Burfobookalicious

Burfobookalicious

I have always been fascinated by the power of words and the ability of gifted writers to ignite the imagination, fuel the intellect and feed the soul. Reading is the supreme indulgence and perhaps connects us most intimately with what it is to be human, traversing emotions and the very history of mankind.

Review
4 Stars
Tribute to the late Colin Dexter
Last Bus to Woodstock  - Colin Dexter

I read this first Inspector Morse mystery in honour of the author who passed away this week. In fact, I have the set of thirteen Morse novels and I really must be getting on with them. I deliberately read this first one fairly intensively, if only to keep the complex storyline fixed in my head, but the central characters - Chief Inspector Morse and Detective Sergeant Lewis - popularized in the ITV adaption, come together for the first time here and offer the prospect of a burgeoning relationship. Of course, once exposed to the TV characters, as one reads it's hard not to conjure up a mental picture of John Thaw and Kevin Whately, even if the Chief Inspector is driving a Lancia.

 

Like Morse, Colin Dexter's writing style is complex and his plotlines intelligent and sophisticated. A former graduate of Cambridge, it is curious that the author should choose to set his series of novels in Oxford. Yet, the backdrop of dreaming spires and college cloisters surrenders a potential wealth of articulate, affluent characters linked to this seat of learning, alongside the harsher reality of city life in the Thames valley. Following the well-trodden footsteps of Sherlock Holmes, in Morse we are enthralled by the detective's superior intellect, in spite of the character's equally obvious flaws. And in DS Lewis, Morse has the perfect foil, whereby blunt common sense and diligent police work enables the more florid, ale-fuelled genius to flourish.

 

In a sense, the emotional vulnerability displayed by Morse in his pursuit of a 'love' interest is surprising, but his ineptitude in the relationship department is nonetheless endearing. In this opening story, Morse and Lewis are beginning to find the measure of each other and formulating a working relationship, which meshes their respective strengths, but the sparks between them also also keeps this partnership interesting, with more to come.

 

As well as the crime (in this instance murder), the key to the crime novel is often how the 'solution' is unpacked and here Dexter has Morse subtly explain his 'working out' to Lewis. The conclusion is slightly melodramatic for my taste, but a giant among literary detectives began his rise to popularity with this book.

 

Twelve books to go. How exciting! And what an exceptional body of work!

Review
3.5 Stars
Boys will be boys...
Lord of the Flies - William Golding

It might be regarded as a classic book, but "Lord of the Flies" is not what I would describe as an easy read. Confronting the reader, as William Golding does, with a rather bleak and brutal portrayal of youth unfettered by the boundaries of social norms. Indeed, this novel suggests we may remain a very uncomfortably short step from the savagery supposedly consigned to primitive human history. The fact that the protagonists are children only magnifies the horror of the characters' amoral behaviour and irreverent attitude to life.

 

Marooned on a desert island, the only survivors of a plane crash are a group of schoolboys, comprising littluns and bigguns. At the outset, the scenario has the feel of an adventure, but as the harsh realities of survival kick-in, the group becomes fractured and set upon an inevitable trajectory of conflict.

 

In many ways it is a rather tragic story, with fatal consequences for some. Still, the examination of bullying, the potential folly of unchallenged, charismatic, macho leadership and the value of social rules makes this an obvious choice for GCSE study. Though I have come to it very late, I can understand why this book retains popularity and is regarded as an important contribution to English literature. Still, it offers up a very unflattering impression of man-kind. Like father, like son?

Review
4 Stars
Burning through the pages
Ashes of London - Andrew Taylor

Andrew Taylor has made a career out of historical thrillers and his latest book is a compelling dive into post-republic Britain. Many of us perhaps recall 1666 as the year of the 'great fire of London', a catastrophic event in the history of the nation, often taught in classrooms alongside the impact of the plague, for which the fire is frequently regarded as a partial antidote. However, I for one, am short on detail, the impact for the city of such an event, both logistically, but also for individual citizens. In this book, Andrew Taylor draws us onto street level, as the inhabitants of the capital struggle to dampen the flames, which raged for days and threatened to cause irreparable damage. It's an interesting and dynamic backdrop into which the author deftly inserts a tale of intrigue, murder and power-broking which sustains the returned king, amid turmoil and a nation recovering from the tensions evoked under Oliver Cromwell.

