Thursday, 3 December 2009

U is for Updike

I have never read a book that grated on me like The Widows of Eastwick did. We got off to a bad start because I thought that the Widows of  Eastwick was the book name for the film. When I began reading it, though, I realised it was the sequel. Boy, did I know it was the sequel – constant references to the first book and how depraved it was and how they killed poor little whatshername were irritating beyond belief.

The main story revolves around the three witches of Eastwick, thirty years older and now appropriately all widows.
Alexandra is the middle in age, a large hippy living in Mexico. She’s scraping through after her husband died, leaving with next to nothing.
Jane is the oldest and richest, living with her ancient mother in law after the death of her husband. Materially cared for, but not emotionally.
Sukie is the youngest and possibly least irritating. She’s moderately rich and moderately emotionally balanced.
After ignoring each other for decades, they decide that now they’re alone, they’ll visit a few countries together. This is the cue for cringeworthy, racist speech where the ‘small Asian couple’ lose their ‘L’s completely and the Egyptians are all filthy men with no teeth and Arab headgear. As if that wasn’t quite enough, a man unfortunate enough to be mistaken for a suitor for Alexandra is internally derided as ‘faggy’ as soon as he mentions his dead partner.

It’s got a horrible tone to it, a seething mass of bitterness and hatred for everything. I think the worst thing for me was that it pretends to be a feminist novel, but it’s written by a man and has far too many lesbian-ish scenes for it to be anywhere near true feminism. I’m not exactly the world’s biggest feminist (if we’re that equal, why are we shouting about it?) but I object to a ‘feminist’ novel which includes a scene with a magic circle and ‘sky clad’ women, just so he can write about flesh and wrinkles.

It was tiresome, repetitive and boring. All the women were old, widows, elderly, alone…. The townspeople of Eastwick were suspicious, wary… In three hundred pages, about two things happen which are actually of any interest, and even these are buried under pages of dead prose which can be easily skimmed with no detriment to the plot.

Before reading this, I was interested in reading the Witches of Eastwick. After this though, I don’t want to read another Updike novel, and would strongly advise against anyone else reading one.

Next book – Slaughterhouse 5

T is for Thomas

Scarlett Thomas is probably best well known for The End of Mr Y, the black tinged page book with the striking red cover. Popco is the re-issued 2004 novel – a blue tinged paged book with a striking blue cover.
Thomas has an odd tone of voice which won’t sit well with all readers. It’s hard to describe, but is generally slightly standoffish, almost patronising. Popco has a similar tone of voice, but Thomas obviously loves language so much that you can overlook this.

Popco is the story of Alice Butler, a twenty nine year old cryptanalyst/cryptographer. She lives in a tiny London flat with her cat, and works for toy company, Popco. The book opens with a corporate excursion to Devon, which Alice travels to alone, as she doesn’t enjoy crowds. From the outset, then, she’s a loner, someone who’s happy with her own company. It’s lucky that she’s a likeable protagonist.
The location of the majority of the book is an isolated mansion in the middle of Dartmoor, designed to get the creative juices flowing amongst the bright young creative things. Alice is quickly selected for a mysterious ‘secret project’, along with a few others she’s noticed in the crowd. I don’t want to write too much about the plot, but basically she realises that she is disillusioned with Popco and the principles at it’s foundation.

There are times where the story falls away slightly, and the propaganda undertones are exposed a little more forcefully than expected, but I never felt preached to. One conversation in particular has stuck with me, and that was one around why vegans are vegans. Milk comes from cows, but cows don’t produce milk without being pregnant, or in a state of pregnancy. It’s an obvious conclusion, but one that’s left out of the children’s stories. The milk we drink comes from cows who are pregnant for the whole of their generally short lives, who don’t get to see their calves. When you look at it like that, it puts that glass of milk in a whole different light, doesn’t it?

Apart from the anti-establishment message, Alice is concerned with solving a treasure map left by her late grandfather. A cryptologist himself, he taught her everything she knows about cracking codes. This part of the book is interesting as Thomas manages to teach the reader fairly complex methods of code cracking without being too heavy or boring. I’m not that great at maths, but I managed to keep up for most of it.
A couple of chapters in the book tell the story behind the treasure map, about two lovers I immediately dubbed ‘Dread Pirate Roberts’ and ‘Buttercup’ as the story seemed to be straight out of The Princess Bride. Despite this, there was enough of a difference to ignore the similarities. Usually I find intertwined stories to be a bit of a distrraction from the ‘real’plot, but in this case it worked really well.

Popco isn’t for everyone, but I found the story, coupled with well drawn characters and, of course, the pretty cover, came together to make a good book. I especially enjoyed the little phrases and idea Alice comes out with, such as the one where she talks about footsteps having a tune, or note, of their own.

If you’ve read and enjoyed The End of Mr Y, you’ll enjoy this too. If you like puzzle solving, you’ll like this. 

Monday, 16 November 2009

S is for Süskind

I actually learned how to create an umlaut for this review. I’ll probably forget as soon as I’ve finished, but there you go, at least I made the effort.
Patrick Süskind’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, has been around for a quarter of a century in published form. Although set in historical France, it was originally written in German, but handily translated.

The title gives a fairly accurate summary of the plot, but the book is so much more than that. Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is born into a world of poverty and dirt, as his mother shrugs him off like she did the rest of his siblings. Unlike her previous children, Jean-Baptiste refuses to give up, and his newborn cries condemn his neglectful mother to the guillotine. This happens in the first six pages, which might give you an idea of how fast paced the novel is. From his ill fated mother through to the rest of the masters he has throughout the book, Jean-Baptiste is the Angel of Death, as all who take him in suffer a lonely or unwanted death.

Jean-Baptiste has the greatest nose in the world. He can pick out people from miles away, and unravel scents as though unwinding a scarf. Very early on, he begins to collect smells as other people collect books, gathering them together in order to make the perfect smell. While on his quest, he realises that he does not smell. He can tell what a customer has had for lunch a week earlier, but he cannot smell. This might seem to be a distinct advantage to most readers – no more money spent on deodorants or perfume in an effort to smell acceptable at all times. However, for Grenouille, it proves to be a burden as without smell he is invisible in a crowd. Worse than that, he is abhorrent face to face – people avoid him without knowing why. Grenouille manages to create his own scent, and finds more success from then on. Perhaps this is because he gains confidence due to the fact that he has a smell, rather than his application of a fake smell. Either way, he finds himself more socially accepted.

Süskind’s idea that a person’s unique smell is representative of their soul is quite interesting. I even found myself sniffing the inside of my elbows (the place where the scent comes out strongest, apparently) in an attempt to smell me. It didn’t work, and it was a good job I was at home and not out in public, quite frankly. It seems to make sense, though – everyone does have a certain smell, no matter what perfumes they use. It’s not about sweat or smelly feet, but deeper than that. Maybe what you eat or drink makes a difference. Perhaps happy people smell nicer, and so are happy as a result.

