Saturday, 8 March 2014

Book #9 Tarantula by Thierry Jonquet

Tarantula

Tarantula by French writer Thierry Jonquet is the novel upon which Pedro Almodovar based his 2011 film The Skin I Live In.

When I saw The Skin I Live In I thought it was quite breathtakingly original and I was floored by the films central twist.

To read Tarantula was odd then because I knew exactly what was coming and was unsurprised which takes the central shock value of the book away, but even without the foreknowledge of the having seen the film, the books events are heavily signposted in a way that the film just wasn't (at least for me)

The film made several departures from the book too, and with the exception perhaps of the end, which should have stayed true, were just better ideas.

Those parts which focused on Alex over Richard and Eve were just plain dull at times.

You'll note that I have said very little of the plot or events in this review, that's because The Skin I Live In was just such a jaw dropping film that I would hate to ruin it for anyone.

I feel that I cannot say the same of Tarantula which just doesn't have the same impact.

Verdict : 6/10

Book #8 The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows

The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society

The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society was recommended to me by my friend Jennie from Book Club.

Annie Barrows was Mary Ann Shaffer's niece and worked to get her novel completed and published posthumously, it is lovely to find out that Mary Ann died knowing that her book would be published worldwide even if she didn't get to see this happen.

The story takes place on Guernsey during World War Two, which as many know but increasingly many don't, was, though British territory, occupied by Nazi Forces during the war.

We pick up the story post-war in the 50s as writer Juliet, formally a war columnist, casts about for her next project. Her project finds her when she strikes up a correspondence with Dawsey Adams and subsequently his friends and begins to learn what the Islanders went through during wartime.

Though it is set during a really grim and grueling period of history for Guernsey there is something just persistently joyous about this book. Told in letters, the voices of the different characters come through really well and each maintain uniqueness, often it is funny, the letter written when Juliet requests a character reference from a woman who hates her for example. Often it is quaint, but in the best of ways, all 'Jolly Ho!" and "Toodle Pip!" the vernacular of the day really shines through, and feels genuinely authentic.

I loved all the supporting characters as much as the lead, and I liked how the writer managed to trick me into making an incorrect assumption about a relationship. There is something just so heartwarming about it all. The phrase 'testament to the human spirit' gets bandied about in lots of literary criticism but in this case it genuinely applies.

Some might dismiss this as 'fluff' and perhaps a 'girls book' but they would be guilty of being a book snob to do so.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and would give it 10/10    

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Book #7 Paper Towns by John Green

Paper Towns

At the end of 2012 - I read The Fault In Our Stars, the young adult romance novel by John Green, and thought it was a classy affair with real crossover merit. Many people my own age have also read it and recommended it to me, including just the other day a friend of mine from uni days. A film of The Fault In Our Stars is set to appear at a cinema near you shortly.

What then of the rest of John Green's output? I've just got round to a second one of his now and chose Paper Towns.

This novel is told from the perspective of Quentin, one night school Queen Bee Margo who was once his friend and lives next door appears at his window and makes him join her on a series of revenge pranks in the middle of the night and then promptly vanishes leaving Quentin and his friends to decipher the mystery of her whereabouts.

There's a lot to like about Paper Towns and I'll start with that, for every girl with a complicated internal life there is something to identify with in Margo. She's the girl with a million records whose friends don't even know she likes music. The girl with a copy of Leaves Of Grass by Walt Whitman whose friends don't even know she likes poetry. The popular girl at the centre of things who knows she's faking it all.

She's the girl who keeps going missing because she needs to be found. And the girl who wants to stay lost too.

Margo is a great character - fascinating even, though perhaps with some annoying hipster tendencies.

Margo is the best thing about this novel - but she is also its biggest problem.

The book isn't about Margo. It's about Quentin. Quentin and his friends Ben and Radar - later joined by Lacey who are searching for Margo.

