Sunday, 25 March 2012

Book #32 The End Specialist by Drew Magary

The End Specialist

The End Specialist by Drew Magary was recommended to me via Amazon because I had also read Genus by Jonathan Trigell. Like Genus, The End Specialist takes a supposed medical advancement for humanity and builds a nightmare dystopian vision from it.

In this novel, that advancement is a cessation of the aging process. Humans who receive 'the Cure', can still die, of cancer, disease, accidents, but they will not grow physically older nor die of old age. The novels protagonist John Farrell is an early recipient getting 'The Cure' whilst it is still underground and illegal through contacts. There is great societal uproar about the Cure, some deeming it sacrilegious and others near rioting with pressure upon the government to make it widely available for sale. Anti-cure movements are formed to bomb clinics which administer the drug, just as many organisations bomb today's abortion clinics.

In the struggle to grasp eternity, though the arguments against it are considered at the end of the day, every individual wants it, and moral arguments are cast aside, without many truly realising what the lack of natural death may bring.

The book follows John Farrell over the next 51 years until he is chronologically 80 but still looks just 29, and shows the enormous toll the cure has taken not only upon him, and upon his immediate society, but also upon the globe. Social problems being what they are, Farrell and others  ultimately become 'End Specialists'

This book is compulsive, readable, fascinating, thought provoking, addictive, and a dozen other superlatives. A really well thought out and executed idea, which also feels like a precisely accurate depiction of what exactly would happen should a cure for the aging process be found.

I think this is an excellent novel on the part of Drew Magary, I massively recommend it and would give it 10/10

Book #31 Thornyhold by Lady Mary Stewart


Thornyhold by Lady Mary Stewart is the second of her books I have read after The Crystal Cave. It is a simple little tale of a girl named Gilly who has a godmother Gaellis with a magical quality to her.

When Gilly inherits her cottage Thornyhold, she discovers that Gaellis was known as a witch, and the local people have expectations that she will follow in her godmother's footsteps..... 

This book is short and the quality of the prose is really simplistic - it was nice, to have an easy read and it's a nice story, but there's not a lot I can really say about it other than it's "nice".

Lady Mary's clear interest in magic and Druidry interests me also though, and because her books are so easy going, their simplicity by no means puts me off reading more of them. Everybody needs to read a sunny, nice book every now and then 7/10

Book #30 Julian Corkle Is A Filthy Liar by D. J. Connell

Julian Corkle Is A Filthy Liar

Julian Corkle Is A Filthy Liar is an incredibly amusing novel from D.J Connell. Right from his birth his Mum decides her Julian will be a star, what follows is a rite-of-passage novel about Julian's childhood, and his attempts at fame.

Even from childhood Julian is quite clearly gay. The book, which is Australian, strikes a very humorous Aussie tone  and I found I was hearing Aussie accents as I read it. Julian is born in the Sixties, his father is an out and out homophobe who attempts to "play away the gay" by encouraging Julian to play with Meccano and get involved in cricket. He makes dark references to Julian's gay Uncle Norman who somehow disgraced himself in the past. For Mr Corkle it is his worst nightmare that Julian should become a hairdresser or a male nurse. For his part Julian wants to be a TV star and would much rather have a Nancy doll like his sister Carmel.

Though it tells of the awkward childhood many gay children suffer through with a parent who doesn't accept them for who they are, it deals with it with wit rather than misery, and reminded me greatly of the short stories of David Sedaris. I enjoyed the progress of Julian's childhood and school years, his friendships and his crushes.

Where the book faltered for me slightly was in the later stages, when Julian quits school and tries several jobs. I was not as engaged with these chapters as I was with his early years at school though Julian as a character remains very funny.

Carmel too is often highly amusing, and though she is the "apple of Daddy's eye" because of her sporting aptitude, I felt there was more than a hint that she may not be straight either.

