19 February 2010

Five Greatest Warriors (Matthew Reilly)

Having given him a relatively derogatory shout-out in my last review I decided Reilly deserved his own post for his latest literary offering.

Yes, I paid money for another Matthew Reilly book. This is the third in a series about Jack West, intrepid international hero and saviour of the world from the dark star, or whatever the hell he's doing in this latest instalment. I don't remember these books being that bad. A guilty pleasure of course, but a PLEASURE nonetheless. I'm an armchair action junkie- I don't ever want to find myself having to negotiate my way through a death-defying act (that one time on a trapeze in Club Med Bintan nailed that particular coffin shut) but I'm happy to eat a hobnob and read about other people doing it. Up until recently I would have put Matthew Reilly in that category. I was even a little bit excited to get Five Greatest Warriors.

Either my memory is dreadful and Reilly has always been this bad, or he has taken a significant down slide in the last couple of years. I hope it is the latter. I don't like to think there was ever a time when my reading was so lacking in taste.

This book wasn't just bad, it was horrible. It was the result of an author who isn't even attempting to cater to an audience whose demographic is anything but imbecilic. Perry Crandall would find it basic and he has an IQ of 76. (He is NOT retarded. One's IQ needs to be less than 75 to fall into that category).

It takes an especial talent to write dialogue that is so awkward I am forced several times a chapter to bury my head in my pillow and groan. Reilly is able to take seemingly innocuous words and render them ridiculous to the reader. Unfortunately, there is a restraint and sensibility to his writing as well. Reilly obviously knows his writing skills are nothing to boast about so he doesn't attempt anything fancy, thus never entering 'so bad it's good' territory.

I am not yet so old that I feel comfortable putting a book down without finishing it. As Her (Fictional) Majesty says in Alan Bennett's brilliant The Uncommon Reader- 'one was brought up to finish what one started.' Whilst I have not the blue blood of royalty running through my veins, I generally share this sentiment with Lizzie. I once worked with a gentleman who was in his 60's who said "When you get to my age you realise you don't have time to finish all the books you're not enjoying." Shudder. Depressing but true. At 24 I feel I have all the time in the world and, as is the plight of the young, I must therefore finish all the books I start.

But, dear readers, I could not finish this. Because, essentially, the distribution of this book has already squandered thousands of pages of paper and ink. Such waste. In the interest of moving towards a more prudent age, I cannot allow this book to also deplete my existing brain space.

Rating: 2/10.

18 February 2010

The Pregnant Widow (Martin Amis)

There are some voices that you’re grateful to hear, no matter the context or your mood. For me they are the voices that speak always in the imperative. The voices that demand my attention. Cormac McCarthy, Kazuo Ishiguro… and of course, Martin Amis.

The Pregnant Widow has received some less-than favourable reviews, with many harping on about the fact that the writing is no longer enough- at some point a certain amount of plot needs to be injected in order to keep the reader’s attention. I don’t really care about all that. Case in point: I have an extremely short attention span, yet I raced through the book. All I need is a certain amount of attitude and Amis provides that in abundance. Yes, the story is king. But Amis makes his prose the story and anyone who feels the need for more plot should pick up a Matthew Reilly.

The novel brought all my anxieties as a writer to the forefront, channelling, I suppose, the insecurities Keith Nearing expresses. I struggle to name distinctive female characters whose fame comes from their voice rather than their actions. Go into a bookshop and you trip over women who act in amazing ways- sacrificing this, loving that, schlepping here, toiling there- but how many female voices carry the distinguished air of the truly original? Where is the female Ignatius J. Reilly, Charles Highway or Vernon Little? I’m not taking Amis to task for not giving his female characters more distinctive voices. He is a male, and he should write as one. But it follows then, that, as a GIRL, I should write as one. Keith, Amis’ highly autobiographical twenty-year old self, is not to be confused with previous Keiths in Amis’ past. He is more evolved than Keith Talent (London Fields) and not as hideously revolting as Keith Whitehead (Dead Babies). He is brilliantly written; instantly likeable without doing anything of merit. No author could write so honestly about the opposite sex.

Why then do I persist in scribbling out narratives from the male perspective? It’s not as though I actually know what I’m talking about. However, whenever I attempt to write as a girl I end up absolutely detesting the character. Every thought I pen seems vacuous, pathetic, calculated to impress, hiding an empty, cavernous, pink nothing. It’s not self-loathing. I adore myself. I just don’t know how to tap into the real of it all like Amis can.

