Sunday 29 May 2011

The Seven Days of Peter Crumb - uncomfortable reading

The Seven Days of Peter Crumb by Jonny Glynn (Portobello Books Ltd: 2007). The ramblings of a crazy man as he lives out his plan for the last seven days of his life. We’re given an insight into his motivations and delusions as he commits American Psycho-esque atrocities throughout London, with a stop-over in Leeds for good measure.
After last week’s young adult adventure, I reverted to form a little this week.
This is, most definitely, a book for the grown up. And not just because of its graphic violent passages. It’s a book that kept me awake, kept me working as I was reading it. If Jonny Glynn was trying to make his readers feel uncomfortable, then congratulations, mission accomplished.
Sounds quite negative, that, doesn’t it – making his readers feel uncomfortable. I can’t quite figure out if I meant it that way. For sure, there are plus points about a book like this that keeps you on your toes. It makes you feel like you’re really eating something substantial, like by reading the book you’re playing your role in an exercise that has a bit of meat to it. Nothing skips you by. There’s no making shopping lists in your head whilst you’re reading this, no sir.
The bad points about uncomfy books? Well, without wanting to state the obvious, they’re uncomfortable. No two ways about it, this book takes a bit of effort. Every time I picked it up, I was challenged. It took me a few minutes to get into it every time. No sliding into the sofa and switching off with this one. Nowhere was that more evident than right at the start. Do not start this book unless you have half an hour or so to spend on it – it takes a while to figure out what’s going on, for the penny to drop and Glynn’s style to emerge from the confusion it creates.
So, was all the effort worth it?
I finished this book a couple of days ago, and I still can’t figure out the answer to that one. There’s no doubt Glynn’s created a wonderful character in Peter Crumb, and he reveals him to us slowly and expertly. Crumb’s voice is striking, and it grows as his seven days go by. It’s a fantastic example of putting down in the pages of a book a man that is both extraordinary and believable. He’s fundamentally flawed, and commits some horrific crimes, but he’s also a sympathetic character. I read American Psycho a few years back. I was similarly disturbed by the antics described in that book as this. But this time around, I felt I understood the action a little more. It’s horrific from the victim’s perspective, but it also seems horrific from Crumb’s point of view. It’s a contradiction that is only achieved because of the genuine link that’s created between reader and protagonist – between him and me.
By the end of the book, I found myself largely on his side, which was a feeling immediately followed by disgust when I remembered what he’d done.
Sounds like I’m talking myself into a high GBR score here, so time for a few qualifiers.
Crumb is excellent. The other characters in the story (peripheral as they are) are not. Pretty much all the supporting cast seem watery, without much effort put into making them as believable as Crumb. Every now and then, they even manage to act quite outside the very vague parameters that are set for their behaviour. For me, that spoiled things fairly regularly.
The ending is weak. This blog isn’t here to tell you what happens in books (go read them yourself), so I won’t say anymore than that. Suffice to say, the ending is pretty flat.
And some of the stylistic quirks felt over the top. Some didn’t - some worked well and added to the many ways in which this book worked to keep your mind alive. But too many times, Glynn overdid the stylistics, showed off a bit too much with his formatting. He didn’t need to. Blank pages, new font styles and sizes, strange layouts – they all have their place and can all add to a book. But for me, he did it too often, and made it look like he’d just figures out how to use his word processor.
So where does that leave me?
In the plus column – a great premise, a wonderful protagonist, a strong voice, clever pacing, and a challenging style.
In the minus column – a weak cast of supporting characters, a flat ending, over stylised writing, and a challenging style.
Am I glad I read it? Yup. Will I look at it on my bookshelf with fond memories? Nope. (Well, partly because I borrowed this copy and will have to give it back, but you know what I mean).

Sunday 22 May 2011

The Knife of Never Letting Go - an attempt to get over myself

The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness (2008: Walker Books Ltd). In a world where everyone can hear everyone else’s thoughts, a boy starts to find out that most of what he’s been told about his town and its history has been a lie. The truth puts him on the run from those that would hide it. The chase brings him into contact with people and places he never even knew existed.

In an attempt to get over myself this week, I said yes to a challenge.

You see, my wife is a big fan of what she calls “young adult” books. Harry Potter is probably the best example, but then it was Twilight, then the Hunger Games, and now it’s a series called Chaos Walking.

Now, my assumption has always been that these books are not targeted towards me. Their audience is designed to be teenagers. I assumed that, if I spent some time reading them, it’d be wasted time – that they’d miss the mark with me.

And that was fine. It wasn’t an indictment on the quality of the books themselves. Just an acknowledgment that they weren’t designed for me. And everyone was happy.

