The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng

Give me strength…

😦

An old man in Penang, the half-English/half-Chinese Philip Hutton, is visited by a woman who once loved Endo-san, Hutton’s one-time friend, martial arts teacher and platonic lover. At her request, Hutton tells the woman the story of his friendship with Endo-san, back in the 1930s.

She must have regretted asking. I started this utterly tedious bore-fest on 25th May and by 9th June had made it through just 33%, with every word a penance – clearly I committed some horrible sin in a past life and am being forced to pay for it in this one by reading overlong plotless contemporary fiction. Perhaps a plot develops later – I understood the book was going to be about the Japanese invasion of Malaya during WW2 but there was still very little sign of this at the point I abandoned it, except for some clumsy foreshadowing usually based on fortune-tellers’ hints and warnings.

The younger version of Hutton has all the ingredients to be interesting, and yet isn’t. Mixed race in a society where this was rare and frowned upon, he is something of an outsider even in his own family. But then he meets, as if by accident, a middle-aged man who offers, out of the blue, to become his sensei – a teacher in martial arts and a kind of spiritual guru. Not thinking this in any way odd, Hutton within a few weeks is pretty much an expert both at fighting and at all the mental discipline that comes with it. Who knew it was all so easy? I always thought it took years to master these skills. I think I might spend the rest of June becoming a master of aikido myself. I’m sure it’ll come in handy.

Tan Twan Eng

Along the way we are bored to death by treated to endless descriptions of fights – all stylised, of course, not real ones. This comes amidst the even more endless descriptions of every physical object or bit of landscape we come across, not to mention the historical factlets which are presented as just that – like extracts from a guide book to Penang.

What can I say? This book was longlisted for the Booker in 2007 and has thousands of 5-star reviews on Goodreads, with only 123 1-stars. Make that 124. Clearly it must be me, but I’ve suffered enough. I regret that I’m so old-fashioned as to expect stories to contain an actual story, but so it goes. One day I too may be enlightened enough to be able to appreciate hundreds of pages of nothingness – once I’ve mastered Zen in July perhaps. I believe one of the skills of Zen is being able to empty one’s mind completely. This book has given me a head start…

* * * * *

*coughs embarrassedly* This was the second winner of the People’s Choice poll, and the second I’ve abandoned. It’s not you, though, People – it’s me! I’m sure I’ll love the next one… 😉

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The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst

When all the world was gay…

😦

I normally start a review with a little blurb giving an idea of what the book’s about. Unfortunately, despite having read 53% of this immensely overlong tome, I’m not at all sure if it’s about anything much at all. And I’m not enthusiastic enough to read the other 47% in the hopes of finding out.

It starts off pretty well, with a lengthy section set before World War 1. Young George Sawle has invited a fellow student from Cambridge to visit his family. Cecil Valance is already making a name for himself as a poet and George’s younger sister Daphne is romantically thrilled at the idea of meeting him. It’s quickly clear however that she will have to compete with her brother for Cecil’s attentions. At every opportunity the two of them, Cecil and George, go off to find a place they can be private together for a bit of still-illicit rumpy-pumpy. This doesn’t stop the lovely Cecil from flirting with 16-year-old Daphne and even on one occasion sexually assaulting her. Though maybe that was supposed to be a seduction scene – I can’t be sure. These things are often a matter of perspective. Meantime a friend of the family, Harry, whom everyone thinks is courting Daphne’s widowed mother, is in fact attempting to seduce Daphne’s other brother, Hubert.

It’s beautifully written and very evocative, not only of the period, but of all the books that have already been written about that period. Brideshead Revisited and The Go-Between sprang immediately to my mind and other reviews mention Forster, Woolf, DH Lawrence, et al. Is it derivative, then? I’d say certainly, though I gave him the benefit of thinking it’s deliberately so. The idea that all the men were either actively gay or being pursued by gay men seemed a bit unlikely on a purely statistical basis, but I made allowances for fictional licence. At this point I thought it had the potential to be excellent.

Then suddenly it skips forward to 1926. Cecil, our main character, is dead. And yet there’s still 80% of the book to go. Not to worry! George is now married though still gay. Daphne is married too, but wants to have sex with another probably gay man, whom, let’s be honest, George wouldn’t mind having sex with either. But please don’t be thinking Hollinghurst discriminates – Daphne is also hit upon by a gay woman. I was still interested enough at this point since some of the original characters were still central, and this section is largely about how they all felt about Cecil, alive and dead. And the writing is still beautiful.

Then whoops! 40% and suddenly we leap forward again, this time to around 1960, I think. And all of a sudden we have two new central characters, Peter and Paul. They’re both gay, you’ll be amazed to learn. The descendants of the original families are still around but they’re mostly new to the reader too, since many of the original characters are now dead.

I simply lost interest at this point. Long descriptions of Paul’s job at a bank and Peter’s life as a master at a prep school did nothing for me, and frankly, just as much as it’s unrealistic to have no gay characters in fiction, it’s equally silly for the vast majority of the men to be gay. Perhaps it’s an attempt to redress the balance, but balance is a tricky thing – it’s so easy to lose, and credibility along with it. But much more importantly than that, there appears to be very little connecting plot holding the various sections together. Yes, Cecil’s house appears each time and yes, some characters continue to be related to him, but more distantly with each passing time jump. I suspect Hollinghurst may be making points about how society’s treatment of gay men changed over the last century, and perhaps also about how the reputations of poets tend to fluctuate as each new generation of critics re-assesses them. Maybe if I was willing to read the other six hours’ worth (according to my Kindle) all would become clear, but, I ask myself, do I care enough to do that? And I answer – nope. Oh, well. Still, it’s beautifully written.

It probably deserves four stars for the quality of the characterisation and lovely prose, but since it bored me into abandonment, one star is all it gets.

This was the winner of the inaugural People’s Choice poll, but since it was my fault for buying the thing back in 2012, I promise I don’t hold it against you, people. At least it’s off my TBR now. 😉

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The Innocence of Father Brown by GK Chesterton

A mystery to me…

😦

This is the first collection of Chesterton’s stories about the little Catholic priest who not only solves inexplicable mysteries but also cures souls as he goes along. There are twelve stories and I made it through almost four of them before I decided I’d rather be cleaning the cats’ litter tray.

Sometimes when I dislike a popular book or author, I can see why the world loves them even although I don’t. But not with Father Brown, I fear. Nonsensical plots, frequently poor writing and ridiculous scenes of the priest with a few words bringing hardened criminals to repentance leave me struggling to find anything to admire in these. Throw in Chesterton’s supercilious disdain for anyone from a creed other than his own – i.e., Roman Catholicism – with his sanctimonious sneering reserved especially for atheists and Jews, and I find the stories often actively unpleasant as well as unentertaining.

Let me give you an example, which includes major spoilers for one of the stories, The Queer Feet. A group of rich gentlemen have a monthly dining club during which they use their own valuable set of fish knives and forks. On this evening, while they dine in one room of a restaurant, Father Brown sits locked in in another, writing a letter on behalf of a dying man. (Why locked in? No idea, other than that the plot requires him to be unable to open the door and look out.) Hearing footsteps outside in the corridor, he miraculously extrapolates from the sound of them a) that something queer is going on b) that it must be someone pretending to be a gentleman part of the time and a waiter the other part and c) that therefore this individual must be stealing the valuable cutlery about which Brown miraculously seems to know and d) that the criminal is getting way with this imposture because gentlemen and waiters all wear black jackets and it is therefore impossible to tell them apart. Having worked all this out on the basis of the sound of the footsteps, and having then discovered that there’s a second door in his locked room which has been unlocked all along *eyeroll*, Brown tackles the dangerous criminal, and with a few words persuades him to repent, turn over the loot and depart to lead a better life. I think my favourite line, showing Chesterton’s poor grasp of either writing or arithmetic – perhaps both – must be:

The proprietor knew all his waiters like the fingers on his hand; there were only fifteen of them all told.

