Thursday, 29 September 2011

Book #86 Snowdrops by AD Miller


Snowdrops is the final novel on the Booker shortlist that I had left to read, although I have I believe around four of the longlist contenders yet to go. The story is told as a flashback Nick Platt is telling his girlfriend, possibly fiancee about the time he spent abroad working in Russia. The narrative reveals that this is something he has refused to open up about hitherto in their relationship, something bad happened to Nick Platt, but what?

Snowdrops is a portrait of modern post Cold War Russia, and it paints a Moscow rife with crime, of both the organized and small time variety. The new face of corrupt Russia we have begun to see in the West, where anything you want can be got at a price.

It is a relatively short novel, Nick collides with two sisters Masha and Katya after someone attempts to mug them on the underground. They are two vulnerable girls from a poor background trying to make it in the city, and Nick enters their world despite warnings from colleagues that it won't end well. There are MANY reviews on Amazon, saying that this book is not a thriller and shouldn't be on the Booker shortlist. For my part I didn't know it was meant to be a thriller so that's a none issue because I took it for what it was; somebody relating a life experience they had once had, competently done, interesting, enjoyable and attention holding.

I have no issue with its place on the shortlist, it takes as its time and place a modern feeling setting which hasn't been mined by many writers yet, unlike say, the Second World War about which many novels are written  and so there is a freshness to it. If it were meant to be a thriller however, it should have told some events from Katya and Masha's perspective to achieve this. Instead it's again, like A Sense Of An Ending and Half Blood Blues the story of a man who got caught up in a situation and made a mistake. How odd that there are so many of them on the Booker list this year. It's a good novel of this year and if you spot it in a bookshop, I see no reason not to pick it up. In terms of the Booker however, it has nothing on Jamrach's Menagerie or A Sense Of An Ending, and if neither of those aforementioned novels win the prize, I shan't be very impressed. 8/10

Book #85 The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games

To give a brief synopsis The Hunger Games takes place in a dystopian future in what I understood to be the Appalachian regions of America. At some point in the past twelve Districts started a rebellion against the Capital, and as punishment they now participate in a yearly "reaping" in which two adolescents from each district are randomly selected to participate in The Hunger Games, a Big Brother type reality TV series which it is compulsory to watch. It's not a popularity contest though, the object of the games is to kill all other opponents and emerge the victor.When her little sister is selected against the odds, Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take her place.

I'll start with what's right about The Hunger Games, it is an utterly compelling, riveting novel. I started the thing at 6PM last night, I finished it at 22.41 exactly. I couldn't tear myself away from it, I'm pretty certain I didn't even go to the toilet. Katniss Everdeen makes a great hero and other characters like Rue, Peeta and even Foxface are intriguing in their own right. It is easy to see why Jennifer Lawrence was picked to play Katniss in the forthcoming film. In the early portion of the novel the life of Katniss echoes that of Ree Dolly in Winters Bone, a part which Lawrence played so successfully. One advantage of reading the novel with Lawrence in mind means that when the film is released this March, the character of Katniss won't look "wrong" as opposed to the picture in my minds eye. Once she leaves District 12 however, Lawrence as Katniss has an opportunity to play a new and interesting part.

The Reality TV aspect of things is really interesting. In the Capitol this show isn't about poverty stricken children murdering one another to win food for their area. It's entertainment. With some of the things that get put on television in 2011, I did wonder how many years we have to go before something like this happens.  I really enjoyed this novel which was suspenseful and thrilling throughout, it will make an excellent film, if they do it "right". The teaser trailer for The Hunger Games is here

But, The Hunger Games has a problem, and that problem is the 1999 Japanese novel Battle Royale  by Koushun Takami which was later made into an extremely successful film in 2000 by Kinji Fukasaku. Battle Royale takes place in a totalitarian dystopian Japan, in which high school children are sent into a forest with one objective, kill each other and be the last one standing. I've seen the film but I've not read the book. The essential difference between the two is that The Hunger Games is a reality TV show and Battle Royale is a military research program and is not televised but the purpose is the same it is "a means of terrorizing the population, of creating such paranoia as to make organized insurgency impossible".

Though the run up to the start of the Games, and the section at the end of the novel differ entirely from Battle Royale; the competition, which takes place in the forest, is extremely similar with only very minor differences. It is so similar as to make me wonder whether Takami should sue Collins. It is entirely possible of course that neither Collins nor her publisher had seen or heard of Battle Royale, and the entire thing is a massive coincidence. Which would be a damn shame for Collins because a) It would be terrible to find out that you thought you had this great original idea but someone beat you to it and b) You could never plausibly prove that you hadn't seen Battle Royale prior to your book being published.

