the plot is obviously setting up the overall trilogy, though even at the conclusion of the second book I still can’t work out what that conclusion might be. Overall, a clever play on some of the lore of the Wonderland stories coupled with the scary undeadness of zombies certainly had me looking at the dark in a different way afterwards.

16 / 50 books. 32% done!

6121 / 15000 pages. 41% done!

Currently reading:
-        The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown – 509 pages
-        Man Drought and Other Social Issues of the New Century by Bernard Salt – 276 pages
-        Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge – 342 pages

And coming up:
-        The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant: Volume 3: White Gold Wielder by Stephen Donaldson – 500 pages
-        The Odyssey by Homer – 324 pages
-        One for the Money by Janet Evanovich – 290 pages

Number of pages: 416

Inside this book is another book - the strangest, most important and most dangerous book in the entire universe.

The Worshipful and Ancient Law of Gallifrey wields enormous power. It must not be allowed to fall into the wrong hands.

Skagra - who believes he should be God and permits himself only two smiles per day - most definitely has the wrong hands.

Beware Skagra.

Beware the Sphere.

Beware Shada.

Back in the 1970s, the late Douglas Adams wrote some classic serialisations for the TV series, Doctor Who, including one called Shada. Unfortunately, halfway through production, there was a BBC strike and it was never completed or transmitted, although in the 1990s it was finished for a VHS release, with the missing bits animated and narrated by Tom Baker, who played the Doctor throughout the latter half of the 1970s. The thing that surprised me (as set out in this book's Afterword), was the Douglas Adams hated it, and hadn't enjoyed writing the serial, having not been able to write the story he wanted, which was about the Doctor attempting to retire from his space adventures.

I thought it was quite sad that Douglas Adams felt this way because, based on this recent novelisation, is must have been incredibly well-written.

The first sentence in the book is: At the age of five, Skagra decided emphatically that God did not exist. Sounds controversial, certainly, but this turns out to not be significant in a book in which Skagra then decides that there must be a vacancy that he should be filling.

The story then involves the Doctor and his companions attempting to retrieve a book that belongs to the Time Lords (effectively the story's McGuffin) from Earth and preventing it falling into the hands of Skagra, who is capable of sucking out peoples' minds using mysterious spheres. To say too much about the plot would give it all away, save to say that the identity of "Shada" is not given until quite late on.

I enjoyed this book a lot, as it is written in a style that is very true to Douglas Adams himself; not surprisingly, it is hilarious in places and although the plot does go to some quite dark places, you're never far off from a comical interlude. Writer Gareth Roberts also apparently added some scenes of his own (though this was written in around 2011, the appearance of the Doctor's swimming pool located in the TARDIS is probably one of them, since to my knowledge this did not get mentioned until the Matt Smith era). There is also an enjoyable nod to Adams' most famous novel later on, which seems to have been added as an easter egg.

It isn't hard to tell that the plot was written with Tom Baker's Doctor in mind, and I found his characterisation throughout was very good. Maybe not a book that everyone would enjoy, but certainly one for the Doctor Who fans.

Next book: Making Money (Terry Pratchett)

Book #6: The Shining by Stephen King

Number of pages: 512

Although I've seen Stanley Kubrick's The Shining several times, I've only just read the book it is based on, a decision I made mainly because of the recent release of its sequel, Doctor Sleep.

As I understand it, Stephen King does not like the 1980 movie of his book, and I saw him interviewed on TV recently, saying that the wife was "a misogynistic character", a point that it was easy to understand. I'm aware that this was the reason why Stephen King wrote a TV miniseries based on his own book in the late 1990s, which I saw before watching Kubrick's version.

I actually love both versions I've seen, but thankfully the book was even better than both.

It opens with the central character, Jack Torrance, accepting a job as caretaker at the Overlook hotel, where he and his family will stay alone through from September to May while it is closed to visitors. Meanwhile, his son Danny is having frightening dreams and visions, bought on by his apparently imaginary friend, "Tony"; the visions include someone or something chasing him through the Overlook hotel and a dead body in a bathtub. The book sets up the characters with painstaking detail, including the fact that Jack is a recovering alcoholic and that he recently broke Danny's arm (apparently by accident).