Challenge details:
Book: 7
Subject Heading: A New Era Dawns
Publication Year: 1911

Still, at least that line made me smile, unlike this, from the following story, one of several snide remarks about Jews and their supposed love of money:

…squires should be swindled in long rooms panelled with oak; while Jews, on the other hand, should rather find themselves unexpectedly penniless among the lights and screens of the Café Riche.

Other reviews inform me he’s even worse later about Indians and Chinese people. Of its time, of course, and I’d doubtless have been able to overlook it had I been enjoying the stories more.

Then there are the moments when he reaches for the heights of grandiose melodrama, and misses by a mile:

Lady Galloway screamed. Everyone else sat tingling at the touch of those satanic tragedies that have been between lovers before now. They saw the proud, white face of the Scotch aristocrat and her lover, the Irish adventurer, like old portraits in a dark house. The long silence was full of formless historical memories of murdered husbands and poisonous paramours.

What can I say? Obviously other people see something quite different when they read these stories or they wouldn’t be as lastingly popular as they are. For me, they’re a 1-star fail, but statistically speaking there’s a good chance you’d love them. Go figure.

Goodreads ratings

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The Long Call by Ann Cleeves

Maybe it’s an off day…

😦

Nope, 25% and I can’t go on. I know Cleeves is extremely popular and I enjoyed the only other book of hers I’ve read, the first in her Shetland series. This one feels as if it’s written by someone else, someone with considerably less skill.

Briefly, my major complaint is that this reads like a book written by an older person trying to prove her liberal credentials and sound as if she’s hip to current trends. (I’m roughly the same age as Ann Cleeves so I hope that excuses my bluntness a little. I try not to pretend I’m hip, though, as my use of the word “hip” proves.) The team is made up of a rapacious, predatory, heterosexual female, a sexist, over-ambitious, heterosexual male, and an idyllically happily married, decent, kind, faithful and loving gay man. (Is there such a word as heterophobic? I really object to it as much as I do to homophobia.) The aforesaid gay man is the son of parents who belonged to a strict Christian sect or, as Cleeves prefers to refer to them, “religious bigots” or “God-botherers”. I can’t help wondering if she would have used those terms if he was the son of strict Muslims or Jews. (Is Christianophobic a word? This actual liberal objects to it as much as I do to Islamophobia or anti-Semitism.)

The story drags along, padded to the extreme with unnecessary nothingness. For example, I don’t need to hear about the predatory middle-aged female’s lust for men so young they could equally be termed boys. Would Cleeves expect me to empathise with a middle-aged male officer who lusted after women young enough to be termed girls? I don’t need to hear in detail about how two of the characters watch TV over breakfast – if they danced naked on the roof as the sun rose over the hills, worshipping the Great God Pan, that might merit a paragraph or two, but watching TV rates no more than a line, surely.

It probably deserves a three-star rating, but since I couldn’t bring myself to read on, one-star it is. I own a couple of Cleeves’ earlier books from her previous Vera and Shetland series which I have yet to read, so I can only hope that this one is a blip in her standards – we all have off days. And after spending a couple of hours in the company of this book, this has turned into one of mine…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Pan MacMillan.

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Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby, Jr.

Have pity on the bears…

😦

A bunch of sad losers hang around getting drunk, drugged and beating each other up, with added sexual depravity.

Well, I stuck it out for 17%. It is disgusting, violent, depraved, designed to shock – all as advertised. But what no-one told me is that it’s also immensely dull. I’ve always found being sober in the company of drunks or the drug-addled tedious, both in reality and fiction. There are lots of good people in the world and plenty of interesting bad people, so why would I want to spend time with moronic, foul-mouthed losers? Who cares if they all kill each other? Not me. Sorry and all that – I know political correctness demands that I look mournfully guilt-ridden and wring my hands over how awful society is for forcing people to turn out this way, etc., etc., but I don’t buy it. I couldn’t care less what consenting adults might get up to in private, but I do demand a certain level of public decency. In life, and in fiction. No wonder the youth of today can’t get out a sentence without spouting vile hate, sexualised abuse and foul-mouthed invective if this is really what schools think should be on curricula.

Caldonia was just so high – I mean she had been drinking like crazy for hours and she struts around Broadway and 45th st. crowing like a rooster, COCKadoodledo COCKadoodledo – Im not shittinya, he was caught fuckin a stiff. He was in the El witme. He worked inna hospital, you know, in the morgue, and this nice lookin young head croaks so he throws a hump inner – Rosie refilled all the cups and ran back to the kitchen when Harry lunged for her snatch, and sat in the corner with her head on her knees…

(NB The stylistic horror of the spelling and punctuation is presumably meant to be “Art”.)

Book 51 of 90

Human language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to
dance to, when all the
time we long to move the stars to pity.
~Gustave Flaubert.

My bears are tired out from dancing to the beat of this kind of dross. I shall go off and read something less vile and less dull now, and then I’ll come back and apologise to the youth of today, some of whom, amazingly, have managed to turn out well despite the morass of unfiltered sewage that passes for art and literature in these debased end-times for Western “civilisation”. That end can’t come soon enough for me. I blame rock’n’roll. Where did I put my medicinal chocolate?

Recommended as a great gift idea for someone you really hate.

One Good Turn (Jackson Brodie 2) by Kate Atkinson

Nope!

😦

After thinking Case Histories was really pretty poor, I had low expectations going into this, and Atkinson has limbo-danced effortlessly under them. I wouldn’t have tried it at all except that in a moment of supreme foolishness I acquired the first four books in the series from NetGalley on the mistaken assumption that I’d like them. You’d think I’d know better by now.

11% in, and no plot has peeked through the miasma of tedium that Atkinson exudes so well. Character sketch after character sketch, all of characters who would bore me to a frenzy in real life. Especially when her supposedly adult characters think, talk and have sex twelve times a minute. Most people lose that ability round about the same time as their teenage pimples clear up! The only time this bunch aren’t thinking about sex is when they’re obsessing about death. Admittedly I was kinda obsessing about death too – or fantasising might be a better word. Some characters really deserve to become the next victim. The blurb mentions Dickensian – what an insult! Dickens could never have produced characters as banal as these! Nor would he resort to swearing every few minutes in a failed bid to sound hip…

(Oliver held up his little bowl. “I effing want effing more!” Mrs Bumble slapped him with her spoon absentmindedly, as she remembered how last night Mr Bumble had made the earth move for her – six times! – and all without removing his hat! Oh, she thought, sensing a sudden glow beneath her unmentionables, I effing want effing more too…)

Nope! Abandoned, and books 3 and 4 will have to struggle on without me. An author to strike from my list of future temptations – hurrah! Hopefully the next crime novel I read will actually be about a crime.

NB This book was provided for review by Random House Transworld.

Book 13 of 20

* * * * *

As a result of this debacle, I’m removing the third book, When Will There Be Good News?, from my 20 Books of Summer list (which ironically feels very much like good news to me!), and replacing it with:

Murder in the Mill-Race written by ECR Lorac who, unlike Ms Atkinson, understands that crime fiction should be about crime.

Tangerine by Christine Mangan

It all began that day

😦

Alice and Lucy were once best friends, students together at the expensive Bennington College in Vermont. Now Alice is in Tangier with her newish husband. He loves the life there, the seedy bars, the feeling of danger in the streets as Morocco demands its independence from its French colonisers. Alice hates it, scared to go out alone and miserable when she goes out with her overbearing and unsympathetic husband (mind you, he’s also pretty miserable at having to go out with the whining, pathetic Alice). Suddenly one day, out of the blue, Lucy turns up at their door. This is the first time Alice and Lucy have met since that day… but no, of course we don’t get told what happened that day. As Lucy and Alice take turns at the narration, carefully ensuring their voices are indistinguishable to add an element of confusion, they each dance round the subject of what happened that day while being very careful not to tell the poor put-upon reader.

