Saturday, 31 December 2011

The 2011 Challenge Concludes - Let 2012 begin

So, you're looking at my blog and you're thinking she challenged herself to read 100 books in a year, and look, there's Genus it's book number 100 - she did it. Good for her. Not so,  I'm a fraud. Scroll back, back and back again, back to number 8 on this list The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen. I didn't finish The Corrections, never returned to finish it as I said I would and with 6 hours left of New Years Eve and somewhere else to be, I'm not going to. So I have failed my challenge, and I have failed my challenge by ONE book alone. It's such a kick in the teeth. I'm probably going to hate Jonathan Franzen for the rest of my life for this, him and his appalling sex writing about warm rabbits etc.

But, I suppose I also failed the challenge on technicalities, I said that I would finish every book I started and I didn't, books I began and have yet to complete are

Dune by Frank Herbert
The Book Of Human Skin by Michelle Lovric
Last Night In Twisted River by John Irving

Though I will probably at some stage read these books I can guarantee you I will not complete:

Critical Mass by Philip Ball a science book so breathtakingly awful that it has winged its way to a charity shop already.

I acknowledged to the blog none of these failures! So I guess I have failed on technicalities!
It's my own fault I failed, had I read one more book in either August, October or November which were quiet months in reading output terms I wouldnt be in this position.

For me my books of the year this year were :

1. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
2. A Song Of Ice And Fire (First 5 novels) by George RR Martin
3. The End Of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas
4. The Vintners Luck by Elizabeth Knox
5. Genus by Jonathan Trigell
6. A Sense Of An Ending by Julian Barnes
7. Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch
8. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
9. The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien
10. Lady Chatterley's Lover by DH Lawrence

These are the books that I will recommend beyond this year  an interesting mash up of both halves of the year, with Fingersmith the outright winner and with the wooden spoon landing squarely upon There But For The by Ali Smith.

With the 100 books of the year challenged failed on New Years Eve with 99 books, alls I can say is challenge remains unmet, on with the challenge. If at first you don't succeed try again, bring on the class of 2012 : HAPPY NEW YEAR and THANKS FOR READING!!!!!!!

Book #100 Genus by Jonathan Trigell


As Genus stands proudly as Book #100 of the 100 books in a year challenge, I am glad of it, and glad I was able to finish on a high note. Genus by Jonathan Trigell, the acclaimed writer of Boy A is a great book, so good that halfway through it I messaged my one of my best friends on Facebook to tell her to get it whilst it remains 99p for the Kindle on Amazon.

Genus takes as its concept, a dystopian future London. A scientist who renamed himself Prometheus has taken the concept of the designer baby to its zenith. "Improving" ones genetics, buying add-ons and building ones child from the ground up, but, this kind of technology comes at a price, and has created an alarming new social scale, the rich, are now also the most beautiful, the healthiest and the most talented, what is left is the "scum" the disabled, the defective, and the working poor,  coralled into small areas of Britain, unprovided for.

The novel focuses on London's Kings Cross, now The Kross and  a variety of characters from this underworld: Dwarf artist Holman, policeman Gunt, drug runner Valentine, blind war veteran Crick, gang member Quigley and assorted other people from the social bottom rung, and a select few from  the top.

This novel was published at the end of July this year and would have been written and complete to go to press some months before that. Therefore Trigell himself must have been chilled to the bone when a section of the novel which now seems more like premonition than future prediction  came true on the streets of London in August. In an eerie replica of the summer riots, shops are looted and buildings burned out, this isn't a vision of things to come, the future is now. I think it was this section of the novel which tipped it over into "something special" land for me, I mean it's so on the pulse it's living. In addition, the characters are likeable, particularly Gunt and Holman, so as to hold your attention upon the novel. I was already imagining the movie version with Peter Dinklage that would be brilliant.

The eradication of genetic defect seems like a marvellous thing the future could grant us, but Trigell truly succeeds in making clear the very dark end game involved in meddling with nature, belief in God or otherwise with a cracking warning shot from our own history at its close.

