Sunday 28 August 2011

Treasure Island - rum fuelled fun

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson (Cassell and Company: 1883). The tale of a boy who comes into possession of a treasure map, and is whisked away by the adults in his life to try and find the hidden riches. All is not as it seems though, and when double-crossing pirates lead the adventure down a deadly path, it’s up to Jim Hawkins to find a way out.

A few admissions first off this week.
My name’s Gavin, and (as much as I try not to be) I can be a little pretentious sometimes. I know, you're shocked, right?
It’s a trait that leads me towards books that I think might look good on my bookshelf rather than books I actually want to read. It’s a weakness that has seen me trudge through some pretty dull books, but it’s also a trait that has meant I’ve found enjoyment in some classics – the kind of books you’re always told everyone should have read before they die.
It was that occasional drift towards pretension that first led me to Robert Louis Stevenson. That and the fact that he’s maybe the most famous Scots writer that ever lived. It led me initially to Kidnapped, which I really (really) enjoyed. Then it led me to Catriona, which I really (really) did not enjoy.
Then I left Stevenson alone for a bit (which I’m sure he cares greatly about whilst he’s living it up upstairs). But whilst browsing through the paperbacks at the bookstall of the Gateshead Family Fun Day this year (a stall attentively staffed by your friend and mine “the” Andrew Walton), I found this. A rather beat up, weathered version of perhaps the greatest adventure book of all time.
And, after a good few months where I thought I’d shaken it off for good, my pretentious streak kicked back in. Here was a 60-odd year old copy of an indisputable classic (albeit a children’s classic), available for 50p.
I nabbed it. And have spent the past week or so reading it.
Treasure Island - the name immediately puts images of sundrenched wildernesses in your head, and makes you taste a little sea salt in the air. And I greatly enjoyed the Muppets version - I'm sure you did too. So it’s true to say I opened the first page already pretty predisposed to liking this.
And, to a large extent, it didn’t disappoint. The story is over a hundred years old, but it’s aged well. It was written for kids, so the pace and structure are faster moving than most hundred year old novels. The language is a little intricate in places, and the scene setting is often filled a little too much with the type of jargon that may have been understandable to people in an age when ships were everywhere, but that is a little less commonplace in the age of easyJet. But it doesn’t matter too much. I did get bogged down once or twice, but for the most part, the story skips along, and it’s very easy to skip along with it.
The dialogue is by far and a way the best part of Treasure Island. Long John Silver has a voice and a nature that’s incredibly seductive. The guy is one of the great characters. His reputation preceded him before I ever opened the book, and meeting the man first hand was no disappointment.
But it’s not a one man show. The other characters make sure the pages are filled with personality and colour. Yes, they’re all a little hammed up, but I love that. Silver is the witty lovable sea-dog through and through - Jim Hawkins is the principled young hero to the end - Doctor Livesey never wavers from being the resourceful paternal figure – Captain Smollett remains true to King and country in all circumstances. The entire make-up of these guys can be summed up in a few words each. It means that they rarely achieve any depth or real-world qualities, but it also means they are highly entertaining.
So how do you score Treasure Island? How do you give a classic book like this one an out-of-ten number? How do you judge a story that has earned a Muppet parody?
That’s how.
I enjoyed this. It was entertaining and I’m glad I’ve now read it. But I’ve read better books this year, or rather books that I’ve enjoyed more.
Next week, time to shake off the pretension and go for one of those books that everyone on the train seems to be reading.

Sunday 21 August 2011

Cream Teas Traffic Jams and Sunburn - a bit of a surprise

Cream Teas, Traffic Jams andSunburn, by Brian Viner (Simon & Schuster: 2011) Brian Viner blends his own experiences with those of his family, friends and acquaintances to explore the cultural phenomenon of the British on holiday. Using anecdotes, history, and his own keen observations, Viner shines a light on why we do what we do when we're at leisure, from Bognor Regis to Beunos Aries.

Choosing books to read is a minefield. One which, with a bit of time and the odd lost leg, most of us like to think we can navigate fairly well. As much as we’re urged not to judge a book by its cover, most of us do to some extent. Not literally, but we usually let a handful of initial signifiers dictate whether or not we pick a book up.

Genre. Author. Reviews. Recommendations. The title. The blurb on the back. Tick one or two of those boxes, and you’ll probably pick it up.

