Category Archives: Book Reviews

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A Chinese Hope Burn!……………………………Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw

There have always been places that cast an almost hypnotic spell over people. Their dazzle draws the less fortunate to their bright lights, like moths to a flame, in search of fame, success, wealth, and riches. Trite as it may sound, I came myself to London with a degree of simplistic ‘streets paved with gold’ in my thinking. But surely no city can ever before has glittered quite as gaudily, and in some ways quite as menacingly, as the Shanghai at the heart of Tash Aw’s Five Star Billionaire.

Five Star Billionaire by Tash AwThe story follows 5 Malaysians and the fortunes they seek to make, or to try keep, amidst the get-rich-quick-and-every-can-be-successful lure of Shanghai. Walter Chao is part motivational guru and part con man, author of a 21st self-help bible called the Five Star Billionaire, a step-by-step guide to making it big in China – or anywhere else for that matter. Phoebe is a by-day dreamer and by night call girl with dreams inspired and fed by Walters book. Gary is a manufactured Cowell-like pop star on the verge of moving to superstardom, compensating for the vacuous nature of his music with shit-hot marketing, Yinghui is an ex-rich girl, moving from archetypal airhead to sharp-suited businesswoman on the cusp of further commercial glories and Justin is the head of a family conglomerate putting his own morals on the back burner in favour of his extended family’s values – and that’s the problem, for Justins’ is a family which hasn’t GOT any family values, unless you count profit margins!

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The stories of Justin, Yinghui, Gary and Phoebe are all unfurled and then finely stitched together by the almost invisible thread that is Walter Chao. It’s a turbulent ride flitting between the five to describe their contrasting and sometimes interconnected successes and failures and as they do the book plays wonderfully with your emotions as the reader, frequently setting you up to like or loathe one character one chapter and then flipping your sympathies or frustrations over in the next chapter. There are some pretty radical changes for some of the characters during the novel while others tend to sway and drift more. But it’s always powerful and absorbing.

Each of the characters is strong and so their stories are all engaging. They each have such different traits, back stories and futures, but they pulled me in and had me essentially rooting for them one way or another, even though you sense from early on that this might not be a “and every body lived happily ever after” book! The cleverest feat he pulls off with the characters is the way he slowly weaves connections into their lives. Given that Shanghai is a city of over 14 million people, it’s no mean feat to pull 5 seemingly disconnected characters together without making it all look rather trite or tenuous. But here it’s brilliantly done – and beautifully balanced with just enough connectivity to keep you on the side of the characters and making sure you never tip into thinking “nah…that would never happen!”

Perhaps the only character who didn’t pull me in to the same degree was Walter Chao, but if I’m honest that was because I thought he wasn’t quite dark enough. But even there, I suspect Tash Aw may well have structured Walter that way for a very particular reason. And that reason is the city of Shaghai itself because it is essentially the sixth character in the story, and it’s way more menacing and dangerous than Walter Chao could ever be!

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Occassionally the setting for a book is so appealing I find myself thinking I’d like to visit. The Shanghai of Five Star Billionaire hasn’t exactly been drafted with future promotional use by the Chinese Tourist Board in mind! Here is a city which glows and hypnotises the poor and the lost and the desperate from afar. It’s the classic mirage. Up close this is a city which seems to be almost soulless and proud of it! You get a strong sense of a cold-hearted city, its skyscrapers blocking out the sun, creating an artificial and manufactured society to match its concrete and glass takeover of the sky. For its desperate scramble to push its buildings ever upwards is matched by the scramble of its inhabitants to do the same. Each of the five characters in Five Star Billionaire are deeply flawed in some way be it avarice, morality, obsession, cruelty, or whatever. Shanghai reflects all those weaknesses in a gaudy, neon glow and casts them in the cheapest, harshest light.

In some ways I get the feeling Shanghai might be a love it or loathe it city in real life. I certainly think that for anybody reading the book, the extent to which you love or loathe Five Star Billionaire might depend on how you feel about Shanghai much more than how you react to Walter, Phoebe, Justin, Gary and Yinghui. Personally I loved it – for all its soullessness and for all its stone-hearted feel – which in fairness probably says as much about me as it does about Shanghai!!!!!

This is a book of strong characters and an even stronger setting. While it’s not a gentle love story by any means there is a surprising degree of gentleness throughout the book. As I read it, I couldn’t bring myself to dislike any of the characters or the city for there’s something deeply moving, even in all the glitz, about what the human spirit will do to survive and prosper in the harshest of climates. As I read I felt a real personal connection to the characters. I frequently thought of my mum, who emigrated from Scotland to New York as a young woman in search of work and a better life, passing through Ellis Island and when I recall that I always think of the Emma Lazarus poem, written into the Statue of Liberty “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”.

So for that very personal connection, and for 14 million other reasons, I loved Five Star Billionaire!

 

Book Info

“Five Star Billionaire” by Tash Aw was published by 4th Estate for Harper Collins. My copy was one of those bought with my own hard-earned cash!

It was nominated for the Booker Prize in 2013 but didn’t get beyond the longlisting – which surprises me somewhat but hey……what do I know!

If you are interested in reading a little more about Tash Aw, he has his own website, where you can read his synposis of Five Star Billionaire and a series of quotes in praise of the book from across the globe.

If you are more interested in what fellow readers might have thought of it (and there’s more varied opinion here) try reviews at 52 Books or Bust, at Booker Talk, and at Kevin from Canada.

Book Rating Out of 10 (you can find info on my Rating Scale here)

Nine

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Buried Among The Kings……………Wake by Anna Hope

In some ways, delivering an original and memorable novel set around World War One isn’t the easiest thing to pull off at the moment! The commemorative events, books, documentaries and dramas don’t just put the war to the forefront of public perceptions they are also generally all so well done that it raises our expectations. And then there’s the fact that so many previous books set around 1914-18 were so powerful and moving they’ve become modern classics. So it means that Anna Hope’s novel about 3 women coming to terms with their respective personal losses during the war has a lot to live up to.

