Archive for the ‘Book reviews’ Category

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.

 

Trigger Warning

Posted: May 5, 2017 in Book reviews
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By Neil Gaiman

 

As Gaiman himself says in his introduction anthologies can be a hard sell for publishers, and especially single author anthologies, and it’s nice that Gaiman seems fully aware of how fortunate he is, though in fairness there’s a reason his books sell and a lot of that is down to his vivid imagination and unique voice.

Trigger Warning is an eclectic collection (something he again acknowledges early on) with no distinct theme running through it, which isn’t to say all the stories are unconnected, there’s very clear links between some of them, and even when they aren’t connected you can tell the collection has been assembled with care.

Gaiman has a wonderful talent for dark fairy tales, his stories are primarily fantasy but horror enters the fray quite often, and he isn’t averse to a smidgen of sci-fi—as you can see from the story Nothing O’clock, a Dr Who tale starring the eleventh Doctor which is Who at its best, an everyday setting menaced by a rather scary antagonist.

I’m not intending to go through every story in the collection, but I’ll highlight those I really liked, and maybe some of those I was less fond of.

Firstly it has to be said that the collection features some poetry, which really made little impression on me, but that’s more to do with me than the nature of Gaiman’s metre.

The anthology starts with an introduction, but I quickly skipped this, returning once I’d finished the book because Gaiman does go into a little detail about each story here. It’s interesting stuff, and I’m not sure there are too many spoilers, but I’m glad I didn’t read this first.

The first highlight of the book for me was The Thing About Cassandra, a wonderful tale about a man who discovers his imaginary childhood girlfriend might not be so imaginary after all. It’s a great tale of the falsehoods we tell as kids in order to fit in, and has a neat twist worthy of Tales of the Unexpected or the Twilight Zone.

It’s followed by Down to a Sunless Sea, a short but ghoulish tale worthy of a dark and stormy night.

“The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains…” is a nice enough story set several hundred years ago on the Isle of Skye. It builds to a satisfying resolution but I did feel it took way too long getting there.

A Calendar of Tales is like a mini-anthology all of its own, featuring as it does 12 flash fictions. Some are very good, some a bit forgettable, and the whole thing feels a little thrown together, though once I read the introduction this made sense.

The Case of Death and Honey is a moderately intriguing Sherlock Holmes story but the payoff was a bit lacking for me, though I couldn’t rightly tell you why.

The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury deserves kudos for the title alone and is a nice meditation on memory that manages to be a wonderful homage to the works of Bradbury, who’s clearly a big influence on Gaiman.

Click-Clack the Rattlebag is a fairly generic horror tale.

“And weep, like Alexander” is amusing, and Gaiman proffers an explanation for why we don’t have flying cars and jetpacks that feels like it may have some truth to it.

The Return of the Thin White Duke felt like a nice idea, it starts well but in the end the shift in location and tone is just too jarring.

There are a trio of stories/poems that, though probably not directly connected, feel thematically interlinked, and the collection finishes off with Black Dog a ghoulish story set in the Peak District featuring Shadow Moon, the hero of American Gods. I liked this a lot, and it actually did surprise me with its denouement.

As with any anthology this is a mixed bag, but Gaiman has such a wonderful imagination, and has such crisp, evocative prose that I found it nigh on impossible not to love the book overall.

By Harry Harrison

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Arch criminal turned ace secret agent, ‘Slippery Jim’ diGriz is taking some well-earned R&R. Of course for the Stainless Steel Rat this involves robbing a series of banks. He’s soon reeled in by Inskipp, the head of the Special Corps, who Jim now reluctantly works for. The Corps has something big to contend with. In the future invasion of another world should be impossible, but somehow the inhabitants of the planet Cliaand have managed to invade multiple planets with ease, and Inskipp wants to know how.

Recently (and somewhat reluctantly) married, Jim leaves his heavily pregnant wife, Angelica (one of the few people are smart and deadly as him) behind and heads for Cliaand, but with no gadgets and only his wits to rely on, and with an entire planet full of soldiers to thwart, has the Stainless Steel Rat finally bitten off more than he can chew?

And so my (very slow) re-read of the Stainless Steel Rat books reaches the second novel. There’s actually quite a gap between them, given than Harrison published this around 1970 and the first book (which I reviewed here) came out almost a decade before.

Very little has changed in the intervening time, and much like the first book this is a slender volume very much in the pulp space opera mould. Again it’s a product of its time, although in fairness Harrison does give his female characters a degree of agency (if anything Angelica is smarter and much more ruthless than Jim, he is the more cunning however) and although painted with very broad brushstrokes, he does provide a matriarchal society of Amazonian women to help Jim out.

