Saturday 24 December 2011

GBRYIR!!! (ta daa!!!)

For some reason, this is what
comes up when you search
GBRYIR on Google Images.

It's not exactly a logo, but
I guess it'll do
That’s it. Just a few days away from being a whole entire year of book reviews. I’ve missed the odd one, but 2011 has seen pretty much a review every week. And the traffic to the blog has grown, which means you must not hate it too much. Or my mum is visiting it with increasing regularity. Either way, I’ve enjoyed writing it a bunch. So I’ll probably continue next year, if you don’t mind.

And so time for a treat. If there’s one thing none of us get enough of at this time of year, it’s treats. Famously devoid of treats, the Christmas season. No heaving plates of food. No expertly wrapped goodies. No thirstily supped nectar. Nothing. A barren season indeed.

Wait, no, that’s a lie.

But in case you still have room for more treats, here’s one to add to your leaning tower. A cherry on the top if you like. Or, if you’d prefer, another rambling string of sentences from that bloke you know who writes a book review blog which you feel you have to read in case he ever asks you about it.

I present the inaugural Gav's Book Reviews Year in Review, henceforth to be known as the GBRYIR!!! (ta daa!!!)

Thanks Brad
First review: for those of you that were there at the beginning (bless you), the first ever GBR review was on Moneyball on the 1 Jan 2011. Little did I know there was a film in the works. I think they did that just to help out with traffic to the GBR blog. Thanks Brad.

Best review: I could judge this in two ways. The one I liked best, or the one you read most. As I can’t make my mind up, best go with your opinion (I guess). You read The World of Jeeves most, closely followed by the blog on Room. Third place was the blog on Cream Teas Traffic Jams and Sunburn. Well done you, showcasing your range. Seems you like Wodehouse-ian farce, psychological dramas and non-fiction travel books.

Best book: There were a bunch. I don’t think I’ve read quite as many books in a single year. Ever. Partly due to the blind fear of needing something to blog about every Sunday to be honest. But whatever the reason, I read some crackers this year, and told you about all of them.

Glen Duncan - a hero of 2011
It could go down as the year I stumbled upon Glen Duncan, thanks to a shove in the right direction from my brother. I read three of his, blogged about two of them, and gave them both 9 GBR. I Lucifer is probably the Glen Duncan book I enjoyed most though.

Another honourable mention should also go to The Great Gatsby, also a 9 GBR score. Finally got around to reading it, and it didn’t let me down. Which was a relief. If I hadn’t liked it, I fear my brother-in-law would have led me down a dark alley and quietly explained why I don’t deserve to have nice things. He’s a bit of a Gatsby fan.

But there were two 10 GBR scores this year. The World of Jeeves got one of them. It’s P G Wodehouse. If you’re not a fan, then get off this blog immediately.

For those of you still here and still reading, the other 10 GBR score went to what will win the GBR Book of the Year (GBRBOTY - I love acronyms) for 2011. A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh. Odd to give an old book an award for 2011 you may think, but this isn’t the Man Booker Prize we’re talking about. It’s GBR. And I make the rules. And they are thus - the GBRBOTY award will go to the book I enjoyed reading most in the given year, regardless of publication date.

So there.

Worst book: Only one book got a 1GBR score this year - A Brief History of Time. Two separate friends have since told me that I read the wrong popular science book. That I would have been better served going for any number of more accessible offerings.

But I didn’t. I read this one. And I did not enjoy it one bit. Only book all year that I struggled to get to the end of.

Still, any book that you read for a bet should be approached with caution I guess. On the plus side, Dave Lamb now owes me a guest blog for 2012. Come on Dave, don’t keep your fans waiting…

Best comment: Lot's of comments, some even by people I don't know. I turn the stage over to you...

My brother. A cheeky git
Glorious gold - ladies and gentlemen, I give you my brother. Not known for overstating things at all:
Brilliant, another perfect book, out of how many you've read? 40 or so? So what, 5% of all books you have reviewed are 'perfect'? Are you kidding me? I disagree with Mark. I think you should feel bad. You're a million times worse than Hitler. Signed, James Patrick Collins esq. Your Brother
By Anonymous on A Handful of Dust - another maximum on 18/10/11

Respectable silver - Marky Essex, dangerously close to calling his new born daughter Evelyn:
You should get commission from the author - sales have gone up seconds after your post! Oh and I learn something new everyday - I'd assumed Evelyn Waugh was a female author, not so - Mr Arthur Evelyn Waugh...
By Anonymous on A Handful of Dust - another maximum on 16/10/11

Shameful, shameful bronze - Katie H, with a threat I fear she will actually carry out:
You realise we will now be rating our Christmas presents out of 10? Katie
By Anonymous on Making History - high risk reading on 30/10/11

Special mention - I suspect this was written by someone incredibly intelligent and without any hint of sarcasm:
This is the best blog ever. I agree with everything you've ever said.
By Anonymous on The Book Thief - Darling of the commuter book club... on 14/03/11