As anyone familiar with either the movie or miniseries will know, something isn't quite right at the hotel, and Jack soon discovers that several murders have taken place there. Soon lots of spooky stuff starts to happen, including visions of a dead woman in room 217 and hedge animals with lives of their own (one of the creepiest aspects of the book). However, Danny has discovered that he has a psychic connection (the "Shining" of the title) with the hotel's cook, Dick Halloran, who he can summon to the hotel if anything bad happens. Eventually the spooky stuff starts affecting the family badly, mostly in that Jack slowly undergoes a personality change.

That's about all I can say without being too spoilery, but needless to say I loved this book. Stephen King has written it in his own unique way that really feels like it is getting into the heads of his own characters. I remember that while I loved Stanley Kubrick's version, Jack Nicholson's portrayal of Jack Torrence was as a dislikable character almost from the start; an obnoxious, bullying chauvinist. In this version, you really get the sense that he cares about his family, which makes his transformation all the more shocking. I noticed too that Stephen King's TV version was more faithful to the book, even that changed a few aspects; in particular, the climactic moments were much more shocking and gruesome than anything I've seen either in film or TV, particularly the fact that:

[Spoiler (click to open)]In the Stanley Kubrick movie, Jack chases Danny into the hotel's maze; he has completely changed personality and stalks him until Danny escapes and the final shot before the credits shows that he has frozen to death, and has not been able to redeem himself in any way. Stephen King's screenplay for the TV version involved Jack dying, but he did so heroically and saved the hotel.

In the book, Jack is said to be completely dead on the inside, and the hotel is just controlling his body (although he does briefly regain his senses and tries to save Danny), but he doesn't appear to do anything heroic; he just dies tragically.

I also enjoyed the fact that, in his typical style, Stephen King does not rush to get to all the gruesome stuff but instead takes things slowly and builds up the atmosphere throughout. Overall, a superb book and I would recommend it to anyone.

Next book: The Last Hero (Terry Pratchett)


Book Review No. 28 features Charles Ferguson's Predator Nation: Corporate Criminals, Political Corruption, and the Hijacking of America.  The title summarizes the message.  Although the book occasionally provides intuitive and insightful explanations of some of the more complex financial instruments, its angry tone detracts from that message.  It's difficult to take seriously an author who continues to push the fiction that the U.S. Supreme Court somehow stole Florida for George W. Bush, and E-T-T-S followed.  People of modest or no means do have reason to be angry with the machinations of the financial sector.  Perhaps a book about the machinations of the financial sector can limit itself to that.  But people of modest or no means also have reason to be angry with the common schools and the conceits of government expertise.  Whether the financial crisis will inspire those other sources of anger remains to be seen.

(Cross-posted to Cold Spring Shops.)

Book #57: Sphere by Michael Crichton

Number of pages: 385

An apparently alien spacecraft has been found at the bottom of the ocean, and when a team of scientists arrive to investigate, they find that it houses a bizarre spherical object. This is just the start of Michael Crichton's tense sci-fi/horror novel, which entirely revolves around the attempts to unravel this mystery. Things start to get very scary, particularly with the appearance of a giant squid that attacks the scientists' submarine.

I remember reading previous Michael Crichton novels and finding them to be a bit long-winded and full of overly technical speak, and this seemed true for this novel at first, which seemed very slow to get going. However, the book became increasingly gripping as I read further into it, and I found it hard to put down. I found myself loving the characters, who all felt very well-rounded, and there was a good sense of camaraderie between them.

The story becomes more intense quite early in when the characters find that they are stranded under the ocean for an indefinite period of time, and the book starts to feel very claustrophic, with tensions gradually mounting between the characters. I found the writing style to be reminiscent of Arthur C. Clarke's Space Odyssey series, and with the underwater setting there were inevitable echoes of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Michael Crichton, aware of this, put in a few references to Captain Nemo). The best part of this story is the subtlety of how it is written, so when the apparent alien inhabitant of the sphere shows up, it's not a case of some bizarre monster appearing, but it is manifested through the mysterious "Jerry" sending increasingly sinister messages to the crew, and forming a presence not untlike 2001's HAL. I found the appearances of the giant squid that attacks the main characters to be particularly alarming.

The best thing about it was that it built up to a very tense and gripping climax, which I enjoyed immensely. A recommended book.

