Peter Steward's Web Site
Book Reviews 2011
Reading is another of my great passions. So this section of the web site is designed for book reviews and recommendations. I hope you enjoy it. If you have any comments you would like added please e-mail them to me by clicking here. Each book is given a rating out of 30 with 10 points being awarded for style, 10 points for story and 10 points for enjoyment or readability. A score of over 25 is outstanding, 21-24 good, 15-20 average, 10-14 poor and under 10 very poor. Books with a score of more than 25 are highly recommended. Of course I emphasise that this is all a personal view.
Lennon by Phillip Norman - 24
A mighty tome weighing in at over 800 pages, this authorative look at the life of the enigma that was John Lennon has plenty of style and pace. Originally supported by Lennon's widow Yoko Ono, she later withdrew her support though it is hard to see just why. Overall it shows Lennon in a good light. But it doesn't dodge the issues of his complex personality and is written rather in the style of a journalist rather than a novelist.
Much of the details have already appeared in his history of the Beatles Shout, but there is enough new here to make it a worthwhile read. It is particularly clear on the business side of the Beatles and Lennon's years in New York as well as his early days as an unruly Liverpool teenager in a world very far away from today's high tech society.
It takes some doing to keep a reader's attention over such a vast number of pages and it took me over a month to read due to my busy lifestyle, but I persevered and enjoyed an intimate look written with passion but in a balanced and intuitive way.
The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett - 18
A strange book which tells the true story of a book thief, a man who stole for his own amusement and an obsession for collecting (stealing) valuable books and the book detective who tracked him down.
I found this a rather drawn out and unsatisfying read. The author interviewed both men but seems at times to side with the thief rather than the honest book seller. At times its a tad confusing as well and there is little of a detective story to it as the hunter knows the identity of his prey throughout the book. I read a number of reviews of this book on Amazon and came to the conclusion of many others - it would have made a good magazine article but is rather stretched to make an entire book of it.
Address Unknown by Kressman Taylor - 24
I was attracted to this book by the subject matter and its extreme brevity - it will take little more than an hour to read and digest. Kressman Taylor is in fact a woman by the name of Ketherine Kressman. Her subject matter of the holocaust and the way she makes a number of vital points about war propaganda has turned this 1930s book into something of a cult.
Basically it tells the story of two business partners living in America. One is an American Jew, the other a German who, as the Second World War gets closer, returns to his native land. The narrative of the book surrounds letters that pass between them - at first supportive and friendly but then, when the reality of Nazi Germany kicks in, they become distant and threatening.
The German Martin returns to his native land and very quickly becomes a follower of the rising evil of Hitler. His previous understanding of his brotherly friendship with American Jew Max is cast asunder as he becomes committed to the Fatherland.
One of the issues of this excellent little story is the way friendships can be destroyed by evil and the way Martin becomes a lamb to the Nazi slaughter. The book ends with an interesting twist which I won't give away. My suggestion is buy or borrow a copy and read it for yourself - after all it won't take very long, but it will be very worth it.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being in Aberystwyth by Malcolm Pryce - 21
It's obviously a big mistake to begin reading a series of books midway through, but I picked this one up at the local library and became intrigued by Pryce's writing and the way he turns Aberystwyth into a gang ridden town with a style borrowing much from Raymond Chandler and noir-style angst. The result is at times highly amusing as he weaves a weird and intimate story of some very strange characters.
This is the third book in the series and I will be going back to read them in order as it is obvious that the characters move through the whole thing and it's going to be a delight. I did find this one rather confusing towards the end but what else could be likely from a novel that includes maniac hoodlums, sign language understanding monkeys, private detectives and war veterans (and many more).
Re-Read classics - Brighton Rock by Graham Greene
Aberystwyth Mon Amour by Malcolm Pryce - 21
The first book in the series mentioned above. Odd characters abound as a number of schoolboys disappear. Boy geniuses, exotic nightclub singers, Druids and some very strange characters move through the pages. The result is both funny and unusual.