And there's nothing of note about any of them really; Quentin IMs his friends, they play video games, they scour the equivalent of Wikipedia for Margo clues and live out standard American High School Outsider tropes about which there is nothing original.

The only thing that is interesting about Quentin is 'Quentin in relation to Margo' - he's not interesting outside of her. The essential point that John Green is making about people with this novel and it's a great point and one particularly worth making to young people I think, is about how Quentin relates to Margo.

At the beginning of the novel Quentin counts it as a miracle that he ever knew Margo, that she ever happened to be his next door neighbour.

Quentin has an idea, a concept, of the person that he believes Margo to be, he's built it all in his mind, this idea that he has of her, is an impression that he's decided upon. It's an interesting lesson about how we, and it applies to adults too, carry ideals or mistaken beliefs about people based upon the narrative we have imposed upon them ourselves.

Margo, Quentin realises eventually is not a miracle, she's just a troubled girl and nothing more or less than that.

And this is such a good book for young people just for that lesson, but it's a mistake that adults including myself are often guilty of making; of expecting superhuman behaviour from people who we put on a pedestal who ultimately are just as human and fallible as we are.

A good book with a great secondary character 7/10 for Paper Towns the bulk of which didn't engage me - 10/10 for Margo herself.

 
    

Monday, 3 February 2014

Book #6 From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming

 From Russia With Love

I should perhaps say first that this is the only James Bond novel I have ever read. It will probably remain the only James Bond novel I have ever read.

As far as James Bond goes, I have only seen 4 fllms in their entirety, GoldenEye and the first three Daniel Craigs. The older Classic James Bonds exist in a hazy fog of Bank Holidays and rain and I wouldn’t be able to tell you which of the scenes I recall came from which film.

Why on earth then would I read a James Bond novel? I actually went into the shop to buy a different book, had a hard time finding it and as I looked around ‘From Russia With Love’ for extenuating reasons I won’t bother going into seemed to gaze out at me from the shelf shouting ‘Go on, Pick Me’ so I did.

I spent almost the entirety of this novel open mouthed or laughing in appalled fascination.
My eyes just boggled at the page the vast majority of the time. I couldn’t believe what I was reading at certain points.

This review, given that both the book and the film are very old will have spoilers in it, so if as with the football results you don’t want to know look away now. I can’t discuss all the bits I want to without spoilers. 

Firstly the opening is quite a long preamble - Bond doesn’t appear for 129 pages and all the pages prior introduce the villain, the girl and the plot.

The plot of this novel is a standard honeytrap, the Russians are sending a girl in to trick Bond, then the villain, a hulking Irish gun for hire will off him, causing a blow to British Intelligence.

Inevitably, it is with the entrance of Bond where things get ‘good‘ (though I use good loosely) Really it is with the entrance of Bond that things become hilarious, and beggar belief.

In a nutshell the Russian strategy is this, their bird, Tatiana walks up to a British Intelligence contact and says : “Hey, by the way I’m a Russian Spy, and I’m in love with James Bond and if you get me James Bond I’ll give you secrets”  - what’s amazing about this is not that as international espionage traps go it’s a pretty shit plan of action which should have seen her taken and brought in for questioning immediately, but how James Bond and his boss M react to it.

M and Bond’s reaction is astounding and goes something like this; M: Yes it sounds a bit silly, but all women are silly fools, so it’s probably true  

Bond : I TOTALLY BELIEVE THAT I AM SUCH A TESTOSTERONE FUELLED  DESIRABLE GOD THAT I CAN MAKE A WOMAN COME INTO HER KNICKERS BY LOOKING AT A WHAT IS PROBABLY A REALLY DODGY POLAROID OF ME THOUSANDS OF MILES AWAY

Bond is basically Gaston in the Disney cartoon ‘Beauty and The Beast’

At no point does either state the obvious “This is BLATANTLY a honeytrap, but go investigate and see what we get out of it”

Something remarkable happens here, and it is remarkable in that it is the only instance of sexual equality in the entire novel, and based on what I’ve read in this one potentially the entire series. M basically just pimps Bond out like a whore in the same way the Russians are pimping Tatiana out and tells him “he’d better come up to expectations”.

