Archive for May, 2016

9781447276494The Reader on the 6-27

 

How can you review a book like this?

I mean, seriously?

It was just so incredibly sweet and heart-warming and just delightful and you can’t review that, just enjoy it!

The book is set in Paris and follows a few weeks in the life of Guylain Vignolles, a lover of books whose job is to operate a book-pulping machine, the dreaded Zerstor 500. The descriptions of the Zerstor as a hulking, malignant beast are wonderfully grotesque.

In itself that dynamic is deliciously poignant but the cast of characters which populate the few pages of the novel (less than 100) are a little two-dimensional, almost to the point of caricature: Yvon, the security guard who only speaks in Alexandrine rhyming couplets, whose poetic remonstrations with rude delivery drivers was wonderful; the brutal Brunner, desperate to be the one who turns the machine on; the corpulent Kowalski, overseeing the operation from his “glazed eyrie”; Giuseppe, the victim of an accident at work in which his legs had been caught in the Zerstor and lost; and, of course,  Rouget de Lisle, the goldfish. These characters are not fleshed out fully – there’s no space to do so – and they don’t quite reach the grotesque proportions of a caricature. They do give the novel a heightened feel to it.

Guylain is so horrified by the destruction which he is a part of that, every day, he rescues any pages that have survived the machine and reads them aloud on the train to work the next day. A process which might have led to his being incarcerated but which in fact endears him to the crowd of commuters with whom he shares the carriage.

One of many memorable moments is when Guylain, invited to read in an retirement home, surrounded by dozens of pensioners, launches into his reading only to discover that it is pornographic.

One day, he discovers a memory stick abandoned on the train and, when he reads it, he falls in love with the woman, Julie, who has written the words. And so begins a quest to find her.

This book was a Waterstones read of the month for May and it is wonderful.

It’s not challenging. If I’m honest, I don’t think it does “champion the power of literature” as such – sorry to the Sunday Times. But in a world fed on a diet of the brutal, the venal and the superficial, this book is a refreshing and wholesome change where respect, friendship and courtesy are – if it’s not too strong a word – championed.

fool moon

Book Two of the Dresden Files.

Pretty similar to book one, really! Special Investigations, Karrin Murphy, Bob the Skull, potions brewed, magic used.

This time around, we have werewolves!

Seriously, there’s not much more to say: it’s smart and sassy, it’s got magic and werewolves. It is not high literature! It’s a decently written, fast paced, fun read!

Oh, you want to know the plot? Well, let’s see. A mutilated body is discovered with paw prints near by which were the footprints, Mr Holmes, of a gigantic hound. Or a wolf. Maybe.

Karrin Murphy, investigating the death, consults Harry Dresden and we discover two things. The dead man is an employee of the local crime boss, Johnnie Marcone, which generates its own subplot in which Marcone attempts to employ Dresden as protection; the wolf-prints lead Dresden to a group of youths, apparently led by the mysterious Tera West and possibly werewolves. And then another gang of werewolves are uncovered, the Streetwolves. And the FBI are involved, investigating Karrin Murphy.

The plot becomes terribly convoluted and faintly ridiculous at times and Harry Dresden is thrown around like a dog’s chew toy from one group to another: arrested by the police and FBI, rescued by the Alphas; kidnapped by the Streetwolves, rescued by the FBI. Different groups of people are different forms of werewolves. The most powerful of which may be Harley MacFinn, a loup-garou, who we do get to see in full murderous carnage-driven wolf form tear apart a police station. MacFinn is also Tera West’s boyfriend. A decent editor could have trimmed some fat from it all. But, at the end of the day, it’s a whole load of werewolves!

Butcher does linger just a little too long on the female form for me. A little bit like that creepy uncle at family get-togethers who doesn’t quite meet your eye. I suppose it is inevitable and unavoidable with werewolves and transformations that nudity occurs. Tera West in particular is naked an awful lot and described a little too much – distracting the police who were guarding Harry’s home by parading past them naked for example. She was, however, an engaging and captivating character (as well as being naked): unlike the other werewolves and hexenwolves and loup-garous, Tera West was a real wolf who could transform into a human. Her transformation in the final confrontation was actually very effective and well-delayed by Butcher as we suddenly saw her full power and grace

“Where the other wolves were fast, Tera was fast and graceful. Where the others were quick, she was quick and elegant. She made them look like amateurs.”

