Sunday 29 July 2012

Joy - tell your mum about it

Joy by Jonathan Lee (William Heinmann: 2012) Joy is a high flying lawyer on the verge of making partner. She's also thoroughly depressed. Her decision to end her life affects those closest to her in different (and often surprising) ways.

I’ve previously rattled on about how we judge what we read. About how books can be good for a bunch of different reasons, and the only real measure once we put the book down is whether we can look our mothers in the eye and say, hand on heart, “I enjoyed that.”

I bring this up again because, if I’m 100%, strike-me-down-if-I’m-lying honest, I didn’t think I’d enjoy this book. It’s about office life. In a law firm. I work in an office. At a law firm no less. And I was worried I’d spend the whole book either picking holes in the portrayal, or being bored at having to spend my own time reading about my working environment.

At times, I did pick holes. And at times, it did feel like I was sat back in the office. But (and I’m imagining looking my mother straight in the eye here, unable to lie to the woman who brought me into the world) I enjoyed it nonetheless.

There’s a bunch of reasons why.

First (always first) is the writing. Lee plays with language and perspective expertly. He's able to get thoughts and feelings down on the page in an authentic, engaging way, using little flurries of literary technique where useful, but sitting it down between more direct sections so it never becomes too pretentious.

He doesn't just tell you what's happening - he creates rhythim where it's needed, imagery to bring emotion off the page, distinct voices to connect with. You really do get the impression as you're reading this that you're in the company of someone who loves language, and is so in command of it that he's able to reveal every corner of the plot fluently and without fatigue.

Then there’s the story itself. It’s not original. It’s about a bored office worker, haunted by her past, and determined to end it all (I’m giving no spoilers there by the way, that’s all pretty much on the dust jacket). But it is compelling. The way it’s explored and prodded and teased out. Lee takes some well trodden paths and breathes something new into them. Something I didn’t expect to get. Something I can’t quite put my finger on, but something that gripped me. As soon as I figure out what it was, I’ll let you know. Or I’ll steal it myself and write my own book. One of those two things.

Joy also has an impressive structure to it. Which sounds like something a pompous jerk of a critic would say, but stick with me on this one. I may well accidentally slip into pompous jerk mode every now and then, but when you finish the last page of this book, you'll see it too.

You almost don't realise it as you're going along, but when the crescendo is reached, you see how much pathos, how much humour, how much reality, how much everything is packed in here. You don't notice it until the end because it's all packed in with impressive talent. Everything's in the right place, no emotion overblown, nothing underplayed - just built in exactly the right way to leave you with a sense that you've just read something rich.

This kind of writing, with a plot fragmented amongst different voices, addressing some meaning-of-life flavour questions - stitching that all together without losing the readers’ interest is a tough gig. A massively tough gig. But one that Lee is up to.

There are downsides (there always is, right?) There are things I wanted more of. There were a few absurd twists that sacrificed some believability. There was the odd over-explained plot point.

But there was also originality. And discipline. And fluidity.

And (crucially) entertainment.


Two 8s in a row. Tracking just the right side of average.

Just as well. I got in touch with Jonathan Lee a few weeks ago and he was kind enough to take time and give me some great advice on a few things. Would have been terribly embarrassing if I ended up not enjoying his book.

Next week, something from the archives I think. I may have eventually caught up with myself.

Sunday 22 July 2012

Pure - not as bad as spam curry

Pure by Andrew Miller (Sceptre: 2011). It's 1785 in Paris, and a young engineer is given the task of turning an ancient church and its graveyard into a new market square. Much bone excavation, labour relations, community engagement, and wine later, he begins to reevaluate his life and his place in a world on the bring of revolution.

Some things have all the right ingredients. Rocky road for example. Chocolate plus marshmallows plus biscuits (plus toffee if you get a deluxe version). All mmmmm. All the right ingredients. Simple maths.

But it’s not always a guarantor of success. Sometimes, you can squidge a bunch of good ingredients together and end up with something less than the sum of its parts. Case in point - I once tried to make a spam curry. I thought it couldn’t fail. I love spam. And (mild) curry. But it did fail. It failed a lot. It was awful, and everyone who was there will tell you the same.

It’s my spam curry experiment I tend to channel when I see something which, on the face of it, looks like it’s going to be brilliant. I approach with caution, certain in the knowledge all the right ingredients don’t always lead to greatness. Sometimes you get rocky road. Sometimes you get spam curry.

Pure is a historical novel (which I love). It’s been praised for its atmospheric narrative (another big check for me). And its epic qualities have been likened to the Ken Follett classic Pillars of the Earth (which I read years ago and still have fond memories of). Good ingredients. I hoped it wouldn’t let me down.

Well, you can stop holding your breath. It wasn’t quite a spam curry. It came together nicely. It had a bunch of quirks and tools and stylistic flurries to keep me happy. It had some deep themes, none of which were yelled in your face. There was a heartening subtlety to the whole thing. Especially in the character portrayals. Some were huge and larger than life, whilst others were barely sketched in pencil. There were figures upon whom very little time was spent, but their mystery and their shadows dominated parts of the story in a highly effective way. That’s pretty tough to achieve. Pretty impressive.

