29 June 2007

I Must Be Mad . . .

... to take on another challenge. But I’ve just discovered that Lesley at A Life in Books is hosting

And so of course I hopped straight out of my chair to rummage through my TBR box in search of anything that might qualify. I mean, I’m going to read them anyway, right? So I might as well read them as part of a challenge ... (how good am I at justification?). And the winners are:

My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin - Australia
1876 by Gore Vidal - 19th-century America (overlap with TBR Challenge)
The Last King of Scotland by Giles Foden - Uganda
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera - Czechoslovakia
Stargazing: Memoirsof a Yong Lighthouse Keeper by Peter Hill - a lighthouse somewhere
The Bafut Beagles by Gerald Durrell - Cameroon
Possibly to be interchanged with:
The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende - Chile
The Goldsmith’s Wife by Jean Plaidy - 12th-century England
And anything I’ve forgotten or might stumble across later.
It is only one book a month.

Book Review: The Looking-Glass Wars by Frank Beddor

The Looking-Glass Wars Turns out Lewis Carroll got it hopelessly wrong. Far from being a world of largely innocuous marvels, Wonderland is in fact a realm filled with deadly intrigue, something that Alice Liddell knows all too well. For seven years she was Alyss Heart, daughter of Queen Genevieve and King Nolan, heir to the Wonderland throne, about to begin her training to become a warrior queen. Until her evil Aunt Redd storms the palace accompanied by her card soldiers and her most feared assassin - The Cat - after ambushing the king on his return from Outerwildebeastia. Alyss escapes thanks to her mother’s bodyguard, Hatter Madigan, who takes her to the Pool of Tears, a seemingly one-way exit from Wonderland. After they become separated Alyss survives on the London streets while Madigan searches for her among the hatters of the world. Adopted by the Liddells, Alyss’s tales of Wonderland are mocked and criticised, and her one listener transforms her homeland into a mere fairytale. Hurt, she abandons all thought of her old life and concentrates on becoming dutiful Alice.

Back in Wonderland, Queen Redd and her fellow practitioners of Black Imagination run a totalitarian state while the card soldiers track down the rebels. Led by General Doppelgänger - who can divide at will into Generals Doppel and Gänger - the Alyssians don’t believe that the lost princess will ever return, but fight on nonetheless. Among them is Alyss’s old friend Dodge Anders, who now feels nothing but the thrill of danger and lives only to take revenge for his father’s death: to rob The Cat of every last one of his remaining lives. When Redd discovers that her assassin lied to save his lives, and that Alyss escaped, she sends a team through the Pool to kill her. Rescued by Madigan, Alyss makes an abrupt entrance into a world she has long convinced herself she’d invented. Accustomed to the ways of our world, she faces a steep learning curve if she is to unlock the power of her imagination and find her way through the Looking Glass Maze, the final challenge awaiting those who would be the true queen of Wonderland.

I love new takes on old tales, and this one made me really wish I’d read Jabberwocky and Through the Looking-Glass as well as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the better to appreciate the re-imagining. Though there was plenty to spot as it was, including caterpillars as oracles and a toweringly tall albino tutor named Bibwit Harte (an anagram, of course, of ‘white rabbit’). The story pulled me right in and I had no trouble picturing Wonderland as a somewhat bloodthirsty place. And I loved that the characters used Wonderland similes, like when Dodge escaped from some of Redd’s robots by jumping into the Crystal Continuum via a fragment of mirror no larger than a jabberwock’s toe. I thought at first that Dodge was a weird name, but there was good reason; Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) took it as a reference to himself and proof that Wonderland was all in Alice’s head.

