Archive for the ‘Recommended Books’ Category

I was sent a proof copy of this book to review several weeks back, prior to its general release. When I was contacted I received a couple of paragraphs to whet my appetite. Without knowing what to expect, or what kind of book it was going to be, I allowed myself to be sold by the paragraphs – there was something within the intelligent turns of phrase that made me want to read more. The book arrived and I read…and I am still reeling from the experience. The Gone Away World is an incredible work of imaginative fiction which, once I had read the last page, I was sorely tempted to turn back to the front and start all over again.

The Story

The story is set on earth, but it is an earth which has been all but destroyed by a war which has essentially destroyed everything short of a narrow band of the ‘livable zone’, maintained thanks to the looming presence of the Jorgmund Pipe. I was confused by the first chapter, as the book launches at a time when the war has been over for a while, our narrator and his friends are almost renegade heros, and they have been called to save the world (again) as it seems the life giving, or more accurately, the normality giving Pipe is on fire. Chapter 2 jumps back to the childhood of our narrator and his best friend, Gonzo Lubitsch, in a fashion I found slightly jarring. I had so many unanswered questions from the first chapter, that the embarkation on the growing up and coming of age story confused me. However, as the book progresses, and the boys grow up, go to university and eventually join the army, it becomes to come clear. The war that was mentioned in the first chapter becomes a reality, and the whole reason for the earth’s destruction becomes clear.

Because of Harkaway’s chosen genre, the book blends familiar reality with unfamiliar absurdity. As time goes on, the absurdity becomes the norm but in a way which almost seems real. We never know the name of our narrator because he appears not to have a name. I only began to wonder about that when the story finally caught up with the first chapter, by which time I was so hooked I couldn’t put it down. Before long, a revelation occurs which turns the life of our narrator and Gonzo upside down, if indeed that were possible after all they had been through. But Harkaway is incredibly adept at drawing the threads of the story together, of confusing the reader only to have them exclaim “of course!!” when it becomes clear, and of painting it all with a vivid brush of imagery both banal and amazing.

You come across ninjas, mimes, circus performers, executives, martial arts masters and your darkest nightmares, but you take such absurdity in your stride. Because ultimately the world has irreversibly changed in the war, making the unbelievable completely expected. It is a strange but wonderful world he has created – one I didn’t want to leave.


In my opinion, the book falls within the realms of speculative fiction. Science fiction is too old fashioned and inaccurate a term for it. Perhaps I am still old school and think of Isaac Asimov whenever I hear of science fiction, but The Gone Away World was a completely new experience. This is Nick Harkaway’s first novel, and it demonstrates his ability with words and imagery. He writes with a wry humour that only lightly masks the depth of his themes. He clearly loves language and metaphor. He weaves single word exclamations in with multi paragraph descriptions of Tupperware containers to provide a pace that generally avoids getting bogged down. If I were to make a criticism, it would be that perhaps he was a little too wordy. Particularly at the beginning, where I was suffering from confusion as well, I found some of the lengthy descriptions a bit tedious. Yet, I felt it improved as the book progressed. It is a long book and perhaps reducing some of this wordiness could make the book a little more accessible, however I would not wish to be the editor and sacrifice some of Harkaway’s wonderful turns of phrase.


The theme that struck me most was that of the nature of war. Harkaway’s war is not like other wars. Rather than destruction, the bombs that are dropped in this war obliterate everything. They are Go Away bombs – bombs which remove all of the information from matter and energy leaving absolutely nothing. If you are in the path of a bomb you literally disappear, along with everything else in the bomb’s radius. This kind of weaponry makes the atom bomb look archaic. But the annihilation is total – and once the world has Gone Away, then by virtue of nature, something must take its place. And it is this something which the executives and corporate machine which is left over after the war tries to control and curb. But it is this something which is as much a result of human action as the war itself, and it cannot be controlled.