Don't Cry for Me Aberystwyth by Malcolm Pryce - 21
The fourth book in the series includes the usual host of strange characters and ridiculous plots. Ridiculously good fun yet again
Toast by Nigel Slater - 24
A clever autobiography which was fun to read. I received 48 of these books to give away as part of national World Book Week. Had no problem getting rid of them. Slater writes about his childhood in an entertaining but also poignant manner, allowing us very personal glimpses of his world. Thoroughly entertaining and clever in telling us so much of his young years through short passages all revolving around food.
Slater is today very popular through food writing and television and his engaging personality comes through in this book which was turned into a BBC play over last Christmas.
Last Tango in Aberystwyth by Malcolm Pryce - 21
Perhaps even more anarchic and difficult to follow than the other Pryce books. Somewhere along the line in this one I lost the plot but it's still a deliciously amusing read for all that.
Live Fast Die Young MisAdventures in Rock n Roll America by Chris Price and Joe Harland - 18
A number of people whose musical taste I respect suggested this was a must read. Sadly I seem to be out of kilter in finding it pointless and stodgy and not full of fun as has been suggested.
The great American road trip of the authors seems to be a ragtag mix of half following a rock n roll dream and half seeing where the mood takes them. It introduces us to a largely forgettable cast of oddballs as the book seems to meander with no real goal.
For me it was all summed up by the duo turning down the chance to meet one of their country music heroes - Emmylou Harris. That incident seems to sum up the book. It promises plenty but delivers little. Neither did I find it greatly amusing although it was an easy read. Central to the road trip is one of the authors' love of the music of Gram Parsons. I'm afraid his music leaves me cold and most of this book had a similar affect.
Change of Heart by Jodi Picoult - 22
Quite a complex book with a myriad of themes. A considerable amount of research went into writing this book and Picoult is as thorough as ever. I'm sure that one of the points of this book which deals with capital punishment, redemption and many other themes, is to provoke discussion on miracles and religion in general and as such it does succeed with some thought provoking passages. Where it fails is in a slightly implausible story, slightly wooden characters and a rather wonky ending.
Overall, however, a very enjoyable read that poses plenty of questions without really providing any answers.
The Terrorist Hunters by Andy Hayman - 16
File under fiction - 'nuff said.
Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold - 18
I don't quite share the enthusiasm of many other people for this book. To start with I found it overlong and were never quite sure of whether it wanted to be a mystery novel, an historical one or a biography of American magician Carter the Great. Sadly for me it fell somewhere between the three. I persevered and managed to make it through to the end but at times it was a struggle.
One of the main problems was visualising the actions, which at times was very difficult and the dialogue at times was also tough to understand. There really was a good story somewhere in this, but Gold never really grabbed hold of it properly. Still worth reading though.
Re-read classic - Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Highly original and still beautifully amusing
Palm Trees on the Hudson by Elliot Tiber - 21
The full title of this book is Palm Trees on the Hudson A true story of the Mob, Judy Garland and Interior Decoration. When I bought a new Kindle Reader I downloaded this free book from the Kindle Store and soon became engrossed. At first I thought it was a book in the same vein as somebody like Bill Bryson. I had no idea who Elliot Tiber was but soon got pulled into his New York world of interior designs, parties, Greenwich Village and the gay scene.
Tiber weaves characters in and out of the book including his overbearing mother and a run down motel which he invests in. It took some time for the light to dawn that this was the motel featured in the Woodstock Festival and Tiber's best known book is Taking Woodstock which was turned into a film directed by Ang Lee. So being rather ignorant paid dividends as I was able to thoroughly enjoy this book without any preconceptions regarding just what it was about. A highly enjoyable read.
Negotiate by Jay Laurell - 19
I downloaded this free from Amazon for my Kindle. So value-wise it couldn't be faulted. It's a basic thriller set in the USA and surrounding terrorist threats to blow up eight FBI buildings throughout the land. The action follows attempts to track down the would be bombers and the mysterious leader Diablo.