Bond is cool with that.

Next up we meet prince among men Darko Kerim, Bond’s contact in Turkey, Kerim gives Bond his opinions on women : “They’re all liars. You can only tell if they love you by having sex with them” His opinions on the locals : “They’re miserable. They want sultans and wars and rape and fun” (Because those last two things are just SYNONYMOUS with each other) and then regales him with the exotic tale of how he once won a woman in a bet and she wasn’t happy about it so he chained her up naked under a table like a dog to train her. His mother was displeased and rescued her but she refused to leave. WHICH JUST GOES TO SHOW YOU IT WAS ALWAYS IN HER BEST INTERESTS.

(I just want to pause for a moment to reflect on the fact he's Turkish and called DARKO. Jesus Wept)

Bond’s reaction to Darko Kerim can be summarised as follows : “What a lad. I’m so impressed. I want us to be best friends.”

As soon as this is stated you just know Kerim is going to die, as per the rules of the game “Spot The Stiff” (From 90s comedy sketch show The Mary Whitehouse Experience)  
Duly, this occurs, what a loss for all the women of Turkey.

As part of the Darko Kerim sexist roadshow he takes Bond to a gypsy camp. But there’s a problem. Two girls have fallen out over the same bloke, so somewhat like Harry Hill, the leader of the gypsies has decided this can only be resolved with a FIGHT.

Kerim asks Bond to not interfere. Bond is like “Two women having a fight? Cool with it”

In a scene which surely only exists for titilation these two scantily clad girls scrap whilst Bond ogles their boobs. Bond is so obsessed with boobs that at one point he is aroused by THE SHAPE OF A MOSQUE. A MOSQUE! (p166)

A diversion occurs and Kerim and Bond have a fight with some Bulgarians; at the end of this the gypsy leader tells Bond that if he won’t stay around to help kill people and keep women in line then by all means he can come back whenever he likes and have sex with either or both of the girls UNTIL SUCH A TIME AS THEIR BREASTS HAVE SAGGED.

THIS ACTUALLY HAPPENS.

I’m a massive fan of the series Mad Men and of its hero Don Draper, who shares many of Bond’s qualities. I was fascinated by this book in the same way that Mad Men fascinates me. My mother’s opinion is “you wouldn’t marvel at it if you’d had to live through it”. The very fact of its publication is fascinating.

I mean it’s just so abhorrent, it does feel like another planet not just another time. The chauvinism is just endless, at one point Bond tells Tatiana he will beat her if she becomes overweight. They are both cool with this. There is also some random homophobia thrown in early on which seems to serve purely as a reminder to all the real men who will be reading this novel that no-one likes a queer.


Given that recently a Bond Cologne and Aftershave were released my absolute favourite bit of this novel is the bit where Tatiana asks Bond why Englishmen don’t wear perfume and he says shortly “We wash”

Even though he only says “we wash” it’s like this big Caveman sentence can be inferred :

AFTERSHAVE???!!! AFTERSHAVE IS FOR RUSSIANS AND PANSIES!!!! I AM A MAN SMELL MY MANLY MAN SWEAT

Brilliant.

I have to give a mention to the baddy of the piece Donovan Grant. There is a real instance here of Bond being an absolutely crap spy, he totally buys that Grant is a fellow British agent purely because Grant is a walking cliche in faded tweeds and an ancient mac that the Russians have lately hauled out of the Props department - huh? I mean, come on Bond! Bond is suspicious of him because he has tied his tie with a Windsor Knot and this is "the mark of a cad" - Bond should have trusted his instincts, for my part I want to know what a Windsor Knot looks like so I can be on the look out for potential cads.