I loved the comment on the violence and destructive tendencies of human nature, and the fear and distrust of change, even if that change is perpetrated by humans in the first place. Yet amongst that, there are still heroes. People still fall in love, they still form lasting friendships, and they still stand up for the underdogs or the misunderstood. Thus, this is a heroic fairy tale – it has all of the ingredients. But it is a fairy tale which is so relevant to modern society with our ever more powerful weapons and our ever more futile and childish political squabbles. It is a fairy tale which delivers a message of caution, alongside a message of hope as voiced by the narrator, whose life seems to fall right in the centre of it all.


I absolutely loved this book and it has driven me to broaden my horizons when it comes to genre. I would comfortably read more speculative fiction and I will be looking forward to more by this author. Although The Gone Away World may not have the read-on-the-train appeal of some of the trashy fiction which you can get today, for any intelligent reader who has an imagination and a sense of humour, you simply can not go wrong.

Rating: 10/10
ISBN: 9780434018420
Publisher: William Heinemann (Proof Copy)
Date: 2008
Date Finished: 4 June 2008
Pages: 532


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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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All Quiet on the Western Front

I would hail this book as one of the most evocative accounts of the First World War ever written. I was almost speechless when I finished it. There were passages which I found myself reading a second and third time because of their beauty. The story itself is similar to so many others – a young man grows into an old man as he experiences the war. His comrades become his only family and by the end, all hope for a future is lost along with the tens of thousands of lives. The difference with All Quiet on the Western Front is that the young man is from the ‘other side’. He is a ‘Hun’, a German, and yet his experience and suffering is identical. Upon reading this book so close behind A Long Long Way, the futility of the whole event becomes brilliantly clear.

It is little wonder this book was banned by the Nazis in the 1930’s. It does not glorify the war. It does not make the Germans out to be a master race or an invincible war machine. Rather, it shows them up as terrified boys who want nothing more but for the whole thing to end, but who cannot see an end and ultimately do little more than wish for their own. The reflections of the narrator are often bitter. The emphasis is on their living for the moment, enjoying what little they can scrounge, because they know that their mortality is finite and it is usually a matter of luck that they wake to see the sun rise.

One of the most incredible scenes was during the first battle early on in the book where the troops are subjected to the anguished sound of injured horses screaming. The scene consolidated the fact that no matter which side you were on, ultimately everyone suffered.

“You want to get up and run away, anywhere just so as not to hear that screaming any more. And it isn’t men, just horses.”

Every participant is like one of those horses – “…what have they done to deserve that…it is the most despicable thing of all to drag animals into a war” – they are all helpless, all dragged in, all frightened to die.

Once again, this book follows a trajectory downwards. It starts with some hope. There is levity among the group at the beginning. But as the war drags on…

“Our hands are earth, our body mud, and our eyes puddles of rain. We no longer know if we are alive or not.”

They are no longer boys with hopes, dreams, futures or lives. They become the earth which is where they all ultimately fall.

This is an incredible book which should be mandatory reading for anyone who has ever seen war as a positive thing.

Rating: 10/10
ISSN: 1753-3120
Publisher: Jonathan Cape Ltd.
Date: 1994
Date Finished: 13 March 2008
Pages: 197
Challenges: 3 from category7: Books with World War I as the theme from the 888 Challenge; 1920’s in the 8 Decade challenge.

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I studied World War I in my final year at school, and after finishing A Long Long Way, I wanted to continue my reading on it. Fortunately, my book club then selected Regeneration by Pat Barker which gave me another opportunity to read about the same war, from a different viewpoint and with a completely different atmosphere.

Much has been written about this book. It is a novel based around fact – in 1917, Siegfried Sassoon wrote a Declaration in protest against the futility of continuing the war. Sassoon, thanks to an intervention by his friend Robert Graves is sent to Craiglockhart, a psychiatric hospital, rather than court marshalled for his outspokenness. This novel traces his weeks there and the people he encounters including his doctor, W.H.R. Rivers, and the young, doomed poet Wilfred Owen. It focuses on the mental processes which each character goes through as they contemplate their experiences and their bleak future.