 

James Marwood and Catherine ('Cat') Lovett are the adult children of regicides - those who had been directly instrumental in the execution of the king's father in Whitehall. Their respective families had flourished under parliamentarian rule and extremist religious views that were tolerated. However, the return of the monarchy was to confer profound changes to the fortunes of their respective fathers and emburdened the children with the associated shame and guilt. The book traces their respective interwoven journeys and struggles to survive, thereby lifting a veil on the often brutal life in London at that time, the machinations of the state, society and the fluctuating fortunes of the aristocracy, political and lower classes.

 

In some ways there are intriguing and tangible parallels with today. The destruction of a major city creates a flood of refugees and it is the rich and powerful best placed to survive the tumult, with most choices. Still, amid the generalized mayhem and economic disaster, with the attendant winners and losers, Taylor has developed a compelling plot, which made this reader want to know how circumstances pan out for the central characters.

 

Top of the bestseller list for this genre for weeks, Taylor has clearly tapped into an appetite for fast-moving action and in spite of the historical context the quality of the writing and the strength of the characters gives this book broad appeal. Worth noting there are instances of violence in the book, but handled well by the author, in my view and in keeping with the unsanitized description of a great city convulsed by time and happenstance. Well worth reading.

Review
4 Stars
An Empathetic Portrait
The Lady In The Van - Alan Bennett

The musings of Alan Bennett, based on his observations of people and his experience of life in general, are almost guaranteed too draw a smile from even the most world-weary. As one reads his diarised account of life after the eccentric Miss Shepherd had moved her clapped-out van into his front garden.....and then stayed for fifteen years, it is hard not to be touched by a mixture of humour and pathos, which is both funny and moving in equal measure. 

So improbable is the bizarre sequence of events that 'you couldn't make it up' and the knowledge that Bennett is recounting 'real life' somehow adds to the riveting nature of the book. Though now a 'major motion picture' starring Dame Maggie Smith, as I read, I could frequently 'hear' Bennett's distinctive northern, nasally voice, wanting to remain compassionate, but nonplussed by the chaotic and seemingly irrational choices made by his visitor. Yet, it is hard not to have more than a sneaking regard for the enigmatic Miss Shepherd. Though seemingly destined to persistently rail against conforming to social norms, Miss Shepherd is nonetheless like an iceberg, with only a small fraction of herself showing above the community waterline. Indeed, perhaps it was the prospect of hidden depths, which so intrigued the author.

Still, we can also applaud Mr Bennett for his very uncommon response, in the circumstances, which has permitted a tender, yet unsentimental portrait of a  fascinating human being. Since, Miss Shepherd could potentially be any one of us, Bennett also manages to make a powerful case for tolerance and an acceptance of difference. Just as it takes a village to raise a child, there is perhaps an argument here suggesting that same village may also foster a dignified end of life for our elders.

 

By including an epilogue, the author also provided a thoughtful conclusion, which deftly answered some of the questions arising about Miss Shepherd's past. This was my first foray into the written work of Alan Bennett, but from this example, it is easy to see why he is regarded by many as a national treasure. I look forward to more dipping into a substantial body of work.

Review
4 Stars
Sebastian Faulks takes some P.G tips
Jeeves and the Wedding Bells - Sebastian Faulks, Julian Rhind-Tutt

Sub-titled "a homage to P.G. Wodehouse", as a lifelong fan of the late,great man one can imagine that it must have been both an honour and a distinct challenge for Sebastian Faulks, to be invited by the Wodehouse estate to write a new Jeeves and Wooster novel. No pressure....though given that Faulks has similarly delivered a new James Bond novel (see my review of "Devil May Care") in the style of Ian Fleming, one cannot doubt the chameleonic qualities of this fine contemporary writer. Still, as a longstanding fan of Wodehouse myself, I also came at this book with a certain degree of trepidation and a wistful hope for more than a pale imitation of a Wodehouse original. I needn't have worried. Faulks has successfully woven the classic ingredients into a wonderfully comic plot, which sees Bertie and Jeeves revisit a glorious heyday. Indeed, if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, there can be no finer accolade than to suggest this belated addition to the catalogue of J&W stories sits very comfortably alongside the originals, with deft brushstrokes that so clearly simulate the master. 