I hadn’t worked out until just recently why it is I think I enjoy Amis’ novels so much. The brutal wit and carefully constructed style allow his characters to remain rather emotionally removed from the reader. I find this quite comforting. It is not COLD, it is a device to heighten the satire. On a personal level, it is calming, steadying, to not be able to feel Keith’s tears fall from the pages. With his manipulation of language and barbarous, throw-away dialogue Amis is like a young man lighting up with matches instead plastic, adopting an air of old-school peculiarity cultivated to ensure distanced attention. As an overly emotional creature myself I quite enjoy those people in my life who seem to remain impervious to all that, in the same way I enjoy books that hold me at arm’s length. I am able to think better when I am not sobbing into a pile of soggy tissues, shrieking at Earhart “The Russians got him! I’ll never be happy again.”

The Pregnant Widow didn’t educe any such melodrama. I merely picked it up in my favourite bookshop and hugged it- smiling- to myself, knowing that whatever was contained within the pages was going to be important in someway. Not always the most pleasant of narrators and hardly ever in agreement with my own sentiments, Amis’ is nevertheless a voice I will always make room for.

Rating: 9/10.

The Dead Tossed Waves (Carrie Ryan)

So, remember about eight months ago I read that zombie apocalypse book The Forest of Hands and Teeth which freaked me out, had a bleak, bleak ending and kept me up at night for fear there were zombies in my kitchen? Well I've just read the sequel. Seems I'm a sucker for punishment.

The Dead-Tossed Waves follows a girl named Gabry, daughter of Book One's protagonist Mary. She has grown up in relative safety in the town of Vista, shielded from the zombies by stone walls and ocean. These surroundings are far less disturbing than the isolated village ruled by scary nuns and surrounded by barbed wire that we were introduced to the first time around. At the beginning of the story, Gabry and a few of her friends jump Vista's stone walls on a thrill seeking expedition and are attacked by zombies. A bunch of her friends are locked up, the boy she likes is bitten, her mother runs off... not a great day for her. Lots of intrigue, mystery and killing...

All this sets up what is basically a mirror of Book One - Gabry retraces her mother's path through the Forest of Hands and Teeth from the ocean to the village that used to be run by the scary nuns. This time however, she is more scared of the various groups of humans chasing her than the zombies. I found this one a lot less disturbing than book one, but that could have a lot to do with the fact that I read it in the middle of the day in a brightly lit bookshop, as opposed to at 2 am, in a creaky house. That said, I did still jump a bit when a colleague came up from behind to say hello. The ending is slightly more hopeful than the first book- I am feeling much better about what I now know to be a trilogy after this second book. The story is rounding out more, loose ends which drove me crazy in the first book are semi-tied up, and I can only assume (or perhaps hope) that book three will conclude the story satisfactorily. I feel much more confident telling you to read the series now I see where it is going. I think...

Edit: Reposted 18.02.10 as original post had technical glitch and a big section of text vanished into the ethers. Hope review will make sense this time!

17 February 2010

Kitchen (Banana Yoshimoto)

A short and perfectly formed book has inspired in me a short (and needless to say) perfectly formed review.

I often feel with translated works that I am missing out on some integral X-factor that made the original worthy of translation in the first place. I have no great faith in the literary talents of the translator. Say what you like about Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky's translation of War and Peace- at the end of the day they didn't write the freaking thing.

However, with Kitchen I suspect the original is just as sparsely written as the version I have read. I mean, there's an economy of words- and then there's Yoshimoto. The anti-Rushdie if you will. The two short stories about mourning and reawakening after the death of a loved one throb with intensity and yearning, although most of the time the characters are talking about nothing more potent than noodles or kitchen utensils. Yoshimoto does not hide behind an impressive vocabulary or complicated metaphors. She expresses herself as if in conversation with the reader. I am so in awe of this. To make the stories so casual and carefree- whilst still maintaining a beautiful, lyrical rhythm- is a gift.

Rating: 9/10.

Legend of a Suicide (David Vann)

Caveat- it is very late, I cannot sleep for the third night in a row and, as is always the case when I reach such a hypnagogic state, I am thinking too much for my own good. This is why stupid people have a much better time of it- doltishness the great unknown elixir for a happy life. If there were to be a study of the average intelligence of the insomniac I'm betting it would be higher than the average of the general populace. Although it would probably be staffed and researched by actual insomniacs, desperate to fill in the black hours any way they can. Of course, this would bring the credibility and impartiality of the study under scrutiny and all that work could end up being for naught.