Most of all, I loved the recurring use of some consistent scene setters. There are a few factors that keep popping up, never on the main stage, always just off to the side. Always giving a hint of context, a unifying thread.

For example, the interplay of the characters with candle light pops up pretty regularly. Their dressing habits, and the significance of them. Little physical constants that aren’t part of the plot, but often point towards deeper issues. Almost like hidden keys woven in amongst the narrative.

I loved that. I felt I was discovering my own story all the way through. Which of course I wasn’t. It was just being revealed to me expertly.

So not a spam curry then. The ingredients worked well together. But could we stretch all the way to rocky road?

Not quite I don’t think. Some of the balance wasn’t quite right. Some excitement was sacrificed in the effort to create atmosphere. Some plotting was sacrificed in the effort to philosophise. Not big criticisms. Getting the balance between those types of things is nigh on impossible. But they were off by enough for me to hold back with any rocky road proclamation.

Before I get mired down in this metaphor (if indeed it’s not already too late), let’s skip to the score.


Really enjoyable book. The kind you’ll get more out of every time you read it.

Next week, either a book by an ex-lawyer (if I finish it in time) or not a book by an ex-lawyer (if I don’t).

Monday 16 July 2012

Edinburgh ho!

GBR will be travelling this summer, all the way up to Edinburgh for the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

After some hastily arranged travel plans, I'll be there from 24th to 27th Aug.

Armed with a press pass and a pushy disposition, I hope to come back with new books to tell you about, and some words of wisdom from the people who wrote them (or published them, or are publicising them, or are in any way connected with them).

Check out the website here and the programme here, and let me know if there’s anything going on up there that you’d like GBR to report on.

Or of course if you’re up there yourself and fancy a GBR coffee (which is like normal coffee, only with gin in), let me know!

Sunday 15 July 2012

The Sisters Brothers - cheating

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt (Granta Books: 2011) A story of two notorious brothers at the time of the Gold Rush. The Sisters Brothers are guns for hire. Eli, the more sensitive of the two, begins to question the life they lead as their latest job throws up a host of moral dilemmas.

This whole GBR adventure has been fuelled, at least a little, by a wish to try new things. Be forced into new genres.

I’ve cheated every now and then. For graphic novels, I started with a literary one in Persepolis. For an intro to love stories, I sidestepped Mills and Boon and went for a more gothic option in The Gargoyle. But for the most part, I’ve picked a range of genres and tried to go straight at them. YA fiction, philosophy, science, Russian classics…you get the idea.

This time, though, I’ve cheated again.

It’s set in the Wild West. But I’m not sure you could describe this as a Western. Elmore Leonard this is not. I doubt John Wayne would have considered starring in the film adaptation.

I’m perhaps not qualified to discount this entirely as un-Western, having not read any of the classic variety, but there are a few things I’m pretty sure I can assume. The classic Western is action packed, one dimensional, and has a clear sense of good guys and bad guys.

The Sisters Brothers, on the other hand, has long periods of thoughtful narrative broken up with flashes of action. It’s nuanced in the themes it explores. And it’s intelligent in its portrayal of good and evil (with the possible exception of the figure of The Commodore).

For all these reasons, there’s much to like. I enjoyed Eli’s ethical struggle with himself and with his brother. I enjoyed the way deWitt sketched the brothers’ relationship. I enjoyed the character of Warm, an enigmatic figure for the first half and a driving voice of the second half.

It felt as if much was being held back though. Perhaps it’s a result of the tone deWitt was striving for. It’s understated. It’s successful in achieving the kind of tone you’d expect from a strong, silent cowboy with hidden depths.

All of which is to say it was boring in places. We all love that brooding character, but spend an entire book in his company and you can quickly become frustrated, aching for the fireworks to come or the story to giddy up.

There were scenes of high action. Explosions. Riotous parties. Even a duel. But they were over quickly, and they failed to ignite the imagination. You were never brought right into them as the reader. I felt constantly at an arm’s distance from what was happening on the page.

So a mixed bag in all. An original book. And one written with discipline and ingenuity. But lacking the sucker punch to make me love it. Like it, yes. Love it, no.


A couple of middle-of-the-road scores in a row. Lets’ see if we can shake the dust off next week. Planning on going for a historical novel that seems to be the commuters' favourite at the moment. And I know you love it when I go on about historical novels.

