The Stand by Stephen King

The Stand

Five words from the blurb: plague, death, dreams, Apocalypse, grows

I had never read any Stephen King (I was too scared), but then Sandy persuaded me that I’d be OK with this one, despite the apocalyptic premise. She was right, but I’m afraid I read this about 15 years too late. I think I’d have loved The Stand if I’d read it in my early twenties, whilst going through a Crichton binge, but my reading tastes have changed since then and I found it lacked the depth I crave today.

The Stand started really well, with a wonderfully tense scene involving a man escaping from a secret government facility after an accident released a deadly strain of the flu virus. Unfortunately this man carried the virus with him and it spread quickly, wiping out almost everyone in America. 

I loved the first 60 pages of this book, but after that it began to get repetitive. Too many characters were introduced and I didn’t enjoy reading about every one of them dying. There was a frustrating inevitability to it all so after about 400 pages I began skimming through the chapters. The same problem was repeated with the nightmares and so I decided to give up and read the wikipedia summary!

There were many great passages and the writing quality was higher than I expected it to be. 

Glen was both amazed and heartened by their willingness to talk, and by the charged atmosphere of excitement that had taken over the dull blankness with which they had begun the meeting. A large catharsis, long overdue, was going on, and he was also reminded of sex talk, but in a different way. They talk like people, he thought, who have kept the huddled up secrets of there guilts and inadequacies to themselves for a long time, only to discover that these things,when verbalized, were only life sized after all. When the inner terror sowed in sleep was finally harvested in this marathon public discussion, the terror became more manageable…perhaps even conquerable.

There was a wonderful 400 page book trapped in this 1700 page epic and I think I’d have loved The Stand if it had focused on just two or three people. The drama was spread too thinly for me as it took several hundred pages to get to the next interesting plot point. As a younger person I’d have had the patience to enjoy this flabby, meandering plot, but I’m afraid that I’ve read too many books that have dealt with the subject in a more powerful way – not many books can stand up to comparison to Blindness by José Saramago

It’s a shame that my first King read wasn’t more positive, but I’m glad I’ve now experienced his writing. 

DNF

Do you think I’ll have better luck with any of his other books or are they all similar in style?

 

Which books should be in the perfect junior school library?

My sons’ school recently converted from an infant school into a full primary. They have a good selection of books for younger children, but their library hasn’t quite developed a full range for junior school children (aged 7-11). Keen to ensure my boys and their friends have a good mixture of books to read I volunteered to look into which would be best to buy for them. They already have most of the classics (Harry Potter, Roald Dahl, CS Lewis etc) so I’m looking for more modern books that children will love.

I want books that inspire them and nurture a love for reading so I’ve spent a wonderful weekend researching ones that teachers, booksellers, librarians and (most importantly!) children recommend.

Here’s what I found!

Age 7+

The Brilliant World of Tom GatesMadame Pamplemousse and Her Incredible EdiblesCorby Flood (Far-Flung Adventures)A Dog Called Grk (A Grk Book)

The Brilliant World of Tom Gates by Liz Pichon (s)

Madame Pamplemousse and Her Incredible Edibles by Rupert Kingfisher

Corby Flood by Chris Riddell

A Dog Called Grk by Josh Lacey (s)

Compton Valance The Most Powerful Boy in the Universe (Compton Valance)The Stick Man With a Big Bum: A children's book for ages 7-12Monster and Chips (Monster and Chips, Book 1)Spy Dog

Compton Valance The Most Powerful Boy in the Universe by Matt Brown (s)

The Stick Man With a Big Bum by Jonny Staples (s)

Monster and Chips by David O’Connell (s)

Spy Dog by Andrew Cope (s)

Clarice Bean: Clarice Bean Spells TroubleFortunately, the Milk . . .The Strongest Girl In The World (MAGICAL CHILDREN)

Clarice Bean Spells Trouble by Lauren Child

Fortunately, the Milk . . . by Neil Gaiman

The Strongest Girl In The World by Sally Gardner (s)

Age 9+

The Girl with the Broken WingMission Survival 1: Gold of the GodsIgraine the BraveThe Boy Who Biked the World: On the Road to Africa

The Girl with the Broken Wing by Heather Dyer

Gold of the Gods by Bear Grylls (s)

Igraine the Brave by Cornella Funke

The Boy Who Biked the World by Alastair Humphreys

LionboyMidnight for Charlie BoneStig of the Dump (Puffin Modern Classics)Truckers: The First Book of the Nomes