Except, of course, my wife. She insisted these were worth a read and that, by being so closed minded, I was missing out.

To be fair, she probably has a point.

So one of my wife’s good friends challenged me to read her latest recommendation. She’s good a good line in recommendations, this friend. She’s a children’s librarian, and is always a step ahead of the curve when it comes to the latest craze in the genre. (She’s also got a highly entertaining blog of her own that’s worth a visit).

So, challenge accepted, I picked up The Knife of Never Letting Go, the first in the Chaos Walking trilogy.

And I found that I’d been wrong, though not entirely.

The book is good. Let’s get that out there right now before there’s any misunderstanding. It took me a little while to give it a chance, but by the end of it I realised that it had a number of good points. It’s an interesting premise. It’s got a breakneck pace that sees the pages speed by. It’s written cleverly. And it’s set in a highly original world.

All in all, high above what I was expecting. But then again, I was expecting it to be rubbish.

It did though (and my wife’s going to hate me for this) live up to enough of my prejudices to spoil my enjoyment of it a little.

I just couldn’t get over the fact that the protagonist is 14 years old. I know, I know, I’m a cold-hearted git. But when the strongest voice coming off the pages is that of a child, then I find it tough to take it too seriously. At times, the writing was so good that I forgot that this guy was 14, but it never lasted long. And every time I remembered, I disengaged a little.

Also, I had a bit of a problem with the plot. There was so much of it. The whole book is one long plot. Non-stop action. A chase that lasts nearly 500 pages. As a way of catering for the short attention span of its intended teenage audience, it works. But for me, it felt like there was no room to breathe. There was no room for the characters to grow. For meaning to appear between the lines. Everything we learn about everything is right there in black and white. I just didn’t have to work hard enough to pull my own conclusions out, and that meant I never really had to engage fully in this.

Perhaps most damning was just how little I cared at the end. Fairly horrific things happen to the heroes of this book, and mortal danger is always around the next bend. But I only ever half cared about their fate. I was only ever faintly interested to find out if they all got out alive. And a large part of that is because the characters never really had the time to come off the pages for me. They stayed resolutely pinned to the black and white of the plot. They didn’t become real people in a way that made me care.

Apart from maybe the dog. The dog, I cared about.

But, and I’ll say it again, the book is good. For all the nit picking I can do, I cannot deny that I enjoyed parts of it, that the writing was both clever and creative, and that I’ll probably go see the film once it’s inevitably made. Patrick Ness has made me realise that “young adult” fiction has far more good points than I gave it credit for. It has its inherent down sides, but they are often overshadowed by imagination and energy.

As for a score, well that’s difficult. As a young adult book, this would score pretty darn high. As a book that I’d recommend to you guys, I’m struggling.


When all’s said and done, I would recommend you go pick this up. Give young adult fiction a chance. If you’re like me, you’ll probably be pleasantly surprised. If you’re a better person than I am and are able to get over your pre-conceptions of the genre a little more successfully, you might even end up enjoying it enough to pick up the second and third books in the trilogy.

Sunday 15 May 2011

The Perfect Nazi - hmmmm...

