Thursday, 30 June 2011

Book #54 There But For The by Ali Smith

There But For The

This book had two five star reviews on Amazon and has an interesting premise, that's why I chose it. Apparently it was also well reviewed by The Guardian. A couple in Greenwich hold a dinner party, one of their guests Mark brings a friend Miles, between the main course and the sweet, Miles locks himself in the spare room and refuses to leave, this lasts for days, then weeks then months.

The blurb of the book says :

Imagine you give a dinner party and a friend of a friend brings a stranger to your house as his guest.

He seems pleasant enough.

Imagine that this stranger goes upstairs halfway through the dinner party and locks himself in one of your bedrooms and won't come out.

Imagine you can't move him for days, weeks, months. If ever.

So, this is the question, and the people this happens to are Genevieve and Eric Lee (Gen and Eric - ooo isn't THAT clever....? Sigh.) Gen and Eric and Miles are the people that are caught in this event, but we do not hear from them. The novel is split into four sections 'There' 'But', 'For' and 'The' and each section focuses on a different character.

'There' introduces Anna who is summoned to Greenwich by Genevieve after she finds Anna's email on Miles' phone, but Anna hasn't seen Miles in nearly twenty years and cannot do anything for Genevieve and cannot explain why he had her email address.

'But' gives us Mark Palmer, the man responsible for bringing Miles to the dinner party but he barely knows him either.

'For' gives us Mary, the most connection she has to Miles is that he still remembers the anniversary of her long dead daughter Jennifer, and visits her or sends a card once a year.

'The' ends the novel with Brooke and the perspective on events of a nine year old who attended the dinner party with parents.

The 'But' section told in the third person about Mark recounts in minute detail the events of the dinner party. Gen, Eric and their friends are revealed to be patronising, self important fools who invited Mark because he was homosexual (my, how interesting) and Brooke's parents because they were black (how disappointing that they were not from Africa, as was thought, but Harrogate) On previous occasions they had included a Jewish and a Palestinian family at one of their soirees. (so entertaining) The dinner party conversation, a long, or it felt long section basically amounts to reading about a group of insufferable people having insufferable conversations. If I had been attending this dinner party I would have made an excuse and left, and that's what I wanted to do with this book, leave. If this book is making any social comment it is about privileged white people looking down their noses at minorities and using them for a curiosity and entertainment value. The fact that the characters are so dislikeable makes it thoroughly unpleasant reading.

In addition, the rest of the book is quite random. We are introduced to elderly Mary in her hospital bed, and are told her story, and you spend the majority of her section wondering who she is, how she connects, and when you discover why she does, what the hell it has to do with anything. Mark's section is random too, a hodge-podge of his inner thoughts and rhymed conversations with his dead mother (Irritating) and then Brooke, the written equivalent of a precocious child talking at you incessantly for a very long time about nothing. Intensely irritating. Waffle.

The really frustrating part of this book is that the true story rests with the characters Gen, Eric and Miles and we hear NOTHING from them. The psychology of an event such as this, the effect of an intruder within your personal home, your space who won't leave, and the psychology of a  man who feels the need to do this, the inner workings of his mind whilst isolated in a spare room, are NOT EXPLORED WHATSOEVER. And that is not only what would make the book intriguing, but is also what it falsely purports to be about.  Even the introductory section with Anna involves much pointless waffle. 

Also, I refuse to believe that the Lee's would have allowed the situation to continue as interminably as they did for the sake of an expensive door. I refuse to believe that the Community Mental Health Services wouldn't have intervened very early on, or at least that the police wouldn't have taken more action than simply knocking on the door. The ending is also a waste of time, a TOTAL anticlimax.

Ridiculously exasperating this novel is without a doubt the worst I have read on this challenge. Pretentious and the worst case of Emperor's New Clothes I have EVER seen. 0/10

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Book #53 The Suspicions Of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale

The Suspicions Of Mr Whicher Or The Murder At Road Hill House

Winner of The Galaxy Book Of The Year, British Book Awards 2009, Winner of the BBC Four Samuel Johnson Prize and Shortlisted for The Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger, this book has considerable pedigree. It was also A Richard and Judy Number One Bestseller, but never mind.

In a nice, middle class family, with a nice middle class home in June 1860, a toddler vanishes from his bed in the middle of the night. His bloodied, brutalised corpse is discovered the following day, but who did it? And why?

The Murder At Road Hill House isn't just A Locked Room Mystery, of the sort you see in many Agatha Christie novels or the sort you compete to solve when you play a game of Cluedo. It is THE Locked Room Mystery. The original real-life crime, which inspired popular detective fiction of the era, and the impact of which is still felt in crime fiction today. For those who don't know what is meant by Locked Room Mystery, it is now the fodder of Murder Mystery Weekends. A murder occurs in a country house, the doors were locked for the night, the only possible culprit has to have resided in the house that evening. It's been seen in Poirot, Marple, Doctor Who and even most recently in Steig Larsson's The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo albeit on a grander scale. In the case of Road Hill House, there was no elaborate dinner party involving a vicar, a disgruntled nephew, and a wealthy American socialite; just the Kent family, a husband and wife, seven children and a few servants.     

Jack Whicher was among a new breed of plain clothes detectives recently established by Scotland Yard sent to Wiltshire to help solve the crime, but the locals and the nation at large reject his findings. What emerges is an astonishing picture of just how fallible and frankly rubbish the early judiciary system was in Britain. To question someone of good social standing or class, or of an age or gender that would be unseemly, is considered an affront to decency regardless of grounds, but it is the class system that truly is an over-riding factor. In addition, public speculation was apparently encouraged with any Tom Dick or Harry across the nation as a whole believing they had the right to have a say on the case. Juror meetings were held in public, cross examination was ridiculously biased, and the press were allowed a veritable free-for-all on editorial comment.