Lionboy by Zizou Corder (s)

Midnight for Charlie Bone by Jenny Nimmo (s)

Stig of the Dump by Clive King

Truckers by Terry Pratchett (s)

RatburgerDoctor Proctor's Fart Powder

Ratburger by David Walliams

Doctor Proctor’s Fart Powder by Jo Nesbo (s)

Age 11+

Fablehaven (Fablehaven (Pb))Young Knights of the Round TableKrindlekraxArtemis Fowl

Fablehaven by Brandon Mull (s)

Young Knights of the Round Table by Julia Golding (s)

Krindlekrax by Philip Ridley

Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer

SilverwingStoneheart: 1: StoneheartThe MenagerieThe Secret of Platform 13

Silverwing by Kenneth Oppel (s)

Stoneheart by Charlie Fletcher (s)

The Menagerie by Tui Sutherland (s)

The Secret of Platform 13 by Eva Ibbotson

The Edge Chronicles 4: Beyond the Deepwoods: First Book of TwigMy Best Friend and Other EnemiesMortal Engines (Predator Cities)

Beyond the Deepwoods by Paul Stewart

My Best Friend and Other Enemies by Catherine Wilkins

Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve (s)

Note: (s) means this book is the first in a series

What do you think of my selection?

Which other books do junior school children really enjoy?

Which books would you buy for a school library?

Alive by Piers Paul Read

Alive: There Was Only One Way to Survive

Five words from the blurb: plane, crash, survivors, unthinkable, truth

After giving myself permission to read a book which mentioned a plane crash I decided that I might as well go the whole hog and read Alive, a book which gives a detailed account of one. In 1972 a Uraguayan plane crashed into a remote mountainside and the passengers survived in horrendous conditions for 10 weeks before being rescued. Their story is controversial because the only way in which they could stay alive was to eat those who had perished in the initial impact. 

Alive was much less disturbing than I imagined. The cannibalism was tactfully described and it didn’t sensationalise the process –  instead it clearly showed the difficulty and revulsion the group  faced when deciding whether or not they should eat their friends. The overall theme was of survival, showing the difficulties faced by those on the brink and how they were able to utilise their small resources to make their lives more comfortable. 

The seventeenth day, October 29, passed quite well for those stranded in the Fairchild. They were still cold, wet, dirty, and hungry, and some were in great pain, but in the last few days a degree of order seemed to have been imposed on the chaos. The teams for cutting, cooking, melting snow, and cleaning the cabin were working well, and the wounded were sleeping a little more comfortably in their hanging beds. More important still, they had started to single out the fittest among them as potential expeditionaries who would master the Andes and get help. Their mood was optimistic.

This book was incredibly well paced. The way it alternated between the view of the survivors on the mountain and those who were searching for them was very effective. It maintained a beautiful tension throughout, despite the fact the reader knows how it ends from the beginning. 

My only criticism is that it was difficult to keep track of all the people. The large number of names meant I could not distinguish between many of the survivors and had even less chance of keeping track of all their family members. In many ways this was a positive as it meant I wasn’t emotionally attached to any of them and so maintained an objective distance from their pain and emotional turmoil.

Despite the difficult subject matter Alive was a surprisingly positive book. It showed the strength of the human spirit and the importance of keeping hope alive. It is 40 years since publication, but this book remains as fresh and important as the day it was released. Highly recommended.  

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The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion

The Rosie Effect 

Five words from the blurb: marriage, irrational, challenge, life, disgrace

I LOVED The Rosie Project so was very excited about trying the sequel. Unfortunately the two books were very different and The Rosie Effect failed to repeat the magic of the first.

The Rosie Project was special because it was the only novel I’d read which depicted Asperger’s in a positive light. I loved the way it showed the problems faced by those on the spectrum in an amusing manner, without being condescending or judgmental. Unfortunately The Rosie Effect didn’t follow the same formula. Instead it seemed to highlight all the negative aspects of the condition, leading me to become depressed and (occasionally) angry. 

The Rosie Effect begins with Rosie discovering that she’s pregnant. Don worries that he’ll not be a suitable father so sets out to research the best way of dealing with the pregnancy and the arrival of a new baby.  The question of whether someone on the autistic spectrum would make a good parent is a sensitive and divisive subject. Everything written in the book was technically accurate, but I felt it was handled in a bad way. Some of the scenes, particularly those involving Lydia, the social worker, made my blood boil.

