Sunday 30 September 2012

The Yellow Birds - back to form

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers (Sceptre: 2012). A novel centred on Private Bartle as he trains for, fights in, and returns from Iraq.

You all know how I feel about war novels. I’ve spoken about it before. Conflicted is probably the best word. Stuck between their importance in a “lest we forget” way, and their frequent straying into war voyeurism.

This (let’s be straight right from the very beginning) fits into neither camp. It neither makes all American heroes of those at war, nor does it distil war into a game. It does what few books about war can - it gives a new perspective.

OK, maybe not entirely 100% new (what is?). But new in the context of 21st century wars. It’s intensely focussed on the turmoil of the central protagonist, and it explores that through his pre-war, war, and post-war experience. It’s not full of “Scotty took point whilst I scanned our right flank for enemy snipers.” Nor is it full of “Jonny put his body on the line for us; for freedom.” And it leaves much of the political rhetoric that dominates most writing about 21st Century wars behind. Instead, it paints small, personal pictures of genuine, honest too goodness experience.

Sentiment. That’s what I’m getting at here. There’s absolutely no faux sentimentality in this. It’s entirely raw, Private Bartle opened up on every page recounting his candid reactions to the situations he’s in. Powers does a fantastic job of conveying confusion and loss and emotional disorientation, but conveying it sharply and showing (usually between the lines) what impact all of this has on Private Bartle.

The result is a beautiful little book. Read a few reviews of this, and that’s the word you’ll start to get sick of. Beautiful. But it is. There’s no getting around it. The stages, the relationships, the emotional breakdowns, the flashes of tenderness - it all adds up to beautiful.

Some of the other reviews will also tell you this is an “important” book (another phrase I hate - aren’t they all?) That lessons can be extrapolated from the story of Private Bartle. That wider political and societal lessons could be learned.

But that’s missing the point if you ask me. That sort of debate can easily obscure the book itself. Turn it from a gem into the tool of an agenda. I’m not saying those points and those lessons shouldn’t be debated and disseminated. I’m just saying don’t let them make you forget just how stunning this book is.

I don’t want to go overboard. I don’t think you’ll read this and reach some sort of epiphany, about war or anything else. The chances are you have heard much of this before. There are some recognisable footsteps being walked in here. Young men being emotionally destroyed. Survivor’s guilt. The shock of returning to normal life. Discomfort with hero worship. We’ve been to these places before, but not often, and rarely as poetically as in Yellow Birds.

Does it help that Kevin Powers is a former soldier? That he served in Iraq for two years? It probably does. It probably gives this book credibility. But it’s a piece of information worth forgetting when you’re reading this. You’ll tie yourself up in knots thinking of which are the snippets from his own war, and which are the bits he’s made up. Instead, focus on the writing. On his talent. On the fact that he shapes his language around emotions better than most other people out there.


Shake that one off. A return to form after last week’s debacle. And (fingers crossed) an interview with Kevin Powers could be coming to GBR soon (if the questions I’ve posed via his agent make their way through the Hotmail highway loudly enough).

Next week, something light hearted from a guy apparently everyone knew about but I only found a couple of weeks ago.

