Sunday 28 October 2012

The Casual Vacancy - my two-cents

The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling (Little Brown: 2012). Pagford Parish Council is locked in bitter in-fighting as it tries to jettison the less desirable parts of the village. An unexpected death opens a seat which could make the difference. The ensuing debate provides a backdrop for profound and often tragic changes to the lives of a handful of protagonists.

Time to bend the knees and jump on a bandwagon. Everyone else has done it, so why not GBR? Why not read The Casual Vacancy? Why not tell you what I think about it?

Because you’ve probably had your fill of people telling you what they think about it, that’s why. It’s probably the biggest book event of the year, and the biggest since the last Harry Potter came out. Love or hate her, Rowling is doing something right.

So I’ll keep it short. If you don’t want to, you don’t need to read beyond the next paragraph. For what it’s worth, here’s the GBR take.

This is a good book.

For those of you still with us, I might as well give you a bit more detail.

I was ready to plough through 500-odd pages of mediocrity. That’s what most of the early reviews set me up for. Something above average, that would have probably been published with or without Rowling’s clout, but not something that’s going to go down in literary history on it’s own merit. The reality, though, was a notch or three above that.

Its strength is (quelle surprise) the plotting. Strip all the blockbuster sales, all the hero worshipping, and all the circus away from Rowling, and you’re still left with an unnaturally good story-teller. Her characters are so tightly drawn, their motivations so subtly soaked into the narrative, the flow of the story so naturally constructed, that you can’t help but get sucked in. Any dubiousness I had when I opened the first page was gone by the time I got to the fiftieth.

I was immersed, willingly or not, in the world Rowling created. I wasn’t constantly looking for the next twist, or skipping ahead to the dialogue - I found myself feeling the plot unfold quite patiently, simply content to be a spectator on a detailed but easily consumed little universe.

There was a slight jarring I felt throughout the book though. It came in the cartoonish nature of some of the main characters. Large swathes of The Casual Vacancy are so supremely authentic that it is a bit of a jolt when the larger than life Howard breezes through his chocolate box delicatessen, or when gossipy Maureen turns up to a party in a shorter than short skirt.

It could be on purpose. It could be these caricatures are inserted to make the darker parts of the novel stand out in greater relief. It could be Rowling is trying to make a point about the real life that lurks underneath the faces we put on for the rest of the world. In fact I’m sure that’s it, I'm sure it's all a device. But nevertheless, I still found it a little inconsistent. This switching from gritty realism to CBBC soap opera didn’t quite work for me.

That is nit picking though. How can I be anything other than positive about a book that absorbed me so much. I honestly looked forward to picking this book up and flicking through a few pages. I was genuinely sad to turn the last page and say goodbye to Pagford. I believed in the world Rowling created, and was absorbed by the goings on in it. So what if every now and then I felt awkward at the use of a few trite stereotypes.


Anything less than 9 GBR, and I’d suspect myself of marking her down just for being famous. Anything more and I’d have to slap myself in the face for being a push over.

We're on a run of good scores at the moment. Next week, I go back to the Booker Prize shortlist to try another one of them out. Populist? Moi? Non!

Sunday 21 October 2012

Talulla Rising - spoling myself

Talulla Rising by Glen Duncan (Canongate Books: 2012). The second in Glen Duncan’s werewolf trilogy, following Talulla Demetriou as she tells us of her new, dark life. She gives birth to the baby she was left with at the end of The Last Werewolf, and from then on, everything seems to go wrong. Or more wrong, anyway.

I missed last week. Sorry about that. I was living it up in Toulouse, courtesy of Mrs GBR.

Just an apology this time though. No poem I’m afraid.

And something else to apologise for too. This is the last time I’ll do this to you this year. I promise. I’ve shown a shameful lack of self control when it comes to reading stuff I like in the last few months. I’m supposed to diversify for you. But I’ve indulged myself lately. I know this, and I admit it freely. But for one more GBR in 2012 at least, I’m going to tell you about Glen Duncan.

This time, it’s the second of his werewolf trilogy, Tallula Rising. I reviewed the first of the trilogy here. So I won’t go on about that.

I also told you here how Duncan is forcing himself to be more plot driven in his writing. “Injecting more story” as he put it, to try and win a wider audience. The result is a distinctly different Duncan to the one I fell in awe with initially.

I’m conflicted about this. It has all the hallmarks of a Duncan book that make me go gooey eyed. There’s flashes of stunning, literary pontification. The observations he makes, and the insight he gives to human (and monster) character still blew me away every now and then. His wit was still sharp, and his ability to create deep characters and draw complex but relatable links between them all was also still in attendance.

But then there’s all this plot. This bit he’s doing to try and take his talent to a wider public.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s good plot. It’s brilliant plot really. There were some genuinely surprising twists. There was high action. It was paced well, with tempo being switched up and then dialled down, plot rushing by in places and pausing for contemplation in others. And his action scenes even left room for nods towards astute emotional observances in amongst the silver bullets and the ripped out thoraxes.

