On the Road by Jack Kerouac #AtoZ

This post is part of the 2016 April A to Z Challenge.

Jack Kerouac’s On the Road became the defining novel of the Beat Generation.

It describes roadtrips across America, carefree attitudes, Americana, jazz, free spirits, drugs, sex, booze and adventure, and is mainly autobiographical. Protagonist Sal Paradise is based on the author himself, and many of his friends and relatives, including other (now famous) beatniks like Allen Ginsberg feature in the book as well – sometimes with only minimal name changes on the part of the author.

On the Road is one of those books people seem to either love or hate. Written entirely using stream of consciousness, Kerouac’s rambling style, run-on sentences and seemingly disjointed thoughts can make it hard to follow the story sometimes. At other times, however, Kerouac comes up with beautifully written descriptions and explanations. Split into five parts, the story follows recently divorced Sal across the United States between 1947 and 1950, from New York to San Francisco and back with stops in New Orleans, Detroit and Denver and an eventual, ill-fated trip south of the border into Mexico.

Some characters, like Dean Moriarty who was based on Kerouac’s friend Neal Cassady, are thoroughly unpleasant. He’s an adulterer and a drifter, who keeps leaving pregnant girlfriends by the wayside to get back to his wife and family. Dean is someone, who abandons friends when they need him, and when the adventure is no longer fun for him.

Sal Paradise, on the other hand, is positively naive and innocent compared to Dean. He’s idealistic, and searching for life and a spiritual connection with life. He is basking in the energetic glow of Dean while it lasts and thinks that he has found what he was looking for and finally learned what life is about.

It’s easy to see how this novel can be appealing to teenagers and all those with Fernweh and Wanderlust in their hearts. On the Road romanticises a bohemian lifestyle, drifting from place to place, hitchhiking and seeking adventure.  It does encompass that sense that there is more to life and the world than the town you grew up in. On the Road may be the ultimate roadtrip novel.

Disclaimer: I bought this book (a paperback 50th anniversary edition that seems to be ou of print by now) at the iconic beatnik bookstore City Lights in San Francisco when I was 20 and on a cross-country roadtrip from L.A. to New York in the summer of 2007. I’d heard of On the Road before, and thought what better place to get my copy than City Lights, especially as Jack Kerouac Alley runs along the side of the bookstore building. For me it was the right book at the right time, but stream of consciousness writing is not for everyone.

 

My Rating: ♥♥♥♥

Title: On The Road
Author: Jack Kerouac
Publisher: Penguin Books
Release Date: April 7, 2011 (originally published in 1955)
Pages: 281
ISBN:  978-0241951538

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman #AtoZ #Audiobook

This post is part of the 2016 April A to Z Challenge.

Did you know that London is split in two parts? And I don’t mean the cities of London and Westminster. No, it’s London Above and London Below.

London Above is the city most people know. The one with corporate jobs and ultra-modern buildings. But the London Below of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere is a whole different world, full of Rat-Speakers and shadow dwellers, with their own rules to abide and secrets to keep.

The version I am reviewing is the BBC Full-Cast Dramatization, although the print copy is just as marvellous. James McAvoy voices Richard, who by chance finds a way into London Below, where he discovers that what he only knows as landmarks, suburbs and tube stations are real people in the city underneath. There is an Earl at Earl’s Court – an old man with a tendency to go berserk – voiced by Sir Christopher Lee; Knightsbridge is guarded by actual knights, the Old Bailey is an old, kind man feeding pigeons played by Bernard Cribbins and Benedict Cumberbatch lends his voice to the all-too-real Angel Islington.

The cast also includes the likes of Anthony Stewart Head, Johnny Vegas, David Harewood, Sophie Okonedo and Neil Gaiman himself. And what a cast it is! This particular version is dialogue-only, as the voice actors do an amazing job of bringing the world below to life. Even without a narrator the story is easy to follow and all the characters are so well defined and different that not a single one of them seems flat or unimportant.