Julian Corkle Is A Filthy Liar is a book that I would recommend for a light hearted comic read, which came at an opportune moment for me after two quite "heavy" books, it isn't perfect, but it is very enjoyable. 8/10 

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Book #29 Under The Skin by Michel Faber

Under The Skin

Under The Skin is the second Faber novel I have read following The Crimson Petal and The White some years ago. The two books really could not be more different. I believe this novel was Faber's debut and what a debut it is.

In Under The Skin, Isserley, a woman whose past existence and current circumstance we are initially unsure of, spends her time driving about the Scottish Highlands looking for hitchhikers, male hitchhikers. She assesses them first as she drives by, dismissing them if they fail to meet a certain criteria in looks, once in her car, she dismisses them again if they have loved ones, mothers, children, friends who will miss them, dropping them off at their requested next stop......

It would be a massive mistake to say anything further about this novel in a review, anything further than is given on the blurb, for fear of destroying it in any way for other readers. Possibly the single most original novel I have read so far this year, and in a number of years, Under The Skin does precisely that, gets right under your skin. Shocking, thought provoking and at times revolting Under The Skin takes a certain social point of view and subverts it, giving it an intelligent rather than hysterical voice. Certainly the most uncomfortable book since I read The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks, I read this book in one sitting.

I would not recommend this book to the squeamish but I would recommend it to anyone looking for something out of the ordinary. This book out Stephen King's, Stephen King! 10/10  

Book #28 The Children's Book by A.S Byatt

The Children's Book

I tried reading Possession by AS Byatt a few years ago, and despite it's glowing reputation, couldn't get on with it. I was attracted to this novel by its beautiful cover but put off by previous experience. Then I caught a glimpse of it over someone's shoulder on a plane, liked what I read and thought to give it a try.

I'm glad I did, I thought this book was great. It concerns the Wellwood family, who live at a large house named Todefright in the country, and their wide network of family and friends : The London Wellwoods, The Cains, The Fludds, The Sterns and many more.

Olive Wellwood is a children's writer and mother to seven children and two others that died in infancy. Though she has many children she favours oldest son Tom and does not conceal it. As she busies herself in her work, the children are largely reared by her spinster sister Violet, who thinks of herself as their true mother.

The novel has a wide cast of both fictional and historical characters and is set initially in the Victorian era and runs all the way through to World War I. What I simply loved about this novel is the way that political and social ideas at the time, events, current affairs and philosophy are reflected through the eyes and experiences of all the characters. It is a totally remarkable production in terms of sheer research and effort, it is like a mini degree in comparative fiction. At times, particularly towards the end, it spends too much time on the history and not enough on the characters but the amount of topics it covers is astonishing :

Socialism and Marxism
The impact of being the child of a children's author
Education, particularly of women, in contrast to the importance of marriage
The Fabian Society of which many characters  are members
Sexual abuse
The problems of being German in England in WWI
Artistry and artistic genius

and many more. It's fascinating. Not just the issues but the characters themselves. Dorothy and her difficult relationship with Olive, Olive's complex relationship with Tom, the psychology of Tom himself a child of nature deeply damaged by his experience at public school. The bizarre marriage of Olive and Humphrey with their ongoing trysts. The women of the Fludd family and their Havisham like existence. Elsie Warren and her brother Phillip. Herbert Methley. The characters are just great.

Towards the end their stories did begin to feel a little shoehorned - there is more to Hedda's story for example than the too short passages devoted to it, the same could be said for Robin Wellwood and Robin Oakshott. Though the book closes at 1918, some characters surviving and others not following the Great War; I really felt that if ever a book warranted a sequel it is this one and I really, really hope that Byatt writes one, so we can follow the lives our characters and their descendants through the historical events of the rest of the 20th Century.

I hugely recommend this book, I think it's my best of 2012 thus far. 10/10

Monday, 19 March 2012

Book #27 Cham by Jonathan Trigell


After having read and LOVED both Genus and Boy A by Jonathan Trigell, I felt I needed to complete the trio by reading his second novel Cham. I was really nervous of reading Cham, because I had loved both the others and didn't want to feel disappointment, and also because it has had some very critical reviews on Amazon.