Wake by Anna Hope

The story is set in 1920, with the country still haunted by the death and loss of the past. Britain needs a way to both mark that passing but also signal that life moves on. Persuaded by the British government, King George agrees to the body of one of the unknown dead being returned from France and ceremonially reburied in Westminster Abbey. And as the novel follows the corpse from its selection, through its journey from France to its final internment at the Abbey, the novel seems to mirror that in the way it looks at the ruined lives of the three women. It lays out their past and the loss which affects them before it journeys forward to place their stories in post-war 1920 and the cusp of a new decade.

The three women are very much the heart of the novel and they are strong enough as characters to carry much of the novel. Ada has lost her son during the war and her grief is detaching her from her husband, her neighbours and in some ways detaching her from her sanity. Evelyn’s lover has also been killed during the war leaving her adrift and detached from her upper class family and seeing a future as a lonely spinster. And 19 year-old Hettie still has one foot in adolescence as she ekes out a living as a dancer for hire at the Hammersmith Palais and goes home to a mother widowed by Spanish flu and a brother trapped inside himself by shell shock. Their lives are both unravelled and yet also increasingly woven together. There’s an everyday ordinariness to their lives, a tragic almost dream-like pathos to the way they move through life and in their different ways they seem to be sleepwalking into a new decade mainly because they can’t wake up from the nightmares of the previous one. But in each woman’s case there’s just enough to lift their characters beyond the misery and helplessness of their situations. There’s an engaging spikiness to Evelyn, a youthful hope in Hetties immersion in the world of illicit underground London jazz clubs and a determined depth to Ada’s love for both her son and her husband.

UnknownWestminsterAbbeyBut for all that the three characters, and their stories, were warm and engaging, there were other bits of the narrative that didn’t work for me. The book was structured to move back and forth between chapters about the everyday life of one of the three women and the different stages of the “journey” of the unknown soldier. While the historical background to the ‘unknown soldier’ is fascinating, this part of narrative had nothing like the power or pull of the women’s lives and it suffered as a result. Where their stories had depth, this felt lacking in substance and therefore it gave the book more of a disjointed feel than it really deserved. Similarly the attempt to weave together the different lives of the three women was rather inconsistent – at times I almost felt as if Anna Hope had temporarily forgotten this within the story, and to be honest she could have dropped it altogether for me for the links were a bit tenuous at best and added little to the overall stories of Ada, Hettie and Evelyn.

So did ‘Wake’ live up to both the current range of super dramas and documentaries around at the moment to commemorate the start of the Great War and did it stand up in the company of those classics set in the same period………………..?

While the story of the three women is really well told, the book as a whole didn’t quite reach those heady heights, although I admit that in comparing it to books like ‘Birdsong’, or ‘All Quiet On The Western Front’ or the ‘Regeneration’ trilogy I’d been putting into pretty exalted company. Overall, even though Wake falls just short of being a truly great novel I still thought it was a very enjoyable, brilliantly characterised book and in this time of commemorating the Great War, well worth a read.

Book Info

“Wake” by Anna Hope was published by Doubleday. It was bought for me by my family, inspired yet again by Simon Mayo’s Book Club on BBC Radio Two! 

If you are interested in reading a little more about Anna Hope and the background to writing ‘Wake’ she took part in a blog tour and you can read it here at For Winter Nights.  The book has been reviewed on several other blogs and you can see reviews of it at The Book Smugglers and at Book Snob

Book Rating Out of 10 (you can find info on my Rating Scale here)

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Tug Of War

A Grown Up Caucasian Chalk Circle……….The Farm by Tom Rob Smith

…………… Tom Rob Smith’s thriller is in a sense a modern and adult-centred version of Brecht’s classic ‘chalk circle’. This time, Daniel a 29 year old man is put into the circle between his mother and father – on one side his father claims his mother has started to suffer delusions while on the other his mother claims his father is lying to cover up his tracks at the centre of a criminal plot involving kidnap and murder. In this case, the push and pull is driven by the clever and incredibly powerful question – in a war between your parents who would you trust most? Who would you believe?

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The main narrative follows Daniel a 29 year old man living in London with his partner Mark. His life is relatively sheltered – Mark essentially protects Daniel practically, emotionally and financially. He’s taken over that role from Daniel’s parents, who have fairly recently emigrated to Sweden, the land of Daniel’s mother Tilde’s birth and childhood. In Daniel’s world everything is calm, ordered and even until walking home one day with his groceries he gets a call on his mobile and his father tells him his mother is ill, suffering from some form of mental illness and illusions. Daniel recovers just enough to

photo (72) get himself ready to fly to Sweden the next day but before he can board the flight he gets another call from Sweden, this time from his mother. She tells him there’s nothing wrong with her and alleges instead that his father Chris has engineered her supposed breakdown to cover up his role as part of a group who are kidnapping, sexually abusing, and then killing young teenage girls.

Daniel waits for his mother in London and from that point on the story is told in the form of Tilde unfolding her story to Daniel, complete with her bag of evidence to support her allegations, mixed in with Daniels reflections not only on what he hears, but on his family story, his parents relationships with him and with one another, and his own life.

It was less like normal speech, more like words unleashed. Sentences dammed up in my mum’s mind came tumbling out, fast but never uncontrolled. She was right: she didn’t sound like herself – her voice was elevated, as strange as it was impressive. At times she sounded judicial, at other times intimate. ………It was a performance more than a conversation……….”

The story which unfolds forces Daniel into making a choice – is his mother Tilde, who he has known all his life so far to be sensible, practical and resolute, now suffering from paranoid delusions? Or is his father Chris, a man who he knows as gentle, quiet, and easy-going, part of a gang of men engaged in the systematic sexual abuse of young women and a man prepared ultimately to cover up and lie about his part in a conspiracy to murder? Whatever he chooses, with his mother trying to pull him one way and his father trying to pull him another, Daniel knows there will be no going back and nothing will ever be the same again.

If I hadn’t been afraid before I was afraid now. On some level I must have been hoping that a simple resolution could be found in this room, between the two of us, without involving doctors or detectives – a quiet end, a soft landing and a gentle return to our lives as they had been. However my mum’s energies were so agitated that she was either very ill or something truly terrible had taken place in Sweden to provoke them.

