Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Book #33 Fatherland by Robert Harris


Length Of Time In Possession : 4 weeks

Fatherland, by Robert Harris alongside Laurent Binet's HHhH was my book clubs choice this month.

The novel takes place in an alternate universe in which Germany and not the UK/USA won World War 2. It is now the mid Sixties, Adolf Hitler is still the Fuhrer and the nation is gearing up to celebrate his 75th birthday. In the midst of this, policeman Xavier March is on hand when a corpse is discovered and from there, uncovers a dark conspiracy.

I found myself slightly frustrated with Fatherland. The concept of a Nazi victory is a really interesting idea, particularly from the perspective of the victorious nations, the UK and the USA and how those countries and thus the globe in itself would have differed as a result.  England and most of Europe under German rule, no setting up of the United Nations, no Israel etc. Fatherland however is not that book.

Instead the focus is Germany itself, and what is Germany like under a German victory? Well, exactly what it was like during war and pre-war Nazi Germany, obviously! The Germany depicted actually feels like post-war East Germany which fell to Communists and the Secret Police as depicted in the wonderful 2006 film The Lives Of Others.  It's hard to not see this as an opportunity wasted. Instead the focus on the impact on Germany itself feels rather self-explanatory, than in any way exploring something new.


The changes in the world mentioned aren't exactly that major or delved into in any way. Joe Kennedy, John F Kennedy's father became President instead, Heydrich survived his assassination attempt, the Nazis bombed New York and then became the Cold War opponents, Russia and the US are allies. These aren't really spoilers of Fatherland, as each is only mentioned in the briefest passing.
 In the end the central conceit of Fatherland is that policeman Xavier March uncovers a conspiracy to cover up what the Germans did during the Final Solution and is rocked by the revelation of the Holocaust.

This entire premise is laughable on pretty much every level.

Firstly, the Nazis weren't the least bit ashamed of their solution to "the Jewish question", didn't consider Jews fully human, and thought they were absolutely doing the right thing. So the idea that they would try and hush it up on either a national or international level is bogus.

Secondly, the presupposition is apparently that by removing the 12 architects of the Final Solution, Heydrich eliminates the proof that it ever even happened. This is stupid beyond words. What about the 100s of SS officers who worked in those camps? The doctors, the train drivers, the local agents who rounded people up, and then by extension their families and friends. They all knew what was going on. Likewise the SS WAGs of whom there are many astonishing pictures. What about the Vel d'Hiv round up in Paris? That wasn't even the Germans it was the French police!!!!
Many Jews got out both to the UK and to the US and Canada, before the supposed Nazi victory. It was known, and in a widespread way.

Thirdly, through March there is this notion that the 'average German' believed the lie that the Jews had en masse been deported to Russia, and any disquiet they felt they kept quiet about.  This is like saying that across Germany millions of adults believed their parents that their dog was happily living on a farm, when it was in fact dead. Many 'average Germans' (and Dutch and French) risked and lost their lives hiding Jews in their homes. Why? Because they knew they were getting killed en masse that's why!!!!

So expecting anyone to believe any of this is balderdash and the entire concept holds no water.

A disappointment.  

Verdict : 5/10

Destination : Charity Shop  

Book #32 HHhH by Laurent Binet


Length of Time In Possession : 3 weeks

So I follow C, with another book with just a letter for the title. In this case HHhH stands for 'Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich' - meaning Himmler's Brain is called Heydrich,  the phrase which circulated in Nazi Germany to indicate that though Himmler had more power, Heydrich was the brains behind the outfit.

Written by French author Laurent Binet, it won the Prix Goncourt (the French version of the Booker Prize) in 2010. This translation by Sam Taylor has since made a splash over this side of the Channel, selling well and was chosen by my book club this month.

HHhH is an odd book. Ostensibly the story of two Czech heroes Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš, sent by British Intelligence to assassinate Heydrich, then the Protector of Bohemia and Moravia. (now known as the Czech Republic and Slovakia) One of Hitler's highest operatives Reinhard Heydrich was also the brains behind The Final Solution.

On the one hand the novel is this story and on the other it is the story of Binet himself reflecting on the process of writing the novel as he goes along, and on the nature of historical fiction itself.