Worst comment: I hate to give a negative award to my father. But I will. Not known for his brevity, my dad. Don't feel obliged to read it to the end:
Having read the book I agree that it is not light escapism and requires some deeper unpacking than other books. This said that is the nature of philosophy writing and it is more accessible than most philosophy I have read. Gray’s comments on the views of famous philosophers are controversial to say the least and some of his contentions are not closely argued, but against this his more general expositions are original and very thought provoking. One of Gray’s basic themes is that humanism (progress of humankind by humankind) is false. Scientific progress does not equate to political and ethical progress. He also outlines a view that life (or more accurately being) is the present and is for experiencing; it does not in itself have a purpose. We are bound to have an emotional reaction to his arguements however for me philosophy is about exposing truth and truth does not have emotional content. If we find Gray’s reasoning and conclusions inaccurate then it helps confirm our own views  but if we find Gray’s reasoning correct then we should, where necessary, adjust our views. I don’t agree with large parts of the book's content but it certainly made me think and in 2002 when it was written is was classed as the book of the year for 11 book reviewers including – J.G. Ballard, Will Self, Joan Bakewell and Andrew Marr. I wouldn't go as far as book of the year but I think it is a worthwhile read. Nigelc
By Anonymous on Straw Dogs - uncomfy philosophy on 10/07/11

So that’s that. My first year of blogging done. Another one on the horizon.

I bet you can’t wait.


Sunday 18 December 2011

Lanark - epic

Lanark by Alasdair Gray (Canongate: 1981). A semi autobiographical epic work of fiction, in which we follow the tragic life of a flawed artistic genius in Glasgow, and then continue to follow him after he dies and stumbles his way through Gray’s version of hell, also sort of recognisable as Glasgow.

How do you blog about an epic? Here’s a book that’s taken this guy the best years of his life (30 odd of them) to finish. He’s put himself into it in pretty much every way imaginable. He’s lived with it and grown with it and become obsessed with it for decades. It landed in the world to critical acclaim and has gone down in history as a seminal novel (at least if you believe the introduction).

And here’s me, trying to reduce my opinion of it down to about 500 words (ideally less. I know how you like brevity).

So let’s make this simple. Did I enjoy it? Yes, I’d have to say I did. It has so much in it that it’s hard not to find at least something to like. From the surrealism of the hellish world that the author spends the start and end of the book in, to the everyday majesty of the middle sections. From the hopping around between timelines to the room given for an array of beautiful characters. From the heartbreak of ordinary people, to the flamboyance of the extravagant.

It’s all here. There’s variety in abundance. But there are some unifying threads too. The language (especially the dialogue) is very simple and stripped back. All the stages are vivid and painted with enough care but not too much. The honesty of the protagonist is constant (whichever world or incarnation he finds himself in) and the complexity of those around him remain intricate throughout.

There’s just so much here! And that may be the main (though probably not only) drawback of Lanark. This isn’t a book to flip through on a plane. It’s a book that you need to make room for in your life, and commit to in a fairly serious way. If you don’t, it will quickly turn into a bit of a sand pit. The best moments I had with Lanark were in quiet places, where I had an hour or so to sit down and focus on the pages in front of me.

Don’t give it space to breath, and Lanark won’t just become a drudge to get through, it’ll become downright confusing. The imagination that’s been poured into here comes with about three extra shots of espresso and seven sugars. It’s not overstating it to say it’s wild in places, and it remains wild unless you pay it the proper attention. If you do, you’re rewarded with a sense of structure and purpose that co-exists with the wildness.

I could write about this one for ages. But I’m betting you’re starting to get bored now, so I’ll get to the point.

Lanark is a great book, no doubt. It’s about as rich as they come, and it’s original, and it’s important.  But it’s only those things in the right circumstances. In the wrong circumstances, it’s confused and disjointed.

Difficult one to score then. I’ll put my finger in the air, and come up with a…


Pick it up if you're serious about it. It's absolutley worth your time. But if you're not, don't bother.

Next week, it’s CHRRRIISSSTMAAASS! So not sure if I’ll get around to a blog. If I don’t, I’ll definitely be doing a round up of the year though. So stay tuned. And feel free to let me know some of your highlights of the year, either as a comment to this post or to or tweet me @GavCollins9.

You know, if you want to.