Will I read more of the series? Yes of course I will! It’s got all the intellectual bite of a popcorn kernel but sometimes that is all you need! It is the written version of sitting down with an MCU film on. Switch off and enjoy the ride.

case histories

Another detective fiction novel – and another still to review, albeit with a paranormal twist – and this shares many similarities with The Cuckoo’s Calling but is done so much better.

Kate Atkinson – whose more explicitly literary offering of Life After Life was divine and possibly one of the best books I have ever read – is equally as controlled here, albeit set within the detective genre. Like Robert Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike, Atkinson’s detective is powerful and imposing and very masculine; he has also lost his wife just as Strike has been dumped by his girlfriend. Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie had suffered a trauma in his childhood as had Cormoran Strike.

The difference is that his narrative voice works and it fits him beautifully.

Also like Robert Galbraith, Atkinson bounces us around different narrative points of view but she controls and manages those changes. And they work to complement each other.

And Atkinson’s ability to delve into the characters’ minds is wonderful. Whilst there is a strong narrative drive through the chapters, each chapter meanders and jumps between past and present, between action and meditation, in a stream-of-consciousness which feels fully realistic and credible. It is so easy to get lost in the flow of her prose.

Case Histories revolves around a number of cold cases as the TV shows suggest we should be calling them. We have the unsolved disappearance of Olivia Land from 1970, prompted by her two remaining sisters – Julia and Amelia – finding Olivia’s cherished toy in their father’s office drawer after his death. The soft toy that had been with Olivia when she had died. From 1994, we have the unsolved murder of Laura Wyre, the daughter of a solicitor who had been attacked with a knife whilst in her father’s office, a loss from which Theo, her father, can not recover. Finally from 1979, we are presented with the apparently open-and-shut case of Michelle who, suffering from post-natal depression, seems to have buried an axe into her husband’s skull. Michelle’s daughter had been taken on by her grandparents and has run away and lost contact. Michelle’s sister asks for Jackson’s help finding her niece.

And, perhaps most significantly, there is a missing black cat!

It’s not a perfect book. Caroline’s story in particular didn’t strike me as terribly credible, knowing how stringent the checks can in an the educational world. The subplot of the attempts to kill Jackson himself was also a little forced perhaps. At times, the characters’ meditations just verge into feeling a tad contrived.

But what I did like was that the various plots were all fully resolved by the reader, but not necessarily by Jackson Brodie. There were revelations and uncoverings, cases abandoned and rejected, coincidences and resolutions.

Unlike Robert Galbraith, I am willing to pick up other Jackson Brodie books in the future!

cuckoo's calling

Okay.

I’m putting my hands up to this.

I did not like this book.

Yes, I know that Robert Galbraith is J. K. Rowling and the sainted J. K. can do no wrong in the eyes of many… but this did not work for me.

The plot was decent enough: the death of Lula Landry, the eponymous cuckoo, was dismissed by police as a suicide; a private detective, Cormoran Strike, is hired by her brother to prove that her death was, in reality a murder. There were some vivid characters to interview. A crime scene to explore. A dysfunctional family to investigate.

But the writing in the book was not good. It was – dare I say it – a little juvenile? The client, John Bristow, adoptive brother to Lula Landry, was described in the following terms within three pages:

distinctly rabbity in appearance with a short upper lip that failed to conceal large front teeth…this whey-faced leporine man…with his pink eyes, the resemblance to an albino rabbit was heightened.

I don’t need to be told that three times? Does – let’s call the author Galbraith – Galbraith not know that rabbits and hares are different? What was the point in that description being so laboured? Really? And what on earth of the point of the word leporine? It just seems – as a number of other examples I could have used do – as if Galbraith was consciously trying to shoe-horn in as many words as he could that did not sound like a young adult vocabulary. What happened instead was that Galbraith took me out of the novel and made me think about his thesaurus instead.

Equally, the opening pages when Strike nearly knocks Robin, his new temporary secretary, down the stairs and saves her by grabbing hold of her breast – yes, her breast – was very odd. It didn’t seem realistic from a physics point of view; it felt like a cheap titillation; it felt forcedly not-young-adult. And the swearing. In a novel which was primarily juvenile in its language use and forced in its descriptions, the swearing didn’t fit. I’m no prude. I can cope with swearing and with breasts. But in this novel, in this style, they didn’t work for me.