I am so glad that Genus was my final book of 2011 so I could end on a high. Read Genus Please. 10/10

Book #99 Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Northanger Abbey 

Those who know that I'm a Jane Austen fan are probably very surprised to discover that in spite of reading certain of her books more than once, I have not, and still have not read her entire output, of her completed novels I still have Mansfield Park remaining.

Like Miss Austen's other works, Northanger Abbey is a tale of a young woman with no particular fortune to speak of debuting in society and getting caught up in romantic intrigues so far, so Austen. Catherine Morland travels to Bath as a particular companion to neighbour Mrs Allen and establishes friendships with two families also sojourning in Bath, the Thorpe's and the Tilney's. After her stay in Bath, Catherine is granted the opportunity of a stay at the Tilney seat, the impressive Northanger Abbey.

The novel has two main successes : you care passionately enough about the characters to have the strong desire to reach into the book, physically shove John Thorpe and tell him to "Do One" or "Get Lost" in less Scouse terms. Henry Tilney is also a delightful hero, who makes you feel a bit warm and squishy inside, which is what you want from an Austen novel, essentially. 

There are two main drawbacks : The novel is clearly a parody upon Mrs Radcliffe's The Mystery Of Udolpho indeed it makes the point plain. I once tried to read said novel and did not succeed, primarily because the typeface on my edition was blindingly tiny. This parody at points proves slightly irritating. Austen also clearly has a bee in her bonnet and a personal point to make about the social opinions of the time regarding novels, particularly women's novels, and is using this novel as a vehicle to convey her opinions, when she should rather have written an Op-Ed for The Times or something.

The other drawback is a compliment - there just isn't enough Mr Tilney time, and Mr Tilney is awesome. I suppose the conclusion of the novel is rather inevitable, but I feel it's all done rather awkwardly, I mean, personally I wouldn't be able to see my father in law without feeling anger and mortification for the rest of his life, instead of humble gratitude, but I suppose that is how society has evolved for the better.

All in all enjoyable and sweet, and I should enjoy enormously an adaptation involving Benedict Cumberbatch as Tilney.  8/10

Monday, 26 December 2011

Book #98 The Prince Of Mist by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

The Prince Of Mist

Carlos Ruiz Zafon who is probably best known in the UK for his popular novel The Shadow Of The Wind was a popular young adult author in Spain prior to that books international success and The Prince Of Mist is one such young adult novel, and was in fact his debut. Originally published in Spain in 1993 it was not published in the UK until 2010. As a 30 year old reader I felt it had plenty of crossover appeal.

Max and his family move rather unwillingly at their father's behest to a beach house to avoid the ramifications of the Second World War. Once there Max and elder sister Alicia become caught up in the mystery of the Prince of Mist, a dark and devious figure who casts a shadow upon their new life.

The wonderful thing about The Prince Of Mist is that it doesn't patronise children, Dr Cain is genuinely sinister and the underestimating earnest need to always give children a neat, clean, positive ending is not present here. The narrative is very lyrical and you are fully engaged in the tale. As an adult there is no sense that you are reading a book which isn't really aimed at or meant for you, it is enjoyable despite the setting and the age of the protagonists. There is a physical feeling of this Faustian cloaked menace approaching from a thick mist that leaps from the page as if you stood before him yourself. If you have children around the 12 mark who enjoy reading I would recommend purchasing this and then snaffling it afterwards for yourself.


Book #97 Dark, As Light Fails by P. A Britton

Dark As Light Fails

As I went to provide the link for Dark As Light Fails I realised why this book was perhaps more flawed than it should have been, not published by a publisher it is part of the growing army of free or low priced self published novels for Kindle, therefore it has not gone through many of the normal editing processes novels go through. I normally entirely avoid these books believing if a publisher or several have refused it, theres a reason for that. Simply put, I had no idea when I paid for it, the cover art looks professional so congratulations to whoever created that. This is not to say it is entirely without merit, I will however start at the very beginning and highlight the better aspects later.

Elliot is married with two children, he reminisces about lost love Immy and is quietly unhappy with his life. When he wakes up, his wife is dead and so are their two girls, somehow Elliot instantly knows that a killer virus has wiped people out, he makes this conclusion rather quickly and upon visiting a surviving friend has a weird emotionless casual conversation about the death of his kids as if he's discussing his fantasy football picks or something.