The utter lack of respect for the legal process is breathtaking, and Summerscale comments at length at the way in which though Mr Whicher had his suspicions, the nation had its suspicions of Whicher. The very existence of a plain clothes force was again considered an affront to decency, the privacy of the Englishman and his home were at stake. These values apparently worth more than the advantages of modern progress in crime solving. Following the Road Hill House case Whicher finds himself a laughing stock and his career is ruined. Whilst fictional detectives of the type written by Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens surged in popularity their real-life counterparts were considered 'vile' and 'grubby'.

Where this non fiction book succeeds is in the way in which it brings the story of The Kent Family in the earlier half of the book to life, almost but not quite in the manner of a Victorian novel. Where it slightly falters are the moments in which it begins to read like a PhD thesis, and becomes a bit dry and academic. What is certain though is the phenomenal amount of research and background work Summerscale has put into this book, and the respect it deserves for breathing new life into an old but highly influential tale. 9/10

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Book #52 Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

Case Histories

The second female writer I have chosen is Kate Atkinson who rose to public notice when her debut novel 'Behind The Scenes At The Museum' won The Whitbread Book Of The Year. This novel, Case Histories, is the first of (currently) four Jackson Brodie novels in which the protagonist is an ex-soldier, ex cop and at the start of this novel, a private investigator. It came to my attention through its recent enjoyable adaptation on the BBC, which was an adaptation of this novel and subsequent Brodie novels One Good Turn and When Will There Be Good News? as a six part series. I'm something of a purist, and though I've seen the adaptation, I don't feel I can read new novel 'Started Early, Took My Dog' until I have read the three preceding novels.

The novel introduces us to three old unsolved cases, that Jackson has been approached with to investigate:   

The first is the disappearance of Olivia Land who vanished aged 3 in the 1970's from the family garden, and was never found.

The second is the shock murder of 18 year old Laura Wyre, ten years previously, for whom no killer nor motive could be found.

And the third is a guilt ridden woman searching for her sisters long lost child.

What is interesting is that all three cases are women and 'Lost Girls' seem something of a recurrent theme for Brodie, who himself has an unresolved case of a lost girl in his own life.

What is slightly off-putting when you do see an adaptation first is the differences between the TV and the book, there are subtle differences in each case, but the two most glaring differences are the end of the story (for Jackson) and its setting which, thoroughly Scottish in adaptation is located in Cambridge in the book. This makes some sense though as the two following novels relocate to Edinburgh, so the adaptation just moves all three books there. I did find it interesting whilst watching it, that in the first two episodes which show the stories of Case Histories; all Jackson's clients are clearly English and not just English and living in Scotland, but this goes unremarked on. This is a fault of the series not the book though, which is true to its setting.

It is difficult not to write a review that merely compares book to show, as this is the immediate thought. Unfortunately having seen the show I knew the outcome of each case. In many ways this didn't matter, what is great about Case Histories is that it is neither a crime novel nor solely contemporary literary fiction, crossing both categories admirably. A well written contemporary novel that happens to feature the investigation of mysteries. Perhaps the Land girls story is a cliche, and perhaps Jackson realises what kind of suspect killed Laura Wyre too quickly but he is an ex cop and ex army. The overall novel is very well written and held together nicely by the characterisation of Jackson himself, an extremely likeable man. If you didn't see the series, good as it was, I think you are lucky as you get to view the cases with fresh eyes, enjoy the story and then get the DVD and enjoy watching scary Lucius Malfoy (Jason Isaacs) become smouldering Jackson Brodie.

The ending of Case Histories seems to suggest that further Brodie novels were not planned, but perhaps Atkinson like the reader, finds Jackson Brodie a little hard to resist. I look forward to reading the other novels particularly recent new novel 'Started Early, Took My Dog' 8/10

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Book #51 The Ninth Life Of Louis Drax by Liz Jensen

The Ninth Life Of Louis Drax

My first selection in my challenge to showcase some female authors comes from Liz Jensen, suggested to me by one of my Twitter followers. Of her novels, I decided upon The Ninth Life Of Louis Drax, because I liked the title, and because I was afraid that recent novel The Rapture might bear too much similarity in topic to Justin Cronin's The Passage.

Louis Drax is a 9 year old French boy and self-labelled "Disturbed Child". Called Wacko Boy at school his mother sends him to a therapist to whom he feeds outrageous lies, so that he won't have to tell him the things that are really disturbing him. Louis addresses the reader in the first person and has a very distinctive narrative voice, of a child who psychologically just somehow isn't right.

Suddenly and unexpectedly the book introduces a second narrator Pascal Dannachet, a Doctor reflecting upon his treatment of Louis. It emerges that the cocky, funny, troubled Louis we have been introduced to has been in a terrible accident, and is comatose.

We do not lose Louis' voice however, the point-of-view narrative switching from Pascal to Louis' world inside his coma, where he has begun his ninth life. To begin with, Louis is just a new and interesting patient to Pascal but suddenly he finds himself drawn into a seductive web of psychological deceit and supernatural occurrences.

