Friday, 31 October 2014

Book #40 The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith

The Cuckoo's Calling

In Robert Galbraith's debut novel, supermodel Lula Landry falls from a balcony, her death is ruled a suicide and the world moves on, but not everyone agrees that this is what happened that fateful night.

Robert Galbraith got away with his Super Secret Pseudonym for all of 5 seconds before being exposed as the publishing sensation JK Rowling who was apparently gutted by it. Far better for this to be judged as a crime debut than as the ninth novel of an established author, because if it is to be judged by critics as a first novel, and it is a first foray into a specific genre, it usually gets a far kinder reception in the reviews.

I'm not really one for detective fiction, I find the patterns too predictable for one thing, so initially I was quite pleased to see that up front it is established that the young female sidekick to the old curmudgeonly private eye has just got engaged and it was the greatest moment of her life.

A-ha! I thought she's steering clear of the unresolved sexual tension, of the "possibility of more" she's trying to write something without the obvious cliches, alas it didn't last with Cormoran Strike and the literal Robin to his Batman each noticing hitherto unrecognised qualities in each other, which one presumes, will continue throughout the series.

I would really find it refreshing to have a series in which colleagues of the opposite sex didn't have to have this and instead could have the kind of purely intellectual 'romance' and deep personal esteem often gifted to two male characters but never it seems to women without their sexuality becoming involved.

Can we just talk about his name for a moment "Cormoran Strike" ? It sounds like the name of a police Operation against game poaching or a US military attack that went wrong and hit a peasant village in Fallujah. It's like she generated it with an app.

The celebrity angle is cliched from the gay black designer to the caricature of Pete Doherty, so too is Strike's link that world. It feels slightly satirical, mocking and unauthentic.

The most cringeworthy aspect is when characters who are "lower class" or "common" enter the scene and are written phonetically or in slang to highlight how common they are. It's patronising and almost prejudiced. Oh, a black person with mental health issues, they speak like THIS.

The climax/big reveal of the culprit is done in that ranting "didn't you?....DIDN'T YOU?" style that has graced TV drama throughout the decades but the reveal creates a behaviour paradox the size of a black hole that isn't resolved and makes no sense.

I fear saying this because I think there is no way of saying it without sounding like the worst of snobs; but this novel just feels really mainstream, pitched at Mr and Mrs Average Reader, Middle England.
I mean, it's a OK book it's not amazing, it's not awful, it just feels like it belongs on the Richard And Judy List.  If you want books about a private detective Kate Atkinson's Jackson Brodie series is far superior.


Monday, 27 October 2014

Book #39 Love From Nancy : The Letters Of Nancy Mitford ed. Charlotte Mosley

Love From Nancy

Nancy Mitford began planning her memoirs around the time she became ill, and subsequently died without writing them, her friend Harold Acton wrote a biography, and later Diana's daughter in law Charlotte edited a collection of her letters. She is also the editor behind all the Mitfords letters to each other and of Debo's correspondence with Paddy Leigh Fermor.

I guess the reason for this was that if anyone was going to make money out of the intense interest in the sisters well it may as well be the family themselves, and there's something fair about that I think, though an early footnote implies that this new development considerably annoyed Acton who withheld his letters and may not have had the same level of access as Charlotte.

Her foreword tells us that she removed sections from six letters on the basis that they could be considered libelous and that Debo asked her to remove sections from a further six because they were excessively spiteful about persons still living and could cause embarrassment. Having read that it struck me that the 12 most interesting letters she ever wrote aren't really in it! 

Nancy is a terrific snob and a bit of a bitch, reacting like the Dowager Countess of Grantham might when a LOWER CLASS man sits next to her in a restaurant. Her most interesting letters are to or about Evelyn Waugh who comes across as a very eccentric character with a great capacity to offend or become offended. Randolph Churchill and Duff Cooper also come across as great characters I would like to know more about. Randolph particularly seems thoroughly awful.

I've read two Waugh novels 'Brideshead Revisited' and 'A Handful Of Dust' and took to neither but this has persuaded me to keep trying.

In some ways Nancy's life was tragic. Her first engagement and then her marriage were both disasters, she was infertile, and she was in love with a philandering Colonel, Gaston Palewski who never fully committed to their relationship. In her letters to him, her unguarded desperation for him to love her the way she loved him comes across profusely. In that I empathised.