At first hand Cham is a novel about Itchy, who works seasonally at French ski resort Chamonix, the location where Jonathan Trigell himself happens to live. In the holiday town, which has a certain cache of cool, tourists come and go, whilst those who work the season stay.

But in this town, a place of thrills and enjoyment, a rapist stalks the international revellers, who is he, and who should be scared?

It would be a mistake to think that this novel is either about Chamonix, or skiing, though both appear in part as background, so if you go to Chamonix and love it or if you're going to Chamonix and are looking for a touristy book, this is not that book. With that, I'm not saying that you shouldn't read Cham, you should, you should just adjust your expectations of it.

This novel is about Itchy and the psychology of Itchy, who himself is running scared from his past. A fan of Byron and Shelley who popularised Chamonix in their era, Itchy is an interesting study. He comes across as a disgusting person, an advantage taking egotist and this opinion of him increases in the reader the more you learn. The lifestyle he lives at Chamonix is very much like that of 'a lad in university', all drunkenness, and pleasure and shagging about.

If this was the sum of the novels parts it might be a fair assessment to call it shallow, but it's not. Via Itchy, Trigell seeks to examine the treatment of women, particularly young women in today's society.

He shows with skill and subtlety how though we live in a post-feminist era, the lives of and in some ways the behaviour of young women is not really as empowered as it appears and has instead morphed into a new kind of patriarchy, with new kinds of abuses, often abuses that are mislabelled as womens liberation or sexual freedom.

If Boy A is a novel about how convicted criminals are treated after time served and Genus is a novel about the poor and the disenfranchised, Cham is a novel about the peculiar new world women find themselves in. How they are treated, how they treat each other and more importantly how they treat themselves.

I think that Cham is a rather feminist novel, an unusual thing for a man to achieve. In the use of the mirroring with the story of Byron and Shelley, Trigell shows that though their patriarchs mistreated them, it was the women in their lives who were stronger, who endured.

Ultimately Cham is a deep novel which cunningly masquerades on the surface as a shallow one. 9/10

Book #26 Death Comes For The Archbishop by Willa Cather

Death Comes For The Archbishop

Last year I read and very much enjoyed 'My Antonia' and 'O, Pioneers' by Willa Cather, two novels about frontier farming communities in early America. Death Comes For The Archbishop is again historically placed within America's early years as a nation, this time from the perspective of two Catholic priests who are sent out to minister to the community of New Mexico an eclectic mix of White Americans, Native Americans and Mexican immigrants.

The tale of Bishop De La Tour and his curate Father Vaillant is told episodically. One chapter will deal with a wealthy couple supportive of the church, another with an abused wife, another with dealings with the Native American community.

Overarching this is friendship of the two priests themselves, who in many ways only have each other.

The pace of the book is more meditative than slow, with good portraits of situations and people. I think that it gives a good idea of what it might be like to be a priest. Which as Willa Cather was not one, is an achievement.

The book is fairly short, so there's not a lot to say about it, except I found it poetic and enjoyed the experience of that era and of reading it. 7/10   

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Book #25 The Never-Ending Days Of Being Dead by Marcus Chown

The Never-Ending Days Of Being Dead

The Never-Ending Days Of Being Dead by Marcus Chown has some crossover content with Michio Kaku's Parallel Worlds which I read in January. Both books tackle the possibility of the existence of parallel universes, both books use the mortality of Elvis by way of example and both books make reference to the short story All The Myriad Ways by Larry Niven.

Where the books differ is that Chown goes on to discuss different implications of quantum theory from the Kaku. Topics Chown covers include the possible existence of Extra Terrestrial Life,  whether the universe is in fact the result of a computer program what happens to us when we die, what happens to us when the universe dies, what binary, pi and the omega point can tell us, and the problem of mass.