 

Since the TV series, in my imagination, Stephen Fry and Hugh Lawrie inevitably play the starring roles and the dialogue is crafted to fit their honeyed tones seamlessly. However, it is the quintessentially English nature of the farce, threaded through the frailties of the upper classes, which provides such a familiar platform for the many slapstick moments. The affable Bertie Wooster, big of heart, but none too bright, chaperoned by his patient, cerebrally-gifted manservant, who navigates through the choppy waters his master instinctively seems to steer towards. This book is stuffed with laugh-out-loud moments, which draw unashamedly on the antics of the Drones Club and references to familiar friends of old (Stinker Pinker, Boko Fittleworth, Bingo Little, Aunt Agatha, etc). Only the role swap at the core of this new tale breaks new ground with predictably hilarious consequences. If ever there was a book to brighten the cold winter evenings, this is it. Full credit to Mr Faulks for doing P.G. fans proud!

 

The shelf picture gives the impression that I ventured into the audio book, though only because the book cover was not an option in the drop-down. This book definitely is one for my actual shelf and one I expect to return to.  

It's a case of judgement...
The Whistler - John Grisham

As a long time admirer of the Grisham back-catalogue,  there is always a tremor of excitement when a new title is added to the list (currently the list of novels numbers twenty nine) and more often than not the author delivers for his army of fans.'The Whistler' carries all the traditional hallmarks of a Grisham thriller - the victims, the baddies and the agents of the justice system seeking to uphold the rule of law. The intrinsically arcane and yet equally fascinating backdrop of the US legal system has been successfully mined repeatedly by Grisham and  his tales often turn on an obscure element of the law and in this instance that pertaining to 'whistle-blowers'. Wrap around that nugget a plot involving organized crime, a corrupt judge, the land belonging to a native American tribe, murder, extortion and a range of misdemeanors and this novel makes for a compelling read.

 

In this offering, Grisham does not dwell much on motivation, though the presence of greed and its corrupting influence looms large. More interesting though is the inadvertently heroic efforts of the law enforcers to see justice prevail, without the inducements anticipated by the 'whistlers'. More grave, the disloyalty of a judge to the public she exists to serve and the abject abuse of a revered high office.

 

However, for me, the acid test unfolds in the epilogue. The 'triumph' of justice can be fickle and the apportioning of 'just deserts' nuanced and sometimes unsatisfying. For example, the full weight of the law being lightened by plea-bargaining, the witness protection programme, the apparent need to reward some people to 'do the right thing', while expecting it of others. Still, there was something very satisfying about wealthy criminals being temporarily unable to engage expensive lawyers. At that moment, at least, the playing field seemed level, perhaps in the way we'd like to imagine the law should operate.

 

Ultimately though, the conclusion was greeted with an indifferent  shrug, not so much a thrilling crescendo, as a damp squib really. But why? 

On reflection, I don't think the characters were developed enough to be fully plausible, nor to make the reader 'care' about their respective outcomes. Yet, on balance, 'The Whistler' remains an enjoyable romp, but, rather like fast food, I was quickly left feeling the need for something more substantial. Then again, who am I to judge.

Review
3.5 Stars
Tribute to Ian Fleming
Devil May Care - Mark Stutzman, Rodrigo Corral, Sebastian Faulks

The 100th anniversary of the birth of  Ian Fleming is as good a reason as any for commissioning a 'continuation novel' for his most famous creation - James Bond. And who better to write it than one of the most popular British authors of the contemporary crop, Sebastian Faulks? As an avid Faulks fan, it was an intriguing thought, but one not without risk for this most eponymous of spy franchises and perhaps also for the author. Though I needn't have worried. As early as the opening chapter, the reassuring velvety panache of Faulks was grafted onto the gritty style of Fleming, in a typically grisly, action-packed episode.

