Tuesday, 18 February 2014

M. G. Scarsbrook, Dream of the Dead

M. G. Scarsbrook, Dream of the Dead

In the Bookworm's Universe, reading crime novels is an exception rather than a rule.  Deep down I feel that if you've read one whodunit, you've read them all, and it takes someone of awesome genius to take the genre to a higher level (e.g. Terry Pratchett.  Some of the Discworld novels are, in fact, crime stories). 

Having said that, I do not regret the decision to read and review M. G. Scarsbrook's Dream of the Dead (at the author's request).  Yes, it may not be entirely my kind of a book.  I'd probably find more pleasure in getting acquainted with some of his non-fiction titles (Scarsbrook seems to specialise in the history of the infamous Borgias).  Still, the crime story was a decent read and it matched my mood at the time pretty well.  Light, pleasant and gripping - I call that a fair deal. 

Dream of the Dead kept me captivated throughout all of its 270 pages.  A fast-paced, seamlessly forged story, with a likeable protagonist and occasional linguistic pyrotechnics.  Scarsbrook's command of language is quite impressive, although I admit that occasionally I muttered a half-laughing 'show-off!' under my breath.  Kallipygous, dear author?  I happen to have studied classics and to me the word is both familiar and of sentimental value, but for an average bestseller-consumer it might be a bit of an oversell.  Seriously though, when it comes to pure wordsmithing, Dream of the Dead is spotless. 

The plot is...  well, phrases like 'regular', 'technically correct', 'fairly decent' keep milling through my head;  none of them hits the bull's-eye, but together they paint a more or less accurate picture.  On first reading, I could find no major holes in the storyline (and believe me, I looked hard), which is always a good thing.  A suicide turns out to be more than it seems, soon there are more corpses, more suspects and many more complications.  The protagonist has a History, which flashes through the pages and hints at more books coming soon.  Add a dash of corrupted officialdom, a drop of the supernatural and you end up with quite a digestible mix.  Fair enough.  Entertaining.  Not sugary-sentimental (thank you, thank you oh-so-much for not developing the romantic potential!). 

It might be just my prejudice against crime novels in general that prompts some distinct feelings of insatiateness.  Dream of the Dead is nice enough, but there's nothing extraordinary about it - there, I've said it.  It stays 100% within the genre, not straying an inch off the beaten path.  Judging by the linguistic prowess, the author is capable of so much more... 

Then again, we all have to eat.  I'm fairly certain that whodunits sell better than historical biographies.  Plus, most people probably expect a crime story to be just that, nothing more.  They, at least, should be completely satisfied. 

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Michael Kelly, Tales From The Home Farm

Michael Kelly, Tales From The Home Farm

Usually I stick religiously to the reading order of my books.  First acquired, first digested, no argument please.  This is probably the only pedantic tendency in my otherwise messy life :)

Sometimes, though, an Event of Magnitude comes along and even my sacred reading order gets turned upside down.  Yeah, I know, I've been hinting at some big news for weeks now.  Well, today is the day, the curtain is up.

I'm moving!  Not only from one street to the next, I'm uprooting my whole way of life and turning it into something entirely different.  From a cramped, one-bedroom apartment in a busy city centre to a spacious farmhouse in the middle of nowhere.  Yeah!  I'm going to start a garden!  Keep hens!  Get a dog!  Make cheese!  And ten thousand other things...

With all the excitement surrounding the move, my usual reading list gets pretty much kicked aside and substituted with all sorts of Guides to Rural Pursuits.  I'm a city girl, born and bred, and if my experiment is to work, I need to gather as much information as I can.  Normally I would spare my readers any details of the countless how-tos I'm digging through, but sometimes I come across one that is actually worth mentioning.  Like Michael Kelly's Tales From The Home Farm.

A few years ago, Kelly did something similar to what I'm doing right now:  he ditched a corporate job and relocated to the countryside, to live the dream.  Some time into his adventure, he's far on the road to self-sufficiency.  The Home Farm is producing meat, eggs and veggies straight from the garden.  The author shares whatever he managed to learn on the journey - his tips on growing food in Irish climate, keeping chickens and turning pigs into pork are invaluable. 

The book is divided into twelve chapters, one for each month in a year.  I find this arrangement incredibly helpful, especially with each section followed by a brief summary:  what to do, what to sow, what to eat.  I'll probably be photocopying those pages for future reference!

Still, homesteading lore is only a half of Kelly's book.  The rest is filled with musings on sustainability, organic food production and life in general.  'Tales', you see?  This is not a guide or a textbook as such, it's farm-oriented storytelling.  Good storytelling, I hasten to add:  funny, warm, lighthearted, nothing sermon-like.  It's obvious that downshifting has served Mr. Kelly well - passion and contentment shine through every page.

To top it all off, Michael Kelly and I seem to share the same taste in books.  Quite a few titles mentioned in Tales From The Home Farm have been reviewed here, on Bookworm's Cave.  How cool is that?