This is a story made up in some ways of a lot of smaller stories which are all brilliantly combined. At times those stories within stories are used to provide context and understanding such as the story of Tilde and Chris’ business or Tilde’s childhood in Sweden. At other times they seem to spiral off at a tangent before they are spun back into the narrative. The characterisation is strong in Tilde and Daniel, though for me the character of Chris didn’t come through quite as well. But in some respects it didn’t have to because the core bond in the family is son to mother and as the book progresses it’s clear that will either tighten further or unravel completely.

The most effective part of the book is the way Tom Rob Smith delicately balances your reactions as a reader – there are times when you think that Tilde’s story is the wild imaginings of a woman whose mind has spiralled out of control but there are just as many times when you think she’s completely sane and believe her story as it unfolds. And that’s the real joy in reading this for at the same time as you read about Daniel’s thoughts and reactions to Tilde’s story and you wonder who he will choose to believe, you can’t help but do the same for yourself. And I can pay it no higher compliment than to say that right to the end, I was in a compete quandary about whether or not I’d choose to believe Chris or Tilde!

‘The Farm’ is a cracking read. At the time of Tom Rob Smith’s first novel ‘Child 44′, he essentially elevated thriller fiction to a new level with his Booker nomination. His books since then have been good but not quite at the heady heights of that debut novel. But for me, ‘The Farm’ is absolutely as good as ‘Child 44′. It’s a brilliantly plotted, taut, tense thriller that really does hook you in to the last page but makes you think throughout. Will it get a Booker nomination? Well I doubt it, especially with the extension of the prize bringing it within the scope of American authors. But if it does make the long-list next week, I’d be delighted to see it there and would judge it as an accolade that ‘The Farm’ richly deserves!

 Book Info

“The Farm” by Tom Rob Smith was published by Simon and Schuster. It’s probably a book I’ll treasure for a long time because it was bought for me by my daughter – no special occasion – just because she thought I’d like it (and she was right!!)

I had been looking forward to reading the ‘The Farm’ mainly on the strength of how much I enjoyed Tom Rob Smith’s first book ‘Child 44′. However I was further tempted by a review of it I read at Savidge Reads. 

Then while walking the dog afew weeks ago, I listened to a Guardian Podcast about crime fiction which includes a section on Tob Rob Smith

 

Book Rating Out of 10 (you can find info on my Rating Scale here)

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Troy Story 3 – No Troy Gets Left Behind!……….The Last Days Of Troy by Simon Armitage

I am a fan of Troy Story. In Troy Story One, Homer’s The Iliad, I first fell for the magic of the all-powerful Achilles and his friendship with Patroclus which begat the most destructive revenge over Hector and the Trojans, neatly shrouded by THAT face which did so much for ship building! For Troy Story 2, it was the beautiful, haunting and wonderful Song of Achilles by Madeleine Miller which I read last year. I didn’t think I did love stories. But the love between Achillies and Patroculus in this book was a joy to set my old alpha-male heart aglow! And now Troy Story 3 is here in the text of this new play, The Last Days of Troy by the poet Simon Armitage, again giving a different approach to the same story of Achilles, Patroclus, Agamemnon, Helen, Paris, Hector and that wooden horse.

 

photo (75)The Last Days Of Troy essentially takes the 15 000 or so lines of The Iliad and it’s 100’s of characters and condenses it into an 8 Act Play of about a dozen key players. In purely mathematical terms that’s a challenge in itself but Armitage carries it off with a style that borders on panache at times and with a dialogue that crackles and fizzes throughout. It opens with a modern day Zeus and Hera reduced to playing the role of metallic-painted statue impersonations of their god-like selves replete with cardboard sign proclaiming ‘Zeus’ and a tin cup to collect tourist coins! They use the model soldier and Greek God souvenir trinkets they sell to play out the initial movements of the war and to act as a link between the modern-day site of what’s believed to have been Troy and the action of the myths. It’s a very clever and effective approach.

But it’s when Simon Armitage’s play goes back to the war itself, to the Greek-Trojan rivalries and to the in-fighting on either side of the war, that the dialogue is at its best. The enmity and loathing between Achilles and Agamemnon drips off the page. On listening to the scheming string-pulling Odysseus making an offer of a daughter of Agamenon in marriage as part of resolving his quarrel with Achilles, his response is pretty…..er……………em…………….unequivocal!

“As for marrying into his family……..I wouldn’t mix my blood with his if his daughters were the last three cunts on earth. I’d fuck a dead animal first. Tell him that. Word for word.”

The mutual hatred between Achilles and Agamemnon is much more at the core of this version of the story than the love between Achilles and Patroclus is in ‘Song Of Achilles’. Even so…..on the death of his friend at the hands of Hector, Achilles vengeance is a fearful,all-conquering (except for that bloody heel!) and terrifying unleashing of a killing machine.

ACHILLES: Gifts or no gifts, all I want is Hector dead, and every Trojan that stands between his throat and this blade
AGAMEMNON: It’s what we all want. We want the same thing!
ACHILLES: And anyone who loves Hector – family or friend- to be broken and beaten, one at a time, so pain and torture are passed along to the last man, woman or child. Stripped out – right to the root.

Troy 4

There is so much to like and love in this as a play, that I’d love to see it. It ran at the Royal Exchange in Manchester ( the purpose for which it was partly written) with the model and actress Lily Cole as that face!!!! The dynamic between the lovers, Paris and Helen, Hector and Andromache is much more integral to the play than in either of the books I read and I thought it was much stronger for that. There’s a kind of inverted Macbeth and Lady Macbeth feel to some of the exchanges. In fact the strength of the women, and the barely concealed contempt and mistrust between Helen and Andromache, means that the role of the women in this tragedy is much more centre stage and again I think that’s a real strength of this telling of the story.

I wouldn’t think there will be too many people who’ll read this or watch the play who don’t know the story of Troy. But it’s still fresh and engaging and littered with brilliant one-liners that in some ways work even better BECAUSE it’s a play. They are short, pithy, sharp and they hit home brilliantly. And sometimes, it’s hard hitting for what’s not said…………!