Next book: The Fifth Elephant (Terry Pratchett)

Number of pages: 835

I made the decision to read the first book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series after hearing lots of good things about the Game of Thrones TV series, and enjoying watching the first season.

My impression of the storyline was that it was sort of like a fantasy soap opera for adults, with the large number of characters and intertwined plotlines, but I found that it grew on me easily.

This first book introduces the reader to the various characters, as George R.R. Martin's world is home to a large number of families, with the kingdom ruled by Robert Baratheon, with Ned Stark as his right-hand man. The book talks about the fierce rivalry between the Stark and Lannister families, which escalates into a battle later on in the book.

Quite early on in the story, Ned's son Bran Stark is pushed out of a window while eavesdropping and there is lots of talk about a conspiracy revolving around the death of Arryn Stark. There's another storyline about Danaerys Targaeryn living with a tribe known as the Dothraki, which also involves dragons' eggs. This is also mostly at the behest of Danaerys' obnoxious brother Viserys, who has been promised a "golden crown".

The next bit contains spoilers, so I'll put it behind a cut:

[Spoiler (click to open)]

When Viserys finally receives the crown, needless to say it isn't what he'd expected, as he succumbs to a very original death, which involves molten gold being poured over his head. The later parts of the book also deal with the King's desire for Ned Stark to take over the throne as his spoiled son and heir, Prince Joffrey, is too young to be King yet. However, Joffrey is having none of this and has Ned arrested as traitor.

Now, comes the shocking part that I did not expect; after Ned Stark - told he will go free - acknowledges Joffrey as King, he is beheaded anyway. I think I was particularly shocked when I watched the TV version, having not read the book yet, as I was expecting him to somehow be rescued. However, this is a book where every character can be killed off without much warning, and that's what makes it all the more exciting to read.

I found it useful to read the book after watching the first season on TV because it made it easier to follow what was going on at times. What makes this fantasy series original is that it focusses significantly on all of the behind-the-scenes political dealings, mostly related to the various feuds taking place. This does mean that the story is very character-driven and there is a lot of talking, but the dialogue for all characters is written very well.

Overall, I enjoyed the way this book was written, as it was very descriptive about what the world was like, and went into a lot of detail about backstories. There was a good impression of atmosphere, particularly in the sequences revolving around characters in the Night Watch. While at times it felt a bit long-winded, I found myself compelled to keep reading so despite the book's length I got through it in just over a week.

A recommended book.

Next book: The World According to Bob (James Bowen)

Number of pages: 148

Child psychologist Camila Batmanghelidjh opens her book with a powerful emotional punch, as she tells in the first paragraph of how when she was 14 her sister attempted suicide by jumping in front of a train.

Although this is part of a series of books dedicated to celebrating the 150th anniversary of the London Underground, this book uses the sense of a train journey as a metaphor for taking an emotional journey with the young people who contributed to this book. Camila is the founder of "Kids Company", a charity devoted to helping children from deprived backgrounds, and here she addresses the real-life issue of "underground children", who go unnoticed by most people in society.

Throughout the book, several teenagers involved with Kids Company tell their own stories, and it makes for very uncomfortable reading because of the harrowing subject matter. As I read the book, I felt that I was being educated on the very real issues of children being homeless because they ran away from their families, being neglected and abused, getting involved with drugs and gangs, and even forced into prostitution. The book even discusses in detail what effects physical abuse can have on the mental health of children.

While this book had almost nothing to do with the London Underground, except for a short account of a girl's journey on the underground where she talks about occasionally eating peoples' leftover food because she is homeless and hungry, I found this book to be compelling reading, and it does a very good of highlighting very serious issues that need to be addressed. There are a few moments where Camila seems to get up on her soapbox, mostly because of her anger that not enough is getting done about the issues she addresses, but overall I thought this was well-compiled and painstakingly researched.

Next book: HHhH (Laurent Binet)

Book #24: Clay by Melissa Harrison

Number of pages: 272

Melissa Harrison's debut novel opens with a young boy called TC being questioned by social workers about his relationship with Jozef, a Polish fast food worker. From here, it flashes back to the sequence of events that lead up to this moment.

