Thursday, 28 January 2016

Up From Slavery, by Booker T Washington

4 stars

This book made me feel like a bit of an asshole.I'm a frequent whiner, my favourite topics usually being how other people are annoying and not getting enough reading time. Booker T. Washington, despite having much more justified complaints than mine, was most definitely not a whiner.

Born into slavery - exactly when he doesn't know - following its abolition, and despite a lack of any money and sometimes even a roof over his head, Washington would not only pursue the education he fiercely wanted but would go on to become an educator himself, as well as something of a celebrity.

Starting with a handful of ramshackle buildings and a small pool of students, Washington built what would become the Tuskegee Institute with his bare hands (literally, alongside those of his students as part of his philosophy that each student should learn a practical trade alongside their other studies) and, in part due to these Herculean efforts, he would also go on to become a much sought after public speaker. On the strength of the addresses reproduced here, it's easy to see why.

An incredibly driven man who apparently didn't take a vacation in 18 years of running the Institute, both this book and his addresses also displayed an astonishing lack of bitterness or resentment towards the people and society that had kept his race in bondage for so long. Where I'd have been ranting non-stop about how hateful everybody was, Washington spoke of hope, and reconciliation instead of repercussions. 

A fantastic example of grace and strength, Booker T Washington has ensured that, at least, for the next week, I won't whine just because the lady in the canteen made me wait five minutes before giving me my sandwich. I may even be inspired to make my own sandwiches. 

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Bones of the Hills, by Conn Iggulden

3 stars

The last part of Genghis' story, I'm kind of glad that he died when he did as I'd continued to find this series a wee bit samey. So many sieges, so many arrows, and so many massacres meant that regardless of who was on the receiving end, I'd started to feel that I'd read it all before.

In this, Genghis continues to kick the shit out of any nation that so much as looks at him funny, while still finding time to be a dick to his kids. He also meets a new enemy that might just be as formidable as he is, while also realising that simply leaving a place once you've annihilated it doesn't mean it stays annihilated, and that he might just have to fight them again on his next trip through. Sadly, there's no time for a second beating before karma stabs him right in the gut. It couldn't have happened to a nicer bloke.

I see now that this isn't actually a trilogy and that the story continues - this time presumably with Genghis' grandson, Kublai, in the lead. I'm not going to be rushing out to read it, as I imagine that it's just more of the same, only with Genghis' name tippexed out and Kublai's name scribbled in the margin.

Saturday, 2 January 2016

2015's most and least loved

2015 was probably my least prolific reading year ever. It turns out that having to work hard for long hours while also trying to sell a flat and buy a house and just generally being tired all the damn time can do a bit of a number on your reading life. I plan to rectify this in 2016.

Looking back over my ratings for the year, I was either feeling not my usual, grumpy self or I read a surprisingly high number of great books this year (I think it might have something to do with being less click-happy during free romance and supernatural ebook offers). As I love a good list, here's my top ten loved and...not so much:

1. Just Kids - Patti Smith
2. Galapagos - Kurt Vonnegut
3. The Tell-Tale Heart - Edgar Allan Poe
4. Helter Skelter - Vincent Bugliosi
5. In The Kingdom of Ice - Hampton Sides
6. The Final Empire (Mistborn #1) - Brandon Sanderson
7. Rasputin - Edvard Radzinsky
8. The Fortune of War - Patrick O'Brian
9. Prince Lestat - Anne Rice
10. The Name of the Wind - Patrick Rothfuss

Not so much:
1. The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart - Jesse Bullington (did not finish after nearly vomiting in one squelchy part too many, and sent it to someone else)
2. Drowning Mermaids - Nadia Scrieva
3. Secret Lives - Gabriella Poole 
4. Graveyard Shift - Angela Roquet
5. Rogue's Honor - Brenda Hiatt
6. Ivanhoe - Sir Walter Scott
7. Goblin Market - Christina Rosetti
8. Never Let Me Go - Kazuo Ishigiro
9. The Big Sleep - Raymond Chandler
10. The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England - Ian Mortimer

How about you? What were your picks of 2015?

Thursday, 31 December 2015

Rasputin, by Edvard Radzinsky

5 stars

Just a little over a year ago, I asked Santa to bring me some books on historical bastards. This was one of the treats that Santa (or rather, NikNak) responded with.

Rasputin - looks like a creepy bastard, right?

Prior to reading this, the only thing I really knew about Rasputin was that he was apparently Russia’s greatest love machine (thanks, Boney M). I now know that he was actually just Russia’s most persistent lech, but I also learnt a lot more (including the surprising revelation that this all happened so recently. Thanks to the ready acceptance of mystical bullshit on the part of the Royals, I’d thought this all took place in like, olden times.) 

Born a peasant in a Russia that very much gave a shit about that sort of thing, Rasputin spent most of his youth apparently being drunk and violent, before a sudden change of heart led him to travel the country visiting holy places and like, finding himself, man. Instead of just getting a bit religious, he’d go the whole hog and soon make a name for himself through his ‘prophetic visions’ and performing of ‘miracles’. Which would bring him to the attention of a Royal Family already prone to religious gullibility and worried for the health of their young son and haemophiliac heir.

