Tuesday 30 April 2013

Coming over all .com

So said Frank. He also went on to say he did it his way. I, however, am not. I’m jumping over to a .com site, and as I’m computer illiterate, I’m using someone else’s template to do it. Not so much my way as the easy way.

It’s a good move though, I promise. On www.gavsbookreviews.com you can now find a bunch of pages.

There’s all the 10GBR and 9GBR reviews in one easy place. There’s a whole other section for non-book reviewy type stuff. And (because I’m still Jenny from the block), a whole page from which you can jump back here and get hold of all the pre 2013 goodies. There's even a bit of a vanity page in which you can find a bunch of other stuff I do. And of course, the big show - reviews withour spoilers every Sunday. As Peggy Riley put it, that's my kind of Church.

So long, blogspot. It’s been a blast. And when I get frustrated with the big boys over in the .com gang, I’ll come snivelling back professing that it’s always been you.

Sunday 28 April 2013

Levels of Life - mashing it up, Julian Barnes style

Levels of Life by Julian Barnes (JonathanCape: 2013). A book in three parts from a Booker Prize winning author. A literary mash up, exploring the history of ballooning, photography, love stories, and death. Wide ranging stuff.

What’s the saddest thing you can think of? Me, it’s always been a husband losing his wife (or a wife losing her husband for that matter). Always got me that one. Doesn’t matter how cheesy it is, that plot element has always made me choke when it’s cropped up on the screen or page.

And yet I subject myself to this. One of the world’s most decorated writers putting pen to paper to explore the grief he felt when his wife died.

I’m an idiot.

In fairness, it’s not all about that. The book is split in three parts. The first is a bit of non-fiction about ballooning and photography, the second is a bit of historical fiction centred on a bohemian love story gone wrong, and then the third part is where Barnes goes to town on his grief.

It works. Brilliantly. And here’s why.

For starts, it works because of the first two sections. They’re amazing. A quirky history of a quirky endeavour, followed by a thorough (but tastily bite-sized) love story which grows as it’s told. Both of the first two sections entertained me, set some of the structural thought which characterised the third section's grief, and introduced emotion slowly rather than simply plunging you in at the deep end.

For seconds, it worked because of the honesty and the rawness and the sheer humanity of the third section. There is no universal truth to grief, no universal experience. Julian Barnes is Julian Barnes; he felt and experienced and reacted to his grief in a Julian Barnes way. At no point does he melt into easy clich̩. At no point does he pluck at the usual heart strings in the usual ways. He violently kicks against any sense of Disney emotion. He tells what happened to him - anecdote by anecdote, analogy by analogy Рand leaves little out.

And for thirds, it works because this is Julian Barnes we’re talking about here. The guy can write. Every now and then, a sentence or a phrase or a structure will just knock you flat on your ass. I’ve read Barnes before and not quite got it, but I’m acutely aware pretty much everyone else has. The guy has high flung literary praise coming at him from every direction. And in this book, I get it too. I submit. Julian Barnes; you can write good.


One of the best things you’ll read this year. Why not 10 you ask? Because I do the scores, not you.

Next week, another story of a man losing his wife. I’m a glutton for punishment.