Sunday 8 July 2012

Slaughterhouse 5 - skinning cats

Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut (1970: Jonathan Cape). An anti-war novel of the original anti-war age. Kurt Vonnegut introduces us to an American who flits forward and backward in time. We see him alternately as a middle aged optometrist, a captive in an alien zoo, touring the country as a revolutionary speaker, and watching Dresden burn in WWII.
There’s more than one way to be skin a cat. Odd phrase. I’d like to know who came up with it, and then make sure I don’t ever get too close to them. But it’s true, all the same.
Last week, I went on about DBC Pierre’s language. About its decadence and its beauty.
Kurt Vonnegut achieves beauty in a different way. Not for him the flurries of luxurious inspiration. Instead, his writing is stripped back to the bare bones. Clipped, economical sentences. Simple phrasing. Worlds and lives laid out in the bare minimum of space.
It’s difficult to do. It shows a great deal of restraint and ingenuity. High levels of concentration and a commitment to perfecting every sentence. But the result is worth it. The result is a book with a relentless rhythm.
For all the simplicity of the language, the plot provides a direct contrast. It’s intricate and fantastic. The protagonist is a time travelling optometrist who suffers alien abduction and learns a radical new way of experiencing life. He also trips through World War II in an increasingly absurd outfit.
And then he watches Dresden burn, and picks through the aftermath.
The whole book is set up to make the horror of Dresden scream out. It’s not mired in pathos. It’s couched in ridiculousness. More comedy than sentiment. The point is clear – it’s all a bit pointless. All the death and suffering and ruined lives – none of it serves a higher purpose. None of it is necessary. None of it has any wider meaning.
It’s an original way of making a well worn point. And you can see why it had so much impact when it was written. It doesn’t whine. It simply takes the bloodshed and surrounds it with an absurdity that leaches into every corner of the book.
It’s good. It’s a classic and it deserves to be.
But (crucial question) did I enjoy it?
Yes, but not outrageously. It’s clever, and it’s original, and it’s compelling in places. It still has relevance. But I didn’t fall off my seat when reading it. I wasn’t blown away like I was with DBC Pierre last week. All the power of the simple language, all the imagination; it raised my eyebrows and it made me think. But it didn’t make me howl.
I was impressed. But my socks remained firmly un-knocked off.
Good solid score. If you haven’t read this, you should. It’s a short read, and a worthwhile one.
Next week, a modern western. More new territory.

Sunday 1 July 2012

Lights out in Wonderland - take a deep breath

Lights out in Wonderland (Faber and Faber: 2010) Despairing at the state of modern civilisation, a man decides to kill himself. And then realises he doesn’t need to do it straight away. Cue a mission stretching from London to Tokyo to Berlin (but mainly Berlin) in which he hunts down the most spectacular good-bye he can construct.
“Large or small is the only choice in human life, my friend.” That’s a helluva quote. I probably should ask permission from someone before I reproduce quotes, but this book is so packed full of them that I couldn’t help myself.
“But this night like a moonlit churchyard – this is my night.” There’s another.
I could go on. There are tons of points in this book where I just stopped and breathed. It might be just my own perversion, it may be that not everyone shares it, but the language and the phrasing in this book made me gasp.
It’s beautiful. It really is, and it runs like a seam of gold through every page from beginning to end. It hits high notes again and again and again. It's relentless. Reminded me of when I first fell in love with Glen Duncan. But more.
Which is apt for this book. Rich language for a rich plot.
It’s a story built around decadence. Around a man hunting down a high luxury ending to his life, a spectacular gesture to the world. It thoroughly explores the limbo between decision and action. It picks apart the nature of capitalism (not in a way I fully agree with, but methodically all the same). It brings in fickle Gods and different flavours of bliss. All using the kind of language that makes me so jealous I could cry. I didn’t. But I could.
We can all make a gorgeous sentence. A single pretty idea expressed perfectly. A few can even make whole paragraphs. But to stretch out a whole book with this sort of language, working in the confines of a well structured and compelling story – that’s bloody impressive.
I read up a little on DBC Pierre. It’s not his real name. His real name is Peter Warren Finlay. He’s Australian, but he’s lived around the world, and he’s had a colourful life. Wikipedia describes him as part of the original jetset. It’s a background that gives portions of Lights out in Wonderland a vaguely self-portrait feel. In more recent times, he’s cleaned up a little, and wrote his first book on the floor of a studio flat in Balham, which is about a mile from where I’m sat now.
Still, a chat about Balham aside, I’m sure we’d have absolutely nothing in common if we met. I like my local pub. Getting home in time to watch a Law & Order before bed on a Tuesday night. Spending my weekends in the sorts of places where it’s OK to wear jeans. I’d probably find DBC Pierre pretentious, and DBC Pierre would probably find me a bore.
Which biographical details lead to me to liking this book all the more. It’s compelling escapism. An insight into other worlds. An introduction to rare people.
And all done with that language. That beautiful language.
You know what’s coming.
10 GBR
The fourth GBR maximum of all time. Second of 2012. Puts this guy in the company of Wodehouse, Waugh, and Gaiman. There’s a dinner party, right there.
Apparently GQ called DBC Pierre’s first novel “one of the 100 best things in the world” in 2003. 100 best things. That’s a wide category, and some accolade for a new book. The fact I have about five other books lined up on my shelf before I can get around to it makes me sad.
Next week, a first crack at Kurt Vonnegut.