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BookWorm "BookWorm" (UK)

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The Grand Budapest Hotel [DVD]
The Grand Budapest Hotel [DVD]
Dvd ~ Ralph Fiennes
Price: £4.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Great fun, whimiscal film, funny and poignant, 26 Feb. 2015
This is a fun, whimsical, original film that is entertaining and pleasure to watch. The acting is great throughout, with even minor roles played by some pretty heavyweight actors. Ralph Fiennes is brilliant as the hero, a flamboyant concierge named Gustave, who works at an iconic hotel in a fictional central European state between the world wars. But equal credit should go to the young actor, Tony Revolori, who plays Gustave's protégé 'Zero'.

If you enjoy films that are quirky and different, funny and poignant, then this is a great choice. It follows in the fine tradition of cult offbeat films like Little Miss Sunshine. The inter-war setting make for fabulous costume and set design, and it's just won four Oscars in these sort of categories. It is often funny and surprising, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

For sheer escapism and fun, this film is well worth watching. It's the sort of DVD you can watch on a rainy evening or when you're ill in bed. It's not suitable for children, although I think the 18 rating is a bit extreme. However amongst adults it would have a wide appeal.

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour
Price: £6.41

1.0 out of 5 stars Dull, pointless, self-indulgent, 26 Feb. 2015
Having read and enjoyed one of Ferris' earlier novels, I expected this one - listed for several prizes - to be even better. I was bitterly disappointed. Why? I never really understood the point of it, for a start. It has an unsympathetic, dislikeable protagonist - not a love-to-hate character, just a horrible character - supported by cast of characters either too vaguely drawn or again too unpleasant to be of any interest. It has something of a plot, but not much. It doesn't particularly go anywhere. The action rarely moves outside the dentist waiting room (our unlikeable narrator is a dentist). It is dull and overwritten, and I skimmed chunks, desperate for it to finish. I couldn't care less about what happened to the characters

It is a very wordy, over long book. Some of the descriptions are good. But whole pages are devoted to Bible passages, either real or fictional. The novel ends with being a lengthy and inconclusive discourse about what it means to be Jewish, and to be religious in general. It goes on and on, and you'll want to skim again (I did). There's also huge amounts of repetitive and boring soul searching done by the narrator. I can't stand lengthy introspection from any character, and when it's from a character I don't even like, it adds insult to injury.

The only plot line is a weak one and not very well written. Nothing can happen without being accompanied by the tedious thoughts of our protagonist. I have literally just fallen asleep twice whilst writing this view and trying in vain to work out what this book is all about. It seems to have no purpose. I was counting down the pages towards the end, desperate for it to be over. Essentially, someone steals the identity of the dentist and starts using accounts in his name to send out controversial messages about the 'Ulms' - a people descended from an ancient race supposedly eliminated centuries earlier by Old Testament Jewish tribes. The 'Ulms' consider themselves wronged on an even greater scale in history than the Jews themselves, and to be owed a 'homeland' in the middle east to call their own. Touchy subjects politically, and the author does nothing here to handle them with grace.

Ferris can write much better than this lazy, self-indulgent nonsense. How it came to be published, let alone considered for literary prizes is beyond my comprehension. I obviously just didn't 'get' this novel. I can't recommend it - I think it's overwritten twaddle that I can't see appealing to anyone. But it does seem to be popular overwritten twaddle, so all I can suggest is that readers read a range of different 'star' ratings on this site before choosing whether they add this first novel to their reading list.

I Am the Messenger
I Am the Messenger
Price: £5.71

5.0 out of 5 stars Clever idea, well executed, 26 Feb. 2015
This is an original novel from the author of the 'Book Thief'. It's not as good as the 'Book Thief' (very few books are!) but it is a well written and clever story, with an underlying message about not wasting your life. The narrator is doing exactly that - a nineteen year old cab driver called Ed who is unlucky in love, unambitious in his career, and whiling away his time playing cards with his equally downbeat friends. Until by chance he stops a bank robbery, after which he becomes embroiled in the plans of an unknown but all powerful figure who sends him instructions on playing cards, backed up by various heavies.

Ed is a likeable character eventually, though it took me a while to get to know him. His relationship with his dog, the Doorman, is what really brings him out as a sympathetic and likeable bloke. I loved the Doorman - it's hard to describe something that exists only in words as 'cute' - especially when it's described as a hideously smelly old dog - but somehow he is. Ed's friends are also interesting characters who eventually get some much needed development near the end. In terms of style, it's a coming of age story, with Ed growing as a person throughout each of the tasks he has to complete. We see him gain in confidence and sensitivity, and come to believe that he can help those around him and influence their lives for the better.

