Monday, 23 May 2011

Book #41 After The Fire, A Still Small Voice by Evie Wyld

After The Fire, A Still Small Voice

After The Fire, A Still Small Voice was recently featured on BBC 2's The Culture Show 'New Novelists : 12 Of The Best' episode. Evie Wyld is British with Australian family and this is her first novel.

The novel immediately sets itself in 2006, by making a passing reference to the death of Australian wildlife expert Steve Irwin in its opening page; more as a means of setting location and atmosphere than anything else. An Australian story of fathers and sons, the books central character Frank has beaten a retreat to his grandparents long abandoned home following a bad break up.

The novel takes the format of switching alternate chapters between Frank and his father Leon, though Frank's chapters are roughly present day, Leon's take place first in his childhood at the time of the Korean war, which his father fights in and then later the Vietnam war which he fights in.

The book is really a study in the way in which emotional damage is passed along through generations, from Frank's grandfather onward, though the reader can connect with both Frank and Leon as characters, they themselves are disconnected. The remoteness of the characters is echoed through the remoteness of the landscape Frank chooses to live in, and his isolation as a local newcomer.

After The a book which has a strong emotional depth without being hard or heavy to read, it's very easy "to get into" and conveys a sense of realistic character portrayals and outcomes. Too many books or films paint happy endings onto stories that real humans wish they could experience but don't because life isn't like that. Life is often broken and unfair and unhappy, the skill here is that Evie Wyld portrays this and succeeds in making her book moving but not depressing. It is thoughtful and reflective and descriptive. I wasn't overly sure about the subplot, which seems not to fit with the main focus of the nature of the father/son dynamic and is a bit unclear and unresolved.

I liked the book well enough, I found the chapters devoted to Frank very atmospheric and would probably read more work by Wyld in the future. 7/10

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Poem #3 The God Abandons Antony by CP Cavafy

So my poem of the month is The God Abandons Antony by CP Cavafy, I fell in love with this poem the second I heard it and it's easily in my top 10 favourite poems. Constantine Cavafy was Greek he lived in Alexandria in what was then the Ottoman Empire and briefly lived in Liverpool as a child. He died in 1933 at the age of 70. I recently found an old edition of Cavafy in a tiny bookshop in Camden and was chuffed with myself. The translation was slightly different to the one I was acquainted with, and it's the translation I know better that I am posting.

When suddenly, at midnight, you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive—don’t mourn them uselessly.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving.
Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say
it was a dream, your ears deceived you:
don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
as is right for you who were given this kind of city,
go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion, but not
with the whining, the pleas of a coward;
listen—your final delectation—to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.

I think this poem is amazing, and it's really special to me.

Book #40 The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster

The New York Trilogy

The New York Trilogy isn't a trilogy in the sense that Steig Larsson's Millenium Trilogy is a trilogy or The Lord Of Rings is a trilogy, it's three extended short stories 'City Of Glass', 'Ghosts' and 'The Locked Room'. It's another example of metafiction, which I wasn't expecting, I can't remember who recommended it to me in the first instance or what they said about it. Whilst the use of metafiction is totally unintrusive in 'The Things They Carried', you knew it was there but it didn't effect the story, it is so intrusive in 'The New York Trilogy' that I think it probably counts as an example of 'breaking the fourth wall' or if it doesn't quite technically fit the criteria, it comes very close.

I hate it when authors break the fourth wall, I like to become immersed in the story, the characters, and pretend at least for the duration I read it that I am a visitor to the world about which I am reading. I don't like the authors wagging finger appearing in my face and saying 'this isn't REAL you know, it's just a STORY'. I know that already, I know the difference between fiction and non fiction.

I think one of the central discussion points of the trilogy is on the nature of authorship, and whether the story is more important than its author and the author is essentially irrelevant. In 'City Of Glass' Daniel Quinn is a formerly successful poet who following terrible tragedy now writes mystery stories, churning out one a year under the pseudonym 'William Wilson'. He receives a phonecall in the dead of night looking for a private detective named Paul Auster whom he then impersonates. Essentially all Auster has done here is use his own name as a character name but the effect is nonetheless jarring. A separate character who coincidentally also shares the name Paul Auster appears later on. I didn't like it. In the last story 'The Locked Room' the question of authorship arises again. A man publishes the work of his missing, presumed dead, friend and is asked whether he would consider writing a few more novels under his friends name, the public being none the wiser. I wondered briefly if Paul Auster wasn't a real person and that was part of the point but it seems that he is.     

'The Locked Room' is actually quite a good story, but in it he re-uses several character names from 'City Of Glass' including, at one point, Paul Auster, and I just found this approach really very irritating. The characters in The Locked Room are not the ones from City Of Glass either they just have the same names. I think he's trying to make another point with this and that is that the names don't matter only the story. In Ghosts, Auster replaces every character name with a colour, which sounds like a small thing but actually makes it quite hard to read.  

I wonder if a lot of reviews at the time praised Auster for playing with formats and BREAKING NEW GROUND, but I found something quite arrogant about it, a tone which suggests he thinks he's a better and more innovative writer than he actually is. The sense that he's writing for the critics, and the literary world at large. The first two stories are genuinely confusing, and I didn't really "take away" much from the book having finished it. I felt quite "so what?" about it. 