This book was more about inventiveness and action than character, but once I was happily ensconced in the new Wonderland I was too enthralled to care. Apparently it will be the start of a series and I’ll definitely be reading the rest; to see what other aspects of Carroll’s tales can get turned on their heads and to find out what happens next. There was - thankfully - no too-obvious set-up for the next book at the end of this one, but I do have a bunch of questions. Did or did not Redd and The Cat end up in a position to cause more trouble? How will Alyss deal with the scheming suit families (Clubs, Diamonds, and Spades) and especially Jack of Diamonds, Wonderland’s intended future king and possessor of the biggest backside in the queendom? Why does Hatter Madigan’s young protégé Homburg Molly handle weaponry like a full member of the Millinery when she’s only a half-breed? Will Alyss marry Dodge? (I do hope so.) And just what are those caterpillars smoking?

Rating: A-

28 June 2007

Booking Through Thursday: Desperation

Today’s question is suggested by Carrie.

What’s the most desperate thing you’ve read because it was the only available reading material?

If it was longer than a cereal box or an advertisement, did it turn out to be worth your while?

This is a tough one. I’ll read pretty much anything that happens to be in my line of sight, from graffiti to notes left on whiteboards from previous classes. But as for being desperate enough to seek out anything to read ... I don’t think it’s ever happened. I haven’t let it. I was always the weird kid who brought books on school trips (and still have awful memories of a Year 6 excursion on which we weren’t allowed to take ANYTHING and I got busted by the teacher with an L.M. Montgomery tucked in my jacket). From Year 11 onward I always carried a book in my bag, and now I never leave home without one if I’m going any further than the local shops. If I think I might finish my current read, I take a spare. On my one overseas holiday I packed a whole pile of books, and if I hadn’t dozed and talked through most of it could probably have read all the way Canberra-Sydney-Melbourne-Bangkok-Phnom Penh and still had volumes to spare. (In case you can’t tell, I’m well into the habit of overestimating the amount of reading material I’ll need.) The one time I’ve been caught short was when rather than take a spare I planned on borrowing more supplies, only to discover that borrowing at Central City library had been frozen as they began relocating to Brisbane Square. Luckily for me, there was a book sale in the Mall - I was saved!

27 June 2007

Book Review: The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Banned Book Challenge #3

The Master and Margarita It begins in a Moscow park where the poet Ivan and the editor Berlioz go to talk. There they meet a strange foreigner who tells them a tale of Pontius Pilate and makes some predictions which sound absurd but swiftly come true in a gruesome manner, leaving Berlioz dead and Ivan locked up in a lunatic asylum. Soon the foreigner - Woland - and his retinue move in on the Variety Theatre, where they stage a black magic spectacular which creates an uproar all over town. As the theatre falls into chaos and the asylum’s rooms fill, Ivan meets a fellow resident who calls himself the Master, an author whose unpublished novel was the source of Woland’s story - and who has realised just who Woland is.

Outside the asylum walls, the Master’s lover Margarita is willing to do anything to secure his return - even if that means accepting the offer made to her by the fanged Azazello. She can have both the Master and his manuscript - to which she was as much devoted as to him - if she will spend one night as Satan’s hostess at his grand ball. Endure the ordeal without flinching, and they will both be free.

I have to confess that for a long time this book left me utterly confused. The totally bizarre antics of a totally bizarre troupe of ... whatever they were ... interspersed with scenes featuring what I quickly took to be a quite different version of Pilate and his actions from that of the Bible; what was the point of any of it? And why would it have been banned? Finally I got frustrated enough to Google it, and discovered that it was written in the time of Stalin, when people could indeed be locked up at a moment’s notice, or disappeared to Siberia just as unceremoniously as poor Styopa found himself transported to Yalta. And so I had my very belated Eureka! moment, and a lot of it did begin to make sense, including why Stalin wouldn’t have been impressed. People being controlled by puppets, those who object being swiftly removed, and only the unquestioningly obedient coming through unscathed; not a very flattering portrait of post-revolution Russia. But I still preferred the comparative sanity of the excerpts from the Master’s novel, which were neatly woven into the main plot and provided a respite from the chaos of witches and vampires and talking cats and all the rest. One review I found on the net described the style as grotesque, and it’s an apt description; it reminded me of Edgar Allen Poe, although that could just have been because the orchestra of apes made me think of The Murders in the Rue Morgue. There was that same nightmarish quality, too, only more so, which no doubt befits the regime it was written to satirise but which made it an uncomfortable read. Being creeped out via ghost stories I can take; being freaked out ... not so much.