It's a clever idea to have a superhero who is in fact an ordinary hero. None of what Ed does requires special powers or skills that most people don't have. It just requires him to care about people and put himself out for them a bit. If that sounds dull, it isn't, as each one of the tasks Ed must complete is well constructed to be unique and interesting. It's compellingly written after a slow start. Once you get into the part where Ed receives and starts to carry out his 'messages' then it gets good and gripping. At times I felt frustrated with Ed and his moping over his best friend, Audrey, and I felt this was overdone. I also found the omniscience of the one sending the messages to be rather much, and found the ending a bit confusing and one that seemed like a cop-out.

Those minor gripes aside, I very much liked this book and would recommend it. If you enjoy original ideas that are well executed, then here is a novel for you. It is feel-good story with a positive message, and it will make you think as well.

Annihilation (The Southern Reach Trilogy)
Annihilation (The Southern Reach Trilogy)
Price: £2.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Masterful, full of suspence, perfectly paced, 26 Feb. 2015
A stunning psychological fantasy/sci-fi thriller, this book is almost mesmerising. Don't start reading if you need to get something else done in a hurry. It's not a long novel, but you won't want to stop reading until you get to the end. There are two sequels planned for this year and it'll be one of those rare occasions where I shell out to buy it at full price rather than wait. It is narrated by 'the biologist' (none of the characters are named more than by their job title), a member of a four woman expedition to explore the mysterious 'area X'. This is a tropical region on earth that has somehow become cut off as a result of an unnamed 'event', probably linked to a nearby military installation. Previous expeditions have come to sticky ends.

The novel describes the journey of the team through Area X and what they find there. It's one of those atmospheric novels that gets right under your skin and makes you jump at loud noises. It is very well paced and ratchets up the tension at a good rate, gradually releasing more and more information, but leaving plenty of mystery for the sequels. That said, it's not one of those frustrating books that gives you so few answers you feel cheated - whilst there are plenty of unknowns, you feel like you've been rewarded for your reading effort with some more facts. I would have described some elements - the tropical setting and the bizarre, hallucinatory episodes - as reminding me of the TV show 'Lost'. However this is a much more cohesive story than that and has a tighter narrative arc. 'Lost' did leave me frustrated when I felt that the story stopped making sense and perhaps there weren't any answers out there to begin with, but I didn't find that with 'Annihilation'. I happened to read it in the tropics, on my own in a jungle, which definitely added to its impact but I wouldn't necessarily recommend it! It made me a bit too jumpy in real life!

If you enjoy science fiction, fantasy, thrillers or action novels, this should be top of your to-read list. It's a very fine example of all four genres. It's also of such high quality that I hope more general readers will give it go too - it's a strong work of literature, so don't be put off by any 'labels' assigned to it. The most important label to read is that it's good!

A Man Called Ove
A Man Called Ove
Price: £4.74

5.0 out of 5 stars Funny feel good fiction with a lot of heart, 26 Feb. 2015
This review is from: A Man Called Ove (Kindle Edition)
This whimsical novel features Ove, a sort of Swedish Victor Meldrew. A lonely misanthropist since the death of his wife six months earlier and his recent enforced retirement, he decides to kill himself. But his every attempt is inadvertently thwarted by the people who live around him, as he becomes embroiled in their small crises. The story alternates between this elderly Ove of the present, and his often funny encounters with his useless neighbours, and with telling Ove's back story. As the novel progresses, your heart warms to the curmudgeonly old man as you come to understand some of his lack of social grace.

Although it's often amusing, there is an underlying pathos and sadness, acting as a good counterpoint to the comedy. It's ultimately an uplifting novel, although not very plausible. I liked the characters and found the story easy and entertaining to read. Despite my being one of those people that Ove would probably despise - a bureaucrat, a technophile, totally impractical - I could still appreciate and see some truth in some of his observations. I felt sympathy for him as a man whose values suddenly seemed at odds with the world he was living in, despite him having been an upstanding citizen all his life. It could happen to any of us, and it made me appreciate how hard it must be for older people who are living in a world that is radically different from the one they grew up in, and is not necessarily something that are able to or want to adapt to.

I enjoyed the supporting characters, who are almost all loveable and imperfect, apart from a couple of token 'bad guys/girls'. There are many touching and funny moments throughout, and quite a few that will make you wince and want to shut your eyes rather than read the next sentence. As I say, there are definite parallels with the British sitcom 'One Foot in the Grave'. It also has some similarity to the concept of Christmas favourite 'It's a Wonderful Life'. Fans of either of these will probably enjoy this.

Ultimately, this is a great holiday/lighter read. It's engaging, funny, but full of heart, and a real feel good story. I did shed a few tears along the way, but was left with a warm fuzzy feeling. If that sounds like the sort of book you'd like to read next, then I would recommend it.