This is a really good book, with an outcome you feel like you should have seen coming but didn't, as secrets are revealed and then revealed to be twisted, it becomes all the more compelling. Though the Pascal segments work better than the "Louis in the coma" segments, the latter are still worthwhile. It is layered, tense, and an interesting examination of human behaviour, both from a point of view of child psychology, and the psychology of a doctor with a need to save. I felt perhaps that the very quick blurring of professional doctor/relative boundaries was unrealistic but the resulting situation works well in its impact on all elements of the novel. 

What is really good about this novel is its accessibility and its ability to have universal appeal, I think whatever style of novels you read, there is a place for The Ninth Life Of Louis Drax among your purchases.

I liked Pascal, and was particularly moved at his closing remarks, still envisioning ways in which he can save Louis, a boy who perhaps never wanted to be saved....

I have a very high opinion of this novel, and read it quickly and compulsively  9/10

Reflections at the Halfway Point

On completing Nigel Farndale's 'The Blasphemer' I have now reached 50 books and am officially halfway through the challenge. I have made it to 50 before the end of the first 6 months and am slightly ahead of myself now. As far as the challenge has been going for me, May was particularly difficult, I realised that I was slightly behind and towards the end of May became stressed out about needing to read to keep the pace going. Reading because of necessity rather than desire can somewhat spoil your enjoyment of the book, so the challenge has had to a degree that effect, though June has been much calmer.

I have noted however that of the 50 books I have read just TWELVE have been written by female authors, as a woman with writing aspirations I feel I must remedy this forthwith and have set myself a challenge within a challenge to make sure that the next 10 books I read are by women. This resolve however may be jeopardised by the forthcoming release of the fifth A Song Of Ice And Fire book, George R.R Martin's 'A Dance With Dragons' on 12th July. Which gives me 17 days to read 10 books. Pressure.

In terms of the Don't Read That Read This aspect the Top 10 Read This books would be as follows:

1) A Game Of Thrones (and then its sequels)
2) The Vintner's Luck
3) Lady Chatterley's Lover
4) The Things They Carried
5) My Antonia
6) Rivers Of London
7) A Monster Calls
8) The Art Of Racing In The Rain
9) Physics Of The Impossible
10) The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks

In the Don't Read That Corner - Top 10

1) The Obelisk
2) Crow Country
3) The Good Man Jesus and The Scoundrel Christ
4) The Year Of Magical Thinking
5) The Patience Stone
6) Joe Gould's Secret
7) The Girl With Glass Feet
8) The Blasphemer
9) The New York Trilogy
10) One Day

with everything else falling somewhere in between the two and being classified as average.

Anyhow enough typing, back to reading. Let us see what the female authors I've chosen have to say for themselves. Here come the girls.

Book #50 The Blasphemer by Nigel Farndale

The Blasphemer

The Blasphemer by Nigel Farndale was shortlisted for the 2010 Costa Book Award, and frankly, it rather beats me as to how that happened. It isn't that it is a BAD book, dreadful to read or anything like that; it's a book which if it were a person would suffer from multiple personality disorder. It doesn't seem to know what it is, or what it wants to be. There are about five storylines:

1) Daniel and Nancy go on an exotic holiday for their anniversary and events permanently change their  relationship.

2) Andrew, a young soldier fights in WW1, whilst his grandson Philip tries to piece together his story

3) Wetherby, an embittered, pious, dried up academic seeks to destroy a colleagues career out of jealousy and spite 

4) Hamdi, an innocent Muslim teacher is labelled as a 'clean-skin' and potential terrorist by the Security Services when he is accidentally caught up in a demonstration.

5) Martha, an overly mature 9 year old, begins behaving oddly and then goes missing.

The link between all these strands is Daniel: Philip is his father, Martha his daughter, Hamdi her teacher and Wetherby his colleague. But it just doesn't work. What frustrated me whilst reading this book is that each strand, taken alone, is a brilliant premise for a novel.

The first storyline could have been a brilliant examination of the effect of a being a disaster survivor upon a relationship, the second a great historical novel about love, cowardice and the folly of war. The third a creepy, atmospheric tale about a sinister saboteur who sets out to destroy an oblivious friend. The fourth a commentary about the treatment of Muslims in a post 9/11 and 7/7 world, and the last a look at the modern world in which parents live in a culture of fear with regard to child safety.

Instead, the novel is none and all of these things, an awful mish-mash of half ideas, concepts imagined and left hanging. It really feels as though Farndale started five separate novels, got writers block and in the end just bunged them all together. It's really odd, and feels like not just a wasted opportunity but five wasted opportunities. Particularly, I felt, in the character of Wetherby alone there was real potential for deep character development and a dark psychological thriller, in the vein of Ian McEwan's Enduring Love or Zoe Heller's Notes On A Scandal, but this does not occur. 

In addition there is an examination of faith versus atheism underpinning the novel, but this again feels 'thrown in for good measure', underdeveloped and lacking in anything new to say. The end twist involving Hamdi does raise a small smile, but then the epilogue feels superfluous after this denouement.

One of the reasons I bought this novel was because of the amount of 5 star reviews it had on Amazon, which, I must say I'm a bit baffled by. One reviewer on Amazon said this :
Farndale has been compared by many to Sebastian Faulks; both for his descriptions of WW1 and tying together contemporary themes, such as fundamantalism, (sic) science and faith. Having read both 'Birdsong' and 'One week in December' (sic), I think The Blasphemer does it better.
There is NO comparison in my eyes between this book and the sublime Birdsong, or between Farndale and Faulks. I find myself slightly horrified by the suggestion. I feel like she should wash her mouth out to be honest, as should any of these 'many' making comparisons. Yes, I thought 'A Week In December' was dreadful, but that book is the exception to my experience with Faulks as a writer. Faulks, at least, takes one idea and develops it, whereas Farndale can't seem to decide what the hell he wants his book to be about. There are some ridiculous 'as if' coincidences at the end too, such as the conclusion of the Wetherby storyline and the Martha storyline.