The book is still worth recommending even if you're not planning to move away from the city lights, .  A word of warning, though:  after reading the tales, you might find that you want to!

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Danny Seraphine and Adam Mitchell, Street Player

Danny Seraphine and Adam Mitchell, Street Player

Despite my recent promises of improvement, Bookworm's Cave is still terribly quiet these days.  There are many causes, some of which are happy and will be revealed soon.  Other reasons for silence are not so great, but today I'm going to get at least one of them behind me, so that it can never haunt me again.  You see, I've been dreading writing this post, for weeks.

I was approached with a request to review Street Player back in...  July.  There, I've said it, the skeleton is out of the closet.  Despite the fact that I'm not getting paid for this and the only thing I receive in exchange is a free pdf of a book that I would never choose otherwise, I still feel terribly embarrassed.  How unprofessional of me!

At first sight, the book did not seem tempting at all.  For many years, Danny Seraphine was a drummer in a world famous band, Chicago, and Street Player is his autobiography.  I'm not particularly keen on musicians' memoirs.  Once you've read one, you've read them all.  From humble beginnings to fame, blah blah blah, sex, drugs and rock'n'roll, rehabs in between and a handful of celebrity names to glamour it all up.  Hardly worthwhile, once you've left the high school.

Despite the initial lack of interest, one evening I sat down with my laptop and opened the Street Player file, just to see what I'm supposed to drudge through.  I started reading and...  after only a couple of pages, I was totally hooked.  It turned out to be a very long evening :)

OK, let's be frank - Street Player does not differ very much from the abovementioned recipe for a musician's autobiography.  Still, it reads like a dream.  It's dynamic, not too pretentious, well-written and engaging.  I suspect this might be attributed to the non-famous co-writer, Adam Mitchell.  I can't be sure, but it smells very much like the kind of team where one side supplies the story plus trademarks and the other writing skills.  Well, if I'm right then Mr. Mitchell is a very decent writer indeed.  One just feels like turning (or, in my case, scrolling down) page after page, just to find out what happens next. 

As to the story...  There are all the usual stages of musical career, but also Chicago mafia (and here I mean the town, not the band), glimpses of Seraphine's personal life, big dramas when band members leave or *gasp* die, even bigger dramas when the author gets kicked out of the group, multi-digit figures, groupies, flying wigs, behind-the-scenes yarns and yes, the appropriate share of celebrities.  Not necessarily in this particular order. 

You may have guessed that the popular music scene is not exactly my pair of shoes.  Never before have I heard of the band Chicago either (although, as it turned out, I AM familiar with some of their tunes).  To tell you the truth, I'm not star-struck.  I don't think I'd like Danny Seraphine much, if we ever met.  Then again, I don't think I quite match Street Player's target market.  If you're a Chicago fan, or young and dreaming of rock'n'roll career, you'll probably love the book.

Uff, I'm done.  I hope this monster of a review will be at least some compensation for my monster of a delay :)

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Bruce Jay Friedman, Even The Rhinos Were Nymphos

Bruce Jay Friedman, Even The Rhinos Were Nymphos

Even The Rhinos Were Nymphos - ain't that a magnificent title?

As it often happens with me, I picked the book for the title alone.  I may not be that interested in sexual habits of megafauna, but I suspected that the publication is not about zoology at all.  Rightly so. 

Basically, the book is a collection of Bruce Jay Friedman's articles published previously in all sorts of Magazines for Boys.  You know the type, Playboy, Esquire and a range of less prominent titles.  Nah, you don't need to run yet - naked ladies (or nympho rhinos, for that matter) feature only occasionally, hardly at all, really.  True, these are distinctly testosterone packed pieces.  Just look at the subject matter:  detectives, drug dealers, pathologists(!), celebrities, supermodels, boxers...  But unless you are a certain very specific type of a girl, the faint-at-the-sight-of-a-mouse-oh-sugar kind, you're likely to enjoy them, whatever your gender.  I did, anyway, and I am most certainly NOT a testosterone packed male. 

Style-wise, the book made me think of Hunter S. Thompson, without drugs and booze (some of you might say that Thompson's writing is ALL about drugs and booze and you might even be right, but...).  Friedman makes use of the same rambling, surrealistic, informal type of storytelling, although I suspect that despite appearance it takes a lot of work to make such a tale tick.  And his do tick, no two ways about it.  They are fun, they are entertaining, they are very readable.  Maybe not exactly High Literature - but I doubt the author ever aimed this way. 

Great toilet read, really.  Which, I hasten to add, is a compliment.

One tiny thing, the articles in Even The Rhinos Were Nymphos are slightly dated.  They span years between 1968 and 1994, so it's been a while since they were hot news, or even particularly relevant.  Still, they were fun to read in 2013 and well, there's the historical value to think of... 

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Susan Sontag, Where The Stress Falls

Susan Sontag, Where The Stress Falls

I've read so many great things about Susan Sontag that I was almost salivating when I finally got hold of a book of her essays.  The revered author, elegantiae arbiter of the literary world, spoken of with reverence by the likes of Nadine Gordimer, and I'll get to read some of her words? Gosh! 