I made it to the 25% mark before deciding I could take no more. I don’t want to be unfairly brutal – this is a début, and it shows some promise. Regulars will know that I’ve spluttered with annoyance often over the whole “that day” faux-suspense thing that seems to be an essential part of so-called thrillers these days – presumably because the authors can’t actually think of anything thrilling to write about. (FF’s Tenth Law: having the narrator constantly refer to ‘what happened that day’ without informing the reader of what did happen that day is far more likely to create book-hurling levels of irritation than a feeling of suspense.) So Mangan is merely following the herd, and sadly it’s a big herd, getting bigger by the day. I was sucked in by the great cover – had this had the ubiquitous girl in the red jacket on it I’d have known to avoid it like the plague.

Had it just been the “that day” tedium, I would probably have stuck with it, though. The picture Mangan gives of Tangier at this point in time (1956) is quite well done, bearing in mind that we see it solely through the eyes of white colonials. This means there are some rather demeaning depictions of the locals that smack a little of good old white superiority, but I felt that was appropriate to the time and social status of the main characters.

Over a year now, and it was still cast in a hazy fog that I could not seem to work my way out of, no matter how long I tripped through the labyrinth. It’s better that way, my aunt had said afterward, when I had told her about the vaporous sheen my memories had taken on, how I could no longer remember the details of that horrible night, of the days that followed. Leave it in the past, she had urged, as if my memories were objects that could be packed away in boxes secure enough to ensure they would never let loose the secrets held within.

Unfortunately, however, I couldn’t tolerate the style of writing. Some people have praised it, so I’ll admit that’s a subjective thing. It’s well-written in a grammatical sense, and thankfully it’s in the past tense, except for the obligatory foreshadowing prologue. But it’s written in a kind of mock-Gothic manner, all overwrought and hyperventilating, that gradually began to drive me insane. I had company in my insanity however – in true Gothic fashion, both women have strange “nervous” conditions that cause them to have imaginary symptoms and so on, and we know from the prologue that at least one of them has totally lost her marbles by the time the story ends. It was at the point that one of them actually fainted – Mangan resisted the temptation to say “swooned” but I bet it was on the tip of her pen – that I gave up. I discovered when I looked at her author bio that Mangan did her PhD on 18th century Gothic literature, and was unsurprised. Nor was I astonished to learn she had then topped that off with a degree in creative writing…

Christine Mangan

I didn’t hate it and I don’t think it’s awful. It’s as good as most of these identikit “that day” thrillers and better written than many. It probably deserves three or even four stars. But it’s not for me, and since I couldn’t bring myself to continue reading, then I’m afraid one star it is. Oddly, I’ll still be intrigued to see how Mangan develops – if she can learn to match her style to her subject matter and free herself from the feeling that she must follow the herd, I feel she has the talent to evolve into an interesting writer. I wish her well in the attempt.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Little, Brown Book Group.

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The Shape of the Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vásquez

… that shape being an amorphous mass… 

😦

A man, who shares the name and life of the author, tells the story of umpteen real assassinations in Colombia and America. I abandoned it at page 270 – just after the halfway mark – so maybe a fascinating plot emerges after that. One thing’s for sure, it didn’t emerge before it!

It starts off quite well, telling the story of how the narrator got sucked into a little group of conspiracy theorists who believed that there was more to the 1948 assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitan, a leading left-wing Colombian political figure, than the authorities had allowed to be revealed. At this point I thought I was going to love it, and I raced through the first 150 or so pages, during which the book compares Gaitan’s assassination and associated conspiracy theories to those surrounding the assassination of JFK, and discusses how both events adversely affected the nations in which they happened; in the case of Colombia, leading to years of violence. Then suddenly the book moves back in time to tell, in detail, of the assassination (and associated conspiracy theories) of Rafael Uribe Uribe, another leading left-wing political figure, in 1914, with a bit of comparison to the assassination carried out by Gavrilo Princip that provided the trigger for WW1. Okay, I could go along with that, though it was beginning to feel very much like a history of Colombia told backwards.

Then suddenly the book moves back in time again to tell, in detail, of the attempted assassination of some other guy whose name escapes me but was doubtless another leading left-wing political figure, at some date which I couldn’t care less about. By now I had reached about page 250 – a week that took me. The following three days saw me advance by twenty pages, so I had to conclude that the book had well and truly lost my interest, and I abandoned it.

My theory of fiction writing is – find a story, tell it, then stop. All the other meanings one wants to explore should be incorporated into that basic format. If there is no story, or as in this case, if the author loses track of the story for hundreds of pages while he recounts in immense detail lots of history backwards, then it’s not a novel. If one wants to write a history of assassinations and their impact, do that. If one wants to write an essay on why conspiracy theories arise and how they affect the political life of a country, do that. If one wants to write a novel, stick to the story. Great writers can include all three, but only the first two are optional.

Juan Gabriel Vásquez

Some reviewers have compared the writing to Javier Marías. Some see this as a good thing, others not so much. I fall into the latter camp. I’ve only read one book by Marías and I agree the rambling circuitous over-wordy style is similar. However, Marías’ writing, while it rather drove me up the wall, at least contains some beautiful prose and some truly thought-provoking ideas and images. The writing in this one is plain to the point of being monotone, with fifty words for every ten that are required; and for the most part is a straight recounting of (I assume true) facts, including photos and extracts from documents. I tried to assume that perhaps it was my ignorance of Colombian history that was causing me to lose all interest, but frankly if a British writer started by telling a story about Thatcher, then backtracked to Churchill, then Disraeli, I’d have found it equally tedious, interesting though I find each of those people individually. Given that there were another 240 pages to go, I was concerned we might end up back at Cain and Abel and the associated conspiracy theories that no doubt grew up around that…

The book probably deserves more, but since it failed to maintain my interest enough to keep me turning pages, one star it is.

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

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Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Sometimes tomorrow never comes… 

😦

This is now the third post I’ve written about this book, though the other two will remain unpublished. The problem is that as soon as I start writing about the portrayal of the black characters, I feel I’ll be offending the many, many Americans who consider this a great novel. Clearly, American attitudes to race are quite different to mine, reflective of our different histories; and slaves and their descendants being depicted as devoted domestic pets seems to be a theme that runs through a great deal of American fiction hailed as “great”, even sometimes incomprehensibly (to me) cited as anti-racist. I doubt a smugly superior lecture from me will change anything, so why even try to explain just how distasteful I find it, in this, in Huckleberry Finn, yes, even to a much lesser degree in Mockingbird. It’s not as if we don’t have our own problems with racism here in the UK, albeit of a different style, and some of our own classic literature makes me feel equally queasy.

With unerring African instinct, the negroes had all discovered that Gerald had a loud bark and no bite at all, and they took shameless advantage of him.

It isn’t just the portrayal of race that led me to abandon the book at 15%, however. I bored rapidly with the endless, vapid descriptions of dresses and waist-sizes. Interesting once – not interesting after the first twenty times. I thought at one point I might actually escape from Scarlett’s tedious wardrobe to go to war with the men, but sadly not. A couple of paragraphs dispensed with a year of history, and back we were, trying on widows’ frocks.

The air was always thick with threats of selling slaves south and of direful whippings, but there had never been a slave sold from Tara and only one whipping, and that administered for not grooming down Gerald’s pet horse after a long day’s hunting.

(Am I alone in wishing Mammy had keep tightening till Scarlett croaked?)

I find it quite incomprehensible that this book is still rated as highly as it is. I admit I loved the film when I watched it nearly half a century ago, but times change, and the attitudes expressed in the book (by the author, not just by the characters) make it feel horribly outdated now. Even putting the race question to one side, though, I found the writing unremarkable, the characterisation shallow of the main characters and non-existent of the others, the over-padded length tedious, and the concentration on frocks and dances a total trivialisation of a subject that deserves so much more. Maybe the other 85% is brilliant, but I’m not willing to waste any more of my time on the off-chance. I’d rather be reading Toni Morrison. Heck, I’d rather be reading William Faulkner!!!

Prissy had never been more than a mile away from Twelve Oaks or Tara before, and the trip on the train plus her elevation to nurse was almost more than the brain in her little black skull could bear.

