Friday, March 14, 2014

Biannual Book Review

I can see a trend developing here. Six months ago I posted a holiday book review bemoaning the fact that my last blog had been my previous holiday book review. I never did get round to that post about armchair activism, maybe sometime soon

The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer - 10/10

There's a lot been written about this book both before and after it winning last year's Costa prize so I don't see much point in writing much more about it other than to say the award was well deserved and this is a fine piece of work. The book is both heart-rending and funny, full of warmth and the author's knowledge of the subject matter shines through. Read it.

Bedlam by Christopher Brookmyre - 8/10

Generally known for his tongue-in-cheek crime novels, Brookmyre has given in to the constant nagging from fans and brought his sardonic wit to the sci-fi genre. With quotes on the cover from the late, great Iain M Banks and Charles Stross there was every indication from the start that he could manage the transition and he has. The concept of a character being stuck inside a video game isn't a new one but  Brookmyre pulls it off with aplomb in this romp of a novel

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn - 8/10

I loved Gone Girl when I read it last year and recently read her first novel, Sharp Objects, which was pretty good too so had high hopes of this, her second book. And those hopes were pretty much fulfilled. Alternate chapters deal with the present day search for answers by Libby Day into the murder of her morher and sisters and the events on the day leading up to the killings. I wasn't completely convinced by the obligatory twist at the end though having earlier worked out some of what it might be it didn't come as a complete surprise.

The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner - 6/10

Wonderful writing but it takes an eternity to actually get anywhere. I stopped halfway through but may well go back to it as the prose is so good.

The Big Picture by Douglas Kennedy - 9/10

Another cracking read from Douglas Kennedy as a Wall Street lawyer gets the chance to throw away his past and reinvent himself. The end can go one of two ways and I think I would have preferred the other one but the story is such a good one I can forgive the choice.

They say you can't judge a book by its cover and it seems to be especially true of just about anything by Douglas Kennedy. His publishers seem to think that chick-lit covers are appropriate for his work but THEY ARE NOT!!!!

Dark Eden by Chris Beckett - 9/10

I'm still only halfway through this but so far it's performing well and only a pathetic literary cliche rearing its ugly head like it did with Woman in the Fifth this time last year would seem likely to spoil it. If it does, I'll be very surprised.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Another Holiday, More Reading

Oh dear I haven't written a blog on here since my last holiday read review back in March. This time it's the results of 10 days in Corfu:

Going to Sea in a Sieve by Danny Baker - 10/10

I started it before we set off but as I finished it on holiday I guess it counts. He has a wealth of stories and tells them well. Find out how he didn't kill Bob Marley, he's not David Essex's brother and all about his intimate encounter with one of the cast from Hair. And laugh, a lot.

 Love Minus Eighty by Will McIntosh - 7/10

Death doesn't have to mean the end of love, so long as you're pretty enough. Even if you're still alive you may not stand much of a chance unless all your social networking profiles are right and if you become disconnected from that then what chance do you stand? A decent enough look at love and social networks in the near future.

Waging Heavy Peace by Neil Young - 11/10

Being a Neil Young fan but loth to buy books in hardback, I've been waiting for the paperback version of this since before christmas. And I wasn't disappointed. If you want all the facts and figures then read 'Shakey' by Jimmy McDonough but if you want a real insight into the personality and life of the man then this is the book to read. It rambles and roams through his life, his family and his passions and always seems to come back to his current twin obsessions of his electric car project, Lincvolt and his campaign for better sound quality in digital music, Pono.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn - 9/10

I didn't take this book on holiday, my wife did and she enjoyed it so much that I had to read it to find out what all the fuss was about and so that she could talk about it to me. And I'm very glad I did.
The Thousand Emperors by Gary Gibson - 8/10

Always on the lookout for a new sci-fi author that doesn't go on too much (really, a 600+ page brick generally turns me off when it comes to sci-fi), I found this and rather liked it. I'll probably search out some more.

 Archipelago by Monique Roffey - 8/10

I'd tried to read one of her earlier books on the recommendation of my wife but gave up after about 30 pages as it didn't engage me in the slightest. But this one did. A simple, beautifully told story about a man who sails off in search of himself after a traumatic life event.

The Godfather by Mario Puzo - 7/10

I haven't finished it yet but I will soon. It's not fantastic prose but it's such a great story and although I've seen the first 2 films, I've never read the book.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Holiday reading

One of the joys of a relaxing holiday in the sun is the opportunity to have a right good read. I know I can do that at home but on holiday there are no distractions and you can really kick back and get stuck into a few good novels. Here's the list from the past week in Lanzarote:

Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch - 7/10

I spotted this on a buy one get one half price table at Waterstones and it looked interesting so thought I'd give it a go. It's not particularly smart or clever and has nothing at all really to say but it's quite fun. If I were to compare it with Laundry Files series by Charles Stross or just about anything by Jasper Fforde, with which it shares many similarities, it falls a little short but not far. There's every chance I'll be reading further books in the series at some date in the future but I'm not going to be racing out to buy them.

Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway - 9/10

What a cracking read. Not exactly an earth-shatteringly original story - a race to save the earth from the effects of a doomsday by a watchmaker with a family history - but the slight steampunk bent and the tales of London's underbelly give it some nice originality. The conclusion is pretty obvious and so Harkaway doesn't waste much time on teasing that part of the story out, just getting right to the point. I'll certainly be taking a look at his other work.

Filth by Irvine Welsh - 9/10

I don't know why I hadn't read it before or maybe I had and had forgotten it. The protagonist is a nasty piece of work with no real redeeming features, so fairly typical Welsh. From the blurb on the cover I'd expected it to be filthier than it turned out to be but it was still pretty bad and is not recommend for those of a sensitive nature. I notice they're making a film of it, I suspect I'll be there to see it.

The Woman in the Fifth by Douglas Kennedy - 2/10

I was absolutely loving this book until page 295, then I was a little wary and then the clunking, crass cliche fully kicked in. I carried on as I thought it may be able to recover and I rather liked the characters so I wanted to know what happened but to no avail. It actually got worse as a further awful literary cliche reared its ugly head and deprived the book of any sort of a climax. I won't spoil it all by telling you what dreadful misdemeanours were executed but safe to say it's the sort of thing that might have satisfied me when I was 10. I came away feeling completely conned and hoping that I would soon wake up and discover it was all just a horrible dream!

Friday, January 11, 2013

Guardian Crossword

My name is Sunny Jim (it isn't really but what the hell) and I'm a (Guardian) crossword addict (the proper one, not the quick one). There I've said it, I can't do without it. I can't be doing with the online version and it would be such a faff to print it out every day (except for those times when they print the wrong one, cue another snotty email to the readers' editor) that I buy the paper every day. When I'm abroad on holiday I mostly avoid the urge to buy the paper just for the crossword by taking a book of old crosswords with me.

I first started buying The Guardian when I was at UMIST doing Maths and it wasn't long before I took my first fledgling attempts at writing letters in those white boxes on the back page. I wasn't very good but soon got better. There were other students on my course who took an interest and very soon we were working collaboratively on each day's crossword by chalking it up on the blackboard in what passed for our common room and so sharing our answers between (never instead of, oh no) lectures and tutorials. Pretty soon we began to make a pretty decent fist of it and would occassionally even finish it, though we sometimes had to call on the help of the odd (and some of them were) professor to get the last few clues in.

One of the joys of the Guardian cryptic is that you know who you're dealing with, to some extent. Each day's puzzle is formally attributed to a compiler and so we began to recognise individual setters and it would give us some idea of the difficulty and our likely chances of completing a particular grid. Very early on, one compiler stood out, Araucaria. In 1966, Ximenes of the Observer (Derrick Macnutt) wrote a book which laid out a set of 'rules' that he felt should be present in a good crossword. We quickly learnt that Araucaria played fast and loose with these so-called rules and anything was fair in love and crosswords just so long as the answer could be readily and unambiguously determined.

So why this blog post? Well in today's paper there is a crossword that made me smile a great deal whilst also making me feel rather sad as I filled in the clues and worked my way towards the message that it contained. Once finished I also felt a great deal of admiration for a man who has brought me a deal of pleasure over the years and hopefully for some time to come yet. Who else but the crossword compiler's crossword compiler would announce to the world that they have cancer by way of a crossword puzzle?

Many thanks John and I hope there will be many more crosswords to come.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Station Buffets

There was a time when just about every station in the country featured a buffet which would also encompass a bar of some sort. They are becoming a thing of the past, nowadays replaced by some sort of branded outlet, devoid of character or any sort of variety of food or drink for sale. So it was with some delight that on a trip to Bridlington at the weekend we came across an echo of the past sitting by the entrance to the station, hiding behind a mass of flowers and foliage.

Our curiosity well and truly prodded, we took a look inside and it was like stepping onto the set of 'Brief Encounter'. There was a roaring fire, a marble topped bar sporting 2 handpumps and a few simple tables with bentwood chairs. The walls in the first room were covered in all sorts of railway memorabilia and in the second were enamalled advertising signs from days gone by. It was a little early for a pint but we figured that if we perhaps arrived at the station a little early for our return train to Scarborough, then it would be an ideal place to wait a while, which of course we did.

