Thursday, 31 May 2012

#Book 51 Fred and Rose by Howard Sounes

Fred and Rose

I have previously shied away from reading 'true crime' books, because of their often sickening content and Fred and Rose is in fact the first such book I have read. I read it after I so recently watched Appropriate Adult, the excellent BAFTA winning drama starring Emily Watson and Dominic West.

I was young when 'The House Of Horrors' murders occurred but I remember watching News At Ten each night as yet another name was added to the list and thinking it would never end. I realised watching Appropriate Adult that I remembered very little of the case and that was part of the impetus to read this account by a journalist who reported on it.

It sheds light on the earlier lives of Fred and Rose and how the two personalities combined became an explosive cocktail of deviance. Alone, they would each have been a bad lot, but together reached heights of depravity they would not have reached solo, a desperately unfortunate meeting of minds.

The descriptions of the murders and sexual acts is graphic and at many points disturbed me, made me uncomfortable and made me question why I was reading it, but, turning away from it after I had begun felt like turning away from their victims and the terrible injustices they suffered. It is a competent and thorough expose of the case and provides hitherto unknown background information.

It didn't make for enjoyable reading, nor should it have, but it was a well written record of those terrible events. One wonders exactly how many women are lying out in Gloucestershire unfound. 8/10

What Roz Recommends

Having now read 50 books this year, I am ahead of the jump having only reached 50 at the end of June last year.

I have also managed to read more non fiction books this year so far of which I am quite proud.

Particularly this year I seem to have enjoyed more of the books I have read at this point than I did last year but I don't know whether I can attribute this to more judicious choices or sheer luck. People often ask me what I would recommend reading, so here are this years highlights.

1)The Children's Book by AS Byatt - a look at history through its impact on a family and their friends

2)Under The Skin by Michel Faber - A woman preys upon hitchhikers. But why?

3)Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer - a childs reaction to 9/11

4)The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern - a beautiful story of magic and love

5)Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry - a journey of a group of cowboys across America

6)Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion - a zombie romance

7)Boy A by Jonathan Trigell - an examination of what it is like to live with a criminal past

8)The End Specialist by Drew Magary - A cure for the aging process is found & has consequences

9)Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel - the sequel to Wolf Hall

10)The Gift Of Rain by Tan Twan Eng - a boy's journey through pre-war and wartime Malaysia

Of the others the ones I would warn people off would be The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, All The Myriad Ways and The Neurotourist.

Here's to being ahead of schedule, the next 50, and making it to 100 books this year! 

Book #50 The Man Who Forgot His Wife by John O'Farrell

The Man Who Forgot His Wife

The Man Who Forgot His Wife by John O'Farrell is the story of Jack Vaughn, a history teacher, who wakes up on the tube with no memory of who he is, or his past, and his journey back to mental wellbeing.

It transpires that Jack's marriage has ended and that he was the one who filed for divorce but as his memories slowly return, he begins to remember all the reasons why he loved his wife to begin with.

I had a mixed response to this book, at times quite funny and also quite poignant at one point I started crying, which quite surprised me, as the calibre of the prose in general was only slightly above average. It's very contemporary with reference to the Royal Wedding as a recent past event, and has the same bloke lit kind of writing style as Tony Parsons or Nick Hornby.

The problem with the book is that 'psychogenic fugue' which is what Jack Vaughn experiences is actually quite a serious disorder which leaves it sufferers permanently disconnected and unable to bond with those they have loved. If they remember past events which is often unlikely, they still feel separate from their old self.

The jocular way the matter is treated with, though sometimes fun too often veers into the asinine and the ludicrous rendering the novel less endearing in general because it invokes the unpleasant 'As If' reaction in the reader. It lacks any depth or seriousness whatsoever. It's fluff, but it's fun fluff.

Jack Vaughn adapts too well, and resumes his old life too easily for someone in his circumstances. Were surrounding characters are concerned, I couldn't stand Linda and Gary and found it completely unbelievable that characters like Jack and Maddy would be their friends. The ending ultimately is the cheesy fare of a really poor romantic comedy. Yet somehow despite spotting glaring flaws as I read, I both laughed and cried. It was an engaging read, easy, fun, quick. 7/10

Monday, 28 May 2012

Book #49 The Queen Of Whale Cay by Kate Summerscale

The Queen Of Whale Cay

The Queen Of Whale Cay a Sunday Times bestseller by the author of The Suspicions Of Mr Whicher Kate Summerscale, tells the story of "Joe" Carstairs an old fashioned British eccentric, a wealthy lesbian who dressed largely as a man, who lived it up in Paris high society and went on to race boats  before buying her own island in the Bahamas, and becoming its ruler; this book  first caught my attention when it was chosen by Sue Perkins on 'My Life In Books' last year.

