Tuesday 30 April 2013

Coming over all .com

So said Frank. He also went on to say he did it his way. I, however, am not. I’m jumping over to a .com site, and as I’m computer illiterate, I’m using someone else’s template to do it. Not so much my way as the easy way.

It’s a good move though, I promise. On www.gavsbookreviews.com you can now find a bunch of pages.

There’s all the 10GBR and 9GBR reviews in one easy place. There’s a whole other section for non-book reviewy type stuff. And (because I’m still Jenny from the block), a whole page from which you can jump back here and get hold of all the pre 2013 goodies. There's even a bit of a vanity page in which you can find a bunch of other stuff I do. And of course, the big show - reviews withour spoilers every Sunday. As Peggy Riley put it, that's my kind of Church.

So long, blogspot. It’s been a blast. And when I get frustrated with the big boys over in the .com gang, I’ll come snivelling back professing that it’s always been you.

Sunday 28 April 2013

Levels of Life - mashing it up, Julian Barnes style

Levels of Life by Julian Barnes (JonathanCape: 2013). A book in three parts from a Booker Prize winning author. A literary mash up, exploring the history of ballooning, photography, love stories, and death. Wide ranging stuff.

What’s the saddest thing you can think of? Me, it’s always been a husband losing his wife (or a wife losing her husband for that matter). Always got me that one. Doesn’t matter how cheesy it is, that plot element has always made me choke when it’s cropped up on the screen or page.

And yet I subject myself to this. One of the world’s most decorated writers putting pen to paper to explore the grief he felt when his wife died.

I’m an idiot.

In fairness, it’s not all about that. The book is split in three parts. The first is a bit of non-fiction about ballooning and photography, the second is a bit of historical fiction centred on a bohemian love story gone wrong, and then the third part is where Barnes goes to town on his grief.

It works. Brilliantly. And here’s why.

For starts, it works because of the first two sections. They’re amazing. A quirky history of a quirky endeavour, followed by a thorough (but tastily bite-sized) love story which grows as it’s told. Both of the first two sections entertained me, set some of the structural thought which characterised the third section's grief, and introduced emotion slowly rather than simply plunging you in at the deep end.

For seconds, it worked because of the honesty and the rawness and the sheer humanity of the third section. There is no universal truth to grief, no universal experience. Julian Barnes is Julian Barnes; he felt and experienced and reacted to his grief in a Julian Barnes way. At no point does he melt into easy clich̩. At no point does he pluck at the usual heart strings in the usual ways. He violently kicks against any sense of Disney emotion. He tells what happened to him - anecdote by anecdote, analogy by analogy Рand leaves little out.

And for thirds, it works because this is Julian Barnes we’re talking about here. The guy can write. Every now and then, a sentence or a phrase or a structure will just knock you flat on your ass. I’ve read Barnes before and not quite got it, but I’m acutely aware pretty much everyone else has. The guy has high flung literary praise coming at him from every direction. And in this book, I get it too. I submit. Julian Barnes; you can write good.


One of the best things you’ll read this year. Why not 10 you ask? Because I do the scores, not you.

Next week, another story of a man losing his wife. I’m a glutton for punishment.