I also found that Don had become the typical stereotype of those on the spectrum. His wonderful quirkiness had been reduced to a set of behavioural traits. It was frustrating to see such a fantastic character reach such lows. It is useful for those who know little about autism to be informed about the darker side of the condition, but for those of us who are well aware of the problems it made a difficult and emotional read.

I recommended The Rosie Project to everyone I knew withing the autism community. Unfortunately I’ll be advising those same people to avoid the sequel. I want to give it a low star rating and tell you not to read it, but that isn’t fair because Graeme Simsion is a talented author. This book is gripping throughout and I couldn’t wait to see what happened in the end. It is just a shame that the subject matter was so negative.

I can’t decide whether to give this stars1 for making me so angry and upset or  for being gripping and provoking so much emotion.

What do you think?

The Moth: 50 Extraordinary True Stories

The Moth: This Is a True Story

Five words from the blurb: truth, stranger, storytellers, spellbound

I’m not normally a fan of short stories, but this book fell through my letter box and after trying it for only a few seconds I couldn’t put it down – the stories were so compelling. They describe the most inspirational or unusual moments in a person’s life and they give the reader hope for the future and a greater understanding of the past.

The Moth is an American storytelling event in which people gather together to hear interesting aspects of each other’s lives. This book is a collection of the best stories told since its foundation in 1997. Many are written by established authors (eg. Nathan Englander, Andrew Solomon and Joyce Maynard), but the most interesting ones were often by ordinary people experiencing extraordinary events. My favourite was the story of a hospital porter who was trapped in a lift with a patient:

So now we’re stopped somewhere, in this tiny, dark box, and there’s three sounds I can hear: the elevator’s emergency signal buzzing, Melissa’s screaming, and Mr William’s heart monitor indicating that, like our elevator, his heart has stopped.

Other stories include the doctor sent to Dehli to treat Mother Teresa; a man who tracked down the pizza delivery driver who’d stolen money from his account; and astronaut Michael Massimino’s difficult space walk. All were totally gripping and I was amazed by the speed in which each author created emotion and narrative tension.

My only criticism is the American bias of the book.  – I’d love to see a diverse mixture of countries represented. I hope that The Moth phenomenon travels around the world so we can experience a global edition of this book in the near future.

The Moth is entertaining, inspirational and jaw-droppingly unbelievable in places. The blurb states that truth is stranger than fiction and this book proves that over and over again. I highly recommend it.

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The Book of Illusions by Paul Auster

The Book of Illusions

Five words from the blurb: grief, silent, comedian, mystery, journey

I’ve owned a copy of this book for a while, but avoided reading it because of the plane crash mentioned in the blurb. I decided to pick it up straight after my holiday as this gave the greatest length of time to remove potentially disturbing images from my head before having to fly again! I’m pleased I made this decision as there were some scenes I’m glad I hadn’t read immediately prior to boarding a plane.

The Book of Illusions is a simple story about a professor whose wife and children are killed in a plane crash. Overcome by grief he begins to lose his grip on the world, but everything changes when he sees Hector Mann, a silent comedian, on television. The film is the first thing to make him smile in months and so he begins a quest to watch everything this man has ever produced. This strange obsession leads him to discover that Mann had a mysterious life and no-one knows what happened to him.

This story was strangely compelling. The pace was slow and there were large chunks where little happened, but the writing quality was so good that this didn’t really matter. There were a few unlikely coincidences, but these were necessary to make the story more interesting, so I was willing to forgive them.

The observations on grief were particularly accurate, giving the reader immense sympathy for the professor. My emotional connection to the characters was strong and I was impressed by the complex and flawed nature of them all.

The only real problem with the book was its lack of impact. I finished it about 3 weeks ago, but could remember next-to-nothing about the plot until I jogged my memory by reading some sections again. It was all subtle and clever –  which was entertaining at the time, but not compatible with leaving a lasting impression. The plot was strangely reminiscent of the silent comedies described within the book:

Most silent comedies hardly even bothered to tell stories. They were like poems, like the renderings of dreams, like some intricate choreography of the spirit, and because they were dead, they probably spoke more deeply to us now than they had to the audiences of their time. We watched them across a great chasm of forgetfulness…

Overall this was a beautifully written book containing lots of interesting passages. Recommended to those who like slow, thoughtful books.

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