“Dead Man’s Chest” by Nicholas Rankin

As a fan of Robert Louis Stevenson’s writing since childhood and as someone who is fascinated by lighthouse history (RLS came from a long line of rather famous lighthouse engineers) I was delighted to find this book – subtitled “Travels after Robert Louis Stevenson” – on the 501 list. I bought it and set it aside for my summer holidays. I thought reading it on the coast would be appropriate.

Unfortunately, instead of transporting me to the many exotic locales of RLS’s life and work, the book tried to be part modern travelogue and part biography and for me at least, fell between two stools. It left me wishing Rankin had just written a straight biography of RLS and left the descriptions of tropical islands and darkly lit old houses to RLS himself.

Having said that, any fan of RLS’s writing will find lots of great information about the author here. His disbelief in God nearly broke his father, he was closely related to Graham Greene, his 1892 novel “The Wrecker” was one of the first to use a telephone call as an integral part of the plot, and most depressingly for any novelist – he wrote “Treasure Island” at the rate of one chapter per day and it has never been out of print since.

As for “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”. It took a mere six weeks from idea to manuscript delivery and interestingly was written when Carl Jung was 10 and Sigmund Freud was only 29 and barely begun on his life’s work. I was also impressed to discover that Stevenson’s travels in the Pacific (more than 40 islands visited) helped confirm his political opinions. Despite declining health he tried his best, as a then wealthy and well-known writer, to raise their issues back in Europe.

Nicholas Rankin tries in this 352 page book to follow in the footsteps of RLS from birth til death. At times he succeeds in evoking a sense of the world where RLS lived and created. But I think he allows himself as narrator too large a role. I found out too much about his own opinions of people, nations, and customs and the book lacked interviews & contact with those who actually knew RLS or his family. But it’s an honest effort (despite at times simply skipping certain locations because they don’t suit him to visit) and will fascinate any keen reader of RLS’s amazingly varied and prolific writings – three of which are on the 501 List.

(read July 2012)


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“The Leopard” by Tomasi di Lampedusa

As someone who hasn’t visited Sicily but who loves Italy and has an interest in history, “The Leopard” was a fascinating glimpse into the lives of Sicilian nobilty around the time of Garibaldi and the unification of Italy.

The tale, written by a modern descendent of Sicilian nobility in the 1950s, is based in thinly disguised real places and on some real events. It follows Don Fabrizio, the Leopard of the title. His family’s crest is the leopard and he is definitely the alpha-male of his tribe. But the political upheavals of 1860 onwards cause him to rethink everything about his privileged existence. He tells his friend “we live in a changing reality to which we try to adapt ourselves like seaweed bending under the pressure of the water.”

He struggles to live with the changes thrust upon him and it’s hard for a modern, non-aristocratic reader, to understand when he thinks someone wearing the wrong suit to dinner is more traumatic than Garibaldi’s landing on the island. However, having watched and read plenty of English upper-crust dramas from the 1860s, this concern was hardly unique to Italian nobles.

Fabrizio is ultimately a character I had to empathise with, regardless of his upbringing and his constant infidelities. The book covers half of his lifetime and we get to see him changing with the times, to the point where he’s happy that his nephew marries for money and to get ahead under the new regime. Others around him “stick in the mud” but he’s wise enough to learn. The book ends shortly after Fabrizio weighs up the balance sheet of his life in his dying moments and it was with a definite sense of leaving a warm, elegant, stay in another era that I laid down the novel.

I recommend this novel to any fan of Victorian English literature and to anyone who enjoys family sagas. The heat of Sicily radiates from every page.

(read May 2012)

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“Vendetta” by Michael Dibdin

I love a good character name. I think English author Michael Dibdin was on fire the day he came up with a Venetian detective called Aurelio Zen.

In fact the character’s name was so striking, I’d forgotten the author’s name and that I’d already read an Inspector Zen mystery. As I’m currently reading my slow way through St. Augustine’s “Confessions” and Duby’s “Age of Cathedrals” for the 501 List, I was delighted to find a quick read in “Vendetta” on my local library’s shelves.

