Three Men in a Boat & Three Men on the Bummel

By Jerome K. Jerome

Rating: 4 stars

Three young men are ruminating together on their various imagined illnesses and how much they need a holiday. Together with the dog, Montmorency, they hire a boat and travel up the Thames from London to Oxford and hilarity, as they say, ensues.

I found this to be a delightful book, very easy to read, picturesque and hardly dated in the language and humour. While I was reading it, I found it quite striking how it intersperses the comic antics of the protagonists with beautiful descriptions of the surrounding scenery and sometimes even some quite serious observations on life. This sounds like it should jar, but it mostly doesn’t and works together remarkably well.

The narrative about boating sounded quite delightful and makes me want to gather up some fellows and spend a month sitting on the river myself!

My edition also contained the sequel, which I’ll review here as well:

Three Men on the Bummel, by Jerome K. Jerome

This is the sequel to Three Men in a Boat and follows the same three protagonists (older and maybe wiser), sans dog, going for a bicycling trip around the Black Forest region of Germany.

I found this humorous enough, but not nearly as good as its predecessor. The humour seems somehow more forced, and the constant stereotyping of the German character soon gets wearing. But what I found myself missing the most, and I found this somewhat unexpected, was the Thames. I hadn’t realised just how much of a character that the river had become in Three Men in a Boat and although Jerome tries his best with the German setting, it’s just not the same.

Worth a read for curiosity value, but not as good as the original. (Three stars)

Book details

ISBN: 9781853260513
Publisher: Wordsworth Editions
Year of publication: 1889

The Books of Magic

By Neil Gaiman

Rating: 4 stars

Four mysterious men argue amongst themselves on what to do about Timothy Hunter, a young boy who has the potential to become the greatest magician of his age. They eventually decide to show him the realms of magic and let him choose his own future.

At first glance this graphic novel of a young boy with glasses being introduced to a world of magic (even with his own owl) might look a bit familiar, but The Books of Magic was published many years before J. K. Rowling’s bespectacled wizard was even a twinkle in her eye.

We actually learn very little about Timothy in this volume (although apparently we get that in later volumes) and there’s little characterisation, but that’s not really Gaiman’s intention with this story. Like much of his work, this is a story about myth and magic, and it’s the mythology of his world that carries it.

There are many, many cameos from characters in the DC universe throughout the story as the ‘Trenchcoat Brigade’ (including DC favourites John Constantine and Doctor Occult) show Timothy various aspects of the magical realm, but even to someone like me who is mostly unfamiliar with it, it doesn’t matter and you don’t need to be familiar with the characters to enjoy the story.

The artwork is excellent all the way through and the aura of unreality about it suits Gaiman’s story to a tee. A very enjoyable read. And the owl’s cooler than Harry Potter’s too…

Book details

ISBN: 9781563890826
Publisher: Vertigo
Year of publication: 1993

Down Under

By Bill Bryson

Rating: 5 stars

Bryson is on top form in this book which documents his adventures in the Antipodes, from crossing the continent in style on the India-Pacific Railway to pledges with his travelling companion about the fair distribution of urine should they get trapped in the outback. Bryson is endlessly fascinated by the continent of Australia and his joy in exploring it comes across very clearly in this book. He loves the people and the country and his descriptions of both show it. He also describes the sheer absurdity of the country, from carelessly losing a prime minister (he walked into the sea and never came out again) to the fact that someone may have detonated a small nuclear bomb in the north of the country and nobody noticed.

He talks about the history of the places he visits and uses visits to museums to go off on tangents about the people and objects he finds. He follows in the footsteps of some of the pioneers and expeditions that opened Australia (insofar as a country that size ever can be “opened up”) and you can sense the shaking of the head as he describes how incompetent some of those early explorers appeared to be.

And he seems endlessly intrigued by the sheer quantity and quality of flora and fauna of Oz that are deadly. From the box jellyfish that can cause the most indescribable pain a man could feel to the spiders that have enough venom to kill a man in seconds, Australia is blessed (or cursed) with some of the most deadly creatures on Earth. And Bryson takes a perverse pleasure in describing them, in great detail, both to the reader and to any travelling companions he might have at the time. But that just adds to the joy of the book. He is relishing the absurdity of the whole thing and writes so lightly and humorously that you’re left chuckling about things that should rightly leave you aghast.

The one thing that Bryson touches only lightly upon is the state of the Aborigines of Australia, their past treatment by the settlers and their current haunted, downtrodden emptiness. But amidst this, he also points out another absurdity of this continent-country: that recent research has shown that the Aboriginal people came to Australia over 40,000 years ago! That they had a civilisation capable of producing sea-going vessels that long ago is incredible and a story that is still full of mysteries.

