Lord of the Rings: The a Fellowship of the Ring – J.R.R. Tolkien 

I know, I know. It is a miracle that I have got to the ripe old age of 21 without having read the LOTR trilogy. A poor effort on my part. I have however, seen all of the films – in a gruelling 10+hour marathon on a hungover Saturday. To be honest this has not ruined the first book for me much, as I cannot really remember what happened when anyway. 

Before I continue, I must say this: in the film it is a big deal when Gandalf is all like ‘YOU SHALL NOT PASS!!!’ To the point that I know people that will repeat the quote whenever possible. Yet, in the book, Gandalf actually says ‘you cannot pass’. What is the deal Hollywood? Why change it?

Most people know the basic story so I am not going to go into too much detail here. The bare bones of it are thus; Frodo Baggins (a hobbit, small person) inherits a magic ring from his uncle. Turns out it is the ultimate ring and evil guy Sauron wants it back so he can rule over Middle Earth. Instead, Frodo and co. decide to ride off on a quest to destroy it. Calamity ensues, as you can imagine. This is the first of three books, with the others describing more of what occurs – this is more of a preparatory book, as the ‘fellowship of the ring’ forms for their quest to destroy aforementioned ring.

I actually really enjoyed this book. I was not expecting to – having once attempted to read The Hobbit at the age of eight and not getting along with it. Also, I was warned of the sheer level of descriptive writing, and being someone who dislikes Dickens for this exact reason was not sure. But I pressed on, and found this book incredibly hard to put down. It is no quick read, being largely 500-odd pages of description, yet it is pretty easy to engage with the plight of the hobbits and  wish to discover more. 

It is admittedly a very fantasy heavy book, so if you enjoy that kind of thing I would urge you to press on and give it a read, but if not I am pretty sure you will hate it. People like what they like, no judgement!

Bridget Jones’ Diary: Helen Fielding 

This is one of those books I am always surprised that I have not read. It has been on the list for ages, especially when the film is on TV around Christmas (why is it a Christmas type film?!). Anyway, I came across Bridget Jones’ Diary in a thrift store in Philadelphia for the grand total of 29 cents so really had no excuse not to buy it.

It is a pretty famous story. Bridget, 30 something career-type-girl with a disasterous love life, aims to keep a diary to record her transformation into a goddess. She generally screws it up by being the embarrassing human being we all know we are, whilst somehow netting hunky bad boy Daniel Cleaver and charming but bumbling Mark Darcy. That is about as far as the similarities between the book and the film goes. There is so much more to Bridget’s life in the book – not to mention her crazy friends and the antics of her late-life-crisis mother. If you have only seen the film, you will find this very different.

Bridget Jones’ Diary is an incredibly quick and easy read. It is light and hilarious and an incredibly small book. A most excellent holiday essential, you could read this anywhere – whether it is by the beach or in Philadelphia City hall. 

The Mandibles: Lionel Shriver

I have been meaning to read this book for ages. It’s been on the must read list for so long, I just have not seen it anywhere. So when I found it in the Waterstones in Exeter I had to have it. Plus, you know, it would make interesting reading material for my trip to the U.S.

The Mandibles is a sort of economic disaster novel. It follows the Mandible family, a typical group waiting upon their inevitable inheritance windfall from the incumbent patriarch in the year 2029. In an echo of the 1929 Wall Street crash the dollar plummets. Queue inflation, unemployment, homelessness and starvation. The only survivors are the increasingly affluent Asian nations. Shriver imagines this reality by documenting the decline of the four generations of Mandibles from 2029 to 2047, as they attempt to survive by pulling together as a family. 

This is such an interesting book. The concept is terrifyingly plausible, which makes it all the more fascinating. In his construction of this future world (not even fifteen years away), Shriver has created a not unrealistic image – the developments in technology and stagnating employment markets are not far off our own. I think reading this book in New York, where a lot of it is set, really helped to create a certain ambiance. It was unsettling, but intriguing. The ending is a little twee, yet true to the rest the last sentence does maintain the inevitability of such financial collapse.

I would really recommend this book to anyone who wants something to stimulate the brain cells. I would tell everyone to read it, just because I would be interested in the debates that would develop, just from its concept. 

Dalton Trumbo: Bruce Cook

As I write this, I am in the process of watching this book’s 2015 film adaptation. It stars Bryan Cranston as the titular Trumbo and is actually pretty good. To be honest, I had never heard of Dalton Trumbo, nor did I know much about the Hollywood blacklist. I picked up this book mainly because it was 50 pence and sounded pretty interesting. I do love a good biography.

Dalton Trumbo is actually a pretty interesting book about a pretty interesting guy. Trumbo was one of the highest paid screenwriters of the 1940s-1960s. This book was researched and written within the last years of his life with his permission, as he was facing a lung cancer diagnosis. It starts with his difficult upbringing in Colorado, and the eight years he spent working in a bakery, supporting his family. In 1947 Trumbo was brought before the committee of unAmerican activities for his membership of the Communist Party, along with nine others – the Hollywood Ten. All were sentenced to jail time and blacklisted from ever working in Hollywood. Trumbo aimed to break this, continuing to write screenplays, sold under aliases or in the name of others. You may have heard of one, Roman holiday? The film that made Audrey Hepburn’s name. He in fact won an Academy Award for it whilst on the blacklist. His  role as writer was only reinstated fully in 2011. 