The very beginning of this book (published 2010) mirrors to almost a tee the very first episode of the recent Survivors (2008) series. Person wakes up next to dead spouse, can't find help, empty streets, steals car, guy alone on the road meets other survivors, helps out others, frantic visit to hospital only to discover a single frantic doctor left......later aspects also remind you of Walking Dead or Shaun Of The Dead because there are the dead, the survivors, and the half way in between who are crazed and attack the living......if there was a way of conveying an eyeroll in this blog entry I would do so.

Where the book differs (or perhaps doesn't if you think about it) from the TV series is that in the series main character Abby Grant's mission is to search for her son and hopefully discover him living. In Dark, As Light Fails Frank's mission is to find long lost love Immy (who has also miraculously survived) in what is probably the most laughably implausible story in the whole novel, with a denouement  purchased straight from Cloverfield.

I want to be kind to P A Britton though, and say whilst his novel is entirely derivative, borderline plagerism and his dialogue is as wooden as a pine table and chairs he shows genuine promise  in his descriptive prose and action sequences, and I would tell him to keep trying to make it as a writer. It wasn't dire and it was certainly highly readable despite its many faults.


Friday, 23 December 2011

Book #96 In The Shadow Of The Cypress by Thomas Steinbeck

In The Shadow Of The Cypress 

Written by Thomas "son of John" Steinbeck, In The Shadow Of The Cypress is perhaps existing proof that the ability to write is non-hereditary. It is a peculiarly vexing novel and proved a struggle for me from the very outset. The first character we are introduced to is academic Charles Gilbert who is working at a Stanford associated laboratory. He has an Irish friend, Billy O'Flynn who has very close associations to the local Chinese fishing community, and one night he discovers two artifacts under a cypress tree that appear to be of some significance. He shows Gilbert, who tries but does not get very far in his attempts to investigate matters. Gilbert contacts a Chinese academic named Lao Hong whose attempts at interacting with the local Chinese elders also seem rather fruitless.

Both these sections belonging to Gilbert and Hong were for me often incomprehensible, impenetrable and more importantly boring, yet there are interesting shades of post colonial "Orientalism" as defined by Edward Said in his 1978 book throughout the novel, but particularly in its earlier sections. On the UK Amazon, there is but one customer review giving this novel five stars but, look at its companion page on the US site and there is a flurry of one and two star reviews, saying they hated the book found it impossible to read and that many of them gave up early on.

I too found the early sections very difficult, and perhaps if not for the challenge would have given up but, the novel switches at the mid way point and moves its narratives to the present day.  Prodigious Stanford academic Luke rediscovers Gilbert's old papers regarding the Chinese artifacts and their significance in terms of historical import, teaming up with Chinese colleague Robert Wu he endeavours to uncover an ancient mystery. It is this latter section which makes the events of the former make sense, but, it's whether you have the patience to sit through page after page of confusing, dull, narrative to get to this point, my guess is many won't.

I actually enjoyed the Luke/Wu partnership, the developments and the sense of majesty in the behaviour of Mr Wu Snr. However as their research ends, Steinbeck Jnr gives us a summation of Wu and Luke's lives post their dramatic discovery, what they went on to do, who they married etc. It's very sudden, horribly done and feels terribly amateur like a school kid concluding their first short story. It has a rather nice epilogue, however.

In conclusion this is half a good book and an interesting theory apparently first espoused by Steinbeck Snr, but I would question whether the payoff in the second half was worth what felt like an unending trudge through the first.


Book #95 Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels

Fugitive Pieces

Fugitive Pieces, a novel by the poet Anne Michaels is a book of two narrators. In the first part our narrator is Jakob, who is rescued as a child by a Greek man, Athos who smuggles him into Greece, and thereby saves his life, having rescued him from the Holocaust. Jakob grows up with geologist and academic Athos as a father figure but is haunted by the memories of his dead family in particular his sister, Bella.

Our second narrator is Ben, something of a fan of the work of both Athos and later Jakob, in what is the reverse of Jakob's situation, Ben's parents survived the Holocaust and escaped to Canada where Ben grew up. But, in doing so inflicted damage upon Ben's childhood, different to that of Jakob but from the same root.

