Dune – Frank Herbert

Melange, or ‘spice’, is the most valuable – and rarest – element in the universe; a drug that does everything from increasing a person’s life-span to making intersteller travel possible. And it can only be found on a single planet: the inhospitable desert world Arrakis.

Whoever controls Arrakis controls the spice. And whoever controls the spice controls the universe.

When the Emperor transfers stewardship of Arrakis from the noble House Harkonnen to House Atreides, the Harkonnens fight back, murdering Duke Leto Atreides. Paul, his son, and Lady Jessica, his concubine, flee into the desert. On the point of death, they are rescued by a band for Fremen, the native people of Arrakis, who control Arrakis’ second great resource: the giant worms that burrow beneath the burning desert sands.

In order to avenge his father and retake Arrakis from the Harkonnens, Paul must earn the trust of the Fremen and lead a tiny army against the innumerable forces aligned against them.

And his journey will change the universe.

Fondly, yet hazily, recalling David Lynch’s attempt at bring Dune to the silver screen, and wanting to avoid spoilers from the new version, my hand was ‘forced’ into reading this.  Dune is an impressive, epic space – or should that be spice? – opera and sci-fi classic which stands the test of time.

From the off the world building feels fully established, and as the reader follows 15 year-old Paul Atriedes, we learn the complexities of life and the relationships of powerful factions as he does.  It really helps push the story along so there isn’t a lot of stopping to go into minutiae. There is also some of the usual jargon that comes with alien languages but it’s not too elaborate, thankfully so doesn’t get tiresome and distracting.

Speaking of worlds, Arrakis is a looming brooding presence, It is open, vast and unforgiving. The atmosphere is one of ancient mysteries with plenty of secrets left, even after the book is finished.  That all known universe interests centre upon this unique planet makes all events much more significant. Continue reading “Dune – Frank Herbert”

Stalingrad – Vasily Grossman

In April 1942, Hitler and Mussolini plan the huge offensive on the Eastern Front that will culminate in the greatest battle in human history.

Hundreds of miles away, Pyotr Vavilov receives his call-up papers and spends a final night with his wife and children in the hut that is his home. As war approaches, the Shaposhnikov family gathers for a meal: despite her age, Alexandra will soon become a refugee; Tolya will enlist in the reserves; Vera, a nurse, will fall in love with a wounded pilot; and Viktor Shtrum will receive a letter from his doomed mother which will haunt him forever.

The war will consume the lives of a huge cast of characters – lives which express Grossman’s grand themes of the nation and the individual, nature’s beauty and war’s cruelty, love and separation.

Having recently gotten back into the habit of frequenting my local library, the first book I picked up was Vasily Grossman’s – Criminally – lesser known prelude to Life and Fate, both books together were intended to be the 20th century War and Peace and I have to say they lives up to that book’s impact and legacy.

This is a version of Grossman’s book isn’t quite the same as the Russian version entitled For a Just Cause, the translator Robert Chandler has readded in parts that were originally deleted in accordance with the Stalin government’s everchanging policies.  Whether this affects the pace of the book or not I loved every page of this story.

Weighing in at almost nine hundred pages this novel is a vast panorama of voices and stories and does a wonderful job of conveying the sense of dislocation, pain and horror of World War II but also sensitively paints pictures of the lives and loves of those people caught up in those monumental events. Continue reading “Stalingrad – Vasily Grossman”

The Other One Hundred

After yesterday’s post, it makes sense to add that the last few pages of The BBC Big Read book listed the books that didn’t make it into the top one hundred.  There are far too many Terry Pratchett and Jacqueline Wilson books for my liking, which underlines the major flaw in the survey.

There are some good quality books that didn’t make it, and plenty of choice for the book pile.  After the forty-three that I had read from the top one hundred, it’s even more dismaying to find that I have only read thirty-six of this offering, although I did start Moby Dick, and The Handmaid’s Tale but didn’t finish them.  I trust your scoring will put me to shame. Continue reading “The Other One Hundred”

The Big Read

Here’s a blast from the past!  In 2003 the BBC launched a survey to find the nation’s best loved book of all time.