Bridlington station is a bit of a gem as well. I'm no train buff who delights in all things railway but I do have a passing interest and it was good to see that the station retains many of its original features and those parts that the owning train company no longer have need of are put to good use. The buffet is clearly a private concern and some of the other areas are given over to local community interest groups. Why can't more stations be like this one?

On Tuesday we visited another station bar, this time in Hartlepool. We were already aware of the existence of the Rat Race Ale House, so once again engineered our arrival for our return journey so that we were early enough to check out the facilities. And aren't we glad we did? It appears to occupy what used to be a store room at the station, next door to the buffet and small though it is, it's full of character and sells some excellent beer. If you fancy a quick pint of fizzy lager, don't bother with this place as they don't sell it, neither do they sell fizzy cider, fizzy beer nor alcopops. As well as real ale and real cider they also sell some Belgian beers, so we bought a couple of bottles of St. Bernardus Tripel for drinking when we got home.

There has been a bit of a resurgence of station based pubs of late with the Sheffiled, Euston and York Taps opening up (though their close alliance with Thornbridge, owned by the husband of the A4E owner puts me off them a bit) and there are a few station based pubs on the Transpennine Ale Trail. A few years ago The Head of Steam established a few places at or near stations too, though I'm not sure how many remain. The one I used to frequent at Euston has since been sold to Fullers, though last time I was there it was still selling a good variety of non-Fullers beers. St. Pancras and Paddington used to have decent characterful bars in the station, selling proper beer and even after refurbishment, the bars are still there, though they have of course been ponced up a bit. And also worth a mention is The Centurion in Newcastle station, which has been refurbished at great expense, restoring some fantastic old tile work in the process.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Keralan Cuisine

One thing I really miss about London is our favourite local Indian restaurant, La Kera. Unfortunately I also missed it when we lived there because it closed before we left. Tucked away down a side street in the entrance to an industrial estate, the so-called Wood Green Cultural Quarter, it didn't really get the business it deserved to. It was my introduction to Keralan food and I've loved it ever since.

It's not like the stuff you get in your average British Indian restaurant, actually more likely to be Pakistani or Bangladeshi, where meat comes smothered in a cloying, heavily spiced sauce and too much ghee. It's lighter, can still be nicely spicy and is full of flavour.

So, we were pleased when we came across Backwaters restaurant in our new home of Sunderland. The food is just as good as it was in La Kera, if not better, the staff just as friendly and unfortunately just as hidden from passing trade. We're not the only people who like the place either, check out the reviews on Trip Advisor. If I have one criticism, it's the decor and the tables but don't let that put you off, it's the food that is the star and when it's this good, I really couldn't care less about the lack of a table cloth and the use of paper serviettes.

More people need to know about this place and go and eat there on a regular basis because it deserves the trade. We were there last night and at 8pm on a Saturday night there were only 6 diners. When we left, suitably sated with brilliant food, the number of diners dropped to zero.

I've never felt any desire to go to India in general, it always come over as too busy, noisy and smelly for my liking but from what I've seen of Kerala, it's not like that at all. It appears much quieter, more laid back and the Backwaters look absolutely beautiful. Here's hoping we win the lottery soon and we can make the trip.

Finally, if you live anywhere near Sunderland or are visiting here any time soon, please, please, please make sure you eat at this hidden gem of a restaurant. 

30th June 2012 - went past Backwaters last night at 8:30 and the shutters were down. There was a note to say that they would be closed at lunchtimes during June but no mention of evening. We rang them tonight in the hope of going for dinner but there was no reply. Has it closed? Is there some sort of problem? We'll just have to wait and see.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Adventures in Record Collecting

Do you think you have a problem with record collecting? That maybe, just perhaps, you are a vinyl junkie? Then read Vinyl Junkies by Brett Milano like I just have and you'll probably find out that you are merely just obsessive and haven't got a full on addiction.

The book had been sat on the waiting to read pile for quite a while and I picked it up this morning for a quick flick through to see if it was worth reading. Several hours later, I've just put it down and felt the urge to blog about it immediately.

Some people may question my devotion to my record collection but it is as nothing compared to those owned by some of the characters chronicled in this excellent book. I count my records in hundreds, well I don't count them at all and they may well creep into the thousand but we're talking here about people who can't actually count their records at all because they number in the tens or even hundreds of thousands.

It may sound like the book was merely cathartic for me, having determined that I'm not that much of a junkie after all but it also provides a lot of insight into just why people collect stuff and what's so special about records. It's more than just the music that's on them, though obviously that's a huge part of it, but they're such wonderfully tactile and visual items that you miss out on if it's all on CD, or even worse just a series of ones and zeros on a storage device somewhere.

And of course, throughout my reading of the book, the turntable was spinning as I selected a load of music that I haven't listened to in far too long.

If you know that music sounds better on vinyl, then you should probably read this book.