The basic story is that Zen is given a case on Sardinia to re-investigate. A quadruple murder has taken place of a crooked property developer and friends, in his top security villa. Because of the victim’s political links, Zen needs to find a culprit that will keep the spin-doctors happy and him from being reassigned to potentially terminal Mafia territory. Meanwhile he’s being followed, a man he jailed incorrectly earlier in his career is out for blood, he’s struggling to deal with his cantankerous mother, and his growing romantic interest in a happily-married colleague isn’t making life easy.

There’s more than one vendetta at work during the plot and Dibdin does a great job of depicting the Sardinian small town attitudes towards revenge and the government. As someone who loves Italy I really enjoyed the details of Zen’s day – from his early morning coffees to the traffic in Rome. Zen’s methods, once the case  gathers momentum, are inspired. He goes undercover as a Swiss property agent, loses a tail in the maze under the Forum, and manages a slow-speed chase by using gravity, rather than an engine, when his car is disabled.

However, I can’t see why this book was included on the 501 List. I read a lot of thrillers and murder mysteries and this one doesn’t stand out for me as “special”. It doesn’t introduce forensics like Cornwell or Deaver, sheer pace like Patterson, legal twists like Grisham, country house murders like Christie, or dark humour like Brookmyre. It’s a good mystery, don’t misunderstand me, but I can think of others who deserve a place on the list more.

Curious, I checked out Dibdin online and apparently he was known for revealing the corrupt underside of modern Italy and for Zen being an anti-hero. Perhaps that was fresh and new in 1990 when “Vendetta” was first published and explains his inclusion. Either way, “Vendetta” is a good read, perfect if you’re packing for an Italian holiday.

(read June 2012)

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“And to think that I saw it on Mulberry Street” by Dr. Seuss

Firstly, in case you don’t know, the author’s real name was Theodor Seuss Geisel. Quite a mouthful.

Secondly, yes, I read this for the first time as an adult. That probably gives me an odd perspective in this review, but bear with me. And yes, my parents did buy me books as a child and I belonged to a library, but the Dr. Seuss books just weren’t well known in Ireland in the 1970s.

At a mere 27 pages, this is one of the shortest books on the 501 List and is perfect for children being read to, or those starting to read by themselves. My two, aged 6 and 8 currently, love it, although “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and “Green Eggs and Ham” beat it to the top spot on their personal Dr. Seuss list.

Illustrated brilliantly by the author, the story describes how a young boy embellishes the things seen on his walk home into an amazing, outlandish tale. I love how the child’s imagination is limitless and it reminds me of writing fiction myself. But I found the ending sad, but realistic, when the boy lacks the confidence to tell his strictly factual father the story.

Now for some background to the book, with thanks to a review of Donald E. Pease’s biography of the author. “And to think that I saw it on Mulberry Street” was Seuss’s first published story, in 1937. It certainly hasn’t dated in the interim. Thankfully he was banned, due to a prank, from editing his college’s humour magazine. He obeyed this by submitting cartoons only and building his artistic talent.

As an adult he wanted to wanted influence the politics and society of the cold war environment and chose to do so via zany children’s literature because children have open minds. He used implausible facts to create a plausible world (from a child’s perspective) and called this “logical insanity”.

Whatever it was, and whatever the motive, it worked. His books delight millions and definitely deserve a place on the 501 list.

(read Summer 2011)

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“I am Legend” by Richard Matheson

As someone who doesn’t read a lot of sci-fi or fantasy, I had never heard of Richard Matheson before tackling “I am Legend” for the 501 Books list. So I was impressed to find Stephen King quoted on the back cover as saying that Matheson was a major influence on his writing.

The more sci-fi I read for this list, the more I realise that there were a handful of writers in the 1950s who created the genre as we  know it today, and sure enough this book, first published in 1954, is amongst that list. You could assume that it would feel dated given all the changes in technology since that time, but this is a classic vampire/bio-hazard tale and in fact it feels distinctly modern. I haven’t seen the 2007 film based on the novel starring Will Smith, but I’ve been told it’s only loosely based on the book.

At a mere 178 pages long, the story, told with very few characters and a limited setting, paints a scary portrait of life for the hero Robert Neville. He’s the last man on Earth thanks to a plague which has turned everybody else into a vampire. His isolation and grief (his wife and daughter succumbed to the disease) are brilliantly protrayed and far from being dismal to read he has a strong sense of humour holding him together. I enjoyed when he, near hysterics, called for a policeman when he parked his car illegally in the deserted city where he lives.

