2003: Summary

Not a great year in terms of quantity, but some real quality. I signed up for an Audible subscription (which I'm becoming increasingly frustrated with) and I read too many children's books. I stopped reading to my daughter and should really take it up again.

Audio books: 8. Highlights:  Life of Pi,  Atonement and A Tale of Two Cities.

Children's books: 7. Highlights: His Dark Materials.

Non-Audio Fiction: 9. Highlights: The Last Enchantment, What I loved.

Non-fiction: 2. Both good.

Abandoned: 2.


Charles Frazier: Cold Mountain

This book opened with some very evocative imagery; and blood; and dying. But it failed to grab me and it took me some time to finish the darn thing. And when I did, it was kind of mneh. Some passages were lovely but the main characters weren't all that sympathetic and while the descriptions of cruelty and selfishness were striking, I felt no trepidation. I read to the end because I wanted to see how it worked out rather than I hoped that anything particular would.

Two things: the idea that music can help redeem one's character and the fact that life should not be all about checks and balances; these were worth reading.


Charles Dickens: A Tale of Two Cities

A marathon session. Unabridged and consequently, long. Dickens is fond of using a paragraph or two where a sentence will do, but good paragraphs. Worth hearing.

I knew nothing about this book except the opening line (and the closing one, but I didn't know it was from this book until I heard it) and so I had lots of lovely surprises along the way and, really, some of his dialog is just superb.

On foot of this I'll have another go at Hard Times (and I bought Great Expectations which is ironic as I have them about this book). I'll just have to imagine it read by Frank Muller.


 Miguel De Cervantes: Don Quixote

I almost forgot about this one. Another classic that I don't get. It's just slapstick. Lots of falling down and other idiocy. The best I can say about it is that it's a parody on romance novels, in which case I fail to see its significance.

Having said that and then looked at the Sparknotes I realise that the abridgement I listend to was altogether too chopped up. No more abridgements for me.


Emily Bronte: Wuthering Heights

I do not know why this is a classic. I did not like either Heathcliff nor Cathy and nor did I think his obsession explained his behaviour or excused it. I disliked the useless narrator and thought that most of the other characters were unlikeable too. Maybe I should have watched Alastair McGowan explain it all to me on The Big Read.

And putting that song in my head didn't help either.

However, it was an abridgement so maybe something was lost in translation. I'm wondering if this audiobook thing is a good idea. I feel I can't give the stuff the attention in deserves sometimes.


Thomas Hardy: Far From The Madding Crowd

I had no idea where the title came from (it's from Thomas Gray's poem "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard") but I don't think I missed much because of it. This tale of Ms. Everdene's choices and mistakes is carried by the seeming ambiguity of some of the characters. Even the careless and destructive Sgt. Troy have admirable aspects to them and in fact these people are much more interesting and believable than the central, dependable Mr. Oak.

It is a stern lesson on the choices we make in life, especially if made with the heart.


Ian McEwan: Atonement

I had to choke back a sob towards the end and I wonder if it's just the readings that are affecting me so.  Would I feel the same with the written word?  It's a good reading (by Josephine Bailey).

It's a good story and some lovely, true, words.  He likes talking about heat and dust (if I remember the Cement Garden correctly, he did it in that too).  I'm not sure I know what he's doing in the end bit, or what his point is really, but it seems too precious for the rest of the book.

I've just gone to Audible to find out who the reader was and discovered that this was the abridged version.  The unabridged is twice as long, so I'm wondering if it's worth investing in it.


JK Rowling: The Order of the Phoenix

Over six hundred pages, what a waste. I read it at high speed because, well, nothing happens. Strictly, stuff does happen, but what of it. None of it matters much and none of it makes me care about the characters either. Except for Hagrid. And Hermione. Hermione's cool. I'd rather have hard working, loyal, intelligent Hermione around than a few dozen chosen ones.


Yann Martel: Life of Pi

The Booker winner last year (this year's winner is announced today) and I think it deserved it (more than The Blind Assassin). This too is a book of two halves and again I probably missed much of the foreshadowing. I got a little irritated towards the end by some of the more unreal episodes but I was stabbed in the heart at the end and I felt foolish for misunderstanding.

