Archive for the ‘Book reviews’ Category

How Not To Be a Boy

Posted: November 11, 2017 in Book reviews
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By Robert Webb

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Before he was a husband and father, before he danced for comic relief, before he found fame as one half of a somewhat successful double act with David Mitchell, before he went to Cambridge and became vice president of Footlights…before all of this Robert Webb was just a boy like any other boy.

Well maybe not like any other boy, because he didn’t always seem to think and act like all the other boys, but growing up in the 70s and 80s he was very clearly given certain rules to follow; don’t cry, love sport, play rough, drink beer, don’t talk about your feelings.

Now Robert wonders if these rules are any use, and explores what it means to be male in the 21st Century.

 

As a big fan of Mitchell and Webb, and having read David Mitchell’s autobiography, Back Story, there was no way I wasn’t going to read Robert Webb’s book, although calling it a straightforward autobiography does it something of a disservice. Oh, sure it’s autobiographical, but Robert has a point to make beyond just regaling us with his life story, and for me it resonated quite a bit.

I share a lot of common ground with Robert. Not so much now, what with him being star of stage and screen and me, well me not being a star of stage and screen. I never went to Cambridge and my parents didn’t divorce when I was a child and I certainly didn’t have to experience the trauma of losing my mum when I was a teenager.

But setting aside all of that there’s a lot of the book that felt very familiar. I’m two years older than Robert Webb and, like him, was a working-class boy, so when he talks about a childhood spent in the 1970s and 1980s this is the kind of childhood with which I was acquainted. He talks about the Television shows he watched and it was the same telly I watched; The A-Team, Buck Rogers, Doctor Who etc. But beyond this is how he was described as a sensitive child. A quiet child. God did I ever hear myself described in that fashion time and again, and though unlike Robert I do actually like football (watching it at least) I too recall standing on a football pitch trying to stay as far away from the action as possible and dreading the ball coming anywhere near me.

Anyone expecting a book chock full of celebrity tittle tattle may be somewhat disappointed. Robert does touch on this aspect of his life, and there’s a wonderful story featuring Carrie Fisher, but for the most part this isn’t really about Peep Show or That Mitchell and Webb Look, it’s about growing up, about how difficult it is to be a boy, and a man, and how expectations and the unwritten rules affect all of us, especially when it comes to sharing our feelings. It’s no surprise that men are more likely to kill themselves than women after all, but this also helps explain (but not excuse) what’s now referred to as toxic masculinity, because growing up if you didn’t drink lots of pints and shag lots of birds, well what was wrong with you? You weren’t a poofter, were you?

Robert’s prose is a little workmanlike at times, but on the whole its eminently readable. It’s also honest, brutally honest. This is a warts and all life story; he doesn’t hide from any of the things he’s done, many of which he clearly regrets and none of which he seems inclined to excuse himself for, even if at times you kinda think he had a bloody big excuse for being a dick.

This is a book to be enjoyed on several levels, both as a straightforward autobiography, but also as a meditation on masculinity. If, like me, you’re a bloke who grew up around the same era, then I think this will resonate for you too, but I think this is a book that anyone, irrespective of age or gender, can appreciate.

An enjoyable, often very funny, and sometimes very sad, tale of a man who, before he was famous, was just a boy, and a fairly rubbish boy at that, or at least a boy who felt rubbish because of society’s expectations about what a boy should be. Suffice to say I know the feeling, and it’s nice to know I wasn’t alone.

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Pulp Fiction

Posted: October 17, 2017 in Book reviews
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By Quentin Tarantino

Jules and Vincent are hired killers, Butch is a punch-drunk boxer with one last pay day ahead of him. Marcellus Wallace is a crime boss who only likes to be fucked by Mrs Wallace, and Mrs Wallace, well she wants to dance, she wants to win, and maybe she wants a hit of what she thinks is cocaine.

Over the space of a few days their lives will intersect, and not everyone will get out of this story alive.

Reading a script is a lot different to reading a novel. For starters they tend to be a much quicker read—realistically you should be able to read a script in the time it takes you to watch the completed film. A script is a story boiled down to its constituent elements, with every ounce of fat trimmed from a story’s bones.

There’s a rush to reading a script, especially a good script, and whatever his faults—and I think he has a few—reading the script to Pulp Fiction is a salient reminder that Mr Quentin Tarantino has (had?) a huge amount of talent.

I’ve watched Pulp Fiction dozens of times, and I’ve always thought it is a fantastic film (and it remains to this day my favourite QT film) but even so reading the script has made me love it more.