The pace of the novel is certainly fast enough but ultimately there are few surprises and few twists and turns. We soon learn who is behind the plats and why and it becomes more of a person hunt than a genuine thriller. Certainly worth a read though.
50 Years on the Street - My Life with Ken Barlow by William Roache - 19
Really one for the Coronation Street fanatics. It's an enjoyable run through of the British soap without really telling us anything new. Roache is an amiable host but the book is rather thin in details and repeats itself an awful amount. It was easy to read but would leave anybody cold who is not a fan of the show.
One Day by David Nicholls - 20
One of those mega-selling phenomena books that break through every few years. Millions have enjoyed what has been heralded as the book of 2011. Millions have taken the two main characters - Emma and Dexter - to their hearts and identified with much of the angst and personal traumas of the novel which has now been made into a top box office film.
Most reviews have been positive, but there have been some reservations and I must put myself in the latter category. Most people have praised the characters for being true to life but a few have seen them as cardboard characters. I place myself somewhere between the two camps. I find Emma and Dexter at times to be annoying and the situations in which they find themselves not altogether realistic, but at the same time there is an undeniable warmth about them.
The books title refers to the fact that each chapter is written on the same day but in subsequent years. It is a reasonable device in as much as it allows the author to skip over virtually everything that happens during the year and take large leaps forward with the narrative.
When Dexter's marriage breaks up we don't have to endure all the sordid details because when one chapter ends he is still married and when the next begins a year later he is divorced. I found taking such gigantic leaps actually added to the story but it still took me three attempts before I finished the novel. When I did get down and discipline myself to take it up I enjoyed it, but it was an effort at times. Maybe I should have read a chapter a year!!!!!!
Bowie, Bolan and the Brooklyn Boy by Tony Visconti - 20
No real surprises in this autobiography by Tony Visconti. It teases us with snippets from the lives of many artists and groups but doesn't really add anything. Bolan became self obsessed and difficult to work with is pretty obvious, as is much of the remainder of the book which falls somewhere between a expose and a technical manual on the music recording business.
Having said that it's a very easy and in the main enjoyable read and probably that's about all I was expecting.
Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death by MC Beaton - 21
Agatha Raisin and the Vicious Vet by MC Beaton - 20
Agatha Raisin and the Walkers of Dembley by MC Beaton - 20
Agatha Raisin and the Terrible Tourist by MC Beaton - 20
Agatha Raisin and the Murderous Marriage by MC Beaton - 18
Everyone is entitled to a guilty pleasure or two when it comes to reading and in 2011 I deiscoved the Agatha Raisin series of detective stories by MC Beaton who also wrote the Hamish McBeth series of books. To date Angela Raisin has been involved in 22 murder mysteries set mainly in the Cotswolds where the amateur sleuth has retired from her public relations' business in London. Think rural England, potty characters, Miss Marple and Midsommer Murders and you are pretty much there. Ramblers wars, dangerous cooking, nasty calculating vets and an unpleasant holiday abroad are just some of the subjects covered above. They are zany but above all very easy to read and relatively short. Just 17 to go.
The River at the Centre of the World - A Journey up the Yangtze by Simon Winchester - 21
I read this book just before my visit to China and it was a good primer for the trip. At times amusing, at times political and at times quite scathing, it is written by a man with a sneaking regard for the country but one who is not entirely sure about its past or future and that really sums up my feelings as well. Written in a lively style, there was plenty to recommend this book.
My Favourite People and Me 1978-1988 by Alan Davies - 22
Comedian and actor Davies has an easy to read matey style that made this book enjoyable. He tells the story of his early life from the age of 12 to 22 through a series of short chapters featuring people he admired or people that played an integral part in his life. Much of it concentrates on his love of football and music and therefore wouldn't appeal to people not interested in those two subjects. As I am I must give it a thumbs up. Simply an enjoyable read,
An Imperfect Christmas by Myra Johnson - 24
File this one under a guilty pleasure. I downloaded this book for my Kindle. Forgot just why I had downloaded it and just began reading and really enjoyed it. It's schmaltzy but reminded me of the novels of Fannie Flagg. It's a novel about relationships and if the ending is rather overtly Christian it does have believable characters who are easy to identify with.