On my Twitter feed last night I put something like Hunger Games. GENIUS. But I didn't really mean that it terms of originality, I meant it as a reading experience. It just sucks you in so completely, it is a page turner in the truest sense of the expression. I described it to someone as "like reading Battle Royale as a book" before I was even aware Battle Royale was based upon a book, so this is another reason why Takami should potentially sue. It makes me wonder whether he is aware of The Hunger Games, but if he isn't he very soon will be. Some people have said The Hunger Games is "Battle Royale for kids" but I'm 30 and found it actually equally violent in parts, this is an example of a "teen novel" that actually crosses over into "universal appeal" if you can forgive its one big problem that is. My guess is that most Battle Royale fans won't.

For originality 5/10
For actual reading enjoyment 9.5/10

Monday, 26 September 2011

Book #84 Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

Half Blood Blues

The second to last of the Booker shortlist I had yet to read; Esi Edugyan's Half Blood Blues is a story of of a group of jazz musicians and their associates in the 1990's and during their heyday in wartime Europe.

In Paris, 1941 Sidney Griffiths goes to buy cigarettes and have a glass of milk with fellow musician Hieronymus Falk, who is considered to be a musical genius. Problem is, Falk is black and when Sidney steps out to the toilet Falk is arrested by Nazi soldiers, he is deported and never seen again.

Flashforward some 50 years and Sidney Griffiths and childhood friend and fellow musician Chip Jones are old and enjoy something of a 'Buena Vista Social Club' style status. Jones persuades Sid, who lives quietly in Baltimore to attend a conference in Berlin celebrating Falk. Once there, he publicly accuses Sid of being to blame for what happened to Falk. But is he right?

I think my main problem with Half Blood Blues is that I struggled to engage with the characters, any of them, and whilst I saw merit in it, it wasn't really my cup of tea. The ending is also a bit quick, and a bit weak. The writing there could have used a strong flourish, an important closing statement, but it falls flat.

This is a short review because I can't think of many aspects I want to delve in and discuss. This book has strong reviews on Amazon but I'm afraid it just wasn't my scene. It may be to other peoples taste however

Oddly though, it is another story about making a selfish choice or mistake that then had  massive repercussions for all those involved which has proved to be something of a theme for the Booker this year, alongside A Sense Of An Ending and A Cupboard Full Of Coats. This book has nothing on The Stranger's Child really, and I would have preferred to have seen that on the shortlist and not this. 6/10

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Book #83 World War Z by Max Brooks

World War Z

What's that you say?? A Zombie Apocalypse novel you say?? A Zombie Apocalypse novel currently being turned into a movie starring Brad Pitt indeed?? Why, Waterstones, I really don't mind if I do.......

I think those people who know me well and who know the stuff I read in both this year and in other years are probably amused and possibly bemused by my guilty pleasure and attraction to this sort of "trashy novel" but one can't read Booker winners all the time. In any case World War Z isn't trashy,  far from it. It takes its subject matter very seriously in fact it does not acknowledge its classification as a fiction. This is a historical document, a retrospective, an eyewitness account from those who survived!

I love the fact that the blurb of the novel backs this stance up with the following description of the author :

Max Brooks lives in New York City but is prepared to move to a more remote and defensible location at a moment's notice  

It really adds something to the book, the seriousness, this book isn't tongue in cheek or playing for laughs. It takes as its premise that in the recent past humans actually fought for global survival against zombies, and that World War Z isn't quite over yet.

It is constructed entirely through interviews "conducted by Max Brooks" in various parts of the globe chronicling the build up to and commencement of the war. Naturally Brooks begins in China, because this is where the first breakout was recorded, with a doctor who has been called to a remote village and does not know what to make of what he finds there. A boy who was swimming in deep water has been infected with something, he has bitten several other villagers who now show signs of this infection. Though the government tries to hush it up, the contagion spreads. The problem becomes global when as refugees stream out of China trying to escape several take the infection with them, believing that the West will have a solution. As soon as the human becomes zombie they are then an immediate threat to all surrounding humans, and the only way to kill them is a bullet or an axe to the head, so as their population grows, the human population shrinks. As opposed to focusing on a small band of humans who we get to know by name and are all in the same location, Brooks jumps from location to location and interviewee to interviewee, one moment he's in China, the next India or Russia although the USA gets a lot of attention. By doing this he succeeds in creating the portrait of a global problem and of building haunting images of nightmarish scenarios from the families trapped in traffic jams as Zombies attack them, to the celebrities who find that celebrity is meaningless now, to the Indian man who swims for his life to a boat, and watches other boats become floating vessels of the undead. Terrifying, new underpants terrifying.