Between the Kaku and the Chown, I felt Chown's was the more accessible work. I understood it, as a lay person who didn't get on with Physics well at school better than I did the Kaku. I struggled significantly with the section on Mass but that's just an issue of personal deficit in knowledge than a reflection on Chown's writing.

As with Parallel Worlds, I found it incredibly heartwarming that unlike many atheists who use the Big Bang Theory to illustrate that "God" did not create the world, many physicists on the cutting edges of latest theories look to the existence of some sort of "Creator" as the only means to explain the unexplainable; and that physics at its most theoretical has more in common with theology than many would like to believe.

Some of the theories presented in this book are mindblowing and lead to much existential philosophising. I remember I asked a friend once whether he thought we might just be a really, really big game of "The Sims" and somewhat dishearteningly quantum theory by no means rules this out. Who are we, and why are we here? This book doesn't answer that question but it opens the door to many possibilities to be considered. I will certainly read more of Chown's books. 9/10

Book #24 The Paperchase by Marcel Theroux

The Paperchase

The Paperchase by Marcel Theroux (son of Paul, brother of Louis) appears to be out of print on Amazon UK but can be purchased used.

The Paperchase concerns Damien March, who works a dull job at the BBC, he hears his Uncle Patrick has died and attends his funeral more as a break from the norm than for any other reason. Then he discovers he has inherited the bulk of his Uncle's estate, in particular his home on Ionia an island off the coast of Massachussetts. His Uncle, a fairly cantankerous old man had been involved with disputes with practically all other relatives leaving Damien the last option. A bequest apparently borne of spite rather than benevolence.

Damien disconnected from and discontented with life decides to spend sometime on Ionia and in so doing becomes encumbered by his Uncle's many possessions, but amongst his paperwork discovers intrigues and secrets.

A fairly slight novel at just over 200 pages, The Paperchase is nevertheless imbued with a real sense of place and atmosphere on Ionia and manages a good level of depth of characterisation with both Damien and Patrick. It also leaves a couple of interesting open ended questions worth considering, or so I thought personally.

It was enjoyable and very readable, although the story isn't "a big one", packed with incident it is deftly handled and engaging. I think my biggest complaint would be that it was too short which is a compliment to the writer really.   Certainly worth the couple of hours of your time it would take to read, and the low price on Amazon. Shame it's out of print. 8/10

Monday, 5 March 2012

Book #23 Embassytown by China Mieville


Embassytown by China Mieville is the first of his books I have read, and what a place to start. It is a science fiction story about space traveller Avice, who returns to her home planet Embassytown an outpost of larger planet Bremen with her husband Scile after years of travelling in the "immer".

Embassytown is a human colony where humans co-exist alongside several other species including main indigenous species the Ariekei, respectfully known by the humans as "The Hosts" The nature of the Language, meaning the Language of the Ariekei makes it difficult for the two species to inter-communicate, though the humans certainly do try and enter dialogue with their respected hosts. Scile, a linguist, is excited to meet these Hosts and discover more about their language.

Those humans who communicate with The Hosts are the leaders The Ambassadors, twinned men and women who operate as one. But during Avice's stay, a new Ambassador, EzRa arrives, when he attempts to greet The Hosts an unexpected reaction occurs and the humans panic, wondering if they have offended their Hosts. Embassytown rapidly descends into pandemonium, and as essential services stop enters an almost apocalyptic situation. Can Avice and her colleagues pull it back from the brink?

Embassytown is a really interesting novel with a lot to say. It's about linguistics and the essential nature of communication, but it also acts as metaphor for life here on Earth. It has sociological resonance regarding tolerance and interacting with those of different cultures and ideologies, and so feels grounded in something current despite being a future based novel.