Sunday 21 April 2013

Snapper - welcoming cuckoos

Snapper by Brian Kimberling (Tinder Press: 2013). Nathan Lochmeuller is a man without motivation, and essentially falls into a job tracking song birds in a square mile of Indiana forest. He enjoys it, whilst his life and the world change around him. The novel skips between his youth, his adolescence and his grown-up years, all circling around the time he spends getting paid to watch birds.
You’re sitting with people you’ve grown up with, and you start reminiscing. Natural, right? You rehash conversations you’ve had fifty times, and you’re hilarious as you retell jokes only you guys get. It’s repetitive, but it’s comforting and indulgent. And, most importantly, you’re hilarious.
Then someone else enters the group. Some third party, unaware of how hilarious you are. You instantly get highly self aware. You glance at the cuckoo and realise how all this must sound through their ears. Boring. Irrelevant. If nothing else, you’re definitely not as funny as you thought you were.
Shared experience is fun to retread purely because it’s shared. The cuckoo wasn’t there though. To them, that time your mate got drunk and cut his hand is not the pinnacle of comedic endeavour. It’s dumb. I give you exactly ten minutes before the cuckoo’s eyes glaze over and they start planning an escape route.
That’s you and me though. That’s normal people. Brian Kimberling on the other hand – he’s a writer, and a pretty good one. He spreads out over 200-odd pages the formative experiences of Nathan Lochmeuller’s life. His own childish and adolescent and adult anecdotes. On the face of it, they’re pretty unremarkable. Kimberling sits us down opposite him, buys us a pint, and recounts vignette after vignette of experience in a life lived in Indiana.
This right here, this is the magic of story-telling. In the real world situation, the only way to make the cuckoo feel more involved is to change the topic of conversation to something they can more relate to. In Snapper though, Kimberling ploughs on, rambling his way through the narrative, dragging you deeper and deeper into Indiana.
Course, it’s not magic. There’s method to it. There are courses and workshops and entire traditions which show you how to do it. Kimberling draws on all this, no doubt, but he’s an artist, and what he achieves is remarkable. He makes sure Nathan Lochmeuller is witty and likeable (albeit a bit of a loser). He makes sure to reveal a beautiful and ugly Indiana. But most importantly, Kimberling injects meaning into each little experience he relates.
He does it subtly, but there are signposts and careful exposition; just enough so you know you’re not just reading about stuff that happened to Nathan Lochmeuller. This isn’t just a novel-length explanation of his life to date. Rather, in amongst it all, you see a search for worth in the world. A man with paths to choose but no belief in any of them. The beauty of simplicity.
That’s what we’re doing wrong, down the pub, when there’s a cuckoo in the group and our stories are boring them. We’re failing to explore meaning-of-life type questions through our experience.
I knew I was doing something wrong.
A gorgeously written, warm novel. It didn’t blow me away, but it did make me stop and think.
Next week, something a bit heartbreaking (if the book’s preamble is anything to go by).

Sunday 14 April 2013

Memories, from the corner of my mind...

The Isles of Scilly - where I am right now and
you're not (unless you are)
One of the great things about the blogger platform is you can schedule stuff.

Right now, I’m on the wonderful Isles of Scilly for what promises to be an ace week of friends, weddings, and birdwatching (yeah, you didn’t know that about me, right). Meanwhile, my old mate Blogger makes sure there’s a fresh post here for you on Sunday morning.

I actually wrote this on Thursday. And you're reading it on Sunday. Mind bending. 

Sadly no review this week. Have been buried in a few other things of late, including reading a sneak preview of the brand new Alan Haselhurst, due out in the Autumn (which I obviously can't tell you about yet or I'd be kicked out the family, son-in-law or not).
Will be back up to speed next week. In the meantime, I thought it worth revisiting a few highlights of the last two and bit years of GBR. Some of my fave reviews. Not all positive mind you, just some of the ones I enjoyed writing the most. You know the feeling; when you look back at what you've written and actually feel like it says what you meant. Well, the below are probably the closest I've got to that.
Bon apetit!

Sunday 7 April 2013

Capital - stuff happening

Capital by John Lanchester (Faber and Faber: 2013) Pepys Road is home to a mix of London life, from the high moneyed to the high principled. Some have roots in the street stretching back generations, some are riding a current wave of good fortune. And others simply visit to give out parking tickets. Lanchester tells us all of their stories.

“Life is just a bunch of stuff happening, one thing after the other.” Someone said that once (or something similar anyway). I’m no good at quotes, so let’s assume it was one of the usuals (Churchill, or Wylde, or Lennon, or some such). Whoever said it, there’s sense to it.

Storytelling usually relies on recognisable arcs and climaxes. There’s a great book on my shelf I got one Christmas on the seven basic plots which you can spot in the majority of stories. Most of the time, one version or another of these is told. And most of the time, it’s a departure from real life.