Sunday 11 December 2011

One Man’s Justice - a story that stays on its feet

One Man’s Justice by Akira Yoshimra (Canongate books: 2003). A Japanese novel first published in 1978, exploring the aftermath of WWII in Japan. It focuses on an ex-soldier who carried out his orders and did what soldiers do for their countries in times of war. But his side lost, and now he finds himself hunted and judged as the world settles down to peace.  
There are, on my bookshelf, more than a handful of books that have war in the middle of them, or in the background at least. Of them, more than most use WWII in one way or another. I’d wager it’s the same about your bookshelf. It’s difficult to get away from it. War is one of the most terrible and most compelling things in human history. And WWII was filled with pretty much everything. From the larger than history personalities at the top, with their absolute ideologies and good v evil rhetoric, to the heartbreak and ecstasy of the ordinary man and woman, played out millions of different ways.
War, or the possibility of war, is present in more books and films than pretty much any other single thing.
A lot of them leave me a little conflicted. I mean, WWII is a real thing that happened. Real people that fought. Real people that died. It seems a little uncomfortable to be mining those events for what is essentially entertainment. I get the ‘lest we forget’ thing. I get the value of telling and retelling the stories. I get the need to make sure that the memory needs to be kept, and that stories are one of the best ways of doing that.
I don’t know, maybe I’m being too sensitive. I mean, I buy these books and I read them and I enjoy them. But there tends to be a little voice at the back of my head that is driven by the guilt of enjoying reading about war, that says ‘just leave them alone, let them be.’
And just when I’m ready to, I find another take on it, another book that promises a different angle on it all, complete with its very own insights and moral perspective. That’s what I felt when I picked up One Man’s Justice. I’d just finished David Peace’s Tokyo Year Zero (about which we’ll talk another time, I’m sure), and I was looking for something to tell me more about the small side of post-War Japan.
And this was it. Fiction, yes, but a story that came with a big reputation and one that promised to explore some of the uncomfortable truths of victory from the side of the defeated.
And it did all of that. This book could have fallen over so many times. Tripped up on so many things. But it didn’t. It kept its feet.
It could have let melodrama creep into the war guilt of the Japanese. It could have oversimplified the lines of guilt and innocence. It could have demonised the villains and patronised the honest. It could have let the historical events overshadow the personal ones. It could have made the action into Hollywood plastic. It could have wailed about the unfairness of it all.
But it did none of that. It took its starting point and then it told its story simply and naturally. All of the emotion and all of the morality dripped through the words slowly and expertly.
There are (aren’t there always) downsides. Not many to be fair, but they’re there. Some of the cast of characters are a little thin, coming in and out of the pages without much meat to them, leaving you with a sense of a film with a gaggle of one line extras. Also, if I'm honest, I would have preferred a true story to fiction that claims to be rooted in fact. And some of the motivations and opinions are a little under-explained in places (probably in an attempt to avoid some of that melodrama that was always waiting to trip it up).
But bah! Picky much? I was looking for a war book that told a different story and told it genuinely. That’s what this did. I’m sure there are hundreds (probably thousands) of other books that tell the story of Japan’s war survivors, and I’m sure that many of them are brilliant and unsettling and important.
But this is the one I found. And this is the one I read. And it hit home.
Next week, I hope to have (finally) finished the big book that Atkins got me hooked on (damn her).

Sunday 4 December 2011

Makers - too much tech, too little else

Makers by Cory Doctorow (Harper Collins: 2009). The story of two tech/engineering entrepreneurs who love to make stuff, and are at the centre of a new business boom that sees big money invest in communal tech start ups – a phenomena dubbed “New Work”. The whole thing is documented by an online journalist, who follows our two entrepreneurs as they test the boundaries of their community driven innovations.
Hands up, I totally flaked out last week. Was home for the weekend and didn’t get back till Sunday afternoon. I could have posted a review on Sunday evening, but I didn’t. Lazy, that’s all. Sorry.
I’ve also made a fatal error. I’ve got right into a book that’s a bit big. A lot big actually. And it’s taking me a while to get through. I blame Katy Atkins, who recommended it a few weeks ago. I bought it and now I can’t put it down. I’m really enjoying it. But it’s going to take a few weeks to finish.
So I thought it’d be worth going back and telling you about something else on my bookshelf that I read a while ago. It’s the one I was reading about this time last year I think, so there’s at least some relevance there.
Cory Doctorow (I didn’t know this when I picked the book up to begin with) is something of a celebrity in the online world. He was named as one of the world’s top 25 internet influencers (whatever that means). I’m not going to pretend I fully understand most of what he writes, blogs, lectures and debates about, but suffice to say he’s well down with the 2.0 world.
And Makers is positively soaking in all that stuff. It brings up some properly interesting possibilities, even for a technology caveman like me. What’s all the more compelling is that none of this is 25th century sort of stuff. It’s all got a very real world context, and the technology is of the in-the-not-too-distant-future sort. From what I understand, there are people ferreting away as we speak to make this technology a reality. Hell, for all I know, this stuff is possible right now.
But it’s not just technology that Doctorow explores in Makers, he stretches his theme to explore the business patterns and societal changes that the technology is tied up with. He does a good job of interlinking all of the above without ever presenting one as leading the others. Technology, society, business – it’s all moving and changing from page to page.
It all knitted together well. The plot progression made sense. Doctorow’s soaring imagination was there, but reigned in just enough to keep it true. All good points.
But me, I found it all a bit too glossy. The people in the book never really came to life for me. At all. There was so much emphasis on the innovation that the human side was ignored a little I think. No doubt, the characters all had interesting arcs, they all had important parts to play in the plot and they all seemed to represent something, but I felt like you could write the entire essence of each one down on an index card.
I don’t know how good writers take a fictional person and make them reach-out-and-touch real by using nothing more than words on a page, but they do. We’ve all read great examples of it. We all know it’s possible. I don’t know how it happens, but when it does I recognise it. And it didn’t happen here.
I just didn’t care about these guys.
Not every book needs every ingredient though, I guess. Makers has plenty of them. It was interesting. It was imaginative. It was ambitious. It opened my eyes to a few new possibilities. It was original.
But it drowned it the concepts that dominated it. It lacked emotion. And it lacked a bit of humanity.
I don’t regret picking it up. It kept me interested. But I won’t be picking it up again.
Next week all depends on whether I finish my current big book (thanks a bunch, Atkins...) So it’ll either be that one (a debut masterpiece from a Scottish writer) or it’ll be something else from the shelf.
I bet you can’t wait.