As a novel I had a mixed response to it, it is often written in non sequiturs  (pieces from a fugitive) which could often be annoying or confusing. Indeed, when the novel switched narrators from Jakob to Ben it took me ages to realise this had happened, and, this apparent change in Jakob's circumstance completely threw me off.  In addition, the Jakob sections are more enjoyable and better written, though I occasionally found the novel as a whole verbose and disengaging.

Without wishing to seem offensive or lacking in compassion, I do believe that World War 2 and the Holocaust have been over ploughed as a literary location. We should never, ever, forget, but it should not become a source of cliched entertainment either. So many wonderful novels and memoirs exist on this topic, I think particularly of the beautiful and heartwrenching Night by Elie Wiesel, cannot our authors find new tales to tell in other uncovered parts of human history? Perhaps this remark is controversial but it was not meant in an offensive sense.

Despite my misgivings this novel has some very poetic prose which I enjoyed :
Her mind is a palace. She moves through history with the fluency of a spirit, mourns the burning of the library at Alexandria as if it happened yesterday.
And I really enjoyed a moral lesson posed by a rabbi midway through the novel that is perhaps too long to quote. Yes, ultimately I found the book mixed and I doubt I would either recommend it or re-read it 6.5/10

Book #94 Tipping The Velvet by Sarah Waters

Tipping The Velvet

Tipping The Velvet has become the third Sarah Waters novel I have read this year following the unforgettable Fingersmith (2003) and the decidedly less than stellar The Night Watch. (2006) Like Fingersmith, Tipping The Velvet which came before it in 1999, is set in the Victorian age and has lesbian women for its main characters. Alongside Affinity (2000) these books make up an unconnected trilogy of Victorian era novels by Waters.

Nancy Astley visits a theatre with her sister and becomes transfixed and later infatuated with Kitty Butler a male impersonator variety act. Kitty seems to return Nancy's feeling and persuades her to abandon her family in Whitstable and join Kitty as her dresser as her act moves from theatre to theatre in London. For Nancy, a complicated journey through some very different worlds is about to begin.

Waters builds a portrait of the various different worlds in which lesbianism was not so much accepted as socially tolerated or permitted from the activist working class, through theatreland and the aristocracy. I don't know but perhaps Waters elected to have the Victorian era as her setting as Queen Victoria famously refused to sign a document making lesbianism illegal by refusing to believe it existed: "Women do not do such things", by setting it at the same time, Waters apparently sets out to show that the Queen whilst not wrong in not signing her decree, was very firmly incorrect.

The novel can often be melodramatic and a bit silly, particularly the behaviour of rich "benefactor" Diana, and often of Nancy herself. There is a tendency toward the over coincidental, with encounters between Nancy and other lesbians occurring in a very "just so happened" way. Personally I really enjoyed the first two thirds which sped along for me with its cast of unusual and eccentric characters in London's Theatreland and among the wealthy ladies of St Johns Wood. For me, the last third plodded rather with its dull and worthy focus on St Florence of Bethnal Green, part of the socialist workers community. The final denouement, a socialist rally is also rather silly, as all our main characters from throughout the novel extremely implausibly all find themselves in the same place at the same time.

I would finish the review by saying that for those of you who are a bit prudish or averse to any smut for whatever personal reason, that there is a section of this novel around page 250 which is even in my very unshockable opinion quite obscenely filthy. Last night I said so to someone and they read a section of it out in the kitchen and we all giggled and tittered extremely immaturely. This is by no means damaging to my opinion of the book, the section was fitting within the overall context. But, it is my understanding that there are a lot of people who would prefer not to read highly sexual content and so the warning is included in this review.

Overall this book was much better than The Night Watch but not nearly as good as Fingersmith. 8/10

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Book #93 Surfacing by Margaret Atwood


I have read many but by no means all of Margaret Atwood's novels over the years starting with The Handmaid's Tale (1985) which I studied at A Level in 1999 and followed by Alias Grace ( published in 1996) The Blind Assassin (2000) Oryx and Crake (2003) and The Penelopiad (2005). Of these The Handmaid's Tale probably remains my favourite with Oryx and Crake a close second.

