The January Reading Review

The January Reading Review

As I’ve taken up the challenge to read 50 books (or more!) in 2011, I thought it would be a good idea to share my thoughts about the books I’ve finished reading every month.

If you work out the challenge, the goal is to read a book a week, give or take two weeks; thus I’m pretty pleased with myself to have finished six books so far with two still on the go. I haven’t yet finished the monster book of stories by Hans Christian Andersen yet with which I began the year (should I count it as more than one book?). However, I’m really enjoying the challenge so far.

 

Interesting Times by Terry Pratchett

 

2. Interesting Times by Terry Pratchett

Natural selection saw to it that professional heroes who at a crucial moment tended to ask themselves questions like “What is my purpose in life?” very quickly lacked both.

The first book I finished this year was Interesting Times by Terry Pratchett; one of my favourite authors and the only book so far this year that I’ve read before. Interesting Times just so happens to be one of my favourites of Pratchett’s books. I was always going to like this one because of my interest in Chinese and Japanese culture, but the way Sir Terry has grasped the nuances and the annoyances of both really make this one hilarious book.

The self-proclaimed cowardly wizzard Rincewind is once again sent on an adventure he doesn’t want; this time to the far away Counterweight Continent, where the seeds of revolution are being sewn and murder and treason ride out to meet him. As do a group of old barbarian heroes in surgical sandals with their eyes fixed on the ultimate treasure. All Rincewind wants to do is run away; but with the Red Army clamouring for their Great Wizzard and an unexpected reunion with a long-lost friend on the horizon, will he survive these most ‘interesting times’?

Publisher: Corgi
ISBN: 978-0552142359

 

Waiting by Ha Jin

 

3. Waiting by Ha Jin

As she was walking away, for the first time he noticed she had a slim back and long, strong legs. She turned around and gave him another smile, then quickened her footsteps toward the Medical Ward. He said to himself, if this leads to an affair, so be it.

A good book by the author of The House of Flying Daggers. This is not the most interesting or engrossing book about China I’ve read, but unique in that more emphasis is spent on the relationships between the main characters than outside events. I’m not a fan of romantic fiction, but Ha Jin paints his characters with a great deal of depth and conveys a lot of understanding about how it must have been like to live in post-Cultural Revolution China.

The story dwells on the dilemma of the lead character Lin Kong – torn between the love of his life in the city and his faithful yet unwanted wife back at home in the village. He makes the choice to pursue his heart; a risky one during the oppressive Cultural Revolution which still controls everyone’s lives. It will be twenty years before he is able to divorce Shuyu in order to marry his sweetheart Manna Wu, but will this be too late for them both?

Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099287599

 

The Kabul Beauty School by Deborah Rodriguez

 

4. The Kabul Beauty School by Deborah Rodriguez

I settle the mother-in-law and the members of the bridal party into their respective places, one for a manicure, one for a pedicure, one to get her hair washed. I make sure they all have tea and the latest outdated fashion magazines from the States, then excuse myself with a cigarette. I usually just go ahead and smoke in the salon, but the look on Roshanna’s face just before I shut the door to the waxing room has my heart racing. Because she has a terrible secret, and I’m the one know who knows it – for now.

I loved this one! I got through it in a day, simply because I could not put it down. Reading this, you get a completely different picture of what life is like in Afghanistan after the Taliban were defeated; especially from the female point of view; what it is like to live in a modern country where you are not allowed to go out in public without a hair covering or live alone with another woman and arranged marriages are a way of life.

The Kabul Beauty School is a true story, an autobiography written by the American hairdresser and beautician Deborah Rodriguez who went to Afghanistan shortly after the Taliban were routed in 2002. Finding a community of women firmly under the grip of men, she starts the first beauty school in the country; the students of which form the characters of a Kabul with many deep and hidden secrets – a city struggling to heal itself after the ravages of one of the most oppressive regimes in contemporary times.

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
ISBN: 978-0340935231

 

Sushi and Beyond: What the Japanese Know About Cooking by Michael Booth

 

5. Sushi and Beyond: What the Japanese Know About Cooking by Michael Booth

Emil soon retreated once more as he began to attract the attention of groups of giggling girls. Emil has his mother’s charisma; he is a miniature rock star. one of those people who attract attention without effort or desire. Asger is more gregarious and his blond hair and brown eyes had also begun to turn heads; soon they were both being cooed over and photographed by polite young women bearing sweets and stickers, by fortuitous coincidence two of the things Asger and Emil cherish most in the world. It was our first taste of what we would come to think of as the Royal Walkabout Syndrome, the strange, thankfully benign, magnetic power our children – most Western children, from what we saw – had on a certain female, Japanese demographic.