But there were places which jarred as well (which breaks my heart to say). As the second book of a trilogy, it’s painfully difficult to juggle all the strands of plot and keep the reader up to speed without repeating too much of what’s gone before. Yes, remind me of who Jake Marlowe (the protagonist from the first book was), but I squirmed when Duncan resorted to regularly quoting passages from Jake’s “diary” (in reality, the first book). There was a clumsily inserted two paragraph explanation of the entire first book’s plot at one stage as well. All of which re-treading over old ground spoils the first person narrative a little.

The plot-driven Duncan and the literary Duncan seem in competition with each other. Golden passages of reflection in between rushing passages of story.

No, that’s too much. It doesn’t get switched on and off and on and off. The premise of this series, its structure, its characters, the way it’s all explored - they ensure there’s a constant hum of Duncan brilliance throughout the story. You’re never far away from his intelligence, or the complex thoughts and emotions which he relates so well. But there’s so much stuff happening that I also found myself willing the plot to resolve itself quickly so I could just be left to luxuriate in his prose. I wanted to forget the action and just read more about what being a werewolf is like. About the process of mourning Tallula is going through. More about feelings and thoughts and the human (werewolf) condition - less about how exactly they would all get out of the latest impossible situation the plot had put them in.

I know. I’m asking for the moon on a stick. I want Hope. I want I, Lucifer. I want Death of an Ordinary Man. And to be fair to Duncan, he has given me all of these already. Now he’s giving me something new. Which I respect him for. I don’t doubt this will win Duncan more fans. He deserves every single one of them. He’s performing a fine balancing act incredibly well. Literary fiction on one side, genre fiction on the other. But I don’t want balanced. I want 100% literary Duncan.


Which is as low as I’ll ever go for Duncan. The gems of old-Duncan are still there to be found on every page. And I’d still rather read a plot driven Duncan than just about anything else.

Next week, I get on the JK Rowling band wagon.

Sunday 7 October 2012

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk - gently bizzare

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris (Little Brown: 2010. Paperback version published in 2012). A series of short stories from one of America’s most popular comic writers. Each story is a snippet from the life of different animals, as they go about the business of dating, queuing, hunting, illness, etc.

It was by complete accident that I came across David Sedaris. I was looking for things to go see, trying to find something else to post an Occasional Mid-Week Show Review about, and I saw his name listed somewhere. He was set to appear on stage, reading out some of his essays. I wondered why that was even a thing, so I looked him up. Ten minutes of Googling and a watch of an old Culture Show interview later, and I’d Amazon one-clicked my way to owning a bit of Sedaris material.

He’s just a funny guy, who notices funny stuff. That’s his whole entire thing. But rather than become a stand up, he wrote essays. And he’s become a super star at it (everyone else in the world discovered him long ago). He’s done radio shows that attracted listeners by the millions, sold out big venues with readings, travelled the world - all on the strength of being an amusing little man.

And this little collection is no different. Well, it’s different insofar as it isn’t a collection of essays, it’s a collection of short stories. Parables might be more apt. Take a couple of animals, give them human characteristics, and put them into a situation that we can learn a lesson from. That’s the structure of all of these tales. They’re told with wit and simplicity, and they hit home more often than not.

One or two of them stand above the rest entirely. I was a particular fan of the one about  The toad, the turtle and the duck. Similarly, some fell on their face. Some seemed to be cut off just as they were getting interesting. Some felt as if the moral they illustrated could have been more overt. Some felt as if they lost their purpose about half way through. Some felt as if they never really got going.

But they were all (and this is meant 100% as a compliment) pleasant. They were all relaxed and comfortable and amusing. The aisles were never in danger, I didn’t once feel the urge to roll around, but there was a consistent thread of warmth and drollness running through the entire thing.

This is the first thing of his I’ve ever read. I have no idea if this is his usual style, or if he’s mellowed as he’s gone on. Maybe it was just the fact that the scenes were being played out by badgers and butterflies rather than New Yorkers and Londoners. Maybe it’s just that I was reading it as the nights were starting to draw in. But this book felt like a cozy jumper.

I don’t want to belittle it. This whole blog-post sounds patronizing. I know it does. I’ve used the word “little” a bucket full of times. I’m in danger of turning into Cheryl Cole* and calling it a “little star.” I don’t mean to do that. I promise. I put this book down with genuine affection, and I think you should pick it up with eagerness.

But I can’t bring myself to yell from the roof tops about it either. It didn’t leave me breathless in the way DBC Pierre and Glen Duncan did. It didn’t have me zooming through pages with a constant smile in the way Wodehouse does.

I fell in love with this in a more gentle way. The way I feel about custard creams. Yeah, sure, a Yorkie Bar or a Jammie Dodger or a packet of Pringles are all fancier snacks. They’ve got more jazz. They’re louder. They more of a feast for the senses. But custard creams? I’ll always go back to them. They’re pleasing in a quieter way. And so is David Sedaris.


Go read some Sedaris. You’ll fall into a calm kind of love with him.

Next week, the second part of Duncan’s Werewolf trilogy. Thought you deserved it after being kind enough to read the interview. I promise to cut myself off of Duncan for a while after this though. At least until Christmas, anyway.

*I am not in danger of turning into Cheryl Cole