In the first story Quinn meets a young woman reading one of his mystery novels, when she tells him she's finding it average without knowing he's the author, he leaves, because he is afraid he might punch her in the face. I kind of had the same feeling towards Auster throughout. A disappointment 5/10

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Book #39 Naked by David Sedaris


Naked, published in 1997 is the second book by David Sedaris I have read having read Me Talk Pretty One Day, a later work, some years ago. All of Sedaris' work comprises of anecdotal, autobiographical short stories.  A comic writer many of his stories are genuinely hilarious, but comedy is a personal taste thing and I found the stories overall in this one less amusing than I did the previous book I'd read, which isn't to say that was the case with every story.

In this book Sedaris tackles such diverse topics as his time on a nudist colony, his Greek grandmother, his volunteerism in a psychiatric hospital, his sister Lisa's friendship with a prostitute, a pornographic novel discovered in their home, Lisa's first period and her marriage, and his childhood issues with his homosexuality and OCD among others.

I felt when reading 'Me Talk Pretty One Day' that Sedaris' childhood made anyone's seem dull and tame, and 'Naked' expands on this, the man's life is full of incident and wild stories to tell at dinner parties, whilst what happens to David the majority of the time is unfortunate and often cringeworthy, you feel slightly envious that he had all these experiences. It beats the heck out of childhood Saturdays spent traipsing around garden centres.

The funniest stories this time round for me were 'The Drama Bug' a story in which Sedaris becomes taken with Shakespeare and begins to address his family in Shakespearean Language, which genuinely made me laugh aloud, The Women's Open : the story of Lisa's first period which distinguishes itself for Lisa's reaction to her father in the car. Cyclops, the story of the way in which parents project the worst case scenario outcome onto everything you do; I also liked True Detective an episode in which David tries to establish who is wiping their bum on the bathroom towels among other crimes and finally my favourite The Incomplete Quad chronicling Sedaris' friendship with a disabled student at university, and their various attempts at using her disability for financial gain, getting away with shoplifting and hitchhiking, really funny.

Some of the stories though are actually quite sad, the fact that nobody really liked his grandmother Ya-Ya, and the story of his mothers diagnosis with terminal cancer. Funny or sad, these are stories of a large, chaotic family and the sort of emotions and relationships that occur within a family dynamic, and as such should be very identifiable with a lot of readers. I think like me, other readers will like certain stories better than others and perhaps will like ones that I wasn't too keen on, and dislike ones that I enjoyed.

I struggled with maybe three stories in the book, C.O.G, Naked,  and Something For Everyone which made the last section of the book a bit of a "go slow" as these were longer stories which I didn't really find interesting or funny. Like most short story collections you take to some stories and not to others which then makes the book rather a patchy experience. I don't know if I'll read a third collection of his stories, I think it's important that there was a long gap between my reading this book and Me Talk Pretty One Day because I think if you read all his stuff on top of one another it would become a bit samey and irritating.

I do wonder how his family, his brothers and sisters who are still living feel about having themselves and their childhood exposed in such a way, I read that an adaptation of Me Talk Pretty One Day was blocked after Amy Sedaris, herself a writer, voiced concerns to David about how their family would be portrayed.

Overall, I really enjoyed some of it and some of it bored me so maybe we'll say a 6.5/10

Friday, 20 May 2011

Book #38 The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld

The Interpretation of Murder

Personally, I feel like the Crime genre is in a bit of a slump and nothing new has come out of it in a while. Authors seem to try and make their crime novel stand out by writing increasingly graphic, distasteful crimes or by making the investigator individually eccentric in some manner. By in large though they follow similar patterns.

Rubenfeld, (a Yale University lecturer with a first novel) puts his 'new take' on a crime thriller by making the main character psychoanalyst and society gentleman Stratham Younger, a disciple of Freud. He also places the novel in 1909 the year of Freud's first and only visit to America, thereby making Freud and Jung, historical people, fictional characters. There is of course a modern trend for this now, taking a well known person (long dead) and fictionalising them. It often leaves me wondering how fair it is, whether I would like a fictional and probably inaccurate depiction of myself bearing my name in some future novel, and which living people from this century will be subject to this treatment in our grand-children's time.

The twist with the focus on the psychoanalysis side of things is that Younger with Freud as a mentor begins to analyse a young woman who has been victim of an appalling crime using the tricks of their trade to get her to remember what happened. Younger's story is told in the first person, whilst the second strand, focusing on the ongoing investigation being run by a detective and a coroner is done in the third.

The book is a bit cobbled together, a bit too many ingredients in the recipe. A crime, the famous man and his famous visit, a couple of lacklustre love stories, a few thinly sketched similar villains, several twists and a quite over the top denouement, which strikes you as rather theatrical and camp.   
In addition you've got all the sexual deviance, which after the original crime just seems to be there for sheer titillation, the presence of Freud and therefore his sexual theories providing a handy excuse for its presence. It also had that certain crime cliche of the Agatha Christie era, "a sinister Chinaman" How dated.

I was reading the review of some other book on Amazon, and one reviewer described it as being on 'the Richard and Judy list of shame'. This book too, was a Richard and Judy selection. What I think the reviewer meant was that although Richard and Judy do not choose low-brow fiction nor do they choose high-brow fiction meaning that their selections tend to fall in the middle, neither one thing nor the other. A little original perhaps, but also not too challenging, not too offensive and a little bland.
Consequently the writing reflects this.

There are some interesting points, the various facts about the thoughts on psychiatry in that era, the impact of Freud on American culture and Younger's curious obsession with Hamlet, but all in all it's messy. It has a sequel 'The Death Instinct' which I picked up quite accidentally a few weeks ago, because I had an opportunity for a 3 for 2 and it was the nearest thing to hand. I'm not really sure if I'll bother with it though, it's a bit of a "won't get those hours back" scenario.