Like The Suspicions of Mr Whicher this non fiction is a very entertaining instead of dull affair. It makes you rather sad that people who lead these extraordinary, varied, lives don't seem to exist any more. With Joe's fervent believe that her doll, Lord Tod Wadley is a real boy, I felt that had Joe Carstairs existed in this day and age she would have been labelled mentally ill and dulled by medication. The age where a person was allowed to be a "character"  seems to have passed, and people seem to have a homogenised idea on "right" behaviour.

Though this is a very competent and engaging biography I felt that perhaps I would have preferred to see Joe Carstairs story laid out as a novel, like David Peace did with Brian Clough or as Hilary Mantel is doing with Thomas Cromwell now. I think there was certainly enough material in her love affairs alone to make an amazing novel.

Good on a sunny afternoon and worth a look 7/10

Book #48 The Gift Of Rain by Tan Twan Eng

The Gift Of Rain

Longlisted for The 2007 Man Booker Prize eventually won by Anne Enright's The Gathering, having read The Gift Of Rain I feel it was cruelly overlooked and should have been a greater contender.

Its protagonist is an aging Phillip Hutton who when born had been the product of a wealthy British colonial father and a Chinese immigrant mother in Penang, Malaysia. The only surviving member of the Hutton family, he keeps the good name of his father's business alive. One night he is visited by a dying woman named Michiko who has come to find out about her lost love Endo. From there the novel takes place largely in flashback as Phillip relates to Michiko his relationship with Endo-san from start to finish.

Reading The Gift Of Rain reminded me so much of what I love about literature generally. Its ability to transport you to times past and other places, places that no longer are as they once were so that even if you travelled to their location on the map, you wouldn't find them. Recently I've been to Lagos, and the Tudor Court, in this instance I got to travel to pre-war and wartime Malaysia, and Tan Twan Eng paints a beautiful mental image with his descriptions.

I loved the tangled emotional complexities of Phillip and Endo's relationship. Some may feel that at certain points Phillip's behaviour in response to Endo's behaviour lacks credulity in the context, but then you remember the parameters set between them and their beliefs about their past and future. Like Philip you feel your gut drop when you put certain things together. Other characters are great too, Kon and Isabel particularly.

The strength of the novel ultimately is the writing, some beautifully executed descriptive prose and a portrait of a kind of love not often seen in literature wrapped up in the twists and turns of wartime intrigue. This book is thoroughly worth reading and I do urge you to buy it. 10/10    

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Book #47 The Girl Who Leapt Through Time by Yasutaka Tsutsui

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time

This, at 170 pages is a brief book, so allow me to be equally brief. It comprises of two short stories "The Girl Who Leapt Through Time" and "The Stuff That Nightmares Are Made Of"

In the initial story school girl Kazuko finds herself falling through time; in the second two siblings confront their nightmares.

These stories are appallingly written, piss poor would be the best description. Perhaps it's just a truly terrible translation but it reads like a precocious 13 year old wrote it.

It's not just the style of language that makes this poorly written though, it's also the construct of the plot, particularly in the first story.

Mediocre on every level, definitely don't read this! 0/10

Book #46 Look At Me by Jennifer Egan

Look At Me

Look At Me is the story of Charlotte Swenson, a model whose face is damaged so badly in a car crash, that following reconstructive surgery she becomes unrecognisable to those who knew her. It is also the story of Charlotte Hauser, Charlotte Swenson's teenage namesake, the daughter of her estranged best friend, and the narrative switches between the two protagonists.

The prose is often well written and has some great identifiable moments throughout such as :

"When she thought of herself a year ago she remembered a girl with outsized hopes, a girl who believed the world had made secret arrangements in her favour. Charlotte hated her"
 The premise too is a really good one, life beyond disfigurement, an interesting story to be told. Unfortunately this really isn't that story. Though this is the novels central plot, the story of the younger Charlotte has naught to do with this idea. Furthermore it is the younger Charlotte who is the more intriguing and likeable character. Older Charlotte the model is an irritating arrogant character to be in the company of, and the opportunity for psychological reflections on the nature of disfigurement does not take place, so much so that I do wonder if Egan even bothered to consult people who had experienced like tragedies.