One of my favourite aspects of this novel was the way in which set in a post Zombie future the global political and sociological landscape has changed. Palestine is now a nation state. Cuba, which largely survived unscathed, a wealthy envied nation. Although a Zombie Apocalypse is unlikely, the Chinese outbreak in the novel is compared to the recent SARS and Avian flu, without involving zombies a pandemic of this kind COULD cause a global panic on this scale. Its not entirely implausible, and when at one moment I found myself reading it as if it were non fiction, part of me had to laugh at myself and part of me considered the possibilities. 

Were I liked the book less was in the amount of military strategy and soldier stories when war has broken out, I much preferred the stories of ordinary people trying to survive. But I think the average player of Call Of Duty or Dead Island style video games would enjoy this aspect.

I feel, however that this novel based on its interview form, is virtually unfilmable in terms of "doing it justice". Though Brad Pitt and Mirelle Enos have been charging round Cornwall and Glasgow, this isn't a character novel, its a jigsaw novel with no focus on any person or country. My fear is that World War Z the movie will unlike this clever novel, become your average Hollywood shoot em up, without originality and with leads who are paint-by-numbers characters you find in any action film. Brad Pitt, for the most part shows more savvy than that when choosing scripts, so I hope not, but it could be that he was just looking for some straightforward Zombie slaying action. Well, who wouldn't given the chance? I know I'd be up for it. 8/10 

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Poem #6 I started early, took my dog by Emily Dickinson

September's Poem of the month given its link to the Atkinson novel 

I started Early—Took my Dog—
And visited the Sea—
The Mermaids in the Basement
Came out to look at me—

And Frigates—in the Upper Floor
Extended Hempen Hands—
Presuming Me to be a Mouse—
Aground—upon the Sands—

But no Man moved Me—till the Tide
Went past my simple Shoe—
And past my Apron—and my Belt
And past my Bodice—too—

And made as He would eat me up—
As wholly as a Dew
Upon a Dandelion’s Sleeve—
And then—I started—too—

And He—He followed—close behind—
I felt His Silver Heel
Upon my Ankle—Then my Shoes
Would overflow with Pearl—

Until We met the Solid Town—
No One He seemed to know—
And bowing—with a Mighty look—
At me—The Sea withdrew—

Book #82 Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson

Started Early, Took My Dog

And so finally, I reach the fourth most recent Jackson Brodie novel 'Started Early, Took My Dog' a novel I wanted to read based on its title anyway, before I realised that it was the fourth in a series. It takes its title from a Dickinson poem.

Original novel Case Histories took place in Cambridge, and subsequent novels One Good Turn and When Will There Be Good News? in Edinburgh. The fourth novel moves us to Leeds, and this was rather fun for me as I lived in Leeds for three years and could picture many of the places exactly, I was particularly chuffed when he visited the abbeys of Jervaulx, Rievaulx, Fountains and Kirkstall given their connection to my life in Leeds.

Jackson has now formally returned to his life as a private eye, and as ever is involved in cases of "lost girls".

His client is New Zealand based Hope McMaster, who was adopted in Yorkshire in the 1970's and is looking to trace her birth family having grown up as an ex-pat.

Linked to Hope's history is former police officer Tracy Waterhouse a woman who whilst working a dull security post in the Merrion Centre, spots Kelly Cross, a figure notorious from Tracy's police days being abusive toward a small child. Upon impulse she offers Kelly money for the child and suddenly finds herself a criminal on the run.

The narrative flashes between Jackson's present day investigation and the 1970's around the time Hope would have been adopted, unfortunately the 1970's segment feels like an episode of BBC's Life On Mars without the time travel aspect and therefore very derivative, the young Tracy screams Annie Cartwright, whilst many of her superiors seem to be a poor mans Gene Hunt. This is the novels main weakness.

Tracy Waterhouse and her storyline is very identifiable and strong, how many people have ever seen a kid with terrible parents in public and wanted to intervene? It is also nice to see the easy friendly relationship which has developed between Jackson and Julia Land as he visits his son Nathan, now four.

