Sunday 23 December 2012

GBRYIR 2012 - because Christmas is all about giving

Because this is what comes up when
you Google image "GBRYIR"
I hope you’re all enjoying your December and (like me) using the festive period as your annual excuse to eat, drink and be lazy.

And as if Christmas wasn’t enough to blow your mind once a year, now it’s time for the GBRYIR!!!! (That’s "Gav’s Book Reviews Year in Review", because we continue to love acronyms). Consider it my present to you, because I'm not getting you anything else.

It’s been a big year at GBR. We’ve diversified. We’ve had cards made. We’ve doubled our readership. We’ve started talking of ourselves in the third person. All major milestones.

But no one cares about milestones. You care about awards, right? Here you go then, you impatient, loveable lot. I've even gone link-crazy with it, because I'm so web-savvy.

Best “first”: This year saw a number of firsts for GBR. First book fair covered. First mid-week show review. The first ever 0 GBR score. But by far my favourite first was the first GBR Author Interview, with non-other than my personal man-crush Glen Duncan. He left me a voicemail when we were setting the interview up, and I still listen to it every now and then, misty eyed. Which sounds creepy. And probably is.

Most read review: For some reason, City of Thieves got a lot of love. I think it may have been because, for a short time, the pic I used came up at the top of Google Images results. So I may have to discount that as most read review. The most genuinely read review was How I escaped My Certain Fate. The first of the year, so it has a slight advantage in that it’s had more time to accrue readers, but we can’t blame it for that. In its defence, it did get an unholy amount of hits in its first few weeks as well.

I’m pretty happy with that. Maybe Stewart Lee will notice and we can become best pals now. It'd save me having to stalk him so much.

Most read post: This year’s diversification meant my most (genuinely) read post wasn’t even a review. It was the write up of seeing Wilbur Smith at the Edinburgh Book Fair. You guys couldn’t get enough of that. I’m fairly certain it was because of my very cheesy photo with him. Shame I had to spoil it all by really panning his book.

Got me weak at the knees, this one
Best book: No contest. There were three 10 GBR scores this year. One for American Gods. One for Vernon God Little. But the one book I can’t take my eyes off when I look at my bookshelf is Lights out in Wonderland.

It’s not a new book, just one I caught onto late. But I’m glad it’s in my life now. If anyone can knock Glen Duncan off top spot in my author affections, it might well be DBC Pierre. The guy can flat out write. His is the kind of writing that literally leaves your spine tingling and your heart racing. It's books like this that remind me why I read in the first place. I had to take rests to calm down. Honest to God, rests. You may have a different reaction. Because you may have bad taste in books. Which may not be your fault, but is something you should be ashamed of.

So the GBRBOTY (Gav’s Book Reviews Book of the Year) award for 2012 goes to Lights out in Wonderland by DBC Pierre. *crowd roars*

Worst book: Again, no contest. It goes to the only book I’ve felt compelled to give a 0 GBR score to. A book I found absolutely no merit in. A book I felt the need to warn you off. A book I felt guilt about panning, but thought it was the only thing I could do if I was to be entirely honest.

That book is Those in Peril. Let’s not waste any more time on it.

Best comment: GBR went comment-tastic this year, with a bunch from people I’ve never even met before. To be fair, there are an awful lot of people I've never met. The word, it seems, is spreading.

My favourite? To be serious for half a second, it was all of the ones left on this post. I was nervous writing it, but felt the need, so decided not to worry, and instead just write and see if it made me feel better. It didn’t.

Worst comment: Sorry Garth H Bairstow, but you’re a winner here. Mainly because of your apparent inability to Google a question to find the answer yourself:

Can you help. I am trying to find out in which of Wilburs books Sean Courtenay was killed by his son. Yours Faithfully Garth H. Barstow on Wilbur Smith at the Edinburgh Book Fest - "Don't tell anyone, but I've got a Kindle"
Remove content | Delete | Spam Garth H. Barstow on 05/10/12

So that’s that. Year two of GBR in the history books. We’ve come a long way since the first tentative post. (Yeah, I even linked to that one. POW!) Here’s to bigger and better things in 2013. And if not bigger and better, then at least more of the same.