Neverwhere is urban fantasy at its finest. It takes a familiar place and turns it into something incredibly more complex than you could ever have imagined. The way Gaiman brings all the landmarks and places to life borders on genius and begs the question: why has nobody else wondered where such places as Ravenscourt or Knightsbridge got their names from? And if they were people, what would they be like?

Only very few people Above ever catch a glimpse of London Below or the people who inhabit it. They choose not to see. For them, some of the folk from Below look like homeless people, and the people Above are used to ignoring their problems.

Neverwhere is the perfect gateway story for those wanting to get more into urban fantasy. And whether you read it or listen to it – you’ll never see London in quite the same way ever again.

 

My Rating: ♥♥♥♥♥

Title: Neverwhere
Author: Neil Gaiman
Publisher: William Morrow
Release Date: July 7, 2015 (originally published in 1996)
Pages: 336
ISBN:  978-0062371058

BBC Full-Cast Dramatization
Release Date: September 5, 2013
ISBN: 978-1471316470

Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan #AtoZ

This post is part of the 2016 April A to Z Challenge.

 Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan is a book that just understands book lovers everywhere.

The bookshop itself is located in San Francisco, stacked from floor to ceiling with old and obscure tomes, it’s open all night and serves a very peculiar and eclectic clientele.

When web designer Clay gets laid off, he finds a job working the night shift at this curious, dusty bookshop run by Mr Penumbra, after Clay confesses that his favourite book is a strange tale barely anyone has ever heard of. He soon learns that there are two parts to the tiny but three story tall shop. The front of house is a crammed, traditional bookstore. The high shelves in the back hold the Waybacklist, an assortment of old and dusty tomes with obscure titles. And while Clay has never heard of any one of them, his regular night shift customers send him up the ladders among the Waybacklist every time they enter the shop.

The rules are few. When a customer asks for a book on the list, Clay has to note the book they want, the book they bring back, how the customer looked, what they wore and the precise time they came by. As Clay tries to digitise the inventory to keep himself entertained during the long nights, he starts to see a pattern emerging among the shelves. The depths of the quaint little store seem to hold great mysteries.

Robin Sloan’s debut novel is like a love letter for bibliophiles. It shows that publishing, typesetting, printing, the internet and eReaders are not at odds. Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore wonderfully combines old and new technologies for the greater good of saving and passing on knowledge. Curiosity, and a love for books and knowledge soon turn into an adventure that has an ancient font at its centre, hidden messages between the lines and a secret literary society in the shadows.

It really makes you question ordinary objects and technology we use every day, and whether the cults and quests of old could still exist. Clay and his friends are an eclectic bunch, smart, full of life and the embodiment of their generation; trapped between old and new technologies and always looking for their next big chance. And yet the whenever it seems new technology saves the day, there’s a book coming to the rescue and vice versa.

A clerk and a ladder and warm golden light, and then: the right book exactly, at exactly the right time.”

This is a book for everyone who knows that the printed word and the internet are not mutually exclusive. Instead, they work together quite nicely indeed.

 

 

My Rating: ♥♥♥♥♥

Title: Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore
Author: Robin Sloan
Publisher: Atlantic Books
Release Date: August 1, 2013
Pages: 291
ISBN:  978-1782391197

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke #AtoZ #60Books

This post is part of the 2016 April A to Z Challenge, as well as my 60 Books Challenge: a book with magic.

Set in the early nineteenth century, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell contains a rare mixture of historical fiction and old magic that is hard to find these days.

There used to be magic in England. But at the time the book is set in, it has been reduced to old myths and folklore. Even The Learned Society of Magicians is purely theoretical and  does not know any tricks – they merely exchange the stories of old.

Except for the reclusive Mr Norrell. As the only practical magician, he brings magic back to England. He is learned, and studied the old tales and their warnings. Norrell is a respectable gentleman. So when a young man called Jonathan Strange discovers that he does have magical powers and shows interest in the old magical legends about the Raven King, Mr Norrell becomes his protegé.

