Friday, 30 September 2011

What I've been reading

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The Island of Sheep
by John Buchan

"A long-forgotten promise made by Richard Hannay finds him honour-bound to resolve a violent vendetta in which the lives of a young father and his daughter are in danger from unscrupulous and desperate men. Hannay sets out on a high-octane chase from the rural tranquillity of his English manor to the Scottish Borders and, ultimately, to Scandinavia."
The last in this compendium of five John Buchan stories about Richard Hannay, and apparently the last book that he wrote. This time the final scene of good overcoming evil was unexpectedly short, given how protracted the previous battles have been. It's pretty good again - the only slightly weak book of the series was Greenmantle, which was too complicated and 'of its time' for me to follow. But The Thirty-Nine Steps is definitely the best, followed by The Three Hostages.

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Challenging Obesity: the science behind the issues
by Heather McLannahan and Pete Clifton (eds.)

"There are strong individual differences in body weight, and hardly a month goes by without the announcement of yet another gene 'for' obesity, with discussion of the implications for those who hope to reduce their body weight. How should individuals and governments respond to the different challenges of obesity?"
This book told me nothing that I didn't already know, which is a pleasing reflection on my recent educational and personal journey. Obesity is caused by an excess of energy intake over energy expenditure, but this definition does not reflect the complications of the statement. There are no easy answers or quick fixes, and a number of behavioural, pharmaceutical and environmental solutions are being sought in both the private and the public sector. We just have to eat less and do more, but how this will be achieved is one of the most challenging questions faced by those working in the health and government sectors today.

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Titus Groan
by Mervyn Peake

"Titus, heir to Lord Sepulchrave, has just been born: he stands to inherit the miles of rambling stone and mortar that form Gormenghast Castle, and its surrounding kingdom. Inside, all events are predetermined by a complex ritual, lost in history, understood only by Sourdust, Lord of the Library. There are tears and strange laughter; fierce births and deaths beneath umbrageous ceilings; dreams and violence and disenchantment contained within a labyrinth of stone."
It's not often that I encounter unfamiliar words: 'calid' and 'lambent' were two (they mean 'warm' and 'illuminated, radiant' respectively), and that's the whole beauty of this book. There's not much story, and what there is moves dreadfully slowly and is quite peculiar, but the language is beautiful, even if it does go on a bit. I'm not even sure that 'umbrageous' (in the quote above) is a real word, but its meaning is clear and it evokes perfectly the dark, cloudy environment of Gormenghast Castle. Part 2 of the trilogy is waiting in the pile To Be Read.

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The Mark of Zorro
by Johnston McCulley

narrated by B. J. Harrison
"Old California, in a bygone era of sprawling haciendas and haughty caballeros, suffers beneath the whip-lash of oppression. Missions are pillaged, native peasants are abused, and innocent men and women are persecuted by the corrupt governor and his army. But a champion of freedom rides the highways. His identity hidden behind a mask, the laughing outlaw Zorro defies the tyrant's might."
The original story that spawned a hundred more tales and movies. It was originally published as a serial, which always means a cliffhanger at the end of each chapter, but it didn't seem contrived or forced, and was unexpectedly gripping. The American narrator didn't have any unfortunate English or French proper names to struggle with, and any Mexican/Spanish errors would have passed me by, so there were no jarring notes in the reading either. A good listen!

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If You Could See Me Now
by Cecilia Ahern

"Elizabeth Egan is too busy for friends. As a reluctant mother to her sister Saoirse's young son Luke and with her own business to run, every precious moment is made to count. Enter Ivan. Wild, spontaneous and always looking for adventure, in no time at all Ivan has changed Elizabeth in ways she could never have imagined. But is Ivan too good to be true? Has Elizabeth opened her heart only to risk it being broken again?"
I don't often read this type of book - modern fiction with a straightforward story - and I got through the whole thing in a day. It played on the theme of the invisible or imaginary friend, and I shall probably spend a few minutes toying with the idea, thinking it through, and then I'll forget all about it in a week. It's refreshing to take on some lighter reading occasionally, some froth to temper the heaviness of my usual non-fiction and weighty authors, but with its pink cover, it's never going to make it into the company of books I intend to read again one day.

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How to Eat: The pleasures and principles of good food
by Nigella Lawson

"Nigella Lawson combines a refreshingly down-to-earth practically with a passion for food and a writer's ability to find just the right words to evoke the taste of a succulent roast chicken or a home-made custard. Her excellent advice on how to organise your kitchen (and your life) for the minimum of fuss is interspersed with moments of sheer, unadulterated pleasure as she pauses to relish what she is preparing to eat. "
This is a very thick book from back in 1998, at the start of Nigella's meteoric career towards Kitchen Goddess status. It's been on my shelf for ever, although I must have read at least some of it when I first got it. There are irrelevant (to me) chapters on food for children and for dinner parties, but a contrastingly useful and interesting one on low calorie options, which I fully endorse since it strongly emphasises oriental options that are naturally low in fat, although she doesn't seem to hold with the notion of moderation in salt intake. I've highlighted about ten recipes that I wouldn't mind trying, and in fact I cooked one last night: a coating for salmon that was very good indeed.

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