Sunday 21 April 2013

Snapper - welcoming cuckoos

Snapper by Brian Kimberling (Tinder Press: 2013). Nathan Lochmeuller is a man without motivation, and essentially falls into a job tracking song birds in a square mile of Indiana forest. He enjoys it, whilst his life and the world change around him. The novel skips between his youth, his adolescence and his grown-up years, all circling around the time he spends getting paid to watch birds.
You’re sitting with people you’ve grown up with, and you start reminiscing. Natural, right? You rehash conversations you’ve had fifty times, and you’re hilarious as you retell jokes only you guys get. It’s repetitive, but it’s comforting and indulgent. And, most importantly, you’re hilarious.
Then someone else enters the group. Some third party, unaware of how hilarious you are. You instantly get highly self aware. You glance at the cuckoo and realise how all this must sound through their ears. Boring. Irrelevant. If nothing else, you’re definitely not as funny as you thought you were.
Shared experience is fun to retread purely because it’s shared. The cuckoo wasn’t there though. To them, that time your mate got drunk and cut his hand is not the pinnacle of comedic endeavour. It’s dumb. I give you exactly ten minutes before the cuckoo’s eyes glaze over and they start planning an escape route.
That’s you and me though. That’s normal people. Brian Kimberling on the other hand – he’s a writer, and a pretty good one. He spreads out over 200-odd pages the formative experiences of Nathan Lochmeuller’s life. His own childish and adolescent and adult anecdotes. On the face of it, they’re pretty unremarkable. Kimberling sits us down opposite him, buys us a pint, and recounts vignette after vignette of experience in a life lived in Indiana.
This right here, this is the magic of story-telling. In the real world situation, the only way to make the cuckoo feel more involved is to change the topic of conversation to something they can more relate to. In Snapper though, Kimberling ploughs on, rambling his way through the narrative, dragging you deeper and deeper into Indiana.
Course, it’s not magic. There’s method to it. There are courses and workshops and entire traditions which show you how to do it. Kimberling draws on all this, no doubt, but he’s an artist, and what he achieves is remarkable. He makes sure Nathan Lochmeuller is witty and likeable (albeit a bit of a loser). He makes sure to reveal a beautiful and ugly Indiana. But most importantly, Kimberling injects meaning into each little experience he relates.
He does it subtly, but there are signposts and careful exposition; just enough so you know you’re not just reading about stuff that happened to Nathan Lochmeuller. This isn’t just a novel-length explanation of his life to date. Rather, in amongst it all, you see a search for worth in the world. A man with paths to choose but no belief in any of them. The beauty of simplicity.
That’s what we’re doing wrong, down the pub, when there’s a cuckoo in the group and our stories are boring them. We’re failing to explore meaning-of-life type questions through our experience.
I knew I was doing something wrong.
A gorgeously written, warm novel. It didn’t blow me away, but it did make me stop and think.
Next week, something a bit heartbreaking (if the book’s preamble is anything to go by).

Sunday 14 April 2013

Memories, from the corner of my mind...

The Isles of Scilly - where I am right now and
you're not (unless you are)
One of the great things about the blogger platform is you can schedule stuff.

Right now, I’m on the wonderful Isles of Scilly for what promises to be an ace week of friends, weddings, and birdwatching (yeah, you didn’t know that about me, right). Meanwhile, my old mate Blogger makes sure there’s a fresh post here for you on Sunday morning.

I actually wrote this on Thursday. And you're reading it on Sunday. Mind bending. 

Sadly no review this week. Have been buried in a few other things of late, including reading a sneak preview of the brand new Alan Haselhurst, due out in the Autumn (which I obviously can't tell you about yet or I'd be kicked out the family, son-in-law or not).
Will be back up to speed next week. In the meantime, I thought it worth revisiting a few highlights of the last two and bit years of GBR. Some of my fave reviews. Not all positive mind you, just some of the ones I enjoyed writing the most. You know the feeling; when you look back at what you've written and actually feel like it says what you meant. Well, the below are probably the closest I've got to that.
Bon apetit!

Sunday 7 April 2013

Capital - stuff happening

Capital by John Lanchester (Faber and Faber: 2013) Pepys Road is home to a mix of London life, from the high moneyed to the high principled. Some have roots in the street stretching back generations, some are riding a current wave of good fortune. And others simply visit to give out parking tickets. Lanchester tells us all of their stories.

“Life is just a bunch of stuff happening, one thing after the other.” Someone said that once (or something similar anyway). I’m no good at quotes, so let’s assume it was one of the usuals (Churchill, or Wylde, or Lennon, or some such). Whoever said it, there’s sense to it.

Storytelling usually relies on recognisable arcs and climaxes. There’s a great book on my shelf I got one Christmas on the seven basic plots which you can spot in the majority of stories. Most of the time, one version or another of these is told. And most of the time, it’s a departure from real life.

Real lives don’t have arcs. Resolutions. Beginnings, middles and ends. We can impose those structures on memories, but usually it’s just stuff happening, one thing after the other.

“Quit being a jerk, GBR. Just tell me about the book” right? 

OK, the link I’m trying to make here is that Capital is nigh on 600 pages of stuff happening. Lights shone on a bunch of characters’ lives, all of which started before the first page and all of which carry on after the last page.  

Sure, there are little swirls of arcs, but no grand thread. People’s fortunes rise and fall, they love and die, succeed and fail – all that jazz, but the overwhelming impression you get as you’re working through this isn’t of “ohmygodohmygodohmygod, I wonder what happens next.” It’s gentler than that. More real for it, but less dramatic.  

Great book are (often) about escapism. About extraordinary things or extraordinary people (or both if you can get away with it). Not Capital. Everything that happens in Capital is stuff that happens every day. Well, maybe not everything, but a lot.  

Even the mystery of an anonymous “we want what you have” campaign fizzles out in rather unspectacular fashion.  

