Saturday 24 December 2011

GBRYIR!!! (ta daa!!!)

For some reason, this is what
comes up when you search
GBRYIR on Google Images.

It's not exactly a logo, but
I guess it'll do
That’s it. Just a few days away from being a whole entire year of book reviews. I’ve missed the odd one, but 2011 has seen pretty much a review every week. And the traffic to the blog has grown, which means you must not hate it too much. Or my mum is visiting it with increasing regularity. Either way, I’ve enjoyed writing it a bunch. So I’ll probably continue next year, if you don’t mind.

And so time for a treat. If there’s one thing none of us get enough of at this time of year, it’s treats. Famously devoid of treats, the Christmas season. No heaving plates of food. No expertly wrapped goodies. No thirstily supped nectar. Nothing. A barren season indeed.

Wait, no, that’s a lie.

But in case you still have room for more treats, here’s one to add to your leaning tower. A cherry on the top if you like. Or, if you’d prefer, another rambling string of sentences from that bloke you know who writes a book review blog which you feel you have to read in case he ever asks you about it.

I present the inaugural Gav's Book Reviews Year in Review, henceforth to be known as the GBRYIR!!! (ta daa!!!)

Thanks Brad
First review: for those of you that were there at the beginning (bless you), the first ever GBR review was on Moneyball on the 1 Jan 2011. Little did I know there was a film in the works. I think they did that just to help out with traffic to the GBR blog. Thanks Brad.

Best review: I could judge this in two ways. The one I liked best, or the one you read most. As I can’t make my mind up, best go with your opinion (I guess). You read The World of Jeeves most, closely followed by the blog on Room. Third place was the blog on Cream Teas Traffic Jams and Sunburn. Well done you, showcasing your range. Seems you like Wodehouse-ian farce, psychological dramas and non-fiction travel books.

Best book: There were a bunch. I don’t think I’ve read quite as many books in a single year. Ever. Partly due to the blind fear of needing something to blog about every Sunday to be honest. But whatever the reason, I read some crackers this year, and told you about all of them.

Glen Duncan - a hero of 2011
It could go down as the year I stumbled upon Glen Duncan, thanks to a shove in the right direction from my brother. I read three of his, blogged about two of them, and gave them both 9 GBR. I Lucifer is probably the Glen Duncan book I enjoyed most though.

Another honourable mention should also go to The Great Gatsby, also a 9 GBR score. Finally got around to reading it, and it didn’t let me down. Which was a relief. If I hadn’t liked it, I fear my brother-in-law would have led me down a dark alley and quietly explained why I don’t deserve to have nice things. He’s a bit of a Gatsby fan.

But there were two 10 GBR scores this year. The World of Jeeves got one of them. It’s P G Wodehouse. If you’re not a fan, then get off this blog immediately.

For those of you still here and still reading, the other 10 GBR score went to what will win the GBR Book of the Year (GBRBOTY - I love acronyms) for 2011. A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh. Odd to give an old book an award for 2011 you may think, but this isn’t the Man Booker Prize we’re talking about. It’s GBR. And I make the rules. And they are thus - the GBRBOTY award will go to the book I enjoyed reading most in the given year, regardless of publication date.

So there.

Worst book: Only one book got a 1GBR score this year - A Brief History of Time. Two separate friends have since told me that I read the wrong popular science book. That I would have been better served going for any number of more accessible offerings.

But I didn’t. I read this one. And I did not enjoy it one bit. Only book all year that I struggled to get to the end of.

Still, any book that you read for a bet should be approached with caution I guess. On the plus side, Dave Lamb now owes me a guest blog for 2012. Come on Dave, don’t keep your fans waiting…

Best comment: Lot's of comments, some even by people I don't know. I turn the stage over to you...