5 or 6/10

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Book #37 The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

The Things They Carried

After the difficulty I had with Crow Country, the next book I picked up: Tim O'Brien's 'The Things They Carried' could not have been more different. It's been lounging round my house unread for what must be about three years now and I finally took pity on it, call me a mental person but I feel sorry for books that aren't read and wonder if they feel sad. That's how alive books are to me, they aren't just words that someone made up, between two hard covers lie whole worlds, people we could never meet, places and times we can never experience for ourselves.

In 'The Things They Carried' O'Brien takes us to a period of history and an event that only men of a certain age and nationality will ever experience, the US invasion of Vietnam, and shares it. O'Brien is renowned in the States as the foremost contributor to Vietnam veteran literature, having prior to the publication of this book released a memoir of his experience as a young soldier 'If I Die In A Combat Zone, Box Me Up And Ship Me Home' and a Vietnam war based novel 'Going After Cacciato'.
'The Things They Carried' blurs the distinction between the memoir format and the novel format, apparently deliberately. "Tim O'Brien" is the narrator of the novel, he became a writer following leaving service and is 43, just like the author, but the "Tim O'Brien" of the novel is a fictionalised version of the self. In the novel O'Brien talks about the difference between "story truths and happening truths" and it is clear that O'Brien uses 'The Things They Carried' as a vehicle to tell stories that portray truths of the experience without necessarily being factually accurate. Some people would say that this is a short story collection but I think it hangs together as a novel made up of episodic tales.

The title The Things They Carried has a literal meaning in terms not only of their backpacks and weaponry, but their mementos from home. It also has the figurative meaning of what they carried with them from home when they came into the war in their minds, what experiences they carried with them in the duration of their service and what they psychologically carried on going home. It is tough to know if it's the real O'Brien or the fictional O'Brien who speaks but he described never really being one to tell stories to friends and family about the war but has never stopped writing about it. The writing has become his dialogue and his therapy it seems, and yet there is no overwhelming feel in the writing of a desperate or bitter man. Just of a man with a great ability to tell the stories of the era and the stories they told each other at night in their foxholes.

If my experience reading Crow Country was plodding and exasperating, reading The Things They Carried was the exact opposite. I would have read this book in one single sitting had it not got so late. It was phenomenal, truly. Gripping, beautifully constructed and written, with not only a sense of place and time but a great sense of the psyche. The psyche of what turns young men into soldiers and how they cope or are damaged by that psychologically. What it is like to be a soldier not just in terms of times of incident and battle, but the daily trudging grind of patrol alongside men who may perish or whom you may count on to ensure you don't. What it is like to be "in" a war.

There was a great section around page 81 and I feel I must quote it as an example of how great the writing is

To generalize about war is like generalizing about peace. Almost everything is true. Almost nothing is true. At it's core perhaps war is just another name for death, and yet any soldier will tell you if he tells the truth, that proximity to death brings with it a corresponding proximity to life. After a firefight, there is always the immense pleasure of aliveness. The trees are alive, the grass, the soil - everything. All around you things are purely living and you among them and the aliveness makes you tremble. You feel an intense, out of the skin awareness of your living self - your truest self, the human being you want to be and then become by force of wanting it. In the midst of evil you want to be a good man. You want decency. You want justice and courtesy and human concord, things you never knew you wanted. There's a kind of largeness to it a kind of godliness. Though it's odd you're never more alive than when you're almost dead. You recognize what's valuable. Freshly as if for the first time you love what's best in yourself and in the world, all that might be lost. At the hour of dusk you sit at your foxhole and look out on a wide river turning pinkish red, and at the mountains beyond, and although in the morning you must cross the river and go into the mountains and do terrible things and maybe die, even so, you find yourself studying the fine colors on the river, you feel wonder and awe at the setting of the sun, and you are filled with a hard, aching love for how the world could be and always should be, but now is not.    

I had a hard time picking out where to start and finish that quote as the writing around it is equally fine.
This book is an experience which awakes the senses and evokes the atmosphere. Without wanting to make a crass allusion to popular culture, you can smell the napalm. I think that this, though a shorter book, is the best piece of war fiction I've read since I read Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks; though this is of course, an earlier book. But what makes this a bit more special is that Tim O'Brien's voice is the voice of a man who actually went there and lived to tell the tale.

Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. Read this book please.  10/10

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Book #36 Crow Country by Mark Cocker

Crow Country

I got this book well over a year ago when I ordered everything on a recommended list after a Readers Day (Yeah, I do stuff like that!) As far as I recall it was recommended by the poet David Constantine but it could have been his wife Helen, or someone else entirely. I found it residing sideways on a shelf this morning and thought I'd give it its turn - I have too many books, far too many, bought and unread.

I have to say that this is the first book since The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen to truly challenge the 'Finish what you started' aspect of the Roz Reading Challenge as a whole. I truly did not know if I could finish it, even when I only had 40 pages left. I hated reading this and couldn't wait to finish it, it was painful, it all began to blur into just words. I did however, finish it.

Mark Cocker is an ornithologist who specialises in crows. He's a crow man, they're his favourite birds, and the book is about his observations of them in the Yare Valley, Norfolk, other parts of Britain and their general history.