Real lives don’t have arcs. Resolutions. Beginnings, middles and ends. We can impose those structures on memories, but usually it’s just stuff happening, one thing after the other.

“Quit being a jerk, GBR. Just tell me about the book” right? 

OK, the link I’m trying to make here is that Capital is nigh on 600 pages of stuff happening. Lights shone on a bunch of characters’ lives, all of which started before the first page and all of which carry on after the last page.  

Sure, there are little swirls of arcs, but no grand thread. People’s fortunes rise and fall, they love and die, succeed and fail – all that jazz, but the overwhelming impression you get as you’re working through this isn’t of “ohmygodohmygodohmygod, I wonder what happens next.” It’s gentler than that. More real for it, but less dramatic.  

Great book are (often) about escapism. About extraordinary things or extraordinary people (or both if you can get away with it). Not Capital. Everything that happens in Capital is stuff that happens every day. Well, maybe not everything, but a lot.  

Even the mystery of an anonymous “we want what you have” campaign fizzles out in rather unspectacular fashion.  

I’m still not sure if this is criticism or praise. Lanchester is clearly trying to lay down in words a representation of life in London (a fact screamed loudly by the title of the book). Probably more accurate to say “lives”. He jumps between a bunch of very different people with very different experiences of the capital. Each is so expertly drawn that they seem very real. Almost ordinary. In so doing, he presents a more complete picture than other novels in the current (though not entirely original) craze for using London as a muse (see Zadie Smith’s NW, or Francesca Segal’s The Innocents).  

And that’s cool. I mean it; that’s cool. A hundred polaroids of London from a dozen perspectives. Variety. Reality.  

But it’s not grabbing. Not profound. Not heart racing or heart breaking or heart warming. There’s little high emotion here. Not much high anything really. Just stuff happening, one thing after the other.  

There are one or two currents that may have been deeper than I appreciated. Maybe this is a book that gives up more every time you read it. But when you turn the last page, you’re not sent running back to the first to find out. 

5 GBR 

I’ll be disagreed with for that, I’m sure. This is a best seller. There’s a lot positive about Capital. But on the GBR scale, which prizes pure enjoyment over all else, it falls in the middle ground. 

Next week, I’m off to Scilly (hurrah!) Hope to get through something and post about it before I leave, but if not, adios until next time.

Sunday 31 March 2013

East of Eden - it's been coming

Pretty sure I stole this copy
from father GBR, and never
 returned it. Soz dad
East of Eden by JohnSteinbeck (The Viking Press: 1952) Steinbeck sticks (as he usually does) to the harsh environments of his native California in his most ambitious novel, in which he follows the path of two families – the Trasks and the Hamiltons – as they face tragedy, love, evil, hope, glory, and most everything else. 

Before the blogging days, before GBR, I’d go through phases. I’d get into a specific type of book or a specific author, and stick with them for months. I had a Russian phase. A Graham Greene phase. A Bernard Cornwell phase. And then there was John Steinbeck. Ahhhh, Steiny. The Steinmeister General. Jonny Steiner.

Yeah, I enjoyed my Steinbeck phase. It started ingloriously with Grapes of Wrath (which I trudged through, grumpily and with difficulty). But then, for reasons I forget, I persevered and picked up East of Eden. And I got a little bit excited.

Which is an odd word to use for Steinbeck. He’s not what you’d call an exciting writer. East of Eden is an epic. It doesn’t race along, but neither did it drag like Grapes of Wrath did for me. 

In East of Eden, Steinbeck creates a stage with such vast potential and such deep meaning that the slightest plot developments come laden with meaning. His characters are the brooding type, but with cores that he reveals to you with such subtle clarity that they become so big and so real. I just got so damn drawn in to this. Happily trapped in Steinbeck’s whirlwind.

