Saturday 29 January 2011

The Small Hand - a bit too small?

The Small Hand by Susan Hill (Profile Books 2010). A ghost story from one of the genre’s most prolific. An antiquarian book seller feels the hand of a child holding his whilst lost in an overgrown country garden. The hand comes back to him over the coming weeks as he struggles to understand who it belongs to and what it wants.
I’d never really read a ghost story before (unless you count The Shining, which I’m not sure qualifies as a pure ghost story). This one promised to be a good place to start. A new book from a recognised leader in the field of ghost stories. I admit, I was also suckered by the look of the book as well. It’s a small hardback with an old looking sleeve. I would, indeed, look cool reading this on the train every day.
All good signs then.
But it didn’t live up to them.
I wouldn’t go as far as to say it was a bad book. It had quite an interesting premise. It was all written in the first person, which is fairly rare nowadays and so gave it a bit of a different feel. It built up nicely to a big ending. And it took you to one or two interesting settings.
But it was a bit...blegh. I never really felt any connection with the main character, and his conversion from sceptic to believer was a bit...well...unbelievable. It’s a ghost story, so I expected to be on the edge of my train seat most of the time. I even contrived to make sure I finished the book alone in my flat with just a lamp on to see if that would help. But it didn’t. I never really felt any tension, I didn’t care a huge amount about the main character, and the times when he was in danger I just felt he was being a bit silly. Hill never really got me believing that he was in real danger, or that the small hand was anything other than a minor inconvenience.
Maybe it’s my fault. I couldn’t be more of a sceptic when it comes to ghosts (if they were real, surely one of them would have been on BBC Breakfast by now). Maybe I just wasn’t in the right state of mind to let the book in.
Having said that, The Shining scared me. That relied on the supernatural, but I genuinely feared for the characters in it, and was constantly willing them to escape. So it is possible. I’m not cold hearted and it is possible to scare me. The Small Hand just didn’t.

The Shining - Better

For all its faults though, it’s readable enough. Susan Hill has written a lot, and she knows her stuff. I never felt I was struggling to get to the end of the book, and (although I was never truly engaged with it) I wouldn’t go as far as to say I was bored. Just slightly disinterested.
And it’s short, so it won’t take up too much of your time.
Redeeming factors that drags its GBR score up to...
I’ll review The Shining one day. No prizes for guessing whether it’ll outscore The Small Hand or not.

Sunday 23 January 2011

The Lesson of the Master – The perfect antidote to too many long books

The Lesson of the Master by Henry James (Melville House 2004 – first published in Universal Review, 1888). A novella from the Victorian New Yorker, in which he follows the course of a young writer grappling with what he needs to give up to fulfil his artistic talent.
Novellas are great, though I still stumble whenever I need to say the word, in the same way it took me a couple of years to be comfortable saying the word “latte” in a coffee shop. It just sounds too dainty whenever I say it, and is always followed by a couple of seconds of silence in which I fully expect anyone that’s overheard me to giggle a little at my awkwardness with such a fragile word.
But, nevertheless, I do like novellas (just as I like lattes). And after one or two long books, I was looking forward to something shorter. Not quite the quick fix of a short story, but something that I could read over a weekend and feel good about.
In The Lesson of the Master, I found something that fit the bill. I’d never read any Henry James before, but he’s one of the long list of writers I felt I should at least give a try at some stage, and this short book seemed the perfect introduction.
The trick with novellas, it seems, is to pick a topic that has enough weight to deserve its own book, but perhaps not enough depth to command attention throughout an entire novel. The topic Henry James picked for this novella is the sacrifices an artist needs to make to create something perfect. He gives the theme a setting in the experiences of a promising young novelist, and an ageing one that refused to make those sacrifices.
It works well. The first two thirds of the book canter along quite gently, but they act to set up the climactic scene where, late one night in his opulent home, the elderly writer explains what lies ahead if his younger protégé is serious about creating something worthy of his talents.
I won’t go into the storyline anymore than that. This blog isn’t about telling you what happens in a book. I’d prefer to tell you what’s good/bad/average about it rather than give away entire plots, robbing you of the fun of finding out for yourself. Suffice to say that James treats the theme at hand with a great deal of insight, and you can certainly imagine him facing the same dilemmas in his own writing career.
I felt better for having read this book. And that’s enough for me to recommend it. It’s a quick read, but one that leaves you thinking seriously about the issues it raises. You’ll agree with some of what James puts across, and disagree with parts as well. You’ll feel sympathy for the main character, and you’ll feel conflicted about “the master.”
But most importantly, you’ll feel stimulated by it without having to plough through 800 pages of masterpiece. So another high score...
That’s two high ones in a row. I need to read something bad next, else you’ll think I’m far too generous...