As a period I knew little about, and as a historian, I found this book intriguing. I would recommend this to anyone who wants to learn something new about such an interesting man. Despite the book being written without Trumbo having approved any of it, you can tell that author Bruce Cook is in awe of the man-he writes with such love. If anything, now I really want to read Trumbo’s key anti-war novel, Johnny Got His Gun

Under the Almond Tree: Laura McVeigh

I am going to be honest, this was a bit of a random pick. I saw it in a second hand shop, the title and blurb sounded intriguing, so I just went for it. When I began reading it became clear that this was the story of an Afghan girl, fleeing her country with her family by travelling the Orient Express end to end. I found this in itself quite intriguing. It is rare to find writers on Middle Eastern issues that are not of that origin. McVeigh is in fact an Irishwoman, yet qualifies her ability to write about such things in a writer’s note – referencing her upbringing during the Irish Troubles, her work with charity projects and a need for writers to draw upon that which they do not know, to write most vividly.

Under the Almond Tree is the story of Samar, a young girl running away from the religious persecution and war in Afghanistan with her family aboard the Orient Express. Through the writing of the hardships of her life so far, Samar is able to come to terms with everything she has lost; her life, stability, and her home in Kabul – a little yellow house with an almond tree in the courtyard. I will not say anything else here, for fear of ruining the story.

Firstly, I would like to put out a warning for any would-be readers. This is not a happy book. It is unfathomably sad in many ways. If you are to read it, perhaps do not intend it as a light summer read or something to take to a sunny beach somewhere. I think that would be wrong. I have not heard of McVeigh,or any of her books before this one, but I would place Under the Almond Tree up there with Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. Actually, I would probably say it was better. I cannot recommend this book enough, a very addictive read.

Arthur & George: Julian Barnes

I know it has been a while. This one took a little long to read. Not just a slow burner, life has been pretty hectic over the past month. I have now relocated (if temporarily) back to my mother’s house in Devon, university life now being well and truly over. Hopefully, the peace and quiet will allow me a little more time to read (I highly doubt it).

And now, to Arthur & George. This one jumped out at me in the Amnesty Bookshop (back in York), partially because I had a vague inkling of a television programme of the same name based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s life. I was partially right, the book is based upon actual fact, yet is mostly focused upon the case of George Edalji. I have read bits and pieces by Julian Barnes before, chiefly A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters as a sixth form set text. That was pretty bizarre in itself, with one chapter being told from the view point of a word-worm on Noah’s Ark. So to be honest, before starting this book I wa not very sure what to expect.

George Edalji was a Birmingham solicitor, convicted in 1903 for the mutilation of livestock in the ‘Great Wyrley Outrages’ and suspected of penning a number of malicious letters to himself and his father, an Indian Christian vicar in Great Wyrley. He was  given a seven year sentence, and let out after only serving three with no explanation. It was at this point that Edalji contacted Conan Doyle for help, his case already having attracted 10,000 signatures and being publicised by his family. Conan Doyle aims to prove Edalji innocent and gain reparations for his case. The narrative flips between the viewpoint of Arthur and George, detailing their lives in third person – George in present tense and Arthur in past. A vast amount of context is provided, with the two protagonists not meeting until at least halfway through the book, if not further.

I did quite enjoy this book. One thing I must say, is that I read the whole story without googling the case, to be honest I was not even sure that it had really occurred. This I feel really aided the reading experience, as I was unaware of what would happen. I found parts of Arthur & George difficult to read, I am rather uncomfortable reading about people being obviously set up or discriminated against. But that is just a personal fault. At times though, I did find the writing style slightly cumbersome, the book took a lot of time to get going in its desire to provide detail. It was no Charles Dickens (detail-wise), but this style prolonged my suffering somewhat, and at times even provoked me to skip ahead to conclusions before going back and reading the detail (something I rarely do).

The 100-Year-Old Man who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared: Jonas Jonasson

I have officially finished my degree folks! So I bring you new book reviews.

Today, I would like to discuss a recent read. The 100-Year-Old Man who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared was a suggestion from the same friend who recommended The Kite Runner to me, and she was spot on with that one so thought I would give this one a try. When I found it in my favourite second-hand book shop, an Amnesty shop round the corner from the York Minster, I knew it was meant to be. Apart from anything else, the blurb was very intriguing – detailing the escape of an old man and the ensuing highly criminal chase. What’s not to like?

The book follows Allan Karlsson, an elderly man on the brink of his 100th birthday. Instead of attending the landmark birthday party thrown by his care home, he instead decides to make his escape, going wherever the whim takes him. Having acquired a suitcase full of cash he embarks upon a trip across Sweden, finding a group of friends/accomplices en route. The book flits between Allan’s adventures in the present day, and back to incredible events throughout his past. It quickly emerges that Allan has been present for most of the world’s biggest historical political moments, despite his hatred of politics.

I loved this book. It was refreshing and witty and strangely pure. I really engaged with the concept – I think a little old man running away from his care home is comedy gold. This book was also particularly great for me, as I was reading it in between studying and in snippets before I went to bed – it was really good to drift in and out of due to the switching between ‘history’ and present. The alternate history sections were particularly hilarious, the conversations Karlsson has with Harry Truman, Lyndon B Johnson, Stalin, Chairman Mao and Kim Jong Il are brilliant works of fiction.

I would definitely recommend this book to anyone looking for a light but engaging read, perfect for casual reading around busy schedules!