Although the results are somewhat engaging, by allowing unlimited entries per author the final list clogs up a bit.  The rule of only one book per author in the top twenty-one places, which then went on to the final round of voting, balances this out a little. Below is the final order.

As a retrospective it makes for interesting reading, it’s not a surprise to see the Harry Potter books placing so highly (as well as Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials), although that probably speaks more for the demographic of voters and the HP phenomenon being at fever pitch at the time, perhaps.

Now is your turn to play along at home, how many of these have you read? I’ve finished the highlighted forty-three books, which is a bit disappointing, especially as I have owned plenty of the other books at times but never gotten around to reading them when they were within my grasp. Continue reading “The Big Read”

East of Eden – John Steinbeck

California’s fertile Salinas Valley is home to two families whose destinies are fruitfully, and fatally, intertwined. Over the generations, between the beginning of the twentieth century and the end of the First World War, the Trasks and the Hamiltons will helplessly replay the fall of Adam and Eve and the murderous rivalry of Cain and Abel.

Like Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, there are certain books that you just know will become treasured reads even before the first page has been fully read. These special books also keep me awake at night, itching to write a review as soon as is decent and the coffee is brewed.

East of Eden is a sprawling masterpiece of a story, giving the reader far more to get their teeth into than the blurb could possibly convey, even if it were aiming to do so. Over generations the story tackles themes of revenge, love, good and evil, and a whole plethora of facets in the human condition.

Firstly, the reader is drawn in by the perfectly described landscape, and then once lovingly established, the believable and flawed set of characters is introduced.  I found myself interested in all their stories, from the side characters who rarely featured but whose fates were revealed, to the main protagonists who grew throughout the pages.  Continue reading “East of Eden – John Steinbeck”

Under the Jaguar Sun – Italo Calvino

A couple on an epicurean journey across Mexico are excited by the idea of a particular ingredient, suggested by ancient rituals of human sacrifice. Precariously balanced on his throne, a king is able only to listen to the sounds around him – sure that any deviation from their normal progression would mean the uprising of the conspirators that surround him. And three different men search desperately for the beguiling scents of lost women, from a Count visiting Madame Odile’s perfumery, to a London drummer stepping over spent, naked bodies.

Once again Italo Calvino delights with a – sadly -never completed, but ultimately rewarding collection of short stories that explore the senses, taste, hearing, and smell. Just like his other books, most notably The Castle of Crossed Destinies and Invisible Cities, Calvino‘s love of symbolism and theme is thickly lavished throughout the prose.

Each story is a pleasure to read, and all are, unsurprisingly, totally different in their execution, nevertheless each tale is filled with intensity as well as both intoxicating and sometime repulsive imagery.  It is a feast for the eyes, so in a way that sense is indeed incorporated into the book and tells its own story through the reader.

“To be sure, the palace contains some so-called historic chambers, which you would like to see again, even though they have been redone from top to bottom, to give them back the antique aspect lost with the passing years.”

Different facets of each of the senses are explored, the differing perceptions and sensations, and the thought processes which logically follow in this world of magical realism. Continue reading “Under the Jaguar Sun – Italo Calvino”

The Snowman – Raymond Briggs

The cartoon version of The Snowman is a true Christmas tradition. Spying Briggs’ book version – and this being the season –  I had to borrow it from the library and see what the differences were.

The reader not familiar with this story is in for a wonderful, gentle journey told not with words but purely in images.  When a boy makes a snowman who magically comes to life, comical and exciting adventures are bound to happen.

A gently humorous adventure ideal for all ages, this is a fun and funny book.  The cartoon followed suit with the illustration style and the  pencil shading is still beautiful to look at today, as you can see at the end of the post.

An endearing and enduring tale which speaks – to me at least – of the shortness of life and the urgent need to enjoy the company of the people we have in the now.  This is a story that transcends cultural boundaries and can be enjoyed by anyone, not just those versed in English.

I do prefer the cartoon version still even after spending time with the book. The hunting quality of the music, especially, enhances the experience. The flying journey is also longer and more eventful in the cartoon, which I recommend to all!  If you have  a spare twenty-five minutes here it is in full HD.