This was also an unabridged Audible book but it didn't need editing. A good book. I don't know if I would have cried if I had read it instead of listening to it. The reader was excellent.


Raymond Chandler: The Big Sleep

My first Audible title. I know this story well but my positive experience with The Lady in the Lake made me want another experience like it. So, same reader (Elliot Gould) and same author. It's a good story and I like the Chandler dialog, but it's just too long to listen to. I would have enjoyed a good abridged version better.


Siri Hustvedt: What I Loved

This was a gift and I knew (know) nothing about the author and nothing about the book before opening it. The main characters are authors, poets, artists and despite my prejudices about the art world, I found these characters sympathetic and sincere.

It's a book of two halves and I'm sure if I had looked deeper it would have been clearer what to expect. The second half is darker than the first and I only realised this was going to happen just before it did. The first half made me think about art and perception and painting versus photography and such and the second half about being a parent and my relation with my daughter and quite different things entirely.

It's quite a sad book, but not wrenchingly so. The fact that the female author wrote a convincing male narrator probably shouldn't be noteworthy, but I was impressed.


Paul Theroux: The Pillars of Hercules

Gave up. Threw it away. Before he even got to Corsica, which I'm interested in (now that I've said that maybe I'll read that bit and then throw it away). He's just too grouchy. And he knows it. All those slimy little references to readers rolling their eyes at him (Oh there he goes again!) yes, he does, and he's unrepentant. Good for him. He's also boring.

I tried this guy before. The Patagonia one and the Iron Rooster one and maybe another one. I think I finished them, but I was not enriched. I shall not try again.

Except for maybe the Corsica bit...


Michael Dibdin: Blood Rain

Another in the Aurelio Zen series, but a weak one. A book of two halves, the second half is the better one, as the first suffers terribly from Mr. Dibdin's inability to write credible women. Some of that is excruciating, and when you factor in the oddly irrelevant lesbian angle, quite bizarre. But when it's Zen struggling with the facts and trying to make sense of it all, it's fine. It's not something that took me long to read and there are only flashes of the writing that made me consume the first three or four books in quick succession.


Margaret Atwood: The Blind Assasin

This book really annoyed me at the beginning. It inter-cuts between the present, the past, newspaper reports and a story that one of the characters was telling and it's too jumpy. Like the guy in The Player says "All the time -- cut, cut, cut". But I persevered and it settled down, or maybe I just reached the point where I cared enough to want to know what happened next.

Nice language, as you might expect, and recognisable characters too. Recognisable in the sense that you feel that people like that do exist, even if you never met any. I wonder if this has any sort of measurable truth or is it just reinforcement of stereotypes. The narrator is old and has some uncomfortable things to say about that. I don't really need any more reasons to be afraid of growing old, but again, this made the narrative feel more true (truer?).

It tailed off a bit at the end (something I felt about Alias Grace too) but worth reading for the character descriptions.


Phillip Pullman: The Amber Spyglass

I read this to Anna as the final installment of the Dark Materials trilogy. It took us quite a while to get through as I only read to her when she didn't have friends staying and when she wasn't reading the new Harry Potter.

I found it an unsatisfying conclusion to the series. It may have suffered from the very fragmented way in which I read it, with days in between some chapters, but I think that elements the final act weren't explained properly and too many things seemed irrational. You can have all the magic you like, but it has to make sense, and there were two things I just didn't understand at the conclusion.


Tom Humphries: Laptop Dancing and the Nanny Goat Mambo

Sub-titled A Sportswriter's year (as if the title wasn't long enough already), this is a quick, entertaining read that has plenty of anecdotes and an insider viewpoint on the turbulent times surrounding Ireland's adventures in the 2002 World Cup. Other sports rate a mention but the majority of the book is taken up with football related stuff.