Since obviously this will not be achieving Great American Novel status in my quest, and given that it’s the latest in a lengthening line of GAN contenders that have left me with a bad taste, I’ve decided to ban all other books about slavery and race written by white Americans prior to, say, 1950 from my TBR. Goodbye, Uncle Tom! I fear that re-read will never happen now. I shall leave you decently buried in the long-ago, where I wish I’d left Gone with the Wind. Sadly my love affair with Rhett and Scarlett is officially over…

Book 26 of 90

* * * * *

To cheer us all up and remind us that some white people even back then had at least a little more insight about black lives…

Death at the President’s Lodging (Inspector Appleby 1) by Michael Innes

I simply Kant take any more…

😖

When Dr Umpleby, the President of prestigious and ancient St Anthony’s College, is found murdered, Inspector Appleby of the Yard is rushed to the spot, as the local plods will clearly not be well educated or cultured enough to deal with such a sensitive affair. Fortunately Appleby can quote major and minor philosophers with the best of them and has more than a passing knowledge of all the arcane subjects covered in a classical Oxbridge education, all of which will no doubt help him to uncover who killed the President and why.

The tone of my introduction may have been somewhat of a spoiler for my opinion of the book, so I may as well jump straight to the conclusion – I abandoned this at just under 40%, finally throwing in the towel when one of the characters hinted that the clue to the mystery might be found in an anecdote about Kant quoted in a book by De Quincey. This, only a couple of pages after the following passage…

And he [Inspector Appleby] sipped his whisky and finally murmured to Titlow [a suspect], with something of the whimsicality that Titlow had been adopting a little before, “What truth is it that these mountains bound, and is a lie in the world beyond?”

There was silence while Titlow’s eye dwelt meditatively on the policeman conversant with Montaigne. Then he smiled, and his smile had great charm. “I wear my heart on my wall?” he asked. “To project one’s own conflicts, to hang them up in simple pictorial terms – it is to be able to step back and contemplate oneself. You understand?”

I couldn’t help but feel it might have been more useful had Appleby asked whether Titlow had crept into the college garden in the middle of the night and shot the President, or searched his rooms for the gun, but each to his own, I suppose. And certainly, my method wouldn’t have allowed Innes to show his vast erudition and superior intellect, which appears to be the main purpose of the book.

Challenge details:
Book: 52
Subject Heading: Education, Education, Education
Publication Year: 1936

The actual plot is based on there being a limited number of people, almost all academics, who could have had access to Dr Umpleby’s rooms at the time of the murder. Sadly, this aspect becomes tedious very quickly with much talk of who had or didn’t have keys, where rooms are in relation to each other, where walls and passages are. I felt a desperate need for a nap… oops, I mean a map… after the first several dozen pages of description. Oddly enough, Innes claims Appleby is happier dealing with problems on a “human or psychological plane” and then proceeds to have this great intellectual wandering around in the (literal) dark, playing hunt the missing key. By 40%, only one possible motive had emerged, largely because Appleby seems more interested in listing the academic tomes on the suspects’ bookshelves than in trying to find out where they had been at the time of the crime.

Michael Innes

This is one of Martin Edwards’ picks in his The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, and I’ve seen several positive reviews of other books of Michael Innes’ recently, so I’m willing to accept that my antipathy to this style of writing isn’t universal, or perhaps Innes improved in later books – this, I believe, was his first. However, the only emotions it provoked in me were tedium and irritation at the perpetual intellectual snobbery. Having been made to realise my own status as dullard, I shall take my inferior intellect and defective education off into the dunce’s corner now… but don’t feel too sorry for me, for I shall take with me an ample supply of chocolate and some books by authors who may not have achieved a First in Classics at Oxbridge but who nevertheless seem to have grasped the definition of the word “entertain”…

In truth, I think my rating of this one is harsh – had I been able to convince myself to struggle through it, it may have earned three stars for the quality of the writing and plot. But since I couldn’t bring myself to finish it, I fear I can only give it one.

PS Appleby and Umpleby? Seriously??

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Ipso Books.

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See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

What happens when the creative writing class goes wrong…

😡

I freely admit it – I’m pedantic. There are 171,456 words listed as being current in the Oxford English Dictionary, plus over 40,000 obsolete ones, and I feel that should be enough for most novels without the author feeling the need to create her own, or to use them in ‘innovative’ ways. So I quivered when, on page 1, Schmidt comes up with ‘My heart beat nightmares, gallop, gallop…’ When she repeats the sentence ‘The clock on the mantel ticked ticked.’ three times in the first few pages, it merely annoyed me three times instead of once. When she describes the maid as bringing with her ‘the smell of decayed meaty-meat’, I seriously considered turning vegetarian.

‘…strange feelings popped across my bones’, ‘My teeth were cold against my teeth’, ‘I shooed her along, my wrist a flick and crunch’, ‘Her chest heaved, soft, child-suckled breasts.’, ‘Her lips parted, a sea.’ But the clincher was ‘I went to the pail of water by the well, let my hands sink into the cool sip sip…’

Since the book is unaccountably garnering positive reviews, clearly plenty of people like this kind of writing. But not me. Abandoned at 2%, since I can’t begin to imagine that any story could possibly compensate for the awfulness of the prose. I shall go off now and have some cakey-cake and a mug of coffee-flavoured sip sip in the hopes of heating up my teeth…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Grove Atlantic.

Amazon UK Link
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The Ice by Laline Paull

The root of all evil…

😦

It’s the very near future, global warming continues to advance and the Arctic sea-ice has largely melted. A cruise ship has promised its passengers sightings of polar bears, now even rarer than before. Eventually the wealthy and powerful passengers begin to put pressure on the captain, so the ship takes a detour into an area of the sea that’s off limits to cruises. There they finally see a bear, but when an iceberg calves in front of them, they see something else – a preserved body that pops out from the frozen ice. Tom Harding was an environmentalist, lost as a result of an accident three years earlier. Now the investigation into his death will be re-opened and his business partner, Sean Cawson, will have to relive that terrible moment…

At least, I had to assume it was a terrible moment, based on Sean’s general level of angst. Unfortunately, this is yet another of the books that works to the overused formula of past and present sections, where all the characters know what happened that day, but the reader isn’t told until the book is more than half over. (I feel I may have mentioned before (!) how annoying I find this formula of keeping the reader in the dark for excessive periods in a futile attempt to build suspense. Real suspense comes only when at least some of the characters are also in the dark – otherwise it’s just an author playing tricks on the reader. In this one, it would have been perfectly possible to tell us up front what happened to Tom, and then build the suspense over the questions of how and why it happened, which most of the characters didn’t already know.)

The beginning is very good with some nice descriptions of the changes to the Arctic landscape and the calving of the iceberg is excellently dramatic. The description of the passengers demanding bear is also done well, though it’s the first indicator of the fairly overt polemical stance the author has taken – capitalists bad, destroy land and wildlife: environmentalists good and noble, fighting the good fight. Actually I sort of agree with at least bits of that, though I don’t think the question is quite so black and white, but frankly I neither need nor want to have messages hammered at me – subtlety makes for more interesting storytelling, and when the author makes it so clear that only one side of the debate has any merit, then it hardly leaves much room for thought to be provoked.

Sean has bought a property in the Arctic and turned it into an exclusive retreat where mega-rich businessmen can relax or meet each other privately. But Sean has an underlying motive – he wants to take the opportunity of getting these capitalists to understand the damage they’re doing and convert them to support environmentalism. (Hmm!) So he has asked his old friend Tom, a noted environmentalist, to join him in the venture. But Tom doesn’t know that Sean has agreed to keep a kind of private army on the property on behalf of the British and Danish governments, for reasons that I found vague and unconvincing.

Laline Paull

I’m afraid I found the book dull, the writing flat in places though good in others, the story overly contrived, the suspense entirely missing. The environmental messages are too overt and overly simplistic. Nothing happens for huge swathes, except Sean agonising over what happened that day while managing to not actually tell us. There are little snippets at the beginning of each chapter – extracts from real Arctic explorers which have nothing to do with the story. I quite quickly stopped reading them. In an attempt to evoke an emotional response, I assume, Paull throws in lots of little things like polar bears being killed, or whales being eaten, but always with a little message about conservation or environmentalism tagged on so that it ceases to feel real and just becomes part of the message-hammering, and thus left me entirely unmoved.