A global threat posited by a maniacal power broker bent on the destruction of west,  in particular this time the UK, the 'baddie' is strikingly familiar, right down to a physical deformity and a penchant for cruelty, which in due course must surely get its comeuppance.

Also present, the romantic entanglement with a beautiful, tragic woman, which is as much a necessity for Bond, as his trusty Walther PPK. 

A light read, the book moves along at a break-neck pace and is unadulterated escapism, but worthy of one of the nation's favourite literary heroes and we continue to be lucky to have him.

Review
4.5 Stars
The March of Time for the Middle Classes
Middlemarch - George Eliot
This was my first reading of George Eliot, but this glorious observation of nineteenth century provincial life is has been an absolute treat. A novel of its time, the language is sumptuously expansive ( I benefited from the in-built Kindle dictionary function) threaded through the eighty seven chapters, which I have imbibed with due relish. In particular, the means by which the central families and community reinforced an established set of common values and commensurate societal norms and behaviours was both intriguing and a fascinating backdrop to the novel. Certainly the sense of what constitutes 'honourable' behaviour was calibrated rather differently to the contemporary world and yet the underlying questions of Eliot's narrative resonate strongly with today's anguish around the distribution of wealth, power and the 'right' by which they are wielded. The 'elite' in the case of Middlemarch include those connected by traditional familial ties to the land-owning gentry, the church, a wealthy banker (ever the weak link it seems), professionals and those with business interests. But, while the pivotal positions are occupied largely by men, it is the influence of the strong female characters, which provides the light and shade and confers real texture in this book. The mercurial nature of fate and the accompanying deposit of fortune and none on the guilty and the guileless make for compelling reading. Yet, Eliot also challenges 'black and white' judgements of what it means to 'do the right thing' and as in the case of Dorothea, the central heroine, the surrender of duty and position for personal happiness seems a very positive trade, with which the reader has every sympathy. It is interesting to speculate on whether the author's personal experience of public condemnation, for her rejection of the social norms of her day influenced the writing of 'Middlemarch' (Mary Ann Evans - her real name - was vilified for openly living with a married man, George Henry Lewes, between 1855 - 78). Still, whatever the truth, among her legacies is this extraordinary Victorian novel, published in 1871, which is rightly revered and cherished.
Review
3 Stars
The road to enlightenment
The Pilgrimage: A Contemporary Quest For Ancient Wisdom - Paulo Coelho

The Pilgrimage' has the distinction of being Paulo Coelho's first major book and relates his extraordinary and at times mystical quest along the medieval route to San Tiago de Compostela. The mental and physical trials the author experiences and the insight he derives from this challenge are perhaps deliberately obscure, but also makes this a challenging read in parts. Complex metaphors wrapped around the enigmatic author and his strange guide (Petrus) give the impression that this book is multi-layered and yet I'm not convinced that careful unwrapping is necessarily worthy of the implied effort.

Certainly there were some interesting concepts introduced, such a 'agape' - total love. "...the love that consumes the person who experiences it... the highest form of love". Moreover, enthusiasm is considered as "agape directed at a particular idea or a specific thing". Still, Coelho postulates the ultimate challenge for each of us is how to harness these underpinnings of faith and happiness on our respective journeys. Invoking a term coined by St. Paul, the author examines what it means, "to fight the good fight".

 

What should we be seeking to achieve with this wonderful gift of life and the talents we each possess? This is philosophical stuff and encapsulating the 'bigger picture' within the boundaries of a walk, albeit a very long one, was interesting, though somewhat dull. Rather than lift a veil on the meaning of life, Coelho has perhaps suggested we are each on a pilgrimage of sorts, to discover our own meaning and purpose. Still, my personal search for happiness is likely to include fewer such weighty or prophetic books. Life is afterall rather short.

Review
4 Stars
Misspent Youth
The Picture of Dorian Gray and Other Works (Halcyon Classics) - Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde has long been lauded for his inventive use of English and his mastery of the one-liner and such skill is wonderfully paraded through his most celebrated book, "The Picture of Dorian Gray", published in 1891. 