 At times it can be a difficult book. Avice, as a character can feel distant from the reader, instead of the heroine you root for, and at times it can be quite convoluted, and I think it would confuse and frustrate readers who don't read often or particularly in this genre. I can understand why some gave up on it. Personally, I really enjoyed it, am passing it on to one of my best friends and look forward to reading further Mieville novels.     8.5/10

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Book #22 Another Bullshit Night In Suck City by Nick Flynn

Another Bullshit Night In Suck City

Another Bullshit Night In Suck City attracted my attention when I saw the trailer for the film based upon it Being Flynn starring Paul Dano and Robert De Niro.

The novel is a memoir of father and son, the impact growing up without a father had upon Nick Flynn as a boy and the complex psychological reaction and range of emotions Nick is put through when his absent father suddenly becomes a present client at the homeless shelter at which he works.

This book has a completely unique story to tell, I have not read a story like the situation Nick Flynn is faced with before. His father Jonathan, as described by him reminded me immensely of Joe Gould from the Joseph Mitchell portrait of the homeless character on New York's streets.

Jonathan similarly is full of grandiose beliefs and claims, including being related to the inventors of various things, and being descended from the Romanov dynasty. A failed writer he is racist, conceited, bombastic and rude, you pity Nick Flynn completely for having to deal with this man, for having to have his colleagues, friends and girlfriend know his father for what he is.

But, Another Bullshit Night In Suck City rises entirely above the plethora of "my awful childhood" books that dominate supermarket shelves because it is wonderfully written and literary in style. I empathised with Nick strongly throughout, like when he tends to homeless men in the street, gives them food and blankets and does not know if the man in the next doorway will be his own Dad. Or when from inside his house he spies his father alone, walking, and is guilt-ridden for not inviting him in but knows for the sake of sheer self preservation he cannot.

I saw someone on Amazon say they think it might be quite a male book, but I think the emotions transcend gender and I think anyone who has had a difficult or failed relationship with one or both parents will identify.

Where the book falters slightly is when he introduces experimental elements such as casting his father in a play not literally but as part of the narrative, these don't quite work.  But, like David Vann's Legend Of A Suicide the emotional realities conveyed in this story are frequently so real that the reader feels the author's pain, which is an achievement indeed. 8/10

Book #21 The Assistant by Bernard Malamud

The Assistant

Not to be confused with the Robert Walser novel of the same name, it appears you can only buy this novel second hand on Amazon UK now which is a great shame, it is possibly out of print, at least in this country, I bought mine second hand and it's a really good quality edition.

I had been urged to read The Assistant by a number of people a couple of years ago. Books often take time to arrive at their turn, and so it came to pass that I gave The Assistant a go.

In The Assistant, a lowly shopkeeper, Morris Bober ekes by a small living in a run down delicatessen with his wife and daughter, verging on penniless, their existence is a narrow one. Morris and his wife rarely leave their shop and living quarters, and because of their poor finances their daughter can only attend night school not college proper. Helen Bober too, has begun to narrow her own existence, embarrassed by her poverty she cuts off contact with friends and shuts down a relationship with a wealthier man.

Into the midst of this comes a sudden attack, the Bober's have apparently been targeted for a robbery the fundamental cause being anti-semitic in nature.  The robbers take what they can, but Bober has little to give anyway. After becoming injured during the robbery Bober is forced to take on an Assistant, and after discovering Frank Alpine sleeping in his cellar, hires him in exchange for lodgings.

But is Frank Alpine all he seems to be??

The Assistant is very well written, and so is enjoyable from that angle, but it has a dour nature and a grimness that in the end doesn't strike the uplifting note that I was led to believe it would at least not for me personally. Frank Alpine is difficult to identify with considering his behaviour and I couldn't warm to him. Helen's existence but lack of life and youth depressed me, old before her time. That said its character portraits are very sound, detailed, rich. But would somebody really behave as Frank does?? I'm not sure.

The nature and reasoning behind anti-semitism has always confused me and continues to do so in this novel, to hate someone merely for being a Jew alone, seems not merely racism or prejudice but entirely lacking in logic. It makes me sad.

All in all, it is a good book, but I will probably pass it on and not read it a second time 7/10