UPDATE : Having since googled The Windsor Knot, it is basically how every man I have ever met ties a tie HOW WILL I SPOT POTENTIAL CADS NOW?! AND IF JAMES BOND DOESN'T USE THE WINDSOR KNOT HOW THE FUCK DOES HE TIE HIS TIE? This requires investigation!

The most jaw dropping aspect of the whole depiction of Grant is his alleged mental illness, Bond looks into his eyes and in a second armchair diagnoses Schizophrenia, Grant is also called ‘manic depressive’

Grant is someone who goes out on murderous rampages at every Full Moon.

THIS IS NOT A MENTALLY ILL PERSON. THIS IS A WEREWOLF.

Bond is fighting a werewolf.

In true Bond villain fashion, the werewolf gives Bond a 30 minute window BEFORE he kills him during which he divulges the entirety of the plan plus extras.

Why do they do this?

Also considering he’s a werewolf, Bond doesn’t really have much trouble with him. Because he’s Bond.

I have come to a certain conclusion about James Bond, the novels at least. They are the male literary equivalent of Fifty Shades Of Grey. They are a like for like comparison. Fifty Shades Of Grey isn’t just selling BDSM sex to the masses it’s also selling ‘lifestyle porn’ Christian Grey as a ‘hero‘ owns a yacht, flies a helicopter, has a ski lodge, a massive apartment, buys his girlfriend 2 Audis and a Saab, a Mac, an iPad, a first edition Thomas Hardy, and a raft of designer clothes. He also gives her an orgasm every few hours.

Bond is lifestyle porn for boys, not only do all these nubile fragile beauties permanently throw themselves at you, but you always rise to the occasion, you are an international spy extraordinaire who can even make short work of a werewolf.

I totally get what the appeal of ‘being James Bond‘ is. It’s the same appeal of ‘being Don Draper‘ - king of all he surveys.  And,Don Draper though he is an absolute bastard is sexy.

But, how sexy would he be in real life? He’d probably be the worst creep you’d ever met without even having the decency to look even remotely like John Hamm or Daniel Craig.

There is but one singular instance in this novel where vile, vain, sexist, fat shaming, homophobic befriender and endorser of rapists James Bond is actually sexy.

Tatiana is sleeping and James is watching her, if she wakes he intends to reassure her that everything is alright and settle her back down to sleep with the security that he’ll protect her.

That I will grant you is very sweet.

I can’t even give an out of ten verdict on this because I don’t know what I made of it.

I was vastly entertained by it - but really for all the opposite of the reasons why I was actually meant to be.

The odd thing was it ended on a cliffhanger with Bond will return in Dr No and I couldn't help but wonder what happened next.......

Friday, 31 January 2014

Book #5 Secrecy by Rupert Thomson

Secrecy

I chose Secrecy in a rush in a train station bookshop, I liked the title and the blurb sounded good. Wax sculptor Zummo who is from Sicily takes a commission at the court of the Grand Duke Of Tuscany in 1691 and finds himself in a world of intrigue.

The book seemed terribly promising, great endorsements on the cover and a raft of 5 stars on Amazon and was also the Radio 4 Book At Bedtime. If anything this books publisher has done an incredibly successful PR campaign in promoting the book but I confess I found myself baffled by it.

It gets off to a good start,  I particularly liked the writing near the beginning, but somehow it just all started slipping away at great speed after say page 100.

A lot of it has no substance, the villain of the piece just isn't remotely fleshed out and we are I think left to infer much from very little. It's as though through the fact that "He's a Dominican Monk"  we are meant to infer not only his entire personality, but the entire point and purpose of his schemes, which I felt never really held much water in terms of practical motive. It was a bit Dan Brown School Of Writing.

Other bizarre things happen like Zummo meets a girl he fancies in passing twice and she suddenly randomly sends him the 17th Century equivalent of Viagra. Huh?!