My brother. A cheeky git
Glorious gold - ladies and gentlemen, I give you my brother. Not known for overstating things at all:
Brilliant, another perfect book, out of how many you've read? 40 or so? So what, 5% of all books you have reviewed are 'perfect'? Are you kidding me? I disagree with Mark. I think you should feel bad. You're a million times worse than Hitler. Signed, James Patrick Collins esq. Your Brother
By Anonymous on A Handful of Dust - another maximum on 18/10/11

Respectable silver - Marky Essex, dangerously close to calling his new born daughter Evelyn:
You should get commission from the author - sales have gone up seconds after your post! Oh and I learn something new everyday - I'd assumed Evelyn Waugh was a female author, not so - Mr Arthur Evelyn Waugh...
By Anonymous on A Handful of Dust - another maximum on 16/10/11

Shameful, shameful bronze - Katie H, with a threat I fear she will actually carry out:
You realise we will now be rating our Christmas presents out of 10? Katie
By Anonymous on Making History - high risk reading on 30/10/11

Special mention - I suspect this was written by someone incredibly intelligent and without any hint of sarcasm:
This is the best blog ever. I agree with everything you've ever said.
By Anonymous on The Book Thief - Darling of the commuter book club... on 14/03/11

Worst comment: I hate to give a negative award to my father. But I will. Not known for his brevity, my dad. Don't feel obliged to read it to the end:
Having read the book I agree that it is not light escapism and requires some deeper unpacking than other books. This said that is the nature of philosophy writing and it is more accessible than most philosophy I have read. Gray’s comments on the views of famous philosophers are controversial to say the least and some of his contentions are not closely argued, but against this his more general expositions are original and very thought provoking. One of Gray’s basic themes is that humanism (progress of humankind by humankind) is false. Scientific progress does not equate to political and ethical progress. He also outlines a view that life (or more accurately being) is the present and is for experiencing; it does not in itself have a purpose. We are bound to have an emotional reaction to his arguements however for me philosophy is about exposing truth and truth does not have emotional content. If we find Gray’s reasoning and conclusions inaccurate then it helps confirm our own views  but if we find Gray’s reasoning correct then we should, where necessary, adjust our views. I don’t agree with large parts of the book's content but it certainly made me think and in 2002 when it was written is was classed as the book of the year for 11 book reviewers including – J.G. Ballard, Will Self, Joan Bakewell and Andrew Marr. I wouldn't go as far as book of the year but I think it is a worthwhile read. Nigelc
By Anonymous on Straw Dogs - uncomfy philosophy on 10/07/11

So that’s that. My first year of blogging done. Another one on the horizon.

I bet you can’t wait.


Sunday 18 December 2011

Lanark - epic

Lanark by Alasdair Gray (Canongate: 1981). A semi autobiographical epic work of fiction, in which we follow the tragic life of a flawed artistic genius in Glasgow, and then continue to follow him after he dies and stumbles his way through Gray’s version of hell, also sort of recognisable as Glasgow.

How do you blog about an epic? Here’s a book that’s taken this guy the best years of his life (30 odd of them) to finish. He’s put himself into it in pretty much every way imaginable. He’s lived with it and grown with it and become obsessed with it for decades. It landed in the world to critical acclaim and has gone down in history as a seminal novel (at least if you believe the introduction).

And here’s me, trying to reduce my opinion of it down to about 500 words (ideally less. I know how you like brevity).

So let’s make this simple. Did I enjoy it? Yes, I’d have to say I did. It has so much in it that it’s hard not to find at least something to like. From the surrealism of the hellish world that the author spends the start and end of the book in, to the everyday majesty of the middle sections. From the hopping around between timelines to the room given for an array of beautiful characters. From the heartbreak of ordinary people, to the flamboyance of the extravagant.

It’s all here. There’s variety in abundance. But there are some unifying threads too. The language (especially the dialogue) is very simple and stripped back. All the stages are vivid and painted with enough care but not too much. The honesty of the protagonist is constant (whichever world or incarnation he finds himself in) and the complexity of those around him remain intricate throughout.