Weaving multiple narratives, back and forth in time, Tarantino produced an elegant, finely tuned story that even on the page makes perfect sense, grabs you by the scruff of the neck and gives you no choice but to come along for the ride.

And what a ride it is.

Tarantino’s dialogue crackles with electricity, each individual conversation sparks more vividly than entire screenplays by other writers. Sure, there’s an argument that all of his characters sound kinda the same, but when the dialogue is this good, and when it’s back before he began believing his own hype, who damn well cares?

This was bought me as a birthday present by friends because I’d told them I was contemplating trying my hand at screenplays, and if you’re going to learn why not learn from the best. There’s a reason this script won an Oscar after all.

It’s interesting as well to catch sight of bits that didn’t make the final film, either because they were excised completely, or because they were reworked during filming (and I have to say this was always for the better).

Pulp Fiction’s a great film, and the script was a great (not to mention educational) read.

Although mention of Harvey Weinstein in the credits is more than a little sobering mind you…

Revenger

Posted: October 10, 2017 in Book reviews
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By Alastair Reynolds

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It’s Tens of thousands of years in the future, yet humanity prevail, living within the Congregation, what was once the solar system, only now planets have been long shattered, and the Congregation consists of millions of tiny outposts. Moons and planetoids and space stations. It’s roughly the eighteenth century of the 13th occupation and, in order to try and save their family from bankruptcy, teenage sisters Adrana and Fura Ness have signed on aboard a sun-jammer captained by a man named Rakamore. Rakamore’s ship is one of hundreds that make a living by cracking ‘baubles’, planetoids surrounded by impenetrable force fields that, every so often when the conditions are right, become accessible, allowing those brave, or foolhardy, enough to approach time to scavenge for ancient technology.

It’s a perilous enough way to earn a living, but there are even worse dangers out there in the void between worlds, notably the legendary, and extremely vicious, pirate, Bosa Sennen, and when Rackamore crosses paths with Sennen’s night-jammer all hell will break lose, and Fura Ness will have to grow up fast if she’s to save herself, her sister, and her crewmates.

So, apparently this is a young adult book, which I only discovered once I’d finished reading it. I have to say that nothing in the novel screamed YA at me, aside from the young age of its protagonist, Fura Ness, but a teenage hero does not necessarily a young adult book mean, and as far as I was concerned it was an adult novel (but maybe that’s how the best YA should work). Anyway, there’s no foul language or explicit sexual content, however the book is quite bloodthirsty in places.

Whether it’s YA or not is irrelevant. All I know is that I really enjoyed it!

Sure, it took me a few chapters to acclimatise to the universe Reynolds has created here, but once I did I was well and truly hooked. A few silly missteps aside (the police have flashing blue epaulets!) the Congregation and those that populate it are fascinating. By hurling humanity so far into the future Reynolds has carte blanche to create a world at once very different from our own, yet also very similar.

At its core this is a tale of pirates and buried treasure, complete with piratical dialogue that manages to sit just the right side of yo-ho-ho parody, but Reynolds also finds time to drop in a subplot about nefarious banking practices and a wider story about aliens that I’m guessing will be picked up in any sequel, and I really hope there is a sequel because I definitely want to follow more adventures of Fura Ness.

The first-person narrative does limit the story sometimes, and lots of things happen off camera, but by letting Fura tell the story we see how she grows from a naïve young girl into a hardened spacefarer, and this also provides Reynolds with an excuse to explain the minutiae of the universe he’s created, since Fura and her sister had a sheltered upbringing.

If the book has one fault it’s that some of the secondary characters seem a bit interchangeable. Fura serves on several ships and at times I wanted to have a better handle on her crewmates, and sometimes I had to flick back to remember who a certain character was.

That’s a minor quibble though, because on the whole this was a hugely enjoyable story with a great central character and, like I say, I’d like to see future voyages of the Revenger!

 

By Joe Hill

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In the near future mankind is ravaged by a spore known technically as Draco Incendia Trychophyton but more colloquially as Dragonscale, or merely The Scale. Once infected victims display black and gold markings on their skin that look like beautiful tattoos but, sooner or later, the disease causes the victim to spontaneously combust, so as well as death by disease, large scale fires become a fact of life.

School nurse Harper has been infected. She and her husband, Jakob, had discussed what to do if they became infected, and had considered mutual suicide, the trouble is, since that discussion Harper has discovered she’s pregnant, and now she doesn’t want to die, instead she wants to try and bring her baby to term before the Dragonscale gets her, much to Jakob’s chagrin.