I’m still not sure if this is criticism or praise. Lanchester is clearly trying to lay down in words a representation of life in London (a fact screamed loudly by the title of the book). Probably more accurate to say “lives”. He jumps between a bunch of very different people with very different experiences of the capital. Each is so expertly drawn that they seem very real. Almost ordinary. In so doing, he presents a more complete picture than other novels in the current (though not entirely original) craze for using London as a muse (see Zadie Smith’s NW, or Francesca Segal’s The Innocents).  

And that’s cool. I mean it; that’s cool. A hundred polaroids of London from a dozen perspectives. Variety. Reality.  

But it’s not grabbing. Not profound. Not heart racing or heart breaking or heart warming. There’s little high emotion here. Not much high anything really. Just stuff happening, one thing after the other.  

There are one or two currents that may have been deeper than I appreciated. Maybe this is a book that gives up more every time you read it. But when you turn the last page, you’re not sent running back to the first to find out. 

5 GBR 

I’ll be disagreed with for that, I’m sure. This is a best seller. There’s a lot positive about Capital. But on the GBR scale, which prizes pure enjoyment over all else, it falls in the middle ground. 

Next week, I’m off to Scilly (hurrah!) Hope to get through something and post about it before I leave, but if not, adios until next time.

Sunday 31 March 2013

East of Eden - it's been coming

Pretty sure I stole this copy
from father GBR, and never
 returned it. Soz dad
East of Eden by JohnSteinbeck (The Viking Press: 1952) Steinbeck sticks (as he usually does) to the harsh environments of his native California in his most ambitious novel, in which he follows the path of two families – the Trasks and the Hamiltons – as they face tragedy, love, evil, hope, glory, and most everything else. 

Before the blogging days, before GBR, I’d go through phases. I’d get into a specific type of book or a specific author, and stick with them for months. I had a Russian phase. A Graham Greene phase. A Bernard Cornwell phase. And then there was John Steinbeck. Ahhhh, Steiny. The Steinmeister General. Jonny Steiner.

Yeah, I enjoyed my Steinbeck phase. It started ingloriously with Grapes of Wrath (which I trudged through, grumpily and with difficulty). But then, for reasons I forget, I persevered and picked up East of Eden. And I got a little bit excited.

Which is an odd word to use for Steinbeck. He’s not what you’d call an exciting writer. East of Eden is an epic. It doesn’t race along, but neither did it drag like Grapes of Wrath did for me. 

In East of Eden, Steinbeck creates a stage with such vast potential and such deep meaning that the slightest plot developments come laden with meaning. His characters are the brooding type, but with cores that he reveals to you with such subtle clarity that they become so big and so real. I just got so damn drawn in to this. Happily trapped in Steinbeck’s whirlwind.

There’s a “big questions” aspect to this as well. To all the Steinbeck I’ve read actually. There’s a strong (but not overwhelming) thread of philosophy and theology to the arcs he creates. He doesn’t let it overtake the story; doesn’t allow his exploration of massive themes to harm the integrity of his characters and his plot. But it’s there, and it’s compelling, and it’s often beautiful.

There was one bit in particular, a whole page and a bit which I ended up underlining and reading back again and again. I recently got a bit upset when I realised that Mumford and Sons were also a fan of this section and expropriated the central word – Timshel – as an album name or some such thing (I don’t know exactly, I’m not massively down with the 6Music crowd, as you may have guessed). I felt as if I’d lost ownership of this whole section. Like it wasn’t a secret on my bookshelf that only I loved anymore. Which is dumb. This is Steinbeck. He’s a little bit famous, and I’m certain the whole Timshel thing has been debated and discussed a million times over by a million people.

But that’s the point. East of Eden absorbs you in a world that you feel privileged to be in. Steinbeck relates an entire landscape, and a cast of people who you love and you hate, and a story which you feel is yours alone. Yours to translate and find meaning in. Yours to wallow in. Yours to appreciate and be inspired by.

I’m cutting myself off there. I’m coming over all gushing.

10 GBR

One of the greatest books I’ve ever read. Good ole Steiny, the first 10 GBR of the year. It’s been coming. I’ve been waiting for a week where I hadn’t actually finished a book so I could go back and tell you about this. Totally worth it.

Next week, hopefully I’ll have finished the current biggie I’m on. 

Sunday 24 March 2013

Amity & Sorrow - dripping in profundity

Amity & Sorrow by Peggy Riley (Tinder Press: 2013). Two sisters are scooped up by their mother and are taken from their lives in a remote cult commune. They run, and they land on an equally remote farm. Riley tells us their story as they struggle to leave their old lives behind, and make big decisions about their new ones.

