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Archive for the ‘A-Z Challenge’ Category

Not long after Dan Brown skyrocketed to success with The Da Vinci Code, there arose a plethora of “Da Vinci Code clones”. You can always tell them because the reviewers comments on the front or back cover usually say something like “a rival to Dan Brown” which suggests that the book is going to involved some kind of ancient religious tradition and a page turning thriller. The Righteous Men was one of these. I am not dismissing it outright, because it wasn’t that bad, but the thriller aspect didn’t quite take my breath away, and the end of the world cataclysm didn’t have me wondering whether it could really be true. It was more a pleasant romp than a breathless race.

The main character is Will, a Brit and a journalist for the New York Times who stumbles on to a series of murders which seem at first to be completely unrelated. When his wife is kidnapped, he finds himself on a two day roller coaster ride through the depths of orthodox Judaism and Christian cults, accompanied by his trusty ex-girlfriend, TC, and a penchant for ignoring advice and getting into trouble. You can start to see the formula already. Of course, the thrilling climax supposedly surprises everyone (I unfortunately had figured it out quite a while before then) and, in true Dan Brown fashion they all live happily ever after.

Yes, it was interesting to find out some of the ancient Jewish traditions around which the whole story is based, but I still wasn’t that excited by it. Oh, how spoilt I have all become! Although I understand why publishers like formulas, and I do love my crime fiction (which is about as formulaic as they come), I do think this theme has run its course. Brown was a phenomenon. Most of those books coming after his feel like they have just jumped on his bandwagon – which sadly has already left.

Rating: 5/10
ISBN: 0007203306
Publisher: HarperCollins
Year: 2006
Date finished: 18 June 2008
Pages: 576
Challenges: B in the A-Z Challenge

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Have you ever wondered whether a black cat crossing your path really brings you bad luck? How about what the funniest joke in the world is? Are you really connected to Sir Richard Branson by just six degrees? And how can you tell whether someone is actually lying? Richard Wiseman seems to spend his life cogitating over these kinds of questions, but unlike all the rest of us, he then decides he is going to find out what the answer is for once and for all.

Quirkology is a fabulous collection of Richard’s experiments, many of which produce some true surprises. His book successfully brings the fun into science and makes you think about those odd little aspects of life which we take for granted or believe without question. I just love his audacity in his search to find the truth. I have seen Richard speak and watched him perform his magic tricks (he is a magician as well as a scientist) and his book reads exactly like he speaks in person. It is entertaining, engaging and informative all at the same time. It’s a tough book to put down, and if you are ever looking for fascinating after dinner conversation or trivia, this is definitely the book to turn to.

If offered a jumper which had been rubbed in dog poo but not thoroughly laundered, or one which had been worn by a serial killer and thoroughly laundered, which would you prefer to put on? What do you think the majority of people said?

The one point I laughed out loud? Soon after he had been talking about Freud, the following line appeared

“Although Freud claimed to be a scientist, many of his ideas are completely untesticle”

Freudian slip perhaps? Or a deliberate ploy to see if you were paying attention. In either case, I absolutely loved this book and am looking forward to a sequel.

Rating: 9/10
ISBN: 978-0-230-70215-8
Publisher: Macmillan
Year: 2007
Date Finished: 3 May 2005
Pages: 298
Challenges: 4/8 of category 6: Science and Scepticism; W from the A-Z Challenge

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Child 44 is Tom Rob Smith’s first novel, and it is an incredible way to launch one’s career as a suspense writer. Set in the Soviet Union in the 1950s and connected with real events, the book is intensely disturbing and totally gripping at the same time. What struck me most was how terrible the life was for every citizen of the Soviet Union under Stalin. It was like a different world and it was a wonder that people survived through it.

The story follows the fall of Leo Demidov, who holds a high ranking position in the MGB but becomes the object of hatred of one of his subordinates. His fall from grace finds him investigating a murder in a country where officially murder did not exist. Crime was an aberration which was generally ignored or brushed aside without even the semblance of justice, for fear that its presence would question the perfection of the Communist ideal, where because everyone was equal, crime was unnecessary and therefore was naturally eliminated. But idealistic Communism is an impossible proposition when faced with the worst aspects of human nature, and the crimes Leo finds himself faced with are callous, horrific and terrifyingly regular.

This book oozes paranoia and suspicion, which is why it is so disturbing. It seems that within Soviet Russia, there was no such thing as trust, friendship or love because a simple word to the authorities spelt doom for anyone, irrespective of innocence or guilt. The state apparatus apportioned guilt to anyone who did anything even slightly suspicious. If you looked the wrong way at the wrong person, it could mean death. If you treated a pet belonging to a foreigner, you were a spy. If you even thought negative thoughts about the regime, or were indiscreet enough to mutter them, your future generally comprised of hard labour in a gulag, or execution.

Irrespective of the bravery of Leo and his wife beneath such a hostile regime, the message that stood out so strongly for me in this book is that without trust, without care of another and for another, without confidence, then human life is simply a shadow. It is almost not worth existing, when your entire life is spent wondering whether a misplaced word would result in your arrest. This story is the tale of the absolute worst of human nature. It is brutishness, selfishness, paranoia, hatred, fear and vindictiveness laid bare. I am only pleased that as the story progressed, some of the better sides of human nature began to show out otherwise it would have made for grim reading indeed.