Saturday 19 November 2011

Persepolis - graphic

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (Vintage: 2008). A graphic novel following the story of the author’s life. She grew up in Iran and lived through the headlines. Persepolis gives an insight into the lives of a political family, and how the story of Iran shaped the outlook of one of its daughters.
I was watching Fresh Meat last week. At one stage, they took the mickey out of “geeks that read Iranian graphic novels and get around to talk about it” (or something like that, anyway).
This was about three days after I finished an Iranian graphic novel. And had decided to blog about it.
It was a struggle not to feel pretty small at that point.
To be fair to Persepolis, it’s also a “major motion picture”, which earns it a few more cool points, right? No?
Well, no matter, I read it and now I’m blogging about it, and if that means I get judged by the Fresh Meat crowd, well I guess I’m just going to have to live with that. So there.
This was my first graphic novel. Which, after a bit of thought, I’ve realised really is too wide a label to be a genre. I mean, it’s like saying this is my first movie, or this is my first cartoon. It’s a format, but the differences between each example can be huge. Persepolis, Watchmen, Sin City – they’re all graphic novels, but I’m willing to bet cold hard cash that they’re all very very different.
So I’ll not pause too much on the graphic novel factor. It was new to me, but I got used to it pretty quickly. I guess the big difference is that there are more tools on hand to create a distinct feel. Satrapi didn’t have to rely solely on the words on the page to develop the atmosphere of the book, she had the style of the drawings, the way they were arranged on the page, the expressions on people’s faces – all came together to signpost both the plot and the emotion of the book very effectively.
Perhaps most impressive about Persepolis was its consistency. The writing style, the pictures, the layout – they all chimed together, they all looked and felt and sounded the same. This is a book with a very strong personality, and it works well to tell a powerful story.
But there was a fairly major downside to Persepolis for me. The style is very simplistic, which means that it comes off as childish in places. Which is brilliant  and apt in the early and middle parts, where the world is being presented through the eyes of a child. But the kid grows up as the story moves on, and the style stays the same. When there’s high drama early on, the child’s voice and perspective makes it all the more heartbreaking. But when there’s similar drama later on, and we’re still experiencing it with the same style of narration, it comes across as flippant.
And a little annoying.
I don’t want to get too down on it. I enjoyed reading it, and it’s probably a little unfair to applaud the style of the book and then criticise it for staying true to that style from start to finish. I just felt that the story moved but the characters didn’t. The grown up Marji at the end of the book still feels like the child Marji from the start.
Maybe that was intentional. Maybe she’s trying to show that we’re the same people our whole lives, no matter what age we are. Maybe that’s a good point to make. But in making it, I think she’s sacrificed depth and development and richness.
Plenty good about Persepolis, but plenty bad too. Classic middle value score.
Next week, think I’m going to turn a little Doctorow. I’m sure the Fresh Meat lot would approve. Not that I care.

Sunday 13 November 2011

Death of an Ordinary Man - making up with Smuggy Smugerton

Death of an Ordinary Man by Glen Duncan (Scribner: 2004). A novel following Nathan Clark as he navigates the disorienting experience of being recently deceased. He follows his family and friends during his funeral and wake as he pieces together the facts of his life, his fate being revealed to the reader as his memory is spurred on by the thoughts and actions of his nearest and dearest.
This is the third Glen Duncan book I’ve read this year, and the second I’ve reviewed. He’s the only guy that I’ve read that many times since starting this blog. And, to be honest, I’d have read more if I didn’t think you’d get sick of reading reviews of Glen Duncan every week.
I saved this one up. It’s been sitting on my shelf for quite a while, but I saved it until I had a bit of time off work. I saw it as a treat that I wanted to enjoy when I had a few long days that I could spend with it.
And there’s good reason why I see Glen Duncan books as treats. I have my issues with them (which I’ll go into), but I’m always inspired by them. I always come away feeling that I’ve just read a book that justifies the art form. He creates stories that grow and grow from the very first page, and by the time you’ve turned the last one your head is just so full of ideas and people and emotions that it’s enough to make you want to pick up a pen and join the club yourself.
It’s not always been unconditional, my love of Glen Duncan Books. I’ve had my problems with them. And they are problems that this book wasn’t immune to. He has a tendency to be too clever sometimes. Every now and then, he shows off just a little bit too much. He writes confidently and with style, but there’s the odd point at which, between the lines, you can see him typing away with a smug look on his face. “God I’m swell at this writing stuff, everyone’s going to think I’m just about the greatest person in the world” he’s muttering as he’s thrashing his keyboard. “I think I deserve a cake.”
It keeps his writing from becoming relatable at times. You’re made to feel, (only very occasionally to be fair), that you’re trespassing on his story.
But, between you and me, I’ve decided not to care. When I first read him, it really troubled me. I loved the book, but I struggled to get past Duncan’s over-confidence. When I read him the second time, it seemed to matter less. And in this book, well I’ve decided to get over myself a little and just enjoy it. Because there’s a huge amount here to be enjoyed.
Death of an Ordinary Man starts with a great premise. A man haunting his own funeral. But (as I’ve said before) great premises are two a penny. Most of us can come up with great premises. It takes an artist to turn it into something more than that. And Duncan, love or hate him, really is a great artist.
He turns this premise into something beautiful.
He gives us so much time with each of the characters. They each become huge. They don’t quite become real – they’re too introspective and self analytical to relate to in any sort of a real world way – but they are compelling and they are, all of them, a massive presence.
There’s mystery in this book. And there’s sadness. There’s a little bit of Duncan smugness, but it’s overshadowed once and for all by his talent.
All things, considered, it’s bloody good.
Short of the 10 GBR mainly because of those chinks of smugness. I’m over them, but they’re still there and I still recognise them, and they irk me just enough to stop short of a ten.
That’s it, I’m cutting myself off of Duncan for the rest of the year. Three of his and two reviews is quite enough attention.
Next week, something very different. A first for me. A graphic novel.