Try and define the word “profound.” Go on, try it. Bet you stumble. I mean, you might get there eventually, but it’s tough, right? That’s why those dictionary writers get the big bucks. Some words are just kind of ethereal (which is another example, by the way). We kind of just know the meaning. And we certainly recognise it when we see it.

Which is a roundabout introduction to what I thought of Amity and Sorrow. This thing has profundity dripping off it. It’s soaked in the stuff. I seemed to be in a constant state of breath-half-drawn-in.

The story and the plotting take a lot of the credit for this. But the writing was a big part too. It was just so damned tight. I’ve whined on about how much I love good, tight, bare writing in the past, so I won’t bore you with that again. Suffice to say this was written with very little flab involved, which made the emotion and the…well…profundity stick out all the more.

And Riley does something else I loved. Having stumbled unsuccessfully through two novels myself, one of my big worries in writing was whether or not I had enough plot to fill the book. I was constantly thinking whether I should go back a couple of stages in the story to give myself more grist for the mill. 

No such amateur worries for Riley, oh no. She starts her story when most of the big stuff has happened. On page one, pretty much everything on the dustcover blurb has already taken place. Within a few pages, you know the big bits of everyone’s back story. Sure, she does spend time later going back and filling in more blanks, and a lot of the smaller back-story details get unfolded as the book goes on, but Riley wastes no time re-hashing the minutiae of the premise. That’s confident writing, and I liked it. It got me straight into the story, no messing. 

It wasn’t perfect. The high quality of large chunks made the occasional slip bark out. For example, the main three characters are so deeply drawn and so identifiable that some of the supporting cast come off as a bit cartoonish, less care having gone into them. Also, the overall story is so heart breaking and fascinating that, by contrast, some of the specific events come off as awkward; against the grain of the wider context. 

Nit picking, I know. But if there are nits to be picked, I might as well tell you about them. Wouldn’t want to send you off not knowing about the nits. That’d be impolite.


Woof! Just enough nits to stop short of a ten, but we’re well and truly back on the track of some good books after that dip in late Feb/early March.

Amity and Sorry isn’t out until the end of next week, (thanks go to the Tinder Press for furnishing me with an advance copy), but you can pre-order it on Amazon here.

Sunday 17 March 2013

Shakespeare's Local - crossing over

Covers photograph badly in Kindle. Fact.
Shakespeare's Local by Pete Brown (Macmillan: 2012) - A history of the George Inn in Southwark, telling it's remarkable tale over many hundreds of years as it played host to some of histories greats and survived where many of its more famous contemporaries failed.

Crossover books are books of a specific (and usually niche) genre which win over a  general audience. 50 Shades of Grey is probably one of the best recent examples, taking erotica to the masses. Harry Potter did a similar thing for Young Adult fiction. Lord of the Rings for fantasy.

In that sort of company, Shakespeare’s Local won’t set the world on fire. But it deserves a serious nod of appreciation. How do you make local history more appealing to a wide audience? Focus it on a pub, throw in (often drunken) anecdotes of some of history’s luminaries, and hey presto, you’ve got a crossover hit on your hands.

Well, that’s the thinking anyway. But does the UK’s most famous beer historian and commentator pull it off? I think so. Mostly anyway.

For starts, he doesn’t write like the historians you read in school. This is not a text book, with a “and then this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened” approach. Pete Brown is way more conversational and entertaining than that. He warns you from the outset, giving you fair notice that he’s going to jump around a bit, include a few assumptions, litter the text with amusing footnotes. 

In reality, he doesn’t jump around the timeline as much as he perhaps thinks he does, but he keeps it lively nonetheless. As soon as you think you might be hitting a sticky patch, where he might be forced just to recount a few dry historical happenings in order to make sure the book has some proper context, he whizzes off into another anecdote or another rant or another character portrait. 

Maybe that's easier in a local history book anchored on pubs than it would be in a local history book about agricultural processes, but kudos nonetheless.

It’s all relative, of course. This is no thriller. Brown does what he can to inject drama, and an amusing analogy or quip is never too far away. But this won’t having you on the edge of your seat or rolling on the floor laughing. It’s a lively, colourful, entertainingly disjointed local history book, but it’s still a local history book.

So, if I’m 100% honest (and why wouldn’t I be), I reckon you still need to have at least a pilot light’s worth of interest in the subject matter before you pick this up. 

Me, I enjoy a bit of history. I enjoy it more when a crossover historian like Brown is at the helm, and I enjoy it more when it’s about something fun (like pubs), but I enjoy the dry stuff sometimes too.

I’m not saying you need to be a popular history fanatic, glued to Simon Schama every time he’s on telly. Just that you need at least a little spark of interest, even if it’s been largely suppressed. If there’s ever been a tiny voice at the back of your head which sounds like a history geek but has struggled to make itself heard, this could be the book to let the little guy out on.