The book introduces the reader to the main characters; TC comes from a broken home, his mother doesn't seem to pay much attention to him, and doesn't even realise that he is skipping school to pursue his interests in wildlife. His Dad has left home, and it is fairly clear from the dialogue that he was an abusive figure (although he is only mentioned in the book and does not appear in person). The book also introduces Jozef, who has a passion for carving animals out of wood; other characters include Daisy, a young girl, and her grandmother, Sofia, who has recently been widowed.

TC leaves the house to avoid an argument his mother is having with her boyfriend, and Jozef sees him outside in the rain, so invites him indoors to get food, sensing that he is being neglected. Throughout the course of the book TC makes friends with Daisy, but also forms a close bond with Jozef, who is in his forties; because of this, people start to make assumptions about his motivations for hanging around with TC.

While I was critical of a recent book I read, The Bellwether Revivals for opening with a flash-forward, I found the narrative method of this novel to be quite effective, and you get the sense that things will not end happily. I was unsure of the story at first because of how slow it was, describing what various characters were doing, but on reflection it was very good at providing backstories for everyone, and most of the characters were made to be sympathetic, although I found myself disliking TC's mother towards the end because of her lack of caring and refusal to explain why she and her ex-husband split up. What struck me most was the social commentary and the implicit critique about how people make assumptions; this book addresses the obvious social taboo of a child hanging around with an adult who he is not related to, and later in the book Sofia makes a good observation about how the age difference should not matter, just how you get on with the other person.

The book is also very harrowing at times, particularly a scene where TC witnesses some youths organising a dogfight, and I did find my eyes starting to water towards the end. The tone put me in mind of the movies of Shane Meadows ("Somers Town" and "This is England", for example).

Overall, I loved this book a lot and would recommend it to other readers.

Next book: London's Strangest Tales (Tom Quinn)

Number of pages: 73

William Leith narrates this autobiographical story, telling of how he stepped onto a Northern Line train and started to sense that something was wrong. As the account continues, you can tell that something bad is going to happen and this is what the whole story is building up to.

I found myself feeling sorry for the author immediately, because he is evidently claustrophobic, and talks a lot about how anxious he gets when he uses the London Underground, and he talks a lot about his relief when he gets to the end of his journey, and how he wishes he hadn't decided to go one stop further. The depictions of how other people behave on the train are all very vivid, and it made me feel almost like I was there.

The book was written well, occasionally going off on tangents about other aspects of the author's life, and there was some good use of humour at times that put me in mind of Bill Bryson. I liked the way that the narrative built up to the climax.

This is one of a series of twelve books that has been written about different lines on the London Underground.

Next book: Clay (Melissa Harrison)

Book #13: The Plague Dogs by Richard Adams

Number of pages: 460

Rowf and Snitter are dogs who escape from an animal testing centre in the Lake District and start searching for a master, at Snitter's insistence. On their travels, they meet a character called the tod (a fox), who convinces them to live like wild dogs and spark of increasing hysteria as the "whitecoats" from the testing centre start searching for them, which leads to claims that they are carrying bubonic plague.

The story is told in large amounts of detail, and the sequence at the animal testing centre is quite long, and shocking in places, with the depictions of cruelty towards animals, a theme that recurs throughout the book. Once they escape, Snitter becomes confused because he does not recognise where they are, since he is used to living in a town, and starts asking where all the houses have gone. Snitter also has a head wound, as a result of the tests done on him, and it causes him to hallucinate at times throughout the story.

Both main characters are written very well, and they are easy to root for, and Snitter is given a strong backstory regarding how he was sold by his master's sister, the appropriately-named Annie Mossity, to the animal testing centre. The story is also written from the point of view of both animals and humans, as Richard Adams describes the reactions of various characters to the actions of the dogs. Similar to Richard Adams' most well-known novel, Watership Down, most of the human characters are very dislikeable, with an agenda that mostly revolves around catching or killing Rowf and Snitter. The relationship between Rowf, Snitter and the tod was enjoyable in the scenes that they had together, ranging from wanting to accept him as a leader to wanting to kill him.

The tone of the book is mostly serious, not surprisingly given the subject matter, although there are some humorous moments - and I'm fairly certain the acronym of the research centre - Animal Research, Scientific and Experimental was deliberate.

I found the book mostly enjoyable, although at times it got very long-winded, including a sequence near the end that dealt with the reactions of MPs in parliament to the events in the Lake District. Much of the book is also written in various Northern English accents (including the Tyneside accent that the tod speaks in), which some readers might find difficult to get used to. Personally, I think it is an absolute classic, but be prepared for a lot of very upsetting moments.