Rating: C+

Book Review: Plum Lovin' by Janet Evanovich

Plum Lovin’ Valentine’s Day is almost here, and Stephanie Plum’s life becomes even more complicated with the arrival of mystery man Diesel, who might just be possessed of certain abilities like reading thoughts and locating people by a kind of mental GPS - or he could just be a whack job; Stephanie hasn’t decided. What is certain is that he knows the whereabouts of her cousin Vinnie’s sole bail jumper Annie Hart, a matchmaker charged with armed robbery and assault. Stephanie needs the money that could come with bringing Annie in. Diesel needs to keep her safe from a fellow ‘Unmentionable’ by the name of Beaner, whose special power is ... well, unmentionable. He tells her that Annie will hand herself over to Stephanie if Stephanie does her a favour: takes on five of her most challenging clients and matches them up by Valentine’s Day.

Charlene has a house full of kids and pets and insists she doesn’t want a man. Gary the vet is pining for an ex-girlfriend who’s moved on to someone richer. Larry is a painfully shy butcher who spends his days gazing wistfully at a girl in the coffee shop across the road. Then there’s Janeane the thirty-five-year-old virgin. And last of all ... Albert Kloughn, Stephanie’s would-be brother-in-law, who loves the thought of being married but keels over at the thought of actually getting married. She agrees and soon discovers that matchmaking - with some help from Lula and Grandma - is actually the easy part. The difficulty arises when Annie disappears, Beaner can’t be found, and it becomes apparent that there is more to the armed robbery charges than meets the eye. If all this is to be sorted out in time, it will take a few Unmentionable skills - and the kind of wedding that only the Plums could produce.

Fortunately the train on which I began reading this was travelling in the middle of the day and therefore nearly empty; I could giggle unnoticed down the back of the carriage. The concept of superheroes with odd talents (and Beaner’s was very unconventional) watching over the citizenry might sound ridiculous, but Stephanie inhabits such a screwball world that suspension of disbelief is automatic and somehow a few Unmentionables seem to fit right in. And there was plenty of room for them, too, as many of the regular characters put in what were pretty much token appearances ... although this did at least keep a very short novel from becoming crowded. But if characters were absent, the humour and chaos were still present. You probably don’t need to have read Diesel’s previous appearance in Visions of Sugar Plums - there was a recap of that incident - but because it features part of the continuing story of Valerie and Albert it would need to be read in its place in the numbered series (which I believe is between Twelve and Thirteen).

Rating: B-

26 June 2007


While catching up on my online reading last night I stumbled across this meme at In the Spring it is the Dawn. Take the first letter of your name and use it as the first letter of an answer for each of the following categories. Like Tanabata, I used the initial of my screen name, as using my real initial made it impossible to fill all categories ... or even most of them.

1. Famous singer/band: .................... Crowded House
2. 4 letter word: ............................... Cold!
3. Street name: ................................ Coulter Drive (in Canberra)
4. Color: .......................................... Cerulean
5. Gifts/presents: ............................. Chocolate :-)
6. Vehicle: ....................................... Commodore
7. Things in a souvenir shop: ............ Coffee mugs
8. Boy name: .................................... Charlie
9. Girl name: .................................... Christabel
10. Movie title: ................................ The Castle (Australian classic)
11. Drink: .......................................... Champagne
12. Occupation: ................................ Chemist
13. Flower: ....................................... Carnation
14. Celebrity: ................................... Cindy Crawford
15. Magazine: ................................... Cosmopolitan
16. U.S. city: ..................................... Carson City, Nevada (see what you can learn watching CSI?)
17. Pro sports team: ......................... Crows (Adelaide AFL team)
18. Fruit/vegetable: ......................... Capsicum
19. Reason late for work: .................. Car crash blocking a level crossing (three Cs for the price of one)
20. Something you throw away: ....... Cartons
21. Things you shout: ...................... “Come on, hurry up!”
22. Cartoon character: .................... [Wile E.] Coyote
Okay, I cheated just a little on the last one. Anyone who wants to try this themselves ... feel free.