Some later sections are messy, such as when Jackson drives about seemingly purposelessly with Tracy and Courtney. I was extremely bemused by the inclusion of character Tilly who has but a tenuous connection to Tracy and Julia Land, whose story has nought to do with the main sequence of events and seems to exist solely to take a thinly veiled pop at Helen Mirren. Or perhaps Judi Dench but personally I reckon Mirren. Bizarre. The Tilly sections are annoying and they take away from the story and Atkinson shouldn't have bothered including them.  

The unbelievable polarity of Amazon comments on this book are quite amusing. I think many didn't realise it was part of a series and there is one in particular who seemed to think the book would be about dogs. As a Brodie novel it is stronger than One Good Turn but perhaps not the other two. I enjoyed it despite its messy middle and personally, given the closing sentence I really, really hope there is a fifth Brodie novel, though I had heard that this was to be her last. I'm attached to this character partly through the novels and partly through the series and hope that this is not the case. Again a 7/10

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Book #81 When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson

When Will There Be Good News?

Wanting to take a break from the often heavy tones of Booker nominees I returned to Kate Atkinson's sequence of novels about Jackson Brodie the former soldier, cop and private detective in search of something none too difficult to read.

In this the third novel, Jackson has given up living off his inheritance in France and somewhat vaguely works as a private security consultant. He haplessly boards a Edinburgh train rather than a London one and finds himself in a serious train crash and reunited with Louise Monroe the detective and love interest he encountered in One Good Turn.

Like other Jackson Brodie novels the theme is "lost girls" or women generally in peril. We have :

Joanna Hunter, a kind motherly doctor with an unspeakable past, and an entrepreneurial husband, who is mixed up with dubious associates.

Her "mothers help" Reggie Chase, a sixteen year old wise beyond her years, struggling to escape from the tough hand she has been dealt.

and Alison Needler, a victim of a violent crime whose nerves are in ribbons and whose husband and attacker is still on the loose.

The heart of this novel is Reggie Chase, and as with previous Jackson Brodie novels I liked the blend between contemporary literary and crime. The crimes are occurring but the focus is these characters and their lives. Reggie Chase is a great little character and was portrayed brilliantly by Gwyneth Keyworth in the recent BBC adaptation. She embodies all the girls you feel could stand a chance at "becoming something" if it weren't for their terrible backgrounds and lack of support.

Unlike in One Good Turn when Jackson's presence at every crime seems ridiculous, in this case he is a victim, who then tries to help the person who saves him (Reggie). This then gives him an excuse to reconnect with Louise Monroe and the two regret the fact that the changes in their lives mean it is again impossible to take things further.

There is a small subplot involving Julia Land, Jackson's ex client and ex girlfriend, she now has a child Nathan which she swears isn't Jackson's but Jackson isn't so sure. Strangely, this plot goes absolutely nowhere, so why include it?   

Likewise the Alison Needler case, a story of a woman whose husband went beserk at a children's party is a really interesting storyline but is barely explored, the story of Reggie and Joanna is front and centre. It seems wasted, like if it had been done in more detail in a separate book it would have been better and Marcus features so little as to make his storyline a bit "So what?" 

As with other novels that I have discussed previously Emma Donoghue's Room and Stephen Kelman's Pigeon English, there is an issue with art mirroring life. With this book I was extremely uncomfortable with the way in which the old crime described at the start of the novel mirrored the "Josie Russell case" from some years ago, in which she survived but her mother and sister died. Show some imagination, write your own crime, don't just exploit what someone else went through.

The Reggie/Jackson dynamic and the Reggie/Joanna dynamic are really lovely though and make the book an enjoyable undemanding read. I would really have appreciated more Louise and Jackson time though. The conclusion of the book, almost presses the reset button on the way Jackson's life has changed since Case Histories, and so it will be interesting to see where Started Early, Took My Dog and other subsequent novels take him. I still really like him as a character

A good if flawed novel with characters you care about   : 7/10

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Book #80 The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst

The Stranger's Child

The Stranger's Child of course was the shock omission from the Booker Shortlist. It is difficult to see why it was omitted, it is a good book, it practically screams Booker friendly novel. But yet, the book seems to have an expectant face, the assurance of a boy who is good at football who knows he'll be picked first for a team.  This, is perhaps why it was omitted, to shake up the type of novels and authors we have come to expect from The Prize, to prevent the air of inevitability to the proceedings.