The writer's I'm-only-a-fat-old-hack shtick grows stale after a while, but he does have interesting things to say about sport in general and apart from entertaining me in the short term, he gave me two longer term gifts. The first was he made me interested in chasing down a book he mentioned (trivial enough) but what he wrote about the GAA made me see how unique and admirable the people involved in Gaelic games are. I, knowing little apart from the names of some of the higher profile players, have resolved to know more.


Mary Stewart: Touch Not the Cat

I'm not absolutely sure why I finished this. I'm a big fan of Mary Stewart's Merlin trilogy, but this was borderline Mills and Boon. I think I kept reading it because I knew there was a twist coming and I wanted to see if my guess (well, guesses, I kept changing my mind) was right. Ultimately unsatisfying and a huge disappointment given how much I enjoyed the other books of hers I've read.


WIlliam Gibson: Virtual Light

A book about places and things as opposed to people. Mr.Gibson's characters are not very interesting, I'm afraid. It's a diverting enough read (and a welcome break from my attempts at more weighty stuff) but it does trip over itself here and there. I sympathise with people trying to write in the future. No matter how grand,  impressive or plausible the big ideas might be, they keep tripping over the little things. F'rinstance, who uses FAX machines now, let alone twenty years from now.


Salman Rushdie: Shame

I finished this on (I think) the third attempt. The two previous times I only got about a third of the way through before losing interest. This time, I made it.

I don't really know why it proved so difficult. I like Mr. Rushdie's use of language. Midnight's Children is the only other book of his I have read (and I really enjoyed that) and Shame is similar in style. I was distracted by the weighty allegories that were implied everywhere and I felt I didn't know enough about the history of Pakistan to get those. I'm not big on allegory generally, preferring stories about things that happen to people. And plenty of stuff happened to people here, so I was able to ignore my ignorance and just enjoy the story.

He did pull it out of the fire at the end for me. At the risk of being spoliery, I was getting annoyed that certain characters seemed to have been abandoned, despite the indications that they were significant. However, he managed to pull it all together in the end and my fears were unfounded.

This book made me want to understand Pakistan's history better and to re-read Midnight's Children. Both of which, on top of actually enjoying the book, are good things.


Cornelia Funke: The Thief Lord

A friend lent this to Anna as it's set in Venice and we were all doing the Venice thing a month or so ago. It's a children's book, but that doesn't stop me. This one was unsatisfactory somehow. Despite some nice characters and a well evoked Venice, the plot seemed inconclusive or something. Perhaps there is a planned sequel and that is why it ended so limply.

The main characters (the elder boy and the detective) are fine but the promise shown in their depiction is never really fulfilled. There is a fantastic element to the plot which doesn't really click with the realism elsewhere and people do things without there being a good explanation why.

Perhaps I've been spoiled by Messrs Snicket and Pullman, but this book was very successful and I felt I could have done better.


Jan Morris: Venice

As there is a family holiday in Venice soon, Sally is doing her usual thing of reading all the guide books and surfing the rental accommodation sites (even after we've found a place) and generally immersing herself in huge amounts of background. I tend not to bother with this sort of thing, using Sally's knowledge if required, but generally taking things as I find them.

However, this time, it's different. This will be my third visit to Venice and lasting for a whole week so I felt that I should get some idea of what there is to see and do beyond the obvious. And it so happens that we have a copy of Jan Morris' Venice.

I've read some short travel pieces of her before and she's made me want to go to Trieste (as yet unvisited) but this is quite some book. She knows absolutely loads about the place. But it isn't overwhelming. At times it might not be your sort of thing (the religious aspects of life there isn't really my bag), but it doesn't weigh you down. In fact as far as books about places go this has almost exactly the right balance of anecdote and fact and it's apparent that she loves the place and has spent enough time there to be considered an expert.

One aspect of the book is slightly niggling in that although the book have been revised three times, there's no way of knowing what bits of information apply to what period. It was originally written in the sixties and revised early eighties and early nineties and a few times I asked myself I wonder if that's still true. This problem was made a little worse be me being silly. Jan Morris was James Morris when he wrote this first and I kept looking to see if this was obvious from the writing. And when reading the anecdotes of his or her interaction with the locals I wondered whether they would be different depending on whether they were before or after the change.

