Sunday 27 February 2011

The Vesivius Club - I heart Lucifer Box...

The Vesuvius Club by Mark Gatiss (Simon and Schuster, 2004). The first of three novels following Lucifer Box, a very different kind of secret agent. Lucifer Box is a part time foppish artist, part time James Bond for Edwardian England. Set across Europe, Box investigates the disappearance of some of the world’s most prominent volcanologists, leading him into the depths of depravity that are the Vesuvius Club. Of course, depravity is where Lucifer Box is most at home...
I was a fan of the League of Gentlemen back when it first came out. And I was aware that Mark Gatiss has been pretty prolific with his writing career since. He’s done the odd Doctor Who episode, and he was the writer behind the latest BBC attempt at Sherlock Holmes (which I love by the way). I didn’t know that he wrote novels though, so his name rather jumped off the shelf at me when I saw it in the book shop.
The book’s sleeve promised an awful lot. Decadence, wit, high society, absurdity. Parallels are even drawn with Oscar Wilde (not once but twice) in the testimonials. So fair to say expectations were high.
And I wasn’t disappointed. Too much.
Gatiss certainly delivered a lot of what I was promised. There’s no doubt he has a pretty fascinating sense of humour. The invention of Lucifer Box as a character demands it. He really is quite brilliant; I’ve not come across anyone like him (real or otherwise) before. His vanity, his wit, his decadence, his constant (sometimes shocking) depravity – just his entire outlook on life and the way he goes about living it is absorbing. Simply meeting a character like this is entirely worth the entry fee.
The problem I found was that such a character would only be at home in the confines of an utterly outrageous plot. The story itself is just too ridiculous. Of course, it needs to be. To get the full Lucifer Box effect, he needs to be placed in daft situations. But it does detract from the overall enjoyment of the book a little. I found myself rolling my eyes on a handful of occasions, and that’s never a good sign.
Having said that, every roll of the eyes was matched with a smile a couple of paragraphs later. Gatiss writes with an Evelyn Waugh quality, but he gives it entirely new life and makes it his own by injecting it into a character like Lucifer Box.
I’ve since read another of the books in this series and I enjoyed it probably more than this one. Perhaps because I felt like I now know Lucifer Box and started to miss him, or perhaps because I was a bit more prepared for the “out there” plot. Either way, I’d definitely still recommend this first book of the three. Everyone should have a bit of Lucifer Box in their lives.
It’s fun. It’s different. But at times it’s a bit over the top. All in all, a solid...
I hovered between 6 and 7 for a while there, but stuck with the 6. Definitely worth a read to get an introduction to Box, but I think Gatiss delivered more with the other books in the series (which I will, of course, review later).

Sunday 20 February 2011

The Great Gatsby - from blind spot to main attraction

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1926: Charles Scribner’s Sons) A novel set in 1920s Long Island, where the narrator has just moved into a modest house next door to the mysterious, flamboyant host of glamorous parties, Jay Gatsby. Through the narrator’s eyes, we learn more about Gatsby and why he is where he is. And the more we learn, the more tragic a figure he becomes.
This is firmly in the class of book which I felt I should read. I really didn’t know much about it before I picked it up. It’s one of those books that comes up in conversation every now and then, or is referred to on TV, and I just end up blankly smiling and nodding, hoping that no one realises I haven’t got a clue about the reference they’ve just made.
So I picked it up more out of desire to colour in a bit of a blind spot than anything else. After a few pages though, I quickly forgot about the blind spot, and started enjoying it.
It’s a bit of (alright, a lot of) a cliché to say that a book is multi-layered. But I’m not sure how else to say it. So I’m just going to go ahead and commit the cliché. Please try to get past it and believe me when I say...
This book has a lot of layers.
Every time I picked it up, I felt as if something new was happening. There was significance on every page, and I’m certain I didn’t pick up on anywhere near all of the meaning; all of the themes. I’m not saying this is a grand, epic of a book with hidden depth that takes careful reading to unlock. Those books tend to be tiring and taxing to read - this was not. It’s a ruddy good story. It’s fun to read, simply as a tale in its own right. But at the same time, you’re aware as you’re reading it that Fitzgerald is weaving bigger issues into the 192 pages as well.
And that is really an art. I mean, this thing was written in 1926. It’s the best part of 100 years old. It deals with big questions and big emotions. All these things, you would think, would be major barriers to it being an enjoyable read for a man in 2011, skipping through a few pages here and there on the train into work. But none of that gets in the way. If anything, I found myself reading it too quickly. The story kept me glued to the page, fidgeting with the corners until I could turn them over, in a way that I haven’t for a while.
Generally speaking, I’m against reading (or watching) anything more than once. There are millions upon millions of great things to read and watch, and so going over anything twice is simply taking time away from encountering something new. No doubt, masterpieces exist, but do any of them deserve a second look when there’s another masterpiece lurking around the corner. Having said that, there are exceptions. And I think this may be one of them. I think I may actually read this one again. There’s so much packed into these pages that I want to understand better.
So, if I’m going to give this book a second look, I’d certainly recommend that you give it at least a first one (that is, if you haven’t already). Cue the drum roll for the biggest GBR yet...
I know, copping out a little on the 9. If this is a “masterpiece” that I’m deeming worthy of the almost unprecedented step of a second read, why not 10? Well, as I’ve said before, got to leave myself somewhere to go. The day I give a 10 is the day I find a book that makes me need to lie down for a while after I’ve finished it to recover. I’m sure it exists somewhere.
Oh, and for the record, the high GBR score is nothing to do with the fact that this also happens to be my brother-in-law’s all time favourite book. No pandering here. Honest...