I originally gave this a 7, then remembered my Kindle-era rule of only buying the hard copy of stuff I give 8 or above to. At which point I realised I really wanted to own the hard copy of this, so it MUST be worth an 8. (Impeccable logic, which I defy you to pick apart).

Interesting aside on this – Brown had his laptop with ALL his work on the book stolen when he was 3 months away from deadline, so had to start from scratch. Still churned out an 8 GBR though. I’m pretty darn impressed with that.

Next week (if I finish it in time) a new release from the Tinder Press, which they were kind enough to send me an advance copy of (which makes me feel smug).

Monday 11 March 2013

Fun running

Where's GBR?
Brace yourself. You’re about to read the saddest request for sponsorship ever. 

Me (and Mrs GBR and PaberBlogPrincess) are doing a fun run. 

A 5km fun run. And in the words of Mrs GBR, 5k isn’t exactly climbing Kilimanjaro. She’s right, of course. Kilimanjaro is definitely more difficult. But I’m pretty sure no-one’s ever climbed it dressed as Where’s Wally!

Which is what we’re doing. A Where’s Wally Fun Run. All in the cause of the National Literacy Trust. A worthy (and satisfyingly relevant) charity. When we signed up, we thought we just had to pay an entrance fee, which would go to the charity. But in a last minute game of table-turning, it turns out we each have to raise a minimum £100.

So here’s the team sponsorship page. Go nuts. And if you don’t, you’re not allowed to look at the humorous pictures which I’ll post in a couple of weeks of the three of us dressed as Wally, in amongst a hundred more Wallys, all wishing we’d stayed in bed.


Sunday 10 March 2013

Train Dreams - not compatible with Come Dine With Me

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson (Granta Books: 2012). The story of a labourer in the American mid-west at the turn of the twentieth century. He leads a simple, happy life until tragedy strikes, and he recoils into an even simpler way of life on the edges of a rapidly developing country. 

I felt bad for a few days after last week’s post. I mean, giving such a low score when at least a chunk of the blame for not enjoying the book was mine. I’m not saying I felt terrible; I’m sure Toibin will lose no sleep over it. But there was guilt there, no doubt.

So I made an effort with this next one. It’s another novella. Something that shouldn’t really take more than two or three sittings to read. So I made some time, and instead of five minute chunks here and there, I read this over a few hours. And hot dog, did it pay off.

This always had pedigree. It’s right there on the cover. “Shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize.” That doesn’t happen by accident. It happens when a good writer is slap bang at the top of their game. It happens when an unholy amount of thought and craft has gone into a piece of work. It happens when something seemingly simple is given an indefinable, magic quality. It happens here.

Train Dreams reminded me in a pretty loud way of Steinbeck. And I’m a Steinbeck fan. I’ll tell you more about that one day (it still irks me that the one Steinbeck book on GBR is perhaps the only one of his I didn’t enjoy). But for the time being, suffice to say this book had a lot of the same qualities as Steinbeck’s best writing; a gritty American nostalgia, simple but huge characters, emotion packed between the lines like gun powder. All of that.

Not a lot really happens in this book. Well, maybe that’s not true. There are life changing events. But they’re presented in a stripped down, simple way. There’s very little quickening of pace, no dramatic crescendos. And the central protagonist is a hermit who spends most of his life living alone in the woods. I have no idea how, with such a style and with this sort of plotting, books like this don’t just end up being boring. Bad ones do I guess, but the good ones (such as this) sink you into their pages with such irresistible skill that you hoover them up, content simply to be part of this slow moving world. They have an authentic quality that entertains without needing to fall back on cliff hangers or plot twists or car chases.

And if I accept some blame for not enjoying The Testament of Mary, I’m also going to grab some credit for allowing Train Dreams to flourish. I sat and I spent time with this book. Quality reading time. And I’m fairly certain all that stuff – the magic atmosphere, the subtle emotion, the character depth – none of it would have come through in such a powerful way if I read a few pages at a time whilst Come Dine With Me is playing in the background.


Go get this, clear your Sunday afternoon, and enjoy. If your Sunday’s are booked up for a while though, don’t bother.

Next week, I turn back to some non-fiction (if I finish it in time). It’s pretty boozy non-fiction though, so that livens it up a little. (You’re intrigued now, right?)

Sunday 3 March 2013

The Testament of Mary - my fault, or his?