As far as his writing goes, Süskind’s prose is impressive. For a fairly heavy subject matter, the book dances along through Grenouille’s childhood and teenage years with a very light touch. He is succinct and articulate, with a pleasing tone of voice which never veers towards being patronising or boring.
His characters are impressive too – Grenouille is a murderer but he is made into a sympathetic figure because he is painted as lonely, in search of love but with the knowledge that he is too strange to be loved. He is described as a pet, a tick, a cuckoo in the nest – very rarely as human.

When Grenouille begins murdering properly, the narrator shifts to someone else, who reports on the killings. This is very clever as the reader is obviously aware that it’s Grenouille, but no-one else is. We are therefore in the position of knowing the mystery and being able to view it from the bewildered townspeople’s perspective.

I was familiar with the story as I saw the 2006 film of the same name. The story is fairly faithfully followed in the film, although understandably conversations and characters are jettisoned in favour of pacing. One of the main differences for me, though, was that Grenouille is unattractive in the book, with scars and carbuncles from slave labour and diseases adorning his face and body. In the film, he’s played by Ben Whishaw, who is not unattractive, in my opinion. I suppose that’s the difference between film and book – as his confidence grew, so did his social success. Perhaps he was not ugly, but felt so until he acquired new clothes and a scent of his own.

I’d recommend Perfume to people who enjoy an historical novel that’s a bit different. Don’t be put off if you’ve seen the film – I found the language to be easy to read and the description was kept to a minimum, allowing the reader to imagine items for themselves.

Next week – Scarlet Thomas’ Popco. It’s so pretty – I’m looking forward to reading it!

Thursday, 12 November 2009

R is for Rivas

Vermeer’s Milkmaid is a collection of short stories by Galician writer, Manuel Rivas. I had to wikipedia Galicia because, shamefacedly, I didn’t know where it was. To show off my new knowledge and enlighten those others who don’t know, it’s in Spain. North West Spain, to be exact, and according to the Great Encyclopaedia, an historical autonomous community.
Although Rivas writes in Spanish and Galician, the book I read had been translated into English, which was pretty handy. I talked about translation back in August, and I still believe that translator’s a hard job. You have to retain not only the meaning, but the style and inflection of each sentence. No pressure, then.

I’d like to be able to read Galician, so I can make a proper observation about the translation of the stories. In this absence, I’ll just say that Rivas’ writing came across as succinct but evocative, in all sixteen stories. These were indeed, short, as the book itself struggled to reach one hundred and twenty pages.

They all represented what I would call, good short stories. There was a clear plot and all of the relevant details were revealed about characters, locations, events, with just enough guess work to make them mysterious. The majority of them centred around male characters, searching for something from a long lost love to their bodies, which they have been estranged from. Most of the stories had an element of fantasy in them, from the tarot card reader who refuses to read after drawing a bad omen card, to the three page story following a conversation about murder amongst inanimate objects, from the Television to the Ashtray to the Darkness itself.

Another mark of a good short story, or collection of, is how they affect you. I read A Perfect Day for Bananafish, by J.D. Salinger, in a creative writing class years ago, and I still think about it. Due to their nature, they usually revolve around a short, sharp event in someone’s life. In Rivas’ collection, an old man recounts the time where he got so frustrated with his lover’s yappy dog that he snuck back to her house at night and murdered it by ramming a steel spike down its throat. She knew, of course, and he never saw her again.
The stories are haunting, full of dusty images of the Civil War and sax players. They come and go in a flash, but promise to remain in my imagination for a long time to come.

I’d recommend these to people who enjoy short stories with a darker, deeper side – ones which may need careful re-reading to see all of the layers. It might help to know where Galicia is as well. 

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Q is for Quinn

Rory and Bruno live in the Venetian Vista gated community, in a luxurious house. They’ve spent the best part of twenty years together, since college. The Good Neighbor begins when the empty house next door gets occupants. In a coincidence (or not, as the writer wrote it that way, I suppose) the neighbours turn out to know them from college. Meg and Austin are a Baptist family with two sons – Noah and Josh. Within a few minutes, the kids have shown the adults up in the tolerance stakes, as they don’t bat an eyelid over Rory and Bruno’s obviously intimate relationship.

Predictably, Rory and Austin become close as they are the designated ‘house husbands’, cooped in over a humid autumn, with only their pools and pills for company. I was convinced that the story would end with Rory and Austin moving in together, and Meg and Bruno setting up house, as a lot is made of Bruno’s previous marriage to a woman. Although I won’t give the ending away, I will say that this doesn’t happen.

It’s quite a short book, which was handy as I’m still catching up from Pessl, but it does manage to fit a lot in. Quinn obviously enjoys writing, as it was easy to read and easy to distinguish between character voices, for the most part. The parallels between the heterosexual and homosexual couple are apparent throughout – the wage earner holds the power, both stay at home partners feel undermined, emasculated at times. Although it felt a bit forced, it was interesting that sex, as in gender, was not important.

Despite being interesting, I also felt that the concept of gay fiction is a bit strange. Perhaps I’m being naïve, but society today is comfortable with gay/lesbian/bi-sexual/transsexual relationships in a way that it wasn’t twenty years ago. My opinion is that, if it’s not that big a deal, why have a section of literature dedicated to how it’s not that different to heterosexual relationships? I suppose there are people who do not agree with lifestyles away from their norm (i.e., married at 18, 2.4 children etc) but I’d like to think that they wouldn’t read this, in which case, Quinn is preaching to the choir.

There’re quite a few references to the fact that Rory is Catholic, and the other couple are Baptist. There’s an irritating conversation where Meg lectures Rory on what Christians believe, where Rory internally comments that Catholics are Christians. I found this irritating because if you believed that your faith was the correct one, a gentle correction is going to enlighten the speaker and defend your position. Instead, he grumbles about it to himself, which is surely not the Christian thing to do. It feels a little bit like the author’s waving a sign around which reads “See!! Gay people are just like ordinary people!!”.

On the other hand, there are very few ‘mainstream’ novels that I am aware of which feature a gay couple as main characters. If I was gay, I’d like that there were novels (Jay Quinn has written a dozen of these) which concerned my lifestyle, from walking the dog to having sex. I’m no prude, but the intimate moments were unexpectedly graphic. It was obvious that there may be ‘scenes of a sexual nature’, simply because another of Quinn’s books that I picked up in the library came under the ‘gay erotic fiction’ label.
Aside from this, much of the novel revolves around Austin’s voyeurism of Rory and Bruno, as he watches them in their back garden. Again, perhaps I’m being naïve but I didn’t really see why it was necessary to strip each other in the pool, in full view of everyone.  Intimacy isn’t displayed with half drowned blow jobs, in my opinion.

I know I’m in danger of sounding slightly Daily Mail, and I am finding it hard to articulate what I thought of this book without coming across as homophobic or falsely tolerant. I enjoyed the writing, and the characters were largely rendered successfully. However, no-one got away with occasional broad strokes about their personalities, from their sexual preferences to their alcohol tolerance.
To summarise, the main themes of the book – love, loyalty and independence – could all easily have been covered with any combination of couples, and often is. It was refreshing to see the main couple being gay, but in 2009, I felt guilty for being surprised. Although there were irritating affectations (such as Bruno telling Meg that nine year old Josh is gay, as ‘they’ can spot ‘em young) there were incidences of charming writing, which kept me reading. 