A book of opportunities wasted, I'm going to give this 5/10 a point for every great novel it could so easily have been.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Book #49 Dolores Claiborne by Stephen King

Dolores Claiborne

I have been asking a variety of people to recommend me books and particularly their favourite books so I can, if I haven't already read them, include them in the blog. This was my friend Jimmy's pick, and he has insisted I read Dolores Claiborne to the point of harassment, I faithfully promised I would, and now, eventually, have fulfilled that promise.

My problem I suppose, and the reason I delayed reading it is from certain prejudices I hold against Stephen King. I'm not a horror fan, I think the real world is scary enough, I know a lot of people who read King read him because they want to be scared, but frankly it doesn't take a whole lot to scare me.
In my university years, a group of us watched shark B-movie thriller 'Deep Blue Sea', I jumped so often that afterwards my friends said watching me watch Deep Blue Sea was more fun than watching the actual film. Another problem with Stephen King is that many of his books have entered popular culture in such a way that you already "know" their story. How many people don't know the ending of Carrie? How many people don't know what Misery is about, or The Shining, or know that when you say a dog is like 'Cujo' that you mean he resembles King's canine? It's almost like you don't need to read the books, even if you haven't seen the adaptations.

I'm a little bit prejudiced too against his output, he has in his 38 year career written 49 novels, more than one a year, it seems a case (maybe) of quantity over quality, the unfortunate consequence of popularity being high demand for new material...despite not being a fan, or really a regular reader, I had somewhat labelled him in my mind as a 'churns them out on a conveyer belt for the cash' writer. Perhaps I have no right to say so having read so little of his work, but one of my best friends who has read nearly all of his books assures me that the quality of his recent work pales in comparison to his early novels.

Prior to Dolores Claiborne, I had read 'The Green Mile' (later a Tom Hanks vehicle) and 'Different Seasons' - a non horror short story collection which gave birth to the films: The Shawshank Redemption, Apt Pupil and Stand By Me. My overall verdict was that each film adaptation was better than the writing it came from, and I'm pretty much somebody who says the book always beats the film (with certain exceptions like The Godfather, and, somewhat controversially, The Lord Of The Rings)

It was many years later that I started the Dark Tower Series, a series of seven books with a legion of ardent fans. It begins with The Gunslinger, a dark post apocalyptic novel which is beyond a doubt a fantastic book. If a book, or its imagery lives in your mind long afterward then it is a fantastic book. Unfortunately, I was less impressed with the second and third novels The Drawing Of The Three, and  The Waste Lands, and the fourth book Wizard and Glass lost me entirely, on the grounds that I felt it was over-blown and given that from the first three novels we already knew much about the fall of Gilead,  I felt that venturing into Roland's past was to tell a story with an already established outcome.
Stylistically, I felt that the flashbacks should perhaps have been punctuated by the ongoing journey story with the four main leads, as it would have prevented the book from dragging as much.

I haven't entirely written Stephen King off, the book I hear people most praise is The Stand, and I have that book ready and willing to be read. I came to Dolores Claiborne (through Jimmy)  first though, and with no real idea of what to expect.

The book is written in monologue form, its protagonist Dolores, is being interviewed by the police regarding the death of her employer, and the words are entirely "her own". There is no descriptive prose and it features no dialogue from the three people in the room with her. Dolores is the storyteller, they, are her audience.

The narrative voice succeeds well, an elderly housekeeper who though not particularly educated is wily, bitchy, and has a don't-give-a-fuck attitude. The kind of cantankerous old biddy you wouldn't want to cross. It sounds authentic and effortless, as though King has a good ear for picking up the rhythm of the older woman who likes to tell a good story.

The story itself is pretty simple, told in the present and the past Dolores talks of the difficulties of working for a demanding and bitchy boss, and of how the two came to be kindred spirits in more ways than one. The story flicks between the two, when Dolores first began working for Vera as a pregnant young wife, and her days as her carer and companion at the end of her life.  It is really two stories as well..the story of how demanding it is to be a carer and the story of how suffocating a bad marriage to a bad husband can be. Despite this, the story holds few surprises, the problems in Dolores's marriage are the usual cliches and Vera's early characterisation as the wealthy domineering boss is cliched too.
What is quite heartwarming is the way in which these two women become the glue that holds the other together, and the way in which they keep each others secrets.

It's a short book, and an easy read. I enjoyed it, but I don't think it's a extraordinary book. I'm glad I read it, it has a potboiler quality that sort of drags you in. It's a page turner, but it doesn't make waves with any originality, except for perhaps in the very well executed use of the monologue form.

Can't decide between a 6/7 out of 10

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Book #48 The Portable Door by Tom Holt

The Portable Door

The Portable Door by Tom Holt was recommended to me by several followers on my Twitter account as a good fun fantasy novel, and a good introduction to Holt himself a writer these followers liked.

In The Portable Door, following what appears to be the world's oddest and most disastrous job interviews Paul and Sophie are appointed as junior clerks to J.W Wells & Co. From the start, their office is odd, and they can't really quite make out what it is that the company does....

I think I need to say again, that fantasy isn't really my thing, I've never been into Pratchett or his peers, and the closest I've come to really loving a fantasy novel is Neil Gaiman's American Gods, which, in theory, I loved more for its interesting philosophical questions than any fantasy element. Anyone I've ever recommended that book to has likewise been very impressed with it.