Agamemnon is studying maps of the campaign. Odysseus enters.
AGAMEMNON: Say something positive or say nothing at all.
Odysseus doesn’t respond.
AGAMEMNON:Speak!
ODYSSEUS: Worse than yesterday. Disease…….fever………….

Above all, even though this is a play, it’s a great read as a book because it’s a great story, with such incredibly powerful characters and it’s brilliantly told. I have to confess I think Simon Armitage is a genius having loved his previous works like Gawain, and The Morte d’Arthur. Even allowing for that, as with the film franchise, Simon Armitage’s play has much to live up to in this re-telling of such a classic and timeless story. I can’t praise it more than to say Troy Story 3 is every bit as great as it’s illustrious predecessors. Or as someone much more erudite than me might have said, this will help ensure the story of Achilles and Troy goes……

“To infinity and beyond!”

Book Info

Simon Armitage’s The Last Days Of Troy was published by Faber and Faber. I bought my copy with my own hard-earned dosh.

There don’t seem to be many other blog reviews of the Last Days of Troy as a book around but I did find this review that I liked of the performance of it as play at Gerryco23.

The play ran at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester during May and June of this year. I missed it. Drat! It also ran during June at The Globe in London. I missed it. Double drat!!!!! 

Book Rating Out of 10 (you can find info on my Rating Scale here)

Nine

 

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The Most Pointless And Irrelevant Book Review Ever……………….The Cuckoo Calling by Robert Galbraith

………..I was born several weeks premature. As a result I was apparently pretty sick, jaundiced and just generally I had a miserable start to life. My mother reckons it was a telling moment – having been early for that very first thing in life, it was such an awful experience for me, my subconscious decided never to take the risk of being early for anything ever again!!! And I’ve stuck to that. 50 years on I’ve been Clocklate for virtually everything in my life and continue to be late! I’m perennially late for meetings at work. I’m late for family and friend’s birthdays. I’m late for journeys. I’m late for appointments. If I could, I’d find a way to be late at being late – and I’d be late in finding it!!!! And, apart from perhaps trying to get a little bit of sympathy with the ‘very-sick-as-baby’ line, I need to write all of this to justify why I’m SO SO SO late in getting round to reading The Cuckoo Calling by Robert Galbraith, I’m the very last person in the world to actually read it!!!! And as a result this is a pointless review because I’m about to recommend a cracking book when in reality there’s nobody left on the planet who hasn’t read and reviewed it before me!!!!!

Fortuitously though, being used to being late helps here. In being constantly late, I get frequent abuse, especially from family and colleagues!!! So I’ve developed a thick skin. And that thick skin means I don’t care that I’m writing this review for absolutely no-one – I’m going to write it anyway because I don’t want to deprive myself of the chance to say in capital letters – THIS IS A GREAT STORY!

Cuckoo CallingI know you know all this but I’m going to remind you anyway that the story follows a private detective, Cormoran Strike, a typical, hard-nosed, down-at heel private investigator who would grace any 1940’s Raymond Chandler or Dashiel Hammet novel. Except Cormoran is a modern-day equivalent, an ex-Army investigator, invalided out on losing a leg in Afghanistan. Down to his last few pence, sleeping in his office chair, and only getting calls and letters from creditors, he gets hired to investigate the already coroner-confirmed death by suicide of a famous model, Lula Landry. Her distraught half-brother, John, won’t accept she killed herself so he hires Strike to prove not only that she didn’t commit suicide but also to find out who killed her.

It’s just classic ‘gum shoe’ from start to finish. Strike is clever but flawed as every good detective should be! He’s observant, sharp, honest, and personable, but he leaves in his wake the detritus of near-bankruptcy, a doomed engagement and a childhood as the unwanted offspring of a 70’s rock star father and a drug-addled rootless, groupie mother! He’s a man who invokes respect, love, fear and loathing in equal measure – not that he really notices most of the time! But there’s an underlying softer side to Strike too, which comes through for example in his determination to defend the weak and in his growing admiration for his young, recently-hired temporary assistant Robin. There’s something almost chivalrous in his approach to her. In the hero stakes he’s part Phillip Marlowe and part Sir Gawain from the Knights Of The Round Table!

In addition to the characterisation of Strike, the other characters are all strong, believable and well drawn. The plot is great. It’s a brilliant did-anyone-do-it-and-if-anyone-did-do-it-whodunit?!!!!! It’s well paced, intriguing and with a really good ending. Along with reading it, I listened to the audio-book version narrated magnificently by Robert Glenister. He gets every aspect of Cormoran Strike spot on and so it adds a texture and richness to what is already a really good detective story.

Robert Glenister now IS Cormoran Strike to me!
Robert Glenister now IS Cormoran Strike to me!

Robert Galbraith is clearly a writer of some talent. Given that this is his debut novel it’s spectacular for a very first book. In fact as you read it, you can’t help thinking that this is so good, it’s difficult to comprehend he’s never written a book before!!!!!! Bizarre and ridiculous as it sounds, if I didn’t know better, I’d say this was the work of an authorial superstar……..a sort of ‘if Charles Dickens or JK Rowling wrote crime fiction’…….but of course that’s ridiculous because Charles isn’t with us any more and JK only does wizards!!!!!! And anyway I don’t want to start any rumours. Mind you, if it were true and it was someone like JK I’d have been the first on the planet to spot it and finally be early for once – or perhaps to be more accurate, twice!!!!!!!!!!

Book Info

The Cuckoo Calling was written by Robert Galbraith, whoever he is!. It was published by Sphere Books. The audio book is narrated by Robert Glenister and was produced by Hachette Audio.

I bought the book with my own hard earned dosh and bought the audio-book from iTunes.

2014-Audio-Challenge

I listened to the audio-book as part of an audio-book challenge and you can find out more about that here.