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

P is for Pessl

 For P I read Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics. I’m disappointed in myself for this one, because I started reading it early and it still took me two weeks to read. Never fear, dear readers, I’ll catch up with the Challenge. Sometimes, though, life gets in the way, and this month has been an exceptionally busy one.
Despite this, I read for about the time I would normally read for – probably longer, as I had a couple of train journeys as well. It’s not that long, but it’s quite densely written and you can’t afford to skim sentences, as you’ll find yourself wandering around in the text, lost amongst the characters’ conversation.

Marisha Pessl (thank you, wikipedia)  was born in the late 1970s, and after her parents split the family moved to North Carolina. Apparently she had an intellectually stimulating upbringing, with her mother reading aloud to her children before bed. This is perhaps the inspiration for Special Topics in Calamity Physics, where Blue van Meer is an intellectually stimulated teenager who moves around America with her professor father. Write about what you know, I guess.

The writing, although awkward in places, does it’s best to engage the reader with a fairly unwieldy plotline. Pessl clearly loves language, and playing with sentences. She frequently anthropomorphises inanimate objects, pets, even emotions, which is usually amusing, although it got wearing after a little while. The other aspect I found interesting was her ability to make the reader react – she describes facial expressions so well that I found myself copying the character’s, using her description.

Blue is an extremely intelligent sixteen year old girl, brought up by her father after the apparent suicide of her mother, when she was very young. Her thoughts, and indeed, the book’s prose, are littered with pop culture and literary references from all eras and areas – high and low brow. It reminded me a little of Gaarder’s Sophie’s World, that non fiction Philosophy textbook masquerading as an endearing (though slightly creepy) relationship story. It was quite fun to recognise references, although usually Blue explained them anyway, so don’t be daunted by this. The made up references were more confusing – writings by van Meer featured heavily, along with websites that I am more than half-tempted to look up, just to see what’s there. The other bonus with having books referenced is that you collect other books on your to read list.  The snag is when there are books you want to read which aren’t real. I just spend ten minutes looking for the Charles Manson biography “Blackbird singing in the dead of night”, only to find that it’s fabricated. I suppose that’s the mark of a good writer, or one of them, at least.

The plot revolves around Blue’s senior year at a new high school, where she meets film teacher Hannah Schneider and an elite group of seniors – the Bluebloods. They’ve all been picked by Hannah to socialise with her in a faux study group. It reminded me of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History – a group of teenagers construct a secret society with dire consequences. Except, there weren’t, really. Although you find out at the beginning of the book that Hannah Schneider commits suicide, it’s not really until the end hundred and fifty pages that the story comes out about it. I think the book suffers from a stilted pace, as if Pessl didn’t employ an editor, but wrote everything she wanted to write before realising that nothing much had happened for three hundred pages and she needed to wrap it up.  It also reminded me of Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things,  where Something Bad is going to happen for three hundred pages, and when it finally does, I’d lost interest in the Terrible Thing.

I was a bit bewildered by the third act, to be honest. I don’t want to give too much of the story away, but there are a number of plot twists in the last hundred pages which left me reeling with information. Other events in the story click into place as being finally relevant, but by that time I’d either forgotten where they’d been mentioned or they felt shoehorned in at the last minute. In this way, it’s a good book to re-read, and I think it would be great for a book club, as there are so many different aspects that a good discussion would be interesting.

In the same way that Blue’s life echoes Pessl’s, the book imitates itself. The film L’Aventura features heavily, which, we are told, revolves around a missing woman who is never found. A quick imdb search reveals that this too, is a fabrication of Pessl’s. However, although Hannah does not disappear, the book is not wrapped up and there is no pertinent ending. Some people may find this frustrating, which is understandable, but I enjoyed the confidence inherent in finishing a book without closure. The book also begins with Blue introducing herself (although you don’t know her name until a fair amount of pages in) and explaining that she’s writing a journal for her grandkids. This format does not continue all the way through, but there are some nice touches, such as the ‘hand-drawn’ visual aids which are sprinkled through the chapters.

I’d be interested in reading this book again as I’m sure there are loads of things  I missed. It’s touted as the next The Time Traveler’s Wife, and my copy even has a quote from Niffenegger about how she couldn’t put it down. Sadly, I don’t think it’s going to enjoy that level of popularity, but it’s still worth reading if you fancy something a little more challenging and thought-provoking. 

Friday, 16 October 2009

O is for Oates

Rape: A Love Story is a deliberately provocatively titled novella by the prolific writer Joyce Carol Oates. According to wikipedia (which is always true) she has written over fifty novels, earning her Pulitzer Prize nominations. She is also a literary critic, professor, short story writer and a playwright.

The fact that she is a playwright explains why the book is written in a very specific way – half article, half perspective. It’s written in small sections called things like ‘If’ or ‘She had it coming’, similar to newspaper articles. In fact, the title of the book comes from a newspaper headline later on in the book.

The plot is tragic, shocking, and even more affecting because things like that happen every day. Teena Maguire is gang raped and beaten nearly to death while her twelve year old daughter, Bethie, huddles in a corner. The physical injuries are horrific enough, leaving Teena in a coma for weeks and Bethie with a dislocated arm, along with dozens of bruises and cuts. The worst injuries are, of course, the mental ones. Not only do the Maguires have to come to terms with the events of July 4th, but also the fact that the town of Niagara Falls turns against them. Teena Maguire allegedly was drunk, high, a known prostitute – she deserved it, she was asking for it.

As the reader, we’re obviously on the Maguires’ side. Persecuted by the family members of the accused, threatened by the accused themselves, there’s nothing they can do to protect what innocence is left. That is, until Detective Dromoor comes along. For some reason, he’s drawn to Teena and her daughter. Perhaps it’s because he was first on the crime scene, or the sniper training he had in the army made him believe that justice should be done, even if the court fails. The court fails – some hotshot lawyer persuades the judge and jury that Teena Maguire was indeed drunk, high and a prostitute. The evidence found counts for nothing as it’s her word against theirs – they have the law on their side. Again, this is a shocking turn of events, made even more unbearable by the fact that this kind of thing happens all the time.

In the face of this injustice, Dromoor takes the law into his own hands. Some of the accused go missing, get shot, change their minds.

The questions raised are interesting. Is vigilante justice right? Should we rely on the law to protect us? Can we blame Teena Maguire for taking the shortcut through the park after midnight in July, after twenty four hours of celebrations?

I can easily see this as a play – there are definite scenes, turning points, character arcs. It’s told mainly from the daughter’s point of view, in a voice which is sometimes childish and sometimes too adult, as if she’s repeating things she’s overheard. Some of the snippets are told from the future, when Bethie is married. The ordeal still touches her though, she has never told her husband. Her mother never recovers – not physically or mentally.

It’s pretty bleak, to be honest. Despite that, I still enjoyed it. It was thought provoking and it made me angry – a sure sign that a book is well-written. Oates loves language, and plays with it easily and confidently. Her sentences are written with impact in mind.