As before this is a lightweight, non-too serious adventure.  diGriz is smarter than any opponent, so even when he’s captured you know he won’t stay incarcerated for long. That said the Grey Men he finds himself up again are somewhat creepy, and this book does feature a truly shocking event that, when it happened, made me sit up and take notice because I didn’t remotely see it coming. Suffice to say it was a trifle Game of Thrones!

As science fiction goes this is about as hard as brie, and the era it was written in makes for some anachronistic aspects of a so called future society at times. But it’s amusing, well-paced, and if the use of smoke bombs becomes a trifle repetitive, don’t worry there’s usually a surprise or two waiting around the corner.

Something of an admission however, is it wrong that I find Jim’s criminal escapades just a trifle more exciting than his life as an intergalactic James Bond?

At the current rate set your alarms for a review of book three coming sometime in 2019…

In Cold Blood

Posted: March 30, 2017 in Book reviews
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By Truman Capote

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In November 1959, a brutal crime shocks the small farming community of Holcomb in Kansas. In the early hours of a Sunday morning Herbert Clutter, a wealthy farmer, his wife Bonnie and his teenage children Nancy and Kenyon are roused from their slumber by the arrival of two armed men. After restraining the Clutters the invaders proceed to kill them one by one.

The killers are ex-convicts, each with a long criminal history behind them. Richard Eugene “Dick” Hickock is ostensibly the man in charge, and his partner is Perry Edward Smith. In demeanour and upbringing the men are very different, yet after meeting in prison they further bond over the murders of the Clutters.

The local authorities in Kansas are perplexed by the brutal, and seemingly motiveless murders. Whilst they investigate Hickock and Smith head south to Mexico, but events will see them soon return to the United States, were they will find their crimes finally catching up to them.

 

I decided to read this in an ongoing attempt to broaden my choice of reading material, and I’ve never read any Capote. Also, I got the book for free as they were handing out copies gratis at the university I work for so it seemed like fate!

After hearing about the events of that November morn, Capote travelled to Kansas, along with his friend, and fellow writer, Harper Lee. Over the course of several years Capote pulled together a detailed examination of the crime, the victims, the law enforcement personal, and of course the killers themselves.

The book was a huge hit when it was released in 1966, and whilst it can be argued that it was far from the first ‘true crime’ novel, it was the novel that saw the genre skyrocket.

I found it an interesting read. In other hands the story could have been recounted in far less words, but part of what makes this so engaging is the texture of Capote’s writing, and the meticulous research he and Lee obviously undertook. Again it is easy to imagine that the minutiae of the Clutter’s lives, and the details of Hickock and Smith’s petty histories, could have been boring, but Capote finds something interesting in the most trivial of things. Mrs Clutter’s fascination with miniature objects, Perry Smith’s addiction to chewing aspirin, even the gossip of the local postmistress. Every person in the book feels like a real person, because of course they were, but another writer could have produced mere caricatures.

Capote begins with multiple narrative strands, on the one hand detailing the final hours of the Clutter family, whilst on the other introducing us to Hickock and Smith as they arrive in town, with homicide on their minds. The Clutters are detailed so vividly that by the time the murders occur I was ready to beg for their lives. They are portrayed as good people, especially Nancy, although Capote does not shy away from some of the less salubrious elements of family life, and some things are implied, quite subtly, to suggest all was not well. From Bonnie Clutter’s obvious depression (despite the hopeful diagnosis that she was just suffering from a trapped nerve) to Nancy’s cat being poised weeks before, and the notion that she keeps smelling cigarettes, even though no one in the house. Then there is Kenyon, the young son and something of a loner (and who, looking at this with 21st Century eyes, might even have been on the Autistic spectrum).

In many ways these tiny mysteries are red herrings, because we the reader know who done it, even if the police are stymied. Capote takes the decision not to show us, at least early on, the events of that morning. As I say, I felt so close to the Clutters that I was glad of this.

After the bodies are discovered Capote changes tack, showing the impact on the townsfolk, who become fearful and paranoid about their neighbours, and the local police and Kansas Bureau of Investigations agents who are frustrated by a lack of motive, evidence, or suspects. Meanwhile we follow Hickock and Smith south of the border, where the reality of life in Mexico doesn’t quite live up to their fantasies.

If the book has a fault (beyond the widely-held view that Capote may have been somewhat economical with some aspects of the story) it is that for the most part it is the killers, not the victims or the hunters, who are centre stage, though this is unavoidable really. Capote’s evocation of the deadly duo is incredibly vivid, to the point where I began to at least empathise with them, Smith in particular, though Capote never lets you forget what each man is capable of and it’s hard to feel too sorry about where they end up.

As a snapshot of rural America before such crimes became commonplace, and of poverty and criminality in the late 1950s, this is an exceptional piece of work, a detailed examination of what was a petty and pointless crime that cost six lives for little gain. Capote is the kind of author whose literary credentials would usually have put me off, but this was a great example of gaining pleasure reading outside one’s comfort zone, and I think I might have to get hold of Breakfast at Tiffany’s now.