There’s just so much here! And that may be the main (though probably not only) drawback of Lanark. This isn’t a book to flip through on a plane. It’s a book that you need to make room for in your life, and commit to in a fairly serious way. If you don’t, it will quickly turn into a bit of a sand pit. The best moments I had with Lanark were in quiet places, where I had an hour or so to sit down and focus on the pages in front of me.

Don’t give it space to breath, and Lanark won’t just become a drudge to get through, it’ll become downright confusing. The imagination that’s been poured into here comes with about three extra shots of espresso and seven sugars. It’s not overstating it to say it’s wild in places, and it remains wild unless you pay it the proper attention. If you do, you’re rewarded with a sense of structure and purpose that co-exists with the wildness.

I could write about this one for ages. But I’m betting you’re starting to get bored now, so I’ll get to the point.

Lanark is a great book, no doubt. It’s about as rich as they come, and it’s original, and it’s important.  But it’s only those things in the right circumstances. In the wrong circumstances, it’s confused and disjointed.

Difficult one to score then. I’ll put my finger in the air, and come up with a…


Pick it up if you're serious about it. It's absolutley worth your time. But if you're not, don't bother.

Next week, it’s CHRRRIISSSTMAAASS! So not sure if I’ll get around to a blog. If I don’t, I’ll definitely be doing a round up of the year though. So stay tuned. And feel free to let me know some of your highlights of the year, either as a comment to this post or to or tweet me @GavCollins9.

You know, if you want to.

Sunday 11 December 2011

One Man’s Justice - a story that stays on its feet

One Man’s Justice by Akira Yoshimra (Canongate books: 2003). A Japanese novel first published in 1978, exploring the aftermath of WWII in Japan. It focuses on an ex-soldier who carried out his orders and did what soldiers do for their countries in times of war. But his side lost, and now he finds himself hunted and judged as the world settles down to peace.  
There are, on my bookshelf, more than a handful of books that have war in the middle of them, or in the background at least. Of them, more than most use WWII in one way or another. I’d wager it’s the same about your bookshelf. It’s difficult to get away from it. War is one of the most terrible and most compelling things in human history. And WWII was filled with pretty much everything. From the larger than history personalities at the top, with their absolute ideologies and good v evil rhetoric, to the heartbreak and ecstasy of the ordinary man and woman, played out millions of different ways.
War, or the possibility of war, is present in more books and films than pretty much any other single thing.
A lot of them leave me a little conflicted. I mean, WWII is a real thing that happened. Real people that fought. Real people that died. It seems a little uncomfortable to be mining those events for what is essentially entertainment. I get the ‘lest we forget’ thing. I get the value of telling and retelling the stories. I get the need to make sure that the memory needs to be kept, and that stories are one of the best ways of doing that.
I don’t know, maybe I’m being too sensitive. I mean, I buy these books and I read them and I enjoy them. But there tends to be a little voice at the back of my head that is driven by the guilt of enjoying reading about war, that says ‘just leave them alone, let them be.’
And just when I’m ready to, I find another take on it, another book that promises a different angle on it all, complete with its very own insights and moral perspective. That’s what I felt when I picked up One Man’s Justice. I’d just finished David Peace’s Tokyo Year Zero (about which we’ll talk another time, I’m sure), and I was looking for something to tell me more about the small side of post-War Japan.
And this was it. Fiction, yes, but a story that came with a big reputation and one that promised to explore some of the uncomfortable truths of victory from the side of the defeated.
And it did all of that. This book could have fallen over so many times. Tripped up on so many things. But it didn’t. It kept its feet.
It could have let melodrama creep into the war guilt of the Japanese. It could have oversimplified the lines of guilt and innocence. It could have demonised the villains and patronised the honest. It could have let the historical events overshadow the personal ones. It could have made the action into Hollywood plastic. It could have wailed about the unfairness of it all.
But it did none of that. It took its starting point and then it told its story simply and naturally. All of the emotion and all of the morality dripped through the words slowly and expertly.
There are (aren’t there always) downsides. Not many to be fair, but they’re there. Some of the cast of characters are a little thin, coming in and out of the pages without much meat to them, leaving you with a sense of a film with a gaggle of one line extras. Also, if I'm honest, I would have preferred a true story to fiction that claims to be rooted in fact. And some of the motivations and opinions are a little under-explained in places (probably in an attempt to avoid some of that melodrama that was always waiting to trip it up).
But bah! Picky much? I was looking for a war book that told a different story and told it genuinely. That’s what this did. I’m sure there are hundreds (probably thousands) of other books that tell the story of Japan’s war survivors, and I’m sure that many of them are brilliant and unsettling and important.
But this is the one I found. And this is the one I read. And it hit home.
Next week, I hope to have (finally) finished the big book that Atkins got me hooked on (damn her).