By a third of the way through I really wanted to abandon it, and by two-thirds I couldn’t take any more. The major problem was that I simply didn’t care what happened that day any more – the moment had passed. So I abandoned it, flicked forward and discovered that once I finally knew where it was going, sadly, I still didn’t care. I did enjoy some of the writing and feel that the author has potential if in future books she can manage to deliver her message more subtly and find a better way to create real suspense. But, since I couldn’t bring myself to finish it, then 1-star it is.

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

Amazon UK Link
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Dirt Road by James Kelman

Road trip to the basement…

😦

dirt roadA young boy and his father, grieving for the recent loss of the boy’s mother and the longer ago loss of his sister, go on a trip to visit relatives in America. While there, Murdo meets up with a family of musicians, who invite him to play his accordion (annoyingly spelled accordeon throughout in my advance reading copy, whether intentionally or accidentally I know not) at a gig in a couple of weeks time. Murdo assumes his father won’t want him to go. In fact, his father wants nothing more than to sit around the relatives’ house and read, while Murdo lies on his bed in the basement, bored out of his head, listening to one of the two CDs he has. At the point where I finally threw in the towel (33%) they had only left the house once, and that was to go to the mall for a couple of hours.

The writing is undoubtedly excellent. Although written in the third person, the reader is entirely inside Murdo’s head, listening to his thoughts. It’s not stream of consciousness in the sense of long complicated sentences. Quite the reverse in fact – the sentences tend to be short and plain. But we do see Murdo’s thoughts drift and circle. On a technical level, it’s beautifully sustained and the voice and emotions ring true. My only criticism of the style is that, for some obscure reason, Kelman, having decided not to “do” Scottish dialect, still substitutes the word “ye” for “you” all the way through. This drove me mad. Either do a Scottish accent or don’t!

James Kelman
James Kelman

But the real issue is that there is no discernible plot or story. I realise that’s all the rage these days in some quarters of the lit-fic world and that many readers enjoy lengthy studies of emotions we have surely all felt, but it bores me rigid. The book is purely character study and stylish prose, and that’s not enough to make a novel. The blurb describes it as a road trip, but to be a road trip surely involves going out of the house occasionally. While the journey to America is moderately interesting, once they reach their destination it becomes entirely static. There is no sense of place, other than that I could describe Murdo’s basement and the shopping mall in detail. But happily for you, I won’t.

The only questions are, will Murdo go to the gig or not and will he and his father learn to communicate with each other? After what felt like hours of nothing happening, I found I couldn’t care less, and certainly not enough to stay with him in his basement for another couple of hundred pages, listening to him go round in endless circles about what it’s like to be a bored, isolated and grieving teenager. So I abandoned it and feel much better now, ye know. Perhaps it becomes more interesting later – perhaps there even is the promised road trip. But I’m afraid I’d had enough. This trend for books which do nothing but wallow in descriptions of fictional grief is not for me. The quality of the prose makes my 1-star harsh, but if I find a book so tedious that I can’t face reading on, then it seems ridiculous to rate it any higher.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Canongate.

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Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye

Dear reader, she murders the English language…

😦

jane steele 2Young Jane Steele’s favourite book is Jane Eyre and she sees some parallels between her own life and her heroine’s. Not yet an orphan when we first meet her, the suicide of her drug-addled mother soon allows her to achieve that status. Jane has been led to believe that Highgate House should be hers, left to her by her father. But her aunt is living there now and shows no intention of giving it up. And her cousin Edwin is a nasty piece of work who is sexually harassing her. So she kills him. Then she goes off to a school chosen by her wicked and now grieving aunt – a school much like Dickens’ Dotheboys Hall, but with added sexual harassment. While there, she kills a man, but he deserves it, so that’s okay. Then she goes off to London, where she meets with all kinds of men practising different forms of abuse or sexual harassment, so she kills them.

I’m afraid I just don’t get what it is that other people are liking about this book. It’s a simple stream of man-hate – if the genders were reversed I’m pretty sure there would be howls of outrage from some of the same people who are praising it. Every man who appears (up to the 44% mark when I abandoned it with huge relief) is some kind of sexual predator, paedophile or wife-beater, and it is therefore shown as amusing, even admirable, that they should be murdered. It’s supposed to be funny, I think, but the humour wears very thin after the same premise is used several times – man appears, man abuses girl/woman, man is murdered.

But assuming that for some reason our society is okay with denigrating men on a wholesale basis, that still wouldn’t excuse the writing. If pastiching or referencing a great writer, then one has to be able to reproduce or equal that writer’s style – comparisons should and will be drawn, especially if large extracts of the original, skilled writer’s work are used to head up each chapter. The language in this has no feeling of authenticity, no elegance of style, is sprinkled with anachronistic phraseology and occasional Americanisms, and frequently contains words that are incorrect in the context or, indeed, just plain wrong. Would people put up with a professional pianist who kept hitting the wrong notes? Or a surgeon who removed the wrong organs? Then I simply don’t understand why readers are willing to put up with professional authors who use the wrong words.

Playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order...
Playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order…

A couple of examples…

On the subject of her cousin Edwin, Jane muses: “Kin, kin, kin was ever his anthem: as if we were more than related, as if we were kindred.” I remain baffled as to what Faye thinks kindred means.

“Never having studied Latin previous, I congratulated myself when at the end of the hour, I was explaining the lesson to the perplexed circumference, and Miss Werwick forgot herself far enough to frown at this development.” I’m going to ignore “previous” because I think Faye’s using this incorrectly deliberately to try to give some kind of sense of outdated language. But perplexed circumference? I assume she means circle. Perhaps she thinks that because circles have circumferences then the words can be used interchangeably. Like milk and carton, perhaps, or chocolate and box.

Lyndsay Faye
Lyndsay Faye

I did think there was a certain irony to Faye introducing a character (an abusive male, obviously) whose major characteristic was his supposedly humorous incorrect use of words. Dickens can do that, because he is skilled with language. Unfortunately, here, it became difficult to differentiate between the character’s errors and the author’s. It’s odd, because in the only other book of Faye’s that I’ve read, her début in fact, I thought her writing was much better than in this. Perhaps it’s because she’s trying to emulate an outdated style of English English that doesn’t come naturally to her and is just not getting it quite right. I’m sure I wouldn’t get 19th century New York English right either (but then I wouldn’t publish a book written in it if I couldn’t).

However, given that the book has accumulated an astonishing number of 5-star reviews, it appears that the reading world doesn’t share my dislike for either misandry or poor writing. But I fear I can only recommend it to people who hate men and don’t mind having to guess what words the author meant to use…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Headline.

Amazon UK Link
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Book 13
Book 13

GAN Quest: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Polemics too thinly disguised as fiction…

😦

americanahAfter living for some years as an immigrant in America, Ifemelu has decided to return to her native Nigeria. As she sits in the hairdressers having her hair braided, she reminisces over her adolescence in Nigeria and her life as a student then an adult in America. Her experiences have led her to start a blog discussing the reality of life as a non-American black person in the US, and her blog posts are sprinkled throughout the book. She makes the point that, until she became an immigrant, she had never considered herself as black, and she draws clear distinctions between those in the black community who have grown up as Americans and those who are foreign to the culture, making the further point that in terms of social strata the two groups are treated differently by the white elite.

In fact, she makes a lot of points. And many of them are interesting and insightful, if repetitive and hardly original. There is a tendency, which seems to be happening more and more, for literary authors to use the novel form to make polemical statements. Some do it well, so that the book can be read on two levels – enjoyment of the story and appreciation of the message. Others forget to put in the story. Many of these books are highly successful and well regarded, as this one is, so I’m perfectly willing to accept that my objection to being preached at is subjective, due partly, I suspect, to the fact that I read a lot of factual political books and so am looking for something rather different when I come to fiction.