However, Jen recently recommended me the 'A Song Of Ice And Fire' Series which I read in April and are reviewed in this blog. I now consider myself a massive fan of the series. So, when the TV series began in the States, and a review in the New York Times by Ginia Bellafante said :
The true perversion, though, is the sense you get that all of this illicitness has been tossed in as a little something for the ladies, out of a justifiable fear, perhaps, that no woman alive would watch otherwise. While I do not doubt that there are women in the world who read books like Mr. Martin’s, I can honestly say that I have never met a single woman who has stood up in indignation at her book club and refused to read the latest from Lorrie Moore unless everyone agreed to “The Hobbit” first. “Game of Thrones” is boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population’s other half.
 I was INCENSED by what I saw as horrifying sexism, and also by its implication that the incest subplot was particularly attractive to women, whereas I have known women to cease reading the novel because of the storyline. I hated the implication that women, or rather normal women, could not or should not enjoy A Song Of Ice And Fire or fantasy novels in general.

Therefore it pains me to say that to a certain degree I felt that The Portable Door was a decidedly male novel. In my head, its average reader, is a man, possibly spotty, who does a mundane day job, probably in computing, has difficulties socially, and potentially lives with his parents and/or has a large collection of comics. I've been involved with a man not unlike that, and it's him I see as the target audience for this novel. On the other hand, I am a woman who owns a Spiderman hoodie, loves superhero movies and knows far more about computers than I do about either make up or shoes. So, this leaves me a bit torn, I am possibly guilty of as big a sin as Miss Bellafante by considering this book "male". In the end I have to say that there's something in the narrative voice that makes me feel that way, something that isn't present in A Song Of Ice And Fire, like Holt, in his mind, has a solely male audience too.

I didn't particularly like either awkward, slightly neurotic Paul, or rude, abrasive Sophie and that's a problem, considering they are the 'leads' in the novel. I think it also suffers from my having read it in too close a proximity to Rivers Of London and Moon Over Soho. Those books deal with a magic department within the Metropolitan Police and The Portable Door is about a company dealing in magic, so there is some similarity, but the former are just better books.

Where I DID like it though, was really, when it got going, and Paul and Sophie discover more and more about the organisation in which they work. There's magic, and goblins and a pretty decent mystery going on. Paul gets sexually harrassed by his boss's Mum, and that's quite a fun subplot.

Another criticism is that I wondered why it always seems necessary in some novels to have a romance between the protagonists, a man and a woman never seem able to be just mates with a really great friendship or working partnership. It sort of leaves you thinking : "You're going to get together anyway, so just get together now and let's have done and get on with the rest of the story".

When reviewing Moon Over Soho, I mentioned that its "current" vibe may inevitably date it. In this novel Holt references Esther Rantzen's chat show and "Cilla's Blind Date" neither of which have been broadcast in about ten years, the references aren't strictly necessary either and I think its something writers need to consider. Although, there is nothing worse than what Sebastian Faulks did in 'A Week In December' where he invents new names for things you recognise from popular culture such as calling the Costa Award by some other name or calling MySpace "YourPlace", so you know what he's actually referring to but the name is all wrong, terribly annoying and pointless. That's a terrible book anyway avoid it like the plague.

In the end, I warmed to The Portable Door, after say the first third, once the action got underway. At the end of the day, I'm a sucker for magic, and that's what saved it, but I am incredibly torn in my overall opinion. Ultimately, there are two further books in The Portable Door story, 'In Your Dreams' and 'Earth, Air, Fire and Custard'. As with Shikasta and The Crystal Cave, I'm interested enough to eventually read the follow ups to see how it all turns out but not so interested that I'll be rushing immediately to do so, the way that I did with A Song Of Ice And Fire.

There was one quote I particularly liked regarding the perils of dealing with people who know magic and that was:
The very worst your kind can do to each other is kill someone. That's practically Vegan when you consider what we get up to sometimes. 

Overall my reaction to the book was mixed and I think I'll only give it a 6/10

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Poem #4 A Thunderstorm In Town by Thomas Hardy

This months poem comes from Thomas Hardy a writer I DETESTED when studying his collected poems at A Level and then fell in love with through his novels 'Far From The Madding Crowd' and 'Tess of the D'Urbervilles'.

Although I didn't enjoy his poetry as a whole, I did like this one :

A Thunderstorm In Town
She wore a 'terra-cotta' dress,
And we stayed, because of the pelting storm,
Within the hansom's dry recess,
Though the horse had stopped; yea, motionless
We sat on, snug and warm.

Then the downpour ceased, to my sharp sad pain,
And the glass that had screened our forms before
Flew up, and out she sprang to her door:
I should have kissed her if the rain
Had lasted a minute more. 
It reminds me of those moments in life we have when we almost chance
something, and fate conspires against us.

Book #47 Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch

Moon Over Soho

Another day, another vampire novel. I'm honestly not seeking them out, they're everywhere these days, a little hard to avoid, and in this case, the book is the recently published sequel to the recently reviewed Rivers Of London.

This book picks up where the last left off with bumbling PC and apprentice wizard Peter Grant investigating an unfortunate series of crimes involving 'vagina dentata' in one plot and the unexpected deaths of jazz musicians in the other. Again, I enjoyed its easily engaging style, a little tongue-in-cheek with a likeable, self-deprecating lead.