25 June 2007

Let the Catch-Up Begin!

Finally my exams are over - and yes, I went through all the question papers with my red pen! - and, now that I’ve finished all the newspapers and associated puzzles that went uncompleted, I can get back to reading and reviewing. I’ve got a ton of both; five days left in the month and I still have to read a book each for the Banned Book, Non-Fiction 5, and TBR Challenges. I’m two reviews in arrears. Plus I have to finish Persuasion. And my library books (only three this time). My TBR box is still overflowing. And I have scarcely so much as looked at a blog in about two weeks. There’s enough to keep me going all holidays and then some, and that’s without all the non-book things on my to do list.

So it’s perhaps fortunate that the weather forecast for the next few days is miserable (by Brisbane standards, at least, which is still nearly double the temperature of my hometown). I actually sort of miss Canberra’s freezing winters; at least when the temperature’s in single figures there’s no hesitation over whether or not to put the heater on. When it’s mid-to-high teens you feel a little guilty about running up the power bill, meaning that ever since winter arrived my mother and I have taken to wearing woolly jumpers and scarves indoors. But this does create a perfect excuse to snuggle under my newly-completed afghan with a good book (or a laptop). It also creates the worrying thought that I might actually be acclimatising to the subtropics, and if I stay here much longer I’ll start thinking it’s cooling down whenever it drops below 25.

It occurs to me that the simple solution to all this would be to a. buy fewer books, and b. join fewer challenges. But where would be the fun in that?

21 June 2007

Booking Through Thursday: School Days

School out for summer? I wish! I’m counting the days until my exams are over and I can begin hibernating. (Yes, it does get cold in Brisbane!)

1. Do you have any old school books? Did you keep yours from college? Old textbooks from garage sales? Old workbooks from classes gone by?

2. How about your old notes, exams, papers? Do you save them? Or have they long since gone to the great Locker-in-the-sky?

1. Not wholly applicable, since I’m still at university and so of course have textbooks lying around. I do have some that I no longer need, chemistry and statistics from first year; I’ve only kept them because I have no idea what to do with them, as they’re too out-of-date to trade at the campus UBS. I’ve kept a few lab class manuals too, in case I ever need to refresh my memory as to some point of technique.

2. Old notes: some, if I think I might ever refer to them again. Otherwise it’s straight into the recycling at the end of semester. Exams: confiscated on completion never to be seen again. Papers: Uh ... no. Though now that I think of it, I sort of wish I still had that 93% one from Genetic Engineering to admire. What I do have is a folder containing every photocopy distributed during my two years of high school psychology, plus a bunch of stuff from English: handouts from the Myths and Legends unit I did in Year 12, and everything from Creative Writing in Year 11. Who knows? Maybe one day I’ll actually get around to using some of those good ideas.

15 June 2007

Book Review: The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

New Year’s Reading Resolution #15

The Alchemist> In Andalusia, a shepherd dreams of a hidden treasure to be found at the Pyramids. Shortly thereafter he meets an old man claiming to be a king, who encourages the boy to head to Egypt in pursuit of his calling - his Personal Legend. He also tells him of the value of omens, and gives him two stones, one black for yes, one white for no, of which to ask questions. Inspired, the boy sells his sheep and crosses the sea to Tangiers, where a reversal of fortune sees him working in a crystal shop instead of crossing the desert. Finally he saves enough money to leave, and joins a caravan where he meets an Englishman obsessed with alchemy. He is crossing the desert in search of a 200-year-old alchemist in the hope of gaining the knowledge he has failed to acquire from books. The Englishman’s determined pursuit of his Personal Legend further inspires the boy to follow his, as does the alchemist himself when the boy meets him at a desert oasis. As close as he is to his goal, there are dangers still ahead, as well as the greatest temptation to give up and return to being a shepherd: a girl by the name of Fatima. And even when the boy has reached the Pyramids and seen into the Soul of the World, there is one last twist of fate in store to keep him travelling.