Having already been hypnotised by another chancer into thinking she was pregnant (who explained, come her humiliation come her time of confinement and realisation that she was as pregnant as I am, that the pregnancy had disappeared due to her lack of faith), the tsarina was soon eating out of Rasputin’s hand (not literally), claiming his enemies as her own and alienating everyone else around her. As the Royal Family became increasingly isolated by the rest of their own family, the court, the church and the government, Rasputin would be dogged by controversy. Especially once he reverted back to drinking.

Rasputin during an early rehearsal for John Lennon's Bed-In
(not really, he's recovering from an unsuccessful assassination attempt)

Already prone to groping anyone he could get his hands on and visiting, sometimes in just one day, many, many prostitutes (apparently he could totally cleanse you of sin by having sex with you), he was also believed to be controlling the tsarina (although the tutor to the royal children had it right when they said, 'His prophetic words most often merely confirmed the hidden wishes of the empress herself. She herself did not suspect that she had induced them, that she was their 'inspirer'. Her personal wishes, passing through Rasputin, acquired in her eyes the force and authenticity of revelation.') But the belief of his influence, alongside his penchant for bragging about his connections and power whilst slaughtered, would apparently wind up the wrong people and he would eventually be murdered by two members of the Royal Family and a leading politician – a murder that would help build his legend, no doubt thanks to Prince Felix’s dramatic description of the murder which read like something out of a zombie novel (“…With an abrupt, furious movement, Rasputin sprang to his feet. He was foaming at the mouth. He was horrifying. The room resounded with a savage roar, and I saw the flash of his convulsively clenched fingers. Then, like red-hot iron, they sank into my shoulder and reached for my neck…”).

A big, thick book that I ripped through in a matter of days, I couldn’t put this down thanks to the incredible details of Rasputin’s life. Making a legend much more human (even if he was a very, um, complicated man), this was packed with astonishing, sometimes awful and sometimes hilarious facts (I don’t know why I find this so funny, but on being challenged on why he kept taking young ladies to bathhouses, he replied, 'The society misses were so puffed up with pride, and in order to deflate it, it was necessary to humiliate them by forcing them to go to the bathhouse with a dirty peasant.').

I could have filled this review with a million of my favourite excerpts, but you really ought to read them for yourself. Go on.

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Pawnee, by Leslie Knope

4 stars

If you're a fan of Parks & Recreation (and if you're not, do yourself a favour and watch it) then you'll find a lot to love in this jaunt through Pawnee in the company of The Author (and my imaginary BFF) Leslie Knope.

Find out about the dodgy history of the home of Sweetums and feral raccoons, the culinary delights of JJ's Diner (don't forget to try the waffles) and the former names of Mouse Rat. Snigger quite a bit through Ron's cabin and April's college diaries. Just don't leave the book on your bathroom floor once you're done - Leslie worked really hard on this, you guys.

Sunday, 27 December 2015

Deadpool Vol1: Dead Presidents, by Posehn, Duggan & Moore

4 stars

A disillusioned necromancer, saddened at the state of modern America, raises all of America’s dead presidents with the aim of saving his country. Unfortunately, it turns out that the deceased leaders think that what America really needs saving from is Americans, and they set about cleansing the country with aplomb. SHIELD is struck with scandal from the start, when Captain America makes the headlines for decapitating Harry Truman, and realises it can’t afford to pit its popular heroes against dead patriots. Instead of superheroes, what they really need is a scumbag. And so there’s really only one guy for the job.

Fabulously drawn, my second adventure with Deadpool was just as fun as my previous and prompted at least one snort (and often more) from me per page. I’m looking forward to hanging out with him much more often in the future.

Saturday, 26 December 2015

Genghis: Lords of the Bow, by Conn Iggulden

3.5 stars

…Or, as I like to call it, Genghis 2: Empire-Building Boogaloo, in which Genghis – you guessed it – further builds his empire having united the tribes into one vast and terrible army. With the tribes now all under his control, Genghis isn’t content to sit back and count the rancid mutton and has instead settled his sights on an old enemy of his people: The Chin. First taking Xi Xia (and one of their princesses for a second wife), Genghis shows that his people aren’t just good at annihilating their enemies from atop their ponies, but are masters of the siege and – more importantly – propaganda too.

Learning from every enemy he comes across, and being more than a little sneaky when he needs to, it’s easy to see why Genghis (at least how he’s characterised here) made such a stunning impact on world history. He wasn’t just hard as nails (here surviving not just many battles but also assassins with poisoned blades), but fabulously cunning too. Although, having no idea about how this all went in real life, I have a funny feeling that his one blind spot (his alienation of his eldest son, Jochi) is going to come back to bite him in the ass.)

The battles that spatter these pages are more than a little pulse-pounding, and I’m still struck with awe at what terrifying warriors the Mongolians must have been, but having read the first two back to back I’ll be taking a wee break from the series for a bit as my time in this world was starting to feel ever so slightly samey towards the end.