Sunday 6 November 2011

The Sense of an Ending - award winning believability

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (Jonathan Cape: 2011) A short novel written in the first person. Tony Webster looks back on his life and the few key relationships that shaped it, memories triggered by the fate of one of his closest and enigmatic friends.
Got to try the big award winners, right? These are the books that all the pros reckon will end up being the lasters, the ones that survive time and end up being remembered. According to those in the know, these books are the best of the best of what’s around today. That’s why they give them the prizes (obvs).
Once a year, the Man Booker Prize is given out, and the book it’s given too presumably enjoys an ugly upward spike in its sales for a few weeks. I usually do my bit to contribute to that spike (it's nice to take part), the more so this year as the winner was a novella, so a quick read, which I like.
I’ve read a few Man Booker Prize winners (even reviewed one of them here), and they’ve all been quite different from each other. Which is good. And which happened again this time.
The Sense of an Ending has a really simple premise. A man looking back on his life, questioning the reliability of memory, the nature of history, and learning new things about himself and his past.
So simple in fact that it has the danger of being a bit boring. The tactics used to avoid that fate? Well, the usual ones to be honest. A sharp and engaging writing style. Thoughtful and intelligent insights. A few gentle twists sparingly but effectively used. A well staggered exploration of character.
My pulse never raced and my blood never boiled. I stayed well and truly in the middle of my seat throughout. But my brain was certainly engaged, and my heart was too. Barnes achieves a realistic and believable portrayal of a man preoccupied (but not overwhelmed) by the nostalgia of his life. I felt I was in a conversation with Tony Webster. I’m not sure I entirely liked the guy, but he was at least real.
And that’s a trick not to be underestimated. We’ve all read books that are driven by fantastic plots, but where the main characters take on the qualities of Hollywood stars – the kind that, were they to stand in front of you, you’d have to reach out and touch to make sure they were real, and even then they seem more natural on the pages of magazine rather than in the same world as us. Tony Webster is not like that. If he sat in my living room, I’d probably offer him a cup of tea. There’d be little (if any) awe. That I can imagine serving this entirely fictional character a cup of Tetley’s is testament to the powers of Julian Barnes.
But does all this make for a good book? Well, I think it makes for a great novella. Barnes told his story and gave it the right length. He didn’t stretch it out. If he did, he’d either have to keep true to the characters (in which case, it’d probably get boring after a while), or he’d have to give them new qualities, (in which case he’d sacrifice the believability of the book).
I enjoyed reading this. It made me think (more) about the nature of memory. It created connection between its pages and me that I felt strongly, which meant I cared a lot more than I perhaps should have about a relatively ordinary plot. And that’s important. There needn’t be explosions for a book to be good, you simply have to be made to care about what happens.
And I did.
Love this book? No, I probably didn’t. But I was very fond of it. A more pedestrian emotion, but a real one. Probably quite apt.
Next week, a book by an author I’ve reviewed before on here. Which is a first. I'm sure you're very excited.

Sunday 30 October 2011

Making History - high risk reading

Making History by Stephen Fry (Hutchinson: 1996) A young historian and a jaded physicist meet in the corridors of high education, discovering an unlikely common interest. Their curiosity leads them to developing a machine that poses more philosophical questions than they first realised. They use it unquestioningly, and the results are the stuff of high entertainment.
This is high risk reading. Danger at every corner with this one. First, it was a birthday present. Who goes on-line and disses a birthday present? Gits, that’s who.
Second, it’s by that delightful Stephen Fry. I (like most of you I’m sure) really like that guy. True, the last few years have given us perhaps a bit too much Fry, but he’s got a lot of credit in the bank from Jeeves and Wooster, credit that I can’t imagine him ever really exhausting.
Third, it was a bit big, which put some stress on my ability to try and finish a new book for you guys every week. On the plus side, the writing was real large.
So you can imagine my relief when the book started well. One of my main worries was that all I would hear is Stephen Fry talking to me. When the author is so famous, there’s the danger that the book itself will fail to speak. That the story won’t get a chance to really live under the weight of the author’s character. That didn’t happen here. The protagonist (and narrator of large passages) was lively and separate from Fry. He had his own personality, and Fry stayed diligently in the background.
And it was (as you’d expect from Fry) well written and well paced. It was very easy to read. The sentences and the paragraphs and the chapters were structured so effortlessly that you could just strap in and enjoy the ride. The book didn’t ask much from me, but equally I didn’t feel short changed. There was just enough to make me feel I was into something meaty, but not so much that I had to wade through it with furrowed brow.
So far, so good.
But then the plot kicked in properly. About half way through, or maybe three quarters, the plot really woke up. And I’m not sure I liked that.
Of course, it’s difficult to go through exactly why without giving away the ins and outs. Suffice to say that it all went a bit fantastical. It had its good points. It posed some interesting hypothetical questions. But I couldn’t help feeling I had leapt from a tightly woven narrative into some sort of contrived Back to the Future sequel.
And before you get on my back, I of course love Back to the Future. Love it. But I didn’t really feel it had a place here. It’s like watching Inspector Morse for an hour and a half, and then Doctor Who suddenly landing and waving his electric screwdriver around. I love them both, Morse and Who, but for different reasons, and I think I may cry if ever they were to trample on each other’s ground.
So yes, that spoiled it ever so slightly. But I continued to fly through the pages, continued to be entertained by the subtle wit that Fry dropped in wherever possible, continued to enjoy the characters her created, continued to race towards the 572nd page and the grand conclusion.
So in all, a good book. An enjoyable book. But one with flaws.
I’d read it again. And again. But maybe not again after that.
Next week, I give the latest Man Booker Prize winner a shot.