It was heartbreaking too, that whilst Diana and Debo lived quite long lives, both living into their 90s, Nancy died in her 60s but oddly lived to experience most of her best friends & contemporaries "going first" dropping like flies around her over a three year period, the death of Evelyn Waugh shaking her particularly. As they passed she crossed each out in her address book writing the date of their death next to the entry. 

I enjoyed reading this but I think I would have enjoyed reading the responses she got mixed in among her letters more. I also found it strange that certain of the letters in this collection which she wrote to her sisters were missing from that bumper collection (Letters Between Six Sisters) in a way that I noticed; for example a letter to Nancy from Diana about Unity, and a query about a childhood memory from Decca are in that collection, but there's no response from Nancy. The response appears here, which seems like an odd thing to do.

Probably the most telling sequence of letters comes on the publication of Decca's autobiography, Nancy writes to tell her it is wonderful, if ' a cold wind to the heart' but writes to others including Mark Ogilve Grant and Evelyn Waugh to slag it off, which I felt gave the clearest indication of her as a character. Witty, yet not to be trusted and highly insincere. Something her own sisters and friends all thought of her.   

A good read 8/10

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Books #36-38 Cat Trilogy by Tom Cox

Under The Paw, Talk To The Tail and The Good The Bad And The Furry

The above 3 books work as one collective memoir by the writer Tom Cox about cats he has owned, part owned, and been acquainted with throughout the years. They include Roscoe, Shipley, Brewer, George, Bootsy, Pablo, and famous in their own right : The Bear who is better known as @MYSADCAT, a misanthrope who despairs of the modern world and his frenemy Ralph @MYSMUGCAT who is better than you and knows it, though he can't quite live down the fact that he was once known as Prudence.

I have always wanted and never had a cat, and as complicated yet adorable as Tom Cox's cats appear to be, one of the episodes he recounts of cat ownership includes dealing with a large pool of catpiss on his duvet as well as catpiss on books and catpiss on records. I just couldn't deal with catpiss on my duvet, so I'm guessing cat ownership is not for me.

Despite this the books are endearing and warm though Talk The Tail wanders off topic frequently with stories that are not about the cats and therefore not quite what you came for. These books are 'nice' and are funnier than many books marketed as comic in the way that Cox presents his relationship with them and their relationships with each other.

I think the key word here is undemanding, they are good books to relax with, good for Sunday afternoons, travelling, and perfect presents for the cat lovers in your life.


Book #35 Where'd You Go Bernadette? by Maria Semple

Where'd You Go Bernadette?

Where'd You Go Bernadette? is an irritating, garish novel existing entirely of exaggerated caricatures instead of characters and implausible, extreme, plot sequences which though they attempt to satirise the over-achieving private school yet liberal Tiger Parent set, end up grating upon the reader substantially. There is no touchstone here no means of identifying with any of it, unless you too are a competitive Mom who gave your child a silly name, is over involved with the school and either works in tech or has a spouse who does. For a comic novel, it's not particularly funny either, just annoying.

Also, the premise of the book is about the fact that Bernadette has gone missing and that her daughter Bee has set out to piece together what happened. Bernadette actually goes nowhere for 3/4 of the novel and Bee finds her relatively quickly and easily.

Bernadette's husband is a foul character and yet all his misdeeds are as forgotten at the end of the book as though they didn't happen, and alls well that ends well.

Over sold, over hyped, and over the top. Avoid. 2/10  

Book #34 Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Mansfield Park

Mansfield Park was the last Jane Austen I had left to read, and possibly the Austen novel I have liked least all in all, as such, a short review follows.

Fanny Price is her latest 'lady without a fortune' who is brought up by well meant but unkind relatives who don't wish her to 'rise above her station'. I read something suggestive of the idea that Austen wrote this with the purpose of deploring 'the lack of good moral conduct in the YOUTH OF TODAY' and used Fanny and her cousin Edmund as role models of behaviour. Whilst both the Misses Bertrams are pretty vile, Aunt Norris a horror and Henry Crawford a cad, I saw nothing particularly amiss with Mary Crawford's accurate assertion that 'going to church is pretty boring actually'.