Luckily help is at hand from The Fireman, a mysterious stranger who leads Harper to a refuge where a group of the infected have discovered a way to control the Dragonscale. What initially appears to be a paradise might soon descend into something more akin to hell on earth, and Harper and her newfound allies will have to fight many battles, against friend as well as foe, if they’re to survive.

 

Do you watch The Walking Dead? It’s ok if you don’t, this isn’t a mammoth spoiler. Anyway, in the second season of The Walking Dead the survivors chance upon a small farm and stay there…and stay there…and stay there…and, well, not a great deal happens. The Fireman is a bit like season 2 of The Walking Dead.

Hill’s central conceit is a great one. The Dragonscale is a wonderful creation, and the first section of the book where Hill details the spread of the disease and the gradual disintegration of civilisation is wonderfully evocative.

The trouble begins when the Fireman takes Harper to Camp Wyndham (I see what you did there, Joe). Given the size of the book (close to 800 pages) I was expecting some kind of sprawling epic where Harper and the Fireman have to cross a barren wasteland to find safety, and whilst this does happen, eventually, you have to wait until almost the end before this odyssey begins. In the interim what you’re faced with is 300+ pages dedicated to the folk at Camp Wyndham. Suddenly a book about the end of the world turns into something smaller scale, with some of the group eager to implement a cult style leadership.

Now that’s fine, and it isn’t like small groups falling apart isn’t a staple of the post-apocalyptic genre. I mean, Joe’s dad has handled this kind of subject before, in the Stand or Under the Dome, or the novella The Mist.

You might think it unfair to compare a man who’s gone out of his way to escape his father’s shadow with that father, but given this book is so clearly influenced by King’s work, and given in his introduction Joe admits shamelessly stealing his dad’s ideas, I think it’s a fair thing to do (in fact it was only when I read other reviews after finishing the book that I realised just how many Stephen King Easter eggs there are in the book).

The Stand is a similarly doorstep sized hunk of a book, but in that King provides a large cast of characters, both good and bad, and tells the story from multiple viewpoints. By contrast 99.9% of the Fireman is told from Harper’s POV, which means Hill has to pull all kinds of literary contortions in order to keep her in the mix, or have stuff happen off camera. As a result none of the other characters really come alive because we rarely get inside their heads. In particular the Fireman is poorly served, and spends much of the novel off camera, sick or otherwise incapacitated. The reason for this is clear, having given him what are effectively superpowers, Hill has to keep finding ways to keep him out of the picture lest he resolve every problem by throwing some handy fireballs. It might not be so bad, but Harper never really comes alive, but then that’s hardly surprising given her defining character trait is that she’s a huge Mary Poppins fan, and that’s about it. By contrast the Fireman’s defining trait is that he’s British (though he never feels it to this Brit).

So what you’re left with the story of a group of survivors turning on themselves and turning to a crazy religious leader, which is what King did in The Mist, only he did it much better with two thirds of the page count.

Another issue is the Dragonscale itself, and whilst initially Hill keeps it fairly grounded, by the end of the book it’s gone from something that’s at least vaguely plausible, to something completely preposterous that imbues people with magical powers.

The book picks up in the final couple of hundred pages, although even here it lollygags, and more than once I found myself wishing Joe would just get a move on.

A great concept, a strong first act and an ok final act are let down by an overwrought, overlong and over-written middle section, paper thin characters, out of the blue betrayals worthy of a WWE wrester’s heel turn, and fantastical events that break many of the rules Hill laid out initially about the Scale.

I think a decent editor could have lopped half the book and still left something coherent, and probably better. As is this is a fire that burns white hot at first, but which soon fizzles out before sparking into life once more near the end just when you think the embers have finally  gone cold.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Posted: July 11, 2017 in Book reviews
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By Truman Capote.

In 1940s New York an unnamed narrator moves into an apartment in a brownstone and soon becomes enraptured by one of his fellow tenants, the carefree Holly Golightly, a woman who’s card on her mailbox advises that she is “travelling”, and so she is, though she doesn’t quite know where to, only that she’s looking for a home, and she’ll know it when she finds it. She has a cat with no name and a penchant for rich, often older men, including, amongst others, an imprisoned gangster, a possibly gay millionaire playboy, and a Brazilian diplomat.

Holly is a former actress turned socialite and looking for a rich man to marry, though there’s more to her than meets the eye as the narrator discovers more and more of her background, including her humble origins, she is more than just a gold-digger, she’s a beautiful bird that refuses to be caged, but will she ever find happiness?