And even worse than that, Galbraith alternates between the points of views of Robin – the temp secretary who becomes permanent at the end of the book – and of Cormoran Strike himself. Now, in and of itself, that’s fine. But it felt very badly handled here. Clumsy. Yes, clumsy is the word that comes to mind a lot as I read the book. Clumsy and clunky.

And borderline offensive. The depiction of Guy Somé, the fashion designer for whom Lula worked, was so stuffed with stereotype and cliché with his

“eyes exopthalmic so that they appeared fishlike, looking out of the sides of his head… He held out a hand with a slight crook of the wrist… looking up into Strike’s face, his voice was camp and faintly Cockney. “Much butcher though.”…”Bring us some tea and bicks, darling.””

I actually came close to stopping reading at this point. But again, consider the clumsiness and self-consciousness of this metaphor: “Strike felt abnormally large and hairy; a woolly mammoth attempting to blend in among capuchin monkeys.”

And, let’s look at Strike: ex-military police, injured in Afghanistan, the product of his mother’s fling with a rockstar and having had a turbulent childhood as a result. Consistently described in terms of his size and clumsiness, gauche, yet sleeping with the super-rich and models. Again, it didn’t work for me.

As I said, the plot was intriguing enough and, without the title of the book, I might not have been able to predict the killer. And that’s probably a good thing in a novel. But the writing and structure – it was bloated and needed a damn good editor – were bad enough that I am not rushing to read the next in the series.

the vegetarian

This is a very difficult book to review, to consider, to – for wont of a better analogy – digest.

It is also a book which I think will haunt and follow me. And, Heaven forfend, make me think. What an appalling concept!

The plot, such as it is, is devastatingly simple: Kim Yeong-hye is living a quiet, undemanding, unrewarding life in a fairly affluent area of Seoul until she decides to become vegetarian. That decision, simple and implacable, is also utterly inexplicable and has massive repercussions on the rest of Yeong-hye’s family: her husband, Mr. Cheong, her brother-in-law and her sister, In-Hye, in particular. The reason for her decision? That she had had a dream.

The decision, however, and Yeong-hye’s journey are far deeper than that: the vegetarianism marks the start of Yeong-hye’s gradual withdrawal from the world as she abandons sex, clothing, family and even speech. She is utterly inscrutible to the reader, which jars with the novel being almost eponymous and named for her: the first part of the novel is narrated by Mr. Cheong and the second and third parts are in the third-person but very much from the point of view of the brother-in-law and of In-Hye. Cheong-Hye speaks to us as little as she does to her family, becoming enigmatic and evocative as a character as a result. The closest we get to her voice are the italicised and stylised fragments of dreams which read like a vivid prose poetry: brutal and visceral and fractured.

Dreams of murder.

Murderer or murdered… hazy distinctions, boundaries wearing thin. Familiarity bleeds into strangeness, certainty becomes impossible. Only the violence is vivid enough to stick. A sound, the elasticity of the instant when the metal struck the victim’s head…. the shadow that crumpled and fell gleams cold in the darkness.

They come to me now more times than I can count. Dreams overlaid with dream, a palimpsest of horror. Violent acts perpetrated by night. A hazy feeling I can’t pin down…. but remembered as blood-chillingly definite.

The language – even in translation – is powerfully sensual: the foods presented to Cheong-Hye, the meats offered to tempt her from her vegetarianism and then ultimately forcefed to her by her abusive father, the peaches and fruits offered by her sister. All are lovingly described in the English translation. And, having won the Man Booker International Award, you can see why the prize is split between Han Kang and Deborah Smith, her translator. Some of the language is a little clumsy – especially the lack of names given and the heavy reliance on familial titles – but that struck me as a cultural feature rather than a linguistic lapse.

Or perhaps a stylistic choice to reflect Cheong-Hye’s distance from the family unit.

