Monday, 28 January 2013

Book #15 Restless by William Boyd


Length Of Time In Possession : Roughly Six Years

In Restless, lazy PhD student and TEFL teacher Ruth Gilmartin finds that her very British very eccentric mother Sally has been hiding a secret for all her life. She is in fact a half French/half Russian spy named Eva Delectorskaya who worked for the British government during WW2 and in her old age has a score to settle.

I had lots of little things I found weak about Restless :

Ruth herself, the odd unresolved circumstance regarding her former lover's brother randomly inviting himself to stay, and everything about that plot, and the plot around Hamid. Neither added anything to the book, and at times made no sense.

As for Eva, her spy life seems to amount to training, and only two serious missions. The way Ruth confronts those behind it is a bit laughable really.

 All the many little issues I had with Restless boil down to a single problem, I kept thinking to myself: What's the other book I read but haven't reviewed yet? It was unmemorable to me.

For a suspense thriller it lacked in both suspense and thrills, I found it rather tedious and rather dry and it was overall a disappointment.


Destination : Charity shop

Book #14 The Personal History Of Rachel Dupree by Ann Weisgarber

The Personal History Of Rachel Dupree

Length of time in possession : 8 months

The Personal History Of Rachel Dupree is a first person autobiography style novel describing the life and current circumstances of the protagonist.

Seduced by the impressive nature of her boss's son, Rachel makes a bargain with him to become his wife. Fresh out of the Army, Isaac is taken with the idea that even with his status as a black man post Civil War America he can be granted land of his own to farm, and does so in the Badlands of South Dakota.

Not unlike The Grass Is Singing, which I read earlier in the month, Rachel soon finds that her husbands ambitions outweigh his ability or capacity to achieve them, surrounded by children and living in abject poverty, Rachel begins to question her choices.

Ann Weisgarber was inspired to write the novel after seeing a photograph of a black woman on a homestead in the Badlands and investigating what seemed like an unusual phenomenon. It was extremely rare but it did happen, and therefore has an original and unique story angle to come from.

Like, The Grass Is Singing however, despite having an important and worthwhile story to tell it is relentlessly desperate and grim. A portrait of the souring of dreams.
Just as a turning point comes in the life of Rachel and her children, the novel slams shut, finishing at a point where I certainly felt there was far more story left to be told and that the novel deserved a different, more rounded ending.

This novel fits into a whole sub genre of novels about the plight of the black person in America throughout history and as such it is a good one. If those sort of novels are a particular interest to you then I certainly recommend it, yet I as a reader felt cheated by what is essentially an incomplete personal history. 7/10

Destination : ebook storage 

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

A Note

I have removed The Horologicon by Mark Forsyth from the list as it is not really a cover-to-cover book but a reference book.

Book #13 All Fall Down by Louise Voss and Mark Edwards

All Fall Down

Length Of Time In Possession : Roughly 1 month

All Fall Down from the Voss/Edwards writing duo is the follow up to Catch Your Death and returns to the lives of the protagonists of that novel Kate Maddox and Paul Wilson. Kate, virologist and Watoto virus expert is called upon by the FBI when a strain of the virus breaks out on a Native American reservation. Partner Paul follows her to America and does some freelance investigating of his own still seeking explanations and retribution for the death of his twin Stephen.

The third novel from the Voss/Edwards team All Fall Down shows a positive strengthening of their partnership, faster, tauter, and an improvement in terms of their prose from Catch Your Death, the two writers have obviously become more comfortable with each other and the unusual demands of writing as a double act as a continuing professional development.

I was worried that Paul would feel somehow out of place or redundant but his storyline manages to maintain plausibility within an implausible circumstance.

I say this, because in summary of All Fall Down, it is a story in which a religious cult of lesbians attempt to provoke an apocalypse by means of biological terrorism. A snuff threesome occurs before page 150.

If this sounds silly, it's because it is, but it by no means harms the fun thriller purpose of the novel, in many ways this is the product for sale, a giddy race against time with a level of James Bond esque silliness expected from an action film. The moment when the girls break into the secret lab is particularly worthy of any Hollywood blockbuster in terms of the imagery you conjur up in your mind.

I have but one criticism : Jack. Imperiled Jack in this second novel is suffering from a case of Kim Bauer Syndrome, a reference which only 24 fans will truly understand, but reminded me of the second season in which Kim is needlessly hiding behind bins, being chased by coyotes and accidentally caught up in a shop robbery. The way in which Jack collides with characters first met by Paul is overly coincidental. Let Jack be happy at home with his LEGO next time.

I would recommend making sure you've read Catch Your Death first, and hey if you don't think a mad lesbian trying to wipe out civilization is the most original premise you've heard in some time, feel free to let me know of others you have heard of! 

I really liked their novel Killing Cupid and the forthcoming novel Forward Slash looks like it is  similarly formatted so I'm really looking forward to that.