I think back over the literary books I consider great and find that most of them were making political points or observing their societies with a revealing and critical eye. But they also tell a story, have great characterisation, fabulous prose and some kind of tension that keeps me turning the pages. Will Becky Sharp beat or be beaten by the society at which she is thumbing her pert nose? Why is Beloved haunting her mother? Will Miss Flite ever be able to set her birds free?

Here’s the story of Americanah. Back when she was a teenager, Ifemelu fell in love with a boy. They separated when she went to America. He is now married and has a child. Ifemelu intends to contact him when she gets back to Nigeria to try to revive the old embers. Do you care if she succeeds? I don’t. In fact, I’d be rather disappointed if she does. It’s a plot that wouldn’t even hold together a quick YA romance, much less a 400-page novel with literary pretensions. Therefore I abandoned it a third of the way through.

All the rest (of the part that I read) is observation mixed with chip-on-the-shoulder polemics. Part of my problem with this book, and with so many others about the ‘immigrant experience’, is that I don’t think Ifemelu’s life is actually bad enough to justify her eternal whining. She is one of the privileged in this world of ours – not poor in Nigeria, given a scholarship to study in America, welcomed in by that country, educated, professionally employed, well-fed, still at liberty to return to her own country any time she wishes. The ‘racism’ that she meets with seems mainly to take the form of her feeling pressured to have her hair straightened in order to get work. I sympathise, but it’s hardly slavery, and frankly when she finally lets her hair revert to its natural state, no-one sacks her or pokes fun at her or calls her names. Please don’t think that I’m for one moment minimising the impact of racism or even cultural pressure, but most of Ifemelu’s experiences could so easily have been seen as a cause for celebration rather than resentment. Sometimes discrimination is in the eye of the beholder, and Adichie’s eye seems determined to find a racial nuance in every aspect of her character’s interactions with the world.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The prose is fine, occasionally beautiful, but mainly workmanlike (no doubt she would complain about the sexism inherent in that word). Not exceptional enough to carry me through, though. I realise I’m swimming against the tide on this one – in fact on this whole trend of thinly disguised polemics. I abandoned Annie Proulx’s Barkskins for almost exactly similar reasons. But reviews are personal things, and personally I am bored by these books, so can’t recommend them. My 1-star rating reflects the fact that I couldn’t bring myself to read several hundred more pages of the same and it always seems to me ridiculous to give a book a higher rating if it couldn’t entice me to finish it. But it would probably have earned 3 or even 4 stars in reality, had I struggled through to the end.

(I read this as part of the Great American Novel Quest, but it will be obvious that it doesn’t rate as great for me.)

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Book 3
Book 3

Friday Frippery! Interim Book Report…

absalom absalomSo,

 

she (Miss Rosa Coldfield) rattles on circuitously, circling round and round, in a circle; and yet, not round always, but in memory, sometimes backward, before the enemy thrashed her father and destroyed the Old South, destroying it in a destructive manner, while he watched the dust motes and wondered why she repeated herself endlessly without ever actually saying anything to the point, endlessly repeating the story of her sister, long dead, and Sutpen, repeatedly telling him (Quentin) about his (Sutpen’s) beard that was the only thing that differentiated him from the wild black men he brought with him when he came to destroy the honour of his or possibly her family, or possibly their families, or possibly not, for as she would undoubtedly come to say “It is important that this story never dies, so I’m going to reveal it to you in a code so obscure it will take, not just the rest of your life, but the lives of many academics, paid for by the taxes not just of ourselves but of those who conquered us and tamed the wild men, destroying something precious but perhaps a little immoral along the way, for some strange people in the North, you know, think that to chain wild men to a post is nearly as wicked as to beat horses for no reason other than to show how wicked the beater is, to decipher it or at least to convince themselves that they had deciphered it because otherwise would be to admit that yet again the Nobel Prize had been given to someone who fundamentally can’t write intelligibly, though of course in the wondrous worlds of academe and literary prizes intelligibility ranks low on the list of things a writer should achieve, which is not how it was…” and she broke off as her voice retreated not into silence exactly, but into silence nevertheless, a silence forced upon her and all her race by the men who conquered her or them or him and his family and their honour, and he said “Yessum” which was, one has to admit, as good an answer as any from one of the broken ghosts that inhabit this broken land, broken by conquerors who destroyed the honour of those whose only fault, if indeed fault it were, and who is to decide that question is still to be decided, was to tie wild men to posts and impregnate wild women, hardly a fault at all; though some may say that then naming the offspring with silly names like Clytemnestra may have been the most wicked thing of all and may even have been some small justification for the destruction of these once proud people, now wandering ghost-like through the past and present…

William Faulkner

…with no calendar, dammit, to tell them where they might be supposed to be, which is to assume anyone cares, which brings me back to the point which I have unfortunately forgotten since my braincells began deteriorating at page 5 and the deterioration deteriorated so rapidly that by page 48 I had turned into a brainless mumbling mono-celled organism condemned to spend eternity going round in an endless circle of rambling, barely punctuated, incomprehensibly-structured prose, an endless circle of destruction, leaving me feeling like a ghost inhabiting a land which unfortunately the destroyers didn’t destroy thoroughly enough or they would have wiped out Miss Coldfield, Mr Compson, Mr Sutpen and all their pesky descendants and left Mr Faulkner with nothing to go round in endless circles about, so that when at some time in the future or perhaps the past FF asked for recommendations for the Great American Novel Quest, no-one, not one person, not even a ghost, would have suggested torturing herself half to death reading a pretentious, repetitive, repetitive book, which is to literature much as WWE is to sport, with its major claim to fame being that it contains the longest grammatically correct sentence in the English language, thus getting into the Guinness Book of Records, surely more illustrious than the broken Nobel, though that record doesn’t specify intelligible, nor does it take account of the fact that Michael Chabon created a much longer, better constructed, and rather beautiful one in Telegraph Avenue, thus making this work even more redundant than it once was, this being the problem with all records, for who now remembers who held the record for the fastest mile before Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mark, itself a record now broken, but one that was at least exciting at the time, which I suggest this one wasn’t; and if they did, if some ghost drifting in the motes of dust circling round the room of the woman who is doing a particularly bad Miss ‘Avisham impersonation, in her room where she lives with the blinds drawn, angsting about a 50-year-old jilting, had whispered “Read Absalom! Absalom!”, then FF would have known to say “No’m!” – but too late, alas, too late!

* * * * * *

I’m at page 72. 240 to go.

 

alphabetti help

 

Three Moments of an Explosion by China Miéville

three moments of an explosionImagination is not enough…

😦

This is a collection of 28 short stories from an author who appears to be one of the big names in current sci-fi/fantasy. I’m afraid I only made it through four of the stories before deciding to abandon the book, so this review is more an explanation of why I came to the conclusion that life’s too short.

The title story, Three Moments of an Explosion, is only a couple of pages long. The basic premise is that in a future world, a building is being demolished. Some young people take a drug that slows down time for them, allowing them to go inside the building during the explosion and witness it from the inside. An imaginative premise, but there’s not enough room to allow for any kind of development, though it hints that it’s maybe trying to make some kind of point about capitalism. Maybe.

Next up is Polynia, which is still quite short, though longer than the first one. Again a brilliantly imaginative premise and, as with all the stories, well written, if you don’t mind the constant swearing (which, of course, I do). Suddenly one day, with no warning, icebergs appear floating in the sky above London. No-one knows why. And by the end of the story, still no-one knows why. And nothing much happens in-between. Another great idea left completely underdeveloped and unresolved. I was still trying to buy into the whole thing at this point, so speculated that perhaps this was some kind of apocalyptic climate change warning, but I think I was being too generous.

The third story is The Condition of New Death. Very short. The idea is quirky and original – suddenly when people die, their feet always point towards anyone who looks at them, even if several people look at them at the same time from different angles. This is a kind of joke on shoot-em-up computer games, but it’s a fragment of what could have been a fun story had it been developed.