All of that, however is a reflection on me and not the book which makes me want to be in Venice tomorrow.


Dr. Suess: Fox in Sox

I first heard of Fox in Sox when I was about five, sitting in the back of the car on our way home from holiday in west Cork. My sister was reading it aloud and my mother was convinced that she was making it up as no-one in their right mind would publish something like that! And so the Tweetle Beetles entered our family mythology. History does not relate how my mother reacted when she discovered that, indeed, Dr. Seuss had written all that. Revisiting it for my children is fun although I find the drawings uglier than I remembered, but still clever. Some of the tongue twisters are no fun to say (too much blibber blabber) but some flow and are almost melodic. Paddy likes the repetition and the Goo Goose.


Phillip Pullman: The Subtle Knife

The second book in the Dark Matter trilogy. Read aloud to Anna too. This felt like quite a different book despite many of the characters from the previous book. New worlds are introduced and new troubles for Lyra too. I'm curious where this stuff is going and intrigued that the motives of Lyra's parents remain unfathomable and it's not at all clear that what is unraveling is a good thing or that the road that our heroine is on is for the good. People follow their consciences but not always to good effect. People make mistakes and break promises. It's quite a complex world. I'm not sure how Anna would get on on her own but I'm enjoying it.


Lemony Snicket: The Vile Village

It looks like the only book I'll finish this month is this one --the seventh in the Series of Unfortunate Events. It doesn't deviate from the formula that was used in the previous six volumes (which is not a criticism, that's part of the charm) in which the Baudilaire children are shunted from guardian to guardian and horrible things happen. Along the way the reader is taught about such literary constructs as dramatic irony and given life lessons (like the fact that people can be nice and well meaning without being terribly useful or dependable).

This is a very successful series and I can see why. There's talk of making a movie out of it, but as Iain pointed out it would be better as a TV series as a three year gap between episodes would require complete re-casting. It's all good stuff and more power to Mr. Snicket's elbow.


Raymond Chandler: The Lady in the Lake

Not read, but listened to in the car. Elliot Gould is the reader and it's lovely. I like Raymond Chandler a lot and I still harbour hopes that there's a novel of his I haven't read out there somewhere. He has such a sharp turn of phrase -- as noir as you like.


Charles Dickens: Hard Times

I didn't actually complete this -- I abandoned it.

I tried, I really did. I read half of it but I just couldn't make myself go on. I hated the language and didn't care about the characters, so why bother?


Phillip Pullman: Northern Lights

I read this book out loud to Anna. We both enjoyed it and have moved on to the second book in the trilogy -- The Subtle Knife.

The world described in this book hangs together very well and there is a familiarity mixed with the fantastic that works quite well. I was a little annoyed by how easily the heroine extracted her self from some situations (and in one particular incident, even the author seemed embarassed enough about it to comment on it) but not everything was quite so neatly tied up at the end. I did manage to inadvertently spoil the ending by reading some comments on the web, and I'd like to thank the person on who posted a massive spoiler in the review section.


Orson Scott Card: Ender's Game

I was sick today, so as I lay in bed I read this. It was interesting, but I had picked up the feeling that it was a bigger, more important, book. Perhaps I was too sick to get it. It reminded me of Heinlein, but you should bear in mind that I haven't read any science fiction for about twenty years.

I liked it well enough, but not overly so.


Mary Stewart: The Last Enchantment.

This is the last book in a trilogy about Merlin the magician. The middle one is The Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hills the first. I loved these. In these books Merlin has power but it's not all waving of wands and casting spells and he can't always wield it at will. He does have a vision though, of a great king to come, and does all he can to make this come to pass.

The final book starts at the beginning of Arthur's reign, when Merlin's power is waning. I had read these books about fifteen years ago but I couldn't remember anything happening in this volume. I was wrong and a lot does happen here, but ultimately what I found the most striking was the relationship between Arthur and Merlin and how much they meant to each other.

I really enjoyed this stuff which managed to be fantastic but believable.

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