I’d recommend this to anyone who enjoys Arthur Miller, Harold Pinter or perhaps Alice Walker. It only took me a couple of hours to read, but I have a feeling it’ll stay with me for a while yet.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

N is for Noble

Things I Want My Daughters to Know is one of those books, with the pastel covers and the potentially heart rending plotline. Elizabeth Noble is one of those authors, with a plethora of novels behind her with titles such as The Reading Group and Alphabet Weekend. I know I shouldn’t be dismissive as sometimes an author has little to no control over art work, and publishers know that shoes and pastels sell to women.

The plot is pretty straightforward – Barbara has died of terminal cancer, leaving behind four daughters and a second husband. It becomes almost like a modernised Little Women, with four very different characters vying for attention in different ways, as well as dealing with the absence of a parent.

There’s Jennifer, the oldest and most staid daughter. Her marriage is falling apart because the wanted child has failed to appear.

Then there’s Lisa, the second oldest and the former wild child. Her long term partner wants to get married but she is afraid of the commitment.

After that there’s Amanda, the wandering nomad who is so averse to confronting her issues that she wasn’t even present for her mother’s death.

The youngest child is Hannah, separated from her sister by decades and blood, as her father is her mother’s second husband, Mark. At nearly sixteen, the loss of her mother is perhaps most keenly felt by her as she struggles to cope with the teenage years without her.

The clever thing about the novel is that Barbara is a character of her own, despite being dead before the first chapter. She comes to life through letters she wrote to her family and a journal she kept throughout her illness. It’s full of anecdotes, memories and advice – the titular things she wants her daughters to know. It turns out, though, that there is a difference between the Barbara that her family knew and the one in the journals.

The one in the journals is full of secrets – she makes mistakes and gets things wrong. This is a departure from the saintly mum the girls remember, and the perfect wife of Mark’s memories.

The rest of the story ambles through the ups and downs of basically the first year without Barbara, as all of the women manage their own struggles, with their mum’s advice in mind. Her husband also manages to begin to make a new life by the end of the book, with some advice from her journal.

There was nothing really wrong with this book, I just didn’t really find it engaging. I also tend to be unaffected by so-called tear-jerkers (unless they’re the donkeys on TV, but I blame the anthropomorphic slant on the advert) and so got to the end of the novel dry eyed. The sisters were all consciously ‘different people’ but I felt that it was a bit too conscious. Maybe I’m just being pernickety – after all, it’s a fictional story, of course it’s going to feel like someone made it up.

People who enjoy an easy read, with familiar characters, will enjoy this. Personally I was looking for something more – deeper, more well rounded characters and less predictable plot lines.

Next week - Joyce Carol Oates' Rape: A Love Story. Looks like a fun read.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

M is for Musso

I’ve been waiting to read Will You be There? by Guillaume Musso for ages. I caught a very small review of it over a year ago, and for some reason I felt compelled to read it. I’m a sucker for a time-travelling relationship story. Before you go on, I’m probably going to tell you the plot so please only read the last paragraph and not the middle bits.

The basic premise is that Elliott is a sixty year old, incredibly successful surgeon who lives in San Francisco. He has a twenty year old daughter and a best friend whose friendship has lasted forty years. At first glance he has it all, until it’s revealed that he has terminal lung cancer. He has also never gotten over his first love, Ilena, who died in an accident thirty years before.

A chance meeting with an old Cambodian witch doctor (in Cambodia, not San Francisco, so not that chance, I guess) leads Elliott to ten small golden pills which will grant him his final wish – to see Ilena again. Once ingested, each of the pills transports him to his thirty year old self for around twenty minutes. His thirty year old self is a bit taken aback. Sixty year old Elliott ends up blurting out that Ilena dies to his younger self, who immediately demands to save her. A furious tangle of time and emotions ensues, where Elliott at 60 doesn’t want his daughter’s life compromised (as she is not Ilena’s) and Elliott at 30 wants Ilena back more than a daughter he’s never met.

I know. Haven’t they ever seen Back to the Future? Don’t they know what meddling with the past can do? People disappear! Actually, they don’t. Ilena is saved from a killer whale type animal biting her head off because young Elliott keeps an appointment he’d cancelled the first time around. However, part of the pact with his double was that he had to save her and break up with her, to make sure his daughter would still be alive. The break up results in Ilena throwing herself off the Golden Gate Bridge, and miraculously surviving. This is probably because old Elliott is there to point out the blood leak in her brain which they missed the second time around, so she died anyway. So, third time around Ilena is alive but every one of her limbs is crushed. And Elliott isn’t allowed to see her anyway. Brilliant.

Added to that, he falls out with his best friend Matt because for some unfathomable reason he isn’t allowed to tell him anything more about his double or the pact they made. As if time wasn’t messed up enough already.

So, in the present time Ilena’s alive but alone, Matt’s married and rich and Elliott’s a terminally ill single dad. So far, so good. With only thirty pages left though, Musso needs to wrap it up to a slightly happier ending pretty quickly. So Elliott dies of cancer, leaving Matt with a journal which explains everything, quite handily. Through a convoluted pathway Matt finds the LAST golden pill and realises that Elliott meant for him to take it. Matt drives to Ilena, gives her the diary, explains to her what he’s going to do (bring Elliott back) and then takes the pill. He finds himself in hospital where his younger, former best friend is far from amused. He’s on the roof, smoking, so Matt has just enough time to warn him against cigarettes and stub it out before being dragged back to the present. At which point, Elliott is alive and walking along the beach, where Ilena meets him. Yay.

It felt like a long ASH advert. I felt cheated. As if stopping smoking would mean he’d be alive thirty years later – he could’ve been hit by a bus, exploded with stress or taken the gateway drug to heroin and overdosed. I also didn’t care about Ilena and Elliott.

It was a novella, really. The story felt too big for this but too small for a proper novel. It could have made a cracking short story, nestled in amongst others along similar lines – fate, destiny, love, life. There were really only three characters in the story – Matt, Ilena and Elliott and to be honest, I kept waiting for the wife swapping to happen. It never did. Perhaps that would have made it more emotionally involving.

The story was interesting though, but I felt that it’d been semi-covered so many times before that I may as well watch Back to the Future.

There were some odd points in it too, though. Time travel aside, I expected the older Elliott to recall when he was younger Elliott that the older Elliott came to see him nine times. Except he didn’t, or at least he didn’t appear to. Matt’s memories changed, but Elliott’s didn’t. Old Elliott talked to old Matt before being told that they hadn’t talked in thirty years. There didn’t seem to be a solid theory for how memories work in the ever changing timeline.

I’d recommend this to anyone who fancies a bit of a departure from standard boy meets girl, boy cheats on girl pastel covered novels, but don’t expect a philosophical masterpiece, will you.

What I want to be when I grow up...

I want to have this job.

It would be pretty cool, although stressful. How embarrassing would it be to shortlist 12 completely different books to everyone else?

What's your dream job?


Monday, 28 September 2009

L is for Lehane

I promise to try to keep the film versus book review to a minimum in this review.