Book Rating Out of 10 (you can find info on my Rating Scale here)

Nine

Robespierre

What WAS The Point Of Guillotining Louis XVI?!!!!!…………The Library Of Unrequited Love by Sophie Divry

‘Because the ranking in people’s heads gets reflected on the bookshelves. Budgets for buying new books are limited and the aristos get first pick. Us, the little folk, we come last. Crumbs from their table. It drives me mad. Archaic, irrational…..someone like me……In a basement like this…………what was the point of guillotining Louis XVI if you still end up with everyone looking down on you?’

photo (74)That question in the title doesn’t mean much out of context. But in the context of the fuller quote, it captures the essence of this clever, witty and entertaining novella by Sophie Divry. Within the labyrinthine pecking order of a French provincial library, the central character of the book muses on her place both inside it and outside it in the great library of life – she’s not quite on the bottom of the heap but she’s not far off it!!!! The story begins with our never-named librarian narrator arriving in her basement section of the library to find an equally never-named customer asleep, having been somehow locked in overnight. And so she begins to regale the customer with her views on the library, books, love, men and life, accompanied by her analysis of the French Revolution, culture and ‘the bastard’ who is the Mayor of their provincial town! And that’s all then wrapped up in her deconstruction of the Dewey System!!!!! For those of us who love books and reading it is probably irresistible. For the less obsessive reader though this might not sound that attractive a prospect – but it’s much better than the ‘Dewey system soliloquy from a provincial librarian’ description which I’ve just saddled it with! What raises the book up is that this is a librarian who’s on the edge but in the gentlest and most understated of ways – a ‘she’s got a Dewey system and she’s not afraid to use it’ sort of thing!‘ The librarian is by turns irritable, comical, insightful, sarcastic and love-struck! She’s frequently on the outskirts of mad and she’s always on the verge of ready-to-cry – but you’re never quite sure whether they’ll be tears of love-lorn sorrow or pent-up frustrations! Throughout the book there are only a few people who merit a name and the most important of those are Robespierre and a library user called Martin. She’s secretly and from a distance in love with one of them, and as……………

“….I realised it was the back of his neck that had captivated me, right from the start. Because is there anything more fascinating about a person than a beautiful neck seen from behind? The back of the neck is a promise, summing up the whole person through their most intimate feature.”

……well you can tell it’s not Robespierre she’s in love with because all that neck admiration would be an irony too far!!!!!! There’s something very sweet and yet desperately sad in her distanced longings and imaginings about Martin – and that’s one of the keys to this book. It’s full of sharp observations and it is beautifully balanced throughout – she’s just quirky enough to make her funny but believable, she’s just in love enough to make her sad but not pathetic, she’s just serious enough to be engaging but never dull – and at times she’s very, very, funny.

“Not all the classifications are equal……French Literature and History: they’re the blue blood…….on the same level you get the High Society of Philosophy and Religion…..the minor gentry in Foreign Languages…..the bourgeoisie of periodicals and magazines: all mouth and no action…….the Children’s section-let’s call it the lower clergy…….the open shelves with CDs and DVDs, they’re the nouveaux riches. But even lower down comes the proletariat: Science, Geography, IT……”

And guess who’s in charge of the Geography section?! The Library Of Unrequited Love is a very enjoyable and very entertaining read – and it’s not just for those of us who are bibliophiles! If you love a soap opera- you’ll find that here in her unrequited love for Martin interrupted by the petty-mindedness of senior colleagues or the ignorance of the general public. If you love scandal, you’ll find a scathing little vignette on Jean-Paul Sartre’s treatment of Simone de Beaviour that does a hatchet job on the great man in only a few lines that any tabloid hack would be proud of! This is a quick, easy read – the kind of thing you’ll devour in one gulp with ease. But it’ll leave you feeling very satisfied afterwards!

Or As The Librarian Of Unrequited Love Might Have Said - "Bit Of A Shit Really!"
Or As The Librarian Of Unrequited Love Might Have Called Him – “Bit Of A Shithead Really!”

Book Info

Sophie Divry’s “The Library Of Unrequited Love” was translated by Sian Reynolds and published here by the wonderfully named MacLehose Press. I bought it with my own hard-earned dosh!

There are tons of reviews of it elsewhere so you don’t need me to point you to any in particular. But I will anyway. There’s one at Bride Of The Book God which I chose because it’s a very recent review and because we Scots in London need to stick together!!!! But inside my edition the cover includes quotes from Savidge Reads and Vulpes Libres blogs so you can easily find them too!! 

Book Rating Out of 10 (you can find info on my Rating Scale here)

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Scattered Things and Changing Skies……………….1914 Poetry Remembers Edited by Carol Ann Duffy

photo (73)The First World War was the most defining moment of the Twentieth Century for me. However I know that’s open to debate given the Second World War, the atomic bomb, the invention of the computer, the fall of the Berlin Wall and other iconic, defining moments. What I think is less debatable is the uniqueness of the way in which poets and writers were at the heart of providing the human perspective on that war. It was unique because while poets had of course written of previous wars, the legacy and impact on subsequent generations like mine seems much less. I’ve read much about other wars, other cataclysmic events but in the main they’re either fiction or historical analysis. Poets would of course continue to write of what they saw and experienced in wars after 1914-1918, but it’s always seemed to me that by 1939, the visual recording of what happened was on such a scale that the moving image tends to overshadow the written word of those poets. So what makes the First World War poets and writers unique to me is their crucial role in describing the human experience in the midst of such monumental carnage, mayhem and slaughter.

For 1914 Poetry Remembers, Carol Ann Duffy has asked a number of contemporary poets to select the piece of First World War poetry or writing which has most affected them and to write their response to it. It’s a beautifully simple idea which in the wrong hands, might easily have been little more than an anthology of First World War verse chosen by the great and the good of modern poets. Instead it’s a riveting, absolutely un-put-down-able collection which at turns will move you, anger you and make you despair about the human race and what we do, or more often, what we allow others to do, supposedly in our name. The new poems are as powerful as those written at the time and the different interpretations, reactions and connections by the modern poets give the collection a deeply personal and intimate feel.

Duffy herself bookends the collection with two pieces, both responding to Wilfred Owen, looking first at those initial first days of enlisting, responding to Owen’s ‘ The Send Off’ and ends with her poem ‘The Last Post’ which responds in part to Owen’s ‘ Dulce Et Decorum Est’ and which almost tries to unravel and reverse every aspect of War back to those initial footsteps post- enlisting. As the poem says

You lean against a wall,

your several million lives still possible

and crammed with love, work, children, talent, English beer, good food.