Destination : Passed on to a friend

Book #12 And When Did You Last See Your Father? by Blake Morrison

And When Did You Last See Your Father?

Length Of Time In Possession : 1 month

Unlike most reviews I write in which I more or less say whether or not I like the book, this review proved extraordinarily difficult to write. It's a Life Memoir, a biography/autobiography of a man, Blake Morrison and his father Arthur. In criticising a life memoir you are essentially criticising the author themselves, I suppose.

Before I read it I felt like I had some idea of what to expect, a story of how difficult it is to live up to your father's expectations, how awful life with a difficult father who is somehow abusive can be. I was attracted to this book for personal reasons.

When the story begins at Oulton Park as Blake and his sister hide with embarrassment as their father bluffs and bullies his way into the best enclosure without queuing appropriately or paying appropriately, I thought this was very much the story I would read.

As it goes on, Arthur Morrison is revealed to be bluff, bombastic, something of a philanderer, and unable to stop interfering in his adult children's lives, but these really are his only crimes. He is very much a man of his time, a 1970's Yorkshireman, and nothing more despicable or insidious than that.

In the great scheme of things when they handed out fathers, Blake Morrison seems quite lucky comparatively, it seems that the worst thing his father ever did was embarrass him in front of Julian Barnes and Salman Rushdie. There are a great many people who would yearn to swap their patriarchal recollections for such a first world, privileged accusation to launch against their father. Middle class naval gazing and whining spring to mind.

It is also clear from the prose that Blake, though often embarrassed and exasperated loved his father and his father loved him, which makes some authorial decision making all the more baffling.  

Blake Morrison uses his memoir to launch what seems like a vengeful attack on the man's memory. An intensely private individual, Arthur Morrison clearly relished that he was a local GP and pillar of the community. He was memorialised posthumously with first a sundial and then a bench.
He desperately hid both his pacemaker and then his cancer from his friends and acquaintances wanting to preserve public opinion of him at all costs, refusing at one point to even allow his son in law to visit.
In this book, Blake Morrison takes his fathers dignity and not just strips it away but destroys it. He speaks of his "shrivelled penis" and changing his dirty nappy. He tells the world of his long standing affair with his mother's friend and the fact that he believes her daughter is his half sister. Whatever reputation Dr Morrison had, it was I am certain in tatters amongst those of his community who read it and a source of great gossip and scandal.

More telling than that, despite proudly displaying all his books in her home, his mother hides this one in her wardrobe, doubtless knowing how heartbroken and devastated her husband would have been by it. His mistress is more plucky and politely but firmly tells Blake that the particulars of their lengthy relationship are none of his damn business actually.

Blake speaks of how he wrote this piece in blind grief following his fathers death, and perhaps he would have done well to put it away and come back to it when he had calmed down emotionally. Writing something based on heightened emotional feeling and living to regret it is a sin, many, including myself are guilty of but most cannot boast of doing it so very publicly, and it is extremely hard to see precisely what Arthur did to Blake to warrant what actively feels like a vindictive and spiteful revenge.

Destination : ebook storage


Book #11 The Pillars Of The Earth by Ken Follett

The Pillars Of The Earth

Length Of Time In Possession : 10 months

If I could summarise The Pillars Of The Earth plot wise in one sentence, that sentence would be
"A monk attempts to build a cathedral"
but in many ways this belies the novel, and makes it sound simplistic and dull of which it is neither. It is over 1,000 pages long yet I read it very quickly. It moves along at quite some pace. Though the goal to build the cathedral is the central task, the novel also focuses on the lives of those caught up in the process. Firstly there's Philip the monk, whose intelligence outwits every attempt to thwart him, Tom Builder whose lifelong dream has been to build a cathedral and his children, as well as Aliona and Richard the orphaned children of a displaced earl.

It is set so long ago that I had little knowledge of its history, beginning post the Battle Of Hastings and taking place entirely in the 1100's under Norman rule. I liked the fact that this place in history was totally unknown to me, it has not often been written about, unlike other areas of history like World War 2, or the Tudors both of which have been somewhat overmined.

With its element of human drama there comes a certain level of ridiculousness and soap opera moments; relationships that occur too quickly, relationships that are thwarted in silly ways or in one case a hazardous, lengthy, journey with a newborn baby including two treks over the Pyrenees on horseback that is pulled off quite easily and without incident. Despite this the characters are very easy to like, care about and enjoy.

The other flaw comes from the direction of the two main villains of the piece Waleran Bigod and William Hamleigh. The machinations of these two foes and their various attempts to thwart Phillip and friends become repetitive in style and approach "Damn that pesky monk"

This problem feels very minor though as it doesn't impede the overall entertainment factor of the book which is historical fiction at its best. 8/10  

Destination : ebook storage

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Book #10 A Perfectly Good Man by Patrick Gale

A Perfectly Good Man

Length Of Time In Possession : 9 months

Last July I read, really enjoyed, and highly recommended Notes From An Exhibition by Patrick Gale, the story of  bipolar artist Rachel Kelly and her family.