The one that finally made me give up was the fourth story – The Dowager of Bees, touted as the best in the collection by many reviewers. The premise has loads of potential – sometimes in poker games, a mystery card will turn up from nowhere, and when it does the players either get a prize or have to make some kind of forfeit. Had Miéville bothered to tell us what the prizes or forfeits were, that might have been fun. And the ending, possibly intended to be intriguingly ambiguous, felt completely unsatisfactory and a bit of a cop-out.

China Miéville
China Miéville

Frankly by that stage I’d had enough. I looked at reviews on Goodreads and even the positive ones (mostly as far as I can tell from generous existing fans) suggest that all the ‘stories’ are like this and that some are in fact even more fragmentary than these. Each of the four that I read had the potential to be a really original story, but ended up feeling like it was a great idea the author had jotted down in a notebook intending to develop it later, but then couldn’t be bothered. I don’t think every short story necessarily needs a beginning, a middle and an end, but neither do I think throwing a nugget of imagination onto the page is enough, however golden.

The quality of the writing and imagination make me a bit regretful to be giving the collection 1 star, but since I metaphorically threw it at the wall at the 12% mark, I reckon it’s the only rating I can give. The consensus of existing fans’ reviews seems to be that his novels are better. I’ll take their word for it – I’m left with no real desire to find out.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Pan MacMillan.

Amazon UK Link
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GAN Quest: The Lay of the Land by Richard Ford

A digressive, long-winded, over-adjectived, frequently-hyphenated contemplation of the middle-aged, middle-classed, middle-of-the-road American male…

😦

the lay of the landFrank Bascombe sets out to have a meeting with his ex-wife. Five immensely tedious reading hours later and nearly a third of the way through the book, he hasn’t yet got there. But he has digressed endlessly on those subjects that seem to obsess the white, middle-class, middle-aged American male of fiction – their health, the fact that they don’t understand their children, their ex-wives (almost always plural), their sexual prowess or lack thereof, and the way the country is going to the dogs. I admit defeat – I can’t take any more.

I feared right from the beginning that I was going to struggle with this book. Straight away, Ford gets into existential crisis mode with our narrator, having been diagnosed with prostate cancer, fearing that he is not ready to meet his maker. Five hours later, I was unsympathetically thinking that he shouldn’t worry – he has plenty of time left since he has the ability to turn every hour into a yawning eternity of low-level angst. It took me four days to read that five hours’ worth, because I had to keep stopping to remind myself that actually life isn’t a dismal wasteland of pretentious emptiness – or at least, if it is, then I prefer my own pretentious emptiness to that of the tediously self-obsessed Frank Bascombe.

Each line of sparse and unrealistic dialogue is separated by two or three paragraphs analysing the one before and anticipating the one to come, while every noun is preceded by roughly eight, usually-hyphenated, increasingly-convoluted-and-contrived, unnecessary-except-to-fill-up-the-space adjectives…

…elderly, handsome, mustachioed, silver-haired, capitalist-looking gentleman in safari attire…

…a fetid, lightless, tin-sided back-country prison…

…a smirky, blond, slightly hard-edged, cigarette-smoking former Goucher girl… (what on earth is a Goucher girl? All those words and yet he still fails to communicate his meaning.)

Frankly, until I tried to read this book, I thought I was fairly fluent in American. After all, I coped with Twain’s dialect in Huckleberry Finn and Steinbeck’s in The Grapes of Wrath, and dealt comfortably with Ellis’ pop culture obsession in American Psycho. But it appears not. Even my Kindle’s built-in US-English dictionary didn’t recognise more than half of the words I looked up. Has he invented this language? Or is it a kind of slang that was fashionable a decade or so ago and has now been already forgotten? Whatever, if it’s comprehensible to Americans then that’s what matters, of course, but I think I’d have to wait for the English translation to become available. Though I’m in no rush for it…

…skint black hair…

…business lunch and afternoon plat-map confab…

…against every millage to extend services to the boondocks…

My life in Haddam always lacked the true resident’s naive, relief-seeking socked-in-ed-ness…

Richard Ford
Richard Ford

It’s not just made-up words and jargon related to the property market that are problematic for this non-US reader, it’s also his use of brands as a shortcut to description – fine if the brands mean something to the reader, otherwise irritating. And he constantly does the same with what I assume are cultural references…

He knows I bleed Michigan blue but doesn’t really know what that means. (Nope, nor me.)

This means a living room the size of a fifties tract home. (So… tiny? Huge? Average?)

Mike frowns over at me. He doesn’t know what Kalamazoo means, or why it would be so side-splittingly hilarious. (Again, nope – pity, because by that stage I could have done with a laugh.)

I’m not really blaming the book for being ‘too’ American – why shouldn’t it be? – but it did make it impossible for me to get into any kind of reading flow, since I was constantly either looking things up or trying to work out the meaning from the context, a problem I’m not usually aware of when reading American fiction, or certainly not to this degree. I’m quite sure that was a large part of why I found it such a stultifying read, but I’d have tolerated it if I’d felt the book was shedding light on anything that interested me. But I’m afraid the trials and obsessions of the well-off, educated, American male don’t, particularly. Shall I eat wheat-grain or indulge my wicked side with a ‘furter? Let me list all the things I wear so you can understand my social position. I spent $2000 dollars on Thanksgiving lunch just because I can.

A 1950s tract house - or as we in the UK would call it - a house.
A 1950s tract home – or as we in the UK would call it – a house.

Buried amidst the heap of unnecessary wordiness, there is probably some insight on what it is to be middle-aged, middle-classed, middle-of-the-road and male in Millenium America, and there may even be bits that are funny. Sadly I lost my ability to laugh at around page 5, but am hoping it may return now that I’ve abandoned it. Is there a plot or a story or any kind of forward progression? Not that I noticed, but maybe it becomes a gripping read once he gets to the meeting with his ex-wife, if he ever does. I guess I shall never know…

* * * * * * *

(Dear Matt, (who recommended this one to me) – my sincere apologies! Sometimes the reader and the book just don’t gel, and I had to get it out of my system for fear of developing stomach ulcers. 😉 )

 

* * * * * * *

Great American Novel Quest

So…how does it fare in The Great American Novel Quest*laughs hollowly* To win that title it needs to achieve all five of the criteria in my original post…

Must be written by an American author or an author who has lived long enough in the US to assimilate the culture.

us flagAchieved.

The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.

white_flagPerhaps it would have if I could have borne to read all the way through. But since I couldn’t – not achieved.

It must be innovative and original in theme.

white_flagSince I feel as if every second book written by American males (and indeed British males) is an exceedingly similar account of their middle-aged angst, then no.

Must be superbly written.

white_flagUmm…guess the answer to this one!

 

Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.

white_flagNo.

 

* * * * * * *

So not The Great American Novel, and since I couldn’t bring myself to finish it, neither A Great American Novel nor even a great novel, I’m afraid. Though perhaps Americans might feel differently…

* * * * * * *

PS Fascinatingly, every single 5-star review of this on Amazon UK is written by a man. I don’t think I’ve ever come across that before on any novel. Perhaps it’s not so much that I’m the wrong nationality as the wrong gender… or both.

Book 7
Book 7

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Emma by Alexander McCall Smith

emma mccall smithNot with a bang but a whimper…

😦

I wouldn’t have thought it possible for any of these Austen Project books to reach lower depths than Joanna Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility, but I fear this one does. After Val McDermid’s surprisingly enjoyable take on Northanger Abbey, I hoped the series might be capable of redemption – I was wrong. (Go ahead – say you told me so!) There are some mild spoilers ahead…

The first few pages are quite fun with lots of little jokes about class and McCall Smith’s hometown of Edinburgh. But it’s a false dawn – very quickly the book descends into a miserable and poorly written attempt to make Austen’s observations about class relevant to today’s society.

Helpful note for authors 1: You cannot make a historical thing relevant to today if it isn’t.