However, there will be a bit of it – I’ll try to keep it to this section. Gone, Baby, Gone, is a book written by Dennis Lehane. Lehane also wrote Mystic River, directed by Clint Eastwood and with a galaxy of stars. Gone, Baby, Gone was the directorial debut of Ben Affleck. If you’re in the UK, you’ve probably never seen it as it got a pretty limited release. That’s because the missing child in it looks a little bit like Madeleine McCann. Nevermind that the book was written in 1998 – I reckon that if The Two Towers came out now, it would also have a delayed release.

Anyway, so the book is about two private investigators, Angie Gennaro and Patrick Kenzie. Apparently it’s a sequel, as all the way through there are references to another case which the two were involved in. This was slightly annoying, although I think I’d find it more annoying if I’d read the other book and then had to put up with repetition of prior knowledge in this book.

Amanda McCready is a three or four year old girl who is reported missing by her good for nothing junkie mother. The police, the neighbours and the rest of the family aren’t doing enough, so the PIs are hired to chip in by the aunt and uncle. Over the next few hundred pages, a story unfolds with lots of shady characters and corners for Gennaro and Kenzie to poke around in.

There’s nothing technically wrong with Lehane’s prose, but I found it to be sludgy and slightly boring. After reading Kesey last week, it was disappointing to read Lehane’s clunky dialogue and awkward exposition. Amanda’s age changes between pages – she’s referred to as a three year old on one page and four two pages later.

Besides that, he repeats himself a lot. Like a lot. Like, enough times to fill Wrigley field ten times over. And he loves Boston. And Ireland. Like, everyone’s a Boston Irish. And they love America. And Ireland. Well, you get the idea. Probably the worst part of this was that Lehane thinks he’s a good writer, evidenced in the swagger of his paragraphs.

I also found the characters difficult to tell apart. From the cops to the villains, they all had a 2D, cookie cutter feel about them which meant it was hard putting a personality to the name. Even for the big reveal, I struggled to remember was involved. Helpfully, Lehane reminded the reader of who everyone was. Even the main characters were difficult to pin down – at the end of the book, I knew nothing of Pat and Angie. I had no emotional investment in them because all I knew was that they were private detectives who semi-lived together.

The plot was let down by the sketchy characters and sludgy dialogue, but was still interesting. I can’t go into too much detail because there’s a pretty big twist at the end. Basically, it’s a morality tale about how sometimes justice fails and normal citizens find that they have to do things they think are right, but the law doesn’t. The most pleasing aspect of the book was this grey area between good guys and bad guys – you don’t get very good or very bad guys (or gals), but a caricature of what normal people are.

Another thing that turned me off Lehane was how negative the book was (I know, just read the review for a bit of irony, right?). Of course, in a book about child abductions it’s not going to be rainbows and lollipops all the way, but there were needless niggles and character aspects built in to random people’s personalities. Bubba’s hatred of The Smiths seemed to transcend the character and come straight from Lehane’s mouth, and so didn’t seem relevant or appropriate. Also, I love The Smiths. There were other examples, which have been buried elsewhere in my brain.

Gone, Baby, Gone is not a bad book, but there are millions of better ones out there. My recommendation, if you like crime, is to read Marshall Karp or Christopher Brookmyre.

K is for Kesey

Everyone knows the story of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. If you haven’t seen the film or read the book, you’ve seen one of the parodies floating around – Spaced’s being the best one, in this reviewer’s humble opinion. The main character, Randle P McMurphy, draws everyone around him like a moth to a flame, dominating the narrative. Right? Wrong. The book’s narrator is Chief Bromden, the apparently deaf and dumb Indian revealed to be the eyes and ears of the mental hospital.

This angle for the book gives it a whole new level, another perspective that I wasn’t expecting. McMurphy is larger than life, and Jack Nicholson’s performance in the film one of his best because the character was so well drawn by Ken Kesey. The fact that the reader does not get to know his innermost secrets works really well, as Chief idolises him in the same way as the other inmates do. In fact, he’s probably closest to him as their beds are next to each other’s. McMurphy figures out that Chief is not deaf and dumb, but has simply got used to everyone assuming that he cannot speak, and therefore cannot hear. McMurhpy gives him his voice back, and gradually moves him out of the fog that has engulfed him for so many years.

For those who don’t know the story, McMurphy breezes into the ward as a convict in prison for assault and battery, who decided that he would be better of serving his sentence in a comfier mental hospital. While there, he galvanises the other patients as far as he can, setting up poker tables, monopoly, televised sports games and even a fishing trip. Nurse Ratched presides over the ward, and is not pleased that everything is changing. There follows a battle of wills between McMurphy and Ratched where the reader is not always sure which is the patient, the clinically insane.

Mental health is obviously a big theme for the book, and it’s hard to decide sometimes who is struggling with serious issues and who is simply a ‘normal’ person, dealing with everyday issues. Chief sees everyone as machinery, being ‘fixed’ by the faceless Combine until they fall into line in the outside world. Amazingly, this way of looking at things becomes normal very quickly, although there’s still the nagging feeling that Chief is seriously damaged from years of electro shock therapy.

McMurphy validates his hallucinations quite late on in the book. Chief hears a noise under his bed, and looks down to see one of the aides scraping off chewing gum from the bed. I thought it was another one of Chief’s waking nightmares, until McMurphy props himself up on his elbow and asks what he thinks he’s doing down there. This small exchange makes the reader question each episode that the Chief has described – is he really certifiable, or is he seeing things the way they really are?

On the flipside, Nurse Ratched is clearly a few sandwiches short of a picnic. This is even pointed out by one of the ‘sane’ adults, another nurse who runs the Disturbed ward. If Nurse Ratched is meant to be normal and is clearly not, what does that say for the people in her care who are meant to be insane and don’t appear to be?

Kesey is described in the introduction (yes, I read those too) as being part of the Beat generation – Kerouac, Ginsberg and so on – but to be honest I felt that this was more because he was in the right place at the right time (he had a van they could borrow, for example) and less because of his writing. Maybe that’s being unfair – if anyone knows more about Kesey’s involvement with the beats, please feel free to share it. Whether he was on the periphery or not, the writing is beautiful. Chief conjures up nightmare images of people carved open to reveal machinery underneath, clouds of cotton enveloping and disorientating all of those inside. The characters are all sharply defined, from the hapless Billy Bibbit to the closet homosexual and McMurphy’s rival, Harding.

If you’ve seen the film, read the book. If you’ve seen clips of Jack Nicholson as McMurphy on E4’s 100,000 Greatest Actors Ever Countdown Part 5, read the book. If you’re interested in mental health, read this book. I cried like a small child at the end because Kesey created his characters so skilfully and subtly, I didn’t even realise I cared until I finished the last page.

Friday, 18 September 2009

J is for Jewell

I went for a very easy J – Lisa Jewell’s Vince & Joy. I object whole heartedly to labelling or pigeon holing anything from music to films to books, but very generally speaking so-called chick lit is far too successful. There are some authors I like who are smeared with the chick lit brush – Meg Cabot has written some fun stuff, Jodi Piccoult tends to be tarred with it and Marian Keyes is capable of writing interestingly. Unfortunately Lisa Jewell does not fall into the category of ‘worthy chick lit’, if you will.