But while Norrell is restrained and cautious, Strange soon becomes interested in wilder, more perilous forms of magic and their uses, and thus endangers everyone he knows. Can old magic be restored to England? And are the stories about the Raven King and a creature only known as Gentleman true?

The entire book is beautifully written in era-specific language, which really helps bring the story to life. It’s got a little bit of Austen and Wilde, maybe even some Poe, but also a bit of old-fashioned fairytales from the likes of Andersen or the Brothers Grimm. It’s a long read at 1,006 pages, but it is worth it. It’s a very immersive tale, full of intriguing characters, all flawed in one way or another. The relationship between Mr Norrell and Jonathan Strange, which ranges from friendship and mentorship to rivalry and everything in-between, is the backbone of the entire story. The magic is woven around it, gradually and skillfully, and continuously goes deeper and deeper until the lines between reality and folklore are blurred.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is historical fantasy at its finest.

 

My Rating: ♥♥♥♥♥

Title: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Author: Susanna Clarke
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Release Date: September 5, 2005
Pages: 1,006
ISBN:  978-0747579885

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie #60Books

And Then There Were None is arguably the very best story the Grande Dame of Mystery Fiction, Agatha Christie, has ever written.

Originally published under the title Ten Little Niggers (orTen Little Indians – back then these terms were not yet considered offensive), the story is about ten seemingly unrelated people who are lured to a remote island under false pretences. What starts for some as a holiday, and for others as a job offer, soon turns into a game of life and death.

Handpicked by someone only calling themselves U.N. Owen, these ten people are soon trapped on a barren island with no means back to the mainland and no choice but to wait for a boat.

Central to the story is a poem and the decoration of ten figurines in the house on the island. In some editions it’s called the racial terms that made up the original titles, although more recent editions call the poem “Ten Little Soldiers.” All of the soldiers die or disappear, and one after the other, the figurines disappear, just as another guest turns up dead.

Unlike Christie’s Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot stories, there is no clever sleuth here to work it out for the reader. No clues are collected or analysed, it’s a race against time for the ten frightened guests who have to work out whether there is a murderer among them or someone else made it to the island. It’s a thrilling read, a page-turner to the very last word that leaves the reader baffled.

This story is THE whodunnit classic. Full of plot twists and red herrings, And Then There Were None stays gripping to the very last page, just as the protagonists stay classy and reserved in true British fashion. Even as the number of suspects decreases, readers are left wondering who the killer is and what their motives are.

Agatha Christie truly is a legend.

My Rating: ♥♥♥♥♥

Title: And Then There Were None
Author: Agatha Christie
Publisher: HarperCollins
Release Date: March 1, 2003 (First published November 6, 1939)
Pages: 317
ISBN: 978-0007136834

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift #AtoZ

This post is part of the 2016 April A to Z Challenge.

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift is possibly one of the most scathing pieces of satire ever written. And yet, many will remember it only as a childhood story about Lilliputians.

The book is actually divided into four parts, and Captain Lemuel Gulliver’s shipwreck on the island of Lilliput, on which people are only six inches high, is only the first part of it all.

Personally, I think that the story about Lilliput is so memorable, because nobody knows how to pronounce the other places Gulliver visits on his travels (with one obvious, not-made-up exception). He meets the Blefuscudians while living with the Lilliputians, and eventually travels to Brobdingnag, Laputa, Balnibarbi, Luggnagg, Glubbdubdrib, Japan and the country of the Houyhnhnms and Yahoos.

It’s understandable why children love this story. Swift’s description of the people and places, from the tiny Lilliputians, the giants of Brobdingnag and the flying island of Laputa are incredibly imaginative. Gulliver’s accounts of his travels make for adventurous tales any escapist will love. But the true genius of his writing is his clever disguise of his satire, which spares no-one. From British politicians of the eighteenth century, English society as a whole, religious beliefs, philosophers and scientists to the readers themselves, Swift is quite outspoken when you read between the lines. Often disguised as Gulliver’s actions or observations from the cultures he visits, they draw paralells to the real world of Jonathan Swift’s time.  Plus there is the definite parody of Robinson Crusoe which had only been published a bit earlier.