There is a yearning by all the point-of-view characters – except for Mr. Cheong – to be and to become something other than what they are, to escape in some ways. The supporting characters, characters like the mundane and unimaginative Mr Cheong, perceive Cheong-Hye to be perverse and contrary and needing discipline; or as mentally ill, to view her as suicidal and self-destructive. Which is understandable: she does slice her wrists open when her father tries to force-feed her. But I’m not sure I do. The need to alienate her, to classify and categorise her behaviour and to control it is such a superficial reaction. The word that comes to my mind is sublimation, the desire to be transformed, converted and different. And possibly better and free. The flowering of symbols in the novel – trees, flowers and birds – ah, the wonderful and beautiful sensuous descriptions of the flowers painted onto Cheong-Hye! – are all, for me, symbols of freedom and escape  and innocence.

What this book prompts in me is, really, the ultimate question: what is real? What is reality? Are we limited to the mundane, traditional lives that Mr. Cheong has – how awful would that be? – or is there something else out there? Are Cheong-Hye’s dreams or her brother-in-law’s videos or her sister’s visions any less real or true than the world?

And, of course, as a novel, is the world of that novel any less real than the world in which I am tapping at my keyboard right now?

Yes, this book will be a haunting one which will continue to inhabit me. Much in the same way as many of the Man Booker prizes will.

104.han_kang-human_acts_1

Han Kang

deborah smith

Deborah Smith

hitman anders

I’ve not read anything by Jonasson before, although I am aware of the acclaim that The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out Of A Window And Disappeared attracted. And it had appeared in Waterstone’s May Book recommendations so I had pretty high hopes. Social satire, I thought; comedy, I expected; characters, I looked forward to.

I’m not sure I got any of that.

And that disappointment wasn’t even the worst.

The novel follows Per Persson, the hapless and penniless grandson of a criminal multi-millionaire horse dealer, whose father’s a drunkard and whose mother’s almost invisible. He drifts into a job in a brothel and, when the brothel becomes a hotel, he drifts into a situation living and working as the receptionist there. The Receptionist is, in fact, the name by which he is most often referred by the narrator, even 150 pages after leaving the hotel.

The narrative style is very knowing and the tone of that voice comes across as rather arch and dry, which I did rather enjoy. At least, initially. It was different from the intimate narrative voices I usually read or the wide sweeping divine narrators. I did not, however, find it either warm in its humour, nor terribly funny. Which seems to be a major issue in a novel sold as comical.

It seemed, instead, just a little mean.

I don’t know. Maybe it was the fact that it was in translation.

Persson meets two more unlikely charachters: Johanna Kjellander, a priest who does not belief in God and has just been evicted from her Church; Hitman Anders himself, recently released from prison following two murders and unwilling to return to the criminal justice system so avoiding committing any more murders. But quite happily handing out beatings and broken limbs for various criminals. Obviously the police in Sweden only deal in murder. Well, with the wealth of Nordic Noir novels, there seem to be a lot of murders to deal with!

In any event, Persson and Kjellander end up managing Hitman Anders’ contracts in exchange for a healthy slice of the profits., boosted by a somewhat hysterical media interest in the Hitman, the most dangerous man in Sweden.

And this is only the first of three unlikely business enterprises that they develop to exploit the intellectually challenged Hitman who finds God, becomes a Pastor of a church and a patron of the needy. Public opinion swings from hysterical terror to adulation.

Fraud, deception, drunkenness and assassinations follow. Tax evasions, heaven forfend. Dead bodies are left in their wake.

And, in all of this, not once did I really like either Persson ot Kjellander or the Hitman. Nor was there any real pace to the story which wandered around. And I found the incessant anti-Church commentary from Kjellander and the mockery of the church in the book uncomfortable. As a reader, it was just a little tedious and, although I am not a church-goer, I didn’t think that the  Communion becoming merely a winefest and the mockery of the congregation and the clergy and the administration was actually done in very good taste. Especially bearing in mind the final chapter.

Which brings us to the concluding chapter. Which didn’t. Conclude, that is. It didn’t conclude. I was listening to it as an audiobook and it literally just stopped. With no real sense of ending, it just stopped. I’m a fairly avid reader. I’m an English teacher. I am a writer. I know how to signpost an ending; I know about narrative structures; I can feel narrative arcs. And I did not know this book was ending. I cannot recall any other book that I have read where the ending was so blunt. I literally had to check to see that I’d not skipped over a couple of chapters.

I must say that, on the strength of this, I am not tempted to try to dig out a copy of The Hundred Year Old Man!