Saturday 22 January 2011

Not just because he works down my road

The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund de Waal (Chatto & Windus: 2010) A biography of 264 small Japanese ornaments (netsuke), following them as they are passed through the generations of Edmund de Waal’s family. The story charts the netsuke (and the Ephrussi family) through 19th century Paris, 20th century Vienna, and 21st century Tokyo.

Edmund de Waal works down my road. His studio is behind the shop at the end of my street. So that was reason enough for me to pick up this book (and do a little small scale stalking to take a pic of the locked gate outside his studio).

The gate to Edmund de Waal's studio, behind the Co-Op at the end of our street. Maybe one day I'll meet him in the canned goods aisle...

He isn’t a novelist, or even a writer. He’s a potter. Yes, an incredibly accomplished, internationally renowned potter. But his art is first and foremost in ceramic rather than words.
But he achieved in this book something that hit me every bit as hard as any piece of art ever has.
Of everything I’ve ever read, I can count on the fingers of one hand the amount of times that an individual passage has made me well up and (though I’m a little reluctant to admit it) need to put the book down and give myself a minute before turning the page again. That happened with this book.
It’s a difficult thing to achieve, that one moment of huge emotion. Partly because books don’t move as quickly as TV or theatre or music, and they rely a great deal more on the imagination of the audience to bring them to life. A lot of groundwork needs to be laid, and a relationship struck between author and reader, before a true climax can be reached, otherwise they very often feel shallow and not worth a deep emotional reaction.
That is what I think de Waal has done so perfectly in this book. He makes you care about a collection of Japanese ornaments more than you would have thought possible. As he vagabonds (to use his phrase) around the world chasing their history, he allows you to feel that you’re also chasing their story in amongst the tangents on which he goes. He develops the story so well that you find yourself caring an inordinate amount about the netsuke without realising it’s happening.
For me, it culminated in a moment of high sentiment about two thirds of the way through the book.
Of course, everyone will react differently, depending on how you read it, in what state of mind you read it, where you read it, etc. You may well read this and not recognise the passage that hit me so profoundly. You may be taken by a different part of the book altogether.
But on the off chance that my reaction wasn’t a one off, and that I wasn’t just being a bit silly, I’m going to be recommending this to everyone I know. If it works for you like it worked for me, you’ll remember this book for a long time. If it doesn’t, it’s still an highly readable and fascinating real life tale that shines a light onto a familiar part of history from a different angle.
And so, The Hare with Amber Eyes gets the highest GBR yet...
I know. I loved it, so why not 10 GBR? Well, I have to leave some room for improvement. And it is a high 8, after all.

Sunday 9 January 2011

Wolf Hall - you get out what you put in...

Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantel (Fourth Estate: 2009). A historical novel following Thomas Cromwell as he rises from low born Londoner to the most powerful man in Henry VIII’s court. It charts history as the King splits from the Catholic Church, marries Anne Boleyn, and condemns Thomas More.