Vince & Joy follows the love, losses and tribulations of Vince and Joy. They meet as teenagers in a caravan park in Hunstanton (yay, East Anglia reference) where they enjoy two weeks of intense connection, and both lose their virginities, to each other. One morning, in fact, the morning after, Vince wakes up to find a soggy note from Joy where all he can make out is ‘I’m so ashamed’. He assumes that this relates to their night of passion, but of course the reader knows that it’s something to do with Vince’s pretty mother and Joy’s pervert father. When this is finally revealed, five hundred pages later, it’s a bit of an anti climax.

I read the whole thing so I obviously didn’t detest it. The story begins with Vince at a friend’s house, while they cheer him up from the latest dumping. They begin to talk about their first loves, and from there Vince tells the story of Joy. I liked this way of getting into the story, as contrived as it was.

The whole thing rattles along pretty well, lots of near misses, disastrous relationships on both sides and lots of fate/destiny moments to keep romantics happy. The other thing I liked about it was that it was told in the majority from Vince’s perspective. His voice is slightly feminine, but then his character is a bit wet so it fits in quite well.

Vince and Joy were obviously the main characters, but there were hundreds of other people involved who flitted in and out. Most of them were pretty well drawn, but a couple were confusingly similar. Vince and Joy both end up with kooky, hippy housemates at one point. Later on in the book, the woman I thought was Joy’s housemate has a revelation when she spots joy in a magazine. Of course, it’s Vince’s ex housemate who’s never met Joy, just knows about her. Maybe that’s just me not paying proper attention, but I did find it confusing.

Although the flashbacks are interesting, the five hundred odd pages propel the reader through inevitable relationship failures towards the end, where you know that Vince & Joy are going to end up together because they’re meant to be together. Of course, when that finally happens, the book ends. I was a bit disappointed with this – I wanted to see them get married and have kids and grow old together. I think that’s probably a compliment for Jewell, that I wanted to see more of the characters and wasn’t thoroughly bored of them.

I’d recommend this book, or any of the other near identikit pastel covered novels, if you’ve got a couple of hours to kill. Or you find it in a train station. Nice, but not really satsifying. The literary equivalent of a big bowl of vanilla ice cream. Good to have but you regret it when you’re starving later.

I is for Irving

The I and J authors have been surprisingly difficult to find, although it’s been easier with surnames than it was with first!

My I is John Irving and his book, The World According to Garp. For me it’s one of those books, like The Fountainhead, which is always mentioned but very few people have actually read. I’ve had it for a while but hilariously, haven’t read it. The interesting thing about it is that I couldn’t find out what it was about – the back of the book gives nothing away and I didn’t want to use Wikipedia because that tends to give a page by page plot rundown, with no spoiler alerts.

So, for those of you in the same situation as me (fearful of spoilers but interested in the plot, here goes. It’s about Garp. And the world according to him. Ta dah. The book begins with Jenny Fields, a war nurse who wants a child but not the hassle of a husband. In the early pages of the book she slashes a would be paramour with her scalpel, which she carries in her bag for just those situations. At this point I thought the story would follow her life. She gets pregnant by a dying gunner called Garp, whose brain was so damaged by his injuries that he can only repeat his name. She names the resultant son Garp. Just Garp, at the beginning, but eventually giving in and bestowing him with initials – T.S.

She and baby Garp move into an all boys school where Jenny is the nurse. At this point the focus changes from Jenny to Garp as he grows up with the rest of the live-in children. The rest of the book follows his loves, his children and his running, entangled with subjects such as what makes a successful book, feminism, monogamy and the overall responsibility we have for other humans.

Garp’s an author, but much to his dismay Jenny becomes an author first, when her highly feminist novel A Sexual Suspect, becomes an international bestseller and a bible for disillusioned ladies. After that, Garp lives in Jenny’s shadow and the more she becomes the figurehead for beaten and bruised women, the more resentful he gets.

The World According to Garp is well written and interesting. It’s made more interesting by the inclusion of some of Garp and Jenny’s) writing throughout, defined by different font. Normally this irritates me in a book, but this time it helped to move the pace along and show the reader that there’s a change in environment. These books within books serve to deepen the layers of the novel, without meaning to sound too pretentious. When reading it I had dreams of unicycling bears and starving French armies, which I always think is a good indication of how good a book is – when it gets to you on a subconscious level, and leaves you thinking about it for weeks afterward.

Aside from being a story about a man who’s also a writer, lover, father, son, runner and wrestler, it also has a couple of stand out tragic episodes, tinged with really dark comedy. I don’t want to give anything away but the story builds and builds to a complex climax interwoven with all of the previous markers in the book. It made me read an extra thirty pages before going to sleep just so I could find out what happened. Unputtdownable, I guess you’d call it.

I’d recommend this to anyone who fancies a memoir/life story that’s a bit different – more thoughtful, thought provoking and well-written. I’m looking forward to reading more John Irving, in fact I think The Cider House Rules will be the next one.

H is for Hornby

There must be some kind of zeigesty thing going on as my friend Owen wrote a blog this week on High Fidelity. Either that or he’s just nicking my ideas…

I’ve read this before, and obviously seen the film a few times, but I felt like reading something familiar. For those of you who don’t know, it’s the tale of Rob Gordon, a man recently dumped by his long term, live in girlfriend. It’s a single focus story which means, as with all first persons, that you can’t quite trust the protagonist. In this case, however, you feel that he’s more honest than most. Be warned, there might be spoilers ahead.

Rob’s not a very likeable person, but like any normal human being he has good and bad points in his character. He owns a record shop, Championship Vinyl. A quick google turns up about 60,000 hits for ‘Championship Vinyl shop’, and one site lists it as ‘the greatest record shop that never was’. Other than that, he’s in his mid thirties and still thinks he’s a student. He’s also obsessed with the past, and quite a large part of the book’s taken up with him tracking down all of his ex-girlfriends in an effort to prove that he’s blameless for his recent break up with Laura. Perhaps I’m being harsh, but that’s just the way I see it.

Despite this, though, I still like Rob Gordon. If I met him, I’d probably have a drink with him (not in that way) although he’d no doubt bore me to tears within about twenty minutes, talking about his top 5 songs not to drive to (Number One: Leader of The Pack) or quizzing me on my five first gigs, then cringing at choices I made more than a decade ago.

Music is a big part of the book, and it’s satisfying when you recognise the song being discussed, although it’s equally dissatisfying when you don’t. It’s the same with everything, I suppose – books, food, film… You’re part of a club when you know the reference, and when you’re not, you nod along and pretend you know what’s going on.