In total, this is a marvellous book from a man who has a real eye for the world around him and a humorous touch with a pen (or keyboard, as the case may be).

Book details

ISBN: 9780552997034
Publisher: Black Swan
Year of publication: 2000

Little Fuzzy (Fuzzy Sapiens, #1)

By H. Beam Piper

Rating: 3 stars

On a newly colonised word on the edge of human space, Jack Holloway is a sun-stone prospector. Searching for the rare jewels that are worth a fortune back on Earth he finds a small, furry humanoid creature in his homestead that he soon makes friends with, and discovers can use tools and and has a family that he moves in as well. However, when he informs the Company that runs the colony that a sapient native species exists, that would invalidate the Company’s charter for the world so they try to first suppress the knowledge of the species, that Holloway has named ‘Fuzzies’. During a discussion between Holloway and Leonard Kellogg, a Company representative, he kills a Fuzzy, which leads to a trial, hinging on whether or not the Fuzzies are actually sapient.

This is quite a philosophical little book (available for free on Project Gutenberg) with discussions on intelligence and what sapience means. While the definitions in the early part of the book are quite simplistic (talking and making fire) by the end, much more complex definitions are proffered for what is, undoubtedly, a difficult subject.

Apart from Holloway, the characters in the book are mostly fairly two-dimensional, but it’s the philosophical debate about sapience that is the core of the book, the characters being mostly there to either support different points of view, or provide foils to debate with. Enjoyable if you take it for what it is.

Book details

ISBN: 9780843959116
Publisher: Cosmos Books
Year of publication: 1962

Censorship: A Beginner’s Guide

By Julian Petley

Rating: 4 stars

I bought this book for my evening course on his history of censorship and have found it both accessible and fairly broad in scope. Starting with the most obvious sorts of censorship, state threats to life and property, it also covers less obvious forms such as licensing, ratings, classification and market monopolies.

Although not covering historical contexts in great depth, it does a good job of discussing the modern origins of censorship, as well as comparing the different attitudes to censorship on both sides of the Pond, particularly the greater desire to the part of British officials to regulate, something largely absent in America due to the First Amendment. However, there are other, more insidious, forms of censorship that the book describes, such as the relaxation in regulation that has left large swathes of the media in the hands of very few individuals and the effect of this on freedom of expression.

Throughout the book, Petley leaves the reader in no doubt where his sympathies lie in the debate between regulation and free speech but lays out a clear and strong argument for his point of view, and in his conclusion lays out a strong defense of freedom of expression. This was a good way to get a broad overview of the different forms of human communication over the centuries and the lengths that authorities have gone to to prevent them.

Book details

ISBN: 9781851686742
Publisher: Oneworld Publications
Year of publication: 2009

The Lord of the Rings (The Lord of the Rings, #1-3)

By J.R.R. Tolkien

Rating: 5 stars

A book that I’ve come back to again and again since I first read it in my early teens. Setting the template for everything that was to come after it for so long, it’s a classic of the genre. Hell, it pretty much established the genre! I have come to love so much about this story (I even have a soft spot for Bombadil these days!) including its epic scale, beautifully drawn landscapes and improbable characters.

Book details

ISBN: 9780007123810
Publisher: HarperCollins
Year of publication: 1955

Keep the Giraffe Burning

By John Sladek

Rating: 2 stars

In his introduction to this collection of short stories, the author denies that these stories are ‘surrealist’, claiming that they were just written to entertain. I suspect they probably entertained the author since I bet they were really fun to write, but they certainly aren’t fun to read. After more than a few of these stories, you start getting worn down, they mostly just feel clever for their own sake which made it a difficult book to plough through. There were a few stories that were worth it (such as the one nesting nine layers deep, which was fun) but mostly I was just impatient with them. I must confess that I broke towards the end and only skimmed the second last story and skipped the last one, reading only the first few pages in the vain hope that it might be readable. Only worth it if you’re a fan of surrealist writing.

Book details

ISBN: 9780586047576
Publisher: Panther Granada
Year of publication: 1977

The Green Millennium

By Fritz Leiber

Rating: 3 stars

Phil Gish is a man who feels out of place in an increasingly hectic world. Into his life comes a small green kitten that he names Lucky that changes his life and involves him in a conspiracy that will change the world.

I don’t really have an awful lot to say about this book. The last Leiber that I read was a collection of short stories that I loved, but this was a fairly straightforward adventure with some fairly odd characters. There is some wry comment on America with prescient views of a vulgarised society and the ‘Federal Bureau of Loyalty’ that I quite enjoyed though.

Possibly the most memorable thing about the book, however, is its truly awful cover.

Book details

ISBN: 9780860079156
Publisher: Futura
Year of publication: 1953

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