There’s a “big questions” aspect to this as well. To all the Steinbeck I’ve read actually. There’s a strong (but not overwhelming) thread of philosophy and theology to the arcs he creates. He doesn’t let it overtake the story; doesn’t allow his exploration of massive themes to harm the integrity of his characters and his plot. But it’s there, and it’s compelling, and it’s often beautiful.

There was one bit in particular, a whole page and a bit which I ended up underlining and reading back again and again. I recently got a bit upset when I realised that Mumford and Sons were also a fan of this section and expropriated the central word – Timshel – as an album name or some such thing (I don’t know exactly, I’m not massively down with the 6Music crowd, as you may have guessed). I felt as if I’d lost ownership of this whole section. Like it wasn’t a secret on my bookshelf that only I loved anymore. Which is dumb. This is Steinbeck. He’s a little bit famous, and I’m certain the whole Timshel thing has been debated and discussed a million times over by a million people.

But that’s the point. East of Eden absorbs you in a world that you feel privileged to be in. Steinbeck relates an entire landscape, and a cast of people who you love and you hate, and a story which you feel is yours alone. Yours to translate and find meaning in. Yours to wallow in. Yours to appreciate and be inspired by.

I’m cutting myself off there. I’m coming over all gushing.

10 GBR

One of the greatest books I’ve ever read. Good ole Steiny, the first 10 GBR of the year. It’s been coming. I’ve been waiting for a week where I hadn’t actually finished a book so I could go back and tell you about this. Totally worth it.

Next week, hopefully I’ll have finished the current biggie I’m on. 

Sunday 24 March 2013

Amity & Sorrow - dripping in profundity

Amity & Sorrow by Peggy Riley (Tinder Press: 2013). Two sisters are scooped up by their mother and are taken from their lives in a remote cult commune. They run, and they land on an equally remote farm. Riley tells us their story as they struggle to leave their old lives behind, and make big decisions about their new ones.

Try and define the word “profound.” Go on, try it. Bet you stumble. I mean, you might get there eventually, but it’s tough, right? That’s why those dictionary writers get the big bucks. Some words are just kind of ethereal (which is another example, by the way). We kind of just know the meaning. And we certainly recognise it when we see it.

Which is a roundabout introduction to what I thought of Amity and Sorrow. This thing has profundity dripping off it. It’s soaked in the stuff. I seemed to be in a constant state of breath-half-drawn-in.

The story and the plotting take a lot of the credit for this. But the writing was a big part too. It was just so damned tight. I’ve whined on about how much I love good, tight, bare writing in the past, so I won’t bore you with that again. Suffice to say this was written with very little flab involved, which made the emotion and the…well…profundity stick out all the more.

And Riley does something else I loved. Having stumbled unsuccessfully through two novels myself, one of my big worries in writing was whether or not I had enough plot to fill the book. I was constantly thinking whether I should go back a couple of stages in the story to give myself more grist for the mill. 

No such amateur worries for Riley, oh no. She starts her story when most of the big stuff has happened. On page one, pretty much everything on the dustcover blurb has already taken place. Within a few pages, you know the big bits of everyone’s back story. Sure, she does spend time later going back and filling in more blanks, and a lot of the smaller back-story details get unfolded as the book goes on, but Riley wastes no time re-hashing the minutiae of the premise. That’s confident writing, and I liked it. It got me straight into the story, no messing. 

It wasn’t perfect. The high quality of large chunks made the occasional slip bark out. For example, the main three characters are so deeply drawn and so identifiable that some of the supporting cast come off as a bit cartoonish, less care having gone into them. Also, the overall story is so heart breaking and fascinating that, by contrast, some of the specific events come off as awkward; against the grain of the wider context. 

Nit picking, I know. But if there are nits to be picked, I might as well tell you about them. Wouldn’t want to send you off not knowing about the nits. That’d be impolite.


Woof! Just enough nits to stop short of a ten, but we’re well and truly back on the track of some good books after that dip in late Feb/early March.

Amity and Sorry isn’t out until the end of next week, (thanks go to the Tinder Press for furnishing me with an advance copy), but you can pre-order it on Amazon here.