Gulliver’s Travels is a classic for young and old. Even without knowledge of eighteenth century politics and society, it’s an entertaining read that has stood the test of time.

 

My Rating: ♥♥♥♥

Title: Gulliver’s Travels
Author: Jonathan Swift
Publisher: Penguin Popular Classics
Release Date:  1994 (Originally published in 1726)
Pages: 329
ISBN: 978-0140623642

The Assistants by Camille Perri

Camille Perri’s The Assistants is a modern-day Robin Hood-esque tale of opportunity, financial gain and a sense of entitlement.

Tina works as an assistant for a media mogul. Like many others of her generation, she is highly educated, stuck in an unfulfilling and underappreciated job, and saddled with student loan debts.

So when she is handed a cheque that could end her financial troubles without anyone noticing where the money has gone, she takes her chance. What started as a means to an end soon spirals into illegal money laundering.

On the face of it, The Assistants would make a good, light-hearted movie about the trials and tribulations of recent college graduates struggling to find a proper job while trying to make ends meet. There is humour, blackmail and love. It has got the pace it needs, reads well, features a beautiful protagonist and a clever scheme. But said beautiful protagonist is also the problem.

Tina herself does very little out of her own choices. She gets dragged along by colleagues and friends, guided by the actions and decisions of the people around her. While she is the face of it all, she is not the mastermind. She commits crimes and gets away with them, while others convince her to keep going back for more. Self-pitying and self-righteous, Tina is a bit too whiny to be a proper heroine. She is meant to be competent but comes across as easily manipulated and bullied.

The Assistants is nonetheless an enjoyable read, which I would have no problems recommending for light entertainment and vacation reading. Tina’s initial situation may hit a bit too close to home for recent graduates, though.

My Rating: ♥♥♥

Title: The Assistants
Author: Camille Perri
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Release Date: May 3, 2016
Pages: 288
ISBN: 978-0399172540

 

The Assistants by Camille Perri was provided to me as an
Advance Review Copy in eBook format by
Penguin Random House’s FirstToRead

Down Under by Bill Bryson #AtoZ

This post is part of the 2016 April A to Z Challenge.

When it comes to hilarious travel stories, there is no one better than Bill Bryson, and Down Under, his musing about travels through Australia, is no exception.

Bill Bryson has this knack of making readers feel like they are right beside him on his adventures. Here is this middle-aged man who is bumbling along, meeting strangers and turning down the wrong road, but who keeps his eyes and ears open for absolutely everything he finds along the way.

So while he’s driving in the Outback – and the rental car guy had to give him two jiffy cans of diesel because he looks the sort of man who’d get stranded thousands of miles from the next fuel pump – he listens to the cricket on the radio. And then proceeds to give a hilariously accurate but snarky account of what he thinks cricket is about (mainly eating, judging by their snack breaks).

Bryson travels throughout Australia, sometimes by himself, sometimes with friends. Before the trip he studied up on the country and all the things that could kill you there. He develops a curious sort of obsession with these facts and statistics, which he can break out at a moment’s notice to prove his points. Bryson is naturally curious about all sorts of things, which can lead to the most random conversations, including one about fridges in the Outback. And if there are drinks involved (and there usually are), he may wake up with a note the next day stating he agreed to a house-sitting holiday with a random couple.

His writing style is very personal, and laugh out loud funny. Living in the UK (Bryson is American-born but spent his adult life in Britain) has clearly given him a healthy dose of sarcasm which he wittily employs throughout his writing. And yet, you feel that you learn a lot, because he does do the research. He talks to the people he meets, follows their recommendations and spends afternoons in nearly deserted museums to escape the heat and make the lone custodian very happy that someone is interested in the exhibit.

Down Under is a light, funny and entertaining read that will make you wish you could travel with Bill, just for his hilarious running commentary.