Next book: Small Gods by Terry Pratchett

This story opens with the main protagonist, Jason Taverner, as the presenter of a popular TV show; that is, until he wakes up in a dystopic alternate reality that is controlled by the police; a reality where he faces an identity crisis because he legally does not exist. A lot of the story seems to be about the nightmares that can come about as a result of bureacracy, and presumably paranoia about the Police force and its influence; there is a kind of sense of Big Brother being omnipresent throughout.

Most of the story deals with Taverner's attempts to prove he is who he says he is, although it goes into some detail about his sex life, and there was more adult content and profanity than I had expected. The story seems straightforward, although you really have to pay attention to everything that is going on, and at times the book seems a bit long-winded.

However, this being a Philip K. Dick book, this is not as straightforward as it seems, and the really weird stuff, and the big twist, set in during the mescaline trip later in the book. Overall, it is well written but increasingly dark in tone, and while the ending isn't exactly a complete downer, it certainly isn't a happy one. Apparently parts of the book are based on the Bible, with a lot of parallels with the book of Acts.

The book is fairly short, but you need to be patient and carefully read everything that happens to fully understand it, and for the record, I finished the book not understanding fully what "a six" was.

Next book: Moving Pictures by Terry Pratchett

Book #62: Eye in the Sky by Philip K. Dick


This book opens with the hero, John, getting sacked from his job because of his wife supposedly being a communist, shortly before both characters are involved in an accident involving the "Bevatron" machine. Not surprisingly, with this novel being written in 1957, it is heavily influenced by the paranoia in those days (around the same time as the notorious McCarthy hearings), and the book satirises both the anti-communist regime of 1950s America and also religious zealots, as Philip K. Dick creates a disturbing version of reality, where both communists and atheists are shunned, with occasional references also to racial discrimination.

The first few chapters of the book are increasingly confusing, as reality appears to be somehow different, and John gets involved in various bizarre religious sects; it gets increasingly bizarre, with a Mary Poppins-like flight on an umbrella, and the appearance of the Eye in the Sky (I suspect this may have been symbolic of the whole Orwell-style idea that "Big Brother is watching you").

[The book starts to make more sense half way through - SPOILER]
Eventually, the reasons for all the weirdness are revealed with the fact that all of the book's main characters are still unconsious inside the Bevatron machine, and the version of reality they are experiencing is created by the mind of a religious zealot; this results in various trips through worlds created from the minds or other characters, in an attempt to actually escape from the fake versions of reality. One of the characters is obessed with order and starts eradicating everything she hates (she eradicates sex and everyone ends up without sex organs, much like Barbie and Ken dolls), and the sequence where the other characters talk her into eradicating lots of things, which end in her eradicating her own oxygen supply, are actually surprisingly amusing.

At times, the story is very dark and shocking though, one particularly gruesome scene involves a cat being turned inside-out in the alternate reality.

I found this book to be compelling, and although it seems a bit wordy and confusing at first, it is worth sticking with.

Next book: Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James

UK cover
Book 130: Hello Kitty Must Die.
Author: Angela S. Choi, 2010.
Genre: Black Comedy. Chic-lit. Satire. Serial Murder.
Other Details: Paperback. 250 pages.

"I hate Hello Kitty. I hate her for not having a mouth or fangs like a proper kitty. ....She can't even scratch your eyes out. Just clawless, fangless, voiceless with that placid, blank expression topped by a pink bow." - pps 16-17 'Hello Kitty Must Die'.

Fiona Yu is a San Franciscan lawyer pulling in a six figure salary and regularly working an 80 hour week. Underneath her composed exterior she feels torn between the traditional Chinese values of her family and the social mores of 21st Century USA. She decides to take her own virginity so that she can be free to date without the impediment of an intact hymen and makes a surprising discovery. This leads her to a reunion with her old school friend, Sean Kilroy. Sean had been a teenage delinquent though now was a very successful surgeon.

US cover
Fi soon learns that Sean has a rather dark hobby though as she has a picture of Ted Bundy as her computer wallpaper at work her response is perhaps not all that surprising. Meanwhile, her parents continue to set her up with various suitable young Chinese men. Determined to thwart her parents' plans to marry her off into Asian suburbia, Fiona seeks her freedom at any price. Yet how far will she go to bury the Hello Kitty stereotype forever?