In some ways it felt like two separate novels merged, a novel on loss of beauty, and a novel on loss of innocence; as though perhaps originally there had been only one Charlotte and Egan did not know whether to focus on her youth or her adulthood. The storyline involving the mysterious Z who solidifies a link between the two feels completely preposterous and tenuous due to excessive coincidence. 

As a character himself Z is less an enigma than a thin sketch, abrupt and confusing, his lack of detail as a character is incredibly frustrating.

It goes on in one strand to make a point about the modern development of Individuals who are not famous for their work but are commodities of themselves, brands, like for example Snooki or the Kardashians. Personally I'm getting incredibly bored of novels which shoehorn in some annoying parody of the real world in order to make some kind of redundant pseudo-intellectual contemporary social comment. It's been overdone.

The ultimate problem was that I found that the longer I read this novel, the more I failed to care about it or its characters, so much so that as I approached the end I was page counting. When you end up page counting you know you hate the book.....

Not for me. 5/10

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Book #45 Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Bring Up The Bodies

Bring Up The Bodies is of course the sequel to Booker Prize winning Wolf Hall, charting the career and life of senior Tudor court advisor Thomas Cromwell.

We return to his story exactly where we left off at the titular Wolf Hall where Henry VIII is first introduced to future third wife Jane Seymour. One of the many great things about Wolf Hall was that they arrived there in the last sentence, and you finally know why it is called Wolf Hall in the first place.

I adored Wolf Hall and thought it was one of the most well written and enjoyable Booker Prize winners in years. Therefore it gives me tremendous pleasure to say that Bring Up The Bodies is equally good. The exquisite prose and turn of phrase follow on seamlessly from the first book and it wasn't hard at all for me to totally re-enter that universe despite not having brushed up on a re-read of Wolf Hall beforehand.

I enjoy stories of the Tudor court and have read all of Philippa Gregory's Tudor novels, and watched the laughably bad Showtime series on BBC2. Mantel's novels are a much classier affair however, and by taking the character of Thomas Cromwell, a lesser explored and perhaps enigmatic figure gives a fresh eye on a well told tale. Where Wolf Hall chartered the downfalls of Cardinal Wolsey and Katherine of Aragon respectively, Bring Up The Bodies brings us the downfall of Anne Boleyn, a well documented fall from grace. Anne Boleyn herself remains enigmatic - were the stories about her true or was she much more sinned against than sinning?

This book doesn't offer those answers only Thomas Cromwell's motives: political alliances, satisfying the King's capricious nature by any means necessary, and more interestingly, payback for his personal vendettas. He makes for an intriguing, clever, and foreboding individual which is just what one wants from a protagonist.

It is again, beautifully written and beautifully researched, and I was delighted to hear that there will be a third novel, which history buffs will know will cover the disaster that befalls Thomas Cromwell as Henry's favoured man when Henry finds that he mislikes fourth bride Anne Of Cleeves. I for one can't wait! 10/10           

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Book #44 My Dearest Jonah by Matthew Crow

My Dearest Jonah

My Dearest Jonah is the second novel from young Geordie author Matthew Crow. I bought this novel because of its endorsement from Jonathan Trigell on the cover, an author whose work I've come to admire over the last six months.

My Dearest Jonah is the story of penpals Verity and Jonah who were introduced via a scheme. At the beginning of the novel Verity is in trouble and the bulk of her letters recount for Jonah how she ended up in her current position. Jonah's letters are present tense illustrating his attempts at a new life in a small town, trying to leave the unpleasantness of his past behind him.

The strength of My Dearest Jonah is the richness and quality of the prose, it is very clear that Crow is gifted with words and has a better way with them than some far more experienced and prolific writers out there.

But bizarrely his writing credentials are what causes the novels greatest flaw: the voice of his characters. Verity is a waitress and stripper without much of an education, who has taken to writing to ex convict Jonah who, imprisoned at a young age doesn't have much of an education either. Yet, in Verity's letters she comes out with such things as :

"The ancients said love was a completely mystical force, completely separate from matters as lowly as those of the flesh. Perhaps that's us Jonah. We transcend the carnal."    