Unfortunately, I had a problem. I solved the mystery VERY early on in terms of one of the plots. I don't know whether this is a consequence of being somebody who reads a lot, writes and watches a lot of films, making me somebody who understands a lot about how stories work, and patterns writers use or whether it was just genuinely obvious, and would be to anyone, particularly anyone who'd read the first book. Books still do surprise me, particularly recently George R.R Martin's A Storm Of Swords, so perhaps a book that can't or doesn't surprise you is an example of lazy or poor writing.

These books aren't serious crime novels, more romps and light-hearted escapism. Maybe they oughtn't be more challenging in their mysteries, because they aren't that sort of book, the reader is pretty much along for the ride, but it was quite disappointing. Inept as Peter Grant may be, even he should have realised far sooner than he did. The originality shown in Rivers Of London is still present but the concept of the story is let down by the execution. It seems a little ridiculous to accuse a fantasy novel of lacking realism, but a fantasy story should at least be believable within its own framework.

Another thing with both Rivers Of London and Moon Over Soho is that they feel very current, there are references to iPads and Twitter, but this is a dangerous thing to do if you seek to write a book that proves timeless. Popular culture references date books badly, in twenty years will young readers know what these are? I doubt that an 18 year old today reading a older book that might reference such technological wonders as the ZX Spectrum or the Acorn Electron would have the foggiest clue what they were like. (Showing my age!)

One of the books strengths though is the feeling that you get that Aaronovitch, beneath the vampires, the magicians and the strange women with teeth in their vagina loves London and is in part writing a love letter to the city, there's something very endearing about that.

The problem with this book essentially is: although it had vampires, AND a woman with teeth in her vagina, it lacked any real bite whatsoever. The thing is I like Nightingale and Grant, I like the world Aaronovitch has created, and would consider it a foregone conclusion that I will read the third in the series 'Whispers Under Ground', to be published sometime next year. I like the world he's created enough to overlook the flaws. It reminds me slightly of when I was disappointed in Harry Potter and The Chamber Of Secrets but went on to read all the other books in the series anyway, because Rowling "had me" with the first book. Later books proved much better and I'm hoping this will be the case with this series too.

Just please Mr Aaronovitch, give me a genuine mystery I can (pardon the pun) get my teeth into, next time! 6/10

Monday, 13 June 2011

Book #46 In A Strange Room by Damon Galgut

In A Strange Room

In A Strange Room was a runner up alongside C, Room, The Long Song, and Parrot and Olivier in America, for the 2010 Man Booker Prize eventually won by Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question which I reviewed earlier in the challenge.

Although it is a novel it feels strangely unlike one. The protagonist is a South African writer, also named Damon, although this is a work of fiction, the character and the writer share their story. It bears more comparison to Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried however than to Paul Auster's New York Trilogy, which is a blessing. Like those two books, this novel also feels more like connected short stories than a traditional novel. Again, as with those books I started it with no idea what it was about. Metafiction, and I believe this counts, seems to be following me.

The story or rather stories, are travel stories, tapping into the new culture of going travelling, taking a gap year or going off to India to find oneself, which has so very nearly become a cliche. In these stories, Galgut exams the experience of the solo traveller, who by necessity almost, becomes involved in the lives of other travellers met along the road, and the potential artificiality or depth of those short-lived intimacies.

Each story has a different title, 'The Follower', 'The Lover' and 'The Guardian' and it seems to me that Galgut examines the different selves you become around different people, either by the role you play in their life or the self you make yourself be to fit in with them. It also makes the clear point that the relationships you create via travelling become unsustainable in the real world, or will break down under the pressures of existing in a foreign land. The moral of the tale is almost travel and friendship don't mix, and also that the friendships you leave behind are damaged by the alterations that take place within you during experiences they haven't shared. There is really something rather bleak about the story, but it is still a good story.

Damon meets Reiner in Greece, unable to define the parameters of their relationship, the two succumb to a damaging power struggle. He meets three Swiss friends in Zimbabwe and travels through Africa with them and is again damaged by his inability to express his feelings and seize the moment. In the final story, Damon takes old friend Anna to India seeking to improve her mental state, when things take a dramatic turn. The stories are by no means underwritten, but they are sparsely told, allowing for a lot of reading between the lines. Damon seems to constantly travel, unable to settle, looking for something, but wherever he goes, there he is, as the saying goes, his location changes but he doesn't, continuing to make attachments that can't or won't last. The stories are much more about his psyche than any of the destinations he visits.

The odd thing about the style was that the narrative voice mostly spoke in the third person but occasionally switched to the first, giving the impression that he is viewing his own actions remotely from afar. This has a very haunting quality, as though Galgut both has and hasn't the power to control events, a passing traveller within his own story, just as he is through all these countries. Rather, it should have been 'odd' but I quite liked it.

I'm not sure it's Booker winner worthy, but I did prefer it to both Room, for which I had misgivings and The Finkler Question whose comic status I question. I can imagine myself recommending this to people as interesting short stories that examine the complexities and frailties of human relationships; or to someone who has perhaps returned from lengthy overseas travel and feels rather disillusioned.

It is short, and I had it read in under 2 hours, but I liked the feel of it and admired the writing 7/10

*I would very much appreciate it if somebody could tell me why this post is so popular it has been viewed almost 700 times as of the end of September 2011*

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Book #45 The Passage by Justin Cronin

The Passage

The Passage, is really very much a game of two halves. It attracted me as a book in Waterstones due to the blurb on the back of it, which reads thus:

Amy Harper Bellafonte is six years old and her mother thinks she's the most important person in the whole world. She is.

Anthony Carter doesn't think he could ever be in a worse place than Death Row. He's wrong.