Illness, broken relationships, teenage tantrums and angst are all covered but somehow in quite a low key way leading to eventual redemption. The power of the book comes in the fact that many families can identify with the trials and tribulations featured. If you can cast off prejudice about books like this, it is a thumping enjoyable read.
Charles Dickens by Claire Tomalin - 26
A universally praised biography of Dickens on the eve of the 200th anniversary of his birth. Tomalin is arguably the best British biographer and her love of Dickens shines through in a book that almost reads like one of Dickens' novels.
Highly literate but also very easy to read it takes us on a journey almost into the mind of a very complex man, his relationships, his philanthropy but also his more sinister side, although it doesn't really delve deeply into his nocturnal wanderings and macabre interest in morgues other than to say he spent time in both pursuits.
It does give us a fascinating insight into the success of the author in a life that often mirrored and reflected on his own creation and a life where he could be a genuine friend, protector and supporter whilst at the same time verging on a cruelty that at times left his wife and children grasping for the reality of their existence.
This was a fascinating read and definitely my book of the year.
To accompany the above book I finished off the year by re-reading two Dickens classics - The Pickwick Papers and Great Expectations - the latter of which is probably his most accessible book.
Books Not Finished
As in other years at times I struggled through part of a book before giving up.
The Seventies Unplugged by Gerard DeGroot.
Too much about terrorism. This book made the 70s sound like the war years and I just gave up midway through.
At Home by Bill Bryson
Got halfway through this and it was enjoyable, but then seemed to come to a halt. Will probably read the rest at some time in the future
The Fall of Giants - Ken Follett
Too long and too involved. Again I might give it another go in the future.
The Eyre Affair - Jasper Fforde
Just lost patience and found this very silly indeed.
The Man Who Sold the World - David Bowie and the 1970s by Peter Doggett
I was really looking forward to reading this book but hugely disappointed by its style and content. It never got to the heart of the songs and was much too academic for my taste. I dipped into it but then gave up.
The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi by Andrew McConnell Stott
Rather thin on Grimaldi's life but pretty good on the theatre scene of the times. I got rather bogged down, however, although I will probably return to it sometime in the future
25 - Charles Dickens by Claire Tomalin
24 - Lennon by Philip Norman
24 - Address Unknown by Kressman Taylor
24 - Toast by Nigel Slater
24 - An Imperfect Christmas by Myra Johnson
22 - Change of Heart by Jodi Picoult
22 - My Favourite People and Me by Alan Davies
21 - The River at the Centre of the World - A Journey Up The Yangtze by Simon Winchester
21 - Palm Trees on the Hudson by Eliot Tiber
21 - The Unbearable Lightness of Being in Aberystwyth by Malcolm Pryce
21 - Aberystwyth Mon Amour by Malcolm Pryce
21 - Don't Cry for Me Aberystwyth by Malcolm Pryce
21 - Last Tango in Aberystwith by Malcolm Pryce
21 - Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death by MC Beaton
20 - Bowie, Bolan and the Brooklyn Boy by Tony Visconti
20 - One Day - David Nicholls
20 - Agatha Raisin and the Vicious Vet by MC Beaton
20 - Agatha Raisin and the Walkers of Dembley by MC Beaton
20 - Agatha Raisin and the Terrible Tourist by MC Beaton
19 - Negotiate by Jay Laurell
19- Fifty Years on the Street - My Life with Ken Barlow by William Roache
18 - Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold
18 - The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett
18- Agatha Raisin and the Murderous Marriage by MC Beaton
18 - (disappointment of the year) - Live Fast Die Young MisAdventures in Rock n Roll America by Chris Price and Joe Harland
16 - (dud of the year) - The Terrorist Hunters by Andy Hayman