The Return of the Soldier – Rebecca West

Chris Baldry returns from the front to the three women who love him. His wife, Kitty, with her cold, moonlight beauty, and his devoted cousin Jenny wait in their exquisite home on the crest of the Harrow-weald. Margaret Allington, his first and long-forgotten love, is nearby in the dreary suburb of Wealdstone. But Chris is shell-shocked and can only remember the Margaret he loved fifteen years before, when he was a young man and she an inn-keeper’s daughter. His cousin he remembers only as a childhood playmate; his wife he remembers not at all. The women have a choice – to leave him where he wishes to be, or to ‘cure’ him. It is Margaret who reveals a love so great that she can make the final sacrifice

Noticing that nibbled apple on the cover, I gravitated to not only to the Virago logo but more importantly to the author’s name.  Having read some of West’s non-fiction pieces, mainly to do with religion and politics, her fiction promised to be a worthwhile read.

I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I hoped, although there were some aspects of the work that interested me.  Thankfully being one hundred and thirty-eight pages long (or short depending on your point of view), I was able to finish it before my patience was thoroughly worn out but it did take some effort to get to the end of this one, even with that in mind.

The story is focused on exploring the emotional impact of the three women, none of whom I really connected with.  Margaret is by far the most likeable character, whilst Kitty and Jenny came across as unbelievably snobby and at times ridiculously hysterical.  It was this overly dramatic nature that made me care little, despite appreciating the situation they were in. Continue reading “The Return of the Soldier – Rebecca West”

Books, Again

After the good news of last post, Crissy’s anniversary gift to me was to let me run rampant in a bookshop.  This excitement was slightly sullied as half of the shop was blocked off due to cleaning so I couldn’t get to the science section, amongst others. The history section was disappointingly lacking too.

Rallying, I did manage to pick up three books, and went to a coffee shop, pleasingly empty, to review my new purchases.  Supping a hot Mocha, and trying not to gag at the stupidly powerful smelling cheese meal the woman half the café away was eating, it was with great pleasure that I slowly peeled back the plastic bag to review the new reads.

Having read The Great Gatsby all the way back in sixth form, and being reminded of the pleasure I had from that book by the Leonardo DiCaprio movie.  I fancied reading more by F. Scott Fitzgerald so Now The Beautiful and Damned can take its place on the unread shelf next to Tender is the Night, which I also picked up a while back for the same reason. Continue reading “Books, Again”

A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth (Part Two)

This is a remarkable book, and big, so big in fact, that I am taking up a second post for all my remaining remarks. Starting with a quote that I really love:

“She paused by the science shelves, not because she understood much science, but, rather because she did not. Whenever she opened a scientific book and saw whole paragraphs of incomprehensible words and symbols, she felt a sense of wonder at the great territories of learning that lay beyond her – the sum of so many noble and purposive attempts to make objective sense of the world.”

There are a whole slew of characters to meet in A Suitable Boy, yet I didn’t feel confused with them at any point.  Partly this is due to my reading a little each day, retaining the thread of who is who, but the four family trees provided, and side characters who are easily associated with certain characters or places helped, and I was rarely troubled placing a character  who was returning after 200 pages in the wilderness.

Seth is a big fan of poetry and his playful rhyming couplets are seen throughout, most noticably describing each chapter, and then through the incessant creations of the Chatterji family.  There are also myriad references to various Indian mythological works which encourages a deeper reading into Indian mythology.  Sprinkled throughout are bits of the local language which was a nice touch, especially when I started to recognise what was being referred to, or which familial names were used to denote relationships.

The plot is unhurried and slowly expands to include all of life and society, it really allows the world to be shown in richness and depth.  Whether the reader thinks this much detail is relevant or not, it is certainly worth the exploration and gives the book a much more authentic feel.

There is plenty of conflict, whether it be class, religious and political divides, or generational.  Everybody has a prejudice of some sort, whether conscious of it or not.  Seth explores all sides of these, offering plenty of insight which has the capacity to bring out both sympathy or revulsion at various times. Continue reading “A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth (Part Two)”

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