Sunday 23 September 2012

Those in Peril - oh dear

Those in Peril (Macmillan: 2011) An African adventure from the world’s biggest selling writer of African adventures. Somali pirates play the bad guy role as they kidnap the daughter of Hazel Bannock, the heir to an oil magnate’s millions and a feisty businesswoman in her own right. Cue the rescue attempt, led by Hector Cross, every inch the hard nosed/soft hearted American hero you expect him to be.
A few weeks ago, I accused Chad Harbach’s novel of being like a soap opera.
I take it all back. Those words of mine, I take them back. I scurry after them and claw them and scrape them and squeeze them back into the toothpaste tube from which they spurted.
It take it back because I have found something more soap opera-y. And I hate to say it, but it was a Wilbur Smith.
Which is a shame. Because I enjoyed hearing him speak at Edinburgh. I picked up his latest with hope and expectation. I read some Wilbur Smith when I was young and I enjoyed them. All adventure, buckles being swashed left and right.
But one of three things has happened. Either I’m looking at those books through rose tinted glasses. Or my tastes have changed from when I was ten (which is very possible). Or Wilbur Smith has got worse at writing. Because this was bad. This was trip-towards-the-end-skipping-a-few-pages-where-possible bad.
I need to show some restraint here. I know some of you like this guy. I like this guy. But this was bad. And I should at least tell you why.
Worst was the relationships between the characters - they were sickening. Every few pages had a “I hate you. Kiss me” moment, straight out of the worst Spanish soap opera. I can get on board with people not getting on and then slowly falling for each other. But this had zero subtelty. None. Not an ounce. It just screamed at you, over and over again. I wanted to scream back.
There was also spades of gut wrenchingly awkward humour, only allowable amongst the deepest, most sympathetic of characters. Which none of these people were. They were either very two dimensional, or oscillated confusingly between extremes - one minute brave the next cowardly, one minute strong the next weak, one minute focussed the next having it off in the back of an aeroplane.
Then there’s the good v evil bit. This is a book with well defined good guys and bad guys. Which would be alright, if it wasn’t for the fact that it was trying to relate a real world environment. There were clumsy (very clumsy) attempts at explaining that not all Arabs are bad. That not all Americans are good. But these attempts drown. They stick out as consciously inserted disclaimers before the narrative goes off and does what it wants, human complexity be damned.
The only redeeming factor I can think of comes with an inbuilt failure. The plot was detailed, with a hurried pace maintained throughout. There was adventure, no doubt. It was the only thing stopping me giving up entirely - the action was relentless and it was difficult to find a break to stop in. But it was fatally flawed. The simplicity of the characters, the black and white nature of the story - it added up to a pretty obvious conclusion. I knew what the end game was from about page ten. Heck, you could read the dust jacket and construct the rest of the story yourself. Wind through the scenes as the plot did, there were very few surprises. And where a twist was attempted, it was usually telegraphed about fifty pages beforehand.
I’m not being a snob. I know it can sound like it, but I am 100% Scout’s Honour not being a snob. I guarantee your eyes would roll out of their sockets if you read this as well. The subtle-as-a-sledgehammer love story. The painfully awkward character interplay. The nails-on-a-blackboard dialogue. It was just no fun at all. Not one bit.
Gah. In two years of doing this, I’m not sure I’ve read a book less worthy of diplomacy. I usually try and find an upside. Even Chad Harbach got 4 GBR. I try to at least give credit for an author’s intentions. But I can’t here. Intention and execution were both terrible.
I hate to do this, but…

I’m so sorry. It’s not fun saying bad things. I rarely do it. But there’s an entire world of things to read. Good things. So I’d feel bad if you picked this up because of something I said. Don’t. Don’t pick it up.
Next week, something more positive. I promise.