Susan Hill who features on the judging panel has apparently been vocal in her belief that previous prize winners should no longer be eligible for the prize. Hollinghurst of course won in 2004 with The Line Of Beauty, so perhaps Hill's opinion held sway with the rest of the panel. Certainly, I had  previously had a personal niggle that I believed that twice winner Peter Carey's rather mediocre 'Parrot and Olivier in America', nominated last year had received a ingratiating 'courtesy nod' not because of merit, but as a foregone conclusion, "we mustn't slight Carey" .

So what happens when, as in this case, a former winner has written one of the best books on the list? If the prize is to judge the best book of year, surely whether the author has won or been nominated previously is irrelevant? The book stands alone to be judged for its quality, which this has in spades. The rest is just so much pettiness and politics.  

So, whats the book about? Well, somewhat like Jennifer Egan's 'A Visit From The Goon Squad' the novel is about time and change. It is also too, in a way about how we know about our authors or our poets, how we define both their lives, and what literary critics think they "were trying to say", what the pivotal points of their lives were and how this can often be widely off the mark. Further to that, the odd reality of how celebrated people in time cease to exist as real people but as curiousities with a value to collectors. Thirdly, it is a reflection upon how social change over the last century has affected the lives of gay men from keeping relationships a "terrible secret" under wraps through to public flirting and acceptance.

We begin with Daphne Sawle who is in a sense the centre around which the novel turns. She is young, not yet 18 and is awaiting the much anticipated arrival of Cecil, her brothers close friend from university. It's pre World War One and things are carefree for these privileged young people. Cecil is the sort of arrogant young man who attracts admirers but isn't half as clever as he thinks he is. Beneath his polite veneer and his celebratory poem Two Acres, Daphne's home is nothing compared to the Valance residence at Corley. He condescends to the family, and flirts with Daphne concealing his true relationship with George.

Part Two flashes us forward, George is married and Daphne mistress of Corley, but the Sawles and Valances both suffered loss in the Great War. They live with the legacy of a minor celebrated war poet, a source of great pride for some and an albatross for others.

A flashforward again and here we meet Paul a poetry fan who works in a bank, who suddenly comes across Daphne a feisty septuagenarian, but researching his planned biography, can he discover the truth about her past?       

Initially, it reminded of both Brideshead Revisited which I didn't get on with, and Atonement which I gave up on entirely, so, I was a bit worried at the start that I'd repeat those experiences. However, I genuinely enjoyed this book which throughout seemed to have a summer garden party feel to it. I liked the jumps in time, though I felt that there was so much to Daphne's story as a young divorcee which would have made a great contribution to the novel. Having read some Tennyson I felt that the emphasis on the Victorian poet was meant to highlight the comparison between the George and Cecil relationship to Tennyson and Arthur Hallam, which is interesting as an inspiration though I don't know if Hollinghurst has stated for the record that there was inspiration here. It is implied of course, given that "the stranger's child" is part of a line of 'In Memoriam'.

I've seen query that there is perhaps an unfeasible amount of gay men in The Stranger's Child, I'm not sure I agree with that, perhaps unfeasibly too many within one extended family but to be honest I don't think it matters. It should be the story that matters and the idea and both of these are well executed.
The final short section of the book featuring Rob the book collector is somewhat surplus to requirements and is a bit of an empty conclusion. The book should really, in my opinion have ended where it began with Daphne. Ultimately though is it a good book? Yes it is. Should it have made the Booker shortlist? Yes, it bloody should have! 8/10

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Book #79 The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

The Sisters Brothers

Yesterday, The Sisters Brothers became one of the six books to make it off the Booker longlist and onto the shortlist alongside Half Blood Blues, Jamrach's Menagerie, A Sense Of An Ending, Pigeon English and Snowdrops.

The book tells the story of Charlie and Eli Sisters, a pair of infamous brothers from Oregon who are dispatched by their boss the Commodore on a mission. The mission? To kill Hermann Kermit Warm.
From the very opening you realise that the Sisters Brothers are not ordinary guys. Eli narrates the novel, and at its opening calmly recounts how his last horse burnt to death screaming. Both men historically and during the time period the novel takes place over have a very cavalier attitude towards death, either in being the bringer of death, as they so often are or in its occurrence in their world.

Charlie Sisters very much relishes the notoriety he shares with his brother, yet Eli whose course has largely been set as a consequence of loyalty to his brother dreams of running a general store with a woman who is kind to him. There is a resounding pathos in the novel for Eli and his situation.