Sunday 4 December 2011

Makers - too much tech, too little else

Makers by Cory Doctorow (Harper Collins: 2009). The story of two tech/engineering entrepreneurs who love to make stuff, and are at the centre of a new business boom that sees big money invest in communal tech start ups – a phenomena dubbed “New Work”. The whole thing is documented by an online journalist, who follows our two entrepreneurs as they test the boundaries of their community driven innovations.
Hands up, I totally flaked out last week. Was home for the weekend and didn’t get back till Sunday afternoon. I could have posted a review on Sunday evening, but I didn’t. Lazy, that’s all. Sorry.
I’ve also made a fatal error. I’ve got right into a book that’s a bit big. A lot big actually. And it’s taking me a while to get through. I blame Katy Atkins, who recommended it a few weeks ago. I bought it and now I can’t put it down. I’m really enjoying it. But it’s going to take a few weeks to finish.
So I thought it’d be worth going back and telling you about something else on my bookshelf that I read a while ago. It’s the one I was reading about this time last year I think, so there’s at least some relevance there.
Cory Doctorow (I didn’t know this when I picked the book up to begin with) is something of a celebrity in the online world. He was named as one of the world’s top 25 internet influencers (whatever that means). I’m not going to pretend I fully understand most of what he writes, blogs, lectures and debates about, but suffice to say he’s well down with the 2.0 world.
And Makers is positively soaking in all that stuff. It brings up some properly interesting possibilities, even for a technology caveman like me. What’s all the more compelling is that none of this is 25th century sort of stuff. It’s all got a very real world context, and the technology is of the in-the-not-too-distant-future sort. From what I understand, there are people ferreting away as we speak to make this technology a reality. Hell, for all I know, this stuff is possible right now.
But it’s not just technology that Doctorow explores in Makers, he stretches his theme to explore the business patterns and societal changes that the technology is tied up with. He does a good job of interlinking all of the above without ever presenting one as leading the others. Technology, society, business – it’s all moving and changing from page to page.
It all knitted together well. The plot progression made sense. Doctorow’s soaring imagination was there, but reigned in just enough to keep it true. All good points.
But me, I found it all a bit too glossy. The people in the book never really came to life for me. At all. There was so much emphasis on the innovation that the human side was ignored a little I think. No doubt, the characters all had interesting arcs, they all had important parts to play in the plot and they all seemed to represent something, but I felt like you could write the entire essence of each one down on an index card.
I don’t know how good writers take a fictional person and make them reach-out-and-touch real by using nothing more than words on a page, but they do. We’ve all read great examples of it. We all know it’s possible. I don’t know how it happens, but when it does I recognise it. And it didn’t happen here.
I just didn’t care about these guys.
Not every book needs every ingredient though, I guess. Makers has plenty of them. It was interesting. It was imaginative. It was ambitious. It opened my eyes to a few new possibilities. It was original.
But it drowned it the concepts that dominated it. It lacked emotion. And it lacked a bit of humanity.
I don’t regret picking it up. It kept me interested. But I won’t be picking it up again.
Next week all depends on whether I finish my current big book (thanks a bunch, Atkins...) So it’ll either be that one (a debut masterpiece from a Scottish writer) or it’ll be something else from the shelf.
I bet you can’t wait.