The Perfect Nazi by Martin Davidson (Viking: 2010 – published in paperback by Penguin: 2011). Martin Davidson is a maker of documentaries and writer of non-fiction. His family holds a secret they rarely talk about though – his Grandfather was in the SS during the War. In The Perfect Nazi, Davidson embarks upon a mission to find out what his Grandfather actually did during the war, and why he did it. How could his own flesh and blood play such an active role in one of the world’s most evil stories? Was he an unwilling passenger, or a committed member of the cause? And if the latter, what drove him to such acts of hate?
I lied to you.
And I feel bad about it, I really do. Over the last 20-odd posts, I feel we’ve developed a bit of an understanding, you and me. Blogger and blogee. And don’t try to tell me it’s all one way. I know you feel it too.
And then I went and lied to you.
I told you I was “giving the real world a rest” this week. That I’d break the streak of non-fiction reviews and pick up something fuelled by imagination again.
But I didn’t. I read The Perfect Nazi by Martin Davidson instead.
I lied to you.
But that’s OK. Because Martin Davidson lied to me too.
You see, he told me that, in the pages of this book, he “unmasked his SS Grandfather.” That he drew on “an astonishing cache of personal documents” to “understand how [his Grandfather] and millions of others like him were seduced by Hitler’s regime.” So, understandably, what I expected was a very personal book, focussing tightly on the life of Davidson’s Grandfather. A book that gave a personal history of an SS officer, one that went some way to explaining how large parts of an entire generation of Germans managed to depart so terrifyingly from Western  morality.
That was a prospect that intrigued me. Like most other people my age, I’ve learnt of the evil of Nazi Germany. Partly through school, partly through programmes like The World at War. I’ve been presented with the facts and been astonished that human beings like you and me could believe such things and commit such atrocities.
What I’ve never really seen is a sustained explanation of how they came to descend so far. That’s what Davidson promised with this book. The personal story of a single man whose life led him to an SS uniform, whose experiences delivered him to a blinding belief in things you and I find sickening.
Trying to find out how he got there – now that sounded like a book worth reading. And that’s what Davidson promised to me.
But it’s not what he gave me. What he gave me was a plotted history of the rise and fall of Nazism. Sure, there were sections that tried to focus on how the course of German history affected the man on the street. He tried to insert his Grandfather’s story wherever he could. But a lot of the time he relied on assumptions of how the narrative of history translated to the individual. He spent so much of the book on the big stage, detailing the history of the German side of the war and painting the major events that drove it.
All too often it felt like Davidson’s Grandfather’s  story was an afterthought. It’s not entirely his fault of course. He’s handcuffed in part by a scarcity of materials. His family was tight lipped about the actions of their patriarch, and finding records of an individual Nazi amongst millions restricted Davidson to a few scraps of paper detailing his rank and his memberships. Huge assumptions are made about his motivations, his state of mind, his ideology, even his actions. And, once these assumptions are made, Davidson then picks up the macro-narrative again.
But that’s exactly why I picked up this book. I wanted to know the man’s state of mind. I wanted to know how he went from innocent babe to card carrying, flag waving, Jew hating Nazi. I wanted to know exactly how this man ended up the way he did, and exactly what it drove him to do. But Davidson does not tell me any of that with any degree of certainty.
On the plus side (and there is one), this is a highly readable book. I sped through it. It wasn’t what I promised, but it was a detailed and gripping representation of the most terrifying phenomenon in modern history. Nazism has spawned a galaxy of books, documentaries, and films. As a topic, it’s as fascinating as it is frightening. These were real people that did these things. These heart breaking things actually happened. This evil truly existed. And Davidson does go into a level of detail about it that makes for some glued-to-the-page reading. That he uses a German perspective to it all perhaps gives it an extra edge. Throw into the mix the quality of writing (which is incredibly high) and you’ve got yourself a book that really is difficult to put down.
But that doesn’t get past the fact that I was lied to. I was promised a personal account, an explanation of what drove this man, and I didn’t get it. Instead, I got another history book.
I can’t help but think that Davidson has cheated here. There are thousands of books out there about Nazi Germany. I’d wager it’s one of the most written about topics of all time. It’s a topic that grips in its own right, and one that I’d bet is difficult to write about without some level of success. Davidson tried to rise above the rest by promising a genuinely new perspective and a new understanding.
All he delivered though was another (albeit very good) book about the Nazis, with just flashes of personal history based too much on assumptions.
And every one of those four are because of how well written this book is. I really did speed through it. Part of that speeding though was because I was constantly on the hunt for what I was promised.
I didn’t find it.
Right, next week I really am going to put the real world back on the shelf. Fiction for me all the way next week. I promise.
And I wouldn’t lie to you.