"unperturbed by the triptych of languages"

Her letters simply are not believable as the letters of an uneducated small town stripper. The same goes for Jonah's. Though Crow's own authorial voice is a very erudite one, it is not realistic as the voice of his characters. Additionally, the letters from each character are far too similar in style, vocabulary and ultimately verbosity to be believable as two separate voices. Surely each character should have had a separate style of writing, as people do in real life?

As a reader, though the story was interesting, I had trouble forming an attachment to either character or initially getting "my teeth stuck in" to the book. Also, there is quite a glaring typo on the second to last page. Tut, tut, proofreader.

Despite this, Matthew Crow definitely shows talent and promise and his future looks bright and is worth keeping an eye on. 7/10

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Books #41-43 The Fifty Shades Trilogy by E.L James

Fifty Shades Of Grey Fifty Shades Darker Fifty Shades Freed

I have decided to review the Fifty Shades Trilogy as a whole because the remarks I want to make about it refer to all three books. Please do not worry, no spoilers.

Like many I was drawn to the Fifty Shades Trilogy by all the recent media coverage, including a piece about it recently on Newsnight in which E.L James was interviewed, wanting to know just what all the damn fuss was about.

By E.L James own admission, Fifty Shades began life as a piece of Twilight fanfiction entitled Master Of The Universe in which the Bella character met Edward at a later date before engaging in a BDSM relationship with him.

Master Of The Universe can no longer be found on the Internet or at least I couldn't locate it. It has been deleted pretty much everywhere, presumably either by James herself or by the publisher who took this hugely popular Internet story and revamped it into something new, or, newish.

The Bella character becomes Ana Steele, a virginal English graduate who encounters multimillionaire businessman Christian Grey, a successful yet damaged man who enjoys being dominant and targets Ana as his next submissive.  

Shades of the original Twilight novels are fairly evident in the first book Fifty Shades Of Grey, from watching her eat, to replacing her clapped out car, and the infuriating lip biting.

I say infuriating lip biting because of just how often the fact that Ana bites her lip and Christian tells her not to is repeated throughout the novels narrative, not sure precisely how many but it is a good Fifty times too often. The same for rolling her eyes, the fact that Ana thinks Christian is "mercurial" etc.

In addition references to Ana's "inner goddess" are frankly vomit inducing, and punchworthy. Her subconscious is also massively over used. The book is highly repetitive in the terminology it uses, and therefore ultimately poorly written.

The sex too is massively repetitive and often incongruous, they have sex more often than is physically possible for anyone and often in bizarre circumstances after one or each of the characters has had a truly awful day, and shagging to the point of exhaustion wouldn't realistically occur. I understand that these books are erotica and therefore are about having sexual content but like others who have read it, I soon found myself skipping some sex scenes to get on with the plot.

There is a patronising element to Fifty Shades trying to feed into the fantasies of women who think they are "the one" to change an errant or damaged mans ways, when a sensible woman should know this can't be done and this effects the believability of certain developments. Despite the fact that Ana calls Christian mercurial, her constant changes of heart and moving of goalposts make you understand the guys confusion and feel for him.

Despite this the books like the Twilight novels are utterly bizarrely compelling, and I read them all very quickly. Christian is actually a really enthralling character, and his back story is touching. As certain events occur in Grey, Darker, and Freed it really does become like a crazy American soap opera and is quite addictive in that respect. Ana is frequently irritating though.

So yes, characters and plot do make you continue reading these stories but the quality of the prose is frankly godawful. Newsnight among other media outlets have referred to the saga as "Mummy Porn" and somehow there is I feel something inherently condescending towards "silly women who don't want to read serious books" in this. I guess that you could call this the modern revamped Mills and Boon. There is absolutely "something there" in these books, and had she reduced the level of repetitiveness in her prose and kept the sex scenes in but removed the ones that are silly in the context and surplus to requirements, there might be a decent novel but it lacks any kind of erudition or sophistication.

It's good for a laugh, and light titillation, and as I say bizarrely compulsive so there is some kind of magic in there. I also found the Twilight novels compulsive despite the fact that they too are quite poorly written. Ultimately these books are a guilty pleasure because I enjoyed it in spite of myself and in spite of the fact it is utter tosh!!!   Grey 7/10 Darker 8/10 Freed 7/10