My second Patrick Gale novel then is A Perfectly Good Man, it is not a sequel to the former but shares some crossover characters and has a similar literary device, building up a portrait of a mans life by taking snapshots of all the different people involved at different ages.

The good man in question is Barnaby Johnson, a local vicar in Cornwall whose story is told through his own eyes, as well as the eyes of his family and one or two parishoners. Each section introduces the character and the age they were in the time period this section covers. Dorothy at 24. Lenny at 20, Barnaby at 8 and so on. This tactic, also employed in Notes From An Exhibition is a device I really enjoy from Gale it really works, and so eventually we can see all of Barnaby's story from childhood to retirement.

There is something about the way in which Gale writes that I find completely engrossing, I get really involved in the world of the characters, but I also get a real sense of place and atmosphere.
Like "Notes" I felt this strong sense of the best of Christianity coming through the prose, forgiveness, acceptance, compassion and love. Barnaby may not be perfect, or indeed always good, he is flawed like all men, but he does the best that can be hoped for even with his mistakes. This is made even more clear by the juxtaposition of Barnaby to Modest, Modest has also made mistakes, Modest in some ways seeks to atone, but Modest will never be a good man, because his "good deeds" mask a less honourable intent, even when he tries to delude himself that this is not so.

If you haven't read Notes From An Exhibition I recommend doing so first, not because it's necessary, Perfectly Good Man isn't a real sequel, but because when the two novels do become linked through their characters, it was pleasurable already knowing who they were and so much about them.

In the end, this novel moved me enough to have a tiny cry when I finished it, this doesn't happen often for me. This is a really good book and I urge you to put it on your own "to read" list.

Destination : Ebook storage


Book #9 The Angel's Cut by Elizabeth Knox

The Angel's Cut

Length Of Time In Possession : 18 months

One of my favourite novels of 2011 was The Vintner's Luck by Elizabeth Knox. The story of a love affair between an Angel and a human, the Vintner's Luck is beautifully written, philosophical, moving, compelling and lyrical. It is a book I will never hesitate to recommend.

It was with some trepidation that I bought the sequel, and despite having bought it I didn't read it for a further 18 months. Finding the story complete, I didn't see how Knox could either better or equal The Vintner's Luck with a second tale, and I'm very sad to say I was right.

Following the events of that novel, the immortal angel Xas has become a pilot, so he can continue to savour the sensation of flight, life as a pilot takes him to America where he becomes a stunt pilot for the movies and we are introduced to several new characters: Flora, Millie, Conrad Cole and Conrad Crow.

These characters became the problem for me, I completely failed to feel involved with any of them and repeatedly found myself switching off entirely which made it difficult to keep up with the natural flow. There are too many Conrads and this gets confusing. I thought about abandoning the book more than once but felt sad to do so.

The two things that saved the book and kept me reading were the sequences (too few, too short) in which connections were made to Sobran and Xas's former life in France and other things from The Vintner's Luck and those sequences where Xas encounters and debates with Lucifer. These parts are really good but perhaps only amount to 5% of the novel.

This novel was super disappointing in comparison to how much I adore its predecessor.

Destination : Ebook storage


Book #8 Tender Is The Night by F.Scott Fitzgerald

Tender Is The Night

Length Of Time In Possession : 18 months

Tender Is The Night is the story of young, inexperienced actress Rosemary Hoyt and what happens after she is dragged into the social whirl of Dick and Nicole Diver whilst recuperating from pneumonia in Europe.

In my original post explaining the 2013 Challenge, I explained that the goal this year was not to reach 100 books or to complete every book I embarked on but to clear my backlog of unread books by whatever means necessary, whether that meant deciding not to read a book or giving up on it.

Tender Is The Night becomes my first incomplete book of the year. I just don't have any interest at all in spoilt, rich, society Americans, I didn't like The House Of Mirth and I didn't like the Great Gatsby either.

Whenever you fail to appreciate a really critically popular novel or novelist as I never have with F Scott Fitzgerald, a sense of embarrassment or personal incompetence sometimes follows, a sense that you are wrong or ignorant and this is never comfortable. But it shouldn't be really. It should be OK to take a really well liked author and say "You know what? I'm just not a fan" without feeling ashamed of it.

Of all the novels in all the world, no person will like them all. The best part of literature is about the effect it has on its reader, how it resonates with you and what you take from it, how it changes you for the better, and no matter whether that book is EL James or Charles Dickens what matters in the end is your experience and how that book helped you. People should feel less embarrassed to say how they feel about books lest they be sneered upon.

I didn't like Tender Is The Night and I couldn't finish it.

Destination : ebook storage