Wednesday 19 September 2012

The GBR Interview: Glen Duncan – the danger of headshots

That’s right. GBR does interviews now. Edinburgh got the appetite whet. You seemed to like it (I have the graphs to prove it). So let’s do this a little more often.
The first non-festival interview is with Glen Duncan. GBR regulars (I know how you are) know exactly how I feel about Glen Duncan. Man-crush. He’s up there as one of my favourite living authors.
But I had to keep this pro. Keep my head. Be a book blogger, not a fan. So (of course) I opened the interview by telling him how much I love his work. “That’s very kind of you to say.” A gracious response, and when we both got over the awkwardness of the early gushing confession, we settled into a revealing chat.
I’d caught him off guard. “Actually, I’d forgotten you were going to call. Don’t worry though, that’s not unusual for me.” It turned out I had no reason to worry. He needed little prompting to speak intelligently. Entertainingly. Honestly.
In fact, it seemed almost like I was listening to a Glen Duncan spoken word book, all entirely off the cuff. I know this because of my notes. You know when you sit through a lecture or an interview or a meeting or whatever, you paraphrase what’s being said into your notes? You’ll translate the general point being made into your own language, using your vocabulary rather than the speaker’s.
Looking at my notes, I know I didn’t do this when speaking with Glen Duncan. I know I didn’t do this because there are some phrases in my notebook that clearly came from him, not me.
“I’m fascinated by the human capacity to bear suffering and still honour the bond of life.”
“All big cities give you the opportunity to self destruct.”
“Short stories are bursting off the pavements – there’s a human stink to London that’s appealing.”
 “Life is amazing; we need to be reminded.”
That’s Duncan. Even when caught unawares by a surprise telephone interview with a blogger he’d almost certainly entirely forgotten about, he still spoke how he writes. Thoughts came out fully formed and deeply considered. He has a natural turn of phrase which makes you think he doesn’t need to try too hard to achieve the prose I’ve grown such a fan of.
Despite the talent though, Duncan doesn’t live full time on the sunny side of Easy Street. He’s had (and continues to have) his challenges.
He picked up the pen (or opened the laptop, or whatever) to start I, Lucifer when down to his last £50 in the world. And flirting so closely with the breadline informs his approach to rights as well. He drops all artistic pretension when negotiating film options for his books, going unashamedly for big studios over art house treatments. “I need to pay the bills. Give me some money; Barbara Windsor can write the screenplay for all I care.”
He’s also faced the challenge of almost any writer inclined towards the literary – the difficulty of building an audience. It’s a challenge that has seen him work to change his MO in recent books. “I’m not a natural plotter. My books usually have more talkers than doers.” But in attempt to reach more people, Duncan is working hard to insert more plot to his books. It’s an approach which gave rise to The Last Werewolf, a book Duncan sent his agent off to pitch to the publishers with the last minute whim to “tell them it’s a trilogy.” They bought it, and the deal was done. Duncan was on the road to becoming a different kind of writer – a genre writer who did books in threes.
He only partly succeeds in this mission. He still turns out unmistakeably Glen Duncan books. No doubt, he’s drifted slightly away from the pure literary fiction of Hope and Death of an Ordinary Man. But he’s still in sight of the literary shore. He may write about werewolf adventures now, but he does so with a wit, intelligence and complexity of character that bear the hallmarks of a cross-over writer. Someone capable of bringing good writing to a mass audience.
We spoke about other stuff as well. About how film is dying. “People aren’t looking to movies for depth of experience anymore – they’re looking to shows from places like HBO as the dominant narrative.”
About his Roman Catholic upbringing. “My grammar was formed by the trappings and architecture of Roman Catholicism. It’s why I drift towards the magic in my imagination.”
About what books can do. “All literature worth its salt is concerned with how we manage to get through our lives. About people who survive and people who don’t.”
We ranged and we detoured and we chatted. For 30 minutes, we covered quite a bit.
That damn headshot
It’s a conversation which has (finally) cured me of the last obstacle in my Glen Duncan worshipping. His head shot. The one that made me bill him as unbearably smug early on. It’s an awful headshot. He has silly hair in it and a silly faraway artistic expression on his face. But that isn’t Duncan.
He was honest with me, a trait he admires. He talked of the moment he realised he needed to work harder at reaching a bigger audience. “It’s so important that I have an honest agent. I’d written seven literary novels. My agent told me straight that if I did another one, it would be difficult to publish. So I went for a page turner instead.” He didn’t throw an artistic strop. He didn’t go shopping for another agent. He went away, knuckled down, honed his plotting skills, and wrote The Last Werewolf.
He’s so far away from smug. I’m not saying he’s on-his-knees humble. But he is open. He’s keen to continue growing. He’s interested in and open to the world. He’s not afraid to work hard at what he does.
None of which comes across in that headshot, but all of which is true.
And if that’s not enough to get you on the Glen Duncan band wagon, maybe this is. I tried to draw him out on common themes amongst his books. After skirting around it for a minute or two, Duncan became blunt.
“Listen,” he said. “I always write about the same things.” He then reeled them off without pause for breath. “Love, sex, memory, betrayal, forgiveness, cruelty, compassion, death and survival. With jokes and friendship thrown in so readers don't feel like killing themselves at the end of the ride.”
If you don’t want to read about that stuff, go find another blog to read. We’re done.
THE COMMON QUESTION: I’m going to ask all authors in the GBR Interview series the same question; what was the last book you read. For Duncan, it was Fahrenheit 451. “One that had been on my reading list for years but that I only got around to recently.” I’ve read it too. I’ll tell you about it sometime. Glen Duncan and me, we both liked it. Which I’m hoping means we’re now best buds.
Tallulah Rising, the sequel to The Last Werewolf, is available in hardback and coming out in paperback on 4 October 2012 (and will be reviewed on GBR imminently...)

Sunday 16 September 2012

Umbrella - wonderful confusion

Umbrella by Will Self (Bloomsbury: 2012) A novel spanning the century, following an outbreak of encephalitis lethargica in 1918, and the lifelong impact it has to a group of patients in which it has been misdiagnosed. Self uses the disease and its aftermath to explore the destructive capacity of technology and machinery on the human condition.

I have almost zero idea where to start. I really don’t. This is Booker Prize shortlist stuff. I'm getting book review stage fright, and I don't know where to begin. But it seems I have, so I’ll try to go on.

I’ve never read anything like Umbrella before. Which I mean in an entirely positive way. That must be the foremost and loudest piece of praise for this book - it’s original.

Underneath that, it’s a bunch of other things as well, positive and negative. In the pro column we should scribble words like ambitious, beautiful, energetic, intelligent, brave. Our con column should include words like confusing, disjointed, hard-work.

No doubt Self would have a few things to say about these judgements. He probably would balk at Umbrella being labelled brave or hard-work. But it is. It takes an idea he believes in strongly, and sets it out in a form that he is no less committed to. By staying true to both idea and form, he runs the risk of the whole project being drowned in confusing modernist prose. To the normal writer, it’s a huge risk. Letting your great idea into the world in such a fragile form. It’s likely to wither.