I found Surfacing, written in 1972, a bit of a difficult experience. Set in Canada, a nameless protagonist travels back to her home town with her boyfriend Joe and friends Annie and David to locate her estranged father, who has purportedly gone missing. The group go out into the Canadian wilderness in order to search with some hiking, fishing and discussions along the way.

There is a clear feminist agenda in this novel, which, for 1972 is current and appropriate but reminded me somewhat of the problems I had with Doris Lessing's Shikasta. The novels protagonist is a divorcee who has also deserted her child whom she refers to as "it", we never know the gender. For 1972 this is shocking, outrageous behaviour possibly making her despised by those who read her story. Of course, nowadays being divorced is much less of a social offence, though a woman leaving her child is still considered rather unnatural.   

Far more clever to me was the character of David, whose appearance of being "right on" is a veneer beneath which lies an old school misogynist, only supportive of women's liberation when it suits his desires.

The novel has many nature, wilderness descriptive prose sections which in the end reminded me of David Vann's Legend Of A Suicide. The allusions to spiritual experience versus temporary insanity left me cold which is bizarre as I normally like that sort of thing. Atwood's second novel, you can see signs of what she will become in the next decade, but unfortunately for me I found it dated, unsubtle and occasionally boring.


Book #92 Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi


Wiseguy is the book upon which the Martin Scorcese 1990 movie Goodfellas is based. At the time journalist/biographer Pileggi, believed himself the foremost authority on the members of the mob, and when asked to interview Henry Hill could find only a small index card with a brief listing, but Henry Hill was a much bigger fish than Pileggi's records showed

The film Goodfellas, Henry Hill's biography gives us the line "As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be  a gangster" Wiseguy also begins with Hill's early years when as a schoolboy he began working for the Vario family who were part of the larger Lucchese crime family. He began parking cars, making pizza, and fetching sandwiches, before progressing on to arson, protection rackets, heists and eventually murder and drugs. He did it all, and knew everybody, and so when things began to sour became the ultimate liability.

So often books get lost in translation to the big screen but Goodfellas which I watched before I read the book is possibly one of the most faithful adaptations I've ever seen with the script often quoting the book verbatim. Pileggi must have been proud of that, and he himself was involved in the script. What this meant for me as a reader however was that it occasionally felt like a re-tread of what I'd seen on screen. I would advise those who have not seen Goodfellas, to the read the book if they are so inclined, first.

The other problem I had with the book is that the crimes themselves are somewhat repetitious, which gets a little boring at times. What remains flabbergasting though is how cavalier these people were about their crimes, their behaviour, to them, was completely normal, and normal hardworking guys were in their minds idiots. When Hill was arrested only two pieces of paper existed to say that he ever existed, his birth certificate and his police arrest sheet.

I enjoyed reading Wiseguy because I really, really loved Goodfellas, but, there was not enough new content for me 7/10

*Thanks to Chris for lending me this book*

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Book #91 On Canaan's Side by Sebastian Barry

On Canaan's Side

On Canaan's Side, which was longlisted but not shortlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize, tells the story of Lily Bere, an elderly Irish American and her "First Day Without Bill" through to her "Seventeenth Day Without Bill". Bill, her grandson, has before the beginning of this novel committed suicide after returning home from the original Gulf War.

On Canaan's Side acts as a memoir for Lily, as she flits between the visits of her friends in her hour of need, and her history beginning with her childhood in Dublin. Though it takes a death as its main plot focus around which the story unfolds it is very much your average "old lady looks back upon her life" novel. It is nicely written and involving and includes much of the history that Lily would have lived through, the Civil Rights movement, political assassinations and Vietnam, right back to the First World War and the changing times of Ireland in the 1920's and how world events can directly impact  individual lives.

It was a nice book, and I enjoyed reading it, but, it won't be one which will linger in my mind for a long while to come, or perhaps one which I will particularly remember reading without the aid of the blog. It's also slightly depressing as Lily lives a long, tragedy filled life, were she is often ill used and alone. Apparently Lily's family, the Dunnes are also characters in two other Sebastian Barry novels Annie Dunne and A Long, Long, Way and one day I may read some of those to complete the picture, but, so many little time..........