FBI agent Brad Wolgast thinks something beyond imagination is coming. It is.

Intriguing no?

Set in the not-too-distant future, (Jenna Bush is namechecked as Governor of Texas) the US Government organises a biological experiment to create "super-soldiers" and inadvertently cause an Apocalypse, in which Zombie/Vampire hybrid types take over converting humans into one of their own - once the bite has taken hold. Though technically they are Vampires, the human conversion via virus scenario is typical of Zombie stories.

What is slightly odd about this book is that we get a pre-Apocalypse storyline involving Carter, Wolgast and Bellafonte, and then an 80 year time-lapse after which we begin a post-Apocalypse new storyline with some of the last human survivors, with very little in between and a sudden loss of the story of the characters for whom we bought the book because we were intrigued by them.

This, should, technically spoil the book somewhat, and make its next two-thirds a bit annoying, but somehow the new storyline flows on, and you don't mind so much, the loose ends tidying themselves up as you go. It is a shame that there isn't much detail about the actual event in between these two stories though, although perhaps the writer felt that this sort of writing has been overdone.

I found it rather reminiscent of the recent AMC series 'The Walking Dead', the Woody Harrelson/Jesse Eisenberg vehicle 'Zombieland', and the Simon Pegg/Nick Frost vehicle 'Shaun Of the Dead',  zombie apocalypse stories apparently becoming the theme du jour. I was also reminded of the BBC series 'Survivors' which was first shown in the late Seventies and then revamped in 2009/2010 which featured a deadly virus wiping out the human population. There is something extremely ominous about this sort of story, as it encourages you to reflect on the possibility that in the case of such an event, you could become the only person you know left alive. What would you do? This is scary. One of my best friends and I have discussed more than once, what we would do in the event of a Zombie Apocalypse. (Yes, we're weird.)  Basically, you need guns, a car, petrol and access to a supermarket, although these are non-renewable resources which will eventually bottom out. Anyway, where was I?

Even though both Zombie and Vampire stories are overly present lately, this book, although at times  derivative of other media has a quality that means it remains somehow engaging. 
The Passage in terms of the tone of its prose has a clearly Americanised feel, I often find it odd that you can tell an American book by the prose, there's something in the style. It reads similarly to a American crime novel or a thriller and I often find that "tone" a bit of a turn off. Where 'The Passage' as a story, rises above its writing is in the fact that it is seriously creepy, tense and compelling. I kept "finishing for the night" and then going back "for another twenty pages", even though this is not the sort of thing I usually read.

Where the book lets itself down a little is when our survivors come into contact with other survivors and somehow I have found this to be a recurrent flaw of this type of story be it presented as book, film or TV show form. The Passage itself is an interesting title able to mean multiple things, the passage as a journey, the passage of time, and the passage from humanity to otherness.

Although I didn't "get" the decisions behind some of the plot choices near the end of the book, and felt that Cronin lacked the bravery to kill off big characters, I hear this book is a first-parter in a trilogy, in fact, the ending makes a sequel a given, and I will definitely read the follow up.

An unnerving novel. 8/10

Friday, 10 June 2011

Book #44 Night Waking by Sarah Moss

Night Waking 

Night Waking ended up on my Kindle after it was recently listed in The Guardian's "Fiction Uncovered" selection for "overlooked writers deserving greater recognition".

A couple, Anna and Giles spend time in the remote Hebridean ancestral home of Giles' family, doing up a cottage to rent for tourists, whilst Giles watches puffins for his academic research and Anna, an Oxford Fellow, attempts to write a book on the treatment of children in the 18th Century. This may sound blissful but the couple have also brought with them their demanding young children Raph and Moth. When planting trees in the garden with their boys, the couple discover the skeleton of an infant.

The story which focuses on Anna, is a reflection of the problems of modern motherhood as Anna struggles to manage childcare, housework, her book and a good nights sleep. I believe many female readers will identify with the despair of being woken at 3 am for yet another recitation of The Gruffalo. Whilst Moss shows well how the glossy picture of motherhood and its difficult realities do not match up, mothers experiencing a day to day list of menial, repetitive, tasks; the repetition of these tasks occasionally becomes a little Gruffalo-like for the reader. Giles, the husband, is shown in a nearly entirely negative way, of the careless, clueless aristocratic male who is useless unless bribed with sex to look after his own children. Whilst Anna is clearly a woman on the edge, he is lacking in depth of characterisation. His slight repression, disdain of processed food and lack of household contribution, seeming to be the sum total of his personality.   

The second strand of the story which tries to use the past to paint the picture of how the infant came to be in the garden, is interesting, but underdeveloped although it used to good effect in the story's conclusion when the last of its secrets are revealed.

I think too that this is a strikingly middle class book, with strikingly middle class, first world problems. Whether the author seeks to do this in a critical way or whether this is an accidental reflection of her own lifestyle, and she sees no irony, I am unsure. But her characters gripes like lack of internet and mobile coverage, are hard to sympathise with when they are so much more fortunate than most. I think it may appeal to the harassed professional working mother, but perhaps not, if they seek to read for escapism rather than a grim echo of their own toils.

Personally, I felt that the secondary characters, the Fairchild family, whose function really is to serve as interaction for Anna were far more interesting, their problems being more, well, like problems.  The difference being that while Anna worries that her kids aren't eating her homemade bread, Judith Fairchild is worrying that her kid, hopelessly depressed at the state of the world, isn't eating at all whilst Judith, increasingly purposeless, is descending into alcoholism.