The Book of Chameleons
The Book of Chameleons
Price: £2.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Original and clever short novel, 26 Feb. 2015
I very much enjoyed this unusual and original short novel. It is barely more than an extended short story, clocking in at just over a hundred pages, but is 'small and perfectly formed'. It is narrated by a gecko - a small lizard, who vaguely remembers a human past in which he was an elderly, lonely Brazilian man. He's now reincarnated (how or why is never explained) as a gecko in Angola, where he lives in the house of a forger who provides phoney family histories for wealthy bureaucrats wanting to enhance their credibility.

I won't describe the plot as it's such a short book that it would be difficult not to spoil it unnecessarily. Serve to say that there is a plot, which comes together in an unexpected way for a clever ending. There are interesting themes about identity and belonging, all told in an entertaining and easy to read way, after the first 20 pages or so (I found it a little hard to get into).

This book is well worth a try - it's original and so short that even if you don't like it, you've not wasted much reading time on it. But I think most people who like literary fiction will enjoy it.

Alice and the Fly
Alice and the Fly
Price: £7.49

3.0 out of 5 stars Too depressing, 26 Feb. 2015
This review is from: Alice and the Fly (Kindle Edition)
This novel is narrated by Gregory, a fifteen year old boy with schizophrenia which manifests itself mainly as a morbid terror of spiders (referred to as 'Them' in bold type throughout) and a tendency to see 'Them' even when they aren't there. Gregory is from an affluent but mostly loveless family, with his mother clearly very depressed and in need of mental health support herself. Gregory's narration is interspersed with transcripts from police interviews where Gregory's acquaintances describe him as a person and their interactions with him. The reason for the police involvement is not clear at first, but becomes so at the end of the book.

It's a gloomy story without any redeeming moments, although it is compelling in its way. I didn't find Gregory's family entirely believable, they were too extreme and some of their behaviour was too clichéd to ring true. Gregory himself is a sympathetic character, and it's good to see another book where a character with schizophrenia gets the limelight (try also 'The Shock of the Fall' by Nathan Filer, if you want another one like it). That said, I do feel the novel somewhat enforces the notion that schizophrenic people, for whatever reason, are dangerous and likely to commit crimes. We know these things aren't the case for the majority of people with the condition, but of course the minority who are that way get all the media attention.

Overall it is a story that will fill you with sadness. All of the characters are lonely and disenfranchised in their way, and no one is shown to be happy. There doesn't seem to be any answer to this, and the impression from the book is that this is an inevitable consequence of the way we live now. Gregory is neglected by his rich, self-obsessed parents, his sister obsessively practices her dance moves in an attempt to fit in, the other teenagers depicted are feral and scary, Alice - the girl Gregory addresses his journal entries to - has a violent home life on a horrible sink estate called 'the Pitt'. The scene depicting a teenage party is viscerally nasty - parents with children of that age will never want to leave them in the house alone again (or let them out!).

Whilst it is compelling and effectively written, I felt it was too much of a misery fest, without even a strong message in it other than the general rubbishness of everything. So I can't give it more than three stars. It would be an interesting read though for anyone with an interest in mental illnesses.

The Troublesome Offspring Of Cardinal Guzman
The Troublesome Offspring Of Cardinal Guzman
Price: £4.35

5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent end to the trilogy, 26 Feb. 2015
Louis de Bernieres follows up his excellent magical realist South American novel 'The War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts' with a sequel that is just as strange, just as funny, and just as horrifying. There is a second novel between the two ('Senor Vivo and the Coca Lord') which I haven't yet read (I mistook the order) and whilst that didn't greatly affect my reading pleasure, it did leave me with a few gaps. So I would recommend reading the three books in order, starting with 'The War...'.

In this final instalment of the trilogy, the eccentric inhabitants of the remote town of Cochadebajo de los Gatos attract the unwanted attention of a fanatical religious crusade which is terrorising rural villages. Once again the townsfolk must use their resourcefulness to fight for their lives, and their way of life. Don't think it's all one long war though - much of the story is simply telling events in the lives of the many characters, most of whom we know from earlier books. Some sections are told in the first person and some in the third, and there are a host of colourful and incredible characters to cover. As well as the townsfolk, we also spend time from the viewpoint of the corrupt and negligent president, the even more corrupt and hypocritical Cardinal Guzzman, and narrations of happenings in other villages where the religious police arrive.