I want to be 100% fair to it and say: If you are an ornithologist, a twitcher, someone who enjoys Springwatch or nature programs in general, you will probably like this book. Not only does Cocker's genuine love for his subject matter shine through, extracts of it have a real poetic quality to them and he occasionally references poems featuring crows. In Chapter 17, Cocker talks about bird-watchers being defined as 'sad' in contemporary culture, but just because I don't identify, doesn't mean I think he's sad, my interest in poetry for example, or indeed in writing reviews on the Internet that I'm not sure anyone is actually reading might equally be classed as sad. I merely do not share his passion.

My grandfather had a bunch of crows that sat on his roof and basically waited for the scraps that came with punctual regularity. He used to clang a metal pan as a signal that the food was out, they were pretty obese crows, I suppose in the end. We did wonder if they mourned him when he died. I guess he was a crow man. My interest in crows is probably nil. I found the book torturous, arduous and deathly dull, it is less than 200 pages long and I had a genuine struggle to read it. I have read very little non fiction ever prior to this year and this book reminded me exactly why.

As Natural History books go, I can sort of tell that for those interested in the matter this would be a special book, and so my dislike for it is not based on the fact that it's a "bad book" it's probably an excellent book just not my cup of tea. In fairness to it I am not this books audience, and it's probably heading to the nearest charity shop. If my grandfather were still living though, I think he might have liked it.

Sad to say 3/10 for me, but for those who like birds it's probably a 7/8

Monday, 16 May 2011

Book #35 My Antonia by Willa Cather

My Antonia

I wanted to read a Willa Cather novel having seen her recommended elsewhere, a search in two branches of Waterstones came up dry and the only one of her books available on Kindle was My Antonia, so choice made for me! I'm rather glad it was made for me as I'm not sure I would have necessarily picked it if I'd  had options and I'm genuinely glad I read it.

Published in 1918 it is part of Cather's prairie trilogy alongside O Pioneers! and The Song Of The Lark though the storylines are unconnected all the novels take place in prairie outpost settings.

In 'My Antonia' the lead character is Jim Burden an orphaned boy sent to live with his grandparents on their prairie farm. Whilst there he comes across the Shimerda family who are Bohemian immigrants, and one of the themes of the novel broadly speaking is the successes and failures of European immigrants in early America. The fact that the Shimerda's are Bohemian led to my acquiring new general knowledge as Bohemian in their sense is not as it is used today nor as it is used in 'Joe Gould's Secret' but means that they are from the area now known as the Czech Republic. Learn something new every day!

My Antonia is a fictional memoir in which main character Jim looks back upon his childhood and youth in which he knew Antonia Shimerda and the various changes in their relationship as they grew up.  It's a fairly uneventful novel, more a portrait of a time, a place and a community though it is not the poorer for that. It is a nostalgic novel that brims with warmth, fond memories, kindness and love, to the extent that it feels like it could be a well written reflective autobiography. It has a sense of realism that is often lost in fictional stories.

Nostalgia seems to be the distinct theme of the novel experienced by multiple characters. Things were better 'in youth', 'in the old country' when they weren't necessarily so, the human trait of putting a certain gloss on the past.  

I particularly liked the quote:

'In the course of twenty crowded years one parts with many illusions. I did not wish to lose the early ones. Some memories are realities, and are better than anything that can ever happen to one again."

In later parts of the book Jim avoids Antonia through the fear that 'Antonia now' will ruin his memories of 'Antonia then'. This shows how certain memories become sacred to what made us who we are as a person, what we treasure from our past.

For a story which is essentially simple and not written in an overly challenging way, My Antonia has a resonance in the universal experience of what it is to be human, and as such is a special novel, belonging in the wider novel community to a select and distinguished club.

I enjoyed this novel very much and I'd say it was accessible to all readers and that everyone could find something to identify with in it. I will be on the lookout for other Cather novels if I can find them, O Pioneers! seems to have suddenly appeared on Kindle.

Read this. 9/10

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Book #34 The Good Man Jesus And The Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman

The Good Man Jesus And The Scoundrel Christ
After I'd completed this novel I read that it belonged to The Canongate Myths Series, a range of books by prominent authors retelling popular myths. Margaret Atwood chose the Odyssey and wrote The Penelopiad, Michael Faber chose Prometheus and wrote The Fire Gospel, Jeanette Winterson chose Atlas and wrote 'Weight' etc. For Pullman, an atheist, Christianity was his myth of choice.

Philip Pullman of course is most famous for the popular 'His Dark Materials' trilogy, a series of books that I have always meant to read and never have. I remember being quite excited when I saw this book, an adult book, being released and immediately intended to read it. I have an interest in philosophy and theology, I was quite excited by it.

I don't know why I expected it, but I expected grown up, intriguing detailed, original prose, asking important questions and sparking thought. The central conceit is interesting of itself that instead of having one child Mary had twins, one called Jesus and the other known as Christ. In their childhood it was Christ who was considered special but in adulthood Jesus became the preacher and Christ his biographer taking notes of his teachings. Christ, religious in himself wants to build his own Church and so he begins to make changes to the stories of Jesus to "improve" them or leave things out according to his own agenda.