Sunday 23 October 2011

A Brief History of Time - a waste of mine

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking (Bantam Press: 1988) One of the world’s greatest minds sets out to explain the very big (and very small) theories of the universe, exploring the nature of space time and the possibilities that our understanding of it opens up.
Hmmm.....yes, well.....right....hummmm, ok.
Uh huh.
Not quite sure where to start with this one. No doubt about it, it was a toughie.
I bounded into it full of enthusiasm. We all know about this book, and every time it’s talked of it’s praised for its ability to explain the mysteries of the universe in a populist, accessible way.
Well, that may be a bit harsh. It started out colourfully enough. And there were tid bits of light. The odd anecdote that brought a point to life, the odd passage that suddenly made the previous twenty pages of confusion make sense.
But for the most part, confusion reigned. Confusion and disappointment.
I’ve no doubt part of the fault was my own. I’m not an idiot, but I’m perhaps not the most scientifically minded either. I’m sure one or two people I know would have grasped a lot more of this than I did. But no more than one or two. OK, maybe three. Come to think of it, four, but that’s it. Four people I can think of that might skip through these pages a little more light footed than me, without having to read passages two or three times before they even began to make some sort of sense.
And the shame was that, after a while, I stopped caring. I hate it when that happens with a book. Here are these powerful little collections of pages, capable of huge things, truly huge things. They can (and have) changed worlds, inspired greatness, all that stuff. And here I was, with one of them in my hand, doing nothing other than reading the words in my head one after the other, taking none of it in. The words could have been anything by the end. Which felt like a massive waste.
I tried. I did try. I’ve read scientific books before. Philosophy books. Other books crammed with difficult ideas. But this one, this one drained away my enthusiasm and my patience to the point that (to my embarrassment) I simply stopped caring.
This book may succeed in its scientific mission, but it fails in its literary one. It may accurately put forth the important thoughts of a great mind, but it failed to take me along for the ride.
Which is, after all, what I was promised. I was promised the secrets in the universe packaged up in a way that made them accessible to me.
They were not.
Ouch! Sorry Stephen.
Right, I’ve held up my part of the bargain. Dave told me I couldn’t read and review this book. Well, I have and I did.
And the stakes? Well, Dave lost, so now Dave has to do a guest review.
Over to you, Davey boy.
Next week (presuming that Dave takes more than a week to do his review) an interesting idea from that delightful Stephen Fry.

Sunday 16 October 2011

A Handful of Dust - another maximum

A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh (Chapman and Hall: 1934). A novel following the fate of Tony Best, a man devoted to his wife and to his family home. As the declining morals of the age begin to impact on his own life, Tony takes everything quite in his stride as his world drifts away.
I’m on record as saying I love PG Wodehouse. I took a bit of stick for it at the time. All just a bit of fun, isn’t it? Just nice gentle comedy, right? Well, yes. Wonderful, sunny, affirming comedy. I don’t see why it should be downgraded as literature just for being funny. I don....
Well, let’s not get into that again. We’ve argued once you and me. Let’s not do it again.
Let’s instead skip into a bit of Evelyn Waugh. I bring up Wodehouse only to introduce Waugh. For me, the two have a lot of similarities. His books live in the same world. The carefree generation.
The (rather large) difference though is that Waugh takes it all a little more seriously. Not that you’d notice if you took every word at face value. It’s every bit as flippant and comedic and silly as Wodehouse. His characters are just as blind and just as wonderful. His plots carry the same eccentricity.
But between those ingredients are more serious issues. There’s so much between the lines in Waugh’s work that the subtext is almost louder than the words you read. Of the handful of Waugh books that I’ve read, this is the one where he packs the most into the space underneath the surface of the narrative.
It’s a skill. It really is. To bring out so much without ever really saying it. Whereas Wodehouse mined the quirkiness of this world for laughs, Waugh does so in a way that’s both amusing and heartbreaking. He makes you laugh at the antics of this valueless generation, but by the time you’ve finished the next line you’re also angry and aching and despairing.
I have no idea how he does it, but he does, and it’s beautiful.
Every inch of his pain from the breakup of his own marriage comes through in A Handful of Dust, but at no stage does he leap into arcs of emotional prose. At no stage does he catalogue the ways in which the hurt manifests itself. At no stage does he depart the whimsical, Wodehousian voice. But it’s all there. All the bitterness. It comes through and it hits you and it makes you feel. All in between the laughs.
Which leaves me with a dilemma. No doubt I love Evelyn Waugh. I’ve read a few of his books now and he’s fast becoming one of my favourite authors (watch out Steinbeck and Wodehouse...) And, of course, I gave Wodehouse a 10GBR score. Can I afford two in one year?
Let’s think about the downsides to this book.
I can’t. I just can’t think of the downsides. I don’t care if it’s another 10GBR and you’ll probably hate me for it. It’s only my second in ten months of reviewing a book a week. I’m afraid you’ll just have to live with it.
I loved this book. You should absolutely definitely positively go out and read it.
And if you don’t love it, come back here and tell me why.
Next week (if I finish it) a book that I’m reading for a bet. If I get through it, the loser will come on here and do a guest review of his own. You have been warned.