The novel has the kind of qualities that would make it suitable for film adaptation but I do not think that this will happen in the immediate future. My main struggle with the novel was with the proximity in which I read it to Cormac McCarthy's All The Pretty Horses. There are far too many similarities between the novels. Two men set out on horses on a journey for work and are beset by obstacles of both the practical and criminal kind, at one point a young boy attempts to tag along with them but is left behind. I could not find the originality of which it has been hailed anywhere in the plot, though I'll make allowances for Eli as a character.

The nod towards the beginnings of the Gold Rush is a nice touch, but I simply hated the end which was a cutesy resolution not in keeping with the dark tone or characters. I would not read it a second time and had it been a paper copy and not an e book I would be donating it to charity. Overall, I do not think DeWitt deserves to win the Booker Prize to be announced next month because of the novels overt similarity to the work of McCarthy. 7/10

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Book #78 Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

Pigeon English

Another nominee on this years list (I'm probably going to blog all of them from now til I finish) is Stephen Kelman's story of 11 year old Ghanian immigrant Harrison Opoku. The novel begins with the stabbing of a boy to whom Harri was vaguely acquainted and follows him, his sister and their friends from that point in March until the break up of school in July.
Like previous nominee Room by Emma Donoghue and Mark Haddon's Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time, the novel is narrated by a child and Kelman manages to conjure a voice that feels genuine and authentic with his protagonist. Some of the lines that Harri and co come out with did make me laugh, such as when he refuses to let sister Lydia's friend Miquita inside their house unless she promises NOT to suck him off, his description of classmate Altaf   :

"Altaf is very quiet. Nobody really knows him. You're not supposed to talk to Somalis because they're pirates" 
 and the paranoid verdict of elderly congregation member Mr Frimpong upon the Catholic Church :

"Bleddy Catholics. They want to give us all AIDS so they can steal our lands back again. It's true."

and there are some great lines and anecdotes about the kind of banter and tall tales that go on between adolescent boys:

If a dog attacks you the best way to stop it is to put your finger up its bumhole. There's a secret switch up the dog's bumhole that when you touch it their mouth opens automatically and they let go of whatever they were biting. Connor Green told us. After he told us, everybody called Connor Green a pervert because he goes around putting his finger up dogs bumholes.
Kyle Barnes : Pervert!
Brayden Campbell : "Dogf---er!
I also liked it when "Advise Yourself!" was used as a retort to a stupid statement, I think I'll be using that in future! However the use of Asweh, Ghanian slang for 'I swear' became so repetitious throughout Harri's narrative as to become profoundly irritating.

Essentially the strength of the book is its believability, that its characters could be real rather than a fabrication created by an author and the way in which Kelman succeeds in maintaining this voice. It is also a voice of a type of character and community very seldomly represented in literature, the African immigrant community of a London housing estate. However, within that believability comes a problem, listen to young boys too long and they become annoying, prattling inanely about Diadora trainers and Samsung Galaxy phones and Haribo sweets and Youtube and things that matter to boys of that age but are acutely irrelevant and tedious to adults. It occasionally feels like machine gun fire. As with The Testament Of Jessie Lamb, I feel that this book is better suited to the Young Adult market despite its declaration at the back of the book that it is an "adult novel". I think young adults would love this novel and take more away from it.

The investigations by Harri and his friend Dean into the death of the boy at the start of the novel seem silly and fall rather flat. Whereas the efforts of young people trying not to get sucked in to gang culture hold more realism. Although again, it seems more the realm of young adult fiction that our characters set an example rather than sink into the inevitability of a "crew".

I felt critically towards Emma Donoghue's Room on the basis that I felt it was exploitative of the Fritzl case and the Natascha Kampusch case, at the end of this novel the website of the Damilola Taylor Trust is mentioned but yet I did not find that the novel "traded" on any similarities, which is a good thing.

Aside from this there is the problem of the "psychic pigeon" whose inner voice we occasionally hear. The psychic pigeon is redundant and almost a bit embarrassing for a novel whose beauty lies in realism : seeing big social problems from a young childs perspective. Clearly its a play on the concept of "pidgeon english" but its ridiculousness cheapens the novel slightly or so I felt.

Despite its shortcomings the novel has an almighty end, a wallop of a conclusion. Which is tragic yet perfect within the context. I feel it is the ending that has earned it its Booker nomination. That and the choice of protagonist and style, although adult novels written in a child's voice are becoming less and less original and more and more a cliched idea of "clever". In my opinion anyway.