The Testament ofMary, by Colm Toibin (Viking: 2012) Colm Toibin writes the story of Mary, using the first person voice. She is nearing the end of her life, and reminisces of the events and heartbreaks that have defined it, giving a mother’s perspective rather than a disciple’s.

Some books fly by. Each page feels like it’s slipping through your fingers as you rush towards the end. It doesn’t feel so much like reading the book as experiencing the story.
This was not one of those books. But, in all fairness, I need to shoulder some of the blame. More than any other book in recent memory, I read this in snatched five minutes here and there. I read this when tired, and I read it whilst a little sniffly (which is my entirely modest way of saying I had chronic man flu and nearly died). Any book, when read like that, would suffer. 
And suffer it did. I never fully engaged with this, and it drifted away from memory pretty soon after I finished it.
It puts me in a bit of a difficult position in evaluating it. I can recognize some great aspects of this book. The premise is just plain great, and the writing is done with a very distinct, very consistent, and very strong voice. You get a clear impression of Mary as a mother and as an old woman, neither of which chimes with the more traditional image of her. She comes across as incredibly human, stubborn, and at times helpless. There’s mystery in the plotting (which is difficult as pretty much everyone knows this story), and Toibin paces it very well. He made the good decision to make this a novella rather than anything longer, which fits the book perfectly.
So, all of this I recognized. All of this I spotted, despite reading it in hurried bursts. And yet, despite seeing all of this, I still never really connected with the book. I never felt surrounded by it. I never thought it was a book I needed to go and yell about. And yes, some of that was my fault, but it’s Toibin’s too. He’s got all these tools at his disposal, but he uses them in an incredibly mechanical way. I struggled to see the art here. It felt like an exercise. One well executed, but without any real flair.
I’ll read this again one day. And I’m sure I’ll get it then. But first time through, whether through my fault or Toibin’s, this did not work.
Couple of rough ones in a row there. Pressure on next week now. I’m sure you’re all riveted to find out if we get back on track…

Sunday 24 February 2013

Bedlam - cheese and ham

Bedlam by Christopher Brookmyer (Orbit: 2013) A Stirlingshire computer geek gets transported into a world seemingly made up of every computer game he's ever known. The mystery deepens as timelines get confused, and he finds himself in the middle of a battle, unsure what he's actually fighting for.

(one, two…wait for it…three) SCI-FI!!!
I haven’t done a proper sci-fi book on GBR yet. Not a proper one anyway. So when this came up on my Amazon-recommends list, I thought I’d take the plunge. Some guy stuck in a computer game world, battling his way through moral dilemmas and laser canons? Go on then.
Of course, the “stuck in a computer game” thing should probably have been left alone after Tron. They nailed it there. But what the hey, this sounded like fun, so in I went.
And thus repeated something that has become a worryingly familiar pattern of late. A book that I started out enjoying. And then quickly grew a little tired of. And ended up actually disliking really rather a lot.
The problem here is (and I say this with full awareness of how ridiculous I’m being) the believability of it. I don’t mean the plot. I’m happy to leave logic and skepticism at the door when sci-fi is concerned. I mean believability in the writing – the dialogue, the thought processes of the characters, the relationships that the story turns on.
And it started so well. In the first few chapters, I  liked the wit on display. The geeky references (I especially liked a reference to Buffy season 6 episode 17). But it didn’t take too long before the wit started to curdle and take on a distinctly cheesy tone. The one liners, the out-there analogies, the quirky uses of language – it all ended up just coming off as hammed up. (Cheese AND ham? I really have been eating too many sandwiches recently. But you get my meaning).
It got to the point where I was reading this in a permanent state of cringe. There was just zero about the dialogue that was natural. Zilch. Every sentence dripped with premeditation, and was delivered without even an attempt at subtlety. Which may have been bearable if it was consistently funny. But it wasn’t.
I know, I know, it’s sci-fi, right? It should be allowed a bit of cheese. A bit of too-slick wit. A large helping of contrived come-backers that wouldn’t work in any other genre. I absolutely recognize that, but the problem is it doesn’t matter what the genre, if I’m left dreading what’s coming every time a piece of dialogue is opened, I’m just plain not going to enjoy the book. Brookmyre utterly failed to bed in the sci-fi hallmarks in a way that doesn’t have you begging for the book to end.
Wow, having typed that, it now seems a little harsh. The plot to this was decent. The concept was actually a bit brilliant. Some of the characters were decently well conceived (if not particularly convincingly presented). And…
No! No excuses. I have a pretty high tolerance for sci-fi cheese. I’ve been known to be partial to it in fairly large helpings in the past. Firefly does it well. Buffy does it well. Bedlam does not do it well.
I’ve not wanted to get to the end of a book so much in quite some time.
Next week, something a bit biblical. (Not the Bible).