It is more overtly magical realist than the first book, and is not a story to be taken literally at all times. However the exotic, slightly lawless atmosphere is conjured up so clearly that you feel you can suspend your disbelief easily. That said, the violence and human behaviour are sadly all too real and based on things that have really happened in various Latin American countries (and further afield). It is very easy to read, one of those stories that you feel immersed in from page one and always want to finish another chapter of. For the most part it is humorous and even laugh out loud funny at times. But de Bernieres doesn't shy away from brutality where it is necessary, and some sections are chilling.

If you enjoyed the first two novels of the trilogy, you won't be disappointed by the finale. It is an excellent book in its own right, and carries forward the torch of South American magical realism, even though it's written by an Brit. Anyone who enjoyed the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or who likes books which blend fantastical elements into mainstream stories, will enjoy this.

Before We Were Free (Laurel-Leaf Books Readers Circle)
Before We Were Free (Laurel-Leaf Books Readers Circle)
Price: £4.31

4.0 out of 5 stars Life under a dictator, from a teenager's viewpoint, 26 Feb. 2015
A few years ago I read 'The Feast of the Goat' by Mario Vargas Llosa, a rather heavy literary novel concerning the assassination of Rafael Trujillo, dictator of the Dominican Republic, in 1961. 'Before We Were Free' is centred on the same event, but comes at it from a different angle. It is a teen novel, although one that adults can equally enjoy, and is narrated by Anita, a 12 year old girl whose family oppose the brutal dictatorship. It is very readable and draws you in quickly. Anita's perspective can sometimes be frustrating for the reader, because she remains ignorant of what is really going on a lot of the time.

Throughout it remains quite a restricted viewpoint, although she does gain more understanding later in the story. I'm not sure quite how realistic her innocence is, given that she is 12 and is surrounded by older siblings and cousins. However the era and culture may partly explain that. The author herself lived in a similar family (but she escaped to the USA before any arrests took place) so she is well placed to judge the level of insight Anita would have. You will not get a deep understanding of Dominican history or the context of Trujillo's regime, but you do get an idea of what it is like to be an ordinary child caught up in a conflict you don't understand. Anita goes from being a normal girl in an affluent family, to being forced to hide in a neighbour's wardrobe in fear of her life.

A lot of the story is also about Anita's first romantic feelings, for a school friend and neighbour, and later for another boy in her class. I also enjoyed the sections around her relationship with her sister. Her relationship with some of the other characters, particularly her father and brother, could have been better developed and may have increased the emotional impact of the story still further. Anita's worries about boys, developing alongside her increasingly difficult life due to the political situation, show how 'normal' life and feelings carry on even in extreme circumstances.

Overall it is well written and compelling story that is quick to read. However I think it could have packed a greater emotional punch, perhaps if some of the family relationships were probed more deeply and if Anita hadn't spent most of the story being shooed away so she never really knew what was going on. Still, it's an important insight into life under a dictatorship that would still (sadly) be relevant in many parts of the world today. It would be suitable for readers from 12 upwards as there is nothing particularly graphic here.

The Amber Fury
The Amber Fury
Price: £2.39

4.0 out of 5 stars Psychological thriller with a bit too much of the former at expense of the latter, 26 Feb. 2015
This review is from: The Amber Fury (Kindle Edition)
A slow burning psychological thriller which I enjoyed reading, 'the Amber Fury' is set in a pupil referral unit (school for children expelled/removed from mainstream school). A new young teacher bonds with one small class by discussing ancient Greek plays, whilst trying to recover from a recent trauma in her own past. The events gradually build up to a modern tragedy, which is hinted at throughout the book in the narrative, which is in the first person by the teacher, Alex. There are also journal extracts by one of her students.

It is an interesting and original idea for a story, well structured an with a clear cohesive plot and a well executed ending. The characters are believable and I liked Alex and warmed to some of her students too. It did a good job of portraying both the awfulness and the redeemability of her difficult charges. It didn't make them out to be implausible angels or show unfeasible miracles being worked, but it also demonstrated that many young people in such situations can be helped and show promise and potential with the right support.

The four star rating reflects the fact it is a bit too slow. I also felt that the story honed in too much on one student to the detriment of exploring some of the others. It feels like quite a long book to tell what ultimately turns out to be a fairly simple story. I think it needs some kind of subplot, with one or two of the other students, perhaps even a third perspective on events. There was a bit too much of Alex going over how unhappy she is and scenes showing her moping around on trains etc. I got the message pretty fast that she'd had a terrible experience and was very traumatised by it - I don't think we needed to be told it over and over again. Removing that would have picked the pace up and allowed more room for a subplot.

Still, apart from that it was an enjoyable novel that was gripping from the start and easy to read. I'd recommend it readers who enjoy mysteries and psychological thrillers with a slower burn. It's an original concept and I'd certainly read another book by the same author.

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