This story - or more accurately, fable - has a timeless feel to it that was both fitting and frustrating. The former because it was eminently suitable for a timeless message, the latter because I could not work out what sort of setting I should be visualising - modern? vintage? At first, when it was just a wandering shepherd and no mention of any mod cons, I thought it was the nineteenth century; a kind of Andalusian version of Far from the Madding Crowd. Then the shepherd began reading a book with an unpronounceable title, characters with unpronounceable names, and an opening scene featuring a funeral in the snow. My unshakeable first thought was Dr Zhivago, which put the date some 75-100 years later than I had initially imagined, and this was later confirmed in my mind by someone’s memories of German soldiers in Tangiers.

But quibbles over temporal setting aren’t really relevant with a book that is all about the message: that everyone has a calling, a Personal Legend; and when they discover what this is, and set out to achieve it, the whole universe conspires to help them and provides plenty of helpful omens to show them the way. Millions love it, but I only got as far as page 22 before thinking ‘What a load of crap’. And by page 45, I was starting to see the morass of contradictions at the heart of the tale. The old king, Melchizedek, (a Biblical name, right?) criticises the boy’s book for perpetuating the lie that one can lose control of one’s life to fate; yet the same king advocates ceding control to fate by following omens and the answers provided by the stones. Later, at the oasis, a camel driver relates how he asked a seer to tell him the future that he might change it, to which the seer replied that if it could be changed it wouldn’t be in his future, now would it? In other words, it doesn’t matter whether you find your Legend or not, or whether you go after it, because all your decisions and their outcomes are already written. So why bother trying? - and yet the message of the book is that you should try. As well as making the book a chore to read, it made it impossible to suspend disbelief later when the boy began chatting to his heart, the desert, the wind, the sun ... or when the alchemist started talking of the Personal Legends of inanimate objects and the evolution of gold. All I could think about was high school chemistry and how diametrically opposed this nonsense was to sound science.

It does have a few redeeming features: when it’s not preaching it’s an easy and even mildly interesting read. If inspiration is your thing, you’ll love it. But if like me you’re a cynic who’s realised that the universe is as likely to kick you in the guts as not, give this piece of simplistic wishful thinking a miss.

Rating: D+

14 June 2007

Booking Through Thursday: Dessert First

1. Do you cheat and peek ahead at the end of your books? Or do you resolutely read in sequence, as the author intended?
2. And, if you don’t peek, do you ever feel tempted?

1. Oh dear ... I have to admit that I do - sometimes. (Probably more often than I should!) If it’s a particularly dull book I’ll read the last few pages so that if I give up out of frustration, at least I’ll know how it ends. But usually I only look at the very last page; to assure myself of a happy ending, or out of impatience or idle curiosity. I try to avoid it when reading mysteries, just in case; the villain is generally revealed before then, but there could be something at the end to give it away - or at least to rule some people out! And I never, ever peek at the end of convoluted thrillers, because I don’t want any last-minute twists to be revealed ahead of time (see, I do have some standards!).

It is a habit I’d like to break, since it does feel a lot like cheating - okay, it is cheating. No luck so far, though. Maybe I should enjoy my vice while I still have it :-)

2. See above.

07 June 2007

Booking Through Thursday: Encore

Almost everyone can name at least one author that you would love just ONE more book from. Either because they’re dead, not being published any more, not writing more, not producing new work for whatever reason ... or they’ve aged and aren’t writing to their old standards any more ... For whatever reason, there just hasn’t been anything new (or worth reading) of theirs and isn’t likely to be.

If you could have just ONE more book from an author you love ... a book that would be as good any of their best (while we’re dreaming) ... something that would round out a series, or finish their last work, or just be something NEW ... Who would the author be, and why? Jane Austen? Shakespeare? Laurie Colwin? Kurt Vonnegut?