Monday 10 October 2011

Blame Dublin

Jason Derulo - took a battering in Dublin...

I know, I know, no blog entry yesterday. One of only a handful missed this year, and caused my a rather eventful weekend in Dublin.

On the plus side, we all got through it alive and we didn't leave a man behind, although there may still be bits of Nathan on the other side of the Irish sea. And I'm not sure Jason Derulo's reputation will ever be the same again.

I promise to post again at the usual time next Sunday. Until then, if you must read something, give paperblogprincess a read

Sunday 2 October 2011

Room - a one-click wonder

Room by Emma Donoghue (Picador: 2010) A novel centred on the life of Jack, a five year old who has been locked up in a single room with his mother for his whole life. As far as he’s concerned, that room is the whole world. Until his mother decides to tell him about outside. The results change both their lives.
Great ideas aren’t very difficult. We’ve all had them. A few beers , a bit of chat, a few “what if...” questions, and you’re pretty soon convinced you’ve come up with a great idea for a book or a film or a telly programme.
The premise is the easy bit. Room has a great one, I think. A book about a five year old boy who’s spent his whole life with his mum in a single room, in a Josef Fritzel sort of a way. Seeing the world through the boy’s eyes as he discovers that there’s a world outside his room – that’s a great idea for a book.
It's what made me buy it. A friend told me about it over a drink or two, and the idea was enough for me to Amazon one-click it there and then (a habit that I really need to get out of - damn one-click is dangerous).
Turning the idea into a book, that’s the difficult part.
It’s been a few days since I finished Room, and I still can’t decide if Donoghue really succeeded with it. There are a lot of things I like. It’s written in the first person, and the voice of the boy is well crafted. Donoghue never really lets the narrative break character. In places, it’s wonderfully fluent and natural. There were one or two places where the strain of maintaining the style came through, but on the whole, it was done convincingly. Which is quite impressive, given Donoghue was never actually a 5 year old boy herself (to the best of my knowledge).
The relationship the boy has with his mum is well explored as well, and Donoghue does a great job of giving some painful insights into the mother’s state of mind. Her pain and the complexity of her inner demons come through strongly, despite it all being presented through the eyes of a five year old boy. A significant trick and one achieved with style.
And the premise. I just can’t get away from the idea of the book. It’s brilliant. The idea of telling this story from the child’s perspective. The idea of a human being whose entire understanding of the world changes so radically and so swiftly. It’s just plain compelling, the more so with the real world Josef Fritzel saga in the back of your mind. I’m sure there are other examples of similar things happening, and that hint of reality gives the story a real edge.
That’s perhaps the one big weakness with this as well though, the reason why I still can’t quite decide if this is a good book or not. The premise is just so compelling that it dominates the whole of the book. I never really felt as if the story had a chance to develop fully. I knew the premise going in, and by the end I didn’t really feel as if it had been moved forward much. There just weren’t really any surprises in here, nothing new that made me feel as if the world was moving.
But I guess it’s not that kind of book. The pages flew by regardless. The idea was so fascinating, and the way it was explored was so expert, that I remained glued to it for long periods.
That’s what I love about this blog. It’s helping me think properly about what I’m reading. I started out writing this entry without a clear idea of what I felt about this book. But I’ve gone and answered my own question there, haven’t I? “I remained glued to it for long periods.” Got to have been a good book then, right? That it left me with a bit of an empty feeling, that it seemed like more could have been done with the premise, that the story seemed a little stunted – none of that matters.
Donoghue has created something that trumped all the other options I had in front of me when deciding how to spend my time. I wanted to pick the book up every day, and I didn’t want to put it down again.
It’s a great premise. It retains a well crafted voice throughout. It successfully represents a number of viewpoints through the eye of just one.
It wasn't perfect. But I can live with the flaws.
Next week, putting down the best seller list for a while to revisit one of my favourite authors for a bit of a tragic comedy. Mind you, I’m also on a stag do next week, so I may have to post the next one a bit late. I’m sure you’ll let me off though. You’re nice like that.