 

It’s strange how life goes. I was aware of an individual named Truman Capote, but I didn’t really know much about him, and I had no interest in reading any of his works. Odd then that in the space of half a year I’ve now read, and enjoyed, his two most celebrated works. Enjoying—if that’s the right word—his seminal true crime tale In Cold Blood prompted me to seek out Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and I enjoyed this just as much, though can two books be so different?

Never having seen the film (actually that’s a lie as I think I’ve seen the final moments in the rain several times) I think I actually had a more romanticised notion about what Holly Golightly’s story was about, so it was a surprise to discover it was quite racy, with a dynamic female lead.

It’s hard to quite pinpoint what’s so good about it. Is it Capote’s prose, which is superb, each word seemingly chosen with utmost care, and yet never pretentious, never a chore, or is it Holly herself, a flighty girl about town who should be all rights be annoying, yet whose refusal to bow down to what society expects of her is somehow refreshing, especially when married to her clear fragility (and now I understand why Capote wanted Marilyn Monroe for the part), or is it Capote’s decision to give us a narrator who we know barely anything about (other than that he’s a writer) a man whose name we never learn, although Holly christens him Fred after her brother. It’s an interesting narrative choice, which allows Holly to remain the focus of the story, although Capote leaves just enough breadcrumbs to ensure we know full well that Fred loves Holly just as much as every other man she meets.

In the end I think the story’s strength is its sheer effortlessness, and the fact that it manages to be both flimsy and profound, much like Holly herself. Because it’s a novella it’s a slim tale, but it packs a lot in, and the ending is poignant. Holly may or may not find her forever home, but at least someone does.

The novella is supplemented by three short stories, and each in their own way is very different, and engaging. Of these the first is House of Flowers, the tale of a poor young girl living on the island of Haiti who’s torn between her love of a country man, and her former life as a prostitute. Of all the stories in the book this was probably my least favourite, and the one whose ending was least satisfactory, which doesn’t mean it wasn’t interesting.

A Diamond Guitar focuses on the relationship between two prisoners, a grizzled old lifer, and a passionate younger man. It’s a really well-crafted tale of a platonic love affair between two men, and features betrayal, hope and regret in equal measure, and Capote really gets inside the characters, making them believable human beings despite the story’s brevity. I really enjoyed it.

The final tale, which I’ve heard some describe as autobiographical, is A Christmas Memory, and tells the tale of a seven year old boy, and his elderly female cousin and their preparations for Christmas, which mainly revolve around a tradition of baking fruitcakes. I won’t say too much except that I found it a beautiful and incredibly touching story of love and friendship, and I’d rank it alongside the titular novella as my favourite story in the book, and it was the only one that very nearly moved me to tears at the end.

Highly recommended and I suspect I will be searching out more Capote before the end of the year.

Before the Fall

Posted: June 20, 2017 in Book reviews
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By Noah Hawley

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On a foggy summer evening a private jet takes off from Martha’s Vineyard to fly to New York. Despite the conditions it’s a routine flight, except that less than twenty minutes in something happens and the plane crashes.

There are only two survivors, one is JJ, the four year old son of the billionaire media mogul who chartered the flight, the other is Scott Burroughs, a down on his luck painter who was only on the plane by pure chance.

Scott becomes an instant hero by swimming to the shore with JJ, however in the aftermath a multitude of questions are asked about the cause of the crash; was it mechanical error or sabotage? Pilot error or an intentional crash? JJ’s father ran a right wing news service, and the channel’s irascible host, Bill Milligan, immediately cries conspiracy. So was JJ’s father the target, or was it the wall street banker who was also on board, a man who’d been laundering money for all manner of rogue states and who’d been on the verge of being arrested by the FBI.

As time passes more and more focus alights on Scott. Was he having an affair with JJ’s mother? Just how did a poor artist end up on such a lavish flight, and is there any connection to the fact that his latest work all feature disasters, including an air crash?

 

I bought this book less on the basis of the blurb on the back than the fact that Noah Hawley is the man responsible for the recent Fargo TV series, a show that’s been truly excellent to watch (at least the first two seasons, the third one has only just started and, if I’m honest, it hasn’t gripped me yet) and so I was drawn to the work of a man who’s clearly already written stuff I liked.

I was disappointed.

The cover announces that this is a thriller, but to be honest it’s not really that thrilling. Don’t get me wrong, the initial crash and Scott’s heroic swim are exceptionally well told, it’s just that after this point the book meanders, occasionally perking up, but too often veering off down side streets—where it parks up for a snooze before heading back onto main street one more.