I think this book earned its nod of recognition, but, I wouldn't want to see it win over either Jamrach's Menagerie or A Sense Of An Ending. 7/10

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Book #77 A Cupboard Full Of Coats by Yvette Edwards

A Cupboard Full Of Coats

Also longlisted for this years Booker, A Cupboard Full Of Coats brings us another character haunted by the guilt of a small past action which turned out to have massive consequences. Jinx opens the door to find Lemon on her doorstep, the friend of her mothers partner Berris, neither of whom she has seen since she was sixteen. Lemon has come to inform her that he has seen Berris who is now "out" having served 14 years for the murder of Jinx's mother, something that Jinx holds herself accountable for.

A Cupboard Full Of Coats is really your average domestic violence story of a single mum and daughter who were doing just fine until Berris came along and ruined everything. Like A Sense Of An Ending the novel is more about the guilt people carry following the unforeseen major repercussions of a small deliberate piece of spite than the actions of Berris himself. Jinx like her name has experienced something of a cursed life since, unable to make relationships last and unable to bond with her son. She does better with dead people and works as an embalmer.

I enjoyed the descriptive prose which evoked the tastes and smells of Afro-Caribbean culture, it was enough to make you hungry. I also liked the originality of how and why a swimming costume caused a divorce. It was humorous. Lemon's character and that of Jinx's school friend Samantha Adebayo, were both well drawn and brought real spark into the novel.

But, I felt like the ending was too neat, Jinx having dispensed of her guilt is now able to begin repairing her relationships, just like that. And, I didn't feel that the story despite its Afro-Caribbean flavour was really original enough to stand apart from many other novels on the same issue. Not a strong contender I'm afraid, not when A Sense Of An Ending which covers the same kind of psychological issues outclasses it on several levels. 7/10    

Book #76 A Sense Of An Ending by Julian Barnes

A Sense Of An Ending

Longlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize, Julian Barnes has been nominated for the fourth time for A Sense Of An Ending  after having previously been unsuccessful with Flaubert's Parrot in 1984, England, England in 1998 and Arthur and George in 2005. Always the bridesmaid never the bride you've got to feel for the guy. I hadn't read any of his previous work but I really enjoyed this book, and will on the strength of it absolutely seek out some of his other works.

It is essentially a short novel, coming in at just 150 pages, which makes me wonder whether it is in fact a novella or an extended short story. It definitely does have the 'feel' of a short story about it. And it is therefore difficult to review without spoilers, but I'm going to try my best.

Tony Webster is an ordinary middle aged man who has had a fairly unremarkable life, he married, he had a child, he divorced as so many do. But when something occurs out of the blue, the past returns to haunt him and he is forced to re-examine his history in relation to his former schoolfriend Adrian Finn; a charismatic, clever, serious boy from a broken home whose life story became linked to his in a way that Tony had never imagined nor even given consideration to.

This book is in a way about the transgressions of youth, but it also has relevance to anyone of any age. In a temper Tony said some thoughtless and spiteful things, which, in many ways would be the default reaction of most people who are placed in the situation he is placed in, particularly a young man of his age at the time. But, this act of thoughtlessness, an act that he never really dwelt upon in the years that followed had massive repercussions for several lives thereafter.

This book gave me real pause for thought, as it made me think about the impact that our actions have on other people's stories. Even if what we say about the person is true, though in Tony's case it wasn't so much that; a selfish need to "get back" at someone can cause a chain reaction the likes of which we never expected or were never aware. What happens is not Tony's "fault" per-se, he couldn't possibly have anticipated it, but yet it wouldn't have happened without that one action on his part, or....would it? Then, as an older man this is something he is left to consider possibly the rest of his life, and never get the sense of an ending, because it is clear that one person at least places the burden of blame squarely upon his shoulders.

The consequence of this book has caused a certain level of guilt by proxy for me. An examination of points in my life whereby I did or said or wrote something with only thought for my own feeling and not the feelings of the person on the receiving end. Even if you are "in the right" factually, morally, or just in your own mind, you don't know what chain reaction of events you may have unwittingly sparked.
For a book to have an impact of this kind upon you, to make you consider your own life and psychology, it rises above being "just a story" and I hope to see this novel in serious contention for the forthcoming prize. 10/10 for the simple fact it is a book you will continue to think on long after you've closed it. 