He lives in the daytime only, patrolling in search of the undead to kill them. At night he’s the prey, so he barricades himself in his home and tries to ignore them and avoid insanity, drunkeness, and despair. As Matheson writes; “imprisoned on an island of night surrounded by oceans of death”.

When his solitary existance and quest for an explanation or cure for the disease is interrupted by first a dog and then a woman, Neville has to face tougher challenges.

The writing is excellent, the plotline intriquing and compelling. I’d recommend this book for any sci-fi or fantasy fan as well as anyone who likes a thought-provoking read. I really enjoyed it and am putting it in my Best of The Books category.

(read April 2012)

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“The Man who was Thursday” by G.K. Chesterton

First published in 1908, I should mention this novel’s subtitle before starting my review – the book is more fully titled as “The Man who was Thursday – a Nightmare”. That word nightmare is vital to understanding the story.

At just over 200 pages, the nightmare is brief and Chesterton keeps a fast pace throughout this thriller-style novel. He opens with a scene in a leafy London suburb where a man called Syme at a garden/house party meets a man called Lucian Gregory who likes to pose as an anarchic poet. After the party ends, Syme finds himself entangled with Gregory. They argue verbally and Gregory decides to show Syme that he is a real anarchist by bringing him to a secret meeting where his group is about to elect their member on the ruling council.

The council, led by a mysterious figure called Sunday, is composed of seven anarchists, each named for a day of the week. Syme, a undercover philosophical policeman recruited by an unseen superior, engineers the meeting to elect him as their member – the man called Thursday. From that point onwards Syme rushes all over Europe trying to defeat the anarchists’ plots while avoiding discovery by Sunday, and in the process finding plot twists galore.

Like any nightmare, the truth is a loose concept and shadows may contain friends or foes. Our dreams rarely follow a logical path but Chesterton manages to weave a reasonable semblance of a story with believeable characters despite their sometimes stereotypical appearances. Considering the book is now over a hundred years old, the basic premise about how to defeat terrorism is still remarkably topical and the experimental method of writing the story feels fresh.

I think to enjoy this book you have to suspend your disbelief and go along for the ride, putting down the more outlandish co-incidences to how the human mind operates during a nightmare. Do that and it may surprise you.

(read March 2012)

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“Boy” by Roald Dahl

All authors were once children, none more so than authors of books for children. They have that magical ability to remember the joys and sorrows of youth. Roald Dahl had that gift by the bucketload and it led to truly wonderful books like “The BFG”, “Fanastic Mr. Fox”, and many others.

I’m lucky, I think, because I never read his books as a child – somehow I missed out on Dahl. However a friend recently got me the box-set of his entire works for me to read to my own children and we’re loving them together. I was delighted to find the two volumes of Dahl’s autobiography in the set – “Boy” (which is on the 501 Books List) and “Going Solo” (which isn’t).

I enjoy autobiographies anyhow, but I particularly relished “Boy” because Dahl sets out to recount only the stories from his childhood which he can still see vividly in his memory as a middle-aged author. The result is a vibrant tale of mischief, school-days, and strange characters he encountered. Having read all his kids’ books recently it was easy to spot a few things which turn up later in his fiction. There’s his addiction to sweet-shops, some very tall people (including himself), and a plot involving mice. In the later volume, “Going Solo”, which covers his years working for Shell Oil in Africa and then flying for the RAF in World War II, there’s an amazing description of him walking amongst giraffes and talking to them which makes me suspect I know the original of the Giraffe in “The Giraffe, the Pelly, and Me”.

But for “Boy” he mines his life from age zero to twenty. There are stories of his family’s annual trip to the remote islands of Norway, details of the tuck box system, enthusings about his lifelong photographic hobby, and wince-inducing descriptions of the canings he endured for misbehaviour in school. Any fan of his writing will enjoy this short, and fun life-story, but I think autobiography buffs will enjoy it too because of the light hand he uses in picking out the highlights. There’s a total lack of boring dates and facts, the photos are all interesting, and the details included are well-chosen.

“Boy” could be read by junior fans of his fiction, but I’d suggest keeping “Going Solo” for the ten-plus age range as some of the stories there are more brutal in nature.

In case you’re wondering, Boy is what he signed himself in his letters home from boarding school.

(read March 2012)

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