Well, there's no denying Sontag's impressive erudition and, yes, elegance.  Her command of language was awesome, as was her ability to create vivid, detailed images - even her non-fiction reads like poetry.  A master of the abstract, she wrote of feelings, impressions, ideas, her mind's eye able to detect whole worlds in a single book, movie or performance. 

With all this greatness, Where The Stress Falls should have swept me off my feet. 

I was bored.

My goodness, didn't the book drag!  It took ages to get through.  My mind kept drifting off every five seconds, words turning into meaningless gibberish every other line.  The reading got easier halfway through the volume, but even in the best moments I wasn't exactly captivated.  Now, is it me being boorish and uncultured, or is Susan Sontag vastly overrated?

Where The Stress Falls is composed of 100% High Culture, capital letters mandatory.  All the Great Arts get their due.  Books (obviously), cinema, photography, theatre, opera, even bloody ballet.  All very exclusive, very noble, very condescending.  Unfortunately, I'm allergic to intellectual snobbism.  High Arts can be fine, Sontag's reviews flawless, but I simply couldn't stand the author's patronising tone.  People With Taste vs The World.  I couldn't stop thinking of those posh vernissages where VIPs stuff their faces with caviar and sigh with delight over a black square on white canvas (with a seven-figure price tag).  Ridiculous only begins to describe it. 

It's faintly possible that I'm simply not mature enough to appreciate Sontag's cultural refinement.  I might get there when I'm around sixty, but I doubt it.  I simply do not wish to take my sensitivities in that direction.

Besides, I hate caviar.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Janine Di Giovanni, The Quick and the Dead

Janine Di Giovanni, The Quick and the Dead

I do like Janine Di Giovanni's reporting style.  She's compassionate without being sentimental, her images vivid but not overly dramatic.  Compared to other books about wars in the former Yugoslavia, hers truly shine.

The Quick and the Dead is a tiny booklet, only 177 pages.  It is fully focused on the infamous siege of Sarajevo.  Between 1992 and 1994, Di Giovanni made repeated trips to the suffering city.  As you can probably imagine, her reports are not too happy.  War doesn't paint beautiful pictures.  Still, stories of ordinary people in exceptional circumstances are very powerful.  Sure, fear and horror were omnipresent, but if you looked hard enough, you could also find defiance, dignity and courage.  The bittersweet mixture, when described by a skilled writer, touches the heart. 

Funny thing, if I were to label The Quick and the Dead as a single genre, I would choose travel writing.  The good travel writing, I hasten to add, like Dervla Murphy's, not some magazine-sponsored holiday-in-the-sun gibberish.  Di Giovanni is an active participant in the events, always on the move from one location to the next.  She shares her worries, fears, heartbreaks, and if the story she's about to relate is somebody else's, she describes where and how she met the source. 

By the way, one of Janine's sources went on to write her own book.  Atka Reid, the author of Goodbye Sarajevo, makes a quick appearance in Di Giovanni's memoir.  As you can see from my review, I don't much value Reid's literary efforts, but at least here's someone confirming her story :)

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Charles Panati, Panati's Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things

Charles Panati, Panati's Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things

Things are happening slowly in the Bookworm's Cave these days, for which I apologise.  Life has been hectic recently:  new jobs for me and mine, urgent family matters and a new hobby firing up my imagination.  To add insult to injury, I've hit a patch of really boring books, readable but only just. 

Touch wood, it looks like some free time is coming my way so the days of neglect are probably over now. :)

I wish I could start my outburst of blog activity with a rave, but unfortunately Panati's Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things does not merit such kudos.

First and foremost, I absolutely hate titles like Someone's Something.  The author's name is already on the cover, goddamnit, why on Earth would you want to put it there twice?  A bloated ego?  Some misguided marketing advice?  Nah, I'm not buying this, Mr Panati. 

The 'extraordinary' part is somewhat exaggerated, too.  What's so extraordinary about inventing a dishwasher?  A lawn mower?  A hand mixer?  An inventor wants to make some money and tinkers away in his garage until he finds something patent-worthy, end of story.  Where's the amazing part?  Sure, the book contains some good anecdotes, but when it comes to the 'wow factor' it's a definitive oversell.

Most of Panati's Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things is focused on modern inventions.  Items of ancient or medieval pedigree are far outnumbered by Victorian/early twentieth century innovations.  I'd prefer it the other way round but ok, that's just one girl's opinion. 

As to reliability - ouch.  I've found a good handful of factual mistakes, some of them pretty glaring, without looking too hard.  NOT a serious source of information, please double check every sentence before passing it on as true. 

If I were to pick one word to best describe Panati's creation, it would be 'tabloidish'.  Gossip, sensation, and lots of verbal photoshop. 

Having said all that, the book doesn't read too bad.  Easy on the brain, it's a bit repetitive but smooth.  I can wholeheartedly recommend it for bathroom literature.  One-sitting-size chapters are simply perfect for the job...