Oddly, the novel has been marketed as fiction, which as it is about a) a historical event and b) a writers autobiography on the process of writing it, seems a slightly strange marketing decision, unless as a classic example of metafiction, what the author presents about the writing process is actually untrue.

Binet talks at length about wanting to keep imagination and supposition out of HHhH which would make the novel not a work of historical fiction but a history book.

The trouble was that the more Binet discussed the differences between what he was doing and a work of historical fiction : inventing the clothes people wore or their conversations for literary effect etc, the more I wished I was reading the book he didn't want to write!

I found myself thinking of Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel's imagining of Thomas Cromwell and wishing I was reading or could read the same style of novel about Reinhard Heydrich. Suggestions welcome.

Whilst discussing the writing process with the reader as you go is an original thing to do, (I know there may be other examples of this but HHhH was a first in this regard for me) Binet unfortunately becomes quite irritating the more you go on throughout the book.

The first example of this is discussion of a book that only exists in German about Heydrich that he is considering using for research, after some debate he decides he doesn't need it. Two sections later he makes reference to its content, and then says he changed his mind, whilst this is an intriguing insight into the thought process of any and all writers, it becomes very repetitious throughout the novel.

Ultimately it detracts from the story of Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš, which is whatever way you look at it an amazing tale of bravery and heroism, of which I was hitherto unaware. Throughout, Binet's central desire is that he wants to do these two heroes real justice and part of me feels in a way that he failed to do so, by the over insertion of himself into this narrative. 

That said, from a point of view of challenging how we talk about historical figures in literature and in challenging accepted form and style, you have to admire and respect this book on an intellectual and artistic level. Ultimately my problem was that whilst I admired it, I ended up wishing the book hadn't been this way.....

Verdict : 8/10

Destination : Charity Shop 

Book #31 C by Tom McCarthy


Length of time in Possession : Nearly 2 years

C by Tom McCarthy is a strange little book, I got it when it was on the Booker shortlist nearly 2 years ago now, and had several false start attempts with it before finally completing it a few weeks ago.

Unlike many books I read in which I have a lot of areas to discuss about things I did and didn't enjoy with C I find myself at something of a loss.

C is the story of Serge Carrefax and the novel follows him through his childhood in the grounds of the Deaf School run by his father, then to a period of recuperation following an illness, then to the Great War and then Egypt.

Though the novel initially gets off to a good start : Serge's sister Sophie is an interesting character; after it moves on from his childhood and adolescence the novel entirely lost me, I understood what was going on but felt a total sense of disconnect as a reader from either the plot or the characters.

I read it but I was completely disinterested in it, and was not moved in any way by it nor engaged in its outcome.

I suppose fundamentally what I'm saying here is that I was bored, and couldn't find anything about it either remarkable or special which leaves me mystified at its Booker inclusion.

Sorry, Tom McCarthy

Verdict : 4/10

Destination : ebook storage  

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Book #30 Shattered Blue by Jane Taylor Starwood

Shattered Blue

Length of Time In Possession : 2 weeks

Shane Mackinnon lives off the grid. She has an isolated house in the hillside of a small town, she doesn't have a mobile and she doesn't go on the internet. An artist with a talent for tapestry, she sells her creations in a small, local gallery, and lives a quiet and private life. She is irked when a man, Matt, buys the property next to hers and begins building a home, encroaching on her cherished seclusion.

For some people this is a preferred lifestyle choice, but for Shane, it is necessary, deliberate, and cultivated. Her name is not Shane Mackinnon, but who or what is she hiding from?

Charming and good looking Matt begins to win Shane over, but her past has not yet finished with her.

A romantic thriller, Shattered Blue is a self publish from Jane Starwood, available from the Kindle on Amazon. I have to say that it is surprising that this hasn't been snapped up by a traditional publisher as it fits a certain sub genre really well, publishers are crying out for novels of this type right now.

I say this because it reminded me a lot of the Fifty Shades novels, don't mistake me, the sex in Shattered Blue is not BDSM associated or dreadfully gratuitous or anything like that, but in those novels the Christian/Ana relationship exists against a backdrop of various threats : Christian's mentally ill former sub and his jealous foster brother to name two, which ramp up the excitement and add soap opera style qualities to it. Shattered Blue has the potential to satisfy readers who are looking for "the next thing" to read afterwards.