Sunday 8 May 2011

Bounce - dragging out an inspirational premise

Bounce by Matthew Syed (Fourth Estate: 2010, paperback edition published April 2011) Table tennis great turned journalist Matthew Syed explores the existence of talent in sports and other walks of life. He blends the research of others, his own experiences, high profile anecdotes, and interviews with a range of professionals to make the case that extraordinary amounts of the right types of practice are what builds sporting legends, not natural talent.
We’ve spoken before, you and me, about why I don’t ordinarily read books like this. It’s one of those where the whole thing is put out there on the front cover. “The myth of talent and the power of practice,” it says, underneath the author’s name. An interesting premise, but a fairly thin one. I always worry that a book like this is just too straight forward. There’s no such thing as talent. Greatness is the result of the right amount (and the right type) of practice.  That’s what Syed thinks, and that’s what he spends the majority of the book explaining.
Except, of course, it doesn’t take that much explaining. I just did it there using about half a paragraph.
Of course, it is a little more complex than that. Syed uses an impressive array of evidence to back up his premise. He weaves some interesting, high profile anecdotes to give the point a lot of colour. And he addresses most of the obvious objections, working hard to explain them away.
The biggest challenge for any book like this is to make it readable. It’s non- fiction. It cites a lot of research. It dwells on a single theory for most of the book. So can Syed ensure it remains enjoyable to read, unrepetative and interesting from page 1 to page 267?
Well, kind of.
It helps that the premise is inspirational - the notion that anyone can achieve greatness, as long as they put in an ungodly amount of practice and direct it properly. Syed explains how that practice fundamentally changes an individual, makes them able to see and do things that others can’t. It ends up looking like talent, but instead is the result of practice (albeit a mind blowing amount of it).
The premise is interesting enough to keep you hooked for a while, and Syed does a good job of carrying on the conversation in a lively way. The whole idea that talent is nothing and practice is everything is immediately uncomfortable, rendered so by the impossible feats we see sportsmen and women achieve almost every week. Surely natural talent exists? Well, by the end of the book, Syed had done enough to make me doubt it.
And that’s probably the biggest mark of approval I can give this book. I got to the end without being bored, and my mind had been (if not entirely) at least a little changed by the power of the arguments.
But that’s where the positivity has to end, I’m afraid. Getting to the end of a book without getting bored isn’t enough. There are millions of books out there that do so much more than not bore me. Indeed, there are unread books on my own book shelf that I’m sure I’ll enjoy more. So I couldn’t help but think that, once I’d understood Syed’s central argument, the rest of the book was just wasted time for me.
And changing my mind about a long held belief isn’t enough either. To be honest, my mind had been changed after the first few chapters. I got it. Syed had a powerful argument, and he made it well. But then he had another 200-odd pages to fill. He filled them with some fairly interesting material, but none of it really made me sit up straight in my seat.
So, an above average sports science book. More entertaining than I’d thought it was going to be, and more enlightening too. But not enough of either to overshadow too much else that’s on my bookshelf.
The eagle eyed amongst you will notice that 6 GBR is more than the 5 GBR I gave to Moneyball, probably my favourite sports science book. That's because Moneyball is about baseball and nothing else. Great for baseball fans, rubbish for everyone else. Bounce is more accessible and wide ranging, so I think it's more likely to be worth your time.
Thought that one was worth an explanation.  
After a couple of non-fiction books, I’m going to give the real world a rest next week.

Keep your comments coming in folks, and if there’s a book you’d like reviewed, just let me know and I’ll add it to the (ever growing) list!

Sunday 1 May 2011

In Praise of Savagery - good writing vs the real world

In Praise of Savagery by Warwick Cairns (The Friday Project, 2011) A novel describing the adventure of Wilfred Thesinger as he attempted to be the first man to chart a certain river in Africa; a river that was surrounded by tribes renowned for killing everyone that had tried to follow it previously. The author followed in his footsteps decades later.
First and foremost, huge congratulations to Gateshead RFC on winning the league in dramatic circumstances yesterday. Hugely deserved.
In celebration of a heroic achievement, a look at a book that follows another one.
I have a habit of underlining sentences or passages in books that I particularly enjoy. The words that scream out of the rest of the page and make you pause a little. It doesn’t happen in every book, and rarely more than a couple of times in a single book. But when it does, I like to mark it. I like to think I’ll go back to it one day and remember the effect it had on me the first time. In reality, it’s probably just a little bit of a pretentious tick. (Insert obvious joke here).
Either way, this book presented me with a bit of an "underlining" problem. About half way through, I hit upon about three pages, all of which jumped out and made me stop to think. No other way to put it – it was just beautiful. Effortlessly beautiful. And of course, I couldn’t underline all three pages. Damnit.
Luckily, that wasn’t the only great passage in the book. I underlined a couple of other, shorter ones instead.
Warwick Cairns writes incredibly well. He doesn’t simply tell you what happens, he uses his experiences to spark off tangents that you end up willingly riding along on. He packs the book with these tangents, each of which brings into life an entirely new area of thought. Because of this, the book stays fresh throughout.
In fact, I’d go as far as to say the story ended up getting in the way a little. I loved the detours Cairns took in his writing, but when he re-centred onto the story itself, I found myself drifting a little. There’s no doubt that Thesinger is an amazing man who did amazing things, but I found the descriptions of his journey and of Cairns’ own adventures a little static. A list of thing that happened, one after the other.
Perhaps it suffered a little from the richness of the detours. When placed next to Cairns’ wandering mind, the pedestrian pace of just describing stuff that happened became a little frustrating. It’s a tough criticism. Cairns couldn’t simply write 200-odd pages of “stuff that I think.” At some stage, he needed to put “stuff that happened” in there. And the material he chooses is pretty spectacular. But for me, it didn’t really hold me interest. I sped through those bits, waiting for another detour.
So a massive positive tick for his writing style and his imaginative tangents, but an important caveat in the rather less inspiring real world descriptions. Together, that makes...
Classic sit on the fence score. It’s a good book, and it’s well written, and I enjoyed it. I’ll probably go back and have a flick through some of the more sparky pages at some stage. But I can’t help but think it could have been a lot better.

p.s. a special thanks to my secret source that helped me get hold of the paperback version of this book ahead of publication.