I think Pullman thinks he's being very clever here by using the Christ character to point out that the Gospel stories as we know them are probably not an accurate depiction of the life of Jesus and that the authors of the Bible had their own agenda. However anyone with a basic amount of New Testament theology knowledge knows The Bible was written many years after the death of Jesus.
That which we call the Gospel According to "Mark" is actually a redaction of multiple sources most notably the Q source and that there was probably no "Mark" in the first instance. So this isn't news to me. Even most educated people without theological knowledge are not under the assumption that the Bible Stories are entirely fact; just the written record of the oral tradition of the Jewish people and early Christians, which of course is subject to loss and change over time prior to becoming a written record.  It's the only point he really makes, and I probably just made the same point in a better way. It feels quite patronising in a way like atheist Pullman thinks he's just come up with this idea that none of these " silly Christian types" have considered, the fact that an editing process went into constructing the Bible and how far can we trust it as an accurate historical document therefore? Perhaps I'm wrong but I'd like to think that most Christians have considered this as a philosophical issue. "History is written by the victors" said Winston Churchill. The history books are biased too.

He got a lot of flak from Christian fundamentalists for blasphemous content, but I don't even think its particularly blasphemous. It is frustrating and it is irritating. The basic content of the book is Gospel Stories, but they are written in such a simplistic style that it literally feels like reading a Child's Bible. He just tells the stories you already know if you grew up with them with no vast differences between what Pullman's Jesus says and the Jesus of the Bible despite the rather minor, it has to be said, meddling of the scoundrel Christ.

If you ask me you'd be better off reading a copy of the New Testament whilst bearing in mind that the stories therein probably didn't occur exactly as described if indeed they occurred at all. I found this book a massive disappointment, I was expecting something a lot more, perhaps a lot more adult, a lot more challenging and I think crucially a lot more controversial and informed. I think I wanted that. Instead what I got was a rather pointless alternate spin on the New Testament for kids with delusions of grandeur of mentally ill proportions. I don't think it was meant as a kids book though, it certainly wasn't marketed that way, which leaves me sort of flummoxed by it.
As far as I was concerned it's all a bit Emperor's New Clothes.

I do like the word Scoundrel though. It's a great word.

I think I can only give this book a 3/10. If I wanted to read a Child's Bible I'd buy one.

Book #33 The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart

The Crystal Cave

One of the most enduring legends of British culture is the story of King Arthur and his magician Merlin. The Crystal Cave is another re-telling of that story. Well, I say "another" it was published in the 1970's originally and drew my attention based on the fact that it was in the list of great forgotten reads alongside Cronin's 'Keys Of The Kingdom'. My copy is second hand and rather quaintly cost £1.50 at time of publication, imagine paying £1.50 for a paperback now...I am reliably informed however that £1.50 in its day would have been considered roughly the same as £6.99 now.

This story differs from the usual in that it focuses entirely on Merlin. The Crystal Cave is the beginning of a trilogy and is followed by 'The Hollow Hills' and 'The Last Enchantment'. I believe that a fourth novel 'The Wicked Day' was later added as an afterthought. Arthur does not appear at all in the novel, having not yet been born the story concentrating instead on Merlin's life before Arthur, beginning with him aged six, and chronicling his childhood and the developing of his magic skills.

Much of Merlin's magic with the exception of when he falls into trances and prophesises, is that which we would call maths or science today which reminded me of the Arthur C Clarke quote:

" Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic".

In Merlin's time, engineering was advanced science and therefore magic. Merlin's people skills also make it appear to others he can read minds when actually he just has good intuition and is pretty astute. I liked the addition of this element of realism to the tale making it less far fetched than some Arthurian stories. Set in 5th Century Britain, Stewart writes in the notes at the end that Arthur was probably a real man which is something I was never sure about and Merlin a composite of several different men associated with him. The idea of Merlin the magician has endured however, and I think most of us would like it to be true.

I can't understand why as someone who reads such little fantasy I've read so much of it lately, perhaps because it is escapism from the tolls of daily life. The Crystal Cave though about Merlin bears more similarity in setting and tone to A Song Of Ice And Fire rather than say Harry Potter and I think this is in its favour. It also bears zero resemblance to the poorly written and badly acted Saturday family series Merlin on the BBC so hurray for that.

Overall, I think that I preferred the first half of this book covering Merlin's childhood and adolescence a quick, enjoyable read over the second which dealt with political changes in early Britain which was slow reading and slightly bored me. The next book in the trilogy picks up were this left off and covers the childhood of Arthur, at least I think it does, and so is the beginning of the Merlin/Arthur story, and I will probably pick it up and read it at some point. I felt it was a competent, enjoyable novel, yet not a compulsive one.  I also think it has more potential as a young adult crossover novel than as strictly 'adult contemporary fiction'.

I am a bit worried that I've fallen behind with the Challenge I really need to read 7 more by the end of May so that I have a chance of being halfway with 50 books by the end of June, halfway through the year. 7 books in 17 days seems a bit of an impossible goal.  I haven't dug myself into a hole quite yet there is time for my numbers to even out so fingers crossed, wish me luck.

The Crystal Cave gets 7/10

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Book #32 A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

A Monster Calls

The genesis for the latest novel from Patrick Ness came from some notes left behind by the late author Siobhan Dowd. Patrick was asked if he wanted to take her idea and complete it and he did so deciding to "Run with it. Make trouble." We should all be glad he did.

The books protagonist is Conor O'Malley, a 13 year old boy whose mother is suffering from cancer. His best friend Lily spread the news around his class making him a target for bullying, and now he is fighting a stress war on two fronts at home and at school. He has been having a recurrent nightmare and is then visited repeatedly by a monster at night transformed from a yew tree in the back garden

The book reminded me initially of both 'A Christmas Carol' by Charles Dickens and 'The Savage' by David Almond, the latter dealing with similar themes. As it progresses the novel comes entirely into its own and makes itself extraordinary.