You see the poet tuck away his pocket book and smile.

If poetry could truly tell it backwards,
then it would.

World War 1

There is so much that is good, even great in this collection. Whenever I read poetry I always mark those poems that affect me, influence me, make me think or react strongly. In a collection of this size I’d normally expect to have marked out perhaps six to 10 poems that are special for me in some way. In this collection I marked out 36. I found I was particularly moved by those where there was some form of personal connection between the poet, the war and the verse they’d chosen. Jackie Kay’s poem ‘Bantam’, in response to Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘Survivors’ looks back through her words, to her father’s recollection of his fathers war experience.

It wisnae men they sent to war.
It wis boys like the Bantams
– wee men named efter
a small breed o’ chickens,
or later: a jeep, a bike, a camera.

Some of the work is incredibly moving and for different reasons. I read the wonderful Blake Morrison poem ‘Redacted’, written in response to Ewart MackIntosh’s equally powerful poem ‘Recruiting’ with such a sense of despair, anger and almost bewilderment. And for very different reasons I was moved to tears by the pieces from Edward and Helen Thomas. Edward Thomas tragic poem, ‘As The Team’s Head-Brass” is chosen by both Seamus Heaney and Julia Copus and it’s followed a few pages later by Helen’s account of Edward’s departure for the front in an excerpt from “World Without End”. I recently read Matthew Hollis’ brilliant “Now All Roads Lead To France”, his account of Edward Thomas’ last days, his life with Helen and with his best friend Robert Frost. So to read the Thomas poem, Helen’s account of his leaving and the modern responses to both pieces, all while I knew more of what lay ahead for Edward and Helen Thomas than either of them could have known when they wrote those words, was just desperately sad.

Throughout the collection, the selected pieces and the responses to them go from considering the almost incomprehensible scale of the loss of life to the equally incomprehensible degree of misery and suffering that soldiers and civilians experienced day to day. It of course makes you want scream and weep at the same time. But equally that’s perhaps the most powerful thing that the First World War poets and their modern counterparts do with this collection – because when poetry is as good as this, it makes you respond and react. I guess as a reader this is how we honour the sacrifice of those millions of young men and women who gave their lives. We remember them – and this collection does just that – beautifully.

first world war soldiers

Book Info

“1914 Poetry Remembers” was edited by Carol Ann Duffy and published by Faber and Faber.

Book Rating Out of 10 (you can find info on my Rating Scale here)

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The Sweet Science of Bruising……………..A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride

Boxing……….In the early 19th Century, an English journalist and sportswriter, Pierce Egan, published a series of articles about bare-knuckle boxing. He called the sport “The Sweet Science of Bruising” but it’s a description which is perfect for Eimear MacBride’s much-lauded, prize-winning novel “A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing”. It’s a novel which if it was a boxer would be a Southpaw counter-puncher – it comes at you in ways you don’t expect and it catches you unawares time after time! A Girl Is A Half Formed Thing is to modern fiction what bare-knuckle fist fights are to the Marquis-of-Queensbury-ruled boxing – this is the savage and fucking hard-hitting end of the genre. It’s as hard to read physically as it is to come to terms with emotionally – and it’s absolutely brilliant.

photo (60)A young woman who remains unnamed tells the story of her childhood, adolescence and early adulthood in a family scarred by the dark clouds which her brothers childhood brain tumour casts over them. Within the confines of the family home the relationship between her and her brother is the barrier to their mothers worst excesses of verbal and physical assaults caused by her coming to terms with her son’s illness, her absent husband, the bitter legacy of her own childhood and the narrow moral straight jacket of Irish Catholicism. Outside the family home that relationship with her brother and the effect of that childhood illness are the cause of much tension, angst, confusion and danger for her. Yet for all that the outside world exerts immense pressure on the relationship between the brother and sister it remains the constant reference point in her life. Her adolescence is twisted and shattered by her rape at the hands of her uncle. Then as a young woman, she begins life as a student in the city. Fully unleashed from the physical and emotional confines of life with her mother and brother, she can only manage that freedom with a crashing lurch into drunken promiscuous sex and an emotionally detached craving for sexual degradation and abuse.

The 18th Century equivalent of "Come and Have A Go If You Think You're Hard Enoug
The 18th Century equivalent of “Come and Have A Go If You Think You’re Hard Enough

So for the narrative alone this is demanding stuff for any reader. But the style throughout is a form of broken and fragmented stream of consciousness. It’s a concoction of spoken words, feelings, feelings about those feelings, actions and reactions. In the first few chapters where she remembers her life as a small child, I mistakenly read the style at this point as a very clever portrayal of how a young child thinks – it’s unstructured, erratic, lacks logical flow and it’s impossible to predict. It was only as I read on that I realised that this would continue right to the end. And as her experiences become darker,more traumatic and harrowing it fits it so well – but it’s still bloody hard work to read.

I’ll jump the bath when she has me. Running with my headful of shampoo shouting no Mammy no no no. Cold chest where water hits windscreen belly in the rain. Down those stairs fast as I can. Shampoo on my forehead. In my eyes. Nettle them. Mammy. Yelling Lady you come back or you’ll get what for. A mad goat I’ll be. Rubbing bubbles. Worse and worse and hotter like mints I’ll turn my nose at.

Much has been written elsewhere about the structure and style of the book. At times I just couldn’t quite decipher it – and we’re not talking a sentence here and there but whole paragraphs! But it never detracts from the narrative and for every time you literally can’t follow the words at all it actually makes you more engaged in the story rather than less. And for all that it might at times look like a jumble of words, they’re a beautifully put together jumble!

But more than the structure and style, what makes this book so hard hitting is the subject matter. I’d think an experienced author would need an exceptionally strong nerve and confidence to tackle these issues. The fact that this has been done, and been done brilliantly, by an author writing a debut novel is a stunning achievement. It’s a book that really does deserve all the praise it’s currently getting. Equally though it does make me wonder where Eimear McBride might go next. For all that I loved this and for all that I thought the structure was so right for the story, I wouldn’t want to read anything similar any time soon!