Sunday 13 February 2011

I still like Graham Greene, despite Brighton Rock

Brighton Rock by Graham Greene (Vintage, 1938). A novel set in 1930s Brighton, following the fortunes of a 17 year old aspiring gangster as he copes with the fall out of his first killing. He’s pursued throughout by the ‘life embracing’ Ida Arnold, as the realities of life on the wrong side of Brighton’s tracks are exposed.
 All the signs were good. I like Brighton (evidence in holiday snap form below...) We’ve been there a few times, and enjoyed it each time.
I also like Graham Greene. I started reading some of his books about a year ago, and have enjoyed a quite a few of them.
Also, I like reading about crime, and Brighton Rock is a novel centred around the criminal underworld of 1930s Brighton.
So, it couldn’t miss, right?
You’ve probably guessed by now that it did miss, for me at least. There’s something hugely disappointing about being let down by a book. I mean, it’s Graham Greene. This is a guy who is an undisputed great. He wrote some amazing novels. And this was supposed to be one of them. But it didn’t work for me.

Me, in Brighton. See, I do like it really. Just not the book.

It was just far too average. The characters were OK, but didn’t really jump out of the pages. The plot was fine, but it plodded along to a bit of a convoluted climax. The setting was pretty interesting, but got old quick. The story telling was good (this is Graham Greene, after all) but it didn’t have enough material in it to really keep me glued to the page.
The sum total was just something that was a bit...blegh. I carried the book around with me for two or three weeks. I never relished picking it up again in the morning on the way to work. I got to the stage where I just wanted to finish it so I could read something more interesting, more compelling, something with more punch...just something else.
Every book has hundreds of opportunities to grab you. Every time you turn the page, it has a chance to draw you in. You spend enough time with it for it to, at the very least, grow on you. There are millions of books that can arrest your attention. This one simply never managed it for me.
In an entertainment world where there are countless options for your time, this book doesn’t deserve it. Go read a different Graham Greene book. He is still one of my favourite authors. He wrote a lot of novels, and I suppose they can’t all be brilliant. This one proves it.
And three of those GBR are purely because it’s Graham Greene.
I’m sure the reputation of Brighton Rock will just about survive the blow of me not liking it very much. Just about. Hell, even I'll still go watch the new film. It has got Helen Mirren in it after all.

Saturday 5 February 2011

Dinner with Mugabe - important AND compelling.

Dinner with Mugabe by Heidi Holland (Penguin Books, 2008) A non-fiction book explaining the life of Robert Mugabe, all leading up to the moment when this journalist interviewed him for the second time. The first was in 1975 when he was a freedom fighter and hiding out at her house. The second time was in 2005, when he’d become one of the most hated men in history. A lot happened in between, and Heidi Holland explains it all.
For one reason or another, I haven’t really read much this week. I kind of feel that, if the fancy doesn’t take you, it’s not worth picking a book up. The Great Gatsby is next in line for me, and for a book with so much history, I don’t want to spoil it by forcing myself to read it on a drizzly morning on the train when I have other things on my mind.
So I had a look at my book shelf and thought what’s going to help me get back in the reading mood? Which book can I flick through, remembering how it felt to read it, to carry it around with for a couple of weeks? Which book will give me back my appetite?
Dinner with Mugabe jumped out.
Not an obvious choice. There are other books on my shelf that were more exciting. Books that were more interesting. Books whose pages I turned quicker.
But none that achieved what this one did. This is a book that managed to teach me quite a lot, whilst also being really quite compelling. That’s not only difficult to achieve, it’s also really quite rare. I’ve read my fair share of books that I’ve learnt from. From the ones you’re forced to read at school, to the ones I picked up because I thought I should find out more about specific things. On the whole, most of them are a bit of a struggle to get through. I tend to get about half way through and then realise that, in fact, I’m not all that interested in the Civil War anymore, and can I just put it down and read a quick fun book instead please?
That’s not to say I regret reading them. I picked them up in the first place for a reason, and I’m glad that I do know more about stuff because of them. But they are, on the whole, not written to entertain.
This one did though. Maybe it was because all I knew about Mugabe before this book was what’s happened in the last ten years. I felt like every page was revealing something new. I, of course, knew the end game. I knew the evil he has done. But I didn’t know why he did it, or where it came from.
To be honest, what he’s done is so big that I still don’t fully understand where it all came from, but I have a better idea than I did before.
Perhaps what made this book is that Mugabe’s life and the modern history of Zimbabwe is a proper story. There’s a real sense of drama, of potential, of lost opportunity. And knowing that it’s all real breaks your heart as you read it.
This book is important. And Heidi Holland has made it accessible. You don’t have to struggle to feel its lessons.
Go. Read it. Understand an important part of modern history. Don’t just hate the guy for no reason. Understand why you should. Understand the tragedy of what he’s done, and where it came from.
So two of the three highest GBR scores so far are from non-fiction. And no one’s got a 9 yet. I need to go read a really good fiction book. The Great Gatsby anyone? (There you go, I knew that’d get my appetite back).