Which is why I was fairly sure I was going to hate this book. From all I could tell, I thought it’d essentially be the book version of one of those painful TV shows where they get a bunch of tv “celebs” to talk to camera about how mad the ‘80s were. I thought it’d be full of “aren’t we crazy” moments. I thought it’d rely heavily on having a reader who is prone to chuckling internally with a “that is so like my Aunt Ida” thought. In short, I thought it’d be pretty vacuous.

But it was free. And I try to keep an open mind. So I gave it a try.

And it proved me wrong.

The main thing it had going for it was the wit of Brian Viner. Wit can take you a long way, and Viner has it in spades. And he uses it to good effect, carefully avoiding too much of a “isn’t it funny when…” tone by telling his anecdotes with genuine good humour. That I did end up accidentally feeling an affinity for his experiences (and those of his seemingly hundreds of interesting friends) is testament to how well this is written. I opened the first page determined not to succumb to what I though would be a sickeningly chummy narrative, and I closed the last page wanting to go round his house for dinner.

And it’s not just his wit that turned me around. He brings some good history into the book as well, charting the course of the holiday as a phenomenon and introducing the pioneers who, through the centuries, have defined how we spend our leisure time (that is, once the world’s workers had some of it to spend).

There are some genuinely interesting facts and figures in here. Just ask my wife. She suffered through a week of me starting sentences with “did you know that…”. She smiled sweetly throughout, (she’s a trooper like that), but I know it’s annoying when someone keeps bugging you about stuff they’ve just read in their new book. Again, the fact I ended up feeling compelled to share what I was reading then and there goes some way to show just how much this book won me over.

But, to be fair, I had a long way to go. I started convinced that I was going to hate this book. Its wit and its history meant that I didn’t. But not hating it and actively liking it are two quite different things.

The wit can only take you so far. It took me to about two hundred pages before it started to wear thin. If he’d stopped the book there, I probably would have scored this pretty darn high. But he didn’t - Viner went on for another 100 or so pages. And (I’m sad to say) it just got a bit sameish after that. I’m not sure if the best anecdotes are packed in at the start of the book, or if I just got a bit bored. Either way, the book rather peaked and then declined fast.

And there were one or two aspects that I didn’t really notice at the start of the book, but that started to bug me by the end. One was the unfeasible amount of holidays Viner seems to take. I know this is a man who, through his job, has the opportunity to travel a fair amount, but he seems to pack in a dozen breaks a year to various destinations. True, they’re not all far flung and exotic, but they are numerous. By the end, all I could feel was slight depression that I don’t get away anywhere near the same amount.

The other slight annoying aspect was the sheer number of “close friends” Viner references. Every page details the story of another set of “close friends” and their experiences, more often than not whilst on holiday with Viner and/or his own family. The cumulative impression is of a man who spends all of his time on eventful holidays with hundreds of his closest friends. And that isn’t a man I can really identify with, which is important when it’s his voice you’re listening to throughout the book.

So, to the score. How does a…


…grab you?

A rollercoaster of emotions for the week. Hating it one second, loving it the next, then bottoming out at something just above indifference.

Next week, something a bit more established. The second young adult book of GBR history, though of a different era than the first. Intrigued? You should be.