Sunday 25 September 2011

Misery - not such a bad emotion

Misery by Stephen King (Hodder and Stoughton: 1987). Classic King, centring on a writer who is kidnapped by his psycho number one fan, who takes him to hell and back as she forces him to turn out one last book in a series that he’s come to hate.
Well, this feels apt. Right after going through an emotional roller coaster watching Scotland give a traditional so-close-yet-so-far performance against Argentina, here I am reviewing a book called Misery. Yeah, that pretty much sums up it up.
That’s life though I guess. Emotion followed by emotion. It’s why we follow sports – to buy in to the highs and the lows. It’s why we go on roller coasters and ghost trains – to tap into a little bit of terror. And it’s why we read book (to some extent) – to be made to feel something by the words on the page.
And most of the time, it’s those negative emotions that we chase the most. Tension. Anxiety. Heart break. Fear.
Which brings me nicely on to Stephen King. There’s a guy that knows how to stir up a nice big pot of fear. He’s done it I don’t know how many times, and he does it again here.
It’s the way he builds his stories that really sets him apart. Misery starts with a pretty terrifying situation. Not too many pages go by before you grasp the situation at hand. Where some writers would build up it up gradually, King lands you right in there and then spends the rest of the (fairly long book) building on it and building on it. He creates honest to goodness fear not by lulling you into a false sense of security then shocking you. Instead, he explores a horrific situation so completely that you’re locked inside it.
He goes off on enough tangents to give you a breather, to let you learn about the characters (all two of them), to put the fear into context. But he never lets you completely escape.
I kind of enjoyed how dated the book is as well. There are a few cultural references that remind you that this book was written in the 80s (none more so than the prominent  typewriter). But it’s more than just the references, it’s the way it’s written too. It just sounds 1980s. It’s like watching The Goonies. And I love that about it.
Main area the book falls down in? It’s the area most horror stories fall down in. (Ever so slight spoiler alert here – not really though. I knew I said I wouldn’t do spoilers, but hard to make this point without it). You knew all the way through that everything would turn out alright. There were one or two moments you started doubting it a little, but King never really makes you believe the absolute worst could actually happen. You always knew that the psycho wouldn’t win.
Otherwise, this was great. But then we all knew it would be, right? It’s Stephen freakin’ King. No surprise the guy can write. No surprise he can craft a good story. He’s done it dozens of times.
When you fancy reading a good book and don’t know where to turn, pick up a King. Dead cert every time.
Also, a quick note on my copy of this book. I got it as a FlipBack book – a teeny tiny book smaller than your phone (unless you're my dad), with the pages in landscape rather than portrait. Cigarette paper thin pages. You can fit it in your pocket, and you get used to the way it’s printed pretty darn fast. I’m a fan.
Next week, another claustrophobic one about people who spend most of their time in one room. Bit of a theme developing here, huh?

Sunday 18 September 2011

The Help - smashing through roadblocks

The Help by Kathryn Stockett (Fig Tree: 2009). The story of Jackson Mississippi in 1962, where the race lines were still very clearly drawn. It focuses on the black home help that most of the white community employed, portraying both the brutal and the heart warming sides.  
There are a lot of reasons (good and bad) why I should not like this book. So many in fact, I’m going to use bullet points to take you through just a few of them (that’s right, bullet points on a Sunday, I bet you thought I wouldn’t go there. Well, I did).
·         Tons of people I know have read it and love it (including my wife). This means taking on a massive risk – what happens if I read it, don’t like it, and have to say so on this here blog? Arguments, that’s what.
·         It’s about a pretty over done topic. It’s essentially a civil rights book. Not that that’s a bad thing. In fact, it’s a wonderful and vital thing. Just a thing that’s been done a few times before. It’s the same reason I try to avoid WWII books now. I’ve heard that story before.
·         It’s full of accented speech. Again, not a bad thing in its own right, just a very difficult thing to write in a way that doesn’t become incredibly hard work to read.
I’ll stop at three; the bullet points are making me feel nauseous.
So I was fairly resolved not to read this. But then I realised I write a blog about books now, and one of the big motivators behind it is to read stuff I wouldn’t ordinarily. Broaden the old horizons a little. And sometimes that means reading the multi-million bestselling, Hollywood blockbusting, talk of the masses book.
All of which, thankfully, gets left behind as soon as you start reading this. Books frequently have the ability to make you forget that they’re being read by millions of others. Make you forget that they drive mega entertainment industries. Make you forget that they’re at the core of smash hit movies. Make you forget that they’re in any way commercial at all.
Good books grab you and speak with you and make you feel the only things in the room are you and it.
And so it is with The Help. Every roadblock I threw up to liking this book was driven through within a couple of chapters. And it was for no other reason than it was just incredibly well written. This is an easy book to sink into. It presents a world and people in it that you quickly become familiar with, and one in which you’re quite happy to live in for long periods of time.
Whilst driving through the roadblocks I’d put up for it though, the book picked up a few new scratches along the way. It centres on three core characters, and hops between them throughout the book. It’s a structure that was quite fun to begin with, but as it went on, the lines between the characters started to blur, and the constant hopping between their perspectives didn’t so much keep the story sharp as it frustrated any sense of continuity.
Also, the overarching plot began to drag a little. And if there’s one thing that can ruin an otherwise great book, it’s a draggy plot.
None of the scratches obscured what I liked about the book too much though. It’s hugely enjoyable to read. And it’s rich as well. There are so many little spirals, little strands of storyline, little insights to different parts of the community and the different lives in it. I can’t decide if the fact that they’re put together in a bit of a chaotic way is a good thing or a bad thing, but I can’t deny that I enjoyed reading them.
Which I is the whole point of this blog. I said at the start that I wasn’t going to judge whether books were “good” or not. “Good” has far too many ways to be interpreted. Instead, it’s all about was the book “enjoyable”. Is it worth your time? Will it be more fun than whatever’s on telly?
Yes on all counts.
Very very good, but not brilliant. It forced me to get past the reasons why I thought I wouldn’t like it. I enjoyed living with it for a couple of weeks, and I always picked it up with relish. But I probably won’t look at it fondly on my bookshelf. And I probably won’t go see the film.
Next week, the second horror story of the year for GBR.