Secondary characters serve little purpose either. One character is brought in only apparently to be attacked at a later date to illustrate that the Monks already pretty unlikely vendetta has escalated to such a degree that he went after Zummo's friends. None of Zummo's relationships feel genuine or possess depth and seem to exist purely as plot devices.

The denouement too is very very strange and lacking entirely in credibility.

In many ways this novel as a personal reading experience suffered in being read in too close a proximity to Ghana Must Go. The two novels are completely different yet Secrecy felt like it stood in the former books shadow in terms of how the quality and style of the plot and prose shone.

I think the best word I can use to describe this book is 'flimsy' - it just feels silly and without much weight.

6/10

Book #4 Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi

Ghana Must Go

At the beginning of Ghana Must Go, Kweku Sai dies in his garden. A Ghanian immigrant who was once successfully pursuing the American Dream, he ran and abandoned his wife and four children when that dream crumbled. The novel is about the impact of both his disappearance and subsequent  death on his estranged family, and is told in present day terms with his children as adults and in flashback to their youth.

I read Ghana Must Go on the train over two days and found I couldn't wait for the next installment. There was something very lyrical about it, poetic.

For Kweku's four children : Olu, Taiwo, Kehinde and Sadie - as they separate out into the world, failure, or lack of success is their common enemy and they all strive to leave the ghost of the man who was their father behind.

The four characters themselves have each been impacted by Kweku in different variations on a similar theme which tie in and unify quite well. The novel is a family saga about a disconnected family really.

The most particularly difficult aspect of the story is the experience that the twins have during their unexpected exile in Lagos; but it is not done in a too heavy handed manner, but in a manner where you slowly guess yourself and it sends a shiver down your spine. It doesn't feel crudely executed for shock value.

Books that somehow touch on the countries or continent of Africa are one of my special interests as a Reader and have been since I was in my teens. Ghana Must Go is a sophisticated and pleasurable addition to the novels of this kind that I have read.

I was moved and intrigued by Ghana Must Go and found it very realistically human throughout in terms of the psychology behind relationships.

I do recommend this hugely and would give it a 10/10 
 

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Book #3 All Of My Friends Are Superheroes by Andrew Kaufman

All Of My Friends Are Superheroes

First and foremost All Of My Friends Are Superheroes is a really great idea, the Amazon synopsis reads thus :

"All Tom's friends really are superheroes. Tom even married a superhero, the Perfectionist. But at their wedding the Perfectionist is hypnotized by her ex, Hypno, to believe that Tom is invisible. Nothing he does can make her see him. Six months later, the Perfectionist is sure that Tom has abandoned her, so she's moving to Vancouver. She'll use her superpowers to leave all the heartbreak behind. With no idea that Tom's beside her, she boards the plane. Tom has, until they touch down, to convince her he's there, or he loses her forever."


So I was kind of excited by this. I really like superheroes, I really like a good love story. I guess I had high expectations, and these expectations were not really met.

It isn't badly written by any means, the style is really engaging and I was never really bored, yet I found I got annoyed by the descriptions of the Superheroes themselves. In a well worn theme throughout a character is introduced and their superpower described, and then we never see them again. The problem here really is that most of these superheroes have no real superpower at all and all that Kaufman is really describing is a personality. All The Perfectionist really is is a Type A Personality, there are others such as the Couch Potato which are similarly just descriptions of types of people with nothing really special there at all. Off hand, I can only think of Hypno as a character possessing genuine ability.

The real flaw here ultimately is the fact that this novel took me 30 minutes to read, possibly slightly less, and I kind of felt like : "Is this it?" I was really, really glad that I got it as a Kindle Daily Deal for £1.99 because if I'd paid list price I'd have felt properly ripped of by it.

It's very slight, has no depth, and feels like an excellent premise gone to waste. It's quite sweet, in its way, but wholly unsatisfying.

5/10