I had to suspend my disbelief a little for the ending. After the man hunt mounted to catch Leo and Raisa, I felt it ended a little suddenly and a little more tamely than I would have thought. I can see that the author has left a couple of hanging threads for the next novel in the series which is fine, but after the pace and excitement of the whole novel, without giving a spoiler, the final pages fell a little bit flat for me. Also, I found myself a little irritated by the style of the dialogue. Rather than

“putting conversation in inverted commas, as is normal”

the conversation was written

– In italics and not marked in inverted commas

Just like uppercase letters are generally read as shouting, in my mind the dialogue throughout felt like it was being whispered or spoken a long distance away. Although perhaps that was the intention.

This is not to detract from an incredibly exciting book and a fantastic first novel. I’ll be on the lookout for this author in the future.

Rating: 8/10
ISBN: 978-1-84737-127-0
Publisher: Simon & Schuster UK
Year: 2008
Date Finished: 23 April 2008 (at 3.00am!)
Pages: 469
Challenges: 4/8 Category 1 of the 888 Challenge: Crime Fiction; S from the A-Z Challenge; 2/8 from The Pub Challenge

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The Secret Life of Bees

I took a book off from World War I while I waited for my next Amazon delivery. I swear I keep Amazon in business. Even my postman has commented on the number of Amazon parcels that arrive at my door. In the meantime, I finished a book which had been chosen this month by my reading group which I had read before but was quite happy to revisit.

The first time I read The Secret Life of Bees I was at a different stage of my live, and I absolutely loved it. I loved the strength of Lily, and her desire for love which overcame all prejudice. Reading it the second time around, from a different place in my life, I loved it again but for a different reason. This time I read it less as a story of fight, strength and defiance and more as a story of growth and finding one’s place. Lily touched me again, as did August, Rosaleen, June and May but because I knew the story, I spent more time enjoying the journey rather than anxiously waiting to find out whether they would ultimately win.

The mark of beautiful writing is when an author can truly transport you to a time and place, stimulating every one of your senses. This book does just that. Despite the cold and rain outside, I could feel the heat of the South Carolina summer. Despite the endless soundtrack of traffic outside, I could hear the gentle drone of the bees on the morning air. Despite being indoors, I could smell the freshly mown grass and the rich honey. To achieve this with just words is no small feat and it was one of the reasons that re-reading this book was such a pleasure.

Getting emotionally caught up in books is a habit of mine, and one can’t help grow angry at the blind racism which underpins this story. It is set in the Southern States of America in the 1960s just as the Civil Rights Movement is becoming law. But simply signing a law cannot change ingrained prejudice, and some of the attitudes towards the black inhabitants made you feel ill. You can’t help but ask ‘did people really behave like that?’ – a question which brings you to the realisation that many still do. I have never in my life understood how anyone could believe they were superior simply because of the colour of their skin. And this is something that Lily learns – skin colour means nothing. What matters is love and acceptance. Those people who don’t know that are poorer for it, which comes clear as this story develops.

This book, and those like it, is the reason I prefer to own books rather than borrow them – so I can go back and read them several times over. You will never approach a book as the same person. Everyone changes over time. As such, a re-read becomes a discovery of something new, and a reminder of how things once were.

Rating: 10/10
ISBN: 0-7472-6683-2
Publisher: Headline Book Publishing
Year: 2001
Date Finished: 22 March 2008
Pages: 374
Challenges: M in the A-Z Challenge

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If my Father Loved me

Well. This book certainly slowed me down. This was my second reading group book for this month and, well, frankly, I didn’t like it. I know when I am struggling with a book because I have no urge to read when I get into bed. That is so not like me. Fortunately, last night I had had too much coffee and couldn’t sleep so managed to get it finished. It was a relief to get to the last page.

Essentially, there is nothing hideously wrong with the book – it just doesn’t seem to go anywhere. Granted, this is not really my type of read anyway, but I found the characters irritating and the family drama a bit insipid. The story follows the life of Sadie, 50, divorced, with two children and an elderly father. When her father dies, she is forced to face her past with him whilst at the same time trying to deal with a difficult 12 year old. I felt that Sadie was a bit ‘fluffy’ and her 12 year old son, Jack, was a pain in the proverbial. Yes, I have never had children, so I am the first to admit I probably can’t relate to the difficulties, but his attitude was annoying, and the whole incident of Jack deciding to remain with the utterly obnoxious Audrey, an elderly stranger who had played a large albeit hidden role in Sadie’s life, was almost enough to make my put the book down and give up half way.

The story itself was well written. I think Rosie Thomas has a lovely way with words. Not poetic in an Eve Green kind of way, but still elegant and effective at painting a picture or a mood. Its just I felt that the story moved at snail’s pace until it hit several unbelievable dramas one after another towards the end. Yes, these dramas were supposed to catalyse the climax and the coming together of the family and friends, but they were pretty unconvincing.

My opinion, and it is just my opinion, is that I wouldn’t read another of her books. I have read ‘family discovery’ stories before and some I have really liked. But they aren’t my genre of choice and sadly this book reminded me why. We all have different tastes and I am never averse to trying a genre I normally steer away from. This time, it just didn’t work for me.

Rating: 4/10
ISBN: 0-09-927155-9
Publisher: Arrow Books
Year: 2003
Date Finished: 26 February 2008
Pages: 410
Challenge: T in the A-Z Challenge

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