Only one? Only one? Let’s see ... I’d love it if Jane Austen had finished Sanditon. Or The Watsons. A new Shakespeare comedy would be nice ... or something else by Emily Brontë (even if it wasn’t as good as Wuthering Heights, it would still be great). I’d be thrilled to see another ghost story by Henry James (love The Turn of the Screw), or another mystery by Wilkie Collins. Or another Thackeray. Or perhaps another creepy tale from Gaston Leroux to equal The Phantom of the Opera. Hmm ... a lot of classics!

On the somewhat more contemporary front: Georgette Heyer (the nearest thing to Jane Austen since Jane Austen and guaranteed to make me smile) and the brilliant absurdity of Douglas Adams. And most likely several others that I will only think of after I’ve switched the computer off!

Book Review: Notes From a Small Island by Bill Bryson

Non-Fiction 5 Challenge #1

Notes From a Small Island After some two decades in England, Bill Bryson decided to take his family on an extended sojourn in his native America. Before departing, he sets off on a farewell tour, starting with a re-creation of his original arrival off the Dover ferry and zigzagging across England, Wales, and Scotland - almost all by public transport or his own two feet. The result is a delightful picture of England past and present: the good, the bad, the maddening, and the adorable. From the cheap glitz of Blackpool to sleepy Scottish hamlets, from talkative train nuts to an example of why one should never get drunk in an establishment halfway up a steep hill, this book is consistently entertaining and great fun to read.

I took it with me to read on the train, which was possibly not the brightest idea I’ve ever had. I frequently found myself trying to smother my laughter lest my fellow commuters start staring. It’s the funniest book I’ve read in ages and if you like to read in public, consider yourself warned. From local quirks to the less appealing aspects of the towns on his route to Bryson himself, there’s much to laugh at and even more to like. What makes it so charming is that shining through even the snarkiest criticism is a genuine love of the country and its people ... even their madder traits, like thinking that struggling up a hill in pea-soup fog on a cold autumn day is fun. I have long been enamoured of British history and would love to see the place; and even more so now. And when I do I’ll be packing this along with the guidebook.

I may not, however, follow the book’s example of travelling along the south coast by foot. That part of the book amazed me; not just that anyone would attempt such a thing, but that the villages are sufficiently small and close together for it to be possible. I sat there calculating: ‘Four miles to the next town? But that’s only the length of a few suburbs!’ (Guess who’s spent all her life in the big city?) But what really floored me was the descriptions of the treatment of historical buildings - or rather, the litany of architectural travesty. Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century buildings with their ground floors ripped out and replaced with modern shopfronts. Victorian factories vandalised and abandoned. Georgian terraces dwarfed by twentieth-century concrete monoliths. Mediaeval buildings demolished to make way for shopping malls. It’s enough to make you want to chain yourself to an endangered flying buttress. I guess if you grow up in a country with a plethora of ancient structures, it could seem like there’s plenty to spare. But to outsiders from much newer countries, even a single mediaeval church is an exotic treasure; and it baffles and saddens me that, short of it posing some kind of hazard, any reason could be sufficient to destroy anything so old.

The other day after finishing this book I walked from my uni through the CBD to Central Station, and I paid particular attention to the architecture, arriving at the following conclusions:

1. The Queen Street Mall is actually quite attractive if you keep your gaze above the ground floor.
2. The Brisbane Arcade is one of the jewels of the city.
3. The persons responsible for Brisbane Square, Casino Towers, Macfarlane House, Capital Hill, and the ‘artwork’ in front of Queens Plaza - just to name a few - ought never to have been allowed within 100m of a drawing board.
And then on the train home I realised that most of the stations they’re revamping are being revamped in exactly the same way. Seats, buildings, overhead walkways - all identical. Britain isn’t the only place committing crimes against architecture.

The one problem I had with this book was the number of references to Brits I’ve never heard of. But I’d learnt from my experience with Bridget Jones, and used a slip of paper for a bookmark on which to jot down names to be Googled later. Ingenuity at work.