Note: Down Under is also known as In a Sunburned Country.

My Rating: ♥♥♥♥♥

Title: Down Under
Author: Bill Bryson
Publisher: Black Swan
Release Date:  August 6, 2001
Pages: 428
ISBN: 978-0552997034

Cross Bones by Kathy Reichs #AtoZ

This post is part of the 2016 April A to Z Challenge.

Cross Bones by Kathy Reichs is a real treat for fans of forensic anthropology and mysteries. This is the eighth novel by Kathy Reichs that features forensic anthropologist Dr. Temperance Brennan as the protagonist, who can tell a person’s life story just by looking at their bones.

That name Temperance Brennan may ring a bell for some who are fans of the TV show Bones. It has to be noted, though, that TV’s Temperance Brennan is not solely based on the character in the book, but is more a mixture of book Temperance and the author herself, as Dr. Reichs is a real-life forensic anthropologist.

The story starts in Canada, where the body of an orthodox Jew is found and Temperance Brennan investigates his death. However, there seems to be more to the case than meets the eye, as a stranger draws Brennan’s attention to a photograph of a skeleton that may hold the key.

The catch? The skeleton is ancient, and all the clues lead her to Israel.

Cross Bones has a greater and possibly more irritating mystery at its centre than most of Kathy Reichs’ other Temperance Brennan novels. Of course this is a work of fiction, but after all these years, could a skeleton still be identified as a contemporary of Christ or even the remains of Jesus himself? And how could they possibly relate to the dead man in Montreal roughly 2.000 years later?

Reichs’ writing style is assured, her plots are engrossing. And the attention to detail is second to none. Because feisty Tempe Brennan was created by someone who is a highly-ranked expert in her profession, all the scientific details and procedures are spot-on. Where many detective stories ignore proper protocols to keep the plot going, scientific correctness is as much part of the plot as the murder investigation when it comes to Kathy Reichs.

Temperance Brennan is a superb character, highly capable, feisty, clever, scientific and compassionate. She comes across as very human in a profession not only often dominated by men, but also often seen as cold, clinical and detached due to its constant association with death.

My Rating: ♥♥♥♥

Title: Cross Bones
Author: Kathy Reichs
Publisher: Arrow
Release Date: 2006
Pages: 481
ISBN: 978-0099441496

Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan #AtoZ

This post is part of the 2016 April A to Z Challenge.

Bonjour Tristesse is one of those novels misunderstood teenagers would love. Written in 1954 by an 18-year-old author, it tells the story of 17-year-old Cécile and her amoral and carefree father.

Cécile herself is not so squeaky clean either. She’s the epitome of a smart but spoilt-rotten teenager in the French Riviera, who’d rather spend her days lazing on the beach with a slightly older lover than studying as she should.

Her father Raymond is a young, widowed womanizer, whose latest flame Anne is not much older than his daughter, a fact Cécile resents. With her father fixing to marry a Anne, who is in her early 40s and treats her like the child she is, Cécile takes matters in her own hands trying to destroy her father’s relationship.

Considering Bonjour Tristesse was written by a teenager, the writing style is excellent. However, most of the characters act incredibly immature – adolescent even. Except Anne, who seems to be the only adult. It could be a reflection of the author’s age that all the people in the story are basically teenagers. Cécile’s motivation behind her scheme rings familiar to all adolescents who had to deal with having to share their single parent with someone new.

While the book is classed by some as a “Great Love Story,” I will have to disagree. The love is neither great, nor happy, and the protagonist’s devastating scheme only screams of immaturity and entitlement.

My Rating: ♥♥♥

Title: Bonjour Tristesse
Author: Françoise Sagan
Publisher: Harper Perennial Modern Classics
Release Date: June 17, 2008 (originally published in 1954)
Pages: 160
ISBN: 978-0061440793

Note: The version I read is an old family heirloom from 1961 with an orange cover. However, there is no copyright page or any indication where that particular version was published and I have been unable to find it online.