Fanny and Edmund despite being the heroes are both ghastly prigs, and with the whole purpose of the book being to moralise at people, it does not as a consequence have the life or wit of her other novels.

Read to 'complete the set' it's not really worth it for the sheer length of the thing, unless like me you've read all the other ones and this is the last one you've got left.

Meh 6/10

Books #31-33 The All Souls Trilogy by Deborah Harkness

The All Souls Trilogy

Oh, the All Souls Trilogy, how ridiculously stupid and outright naff you are, and yet how much I loved you and read you at breakneck speed.

Diana Bishop is a witch from a strong bloodline. Yet prefers to live in the real world, not use powers, and refuses to join a coven. A historian of science she is on sabbatical at Oxford University when she requests a manuscript 'Ashmole 782' from the Bodleian Library which has more to it than meets the eye and sets off a chain of events with dramatic consequences.

Matthew Clairmont is a vampire, and is a thousand years old, he's been watching Diana and after she finds the manuscript supernatural creatures descend upon Oxford, and he must protect her, because the manuscript is the book they've all been looking for.

With definite shades of Twilight and the Twilight inspired 50 Shades Of Grey, Matthew and Diana fall in love, and he whisks her off to his Tudor mansion and his French Chateau, remarkably they have very little sex, they don't even properly shag til halfway through Book 2 and instead seem to drink lots of wine, like a "grown ups version of Twilight" I would have said. He does however want to ravage her but is scared he will kill in her in the throes, and shows the same pathological abusive relationship warning signs exhibited by his literary forebears Edward Cullen and Christian Grey.

Book Two takes us to Elizabethan England with two goals in mind, find the book, and let Diana learn more about her powers. But frankly, it is more of a historical romp novel in which we can all marvel at the characters of the day like Raleigh and Marlowe; that in the end actually advances the story of mysterious manuscript Ashmole 782 precisely NO FURTHER. The paradox their adventures create and the resolution of this problem is also a complete nonsense, but enjoyable nonsense indeed.

The third book is a total mess, with new characters popping up all over the place, so that you barely know who anyone is anymore "It's Leonard!" says one character "Remember Leonard?!" (NOPE!)  In fact I'm firmly convinced Leonard had never been in it before, and nor was he essential to the plot. What was the point of you Leonard?
And in the end the actually quite intriguing mystery of Ashmole 782 just gets lost in lots of silliness and romance so cheesy you could put it on toast.  

And therein I guess is my problem, it is ludicrous and I know that I should have laughed it out of town, but I just devoured all three of them. Like a sugar high, or when you can't stop eating Pringles or something. Don't say you weren't warned....


Book #30 The Art Of Fielding by Chad Harbach

The Art Of Fielding

In The Art Of Fielding, promising young baseball player Henry Skrimshander is spotted by sporty college kid Mike Schwartz, somewhat improbably for a person apparently in their second year at university, Mike has the power and influence to make sure Henry gets a scholarship to a minor New England college with a tenuous association to the novel Moby Dick. From there a novel about sports in college ensues.

In terms of the prose it flows well, and feels well written, it's not necessary to know anything much about baseball to know what is going on. The characters are in general likeable and Henry's journey from invincible to tormented can be compared to any number of successful sportsman. Alas, the problem is not prose nor characterization, but plot.

On the one hand you've got Henry's story, and all in all that side of it works well, but the blurb reads something like "when a throw goes wrong, 5 lives are changed" and the idea that they were changed simply by that ball and not by disastrous choices made by individuals themselves which aren't particularly related to the foul ball, is silly at best.

The other side of the plot-coin is the Dean, Guert, and his fractured relationship with daughter Pella, and his dangerous obsession with one of his students. On the one hand it reminded me in tone of John Williams' Stoner. On the other hand this novel is two different college stories, in which a poor effort has been made to shoehorn them into one and establish tenuous links between Guert and Pella and Henry and Mike. They just don't connect. Even the plot twist that brings this side of the story to crisis point doesn't hold much water and feels quite forced. The denouement, after a character passes away, belongs in a much lesser, much more melodramatic novel

That said, did I enjoy it as I read it? Yes. It was only after I closed the book, and thought about writing a review that it just seemed faulty somehow. And it didn't 'stay with me' as other recommendations assured me it would. I am behind with the blog and read this in August and I had to look up what some of the characters names were because I just didn't remember.