I absolutely LOVED this book. In no way am I a ‘foodie’ but not one bit of the narrative is boring. The author has wonderful ability through which you not only appreciate but begin to share his love and passion for food. His account of a food-orientated journey through Japan (family in tow) is educational and enlightening but at the same time, colourful, unpredictable and hilariously funny. If you’re in any way interested in Japan, you will regard this book as a treasure!

Sushi and Beyond is American chef Michael Booth’s travelogue of a country which fascinates us so in the west; Japan, in all its beauty, dizzying variety and utter strangeness. On a trip enveloping the northern island of Hokkaido to the southern islands of Okinawa, this book is not just an in-depth and hands-on account of what the Japanese eat, but also an entertaining insight into the daily lives of the people of Japan; peopled by a colourful cast of the characters Booth meets on his quest.

Publisher: Jonathan Cape
ISBN: 978-0224081887

 

Shadowmancer by G. P. Taylor

 

6. Shadowmancer by G. P. Taylor

I wanted God to give me one sign. To change water into wine just for me, but I got nothing. I was taught to love my neighbour as myself, and love God with all my heart, But how can you love someone who is against the true prince of this world? ‘When I have… both [Keruvim], I will change the world and I will bring about the death of God. This time he’ll be nailed to the tree for ever.

A first book of a fantasy series, definitely aimed at teenagers and older children (no blood, guts, gore or anything like that). It was surprising to discover that the action is set in a pseudo-north east of England with much of the action happening in a recognisable Whitby! This however was its greatest attraction for me. It took too much time for the plot to get going, but once it did the story developed quite nicely with a few twists and turns.

The author of this book was perhaps trying too hard to make it an Enid Blyton or Narnia novel and failed to do this; it has too many quite obvious religious overtones. These made the plot feel quite unoriginal and uncomfortable to the point of being ‘preachy’, even and especially for me as a Christian. The characters are also rather flat, unrealistically stereotypical, dastardly or pious in their turn.

Shadowmancer follows the story of Thomas and Kate, two young children who become embroiled in the corrupted vicar Demurral’s plot to destroy heaven with the power of the two Keruvim. They are soon joined by Raphah, a strange young man from Africa who’s sacred duty it is to recover the Keruvim Demurral has stolen. The children are forced to flee from Demurral’s schemes and must put their trust in the help of a cast of strangers, some of whom have other priorities than their safety.

Publisher: Faber and Faber
ISBN: 978-0571220465

 

Kensuke's Kingdom by Michael Morpurgo

 

7. Kensuke’s Kingdom by Michael Morpurgo

I disappeared the night before my twelfth birthday. July 28 1988. Only now can I at last tell the whole extraordinary story, the true story. Kensuke made me promise that I would say nothing, nothing at all, until at least ten years had passed. It was almost the last thing he said to me. I promised, and because of that I have had to live out a lie. I could let sleeping lies sleep on, but more than ten years have passed now. I have done school, done college, and had time to think. I owe it to my family and to my friends, all of whom I have deceived for so long, to tell the truth about my long disappearance, about how I lived to come back from the dead.

After reading this wonderful children’s book I am convinced that if I ever have children or young relatives in the future I will be giving them this to read. I wish I’d read it when I was younger. Morpurgo has a very valid message to get across in this book and does it with the kind of captivating and gracious style you would expect of the author awarded the position of Children’s Laureate from 2003 to 2005. By the time I reached the end of Kensuke’s Kingdom, I was wishing the story was true; it would be a comforting thing to believe that the endearing character Kensuke actually existed.

The protagonist is a young western boy called Michael who gets swept overboard at sea and ends up marooned on an island. However, the brilliance and the tragedy of this book is the delicate unwinding of Kensuke’s story. It is through Michael’s interaction and developing friendship with Kensuke that we discover how Kensuke ended up on the island and why he doesn’t want to be found. Wonderful illustrations by Michael Foreman and a beautifully sad story make this book a true treasure.

Publisher: Egmont Books Ltd
ISBN: 978-1405221740

 

Photo credit: Maciej Szczepaniak

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