OR, perhaps insomniacs are no more intelligent than the next person. It is possible that we, as a group, just HOPE that we are smarter than average, that our thoughts are so important as to warrant stolen extra hours awake. We want there to be a reason that the ranks of the soporified masses are not open to us- some noble, acumen-based reason.

I finished Legend of a Suicide a few days ago and have been mulling over what to write in my review. Vann's novel is about a man attempting to deal with the suicide of his father when he was a young lad. The author's own father committed suicide and whilst he states that this is definitely a work of fiction, the emotion expressed in the novel must have been mined from his own experiences. So, ultimately, this is an incredibly sad book. Sad in a true way. Not sad in a The Kite Runner way.

Sigh. Before I get disgruntled emails- of course, The Kite Runner was sad. But it was Hollywood sad. Brutal caste system, sexual molestation, racial discrimination, terrorism, rape, child trafficking... YE GODS. Got it. This book is sad with a capital S. Of course, these events do occur around the world, but combined in one novel the effect was so overwhelmingly hopeless that I felt quite removed from the story.

Oh dear, I digress. What I mean to say is that Vann's novel was simple and honest in its portrayal of Roy's struggles after his father kills himself; nothing appeared to be magnified for effect. I felt so hideously and selfishly grateful that I was not Roy, that I have a father whom I have relied on my entire life and will continue to do so for as long as he puts up with me. I have a father whose advice is invaluable to me, who does things for my benefit rather than his, whom I trust beyond all imagining. Roy had a drop-kick.

I didn't particularly like this book. It is written beautifully and Vann certainly surprised me in the way he twisted the plot around (a little obtuse, but I don't want to spoil it for those of you who may read it). But, apart from making me realise how much I love my dad, I just didn't enjoy reading it. Maybe I have had enough of these brutal tales of outdoor survival. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, The Outlander, Jack London's various works... I like roughing it as much as the next spoilt brat but I now know WAY too much about dolly fishing and weather-proofing. Another thing I am grateful to my father for- he never, in all my years growing up, ever suggested we go live in the Alaskan wilderness for a year, hunting and fishing to survive. Much kudos Daddy.

Rating: 7/10.

10 February 2010

Like having your brains smashed out by a slice of lemon wrapped round a large gold brick...

Whilst I am finishing off my review of Martin Amis' The Pregnant Widow, I direct your attention to this article in the Guardian today on fictional drugs in literature.

Darragh McManus is a dweeb.

07 February 2010

Anthropology and a Hundred Other Stories (Dan Rhodes)

My day was highly enjoyable. I made my way to Chalk Farm and walked the five minutes to Primrose Hill under a sky that was depressingly overcast, even for England. I had a coffee at the patisserie there, which was, actually, quite disgusting. (You can see how good the rest of my day must have been if this is how it started).

I then made my way to Primrose Hill Books. This is the only bookshop to rival Hatchards in London I believe. And it is TINY. Ridiculously small. But the stock is chosen with a great deal of care and attention and it shows. There is not really any crap in there at all. And because of their lack of space, the staff are forced to pile all the books on top of each other. Unless you are committed to digging into piles, you'll miss most of the titles.


Then I had lunch in the awesome Russian tea house there (the latkes are sublime) and a simply gorgeous elderly man leant across from the next table and struck up a conversation with me about Nick Hornby (I was finishing off Juliet,Naked). He turned out to be a very esoteric and surreal conversationalist so that was highly enjoyable. The dialogue swooped from Hornby to Pepys to apple crumble with alarming speed and before I knew it we had nudged our tables together and were sharing a pot of honey tea. I would feel chuffed that I had made a new friend, but it was so exhausting I don't know if I shall instigate any further correspondence.

One of the books I purchased was Dan Rhodes' Anthropology. It is a selection of 101 extremely short stories (each only about a paragraph long) and it is a very funny, (if bittersweet and slightly twisted) comment on love. In Rhodes' stories the women hold all the power and the poor, hapless man in each story is moved to great joy or despair depending on the seemingly vacuous whims of the fairer sex.

