Sunday, September 7, 2008

Book Reviews

A bumper crop, 'cos I forgot that I was doing this! Luckily for you, the long gap between finishing the books and writing these reviews means that they will all be relatively brief.

First up is Water For Elephants, by Sara Gruen. I borrowed this one from Mermaid and, while I enjoyed it, I unexpectedly didn't love it. I'm not sure why; it was really well written and had all the right elements (I even wanted to be a zoo vet when I was younger, so you'd think that all those exotic animals would have done it for me), but somehow the whole seemed less than the sum of the parts. I'd read it again and would no doubt enjoy it, but I never got that feeling that I get towards the end of a really good book. The one where I'm racing towards the end because I want to know what happens, but simultaneously trying to hold back because once I find out what happens, the story will be over...

The next book did give me that feeling. A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, by Marina Lewycka, is one of the best books I've read this year. Actually, now I think about it, it's the best book of the year so far (although I have Kate Atkinson's new novel - coming out next week!!11!OMG!!111!!! - on order, so that may change soon). Short History is a straightforward family drama, with vivid characters and lots of humour. As an expat Brit I really enjoyed the immigrant's perspective of the UK, but it's the characters and the dialogue that drive this book forwards.

The book is also a source of some extremely creative insults, with a very distinctive style and syntax that I suspect may be a feature of the Ukrainian language (ScienceGirl, help me out here!). How can you not love a book that includes the phrases "you morsel of old gristle that dog chewed dog spat out", "you useless shrivel-brain shrivel-penis donkey. You dried shrivelled relic of ancient goat turd", and "leave this no-good meanie oralsex maniac husband. Come. We go shopping"?

From the best book of the year, to the worst. Do not, under any circumstances, read Next, by Michael Crichton. It's a real shame that the book was such a waste of space, because the subject matter is not only fascinating but also relevant to parts of my job. The various threads of the book deal with different aspects of the law as it relates to the biotech industry: the ownership of research and research materials; the patenting of genes and cells; ethical failings in clinical trials; unregulated genetic engineering; all that good stuff. The problem is the book's structure. Crichton knows how to tell a good story - I loved the two Jurassic Park books, I was completely riveted - but sadly seems to have forgotten. Each new chapter - and I'm talking literally every new chapter until well over halfway into the book - introduced a new storyline with new characters. And why, please, is it necessary to introduce each new character with "John Smith was 36" or whatever? I DON'T CARE how fucking OLD everyone is. But there it was, every time. Whatever happened to "show, don't tell"?!

Anyway. I love books and films that have multiple storylines that all turn out to be interconnected. (Kate Atkinson does this incredibly well, and I'm hoping that someone will turn her books into movies - with the right cast and director they would blow Magnolia (which I also loved) out of the water). And that's what I assumed was happening in this book. But, no joy. A few of the stories did end up connecting, but most didn't. They were just random snippets on a common theme. With terrible writing and no sense of pacing; Dan Brown does biotech. And there is no worse condemnation than that.

I will eventually get around to writing my review of an awesome non fiction book that I read months ago and that I think a lot of you would enjoy. But at the moment I'm focusing on finally finishing the long, long slog through another bad book, although it has much more merit than Next. I have lots of books waiting for me: two more on loan from Mermaid, another one on loan from a colleague, Henry Gee's new novel (I'm excited, I've never read anything by someone I "know" before), Kate Atkinson's new one arriving soon... lots of reading and book reviews to come!


  1. ahh.. I didn't like NEXT either.

    I happened to buy like three Chricton books at the same time whereas one I liked. The other two, not so much.

    I think it is lacking in story after a while... ;)

    Can I recommend "Margret Atwood; Alias Grace". Not a scientific book but an interesting one... and where you don't ness. like the main character.

  2. Thanks for the recommendation, I will look out for it!

  3. Oh yes indeedy! I think you'll like it!

  4. Cath, your intuition is right: much of the dialogue is written in a manner it would proceed in Ukrainian language. Witty insults are a must in a fight! Even without a fight, one has to appreciate names like "crap car," and "toshiba apples" :)

    Glad you enjoyed the book; I have a second one by the same author that I hope to start reading soon.

  5. Ooh, please let me know if you like the second book! I really liked the style of this one and I would definitely be interested in reading more by the same author. The insults are very distinctive (I'd forgotten about crapcar); maybe I'll try to come up with some of my own!


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