650 pages worth of Booker Prize winning historical fiction. Be still my beating heart...
I know, historical fiction often ends up lumped in with science fiction in the ever-so-slightly-too­-geeky category, but I’m a fan. So when Wolf Hall came up on my “Amazon recommends” list, it was an easy decision.
Now, in the vein of the principles of GBR, I’m going to try and take as objective a view of this as I can. I'll even spare you the historiography, and focus simply on the merits of the book as something worth spending your time on. It’s not “did I enjoy it,” but “do I think you’ll enjoy it?”
I think you will. And here’s why.
This is an incredibly rich book. It’s a novel that makes you remember how fulfilling reading a book can be if you give it enough of a chance.
It’s long, has lots of characters, and meanders its way through the life of the protagonist (Thomas Cromwell), and so I’ll be honest, my attention drifted at times. But it seemed that whenever I was in a quiet place with it, it excited me, enlightened me, saddened me, or amused me. Mantel had a lot to say, and she said it all very well.
And it’s not just the way she’s woven the story, it’s the way she writes that also sets this book apart. She includes a handful of intentional quirks of style that make the book enjoyable to read. It’s as if you’re getting used to the way someone speaks, and once you do you feel a bond with them. The book becomes individual and unique.
Mantel takes you into the pages of the book and makes you feel included in them; she trusts you to infer parts of the story. She builds the narrative as much through explicit explanation as by mutual understanding with the reader. It’s a rare skill, and one that makes Wolf Hall difficult to put down – after all, how can you put down something that you’re playing a role in creating?
What about downsides? Well, if you know anything about your history, you can forget about any major twists in the storyline. By focussing on such public figures, Mantel forgoes any hope of really surprising the reader with a big reveal or an unexpected turn. Not that it seems to matter.
Mantel is also a little clumsy in her portrayal of Jane Seymour. Knowing she plays such a huge part in the story of Henry VIII (albeit after the timeline of Wolf Hall,) it’s a little frustrating not to hear more from her. Not that that seems to matter either.
The only thing that may matter in the debit column is the sheer ambition of the book. It’s long. And it covers a lot of ground. And so it shouldn’t be picked up as a casual read. It requires you to invest a little in it, which (as I’ve said) is a big strength, but can also be a little tiring when you just want to kick back and rattle through a few pages.
So where do we end up? A brilliant book, that makes you feel good about reading, but could also make you feel in need of a nap at times. The sum total is a score of...
Definitely a book worth spending your time on, but only if you have quite a bit of it to spend. Now I’ve finished it, I’m off to watch something mindless on TV.
Buffy, anyone?

Saturday 1 January 2011

Moneyball - like a girl only I think is pretty...

Moneyball, by Michael Lewis (Norton: 2003) A non-fiction book following the General Manager of the Oakland Athletics (a major league baseball team) for a year
A book . About baseball. Combining two things in my life that I spend perhaps too much time on, and so probably an apt choice as the first GBR review.
First off, let’s get one thing straight. I loved this book. Really, I did. But, in the spirit of GBR, I have to think about whether or not you will love it. And that’s a bit less clear.
I never really held much weight with the “jack of all trades, master of none” principle. There are enough hours in the day and days in a life to spend on any number of trades. And there are a lot that, let’s face it, aren’t that difficult to master. And so when this book purported to be a good baseball book, a good business book, and a good read all in one, I had no problem believing that it could be all three. Having read it, I’m not sure it mastered all its promised spheres though.
Let’s (quickly) take them one by one.
A good business book? Lewis does well to take some of the ways in which the Athletics are managed and make transferrable business principles out of them. But I have a central problem with business books, a problem that Moneyball failed to solve. Most of them have one very good principle, and then put 100,000 words behind that principle to make a book out of it. Few people would, after all, buy a “business booklet”, so the point needs to be stretched if it’s to be monetised. And Moneyball certainly stretched the business lesson it was preaching. Its one (albeit very good) lesson can be summed up thus: find an undervalued asset, buy it, exploit it, and then once its success (achieved under your watchful eye) renders it overpriced, sell it. There. I just did it in 23 words. Moneyball did it in 304 pages.
A good read? Well, Moneyball has more success here. It’s a non-fiction book, and most non-fiction books struggle to live up to the kind of compelling narrative that novelists have the luxury of. But Michael Lewis has done a good job of filling Moneyball with enough little twirls of storyline to keep you interested and entertained. It even has something of an arc, almost resembling a plot, that is often difficult to find in a non-fiction book. But that’s where it falls down. When I consider what Moneyball is competing against for your time, it stumbles. When I imagine your choice between another episode of Law & Order, or a fast paced novel designed purely to entertain, or Moneyball, I find it hard to recommend the book. A well written non-fiction book, certainly, but outside of that context, it struggles to measure up.
How about a good baseball book? Abso-bloody-lutely. Not a single doubt about that. This is a fantastic (perhaps even the best) baseball book. Full of insights into the game and the business of baseball. Full of characters that any baseball fan will love. Full of stats lovingly explained. Full of...well...just full of baseball.
So would I recommend it to you as something worthy of your time? If you’re a baseball fan, then 100% yes. But I suspect the majority of you are not baseball fans. And so, however much I loved this book, it fails to score highly on the GBR scale, (which, after all, takes into account only whether or not this is a book that you should make time in your life for).
I loved it, but nevertheless, it scores a mediocre...
5 GBR (out of 10, that is...)
Wow, that felt bad, like I’ve just told a pretty girl she’s ugly. I’m off to have a cold shower.