Sunday 10 February 2013

The Innocents - an odd sandwich

The Innocents by Francesca Segal (Vintage: 2013) Following the lives being lived in a Jewish enclave of North London, centred around Adam and Rachel, a young couple hurtling towards marriage until Ellie (Rachel’s prodigal cousin) comes on the scene and threatens to turn everything upside down.
Hmmmm, ok. I went on a bit of a turnaround with this book. I was pretty sold on it for a long time. I was humming along quite nicely, entertained by the story and the people and the world they lived in. And I’d pretty much decided this was a book I was going to enjoy; another high score for 2013, and a deserving winner of the Costa First Novel Award.
But then something pretty unprecedented happened. About three quarters through., I completely changed my mind. That’s pretty rare, no matter what you’re talking about – books, food, tv, whatever.
It’s like I had this great sandwich. A real piece of work that I was loving. I’d finished half of it and I picked the second half up with dripping mouth and wide eyes. I even continued to enjoy it, right up until I had about a quarter left.
Then it got all rubbish, and I spat the rest out. And I wondered what on earth I could have seen in the first half of the sandwich that got me going so much.
I know. That doesn’t happen, right? That’s complete make-believe. Good sandwiches are good – all the way through. But with this book, it happened.
I enjoyed it. A bunch. Then I didn’t.
I look back on the bits I enjoyed, and I see the flaws now. The plotting seems contrived. The protagonist is a twerp. Most of the supporting cast are cartoons.
But let’s give credit where it’s due. All of this was hidden from me for a while. Why? I think it’s because the writing is so good. Segal is talented, no doubt. Like mad talented. The writing is so tight and easy to read. I’ve heard time and again that the best writers make you forget they’re there, and that’s what Segal achieves here. She writes so well that you just experience the story, and don’t get distracted by anything else.
Also, the stage is pretty good. It’s a window on a whole community that I know very little about, and seeing how it works and the characters that drive it got me hooked for a while.
But then it all fell apart. The plot is driven by the ongoing moral dilemma of the protagonist who, (and I’m giving nothing away here that you won’t get from the dust jacket), is faced with a choice between a safe, lovely life and rocking the boat by running off with his wife’s cousin. It’s an interesting dilemma, but not one that I want to hear too much about. I found myself bored of it and of him. I wanted to tell him to get something done already. All the hmming and harrring – I really stopped caring. And once I stopped caring about that, all the other cracks started to appear as well.
Where does that leave us? Well, I’m not going to tell you this is a bad book. It isn’t. It’s well written. It has a good premise. And if you have a bit more patience than I do for the emotional dilemmas of others, then you could probably convince yourself it’s got a good plot as well. But I tripped towards the end of it, and all I was thinking during the last few pages was what I was going to read next.
In my mind, I was book-cheating on it already.
Above average, but only just.
Next week, well I’m not sure. What am I, a fortune teller? Get away from me.

Sunday 3 February 2013

Birdsong - a non-rambling opinion (mostly)

My good looking copy, from
the Folio Society. I think I love
 those guys (and Mrs GBR of course, who
bought it for me)
Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks (Hutchinson: 1993). Faulks gets stuck into WW1, following the life of Stephen Wraysford as he falls in a tragic kind of love before getting whisked away by the violent events of the early twentieth century. 

So I didn’t post last Sunday. Sorry about that. I felt a bit worse for wear, then got distracted by Andy Murray, then by lunch, then by napping. Before I knew it, it was Monday again.
It’s probably a good thing, because this book needed time to settle. There’s a bunch I want to say about it, but I know you guys don’t have the longest attention spans, so I’ll reign in the more rambling of my thoughts. Well, I’ll try.
The big thing to say (and it’s something I didn’t realise until a few days after I finished the book) is that Birdsong gets under your skin. I couldn’t stop thinking about it after I put it down. I finished the last page and, days later, still felt myself daydreaming about some aspect of it or other. 

I’ve talked before about how some books make that happen simply by being long, the logic being if you spend a month reading something, it’ll end up lodging in your brain by dint of its weight if not by its quality.
And, no doubt, Birdsong probably benefits from its length in the same way. But I think it’s more than that. Ordinarily, I’m a language junkie. The sure fire way to get me panting at a book is to make the language so rich it makes you short of breath (just ask Pierre). But Faulks doesn’t do that. There are no passages of explosive language. Instead, he gets you high on the detail. 

