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.

Sunday 11 September 2011

Last Exit to Brooklyn - a bit of a Julia Roberts

Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr (Calder and Boyars: 1967). A book that was initially banned for its obscenity in 1967, it’s set in the gutters of New York City and follows a cast that embody all that is not well about America. It explores most of the bad sides of human nature and some of the good, and sparks sympathy for the unlikeliest of characters caught in bad situations.
Hi guys.
I’ve spent the last two weeks trying to finish a book that just doesn’t want to be finished. It’s not its fault, it’s entirely mine. It’s a pretty good book, but for one reason or another, I’ve ended up reading it in snatched five minutes here and there.
So instead of reviewing what I wanted to review this week, I’ve ended up staring at my bookshelf looking for an old read that is worthwhile telling you about. And I settled on Last Exit to Brooklyn.
And it’s for one very specific reason. This is one of the few books that, regardless of the setting in which I read it, sucked.
Julia Roberts - I don't like her, but you might (idiot)
I like to think I’m fairly generous of mind. Pretty open to new things. If I don’t like something, I try to at least recognise why someone else might. I hate Julia Roberts’ films for instance, but I get that some people might find her funny and pretty and deep and all that stuff. I don’t. I think she’s rubbish. But I can see why you might think she’s not.
Last Exit to Brooklyn, though, I just don’t get. I picked it up in the first place for a few reasons. First – I’m a big fan of America, and New York in particular. I think it’s probably one of the best cities on earth, and one of the biggest and best muse’s the world’s ever created. Second – this is supposed to be a major modern classic. In the words of one reviewer, it will “still be eagerly read in 100 years time.” That intrigued me. I like the idea of books that survive.
So I was looking forward to this.
But it just did not work for me. It’s written in an incredibly distinctive way. It’s been lauded for its poetic qualities. It has a pace and a feel that is intent on carrying you along with it. Selby didn’t just sit down and start describing the stuff he wanted to – he chose the structure of his sentences and his paragraphs and his chapters in such a way as to create a fierce rhythm.
I tried, honest I tried. I tried reading it in short bursts. I tried reading it in quiet places. I tried reading it in loud places. I tried reading it the right way up and upside down (OK, I didn’t do that). But I just did not get it.
OK, I understand it’s supposed to be pretty chaotic. I understand it’s supposed to be uncomfortable to read. But I’ve read psychedelic books, and I’ve read disturbing books, and I got through them fine. This, I struggled with. The stream of consciousness style meant I just never found anything to anchor my interest on.
The sad thing is that the characters and the setting are pretty amazing. The New York that’s being described is a version that really does compel me. The characters that Selby jumps between really are wonderful and complex. The point that Selby is trying to thrust home with every breath of the book is important, but for me, it’s simply lost in the utter confusion.
I know the style of the book is supposed to reflect the depravity and disorder of the world that Selby is presenting. But instead of making me truly feel the spirit of the book, it just ended up making me bored.
Words are a wonderful thing. Instead of using them for their meaning, Selby uses them for their rhythm. Which could work in poetry, but for a novel, it just ends up in a creation that you need your dad’s size 14 wellington boots to wade through.
I didn’t enjoy this. But I can’t give it a zero. I get that it’s an important book. And I still get excited by its premise. Maybe I need to pick it up again and see if it makes more sense with a second run. I probably won’t though. It’s rugby world cup month, so I have better things to do with my time than read a book again that I didn’t enjoy first time around
Next time, the book that I’ve been trying to finish for ages. I promise.

Friday 2 September 2011

A week worth missing

Just a warning for those of you whose Sunday mornings are defined by reading a brand spanking new GBR book review - prepare for disappointment this weekend.

I plan to miss just my fourth Sunday all year. The excuse? It's my anniversary this weekend (2 years and counting...). I have it all planned out, and I'm afraid there'll be no room for blogging on Sunday morning.

I'd tell you what I have planned, but then I'd have to kill you - my wife has been asking about it for like a month, so she should probably know before you (she did ask first, to be fair).

Don't worry, I promise to do something equally special for you on our anniversary.

On another note, good luck to Ben and Doran, who are tying the knot on Sunday themselves. About bloomin time too. I promise not to steal too much of the limelight with my wicked cool dance moves.