There was so much about the book I felt was true. I loved the depiction of Harry, the bully, intelligent enough to realise that ignoring someone and pretending they don't exist is a far worse torment than punches or insults. I experienced that in my own youth, any teenage girl can tell you how effective it is. I remember at its height trying to make myself invisible, making sure I didn't put my hand up for questions I knew the answer to, hiding in loos in between lessons. Conor's experience was very real to me. Thinking of it me trying to make myself invisible was ridiculous as I was anything but inconspicuous.

I have read opinion online that this book is 'too scary' for young people. The people who say this are wrong and have a rosy tinted view of what childhood ought to be without sight of what childhood often is. Children in 2011 are far more worldly wise than we would give them credit for, and some have experienced far worse things than a children's book could ever depict. I, for one, think it's admirable to find a young adult book that isn't overly saccharine and sanitized with clean, smiley resolution. They are becoming more and more rare as publishers take less risks. Certainly if it helps any child deal with issues of death and grief and others to understand that experience that can only be a positive thing, and particularly if they find elements of their own story reflected within.

A particular favourite part of this book for me was the monsters stories, neither black nor white, characters with both good and bad in them. I think too often with children or young adults simplistic thinking is encouraged, exact definitions of what and indeed who is right and wrong rather than viewing the world as it exists in multiple shades of grey.

I have to say that this book made me cry. It is the first book since 'Home' by Marilynne Robinson to do so and therefore it is in good company. It didn't just make me shed a few moved tears either, but it made me actually cry proper noisy tears that made me cover my face with my hands. My grandmother, who was much beloved by me died of cancer when I was 21 and there was a certain moment when I identified with the emotions of Conor so much that it took me straight back to her bedside and made me relive certain experiences.  This book deals with the truths of grieving in a way that Didion's 'Year Of Magical Thinking' does not come close to reaching.

I have only one criticism and it is of one word used only once in the novel. That word is 'spaz' quite possibly my least favourite word in the history of the English Language. I don't criticise its inclusion from a standpoint of 'political correctness gone mad' but because that word was the bane of my childhood and youth. I was hypersensitive to it because i have cerebral palsy. Whenever I hear or see it it's a bit like getting slapped. My own feeling about the word spaz is a personal thing but its also not very nice. I hear it hardly ever now among young people and thought it had died a death, becoming a relic of the Eighties replaced by other insult words most notably 'gay.' I'm not saying that's a great development either though. I heard it a lot recently on the Channel 4 series 'The Inbetweeners' too. It has left me questioning whether it is being written in as an insult in today's writing because it was the main insult of the school era of the 70's/80's in which today's adult writers attended school. Therefore being one they remember rather than a reflection of current school yard banter today. I do hope its the latter and the world has moved on, but maybe it hasn't, which is a shame.  If it's a genuine reflection of 2011 insults then that's a separate issue relating to novels reflecting realism but I have to say I question it.

With that one and distinctly personal criticism aside, I think 'A Monster Calls' is a wonderful book and any book with the power to move someone in the way it did me has to be extraordinary. The way in which it poses interesting moral questions at young people leading to the revelation that it does is something special. In a recent email to a friend I suggested she read Patrick Ness and called him 'probably the best writer of young adult fiction writing today' This book does nothing but back this assertion up. 9.5/10

(.5 off for spaz)

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Book #31 The Obelisk by Howard Gordon

The Obelisk

Howard Gordon, debut novelist of this book was previously the executive producer of the hit US TV series 24. His UK publisher Simon and Schuster have exploited this fact to the max by presenting its title in the orange digital clock style synonymous with the series, illustrating it with images in the split-screen style pioneered by 24 and emblazoning it not only with Gordon's credentials but with a quote from Kiefer Sutherland.  

Before I get into the business of saying what I thought about this book, I want to say that I was an ardent, die-hard fan of 24, and watched the series through every mole in CTU, every failed love interest, every dead colleague, every disaster to ever befall Kim Bauer and every international crisis averted at the last second by one man wonder Jack Bauer. If this book is aimed at 24 fans and it apparently is then I'm who this book is aimed at.

Or, if you want to be more cynical in your thought process, and really, you should be, Simon and Schuster are exploiting the 24 angle in the shameless way that they are to lure the 24 box set buyers into also buying this. If it were just The Obelisk by some guy named Howard Gordon with no reference to his Hollywood career or association with one of the biggest TV series of the last decade, then this book would probably attract very little attention.

It is the story of Gideon, a UN peacemaker with the ear of the President, who is sent to bring in a rogue agent, who <shock> happens to be his own brother Tillman. Most of the action takes place on an oil rig The Obelisk. So far, so 24. 24 : Day 6 to be precise.

Here's where the similarity ends. With each episode of 24 you found yourself more compelled to see the next, the twists, the revelations, the tension. The silent clocks. Beloved characters suddenly getting bumped off in first episodes. 24, particularly in its early years was a master of : "You didn't see that coming!"

With The Obelisk it isn't that the story is necessarily bad, or even too much of a copycat, it's the fact that Gordon simply sucks as a prose writer. He may have contributed script to 24 episodes over the years but the man is no novelist. It is so cliched at times that it is cringeworthy. From writing cliches such as "that sinking feeling" and "punched in the stomach" to dialogue cliches "if she dies it'll be over my dead body" to plot cliches like the moment our hero has nearly been killed but his first instinct on meeting the heroine is to notice just how beautiful she is. The writing of the ending is so hideously terrible that you can only imagine that Gordon rushed it for a deadline. I've half a mind to spoil it seeing as I don't recommend for a moment you should rush out and read this book, but lets just say references are made to 'a double bed' and 'riding out the storm'. It is CHEESETASTIC.