"I can stand brute force, but brute reason is quite unbearable. There is something unfair about its use. It is hitting below the intellect."

And yet the decadent nature of this tale is an unlikely vehicle for such humour, as it grapples with weighty issues of morality and the hypocritical persuasion of Victorian society.

Dorian Gray is a beautiful human specimen befriended by an artist (Basil Hallward) and socialite, Lord Henry Wotton, both of whom are besotted by their young protege's physical appearance. Indeed, Dorian inspires the artist to create an exceptional portrait capturing his youthful perfection, though acknowledging the reality that the subject must age and deteriorate, while the painting will preserve his revered looks. Stung by the realization, Dorian's wish to be spared the ravages of growing old is mysteriously granted and instead it is the painting that begins to change and reflect the deterioration in Dorian's face and conscience. Thus, the picture comes to represent Dorian's soul, upon which the toll of his indulgent and increasingly debauched life is visited.

Influenced by Lord Henry's belief that the pursuit of pleasure, via a sating of the senses, was legitimate, Dorian lacks the maturing effects of ageing on his emotions and thinking, such that his disinhibited behaviour proves corrosively ugly and is ultimately the source of his ruin.

An interesting book, the reader can but be impressed by the guile and artfulness of Oscar Wilde, but the themes may also resonate today, with the contemporary obsession with image and the dominance of 'beautiful' people in popular culture.

Misspent Youth
The Picture of Dorian Gray and Other Works (Halcyon Classics) - Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde has long been lauded for his inventive use of English and his mastery of the one-liner and such skill is wonderfully paraded through his most celebrated book, "The Picture of Dorian Gray", published in 1891. 

"I can stand brute force, but brute reason is quite unbearable. There is something unfair about its use. It is hitting below the intellect."

And yet the decadent nature of this tale is an unlikely vehicle for such humour, as it grapples with weighty issues of morality and the hypocritical persuasion of Victorian society.

Dorian Gray is a beautiful human specimen befriended by an artist (Basil Hallward) and socialite, Lord Henry Wotton, both of whom are besotted by their young protege's physical appearance. Indeed, Dorian inspires the artist to create an exceptional portrait capturing his youthful perfection, though acknowledging the reality that the subject must age and deteriorate, while the painting will preserve his revered looks. Stung by the realization, Dorian's wish to be spared the ravages of growing old is mysteriously granted and instead it is the painting that begins to change and reflect the deterioration in Dorian's face and conscience. Thus, the picture comes to represent Dorian's soul, upon which the toll of his indulgent and increasingly debauched life is visited.

Influenced by Lord Henry's belief that the pursuit of pleasure, via a sating of the senses, was legitimate, Dorian lacks the maturing effects of ageing on his emotions and thinking, such that his disinhibited behaviour proves corrosively ugly and is ultimately the source of his ruin.

An interesting book, the reader can but be impressed by the guile and artfulness of Oscar Wilde, but the themes may also resonate today, with the contemporary obsession with image and the dominance of 'beautiful' people in popular culture.

Review
3 Stars
New Turf
Lifeline - John Francome

The adage that writers should stick to what they know has been assiduously followed by former National Hunt Champion Jockey, John Francome. Mining the rich seam that accompanies the elite world of horse racing, the author assembles the well-worn ingredients of wealth, corruption, murder, sex and conflict against the genteel backdrop of Lambourn and the horsey set. In some respects, the book has the feel of a formula, the cast of characters, including police investigators, stereotypes equally recognizable in other contexts. Only the presence and mystique of thoroughbred horses and the sub-plots of their racing careers mark out this book among the shelves of 'thrillers'. Still, as with the best of the genre, I did burn through the pages quickly and the fast-moving action did 'gallop' along. As I'm on holiday, it also felt like a light foray into a new hedonistic field for me. I think I shall have to pick up a Dick Francis novel to see if Francome, the padawan, is yet neck and neck with the acclaimed master of this particular turf.