 

Proxima

Posted: February 24, 2017 in Book reviews, science fiction
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By Stephen Baxter

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In the late 22nd Century mankind has begun to colonise the solar system, but also has its sights set on the nearby dwarf star of Proxima, or more specifically a planet orbiting the star, Prox-C. On Mercury two ships are launched, one is an artificially intelligent solar sail, bound for Prox-C, the other is a more prosaic craft, powered by ‘kernels’, mysterious sources of energy discovered beneath the surface of Mercury.

A few years later and Yuri Eden, a relic of the 21st Century’s ‘Heroic Generation’ defrosted on Mars where he’s treated as a criminal, is gathered up along with a number of other undesirables and placed in a kernel powered UN transport ship heading towards Proxima. Once there the passengers are shuttled down to the planet’s surface. Split into groups they’re advised that they are the colonists who will claim the planet before the Chinese can. Left to fend for themselves Yuri and his group face all manner of challenges, not least their own petty squabbles.

Meanwhile the solar system is divided by a new Cold War, between the Chinese and the UN. Each side is distrustful of the other, and the UN’s refusal to allow the Chinese access to kernel research is just another added point of contention.

When a mysterious artefact is discovered on Mercury alongside the kernels, there is the promise of a new form of travel that will make the UN’s hulk ships obsolete, but as tensions begin to increase can diplomacy prevent the Cold War between the Chinese and the UN from turning hot, and just how is Mercury connected with Prox-C?

 

Baxter is a science fiction writer of long standing, and sits more towards the hard end of the sci-fi spectrum, although he has a knack for explaining big concepts in an understandable way. Proxima is a curious book in many ways. There’s a neat idea at the heart of it, in fact there are probably three neat ideas at play here, the trouble is that whilst they all intersect at times, they still don’t seem that interconnected and all could do with fleshing out. Of course what I didn’t realise until after I finished the book was that this was the first in a series. This isn’t made clear in the blurb on the back of the book. I’m not saying it’d have put me off, but it might have made me more forgiving when my interest dipped.

Maybe.

Of the three elements, the bits dealing with Yuri and his fellow colonists is perhaps the most interesting. Baxter has clearly put a lot of effort into his world building, and Prox-C feels like a genuine place. The logic of dropping undesirables on the planet to fend for themselves obviously has some resonance with Earth history (think Australia) but also feels a little bit of a logical stretch.

Still, the battle to survive on a planet where the sun never sets is intriguing, especially once Yuri’s group encounter the native life forms, and other groups of colonists. The trouble is that even here Baxter’s focus seems to waver, and the pacing of the book is erratic to say the least. He’ll spend several chapters dealing with a single event, then skip over years and multiple milestones in the space of a paragraph. It’s a trifle jarring. It’s as if he couldn’t decide whether to write an intimate account of brave pioneers, or a sweeping epic spanning decades, so in the end decided to do both.

The other storylines are less engaging. The kernels are intriguing initially, as is the artefact on Mercury, but various threads of the story just don’t tie together, in fact in the latter stages of the book the narrative just seems to meander. Maybe Baxter was setting things up for the next book, but I couldn’t help feeling that he just wasn’t sure where to take his story.

It doesn’t help that many of the characters are a trifle bland (often a criticism of Baxter’s writing). Yuri has potential, and is probably the most interesting human character, but his backstory is too sketchy. The Heroic Generation is namechecked, and it’s implied they did terrible things, but we never get more than a brief idea of what these things were. We’re told early on that Yuri Eden isn’t his real name, but this plot point is left dangling for far too long (and when it is addressed it’s a blink and you’ll miss it moment, and in fact I’ve read a few reviews where readers did just that.) There are several other elements of the story jettisoned early on which don’t reappear till near the end when you’ve almost forgotten about them.

Mardina Jones verges on three dimensions, but she sadly fades out of the story late on. Kernel expert Stephanie Kalinski is never quite feels real, and Australian businessman Michael King is only there to drive the plot on occasion, similarly the smug AI Earthshine.

It’s slightly worrying when the most interesting character in the book is ColU, a sentient robot dumped on Prox-C with Yuri, but it really is, and of all the characters it’s the one you’ll probably most warm too.

This isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy the book. Baxter is a talented writer, and I was rarely bored, just annoyed when the story meandered off on yet another tangent, and the ending provides a WTF moment you won’t see coming, but I’m not sure that’s a good thing; for some reason Baxter seems to be leading the book towards the territory of the Long Earth series he wrote with Terry Pratchett.

An interesting book rather than a great one, I’d say it’s worth a read, if only for the Prox-C segments, just don’t be surprised if you feel a slight lack of satisfaction at the end.