Also, the villain's motives are decidedly implausible given his history with his targets, nonsensically so. I think that's the best word for the book: Nonsense.   As a spy thriller, I'd say it belongs to the world of Lee Child and John Grisham type books but fans of those authors may be insulted. It may be an entertaining airport read for some for good or for so bad its good reasons. My loathing for Dan Brown novels is fairly well known and I'd say that saying this book belongs to The Dan Brown School Of Writing is the most damning verdict I can give it.

With regards to 24, this book can only ever be seen in a much lesser light, a critical light by comparison and so the publishers have somewhat shot themselves in the foot and set it up for failure. But even if there was no link to a hit Hollywood series, this would still be a bloody terrible book


Friday, 6 May 2011

Book #30 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Fahrenheit 451

I enjoy a good dystopian fiction novel. For those of you who don't know what dystopia is, its when a novel, or a film depicts a future world or an alternate reality that is frightening or disturbing, bleak for humanity.

Examples of the genre include 1984 by George Orwell, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, The Handmaids Tale and Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, which each describe different horrors which might await us. Personally, it is the stories of this type which were written in the past but which project predictive visions of society as we know it today in a way which is both interesting and sinister, that I like most. As an example a personal favourite of mine is the E.M Forster short story 'The Machine Stops' written in 1909 which tells of a nightmare future in which humans depend on communicating with a machine, to work, to live, to listen to music, to travel and to talk to one another. The fascinating thing about this past vision of an oppressive future machine is that it is pretty much home computing as we know it today.

Despite its extremes Fahrenheit 451, written by Bradbury in 1953 is one such novel. The plot follows a character named Guy Montag who is a Fireman, but in Montag's world, Firemen don't put out fires they start them, they start them to burn books that people have hidden in their homes, and to take those hiding literature to prison. Books are banned and so is reading.  There is of course the obvious allusion to the countries of post-war Communist Europe in which certain reading materials were banned and arrest for the crime of being an intellectual might occur should you be caught in possession of such literature. Bradbury takes this concept of state controlled reading and takes it a step further to a state were reading of any kind is not tolerated. Bradbury considers the implications for humans as individuals and for society as a whole. Worryingly, he hits the nail on the head for aspects of 2011 society as it stands with some of his ideas.

He speaks of a culture were subjects such as history, philosophy, languages and English spelling and grammar are no longer respected. We live in a time were many universities are closing their philosophy and/or language departments because the funding, and simply, the interest is not there to run them, students have become consumers in an education market rather than seekers of knowledge.

In a conversation between Clarisse and Montag, Clarisse says "My uncle says his grandfather remembered when children didn't kill each other. But that was a time when they had things different" The James Bulger Case caused an outcry nearly 20 years ago, but now child on child crime is becoming ever more commonplace. Some weeks ago I watched a harrowing documentary 'Scenes From A Teenage Killing' charting the amount of murders of teenagers over the last year by their own peers. The reactions of some London commuters whose journeys were interrupted by one murder showed only annoyance and irritation at the situation and no sense of shock or tragedy. Murder seemed to have become an unremarkable event.

In Fahrenheit 451 people use earphones to block out real world interactions with strangers or family with music or radio they enjoy like every iPod addict today causing the disintegration of real relationships. They mount multiple TVs to their walls and the characters feel like their true friends and family.
In one conversation Beatty speaks about how classic novels were once condensed into short articles or serial performances so that they would gain more attention. This made me think of the BBC adaptation of Bleak House some years ago. A great adaptation of a great book but, it was said, that it was to be shown in half hour installments in the hopes of creating a soap opera vibe, and attracting soap opera viewers. The TV programmes in the world of Fahrenheit 451 are short, snappy, often silly trying to keep viewers attention. When you look at some of the things on TV now, like that awful quiz show with the Hare that comes on before Doctor Who, amid complaints that Doctor Who itself is too complicated, you can see that our TV world isn't far off Bradbury's.

Beatty mocks intellectual thinking and is glad that it has become "the swearword it deserved to be" He talks about how it was always the bright boy in school who was hated and tormented. "We must all be alike." This reminded me of the modern trend for the celebration of ignorance, particularly ignorance in women. The kind of world where people take to their hearts reality TV contestants who think East Anglia is abroad and don't know if Shakespeare is alive or dead. The kind of world in which Jordan is a best selling author.

Bradbury really does come too close for comfort in Fahrenheit 451 to the worst of the now, the nightmares of the past are the commonplace of the present. That's a scary thought.

Outside of these projected visions that provoke thought, I wasn't sure how much I liked Fahrenheit 451 in terms of liking the main characters, Clarisse is really a great character wasted and should have had a greater role, Mildred is terribly annoying but I would think that's deliberate, but Montag is a desperate man whose desperation is clearly felt and well written. The book is also very visual, you can really see its events unfold in your mind. This is always the mark of a good novel.

I don't know whether the fact that Fahrenheit 451 is short is to its favour or its detriment. I almost feel like I was left wanting more, but isn't that a compliment to its writer really? The other good thing about this book is that I couldn't find it on iBooks or Kindle so i had to buy a paper copy. Although I love my iPad it is really nice to read in the old school way at times. 7/10

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Book #29 The Year Of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

The Year Of Magical Thinking

This book for me was a first. I read it and when I had finished I had utterly no idea how on earth to review it, because of the juxtaposition between the sensitive subject matter and my reaction to it. I had a sense that in criticising this book in any way, I was somehow a bad person, but as a review, I still have to be honest about what I thought of it.