A Girl Is A Half Formed Thing is not a book for the faint-hearted. The language will pull you around and mess with you and the subject matter will pummel you from start to finish. But it’s a book that deserves your attention. The social activist Maggie Kuhn once said “Speak your mind, even if your voice shakes!”. In a way you need to apply that same principle when you read this – a sort of “Let your reading speak to your mind, even if your reading voice shakes violently!” – but if you do you will come away much the better for having done it – and in time of course those bruises will heal!

If you're going to win a prize - then the best sponsor is always alcohol!
And if I was an author and I was going to win a prize – then my preferred sponsor would definitely be alcohol! (Which is another way of saying, “What’s the chance of the Guinness Prize for Book Bloggers in Essex?”

Book Info

Eimear McBride’s “A Girl Is A Half Formed Thing” was first published by Galley Beggar Press and my paperback edition was published by Faber and Faber. I bought it with my own hard-earned dosh!

It won the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Irish Novel Of The Year Award. 

There are a million reviews of it at other blogs so you can pretty much take your pick. But I got the book after I read this review at Lonesome Reader back in April  – I added it to my wee list of books on my iPhone that I describe quaintly as the….”I’ll Shit Myself If I Don’t Read These!” list! It was well worth a place!

Book Rating Out of 10 (you can find info on my Rating Scale here)

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99% Perspiration, 1% Inspiration and Sadly It Shows!…….The Bones Beneath by Mark Billingham

Bones-BeneathAt the end of this book, Mark Billingham is effusive in his praise for Bardsey, a small remote island of the coast of North Wales, which is the setting for his latest Detective Inspector Tom Thorne novel. It’s a testimony to what does seem to be a magical, tranquil, beautiful place. Mark Billingham is clearly genuine in his warm and fond description of Bardsey as somewhere that is a haven of peace and solitude for artists and writers and as a result he describes it as a place that is inspirational. And I don’t doubt him that Bardsey is inspirational. But to me, you’ve got to take his word for it as there’s precious little evidence of that inspiration in what I thought was a very flat, dull, and really rather stilted crime novel.

From the outset I’m happy to nail my colours to the mast of Tom Thorne – I think he’s a great fictional detective creation and till now I’ve never read a Tom Thorne novel I didn’t love. So I tried really hard to like this book – but in the end I had to face the truth – I was massively disappointed by it. It’s really desperately poor.

It has an interesting premise at the beginning. Ordinarily, if it’s not too crude a generalisation, a detective novel lays the crime out early in the book and you then read through it to find out who did it and why. In The Bones Beneath you know from the first few pages who the perpetrator is – and you then read through it to find out what the crime will be. It should be clever and brilliant – instead, the book is pedestrian and a bit predictable.

The Bones Beneath brings back the character of Stuart Nicklen, who last appeared when Thorne caught him as the manipulative psychopathic half of a serial killing double act. Now serving life, Nicklen manipulates a grieving mother and the Met Police commanders with a shocking confession – years before as a teenager he murdered a fellow young offender and buried his body on the remote island of Bardsey, an island without electricity, phones, roads and only accessible by boat across a treacherous and unpredictable part of the sea. Nicklen offers to show them the burial place on one condition – the search has to be led by the reluctant D.I . Thorne, the man who put him behind bars. From the moment Nicklen is released to Thorne’s custody on the English mainland you know he’s got an ulterior motive and so does Thorne.

So the twist in the novel’s structure, and the fact that Bardsey really is as great a setting as Mark Billingham had envisaged it would be should have made this a great read. But it didn’t work for me because of the characterisation and the plot. The character of Nicklen simply isn’t interesting enough if he’s not actually committing evil acts – this book portrays his scheming, all arched eyebrows, double meanings and goading of Thorne, but rather than it being exciting, engaging or even horrifying, I just found Stuart Nicklen bloody irritating! The usual cast of supporting characters in Thorne novels like Russell Brigstock his immediate boss, Sergeant Dave Holland his murder squad side-kick, and Phil Hendricks his pathologist mate are always so strong but here the narrow plot and the isolated location work against that and they’re little more than also-rans. The twist in the story is weak, it’s too obvious and as a result the book struggles to build any tension. The story in the end just isn’t very interesting. Worst of all having persevered with the book, I thought the ending was truly dire. It’s trite, cliched and lacks any credibility for me.

As if I’ve not shamefully giving enough of a kicking to The Bones Beneath as a story, I can’t avoid seeming to kick it again while it’s down by also criticising the author beyond the writing. But I listened to the audio-book version of this as well as reading it. Mark Billingham chooses to narrate it himself and I thought he was pretty awful. His reading voice is simply not rich enough and lacks depth. He particularly struggles to read the dialogue. As an ex-teacher it just kept reminding me of the intonation and ‘sing-song’ style that some young children use when they’re first learning to read. It was that bad!

I recently had an exchange of comments about using a book rating scale where a fellow blogger rightly said that we ought to never really rate a book less than seven out of 10 – for if it’s less than that it’s really our fault for choosing it and our fault for finishing it. And in that spirit I’m happy to take the blame, because apart from this book, I love Tom Thorne and I think Mark Billingham is fantastic, second only to Ian Rankin in my favourite crime novelist list! So I’m sorry I made the mistake of continuing with a book I just didn’t enjoy. As a tourist guide and marketing brochure for Bardsey, this book does a decent job. But as an entertaining crime novel…………..? I’ll take a leaf from Stuart Nicklen and bury it in my mind, so that it doesn’t stop me loving Tom Thorne next time round!

Book Info

Mark Billingham’s The Bones Beneath was published by Little, Brown. I bought it with my own hard-earned dosh!

While I didn’t like this book, there are others who did. The opinion of Good Reads is a bit divided, but you’ll find much more positive reviews of the book at Milo’s Rambles and at Chris High

Book Rating Out of 10 (you can find info on my Rating Scale here)

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Dead Man Walking……..To Bury The Dead by Ignacio Martinez de Pison

photo (59)Sometimes the weight of expectation can destroy your enjoyment of a book. You read countless reviews – you pick up numerous snippets about the story – you read a litany of quotes singing its praises – and so you start it confident you know what you’ll find. And then, when it doesn’t quite survive that giant wave of expectation, the book drowns and your chance of enjoying it goes down with it.