Another big part of the book is the location in London. Not the square mile, but the Zone 6 areas. It’s dingy and rundown but it grounds it in a reality that I felt the film lacked with an American setting. Don’t get me wrong – they did a good job transferring it, but everything was made a bit more shiny, glossy, hopeful. Marie LaSalle in the book is peaches and cream, slightly rounded, whereas in the film she’s Lisa Bonet – lithe, sexy and more coffee and cream. To be honest, these are minor gripes and I think both the book and the film stand up well to scrutiny. I have to wonder though, how happy Nick Hornby is at least two of his London based books being transferred across the Atlantic, the other one being Fever Pitch, which morphed from a football focussed book into The Perfect Catch, a baseball loving Jimmy Fallon wooing Drew Barrymore. I think the rights money probably eased that pain a little.

I’ve read a few of Nick Hornby’s books now, and High Fidelity is the most appealing one to me, probably down to the amount of music and the effect it has on Rob’s life, from teenager to middle-age. I’d recommend it to anyone who’s found themselves arranging their music in chronological order, or their films by director’s chronological order.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

G is for Graham

The Unfortunates follows mustard heiress Poppy Minkel through life as she dodges family obstacles and tries to be everything she wants to be. It begins with the sinking of the Titanic, as young Poppy searches for her father and comes upon their ‘Irish’ instead – the maid who her father was evidently having an affair with.

Books which have child narrators tend to suffer from the same fate – there’s a knowing tone from the author where the child describes what they see without context, leaving the reader to figure out what’s really going on. Sometimes this can work quite well, as in The Time Traveler’s Wife, where the voices of Clare and Henry are distinct from their adult selves but equally recognisable. Luckily Poppy isn’t a child for very long, as the story skips through her teens and early twenties, including WWI in the process.

She gets married, has children, moves from Paris to England and back to America in a relatively short space of time and without a lot of hassle – although by the time she comes back it’s the middle of WWII, she’s only really affected because she can no longer fly her bi-plane. This is another section of the book where you read between the not very subtle lines - Poppy is Jewish and so she finances the escape of a number of Jews from Paris, with the help of her artist friend. It’s frustrating because Poppy is not stupid – she has a number of businesses throughout the book and knows what she wants in other places, and yet she seems to be wilfully ignorant of huge issues, such as the German occupation. In one scene she re-visits the hotel she stayed in in Paris in order to re-claim her furs, left twenty years before.

Perhaps I’m missing the point – just because Poppy seems to care only for her furs and hats, does not mean she doesn’t care. There’s a fine line in writing characters, a balancing act where you want your reader to get to know your cast, without having their peccadilloes forced down your throat at every opportunity or conversely, knowing only what they say and not what they feel. Personally, I feel that Poppy was not written sympathetically enough. Parts of her story were tragic and heart breaking, but as a reader I tend to follow the character’s lead and as she soldiered on with her candelabra and boots, so did I.

I’ve read a couple of Laurie Graham books (the other being Gone with the Windsors) and I find that there’s a knowing, slightly smug humour which revolves around political in jokes, which I don’t generally get as my knowledge of early 20th century royalty/American presidents isn’t great. Maybe that’s my fault for knowing more about Katie Price’s family than our Queen’s, but either way I’m not keen on feeling like I’m missing out on a book because I don’t get the references.

I understand why people like this and other Laurie Graham’s but for me she’s not a favourite author.

Monday, 17 August 2009

F is for Funke

Three things you should know about Cornelia Funke and Inkheart:

  1. This was translated from German
  2. She is the second bestselling children’s author in Germany, behind she-who-shall-not-be-named
  3. Inkheart is the first in a trilogy

So there you go. Number one is important because sometimes, I felt that some of the prose was a bit strange. I put number two in because I was surprised she was number two (because I didn’t think it was amazing) and I was surprised she was behind what’s her name (because Funke deserves better than that). Number three because, I found it interesting and it tells you a lot about a book before you even begin.

There is a huge tradition of fantasy novels which come in long, drawn out series. HP fans may well believe that it started with their mistress, but it started long before then. You could argue that Doyle’s The Lost World is the first in a series of fantasy books with Professor Challenger in (it has dinosaurs, it counts as fantasy) and that was written nearly one hundred years ago. Besides that, there are the more obvious choices of Lord of the Rings, Lemony Snicket, Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea, Pullman’s His Dark Materials and Garth Nix’s Sabriel/Old Kingdom. I wish sometimes that fantasy writers could write a story in one book, from beginning to end. Diana Wynne Jones does that pretty well, but most of them (let’s face it, most writers, no matter what genre it is) can’t resist a little overhang, a snippet of plot to hang onto and pull the reader into the next story. For those who like fantasy trilogies – any of the aforementioned come highly recommended, along with Marianne Curley’s Guardians of Time. As far as the little wizard and the precocious dragon riders go, I don’t recommend them.

Anyway, back to the plot. Meggie Folchart’s twelve year long life is turned upside down when a mysterious stranger turns up at her home, which she shares with her father, Mo. An adventure ensues where people and books get kidnapped and rescued, villains are met, stories unravel and so on.

Number one on the list features quite heavily in the next couple of points I have to make. I got very confused about the geography of Inkheart as quite early on in the book Meggie and Mo set out for Italy, which they claim will take about a day. Obviously my British arrogance was quickly uncovered because they don’t live in the UK, being German. Silly me.

The addition of relevant quotes from (mainly children’s) classics at the beginning of each chapter was a lovely idea, and I really enjoyed reading them and trying to guess where they were from before I read the bottom line. I also added a couple of books to my ever-increasing ‘I want to read that’ pile – TH White’s The Once and Future King being one of them. Ooh, I might read that for W.

I know it sounds daft, but I got the character names muddled in my head so I called Meggie ‘Maggie’ for 90% of the book, and Farid ‘Fraid’. I even managed to arrange Resa’s name to spell… well, you get the idea.

I realise I haven’t spoken about the story at all. Basically, Mo can read characters and objects into existence from the pages of books. The rules appear to be simple – it has to be aloud, it has to be meaningful and if a real live person appears, someone from our world disappears. A sort of less witchy The Craft type energy balance deal. Mo once read a real villain into existence, along with the mysterious stranger who first appears at the window at the beginning, and a couple of others.

One thing that bothered me was that when Mo read from Inkheart and made the fantasy characters into flesh, only one person vanished – his wife, Meggie’s mother. Perhaps I missed it, but I didn’t see a solution apart from ‘the two cats’ which don’t count later on in the book and don’t even match the total of three men and a marten.

I loved that books in Inkheart weren’t just things to do, but places to go. I know when I read a book I’m really enjoying, I actually go with the characters. I can see the Nine Lives of Island Mackenzie and Susie Salmon’s ‘heaven’ and the whole assortment of characters in Pippi Longstocking. This was literally true in Inkheart, where small boys spring to life and tin soldiers drop from the sky.

The idea is a good one, but I remembered that it’s not wholly original. Influences and influencers have always been around, which is fine, but it seemed like that was the one magickal part about the story. Characters come to life in Garth Nix’s Keys to the Kingdom trilogy and in the film of Young Sherlock Holmes (“Young Sherlock Holmes”, I believe) the stained glass window comes to life and tries to run the children through with his big sword. Remember that bit? Brilliant.