Although I knew from the title and some publicity material that this novel was about an Asian-American woman's journey to free herself from what she considers the stereotype of the pretty, passive Asian women that she terms a 'Hello Kitty', I had no idea that its dark humour would be laced with lashings of murder and mayhem.

There were certainly echoes of Bret Easton Ellis' “American Psycho" and Jeff Lindsay's Dexter novels, combining very dark goings-on with social satire. I enjoyed it very much for its strangeness and charm.

Excerpt from 'Hello Kitty Must Die'

Book #10 - The Hothouse by Harold Pinter

Title: The Hothouse
Author: Harold Pinter
Genre: Play

From the blurb:
A black comedy set in a government-run mental institution, The Hothouse revolves around a sinister murder plot hatched against a backdrop of corruption, sexual favors, and hopeless bureaucratic ineptitude.

Beneath the surface comedy there are frightening implications concerning a bureaucracy ostensibly dedicated to humanitarian concerns, but where people are referred to by numbers and forgotten as easily as troublesome figures on a balance sheet.

(summary from goodreads)

I picked this up a while ago, at random, while browsing in the library. I was hooked by the blurb and since it would be my first play in a while, decided to pick it up.

It was interesting. Somewhat unclear at points, unsettling at others…but by the end I didn’t have a strong opinion of it, either positive or negative. I didn’t think it was anything much, at least to read.

Though I wonder what it would be like to see this performed…

Book #52: 11.22.63 by Stephen King

This book opens with the narrator finding a door that leads back in time to 1958. Typically, Stephen King does not explain exactly why this happens, it just does (he has admitted in Nightmares and Dreamscapes that he hates explaining why things happen).

But things are more complicated, as each time you step back into the past, everything is reset, and the plot revolves around an attempt to stop the assassination of John F Kennedy. The book is quite long, and seems to go off on a few tangents, but they all fit together. While I was expecting some sort of Groundhog Day-style scenario involving the Kennedy assassiation, the book gradually builds up to the event, which is given very little coverage, mostly focussing on the main character's romance with Sadie Dunning.

The book proved to be enjoyable, and also a thought-provoking reflection on the morality of attempting to change the past, which turns out to be resistant to change. Stephen King throws in some typical horror elements, though this is primarily a sci fi novel, including the enigmatic "Yellow Card Man", and at times the book seemed surreal, like a David Lynch film.

I recommend reading this, but you need to be quite patient because of the book's length.

Next book: Awkward Situations for Men by Danny Wallace

Book #9 - Faker by Mike Carey/Jock

Title: Faker
Author/Illustrator: Mike Carey/Jock
Genre: Comic/Graphic Novel
Publisher: Vertigo Comics

This book collects issues 1-6 of a Vertigo Comics mini-series.

Freshman year of college is the ultimate time for reinvention -- except when you can't physically justify why you even exist. This is the case for Nick Philo. The only thing that reassures him that he's not going crazy is that his best friends seem to know him. Or do they?

Chock full of ruthless characters with hidden agendas, this graphic novel proves that if you're up for it, you can lie, cheat and fake your way through almost anything.

(blurb from goodreads)

I read this as part of my ‘read everything by Mike Carey that I can find in my library’ goal and it is…interesting. Very different from anything else that he’s written that I’ve read.

It’s true that the characters are all ruthless, bar perhaps one or two of them.

The ending…well, I’m not sure how it could have ended differently, really, given what the setup was but…it didn’t sit particularly well with me. The reason for that is what happens to the characters: I don’t like what becomes of my favourite two.

This book did provide my first-ever ‘what the f*** did I just read’ moment, though, at about the end of issue four or five.

I guess it’s not bad, but I also think it’s not particularly my cup of tea.

I know I've added a lot of different tags, but I think I can explain why I used each one. Feel free to ask.

“Disturbing the Peace” is the story of John Wilder, who goes through a mid-life crisis and suffers a complete mental breakdown; the book does not hold back, starting with the main character being sent to a psychiatric hospital, and chapter 2, set entirely in the hospital has some very intense and harrowing moments.