Friday, 2 September 2011

Book #75 The Testament Of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers

The Testament Of Jessie Lamb

My overwhelming reaction to The Testament Of Jessie Lamb, is surprise, surprise in fact that it has been nominated for this years Booker Prize and is currently on the longlist. Not because it's a bad book, in the way that say There But For The by Ali Smith is, in my opinion, a bad book, but because I was surprised it met the criteria as I would have considered it a young adult book which would only be eligible under rule 3g :
g) Children's books will only be accepted on the condition that they have also been published by an adult imprint within the specified dates.
In the case of this book, it appears to have been marketed as adult contemporary fiction and only has an adult imprint, when technically it should have both, a decision I find a little baffling. As a piece of young adult dystopian fiction it is good, but I've read better, most notably The Giver by Lois Lowry and The Knife Of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness to which it shares a similarity in an aspect of plot.

It lacks much in originality I felt given its similarity in theme to The Children Of Men by PD James, later adapted for the screen starring Clive Owen. In  the world of Jessie Lamb, there has been an act of bio-terrorism, as a consequence there has been a global fertility crisis. When women get pregnant - they die. (Hang on a minute? Wasn't that what happened to pregnant women on the island in LOST as well?)  In this brave new world, set not far from our present, no more children are being born and the population of women is dropping, as those who do get pregnant never survive.

Jessie Lamb is 16, and when we meet her she is being held captive, and she recounts for us what has been happening to ordinary people since the crisis emerged. At 16, Jessie is idealistic and looking for a cause, and causes find her. The animal rights movement, the womens movement, the Noahs, and YOFI. There is a degree of cynicism in Jane Roger's writing about young people who look for a cause to be involved with. You gain a real sense that in Roger's eyes "causes" target the vulnerable and a "cause" is just "another phase" disenchanted young people go through, before growing up, becoming a champagne socialist, and attending a Tory party conference if it's in their interest to do so.  And she probably has a point. Yet, for some people a cause gives their life meaning. Not for nothing I feel did Rogers give her protagonist the surname Lamb. Though again, this is a "clever" connotation in a young adult book, yet a bit patronising for an adult contemporary. 

In terms of subplots, the novel asks interesting questions related to the morals and ethics of Science, particularly IVF and the idea that scientists have long since passed the point of playing God, Rogers just pushes the boundary one step further. Ultimately though I didn't feel that Jessie's testament or sacrifice would have much impact in either the short or long term given the global scale of the issue. Which meant that the ending didn't pack the huge emotional punch it thinks it does. I also found the secondary surrounding characters very poorly drawn, and not even Jessie particularly easy to care about. Maybe when I was 12 I might have found it really important and exciting but I also think that maybe, just maybe I might have found it weak and characters uninspired and uninspiring - pretty much like I do now. I will be shocked if this book leaves the longlist for the shortlist and even more shocked should it win! 6.5/10

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Book #74 Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch

Jamrach's Menagerie

Longlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize, Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch is the first book on the list I've read this year and what a place to start.

In what must be some time in the Victorian era, eight year old Jaffy Brown moves to London from Bermondsey with his mother, too unaware to be afraid he pets a tiger in the street that has escaped from a crate and is taken into its jaws. This chance encounter brings him to the attention of Mr Jamrach owner of a menagerie of exotic animals for whom he then works before being swept up in the excitement promised by an adventure at sea with best friend Tim and their idol, old sea dog Dan Rymer.

The narrative is rich, vivid and colourful, both in the early days of Tim and Jaffy's time in the menagerie and later when they go to sea. I read Moby Dick, well 95% of it, in 2009 and there are shades of Melville in this novel. Where it succeeds over the classic is the difficulty presented in Moby Dick was Melville's tendency to go off plot and character, to spend a few chapters discussing, or rather waffling on (in my opinion) about the anatomy of the whale or the many uses of whale oil and there is no such difficulty here. Birch's writing focuses on plot, character and setting and pulls you up and down with the motion of the boat.

As their adventure with Rymer begins to turn sour, the book becomes ever more compelling. Although you realise what may be about to happen before it does, their harrowing experience becomes all the more riveting to read. The eloquent strong prose impresses as does the originality at work here.

Where I had a minor quibble was that in moving the location from Jamrach's Menagerie to the sea, there was a lost opportunity in the original and interesting setting of a story about a business dealing in the trade of exotic animals, this was really a location from which a very unique story could have been born. Yet, the novel is still unique. It just seems a waste, although there is a link between the two stories, the mission Rymer is tasked with, a mission which to the superstitious seaman becomes a curse. Birch based Jamrach's Menagerie on two real life tales and would not have been able to do the second without including the sea section

At the centre of all things is the touching friendship of Jaffy and Tim,  and the book is worth it for that alone. A worthy contender for the Booker, I hope to see in shortlisted and potentially win  the contest 9.5/10