Sunday 14 August 2011

The Stranger's Child - a different type of great

The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst (Picdor: 2011). An epic of a book, starting with a weekend gathering at a country house in the early 1900s, and following the reverberations of that weekend through the lives of those in attendance (both long and short). Jumping decades between chapters, and told from the perspective of a variety of characters, the book chronicles the changing attitudes of society, and how those changes shed differing lights on the lives people have lived.
Read enough books, and you start to get familiar with a few of the tools of the writer. The cliff hanger is probably one of the most used. The dramatic twist is another. A sudden change of pace. The introduction of a mysterious new character. You name the tool, most books have at least one or two of them in which you can spot the finger prints of the writer from a mile away.
For the most part, when they’re used well and the right groundwork precedes them, the tools work. They do their job of hooking you into the book and raising your heartbeat a little. But the basic weakness of all these tools is that they almost always remind you that you’re reading fiction. They remind you that some guy or some gal has sat down at a desk and thought “how can I make this bit of the book a bit more exciting?” They remind you that, behind this story, there’s a writer and an imagination and a pretence. I read a short guide on how to write by Elmore Leonard once, and his big point was that the ultimate aim of any writer is to make the reader forget that you exist.
By now, I bet you’re starting to wonder about the book this week. So I’ll get to it.
The Stranger’s Child is so absent of obvious writers’ tools that I really did forget that Alan Hollinghurst existed at times. It unfolds with huge credibility; it just trips along with the feel of a genuine tale. There’s a distinct lack of fireworks, no lazy screams of manufactured excitement. It’s just all laid out there on the pages, a (not so brief) history of a small collection of people.
In fact, some of the most dramatic events in the lives of the central characters are skipped over entirely. The story is left at one point and picked up ten, twenty or thirty years later, with the intervening period spanning wars, deaths, births and marriages, but none of this drama is exploited for added drama. Instead, they’re sacrificed in favour of focussing on more subtle but arguably more significant events.
This is a long book. A fairly pedestrian story. But one that I read with enthusiasm, committed to it not because of the car chase excitement, but because of its inherent plausibility, the believability of the characters, and the affinity I felt with them because of it. Hollinghurst has written a book that has a great deal of beauty; a beauty that is likely to endure because of its understated qualities.
Now, I’m nervous about the scoring here. Not a lot actually happens in this book. And it’s 500 pages worth of not a lot happening. To an extent, it asks you to give it a chance, to settle into the world it creates and appreciate it in its own right rather than for the twists and turns of a high adrenaline plot. Adrenaline is simply not here.
It’s not so much a Berocca of a book, more a soothing cup of tea – less exciting, but no less enjoyable.  
My worry with the GBR score is that the book comes with a heavy condition. Read it a couple of pages at a time, snatched here and there in amongst your otherwise busy (and, no doubt, glamorous) lives, and you’ll probably get bored with it. But give it the time and space that it needs, and I’m convinced that you’ll love this like I did.
So I’m going to trust you here.
It’s a different kind of 9GBR than previous ones. It’s achieved in a very different way. Pick this up if you have a bit of time to spend on it. If not, go for The Great Gatsby, I, Lucifer, or (of course) The World of Jeeves.
Another high score. Who knew a 500 page book in which not a lot actually happens could earn a 9GBR, huh? I’m going to have to try and read something bad next, or you’re start thinking I’m a pushover. Which I’m not. At least I don’t think so.
Next week, a surprising book about summer holidays. See you in seven days.

Sunday 7 August 2011

Death and the Penguin - quietly brilliant

Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov (2001: The Harvill Press) Set in a Ukraine that’s in the process of rebuilding itself, this book follows a struggling writer as he unwittingly finds himself embroiled in the world of organised crime, shadowed all the while by an unlikely sidekick – his pet penguin Misha.
A Ukranian book. About a writer. His depressed penguin. And the Mafia.
Well, that sounds a bit different doesn’t it? It was enough to make me want to pick this book up. It’s been a year or two since I read this, but it’s kind of stuck with me. I haven’t read anything like it since. I even tried another book by the same author, but it didn’t quite hit the same notes as this one.
Its major plus is the way in which it lets you discover it. From the first page, you’re given a sense that you’re uncovering something brilliant. And it doesn’t shout at you, it doesn’t jump up and down waving its arms in the air saying “hey, I’m a great little book, feel free to marvel at my brilliance.” Kurkov’s style is so incredibly understated that it has a very honest quality. It’s written in such an uncomplicated way that it ends up almost whispering the story to you, and you’re left feeling like you’ve been let into a pretty special secret.
And it’s funny. It really is. You’re not left doubled up in hysterics, but the surreal storyline and the dead-pan delivery ends up being funny in a really warm way. The story and its characters just stand there on the pages, looking at you expressionless, puzzled by the bizarre circumstances they’re surrounded by, and you can’t help but find their simplicity both endearing and funny at the same time.
Downsides? Well, for all the positive qualities of the stripped down writing style, it also comes with the inevitable negative of feeling a little thin sometimes. You never feel like you’re really biting into anything with much weight. And for all its comic qualities, you do end up feeling in places that it gets a little too convoluted. Only once or twice though, and it’s not enough to detract from the overall entertainment of this book.
The penguin is the star of course, and the book ends up taking on the qualities of the animal. Inherently funny, very simple and honest, quirky, heart warming - but held back a little by its unavoidable silliness.
Definitely worth a read. Very different and very enjoyable.
Next week, another change of pace (because I know you get bored easily). GBR will move from post-modern Ukranian chic to a classic English saga.
Try to behave until next Sunday.