Sunday 16 December 2012

Puppet Shows - small and absurdly formed

Puppet Shows by Michael Frissore (Writers AMuse me Publishing: 2012). A collection of short stories by a writer the Tuscon Weekly describes as “a very funny weirdo”. All of them are bizarre, and feature sock puppets regularly.

Last week, I got a bit grumpy at Kurkov. I fell a bit in love with his dry absurdity a few years ago, and felt he’d sullied what we had by trying to drag it out over a full length, epic novel. Such Tom-foolery doesn’t seem to be able to hold attention for long periods.

It’s like the original Star Trek in that way - fun and intriguing, but ultimately a bit boring if you’re forced to watch it for a full hour. (Yes, I’m very definitely on Team Picard, not Team Kirk. Unless you’re talking about the modern Krik. But I digress…)

So, in the search for something new and fresh and absurd and short, Twitter told me to pick Puppet Shows up.

Like a lot of Twitter suggestions, this is not mainstream fiction. It’s not mainstream anything. This guy is weird, and the stories he tells are every bit as bizarre. But from page 1, they’re fun. The stories are so far off the wall they’re in the garden somewhere.

Frissore should be praised for more than just his sense of humour though. There’s an incredibly fluent turn of phrase here; you can hear every word smoothly, without effort. The language is spare in places, but often lively and always interesting. It’s conversational, but if that conversation was being held by the two sharpest, wittiest people you know (who also happen to be loony tunes).

I don’t know if Frissore bangs this stuff out without sweat, or if he agonises over each syllable, but the effect is prose that’s as rewarding to read as it is funny.

There are sacrifices for such spoonfuls of farce, though. Lay your self down on such a silly alter, and there are things you have to throw out the window. For example, believability, and with it any lasting connection with characters.

In his zeal for the absurd, Frissore also slips into a random-word-generator trap sometimes. There are elements inserted sometimes simply because of how out of place they appear. It only sticks out very occasionally. For the most part, Frissore manages to keep these in the realms of relevance, but occasionally my eyes rolled ever so slightly at attempts to insert a wacky ingredient.

It’s a difficult plate to spin though, creating something both worthwhile and absurd. And in many of these stories, Frissore nails it. One or two heart strings are even plucked subtly, with a three word flash of emotion dropped in amongst a chaotic tale.

But let’s not take for granted the most important point - the funny. Every story amused me, and all of them were cut off at just about the right time. There were one or two which could even have been longer. After Kurkov’s long disappointment, Frissore reaffirmed my belief that such whimsy (that’s right, I used the word whimsy, what of it?), screams loudest and most perfectly in rich, short bursts.


Really fun.

Next week, it’s the GBRYIR (Gav’s Book Reviews Year in Review). I know it’s the highlight of your Christmas. Don’t even try to deny it.

Sunday 9 December 2012

The Milkman in the Night - I was not grabbed. I was barely pawed.

The Milkman in the Night by Andrey Kurkov (Harvill Secker: 2011 - first published in Ukraine in 2009) A series of interweaving stories based in modern Ukraine, involving a resurrected cat, an anti-wimp drug, an underground cult, unexplained sleepwalking, an embalmed husband, and lots of milk (though not necessarily in that order).

That sounds a lark, eh? All those bizarre plot ingredients. Ripe for a bit of Andrey Kurkov fun, I’ll bet.

That’s exactly what I assumed. I’m a Kurkov fan. I enjoyed Death of a Penguin. It was short and almost perfect. So this seemed worth looking forward to.

I probably should have left it there. But I had to go and spoil it. I had to wade into another Kurkov which, from the outset, warned me it was going to be different. It was longer than any other Kurkov I've picked up, which was a red flag to start with.

It's not entirely different, I guess. There are still many of the hallmarks I loved the first time around. The Milkman in the Night has a similar sense of humour as Kurkov’s previous writing. His feel for the absurd is still there, and he continues to make you feel something approaching warmth for his simply presented, innocently motivated characters. They’re almost two dimensional at times, but it gives them a strange sort of appeal. Not quite pity, but something in the same family.

So he played around with the same ingredients, and he did so through a handful of cleverly interlinked stories. 

But no! I have to stop myself there. I’m in danger of persuading myself this wasn’t that bad after all. It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t great either. There were sections where I got bored, which is pretty much the one sin I find tough to forgive in a book.
With the possible exception of Irina, I struggled to care what happened to each of the characters. Trying to sustain the sort of farcical story lines Kurkov is so expert at weaving through a long novel like this is an incredibly tough ask, and not one I think The Milkman in the Night answers very successfully.