In the case of Ignacio Martinez de Pison’s “To Bury The Dead” however, I went into it knowing absolutely nothing about it. No reviews – no idea on plot – I didn’t even know it was actually non-fiction till I read the first page!!! And the absence of any expectations almost killed this book for me! For about two chapters or so into the subtleties of Trotskyist-anarchist v Stalinist-Marxist groups within the Republican forces of the Spanish Civil War (with the additional issue thrown in of the impending un-civil war between American left-wing literary heavyweights John Dos Passos and Ernest Hemingway) and I was thinking “Jesus! I didn’t sign up for this!!!” I was tempted to give up at that point! But I persevered and by chapter six I’d move from bemused to fascinated.

To Bury The Dead sets out to investigate and tell the story of what happened to a young Republican translator and academic, Jose Robles, who turns out to be a victim of one of the many atrocities of the Spanish Civil War. And in this case Robles doesn’t die at the hands of Franco’s Falangists, but at the hands of his supposed comrades. Jose Robles was on holiday from his teaching post at an American university, back in his native Barcelona, when the Civil War began. In spite of his Falangist family background Robles was a committed believer in the Republican cause. His literary and language skills saw him quickly installed as the interpreter for the leading Russian military leader in the Republican movement General Vladimir Gorev. But within a relatively short time the tables turned, Robles was arrested and disappeared. It was soon obvious, though not admitted initially by the Republicans, that he had been executed, supposedly for treason. In the absence of any credible explanations or evidence though, it’s apparent there are murkier motives leading to Robles execution. And ordinarily it might have stayed as just one of many unjust and unexplained executions. But Robles’ status as an American university staffer, and even more importantly his place as best friend of John Dos Passos, mean that this isn’t an execution that can simply be passed off as ‘treason’ and no questions asked.

The book in part recreates Dos Passos failed attempts over many years to discover who killed his friend and why. The other part of the story is a modern-day investigation into Robles’ death, with Martinez de Pison using papers and archive material not available to Dos Passos in the 40’s and 50’s. I won’t go any further into the story than to say that Robles is unwittingly a dead man walking from the moment he returns to Spain on holiday only weeks before the outbreak of Civil War.

As well as unravelling the story of who killed Robles and why, the book gives a terrifying though fascinating insight into the incredibly complex and sinister world of internal left-wing politics in the 30’s, their convoluted array of allegiances, relationships and splinter groups. And of course this is all wrapped up in the murky iron fist and the excessive paranoia of Joseph Stalin. It’s this that gives the book its ‘punch’ – you’re left looking at Robles death at the hands of his colleagues and thinking “If this is what they do to their friends…………..!”

The book isn’t the easiest of reads. For all the authors best efforts to unpick the labyrinth of who’s who and more importantly who’s scheming against who in the tangled web of Republican Spain, as well as back in Stalinist Moscow, it’s still a labyrinth. So it’s one of the books where I found myself going back almost as often as I read forwards! The style also waivers a bit for me.When it’s unravelling the clues on what happened to Robles or when it’s looking at the unravelling, and soon to be fairly toxic, friendship between Hemingway and Dos Passos, it’s a gripping read. But it frequently goes off in tangents – some of them are interesting in their own right but with others you’re left with a “what the hell was that about?” feel! The author himself seems to realise he’s going off down side streets (and the odd blind alley!) – at one point he starts a chapter with “But let’s return to the Civil War. Back to 1937″!

However in spite of the complexity and the tangents, this is a good read, especially if you are interested in the Spanish Civil War period. There’s a real passion and commitment to uncover the truth and some of the stuff you learn in the course of the book is shocking. I read Javier Cercas’ great Civil War novel ‘Soldiers of Salamis’ last year and Anthony Beevor’s “The Battle for Spain” the year before, and really enjoyed both, so it’s a period that fascinates me.

Yet this isn’t the kind of non-fiction you’d get from reading Beevor, though it’s clearly well researched and meticulously detailed. But Ignacio Martinez de Pison wears his heart and his values and beliefs on his sleeve – so this isn’t dispassionate detached non-fiction but quite the opposite. He has a bias and he’s not afraid to use it! I can see that this bias might put off some but I actually liked it. He clearly doesn’t have a high opinion of a number of Republican leaders who are essentially described as conniving opportunists or apologists. Even more strong though is he clearly takes sides in the Dos Passos v Hemingway war of words! He’s very much in the Dos Passos camp and Hemingway comes out of it as a man who I wouldn’t like to go for a beer with, in spite of his reputed love of a bar! And Martinez de Pison doesn’t spare other authors either – Stephen Koch’s book ‘Double Lives’, which explored the role of left-wing writers in the West in the propoganda war for Stalin gets what can only be described as “a bit of a kicking”!

At its heart though this is in essence a tragedy – for Robles, his wife and family and for the countless Spanish men and women who suffered similarly cruel fates at the hands of either Republicans or Fascists during the Civil War. And so it takes this personal story of Robles and through it remembers those who were killed and those whose lives were destroyed by war and politics. And of course if you look at the news today it’s still the same – so it’s something we should always be reminded of.

Everything Espana

I read this as part of my Everything Espana Reading Challenge which you can find at caffeinatedlife.net.

Book Info

Ignacio Martinez de Pison’s ‘To Bury The Dead’ was published Carnival Books. It was translated by Anne McLean. It won both the International Rodolfo Walsh Prize for Non-Fiction and the Dulce Chacon Prize for Spanish Narrative in 2006.

Like other books for my Everything Espana Challenge, I tracked it down through Waterstones Market Place.

I’ve not been able to find any info on Ignacio Martinez de Pison. I did find a short bio on a Spanish site Lecturalia, but of course it’s in Spanish! However if you’ve got a basic knowledge of the language and a half decent dictionary you’ll have no problem reading it! His latest book The Good Reputation is on bestseller lists in Spain at present. It’s not yet been translated so you might need more than a basic knowledge of Spanish and a dictionary for that!

Book Rating Out of 10 (you can find info on my Rating Scale here)

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