The characterisation is dreadful. Emma may have been unlikeable in the original, but one can see why she got away with it. Firstly, she is superficially pleasant and, secondly, she is socially superior to everyone she meets and they are conditioned by society to respect her. In this version, she’s simply a nasty, selfish, small-minded piece of work, to whom no-one in the real world would give the time of day. Her main belief seems to be that women should set out to catch a rich husband so that they don’t need to work – slightly different from Austen’s women who had no opportunity to work. Harriet, not the brightest candle in the chandelier in the original, is so thick in this one that it’s amazing she remembers to breathe. Mr Woodhouse, our selfish hypochondriac, is probably closest to the original, but I fear it doesn’t work in this one, since he is far from elderly and perfectly fit, meaning that he’s just annoying and repetitive, with no possibility of gaining sympathy from the reader.

Knightley’s barely in the book until near the end – McCall Smith obviously has his own reservations about the ‘grooming’ aspects of the original, so has simply removed him from Emma’s upbringing and reduced the age difference by several years. Instead he has been replaced by Miss Taylor – now a cross between Mary Poppins and Nanny McPhee – as the sole influence in the revolting Emma’s upbringing. Not a recommendation to hire her to look after your own sprogs, if you want them to turn out…human. Frank and Jane, also hardly in it really, are awful – silly little people trying to make each other jealous for no good reason.

Nanny McPhee...or Miss Taylor?
Nanny McPhee…or Miss Taylor?

Helpful note for authors 2: Make at least one character likeable/believable.

I’ve mentioned that several of the characters are hardly in the book. This is because McCall Smith has decided to fill the first quarter of the book with descriptions of Emma’s upbringing and childhood, not to mention Mr Woodhouse’s entire life story. We get Isabella’s courtship with John Knightley, tons and tons of stuff about Miss Taylor, mainly so McCall Smith can continue his quips about Edinburgh, and the whole history of Emma’s education at school and university. What does this add to the story? Well, tedium, primarily. When Harriet and Mr Elton finally appear their whole story is dealt with in three or four meetings, culminating in what really comes close to an assault on Emma by a drunken Mr Elton. Should I mention the nude Harriet scene and the lesbian overtones? Nope, can’t bring myself to. But Mr Elton does provide an opportunity for McCall Smith to make what is clearly his favourite joke, that he drives a BMW Something-Something. I say favourite joke, because he repeats it an amazing nine times. Mind you, he repeats the joke about the English language students asking the way to the railway station an astonishing 22 times…

Helpful note for authors 3: If a joke isn’t very funny first time, it won’t get funnier with repetition.

Although only half the length of the original, the book feels twice as long. Each little bit of story is surrounded by pages and pages of repeated descriptions of Emma’s selfishness or Harriet’s stupidity or Mr Woodhouse’s obsession with germs. And in case we fall into the Harriet spectrum of intelligence, McCall Smith spells out his conclusions about Emma’s character all the way through, so we can be sure to keep up.

It had been an important summer for Emma, as it had been the summer during which moral insight came to her – something that may happen to all of us, if it happens at all, at very different stages of our lives.

Helpful note for authors 4: If you have to spell out your point, you’ve failed to make it.

Would I recommend this? Only to someone I really didn’t like…

* * * * * * *

Alexander McCall Smith
Alexander McCall Smith

PS I will be going on to re-read the other Austens over the next year or so, but the Austen Project will have to limp along without me. If they really had to do this, they could have done it so much better, by truly transplanting the stories to the modern day and looking at some of the real issues for women in today’s society instead of pretending that we still face the same ones as Austen’s heroines. With the exception of McDermid, who admittedly had an easier task with the much lighter Northanger Abbey, this has done nothing to enhance the reputations of the authors involved to date – both of whom perform significantly better when writing their own stories in their own style.

Amazon UK Link
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The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee

the lives of otherSometimes life really is too short…

😦

This is the story of a large, extended family all living under one roof in Calcutta, and of one of the children of the family who becomes a Marxist agitator following the Naxalbari uprising. I abandoned it at the halfway point – sometimes life really is too short. A fellow reviewer* described it as “Like The Lowland, but twice as long and half as good”. I think that’s a perfect description – and I found The Lowland pretty underwhelming…

There are about twenty characters in the family and the book jumps about between them in a fairly random fashion. The timeline also varies and it’s often not made clear what period we’re in, though the main storyline seems to be the one set in the ’60s. Combine this confusion with the fact that the author (probably realistically) uses three or more different variations of name for each character and frankly the book becomes extremely hard to follow. There is a family tree at the beginning, but I really expect authors to be skilled enough to keep me informed without me constantly having to break off to go consult charts, or look up the glossary of endless Indian words that are included in a book which is supposedly written in English (by an Indian born/English resident author).

But I would have been willing to make the effort to plough through the book if the story were interesting, the writing beautiful or the characters enjoyable to spend time with. Unfortunately that’s not the case. The story is simply an observation of this unpleasant family that goes on and on in endless detail but never actually heads anywhere. The exception to this is the strand about the budding terrorist. Cut in at the end of chapters, this strand is told as a series of extracts from letters he sends to an unnamed person, possibly a lover – at the point I abandoned it we still don’t know. Here we learn all about the lives of the rural poor, but from a distance – we never actually get to know any of the poor, just this angst-ridden middle-class Marxist’s interpretation of them, liberally sprinkled with a regurgitation of Marxist theory – at great length.

Calcutta 1967
Calcutta street scene 1967

The quality of the writing is fine – neither particularly bad nor good. Occasional passages are well written and there’s no doubt he gives a very, very, very detailed picture of everything he describes (including lots and lots of abstruse mathematical theories – well, he obviously knew them, so why not put them in?). I quipped that Donna Tartt had obviously bought a couple of enormous economy sized bags of words and used them all in her writing of The Goldfinch – Mukherjee has obviously been to the same shop. I saw him being interviewed about the book on the BBC News channel and when asked about the length of the book he replied that he wanted the book to be ‘densely rendered’ (Good news! It is!) and that if people were paying £17 for the hardback he felt they should get their money’s worth. Personally, I’d prefer to pay for quality rather than quantity. He also said that he thought even Indian people would find it hard to really understand the ‘Bengali-ness’ that he is apparently trying to portray – I guess therefore it’s understandable that this Scot struggled to feel engaged.

Neel Mukherjee
Neel Mukherjee

The real flaw in the book though is that, out of this huge cast of characters, there isn’t a single one who is likeable, engaging or even particularly interesting. The family on the whole dislike each other and that I did find understandable, since I disliked them all. We have bullying of children, animal cruelty, incest (or as good as), and sexual perversion of the most ridiculous kind about which it has been my misfortune to read. We have some members of the family being treated as second-class citizens within the home, sibling rivalry taken to extremes, obnoxious wives battling for domestic supremacy, servants being treated as badly as servants usually are, and beggars being turned away at the door to starve. Two weeks in this family and I’d have become a Marxist terrorist myself.

I said it when I was reviewing Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance and I’ll say it again – I do not believe that India is this unrelievedly awful. The problem with unmitigated misery is that it becomes numbing after a while – there has to be something to contrast it with if it’s going to have an emotional impact.** Or alternatively it has to be written so beautifully that the words themselves become the point. All of these people are so deeply unpleasant that this reader couldn’t care less what happened to them. In fact, I was rather hoping for an alien invasion to brighten things up.

In truth, this probably deserves about three stars for the writing and descriptions but, since I found it such a dismal, tedious and ultimately pointless read that I couldn’t bring myself to finish it, I feel I have no option but to put it in the 1-star slot. It’s been shortlisted for the Booker, of course…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Vintage.

* Amazon UK reviewer “Mister Hobgoblin”

** As an aside, I find it intriguing that the three authors I have criticised as portraying such a bleak mono-coloured view of India are all people who have left it to live elsewhere (Rohinton Mistry, Neel Mukherjee and Jhumpa Lahiri). On the other hand the two Indian authors whom I have hugely enjoyed (Aravind Adiga and Chandrahas Choudhury) both live and work there, as far as I know, and give a much more balanced and nuanced picture of the people and of life there. I rather wish someone would do a thesis on differing viewpoints of emigrants and residents…

Amazon UK Link
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