Rating: A

04 June 2007

An Answer, A Game, and a (Semi) Hiatus is Announced

I stopped by the library on my way home today, to return Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (among others). I had wondered whether something of that size would fit into the return slot, and it did - with barely half a centimetre to spare. I made a mental note to think twice should the urge ever strike to borrow one of those really large-size non-fiction books.

One thing I have been amusing myself with lately is the Blogroll Game over at The Hidden Side of a Leaf. So many blogs to explore, and free books up for grabs! It’s a good excuse for blog-surfing, and kudos to Dewey - and her inspiration Michele - for creating it.

The Game will have to be put on hold for a while, as will most everything else around here. It’s one of my two least-favourite times of year: end-of-semester exams. (One down, three to go...) I will keep reading ... some ... but reviews could be another matter. There’ll be a rush in the next few days while I clear the backlog of reading and writing; but after that, to quote Queensland Rail, some delays can be expected. Things won’t return to normal until after the 23rd. Yes, that’s right: my last exam is on a Saturday. At 8.30am!. And it’s the third semester in a row that’s happened to me.

Wish me luck, everyone!

Book Review: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

New Year’s Reading Resolution #14

Fahrenheit 451 Somewhere in the perhaps-not-too-distant future, all buildings have been fireproofed and the job of the fireman has changed. Instead of putting fires out, he starts them: igniting books at 451o Fahrenheit and destroying both them and the buildings that house them. The renegades who harbour such dangerous items are carted off; or, if they resist, hunted down by the local fire department’s Mechanical Hound, a fearsome beast with unmatched tracking abilities and a lethal injection in its snout.

Guy Montag is a fireman, like his ancestors before. For ten years he has gone out every night to incinerate illicit stores of literature. One night, walking home, he meets Clarisse McClellan, a girl from a family of eccentrics who do such things as walk the streets for no reason, taste the rain, and tell tales of a time when books were treasured and a fireman’s job was the reverse of what it has become. He enjoys talking to someone so different from his wife Millie, who cocoons herself in technology and is chattered at by her televisual ‘family’ all day and the voices in her earplug radios all night. But he never tells her his deepest secrets: that he once met a man named Faber, who spoke to him of books, and who he should have reported but didn’t; and of what he keeps inside the ventilation duct in his hall. Clarisse’s questions make Guy ask questions of his own, and he tracks down Faber, who tell him of a world beyond the city, where tramps roam the highways, known both by their own names and those of the authors whose works they carry inside their heads. Together they hatch a plan, but before they can carry it out an act of betrayal brings the Mechanical Hound to Guy’s own door.

Given that it was written more than fifty years ago, this was a creepy read. As far as I could make out through Chief Beatty’s rambling, hyper-animated way of talking, books fell out of favour because so much of their contents had the potential to be construed as offensive by some minority group or other, and because of the dumbing-down of education. And lo and behold, now political correctness is the order of the day and recently a local academic suggested - in perfect seriousness - that high schoolers who can’t spell to save their lives should still be given credit for ‘digital literacy’ (i.e. the ability to mangle decent English in text messages and emails). Fortunately that idea wasn’t well received, so there’s hope yet. And I hope the resemblance to Bradbury’s fictional world goes no further. As a dystopian vision of the future and a warning of what we might become, this was a standout read.

As a read, however, it was a little less remarkable. Douglas Adams and the Victorian vision of The Time Machine aside, science fiction tends not to agree with me. I’m yet to work out why; perhaps it’s the creep factor or perhaps it speaks to my inner technophobe (and yes, I realise how odd it is to apply that word to a blogger). So while I did enjoy reading it, there was always a vague unsettling feeling to it, which I think was exacerbated by the fact that Clarisse’s fate was never really determined and the war was never explained. Who was fighting who and why? Not that I suppose it really mattered; I just like to know these things.

But in spite of that, this is still a wonderful book.

Rating: B+

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Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776