Sunday, 16 November 2014

Book #42 Rage Against The Dying by Becky Masterman

Rage Against The Dying

The way I pick books is often planned, I either know an author has something coming out or I hear about it and mentally list it, or it gets directly recommended. Sometimes though I like to roll the dice and do a lucky dip, then the reasons I pick a book become quite random, and instead of judging the book by its cover I tend to give a book a go on the strength of its title, quite often, as in this case, knowing literally nothing about the book.  The last time I did this was for 'In Tearing Haste' which is what led to my obsession with the Mitford family.

In this case the title is taken from the famous Dylan Thomas poem Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night recently used in the script of the film Interstellar. I actually eventually chose it based on watching a woman engrossed in it on a step in Trafalgar Square.

Something of an Alas! occurred upon the discovery that it was a crime thriller, which as I mentioned in my review of Cuckoo's Calling is really not my genre, because of general predictability problems. I bought it anyway. In some respects I was grateful for it, as I am coming off an intense novel currently embargoed til February, and so it acted as something of a palette cleanser.

We meet a man assessing an elderly woman as a potential victim, before he is about to rape then kill her.

The opening of this novel almost promises to be a very different book, like the prologue was a flash of inspiration from which the writer wasn't sure where to turn. From here she steers the novel somewhat unfortunately into incredibly familiar territory not just for novels but for cop shows and films in general.

The former FBI agent, the serial killer she never caught, the guilt over the lost protege, the new young upstart challenging the superiors who care about career and image over case, going rogue against everyone else to solve it alone because you alone believe you are right, and <gasp> indeed you are.

There is nothing new to see here, nothing at all, and yet for that it was both engaging, and highly readable, at no point did I feel like tossing it aside incomplete. There were a few sentences that I highlighted because I thought they were pretty great expressions of certain things. An easy and undemanding read which reminded me greatly of the early Kay Scarpetta novels by Patricia Cornwell before they slid down the mediocrity slope and became utterly unappealing.    

It read as if it had been built for a film adaptation too, and I wouldn't be surprised to see it appear on a big screen near you. A sequel lands in the new year, having read the synopsis my reaction was an instant 'no thanks' and yet I'm not sorry I read this one at all.  As a writer you can see in those little sentences I enjoyed that she has a lot of potential, which will be wasted if she goes further down these very well trodden roads.


Sunday, 2 November 2014

Book #41 The First Fifteen Lives Of Harry August by Claire North

The First Fifteen Lives Of Harry August

In The First Fifteen Lives Of Harry August our eponymous hero is a kalachakra, an ouroboron. (someone who when they die is reborn to the same life over and over) After suffering several lives filled with confusion, false diagnosis of insanity, and becoming prey to those who would know the future, Harry is found by the Cronus Club, a secret society, which protects those who are not "linear" from everyone else. They have one rule, don't intervene, don't change the course of history, it's been tried before and it led to disaster. But a message is being whispered from the future, the world is ending, can the kalachakra stop it?  

I have been reading as long as I can remember and over the years must have read thousands of books.
Since the advent of my blog in 2011, I have read at a rough count 304 books, the majority of which were fiction novels with a few exceptions per year. I would say that split across the reviews the average score per book is about a 7. A few have achieved the ignominy of a Zero, or perhaps worse, a 2, and approximately 10% of the books I've read have received a 10/10.

Among these there is a Super Group, a Clique, the Creme de la Creme, an elite to which many aspire but few are chosen.  If I refine my terms to only books read since 2011, this group contains Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, The Song Of Achilles by Madeline Miller, The End Of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas, Genus by Jonathan Trigell and The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness. These are books which kept me awake all night, books I thought were genius, books I envied the writers for having written, books which I felt were somehow written just for me, and particularly in the case of The Crane Wife books which triggered deep personal and emotional reactions.

At roughly 2am this morning, as I cursed my iPad for having found itself on 1% and I still had 100 pages left to go, The First Fifteen Lives Of Harry August by Claire North joined their ranks.
I don't quite know how to explain fully just how good this book is, how much I loved it and why. It blew my mind. I thought it was incredible, brilliant, amazing and every other superlative thereof. I highlighted one line sentences, I highlighted full paragraphs, I got involved with the plot to an unreasonable degree, I stayed up with it as long as I could, I was engrossed in it, at times had physical feelings of excitement or anxiety. At first the central premise is not dissimilar to Kate Atkinson's Life After Life, but the books could not diverge more in terms of plot and style. They are completely different. But God, this book is great.

Ultimately, I think what I liked best was the secret society angle, that these individuals stand outside of the world as experienced by the "linear", but support one another; the implied criticism of psychiatry, and the blurred lines between theology/philosophy and quantum physics as the kalachakra search for the meaning behind their existence. 

I had a little niggle in that one character has this deep antipathy to the Cronus Club and the reasons for this are never explained. Was he ever a member? What happened? And if not how did he survive without them? It's not a problem that we don't find out, I just really wanted to know. 

I was also curious about the butterfly effect, the kalachakra believe inaction is the right response to complexity so established events, almost as in Doctor Who, must remain fixed. However each of them do different things with each life they are gifted. Medical training in one life, law in another, different wives, different lovers that kind of thing, how do these changes not ultimately change the course of history in infinite and complex ways?

I'd love to ask the author about this, who in fact is an established author called Catherine Webb, also sometimes known as Kate Griffin and not in fact Claire North, which hot on the heels of Robert Galbraith, does make me wonder what the point of such pseudonyms ultimately is!

Verdict : 10/10 - DO buy this book, DO read it, it's the best book I've read this year.

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 to that world. It feels slightly satirical, mocking and inauthentic.

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 an 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 and instead her friend Harold Acton wrote a biography. Later, her sister 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, who was the executor of Nancy's estate, 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