It would be churlish to suggest Hawley isn’t a good writer, clearly he’s a very good writer, at least in script form (and I have heard people laud his earlier books). The trouble is that Before the Fall is all over the place, with Hawley skipping back and forth between past and present tense, and just when you think the plot is moving forwards he’ll drop back to before the crash and give us a chapter from the point of view of one of the victims. Sometimes there’ll be a potential clue here, but too often there isn’t, and all you’re left with at the end is a bunch of red herrings and loose threads that never got tied up.

And yes I know that’s how real life works sometimes, but a work of fiction should be tighter. For a book that isn’t that long there is an awful lot of padding. Hawley is also exceptionally pretentious, never relying on one simple word when three or four longer words will do, it’s like an exercise in “look how clever I am”, which seems odd given his experience as a script writer where brevity is the order of the day. Maybe this is him throwing off the shackles and deciding to write as many damn words as he wants.

There’s a kernel of an interesting idea here, about how the modern media react to tragedy, and how even a hero can find himself put under the microscope and suddenly be tarnished, the trouble is that idea is buried under tons of turgid prose that serves little purpose other than bumping up the word count.

It wouldn’t be so bad if the characters were anything more than cardboard cut-outs. Scott is a recovering alcoholic/womaniser/failed artist; Bill is an Alex Jones (the mad American one not the lovely Welsh one) style right wing nut. Gus, the lead crash investigator is a man wedded to the job with a failed marriage behind him who will clearly be played by Morgan Freeman in the eventual film…none of these people feel anything more than caricatures (and don’t get me started on the female characters who, in a book filled with two dimensional characters, are especially poorly served).

The book picks up towards the end but then peters out, a damp squib as the cause of the crash is revealed (and you’ll have probably guessed what the cause was long before you get to the end). Lauded as a literary thriller this is actually the kind of book that thinks it’s cleverer than it actually is, or else the reviewer is dumber than he thinks he is, that’s not impossible.

Maybe I’ll give Hawley’s prose another shot one day, but for the moment I think I’ll stick to Fargo.

 

Hide and Seek

Posted: May 21, 2017 in Book reviews
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By Ian Rankin.

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When a drug addict dies in a rundown Edinburgh squat it looks like just another junkie overdosing, but Detective Inspector John Rebus isn’t so sure. The body has been laid out in the shape of a cross between two burned down candles, and there’s a pentagram painted on the wall. Then there’s the fact that the victim, a young man named Ronnie, was covered in bruises, and the last time he saw one of his fellow squatters he told her that they had to, “Hide! Hide!”

The fact that Ronnie’s system is full of tainted heroin, whilst he has a packet of pure heroin in his hand is the icing on the cake. Rebus begins to investigate, but as he navigates the grim backstreets of Edinburgh he still has no real idea why Ronnie was targeted. Is it a case of a rough trade rent boy who messed with the wrong people or is it a satanic conspiracy? And when Ronnie shouted Hide, was this an instruction or a name, as in Hyde?

 

After reading the second Rebus book it’s interesting to consider quite what the hook was that kept the series going in the early days, because as with Knots and Crosses there isn’t really anything here that makes Rebus stand out from a whole host of other fictional detectives. He’s a former soldier and a hard-drinking loner with a taste for good music and fancy literature, which is hardly the most original characterisation for a copper. Similarly, the central mystery is fairly thin as well. As Rankin himself admits in the introduction, he was still finding his feet as a writer, and the allusions to Jekyll and Hyde (and Deacon Brodie) aren’t very subtle. Many of the potential suspects in the book merge into a bland, amorphous whole, so when the villains of the piece are revealed I had to think hard to remember who they were and what they did for a living.

I suppose the two things the series had going for it in the early days were Rankin and Edinburgh. Rankin’s hard boiled prose makes for an engaging read, and in Edinburgh he has plenty of mean, gothic streets (and grubby housing estates) for Rebus to prowl, and in many ways Edinburgh is a more interesting character than Rebus is. I like as well that Rebus is the kind of detective who solves a crime via shoe leather rather than deductive reasoning or his own genius. Much like Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder it’s a case that Rebus wanders around talking to person after person until the truth shakes free.

I don’t like Rebus anywhere near as much as I like Scudder, but I do like Rankin’s prose, and his evocation of a dark and moody Edinburgh, so I’m definitely going to keep reading the series. I just hope Rebus becomes more than the sum of his parts, and/or the mysteries become a little more intriguing.