I don’t believe it is possible to write a book about the Great War that doesn’t come across as tragic in some way. This book is no different however the tragedy is more psychological than graphic. The war was fought at a time when shell-shock was seen as curable and mental breakdown was seen as cowardice. It was a time when psychological problems were misunderstood, and duty and societal expectation drove everything. Rivers, who is quite forward-thinking in his methods is in private accord with Sassoon about the futility of the war and the damage that is wrought by it, but he too is driven by duty to get the men back to the front.

I loved this book because of the psychological insight it offered. The disturbed peace of the hospital was palpable throughout the text because you were privileged to be able to see into the minds of the officers who had been sectioned there. There is a hopelessness in the expectations placed upon them – whether it be the haemophobic Anderson whose career as a doctor is over due to his mortal fear of blood, or the belligerent Prior whose life is a confusion of guilt, amnesia and defiance. Despite their issues, the hospital is a haven – safety from the shelling and death. But it is a temporary haven. The future holds the war, or lifelong memories to contend with at home.

And throughout is the image of Sassoon – mentor to Owen, anguished by an unrequited love for Graves, torn by his love for his men as opposed to his anger at the loss. Ultimately, his duty and emotion send him back to war, but not before he precipitates questions in the minds of everyone he touches. Sadly, despite his protest, the war continues and thousands more lives are lost.

I loved the mix of fact and fiction and would highly recommend this as a fascinating, moving account of the psychology behind the First World War and an understanding of the time.

Rating: 10/10
ISBN: 0-140-12308-3
Publisher: Penguin
Year: 1991
Date Finished: 11 March 2008
Pages: 250
Challenges: 2 from category 7: Books with World War I as a theme from 888 Challenge

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Long Long Way

So many books written about World War I recount the misery, horror and subhuman conditions the soldiers were forced to endure on the Western Front. A Long Long Way continued this tradition, but despite having read a lot about the period, having visited the battlefields of Belgium and having studied the Great War at length, it never reduces the shock and sadness.

This story is about a very ordinary Irish boy. Willie Dunne is no-one special. He is a lad from Dublin who never grew quite tall enough to follow his father into the police force, so who opted to sign up when war was declared. What followed was a sad progression as he matures on the battlefields, and each horror he is forced to endure removes one more slice of idealism from his personality until all that is left…is nothing.

My heart ached for Willie. Caught up in a war which, in reality had little to do with Ireland, by the close of the book he struggles to find any purpose whatsoever for continuing to fight. But fight he does because everything else is lost – his companions, his leaders, his hopes and his dreams. The story is set with the secondary backdrop of the struggle for and against Home Rule in Ireland which peppered the twentieth century. While death was wreaking havoc in Belgium, it hadn’t turned it’s eye away from Ireland and the differing perspectives of that struggle cause a once close family to fall apart.

The book is written like poetry. Although it is standard prose, so many of the turns of phrase are beautifully poetic that it seems wrong to ignore them. From the tadpoles appearing like “rusty commas” to the snow laying over everything “in impersonal dislike”, Barry’s writing is exquisite. It is the kind of book you have to go and read again, not for the story, but so you can go back and pick up all of the beautiful use of the language again.  For the story is heartbreaking, and yet one can’t help feel a sense of relief at the tragedy. The ending is absolutely right, despite causing me to cry. It couldn’t have ended another way.