But not Self. If I learned anything from hearing him speak in Edinburgh
, it’s that he’d simply shrug his shoulders at such risks. He wouldn’t even see it as a choice. The reader experience is not his problem. As far as he’s concerned, this is the true way to represent human experience, so why on earth would he do it any other way.

The result is a book that’s both vital and difficult to untangle. It jumps from character to character, time to time, setting to setting - all without warning or sign posts. He doesn’t even start a new paragraph when he shifts his voice, will go from 1918 to 1971 in the same sentence, leaving it up to the reader to figure out what’s going on.

Not "Umbrella" - it's "For Gavin"
To begin with (and for most of the book in fact) it's utterly confusing. You never master it (at least I didn’t), but I did gradually become comfortable with the it. Persevere, and it has a strange effect. It begins to achieve a feeling of the “continuous presence” that Self harps on about. You slowly begin to see all parts of the story at all times - not as a list of events, but as a whole tangled up confused ball of experience. A bit like the Tralfamadorians, for those Vonnegut fans amongst you (of which I’m sure there are tons).

So that’s the style. But what about the content? I’m totally certain that I missed a lot of the content. I’m sure there are major parts of the story that flew right past me as I was sweating with furrowed brow trying to un-pick the style. But some bits came through. I got the gist of what was happening, and there were some vignettes of experience that shone out.

It may be because I was just so pleased to be understanding a bit of the plot. Will Self has that effect on you. He makes you rejoice in any brief seconds when you feel you're starting to understand him. He makes you feel you're spending a moment or two on equal terms with an elite brain. But whatever the reason, when a section struck home, it did so brightly and beautifully and terribly.

And the ideas that Self explores are worth the struggle too. They become clearer as you get towards the end. Self allows himself to explain them more overtly, and when you put the book down, your mind is racing with thoughts of machines and people and life and death and family and meaning.

I feel I’ve just explained all the pro column. I haven’t really gone into the cons. I don’t want you to think this is a rewarding book which just needs a little effort. That’s not true. It needs a lot of effort. It needs the same commitment that Self has to the style. Yes, the rewards are there. But are they worth it? Do you have the time to earn them? When push comes to shove, would you rather just curl up with a bit of Grisham instead?

Gah! I’m torn. I think you should go read this. I think it’s important and it’ll introduce you to new ideas and styles. But I also think that all of that comes at a price, one that most of you probably don’t have the time or energy to pay.

How do I put all of that into a score between one and ten?


That’s how. Sit right on the fence. Just north of the fence really. But that feels about right.

Next week, something less dense. I promise.

Sunday 9 September 2012

Vernon God Little - giving in easily

Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre (Faber and Faber: 2003). In the aftermath of a high school tragedy, 15 year-old Vernon Gregory Little stumbles through the ridiculous environment of small-town Texas, put deep in a hole by the people around him through a mix of their ignorance, opportunism, ambition, desperation and depression. Seemingly the only voice of reason, Vern does what he can to stay alive and grow up just as quickly as he can.
I showed absolutely no will power with this. I was supposed to save it for a while. It wasn’t that long ago I read Lights out in Wonderland, and got a little weak at the knees about it. I wanted to give it some time before I subjected you to another hero worship of a blog post.
But then I thought, what the hey. If this is as good as I expect it to be, what is the point in delaying the fun. And if this is as good as I expect it to be, then I need to tell you about it as soon as I can, so you can get in on the fun too.
It’s not like some of you won’t have heard of this before. It won a bunch of prizes when it first came out, including the 2003 Man Booker Prize. If you were around in 2003, you’ll have already heard fawning praise for this.
But what you’ll have never heard is the GBR take on it. So here it is.
Unsurprisingly, I loved it. It was hyped up and I expected a lot from the first page to the last, and it delivered with every single word. OK, maybe not every single word, that’s probably going a bit overboard, but this was good from beginning to end.
Which is tough to do. We all know that film you go see after all your friends tell you it’s brilliant. You walk into the theatre pumped up, expectations at the top of the ladder, and you’re in a situation when pretty much nothing could possibly live up to the promise. Expect genius and you’ll probably be disappointed. Walk in with zero build up, and you’re more likely to be impressed. The film has a fairer chance. But occasionally, something is good enough to live with the sky-high billing. Embrace it. And Vernon God Little is one of those things.
The big reason (for me, anyway) is its relentless quality. DBC Pierre just doesn’t let up. Every single sentence drips with quality. He does all the difficult things pretty effortlessly – keeps a consistent voice, explores the premise carefully, paces the plot. He does all that, but that’s not what impresses me. What impresses me (as it did in Lights out in Wonderland) is his language. He does all those difficult things, spins all those plates, and he does it whilst writing with so much colour and wit and rhythm. The phrasing is just damn perfect. Intelligent. Funny. Tight. All of those things at the same time.
I smiled as I read it. Sat there in silence with a goofy grin on my face, just basking in it. Wallowing. Butterflies going nuts in my belly, scattered all over the place by the craft of Pierre.
Yeah, I enjoyed this. A bunch.
10 GBR.
Bang! Number three of the year. And this deserves it. It changed everything for me.
We’re in Sept, and there’s been three 2012 maximums, so I figure they’re still rare enough to be big news in the GBR universe. If you need reminding on what a 10 GBR score means, click away here.
Or go straight to Amazon, buy this book, along with Lights out in Wonderland, and thank me later.