I just didn’t enjoy this. I can sit down and I can tell you all the reasons why this should be good. I could tell you the bits I did enjoy. I could laud his humour and the serious points that lie underneath it. I could probably sell this book to you if I put enough heart into it. But none of it escapes the fact that at no point was I tempted to stay on the train for an extra stop to read a bit more.

It provides a complete counterpoint to JK Rowling’s latest mega-book in a lot of ways. With The Milkman in the Night, I should enjoy it but didn't. With Rowling, I’d struggle to tell you exactly why I enjoyed The Casual Vacancy. I shouldn’t have. But I did. Rowling’s story telling prowess compelled me, and I looked forward to picking it up every chance I got.

That didn’t happen with this. I was amused. At a couple of points, I was touched. But for a 474 page book, there needs to be a whole lot more than that. It needs to make you care. Compel you to read on. It needs to grab you in a way that sustains you through each turn of the page.

I was not grabbed. I was barely pawed.


Good bits, but not enough of them.

Next week, a complete surprise (mainly because I have no idea what it’ll be yet. I have six books all staring at me waiting to be read - I may have to flip several coins).

Sunday 2 December 2012

C - making me feel upper-mid-brow

C by Tom McCarthy (Jonathan Cape: 2010) This book follows Serge Carrefax as he anchors his life to the key developments of early 20th century technology, with the radio at it’s core. He spends much of his life trying to understand his existence, the nature of loss, and his own inherent sadness. Pathos galore.

As I’m only half way through my current read, I looked at my bookshelf and decided to tell you about this book instead.

Partly because last week's book had a ridiculously long title, and this has the shortest of anything I've ever read, and I like that joke. But it also stands out because it makes me feel guilty, more than any other book on my shelf.

Why guilty? Because I just didn’t get it.

I really didn’t. And I know there’s something to get. People whose opinions I trust have told me how great this book is. It has given rise to praise which is embarrassing at times. It’s nearly two years since it was published, and it’s still drawing applause, which makes me think it stands a chance of living a long time in the public mind.

So, clearly, there’s big biscuits to be had here. I just couldn’t reach them.

It’s possibly because this has a high brow, post modern style that I struggle with. I’ve never studied “literature” in any sort of serious academic setting. I don’t have the tools to navigate a narrative which is deconstructive, and avoids any traditional hint of character and plot. I try, I really do. And I like to think I’m a fairly fast learner with my own fair share of common sense. But as I was reading C, it felt as if there was a huge point being made which remained hidden from me as a member of the low-brow (or at least mid-brow. Is there an upper-mid-brow? If so, that’s probably where I’d nestle).

All of which makes me feel guilty. Or dumb. Or both.

And then, earlier this year, I read another post-modern, terribly academic novel in Umbrella. And I found myself enjoying it much more. Yes, the long periods of confusion remained, but they were broken up by beautiful bits which grabbed me, and even the confusion seemed to have a purpose and a meaning by the last page.

I never got that with C.

So maybe it’s not the style that is all to blame. If I can enjoy Umbrella, maybe there’s something else about C which made it fall down for me.

For example, I never found myself connecting with the characters in the same way as I did with Umbrella. There are eccentricities baked into the plot and the people which kept me constantly off-balance, and not in a good way. There’s a metaphysical core to a lot of what happens that I never bought into the way I ought to have done.

It wasn’t entirely lost on me. I don’t want you to think I didn’t enjoy this simply because I missed the point completely (though clearly I did a bit). The big arcs, the emotion, the central themes - I spotted some of these and understood them to a point. But I never believed them. The subtleties that make you really connect with a book never came. The detail and the empathy they illicit remained annoyingly out of reach.

Maybe you’ll read this and you’ll get it better than I did. Maybe you’re better armed to unpick its worth.


I don’t mind putting in effort for a book. But I need something back. I found this tough, and never felt my effort was rewarded. The flashes of brilliance never struck me.

Only 3 and a bit weeks until Christmas, which means the GBRYIR is on its way. It also means the decorations are up in my and Mrs GBR’s flat. And we’ve had mince pies. And I’m wearing my Christmas hat. Try not to be too jealous.