The threat Shane exists under is an interesting one because it isn't the threat she has initially run from, and doesn't anticipate, she is stalked by her aggressor until he can build a strong picture of her habits and knows how to attack. As a menace, he is an ugly and uncomfortable character against whom the reader has strong convictions, and therefore succeeds well as a villain.

For my part, though the sex with Matt is often steamy and their relationship is enjoyable, I felt that slowing it down and allowing it time to develop over a number of months, and allowing her stalker to do the same with his surveillance would have given the realism of the book extra weight. In addition Matt discovers who Shane really is in a too quick, too convenient way, and I would have changed this slightly.  To be honest, I'm not exactly sure how I would change it, but in my opinion it needed to be less easy.

If this description sounds like the sort of thing you enjoy, then I would really recommend this novel to you. Again, I was happy to read a thriller that doesn't go down the traditional police procedural route and hope to see more from Starwood in future.

Verdict : 7/10

Destination : ebook storage

Book #29 The Mayor Of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy

The Mayor Of Casterbridge 

Length of Time In Possession : Roughly 3 years

The Mayor Of Casterbridge, if you include one unpublished, destroyed work, was Thomas Hardy's seventh novel and the third of his novels that I have read after Tess Of The D'Urbervilles and Far From The Madding Crowd, both of which I read in 2010, before I started up this blog.

It is the story of one Michael Henchard, the eponymous Mayor in question. At the opening of the novel he is a drunk, wandering from town to town in search of work. Accompanied by his wife and their baby daughter he gets drunk at a fair in Casterbridge, and in a moment of passion offers his wife and child up to the highest bidder. At first the gathered assembly take it as a shocking joke, but then a stranger, a sailor called Newson, steps forward and offers him 5 guineas, which he accepts. On waking and discovering his wife and child gone, Henchard vows to give up alcohol and become a good man.

Over the next two decades he prospers financially, and becomes a pillar of the community, the Mayor, respected though not particularly popular. By contrast his wife, Susan, who had a good life with Newson has now fallen on hard times, as her common law husband has been lost at sea. Along with her daughter she tracks down Henchard who is still legally her husband to make him provide for her.

The ensuing complications that arise from their reunion, mark a downturn in Henchard's fortunes culminating in a spectacular fall from grace.

Unlike many of his contemporaries who also made a lot of social comments, Dickens, say, or Eliot, Hardy has a tendency towards the bleak and the unhappy ending.  Henchard as a study is something of a Shakespearian tragedy of a man, full of pride and conceit, inevitably brought low by his own character flaws and mistakes.

As a novel, it is enjoyable but nowhere near as well written as "Tess" or as involving as 'Far From The Madding Crowd'; both of which are completely beautiful novels, so on a certain level I was somewhat disappointed, and I would definitely recommend either of those novels before recommending this.

I did Thomas Hardy's poetry at A Level and ended up loathing and despising him, avoiding him assiduously for more than a decade. With Tess, which I read for a university type Masterclass he won me over and I was glad to finally appreciate him as a writer.

Whilst the Mayor of Casterbridge is excellent as a character driven study, its prose is not the calibre that I know Hardy is capable of.

With that said I give this book 7/10

Destination : Ebook storage 

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Book #28 American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

American Psycho

Length of Time In Possession : 2 weeks

I'm going to say right from the off with this review that I fucking hated this book, and thought it was total and utter gash, which in the two year history of the blog is the rudest and most damning sentence I have ever described a book with. I don't think I've ever sworn before so my apologies to any of those who may be offended, I'll edit it out if I get complaints.

It was my book clubs book of the month so I had to read it, one friend said I'd love it, several told me I'd hate it.

I think immediately people would assume that if someone doesn't like American Psycho it's because they're averse to violence, I'm not particularly, I've read rape scenes before I've read violent murder scenes, I've watched Tarantino and Korean cinema, I'm not bothered by shocking violence. I've read worse than what is in American Psycho, violence wise, and that violence has often been more eloquently expressed.

No, the reason American Psycho is so offensive, is its breathtaking banality. Various quotes about how it is seminal adorn its covers. Seminal? Seminally shit.