Rating: 9/10
ISBN: 0-571-21801-6
Publisher: Faber and Faber
Year: 2005
Date Finished: 7 March 2008
Pages: 292
Challenge: 1 of Category 7 of the 888 Challenge: Books with World War I as the Theme

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Introducing Phryne Fisher – intelligent, beautiful, wealthy and seductive, with more than her fair share of wit and sass, and a desire to find something more distracting to occupy herself than flying planes, driving fast cars or listening to boring society talk. In the first of the Phryne Fisher mysteries, our heroine takes herself to Melbourne. It is the late 1920s, and within days she is caught up with discovering who is running a cocaine racket, who is butchering young women by delivering amateur abortions, and who are the most interesting people in Melbourne society. This all interspersed with some delicious sex with a Russian ballet dancer and some fashionable clothes shopping, it is impossible not to love Phryne by the end of this book.

Kerry Greenwood has created a heroine-extraordinare. This is the first of more than 30 books and I can see why the character has persisted. She is just wonderful. Despite her wealth, she never forgets her working class roots. She takes pity on scorned ladies maids and roughened taxi drivers and doesn’t shirk about spending money with outrageous ease. Her intelligence gets her out of several rather dangerous situations and the end of the book sees her deciding that perhaps being a lady investigator might be an amusing diversion after all. Accompanied by her new ladies maid, I can see that this is the start of a lot of fun. My only sadness is that the Phryne Fisher novels, although available in the UK, appear to be a little more difficult to come by. I will be getting them sent over in parcels along with Tim Tams and Violet Crumbles.

My only criticism about this book was that it appears the first couple of chapters, introducing Phryne and having her embark on her journey to Melbourne were edited within an inch of their lives. I suspect Greenwood had embellished these chapters a lot more than the final draft, but because they were almost incidental to the story, were cut. Because of that, I did struggle through the first 15 or 20 pages because the writing was shallow, but I persisted because these books had been recommended to me. I am glad I did. As the story developed, the writing improved by the page and I was sad to say goodbye to Phryne at the end. Fortunately, this is certainly not the end. I am now out on the hunt for book 2.

Rating: 9/10
ISBN: 1-74114-566-X
Published: Allen & Unwin
Year: 2005 (first published in 1989)
Date finished: 19 December 2007

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The narrator of this story is Death. He (or she) thinks the fact that humans represent him with a scythe is amusing, he notices colours to keep him sane while he works, and he only wears a black cloak when it is cold. And it is Death who is charged with the responsibility of telling the story of Liesel Meminger, who arrives kicking and screaming at the house of the Hubermanns’ and learns to become a book thief.

After our narrator has introduced himself, he begins the story. It is 1939 and Death is soon to be very busy in Europe. Liesel is sent to live with her new foster parents due to a mysterious word – Kommunist – which had clearly incensed the Nazi government. She is 10 years old and over the next four years she experiences love, joy, an accordion, a Papa with storm grey eyes and a Mama who swears a lot, a hidden Jew, a lemon haired friend, and the joy of words and books.

Death chooses not to invite any surprises in the story. He says surprises bore him – he would rather we know what happens to Liesel early on, and then focus on how she gets there. This is no way detracts from the story – the tragedy at the end is not dampened in any way, and you feel the loss and agony of the girl, whose life is torn apart by a war in which none of her neighbours wanted any part. She had written her story down – and it was this which not only had saved her, but which Death had found and kept. It was because of this that the story was being told.

The book is written in a deceptively simple and beautiful manner. The narrator is entertaining, almost human, yet displays confusion and sadness at the folly of real human nature. Liesel herself shows strength and courage no matter what she experiences. And the backdrop of Nazism, anti-Semitism and life threatening risk for the sake of human compassion turns this into a story which can’t be read only once. The book is as much about words as it is about human spirit – and shows how words can not only heal but destroy and kill as well.

We are left to decide how the future between the time the story itself ends and the time that Liesel finally meets Death pans out. I wrote that part in my own head as the author chooses not to. But he doesn’t need to. The picture he has painted is simply stunning. The words he uses himself are artistic and expressive. A masterpiece of fiction which I will most definitely be reading again.

Rating: 10/10
ISBN: 0-330-36426-X
Publisher: Pan Macmillan Australia
Year: 2005
Date finished: 18 December 2007

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