The book then charts Wilder’s romantic affair with a woman called Pamela and their attempt at a career directing movies, despite the fact that it is fairly clear that he is not well mentally. The book is very shocking in places, but has a good mixture of drama, blackly humourous moments, and satire directly mostly at Hollywood.

The book had some unpleasant moments, but was not quite as bleak as I had expected it to be, and I did find some occasional moments that made me smile; some of the moments where Wilder goes crazy again are somewhat disturbing, and often very surreal (the book talks about the sky apparently changing colour).

The book is not easy to read in places, and sometimes I found myself having to re-read bits, but overall I found it very satisfying, and found it easy to sympathise with the central character. If you can handle deep psychological stuff, then this book is definitely worth reading.

Next book: The Light Fantastic by Terry Pratchett

Book #28: Lean on Pete by Willy Vlautin

This book is the story of a teenage boy called Charley, who lives at home with his father, who doesn’t provide for him well enough, so Charley is forced to steal from shops to get food (this is a recurring theme throughout the book); Charley ends up getting a job training racehorses, but eventually ends up trekking across the country with a lame horse called Lean on Pete, who will be sent to the slaughterhouse otherwise.

During the course of the book, Pete meets a variety of different characters, including the horse-trainer, Del (who seems alternatively unpleasant and almost like a father-figure), and other characters who he briefly makes friends with on his journey, looking for his Aunt’s house. The story paints a very gritty portrayal of Midwestern America, with many of the characters appearing very seedy and occasionally quite unpleasant. I really liked his relationship with the horse, who he feels that he can talk to about all his inner feelings.

Charley is a character who the reader will sympathise with straight away, and often this book is quite shocking, and very tear-jerking in places. I noticed that the story (narrated by Charley) is written in quite simple language, with a lot of very short sentences, which are presumably to indicate that he is poorly educated. Every time that he was forced to steal, I got anxious because of the possible consequences of his actions. The next bit contains spoilers.

[Spoiler (click to open)]

The story contains a number of unexpected plot twists; first off, Charley’s Dad is stabbed in their house, and later dies. The scene where Charley learns this happens is downplayed a lot, with a simple, “She told me he’d died” in the middle of a chapter.

Also, I wrongly thought the book would end up being all about Charley and his horse, but Lean on Pete is unexpectedly killed two thirds of the way into the book, in one of the most harrowing moments of all, and the rest of the book has him dealing with his loss, as well as suffering nightmares about both his father and his horse.

The story ends happily, with Charley finding his Aunt, but by this point his experiences have made him so insecure, that he fears he will make her stop loving him.

I was really pleased that I read this book, because I could not wait to see what happened next to Charley, and there were enough surprises (and shocks) to keep me guessing what would happen.

Next book: Something Rotten by Jasper Fforde
First line:
"This is a moment of hope in history."
Summary: Libertarian P.J. O'Rourke sets out to ridicule the many Americans who embrace fashionable causes - overpopulation, famine, the environment, multiculturalism, etc. - without bothering to check their facts. In each case, he humorously contrasts the anxious claims of those fashionable worriers with his own "feet on the ground" experience. He recalls his experiences in war-torn Somalia (famine), the Amazon and Czechoslovakia (environmentalism), and Bosnia (multiculturalism) to emphasize Americans' relatively high quality of life and the factual distortions in many of their arguments

Reaction: I wanted to like this book. O'Rourke is a witty writer and I found myself chuckling at many of the passages in this book. He even makes a fair observation: Governments and NGOs sometimes adopt skewed perspectives and priorities that lead to unintentional harm. But the book never lives up to O'Rourke's bipolar thesis: In the introductory chapter, he criticizes Americans for whining about the state of the world despite their relative wealth. O'Rourke waxes Panglossian about how the present is the best time in history and suggests that Americans ought to stop their complaining. In the same chapter, he indicates that technocratic governmental solutions to big problems often fail to get results. But rather than suggest some grassroots libertarian solution, his response amounts to, 'We can't fix it so we my as well laugh at the absurdity.' Are we living in the best of all possible worlds or are laughing into the abyss? Which is it?

For all his humorous observations about absurd and appalling situations, O'Rourke's book amounts to so much whining. He points out all the mistakes he sees being made, but he offers no solutions - just sarcastic wisecracks.