Right from the off lead character Patrick Bateman is concerned with aesthetics and money, the best restaurants, the best business card; the fact that in terms of character development he has no further depth, and is a hollow shell of a man, a damning indictment of grubby 80s capitalist parasites is the point. There is nothing more to him. Yet because of the way in which this is illustrated, it becomes : a) a one note point that just repeats itself ad nauseum across 300 odd pages and b) utterly tedious as a reading experience, tedious to the nth degree.

Here is a quote from page 27

"Vidal Sassoon shampoo is especially good at getting rid of the coating of dried perspiration, salts, oils, airborne pollutants and dirt that can weigh down hair and flatten it to the scalp which can make you look older. The conditioner is also good."  

Nothing at all "Psycho" happens before Page 127. Sure there are hints : he takes his clothes to the laundry, they're covered in blood. He makes an internal remark about the violent death of his girlfriends neighbour. He decides not to kill someone who has connections....but mostly what you can expect from the first 127 pages is having to read shit like that quote above.

Bateman only notices the designers people wear, and is only interested in possessions, whilst this is the point of 80s greed culture, it is unbelievably tiresome in its vapidity.

When the violence actually occurs, it actually comes as respite from the relentlessness of this, it's clever, to a degree, it can be appreciated, on an intellectual level what Ellis is trying to show with Bateman, and the question marks he raises around the distinctions between reality and delusion later on, but there is zero character development. The idea is that these billionaire wankers are sub-human so there is no character but hey, even Donald Trump has opinions! Bateman has none, he's just a talking Vogue Magazine spread on designers and beauty products.

After the initial point is made, all further reiterations of it are superfluous and annoying. The problem is not the concept, but the execution, because even a novel making an acerbic social comment has to at least not be entirely turgid so as to give the reader a positive reading experience. It doesn't really matter how dark a book is if it's well written, if it engages, but this book never engages you as a reader. It's a bit like flicking through a clothing catalogue into which some violent pornographic images have been inserted at odd intervals.

Avoid this book like the plague.

Verdict : 0/10

Destination : Charity Shop

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Book #27 The Back Road by Rachel Abbott

The Back Road

Length Of Time In Possession : 1 week

The Back Road by Rachel Abbott begins with a startling prologue of two children trapped in a cupboard, then introduces us to Leo Harris, a 20 something returning to the village she grew up in. Leo had an unhappy childhood marked by meanness and tragedy, but her sister Ellie, psychologically trapped by the mysteries of their childhood has chosen to buy and renovate the house they grew up in, unable to let go of the past; because of her sisters relocation, Leo too is forced to confront the past.

No more than it was when Leo was a child, Little Melham is a place of secrets. Ellie is hiding a stalker she can't dissuade and is terrified her husband is having an affair; yet the biggest secret comes in the form of local 14 year old Abbie Campbell. Abbie has been knocked down on The Back Road in a Hit and Run, but who knocked Abbie down and why was she even there?   

There was a lot I liked about The Back Road, certain sections of the writing were very sharp, particularly the prologue, and the section in which Abbie is being chased. I really liked Leo Harris as a character, flawed, but strong : a survivor. I liked Ellie somewhat less, and felt like she could do with a good shake!

I found the dinner party sequence a little overlong, as a soiree, I'm sure I wouldn't have enjoyed it particularly, at times very uncomfortable and cringe, not for the reader, but if you imagined yourself present. I struggled for a while to see why so many chapters were devoted to it, until I realised that it was all a clue to the whodunnit, and who may or may not have been culpable for the hit and run.

I actually live in Cheshire, or thereabouts, and I felt that at times the location of the story was over emphasised or over signposted, and need not have been reiterated more than once. Though the purpose is to signify that the village is small, populated by the comfortable, and in some respects remote, lending itself to a "locked room" mystery of sorts. (The culprit can only be a local) this is something that the reader can infer themselves.

As we reached the denouement, there is an element of inordinate drama, a little over the top, and some loose ends are a little too neatly tied. Yet, some other elements of the conclusion surprise.

All in all, for me, I could clearly imagine this novel as an ITV crime/mystery drama, one that would work well and be popular. ITV recently adapted Erin Kelly's The Poison Tree and I could see The Back Road fitting the same bill scheduling wise.

A good mystery novel, which for once, is more about the secrets and lies of people's personal lives instead of the well worn police procedural format.

Verdict : 7/10

Destination : ebook storage