Still, I would have been more eager to read the other two books (Inkspell and Inkheart) if there was more to the story. I also felt that some of the phrases were a bit stumbly, which may be down to the translation from German. In some bits, especially the quotes at the beginning of chapters, words were even missed out which made it… interesting to read.

At the end of the book there’s an interview with Cornelia Funke, which is pretty cool as there’s quite a big section in Inkheart about how most people think that authors are dead and buried, rather than living. I reckon that was aimed at kids, in a not so subtle attempt to get them to read more and make celebrities out of the authors. I can’t remember the exact question or her answer, but Funke says that it was her daughter’s idea to put in the romance between Meggie and Farid. I had to double check on the romance, which had a couple of mentions where they look at each other. I reckon it’ll develop into something more over the next couple of books but really, could she not have fitted it in to one book?

It’s quite hefty, at nearly six hundred pages long, but I believe that Cornelia could’ve stripped about two hundred pages out of that at least. There’s a lot of repetition, and while I appreciate that you don’t want to read the same name hundreds of times, when she’s still called ‘Silvertongue’s daughter’ at page five hundred, it just looks a bit strange.

In conclusion, I probably won’t read the rest. Some parts of the book were lovely, especially the tin soldier section and the evident love of books. If I was twelve, I’d probably have loved all of them AND the film.

E is for Ellis

I feel like I miss the point with Bret Easton Ellis. I’ve read half of American Psycho, all of Rules of Attraction and now all of Less than Zero, and it feels like a joke I don’t get. I couldn’t read American Psycho as all of the identikit businessmen were getting me down. We get it, everyone’s the same, we’re not individual etc etc. I enjoyed Rules of Attraction because it had more actual plot and better characters. Less Than Zero unfortunately falls into the first bracket of Ellis books.

Clay is a thin, blond, tan college student who’s come home for the holidays. All of his friends are thin, blond and tan. Most of them are college students, some of them are drug dealers but the majority of them combine the two lifestyles, while remaining thin, blond and tan. You get the idea – Clay’s rich parents don’t pay him enough attention, but neither do the parents of his thin, blond, tan friends, so it’s all okay.

There really isn’t a lot more to tell about story. I like the verbal motifs that crop up throughout the novel – Clay picks up on a phrase his friend says about driving (people are afraid to merge) which he builds on until it becomes a chorus of mis-matched, out of context and meaningful words on how shit life is.

Ellis reminds me of Douglas Coupland, but he lacks any of the wry humour and downright humanity present in JPod, for example.

Some things I learned from Wikipedia and imdb: Less Than Zero was Ellis’ first book. There’s a film of it too, released in 1987 and starring John Hughes muse Andrew McCarthy as the aforementioned Clay. Robert Downey Jr and James Spader also appear in the cast list, as fairly prominent characters. Interestingly, none of them are blond, thin and tan.

Seriously, if anyone can explain to me why I should like Ellis’ writing, please do. I don’t dislike it, and I can appreciate that his style may be loved by many, but for me he just doesn’t press the right buttons. There are only so many business cards, lines of coke or blond, tan people I can stomach without reading something else.

D is for Doyle

For my D I read “The Lost World” by Arthur Conan Doyle. According to my trusty tool, Wikipedia, it was first released in 1912, which is pretty cool when you think about it, as it’s quite a long time ago and people can still read it! Unlike this new-fangled internet thing, where people skim read/look at pictures once and then forget about it. However, I shouldn’t bite the hand that’s feeding me, so to speak, so I’ll move on.

The Lost World tells the tale of Edward Malone, a journalist roped into meeting the awesome Professor Challenger by his gruff Scottish boss. Challenger challenges (arf) accepted scientific theories about evolution by maintaining that dinosaurs are alive and well in a remote part of the Amazon jungle. He’s also a bit of a livewire, which is a bit like saying that Mother Theresa was quite nice. Challenger is described almost exactly like Brian Blessed, except that he’s quite short. On Malone’s first meeting, Challenger rassles around his study and eventually out of the front door, where he is admonished by a passing policeman.

In a relatively short space of time, Malone finds himself agreeing to be a neutral party on the expedition to (dis)prove Challenger’s theories once and for all. Unsurprisingly, he volunteers for this mission to win the heart of a lady. When you think about it, there are lots of books and films where the driving force is love. James Bond’s raison d’etre is arguably to avenge the death of his wife. It also explains his rather offhand way with women in subsequent stories. Gladys tells Malone that she wants a man who’s adventured, experienced and can basically sweep her off her feet with a pinky.

I couldn’t help equating Challenger to Doyle himself while reading the book, mashed in with Brian Blessed. This was even harder to do when you add in what’s on Doyle’s epitaph:


…which is basically what I want, along with Oscar Wilde’s “Wit”. Maybe a ‘Woman of letters’ instead. It is interesting that he has patriot on his tombstone but is buried in England. Perhaps he’s a British patriot. Either way, I reckon Doyle was a bit of a ‘character’.

Once the intrepid explorers actually arrive at the location, they pick up some guides to help them on their way. Aside from the phoenetic Scots accent, this is the bit that made me a bit uncomfortable, as my PC conscience started shrieking at me. The ‘natives’ are jolly nice red fellows, while the nonedescript cowboy types are villains, caught up in a blood battle which endanngers all of the nice white men. I suppose the book was written nearly one hundred years ago, and perception has changed a lot since then. It does beg the question though: Should I turn a blind eye to that part because Doyle created Sherlock Holmes and was a pretty decent writer, or should I shun all of his work because he didn’t think as equally as the majority of people do in this century? Rather like Fleming’s work (Mr Charming should be happy, lots of Bond references) , I don’t believe that you should ignore a body of work because you don’t agree. It represents a snapshot in time and society which can be kept forever, if we’re careful.

Aside from that, reading The Lost World’s a bit like reading a Famous Five novel where they are all tipsy from lashings of ginger beer. Proper beer, not that wimpy fizzy stuff. There’re lots of “jolly odd” and “fine chap, that one” as well as an Awfully Big Adventure in the form of a long journey, betrayal and obviously – dinosaurs.

Two things impressed me about this book. The first thing is that there was what appeared to me to be a plausible explanation for a previously undiscovered land where dinosaurs roam. In a nutshell, it’s that earthquakes moved the tectonic plates at some point, so that a section shot skywards. The animals stranded on the high clifftop went happily about their business for hundreds of years, rubbing shoulders with two sorts of humans and lots of creepy crawlies. That may not seem likely now, but there are still sections of the Amazon we do not know about, along with Australia, Russia and indeed, the sea. I like that idea more than the amber theory, anyway.

The other thing that impressed me was the sheer eloquence of the written words. Doyle manages to pack a lot into a relatively short novel – around three hundred pages. The characters begin in London, travel all the way to The Lost World, spend months there and travel all of the way back to London. Added to that, they also relate their tale to sceptical Londoners and there’s even room at the end to set up a sequel! Not a word was wasted, and I never felt like I was reading the same things over and over.

It’s not really my cup of tea, but I did enjoy it and would recommend it to people looking like a good old-fashioned adventure story, akin to Verne.