Review
4 Stars
Detonating a Taboo
Am I Normal Yet? (The Normal Series) - Holly Bourne

This book was listed for World Book Night 2016 and though an unusual storyline (at fist glance recovery from teenage mental illness may not seem fertile territory for humour), Holly Bourne has successfully woven together a really positive 'rite of passage' novel, which reinforces the notion that a diagnosed condition need not define the person. In this instance the sixteen year old person is Evie and the start of a new college offers the prospect of a chance to re-boot her adolescent life, no longer identified as 'that girl who went crazy'. Still, in her efforts to re-invent herself with new girl friends and prospective boyfriends, Evie is cautious about how much she reveals about the past, or even her experience of the present. By contrast, her family have lived with Evie the darkest lows and with her psychologist, try to help navigate the return to 'normal'.

Indeed, the book is something of a roller-coaster from emotional highs to poignant lows, the reader follows the central character's progress and setbacks in her burgeoning relationships and ongoing mental health challenges, but the author deftly avoids any mawkish tendencies. Alongside some laugh-out-loud moments, Bourne also explores interesting insights and manages to balance the interplay between the potentially crushing effects of illness, with the shared 'madness' that so often characterizes the human condition. A thoroughly enjoyable and compelling read, it turns out we are all a unique version of 'normal', just moving along our respective paths. If we are lucky, there are people who care alongside us on the journey. 

 

I'm passing my copy on, fully endorsing the World Book Night listing as a genuine celebration of reading and books in all its diversity. Remember the name. Holly Bourne is a very promising young writer.

 

Review
3 Stars
The road to enlightenment
The Pilgrimage: A Contemporary Quest For Ancient Wisdom - Paulo Coelho

'The Pilgrimage' has the distinction of being Paulo Coelho's first major book and relates his extraordinary and at times mystical quest along the medieval route to San Tiago de Compostela. The mental and physical trials the author experiences and the insight he derives from this challenge are perhaps deliberately obscure, but also makes this a challenging read in parts. Complex metaphors wrapped around the enigmatic author and his strange guide (Petrus) give the impression that this book is multi-layered and yet I'm not convinced that careful unwrapping is necessarily worthy of the implied effort.

Certainly there were some interesting concepts introduced, such a 'agape' - total love. "...the love that consumes the person who experiences it... the highest form of love". Moreover, enthusiasm is considered as "agape directed at a particular idea or a specific thing". Still, Coelho postulates the ultimate challenge for each of us is how to harness these underpinnings of faith and happiness on our respective journeys. Invoking a term coined by St. Paul, the author examines what it means, "to fight the good fight".

 

What should we be seeking to achieve with this wonderful gift of life and the talents we each possess? This is philosophical stuff and encapsulating the 'bigger picture' within the boundaries of a walk, albeit a very long one, was interesting, though somewhat dull. Rather than lift a veil on the meaning of life, Coelho has perhaps suggested we are each on a pilgrimage of sorts, to discover our own meaning and purpose. Still, my personal search for happiness is likely to include fewer such weighty or prophetic books. Life is afterall rather short.

Review
5 Stars
Life is partly Survival...
Life of Pi (Audio) - Yann Martel, Alexander Marshall, Jeff Woodman

'Life of Pi' made the World Book Night list for 2011 and rightly so. Martel has created a modern masterpiece, which is beautifully written. The storyline is unusual and all the more absorbing for it. The ending too is intriguing and though the movie interpretation is good, it can't do full justice to a wonderful book.

 

Notwithstanding the general assumption of the superiority of the human race, the author holds up an interesting mirror for the reader, which reflects man's inherent, but potentially ugly, animalistic desire for survival. 

Source: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1521143932
Review
5 Stars
Servants No Longer De Rigueur...
The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro
I was honoured to be given the opportunity to give this book, as part of the World Book Night 2012. This was my first choice and enabled me to wax lyrical about this deceptively simple story, which explores in detail the reflections and experiences of a butler, Stevens, as he contemplates his life in service and the relevance of a life spent in service at a time of profound social change. Empathetically written, Ishiguro's prose is a sheer delight and his attention to detail and fine emotional expression is quite touching. Certainly not a thriller, yet I feel the intentionally pedestrian pace merely accentuates the absolute quality of the writing. A truly exceptional read!
 
 

 

Source: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1521144071