Sunday 2 September 2012

Bring up the Bodies - unsuccessfully stalking Hilary Mantel

Bring up the Bodies (Fourth Estate: 2012). The second in a three part series following Thomas Cromwell’s career. Cromwell was one the major players in the Henry VIII saga. Usually portrayed as a cruel schemer, Mantel sets Cromwell up as an ambitious but ultimately misunderstood character. This second book explores his role in the downfall of Anne Boleyn.

Huzzah, I went to the Edinburgh Book Festival!

Booo, I arrived after Hilary Mantel left.

Which is a shame. I just finished her latest. I’ll try get over my disappointment at having missed her with a nice, soul cleansing confession. (Not an awkward segue at all).

My name’s Gavin, and I’m a historical fiction fan.

I said it. I admitted it right out in public and no lightening struck.

Historical fiction is cool now. Honest. Not the preserve of closet geeks any more. All sorts of genres, it seems, have emerged sleepily from public ridicule to respectability in the last ten years or so. Sci-fi, graphic novels, young adult fiction, fantasy - they’ve all caught the mass imagination at one time or another, hanging on to block buster serials and Hollywood mega-movies, riding them all the way to the mainstream.

Boo! - Hilary Mantel has perhaps my
favourite ever author headshot
(which I'm aware is an odd thing
to have a favourite of)
For historical fiction, Hilary Mantel is one of the biggest names in this newfound trendiness.

I read Wolf Hall a couple of years ago. It was one of GBR’s first reviews. Reading the review back now, it wasn’t one of my best (but who enjoys reading something they wrote nearly two years ago? Not me, that’s who).

The next instalment in the Thomas Cromwell series has the same hallmarks. Same rich writing style. Same expert scene setting. Same skill at guiding you through what is, in places, a fairly intricate plot (if you can call history a plot?)

But this book brings more as well. I felt closer to Cromwell than I did in Wolf Hall. I felt closer to all the people Mantel put down on her pages. There seemed a conscious decision to focus more tightly on a few key players and give us more time with them. Let us see them from a few different angles. It made for a more human narrative. Meant it was easier to just switch off and happily suck up the words, tasting each of them more keenly. (Bit of a stretched metaphor. Sorry. Not changing it though. I quite like it).

It feels like Mantel is really getting into her stride. She’s worked out the Cromwell she wants to portray. But more than that - she’s worked out the world she wants him to live in, and the relationships she wants him to have. Much of that was there in Wolf Hall, of course (the lady probably did her research first time around). I’m just saying in Bring up the Bodies, it all comes through so much more powerfully.

Which is just as well. The Cromwell she paints is a controversial one. Not the man judged with furrowed brow by historians, not the man defined by his actions, but a more nuanced image. She takes creative licence. She asks the “what if he was privately a really nice guy” question. She puts his choices in contexts not widely considered before. She makes much of his rags-to-riches career arc, and uses it in part to redeem him.

I’m no historian (obviously), but I know Cromwell was supposed to be a bad man. Mantels’ Cromwell is not. Ambitious, industrious, ruthless in pursuit of his agenda - all those things, but caring too. Loving. Complex.

Sorry. I know it’s time to start winding things up when I start using words like loving and complex. If I go on much longer, I’ll disappear entirely up my own behind.


I enjoyed reading this. I’m painfully aware it won’t be for everyone though. It’s the thoughtful kind of historical fiction, not the swashbuckling kind. It assumes you’ve got a bit of interest in the subject matter to begin with. It guides you through it expertly and entertainingly, but not swiftly or blood-rushingly.

I’m not saying it’s one just for the fans, but it’s not going to convert a die-hard critic of historical fiction either. Hence the 8, rather than 9 or 10.

I'm sure Hilary will be devastated.