My two favourite stories are 'Sailing' and 'Words' and I will risk copyright infringement to share them with you here:

My girlfriend cannot play the guitar. She strums slowly, erratically and woefully out of time. She sucks her lips in concentration, and sometimes stalls for as many as fifteen seconds between chord changes. When she stops playing, her eyes are bright with anticipation. 'OK. What was that?'
'I'm not sure. Was it "Moon River"?'
'No.' She looks disappointed. 'It was "We Are Sailing". You know, by Paul McCartney.' She starts another, and I know I won't be able to identify it, no matter how hard I try. This has been going on for seven perfect years. I hope she never learns.
I fell in love the moment I saw her in her grandfather's kitchen, her dark curls crashing over her Portuguese shoulders. 'Would you like to drink coffee?' she smiled.
'I'm really not that thirsty.'
'What? What you say?' Her English wasn't too good. Now I'm seventy-three and she's just turned seventy. 'Would you like to drink coffee?' she asked me today, smiling.
'I'm really not that thirsty.'
'What? What you say?' Neither of us has the gift of language acquisition. After fifty years of marriage we have never really spoken, but we love each other more than words can say.
Rating: 8/10.

Now For Something Completely Different...

I have thought for awhile we need to streamline our categories. As in, browsers like yourselves should be able to scroll through our categories and be moved to click through, intrigued by the novels that hide within. I have doubts that many of you are interested in the category 'Meh' and I'm sure 'Underwhelming' inspires a similar anti-response. However, I do think that we should still have some sort of deadening category where we can lump together everything we don't really feel you should read (not good and not bad enough to be 'so bad it's good'... see Vampires: Twilight.) So I shall dedicate the next few minutes to working out how to amalgamate it all into one 'Don't click here' button.

I shall also presently put up another review. As you can see, once I get started, there's no stopping me.

I don't know whether Earhart shall continue to post here this year. She is RAWTHER busy and, in all honesty, I question her loyalty to the blog. She asked me the other day how 'attached' I was to the painting at the top of our page. 'Quite' was my frosty reply and she had the diplomacy to drop the subject. But I have my suspicions that her enthusiasm may be waning. We shall see. I have also attempted to draft in the other sister, now that she has finished all her exams and is a bona fide university student. She did not leap up and down in excitement at this amazing opportunity that was being presented to her, so, again, we shall see.

Watch this space.

Juliet, Naked (Nick Hornby)

This is my first post of 2010 and I realise that, dated 7 February, that is not a very prompt start to the year. Nevertheless, it is true to form and, having resolved this year to concentrate solely on just being the most honest version of myself, that seems as good a place as any to start. You may be thinking that a resolution to be the 'most honest version of myself' is merely a license to become even more self-involved and indulgent. And you would be correct.

Now, on to Juliet, Naked. I have mixed feelings about Nick Hornby. High Fidelity made me slightly melancholy and gave me license to listen to music feeling moody and unappreciated; About A Boy renewed my faith in monotonous, happy endings; A Long Way Down allowed me a few chuckles about suicide (silver lining and all that). Whilst all enjoyable, none of these novels have moved me in any particularly earth-shattering way. Having finished one, I move on relatively quickly and I have never been inclined to pick it up for a second reading.

Juliet, Naked inspired the same insipid response in me. I fell a little in love with the character of Tucker, I felt a little of Annie's pain and the ending made me die a little bit inside.

Nothing I won't bounce back from.

I don't think any of these personal reactions are the fault of the author. I have prattled on in the past about authors who I had an adverse reaction to and as a result I have deemed them (in all my wisdom) to be mentally and creatively lacking. I don't think it's fair to lump Hornby in with these ill-deserving sponges who sop up the watery royalties from a reading public whose discernment has been eroded through years of crappy pop-cultural interference. Rather, he is someone who writes about 'real' relationships, focusing on the mildly interesting mid-life crises of men and women who have been vaguely unhappy and/or misunderstood by a myriad of secondary cast members Hornby never fully bothers to inflate to a three-dimensional scale. Actually, that latter point IS something I must take Hornby to task on. If you are going to mention Malcolm and Barnesy IN THE BLURB, (thus elevating their importance in the eyes of the reader) at least attempt to turn them into real characters. If you don't want to dedicate more than a couple of pages to each one, perhaps... you don't need to include them on the back cover.

Minor character development aside, Hornby DOES write very well. As in, he writes inoffensively. He has a good grasp of grammar, a reasonable vocabulary etc. Does he string a sentence together so that it sings? No. But that is irrelevant. He writes middle of the road fiction about middle of the road emotions perfectly adequately. It's just not quite desperate or dramatic enough to move me to any great excitement whenever I pick up one of his novels. For those of you out there who live on a more sensible plain, he is probably the breath of fresh air you need during your battle against the incessant troops of Disney soldiers pounding on the doors of your energy-efficient castle in the Land of Relentless Realists. However, if that is you, don't make contact. You don't sound overly interesting.

Rating: 7/10.
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