The book is Didion's account of the first year following her husbands death, after he suffers a heart attack at home the day before New Years Eve. Throughout the following year their daughter Quintana suffers several episodes of ill health, and in fact also died shortly before the books' publication, though Didion chose not to update her manuscript to reflect this.

Didion and her husband John Gregory Dunne were both writers and so I guess I expected something special here, I at least expected her thinking to be magical given the title, her words on the experience of grief to be moving and perhaps inspiring. But...........

It's cold. The whole book, it's very remote and detached. It's short, and repetitive, filled with quotes from other people's work on the nature of grief and lines from other people's poems, which if removed would leave only anecdotes that would be of interest to family members and the same stories repeated more than once.
It is like a collection of jumbled extracts from a diary, there is no cohesive narrative, and it is not what I expected: an insightful poetic reflection on the nature of death and loss, more a list of facts, an essay. It is much more essay than memoir.

It feels terrible to say that a book by a woman about the death of her husband is a bad book, but it is, and she even comes across badly as a person, showing off her contacts and lifestyle. At some point she writes that having when she read the memoir of D.H Lawrence's widow she felt she was morbid and self pitying, and you certainly can't accuse Didion of that.She doesn't even seem to experience the known stages of grief.

When thinking about how I would review this book I found a review on Amazon by A.Ross which said

"No doubt I am being churlish to some degree for criticizing Didion's portrayal of her experience. It's her life, her tragedy, and she certainly has every right to represent it however she would like to. However, placing it in the commercial realm makes it subject to comment, and my own feeling is that its simply not a very good book. That said, there are glimpses here and there of sharp writing and analysis which makes me think I might like one of her past collections of essays. Still, I can't imagine anyone going through the loss of a loved one would find this book helpful or illuminating in any way"

and I cannot help but concur.

You are left with the feeling that if this were the writing of an ordinary widow with an ordinary husband it would never have been printed, and the reason that it was is because Didion and Dunne were respected on the literary scene and those around the literary scene would be interested in their story because of who they were. This genuinely does feel like something of limited interest to friends and family and not something which would resonate with widows and those grieving everywhere, a lesson in how to love, lose and live on.

Not a year of magical thinking, a year of banal repetitive thinking. But I still feel guilty for criticising it given that it's about a man dying etc.. 4/10

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Book #28 The Girl With Glass Feet by Ali Shaw

The Girl With Glass Feet

So welcome to the first book of May, on the first day of May. I'm sort of glad that this book came along as I had considered that I was giving largely positive reviews to most things I read. A real reviewer for say a broadsheet sort of gets what they're given in terms of books to review, I however am choosing mine. It stands to reason that the books I'm choosing, are getting picked because I think I may like them. Therefore I think it sort of comes as a refreshing change in terms of my blog that I didn't like this much.

It was shortlisted for the Costa in 2009, and Amazon had been foisting it at me in 'Recommended For You' I think based on the fact that I had bought 'The Help' and I was looking for a 'light' book. The Guardian described it as 'Magical'. I do not concur.

It's a magical realism tale, an impossible event couched in real world parameters. Ida Maclaird returns to St Hauda's Land, a fictionalised island I took to be intended as similar to the Scottish Hebrides. Her feet have begun to turn to glass and she seeks to discover a strange man she encountered on a previous visit whom she hopes will help her.

The other main character is Midas Crook, an isolated photographer who begins a friendship with Ida.
The allusion here is obvious, in Greek Mythology Midas turned all he touched to gold, our Midas has a problem with touch and is afraid to touch Ida, not merely in case she may turn to glass. Despite being a rather original idea, a modern twist on an ancient myth, subtle, the allusion isn't. 

The mystery of what causes her glass feet is never resolved which I found annoying, and I found many of the behaviours of all characters unrealistic. Why didn't she go to a real doctor? Why didn't she become a victim of a media circus? Why is nearly every character, particularly the male characters, isolated, socially stunted and emotionally disturbed, so they all become overly similar?  It's a bit naff.

There is an overarching theme of frustrated love in which no character ultimately gets what they want and most love affairs reach a dead end for various reasons such as unrequited love, death and mental illness. In short, every love story in this book is tragic, morbid and a bit depressing. You aren't swept away on a tide of magical romance.

In all writing, however much you enjoy reading it you often find a sentence or two perhaps a paragraph that for you is a truth. A general truth or a personal truth but a human truth nonetheless.
I particularly enjoyed the following lines :

"It didn't take tragedy or war to derail a man. It took only a memory."

"As if you could terminate love abruptly because the one you loved signed papers with someone else in a church"

"Was there something embryonic between them or had she simply misunderstood him?"

I liked all these quotes and felt the emotional reality of them. The first one particularly resonated with me as I consider myself someone who has experienced the phenomenon of being "derailed by a memory" but had never thought of it in exactly those words before. I liked the phrase.

In spite of a few nice lines however, I did not essentially think much of this book, it was fairly short, and so a quick read which was a blessing considering. I think that this book would disappoint more readers than it would please, approaching expecting one thing and experiencing another. Perhaps I have a heart of stone, but I was not moved, despite assurances from Amazon reviews that I would be.

I would say that this book falls under the "don't read that" of the blog title, but I am going to add a point for the three quotes I liked. 5/10