I do think that Night Waking has its place, and isn't badly written, though it certainly didn't fly along for me. This is the second book in the challenge to use a Hebridean island as location, and I wondered whether 'Hebridean' may just be becoming an easy byword for remote, windswept, mysterious; so that writers don't really have to work on a sense of place and atmosphere. Neither though, would I say it was a terrible book or a terrible idea. It's alright, but not special. 6/10

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Book #43 The Patience Stone by Atiq Rahimi

The Patience Stone

Atiq Rahimi was awarded the Prix Goncourt, the French equivalent of The Booker in 2008 for his Afghanistan based novella The Patience Stone. The novella joins the ranks of The Bookseller Of Kabul and The Kite Runner of literature telling the stories of a country and its people often shrouded from the West hitherto the outbreak of war in 2001.

This story is the story of a couple who I have only just realised remain nameless throughout the novel as do all other characters...I think perhaps this anonymity seeks to reflect the idea of "Somewhere, A Couple" the depersonalisation seeking to amplify the potential of the universality of experience.

A young mother nurses her husband as he hovers between life and death on a mattress in one of the rooms of their house. The Afghan war rages around their neighbourhood. As the frustration and despair at her situation begins to build, the woman makes a series of personal revelations to her dying husband.

What did I think of it? Well, the point is clear. Rahimi takes the "nameless, voiceless, veiled, Afghani woman" and voices her giving her a chance to vent her frustrations at her unhappiness at her station in life. But, whilst it is true that such women exist within the culture, these women have also become something of a Western, particularly American, media cliche. Whilst it is of the imperative that such voices be heard, this, we must remember is a fictionalised voice.

The book gave me pause for thought too in the sense that it is French, with an English translation by Polly McLean whose translation I think may have harmed some of the books poetic qualities, it is never easy to be certain about translations unless you are capable of reading the book in its native tongue in order to make comparison. The reason it gave me pause for thought by being French is, that the understanding I receive from our media is that Islamophobia is high and on the rise in France, and that tolerance of Islam is fairly low. Did it win the Prix Goncourt partly because it is so critical of Afghan and Islamic lifestyles?

The revelations that the woman makes to her husband involve the use and the breaking of many things truly seen as taboo within Islam, I had to wonder whether this was an act of artistic necessity or a deliberate in-your-face attempt to court controversy and notice. I would imagine that there are many devout Muslims, male and female who would find aspects of this book and therefore possibly the book as a whole deeply, deeply offensive. 

As a reader, I felt that Rahimi succeeded in evoking a suffocating, claustrophobic atmosphere. You can almost smell the rotten stench in the mans sick room. But, sympathy for the womens plight is eroded by her whiny, erratic repetitiveness and behaviour I would classify as not only vindictive but a little  unrealistically absurd.

I didn't really enjoy reading this on any level. Sometimes even though a book is difficult, you gain something in the reading of it and that in itself is pleasurable, but this was no such experience for me. It makes me remember how I similarly did not enjoy the highly praised Kite Runner for its highly graphic depiction of child sexual abuse and found it unpleasant as a reading experience regardless of its worthiness.

I wouldn't say read this book, not unless you are terribly interested in its story or conceit. To be blunt, it's depressing. 4/10

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Book #42 Rivers Of London by Ben Aaronovitch

Rivers Of London

Ok, so, I've been on holiday for a week, not got much reading done, was pretty much a pound the streets and go-see holiday rather than a sit on your bum by the pool with a book holiday. I did try but the only book I managed to complete was Aaronovitch's Rivers Of London.

It seems that whenever I make a certain claim, a book will show up to contradict me. In this case, I was bemoaning the fact in my review of The Interpretation of Murder that the crime genre has not seen anything original in a good while despite attempts to give it a new twist. This book likewise attempts the new twist on the genre and yet somehow inexplicably pulls it off.

In Rivers Of London, Aaronovitch takes young London copper Peter Grant, whom, it is hinted at is somewhat inept, and places him at a the scene of a murder guarding it overnight alongside Lesley, a colleague he wishes to be more than just friends with, when he is approached by one Nicholas Wallpenny who claims to have witnessed the crime. During Peter's attempt to take a statement Wallpenny dematerialises revealing himself to be a ghost.

Thus begins a tale of ordinary London policing interlocked with a tale of vampires and wizard police officers, sequestration and ghosts, and a dispute between two powerful water spirits. This book shouldn't work, it really shouldn't, the crime genre, the magic genre, and the vampire genre are such well worn avenues of late that they have become truly pedestrian. With all the elements of recent popular fiction thrown in together this book should have been bad, a bit needy, trying to cover all bases and be liked. In some ways it's a bit annoying that its not, because it makes you wonder how he managed to pull it off.

The main strength of the book is that it's entertaining, the prose is vivid and comical, it has a real caper feel to it, with Peter spending most of his time wondering how the hell he ended up involved in yet another disaster. The main storyline of the crime itself is clever and probably, if I knew much about the history, very well researched. The second storyline the resolution of a dispute between two water spirits each claiming to own the Thames has a very mythological quality, and if it reminded me of anything it was of Neil Gaiman's American Gods (but not enough to consider it plagerist) which from me, is a huge compliment.

All in all, if you are into the new "vampire genre", or "magic genre", fantasy books, like Terry Pratchett say (of whom I have to say I've never been a great fan) or if you don't mind crime that's a bit silly and tongue in cheek, you'll like this. If however, you prefer gritty realism with your crime like Stuart MacBride say, or Peter Robinson, you would probably find this annoying. Personally, I really enjoyed it and will definitely be reading the recently published sequel 'Moon Over Soho' 9/10