Thumbs: Sideways

Books 20: Monster Love by Carol Topolski.

Book 20: Monster Love.
Author: Carol Topolski, 2008.
Genre: Crime Drama with strong psychological element.
Other Details: Paperback, 264 pages

"I've kicked myself that I didn't do anything about it then. I've often thought, What if I had? Would she have been alive now?" - Charlotte, neighbour. (Back cover of Monster Love.)

The premise of this accomplished début novel is without doubt deeply disturbing. From the back cover and opening pages we know for certain that 4-year old Samantha has been severely mistreated and then locked away and left to die by her yuppie parents, Sherilyn and Brendan Gutteridge. So it is not an investigation of the murder or of the trial process but an exploration of what led to the crime and the effect it had upon others in the aftermath of the discovery.

The structure of the novel is a series of first person testimonies from neighbours, police officials, social workers, jurors, family, friends, work colleagues and from the couple, who refer to themselves as 'Brendalyn'. Topolski is a practising psychotherapist and this is a very psychological novel with minimal action and plot. She has done an amazing job of capturing in a few pages the individual voices of her chorus of narrators and detailing how the murder impacted upon their lives.

Overall a compelling and chilling narrative with some very strong images and language. The nature of the story makes it one that is hard to enjoy but it certainly engaged my attention throughout and provided much discussion at the reading group for which it had been one of two selections for March. By coincidence the other selection for the group also involved the murder of an English toddler in an infamous 19th century case.

Penguin web-page with extract.


Oct. 1st, 2007

Quite a few people have posted about Sickened by Julie Gregory and, since my mother teaches a memoir-writing class, and since she often bemoans the unwillingness of many of her students (most of whom are senior citizens) to write about anything other than What Was Nice, I got her Sickened for her birthday (and I did call first to make sure that she wouldn't think I was trying to say anything about her own mothering tactics by getting her a book about a woman raised by a mother with Münchhausen's-by-proxy.

A few days later I asked if she'd had a chance to look at it yet, and she said she had, that it was hard to put down, but that it was "very difficult" and she didn't know if she'd be able to finish it. She said the writer was obviously still young and still very bitter about what had been done to her and that, since she hadn't gotten much distance, her words dripped pain and anger.

My mother has to leave the room during violent movies, and I don't just mean violent movies like Saw or even Sin City, but movies like The Prestige, which she stopped watching after the first scene because she "knew the girl was going to drown".

So when I was over at my mother's house doing laundry this weekend, I picked up Sickened to see just how difficult it was. (In my mother's sense, not in the complicated grammar and big words sense).

It was really really difficult. I'm not nearly as sensitive as my mother about people who are mean to other people, but I still had to make myself put the book down for a while and get some distance. Before I'd started to read it, I talked to someone about my mother's reaction and she'd wondered why anybody would write a book about such a horrible thing if they hadn't distanced themselves from it yet. After reading Sickened I understand. In part it's what I guessed, a sort of therapy for the author, but I think it's also to warn other people, a "keep an eye out for this sort of thing" because her mother hasn't stopped.

So don't buy Sickened thinking "Ooh, a memoir!", buy it prepared for a story about horrible things done to children. But, for that, it's extremely well written, very hard to put down and also, in a more metaphorical sense, very hard to let go of. It's also, I think, a book that SHOULD be read, preferably with a big bag of chocolate and a pot of tea and your phone handy to call your mother afterwards so you can thank her for not starving you or beating you or making you spend your life in hospitals.


17. Next by Michael Crichton (415 pages)

Beginning with his novel Prey a few years ago, Michael Crichton has begun to develop a much more obvious political agenda in his work. Overall, I don't really mind it, as it's his right. It has come as very abrupt change for me though, what with his earlier works having more veiled political themes rather than in-your-face opinions. But enough of that. His newest novel, Next was well-written and well-executed, despite the fact that there were a few too many characters and plot lines. I enjoyed myself, even if I believe Crichton is not quite the writer he used to be.


5,733/15,000 = 38.22% of the pages
17/50 = 34% of the books
41.09% of the way through the year
1. Jonathan Safran Foer - Extremely Loud & Incredibliy close. An easy main stream read but this is a fantastic book, really.
2. Kobo Abe - Kangaroo Notebook. Delirious, ominous, haunting. Japanese madness at it's best.



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