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…