He creates a scene, picks out some of its most subtle but beautiful components, then puts them under a microscope in a way that makes the people and places slap you in the face. It’s this careful choosing and expert exploiting of detail – not any bombastic wording – that got me hooked. It made this book stay with me long after I put it down.
Sorry, that was a bit of a rambling thought, but it felt an important one. And here’s two more (put more succinctly, just for you).
The characters in Birdsong are distinct, detailed, unusual and compelling. Almost ethereal, but without losing reality.
The pacing of the book is masterful. He softens you up with love story, and just when you’re starting to get bored of it, he plunges you into the WW1 trenches. And just when you’re getting bored of that, he takes you to the 1970s. And just when you’re getting bored of that, he wraps things up with high emotion and meaning.
Ok, so maybe not that succinct.
There were (there always are) downsides. Any book of this length is going to have treacly sections you just have to wade through. Any book with the well trodden ground of WW1 at its core will feel a little clichéd in parts.
But I can’t think badly of a book that drew me in as much as this. I can’t criticize a story that stayed with me and made me daydream for days afterwards.
Hot dog! It’s been a high scoring start to the year. I’m enjoying my reading a lot at the moment. Possibly too much, there seems little time for anything else.
Next week, a book which comes with the "Jewish Book of the Year" accolade to live up to. Let’s hope it does.

Sunday 20 January 2013

Put out More Flags - Waugh's killer combination

The title page of my lovely old edition
Put out More Flags by Evelyn Waugh (Chapman & Hall : 1942) Between war being declared and things really hotting up, Britain went through a period of "phony war" where things didn't seem all that bad. Waugh takes his set of high society hang overs, led by the irrepressible Basil Seal, and shows their approach to this grand new folly. Driven by a sense of "what's-in-it-for-me", the jape of war has both comic and tragic effect.

At the risk of sounding like a 12-year old school girl, ohmygodohmygodohmygod! DBC Pierre emailed me yesterday. Subject line: Cowabunga. Apprently, "at the sweet end of a piss-up a friend brought your review of my book up on his phone." That's me he's talking about! He liked it. He said he'd raise a drink to me.

That's it. I'm done. I can stop this whole shebang now and die smiling.

What? You don't care who emailed me? It's Sunday morning and you want your weekly GBR review? Oh, OK then you demanding lot, here it is.

I went to the British Museum a couple of weeks ago. The first thing I saw when I walked through the door was an exhibition with a 5,000 year-old pot in it.
Five-freaking-thousand years old. Damn if that's not impressive. And this thing was elaborate. It blew my mind a little. All that time ago, someone made this, spent time on it, drank out of it, and there it was in front of me in a glass case.

A pot that had survived everything.
Whoever JAC Rupert was, he
bought this in '42
That’s how I feel about old books. Anything written in an entirely different circumstance to the one I’m reading it in. Words that someone wrote down a while ago, and there they are in front of me, surviving.
I say all this as it’s pertinent to Put out More Flags (I promise). You guys know I love a bit of Waugh. And so I was always going to love this too. The guy flaunted every aspect of his writing that I enjoy. It was satirical, slap-stick, absurd, flat-out funny, but with a heavy dose of poignancy as well. It was Wodehouse with purpose. And it was typically easy to tread. Waugh writes like he invented language, and knows exactly how it should be used.
So there was all that. Obviously. But there was something else as well. Put out More Flags was published in 1942. I know this because I was very kindly bought this old edition of it for my birthday, and it says 1942 right at the front. 1942 is a time that just plain fascinates me. In the grip of a war that has turned terrible. No idea if we’re going to win or not. Everything up for grabs.
And amongst it all, here’s Waugh with his cartoonish social set. A largely fictional upper class who are tripping from one aspect of the war to another. There’s truth in some of their reactions, albeit highly caricatured. And between the lines (which is where Waugh shines), there’s all this heavy heavy context of a war.
I know we won. And you know we won. But the words on these 70-odd year old pages had no idea. These words and the imagination that delivered them were entirely ignorant of how it would all play out.
The beautiful spine of my edition. Aren't
books great!
That was enough for me. I was sold. The painful contrast of Waugh’s humour with a deep pathos that’s just beneath the surface never stops fascinating me. I saw it first in A Handful of Dust (which was the 2011 GBRBOY by the way…). And here, it blew me away again.
In short, this guy has a killer combination. Funny as heck. A magical and distinct way with words. And the ability to sneak up on you and make you cry with a single phrase.
Now, I just need to figure out how he does it.
Why not 10 after a write up like that, I hear you cry? Honestly, because A Handful of Dust was my first Waugh blow out, and I guess it can never be quite as good as the first time.

Next week, I'm not quite sure as I'm currently trudging through a biggie.