Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Millennium People - post III

Markham finds himself getting deeper into the fight with Kay Churchill (ironic last name there) and some of the more determined residents on the Chelsea marina site. Along with a deranged ex-MOD explosives expert Markham finds himself setting light to the NFT and experiencing the thrill of violence. As his second wife starts an affair so too Markham moves into Kay's house and despite her obsessions and willingness to abandon Markham at the first sign of trouble he is intoxicated by the action.

As a psychologist he fools himself into thinking that some how he is detached from events but as he draws closer to the damaged Dr Gould he has to face the question that actually he is not able to stay on the fringes forever. he is bridging the gap between the enthusiastic amateur in the shape of Churchill and the fundamentalist in Gould.

What starts to bring things to a head are the duel events of a bomb exploding in the Tate killing the girlfriend of one of the protesters as well as a Jill Dando type shooting of a TV presenter on her own doorstep. Markham is trying to find something but faces losing himself in the process. Is that the real danger of getting involved with protests that as it knocks you out of your comfort zone you face questions of just how far you are prepared to go? Would you kill someone? Maybe not but can you always prevent that and how do you counter the buzz you get from the possibility?

More tomorrow...

Monday, June 29, 2009

Millennium People - post II

As David Markham picks up the pieces of his life following the death of his first wife in an unmotivated bombing at Heathrow he starts to look for extremist groups that might hold the clue to finding his wife's killer.

After getting involved with cat liberationists he gets picked up by one of the residents of Chelsea Marina and the name of Dr Gould is introduced into the conversation. This shadowy character seems to be the inspiration and main string puller behind resident unrest at Chelsea Marina. As he gets drawn into the world of trying to break down middle class apathy Markham starts to find himself attracted to the ideas and his own middle class life in leafy St Johns Wood becomes less appealing.

The question, delivered with great humour and style, is around the idea of the right to protest and the question of how far you should go to knock people out of their slumbers.

More tomorrow...

Sunday, June 28, 2009

bookmark of the week

My parents arrived from America this week bearing gifts in the form of a bookmark from the Art Institute of Chicago showing a detail from the Cezanne picture Boy in a Red Waistcoat. I'm sure I already have this but you can never have too many bookmarks. Gives you a reason to keep buying books to put them into.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

book review - The Slaves of Solitude - Patrick Hamilton

The moment I put this book down I realised that it might just have described one of those scenes that inspires you to change your life.

Patrick Hamilton is expert at taking a small world with a select cast of characters and putting it under the microscope. There every detail is magnified and what might seem trivial to outsiders or in the world at large becomes monumentally important to those in the group.

Whereas it was a group of drinking friends in Hangover Square here with Slaves of Solitude it is a boarding house. A few years have passed since the events of Hangover with the country at war and the main character, Miss Roach, living in the suburban outskirts of the capital in a boarding house.

The boarding house is almost exclusively inhabited by old people. But once an American soldier and a young German woman Miss Kulgeman are added to the mix it becomes explosive. Before those two additional characters arrive the battle is between Roach and the old gentleman Thwaites. They verbally joust over the dining room table night after night.

But in her effort to be friendly and find an ally Roach invites the German girl into the boarding house just at a moment when her relationship with the lieutenant Pike is stoking her fantasies of escaping the drudgery of her life. But that starts to fall apart and the German girl highlights the stuffiness of Roach and manages to spoil that relationship.

But things start to become unbearable and Hamilton manages to crank up the rivalry and the bitterness of the women with the added vitriol of Thwaites. It all looks as if it is going wrong for Roach and she is not only going to be eclipsed by Kulgeman but destroyed by her. But the German over reaches herself and as the lieutenant pours out the drinks and pushes Thwaites over the edge the boarding house becomes off limits for Kulgeman.

But Roach has come into some money and as she heads for Claridges and London suddenly all those moments of bitterness and rivalry, fighting over the comb etc. That is the moment that anyone stuck in a dead end job or a relationship they cannot stand can dream of. That is what it must feel like to come out on the other side. That is the inspiration.

In many respects because of the upbeat ending and the release for the main character this is a more satisfactory read than Hangover Square and one that will have a lasting influence on my life.

Friday, June 26, 2009

what i talk about when i don't do any running

not sure if this is normal because this is the fist time I have ever run in a 10k before but the closer it gets to the race on 12 July the harder it becomes to motivate myself to run.

Up to now been hitting the streets every week night with the occasional 5 or 10k at the weekend but this week ran twice and nothing since Wednesday night. When I read Huraki Murakami's book about running he seemed to be in such a groove that the idea of not doing it was not something that passed his mind that often.

Not sure if its normal but hoping to get into Murakami mode and return to normal next week.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Millennium People – post I

Having never really read Ballard before in any determined sense this novel was opened up with some expectations of discovering a writer that has real talent.

There is no sense of disappointment as the story about the middle class activists fighting for the rights in Chelsea Marina opens up. At the heart of it is a psychologist who starts to infiltrate cells of activists in order to answer the question of who planted the bomb that killed his first wife.

Dr Markham straddles the divide between good and evil as he is both recruited by the groups and allowed to carry on with the nod of the authorities.

The story unfolds against a London that is real but also of the imagination. As a reader you are being asked to suspend judgment but not thought as Ballard starts to weave together a story asking some big questions around terrorism, state response and in the current climate they are incredibly relevant.

But he does all that with the ability to provoke a smile on the readers face with touches of humour and confidence as his London open up before you.

More soon...

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Taking a break from Couples

This book has so far failed to grab me. It has not lost me either but as it starts to catalogue the history of infidelity between the first couple of couples it is establishing not just the experience of adultery but a context where it’s almost expected.

Against that background of course the new couple become playthings to amuse those that have become bored of each other and stuck in their ruts. The pressure for one or both of them to stray seems to be building with the husband ken the initial most likely suspect.

I will go back to this but need something that is slightly more instant in its delivery of gratification.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Couples - post III

This is slow going. The pages feel dense and the way Updike writes forces you to concentrate. Through his descriptions of the landscape, buildings and interiors he is making a statement about the state of Kennedy's America compared to the past.

As the new couple, Foxy and Ken, start to get dragged into the world of the couples an attitude to life where people try to get away with pleasing themselves as much as possible starts to be detailed in greater depth. The central character Piet seems to have time to see his mistress, construct hamster cages and plan his social life as well as keep down a job as a builder/developer.

his inability to see how fortunate he is feels like a point being made by Updike and presumably Piet's life seemed as self-indulgent when this was first written as it does now, particularly in a time of recession.

One of the main struggles you suspect as the first 100 pages gets passed is trying to attach any likeability to any of the couples. So far none of them appear to be the sort of people you would go out of your way to meet. Again that is the point but it is going to be a challenge.

more tomorrow...

Monday, June 22, 2009

bookmark of the week

This was kindly given to me by my children for Father's Day yesterday. it is part of the set currently being sold in most major bookshops. I have to confess I have never been a big Beatrix Potter fan other than appreciating the idea of animals that have human characteristics but these bookmarks are very well made with a lot of information about the author and the book.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

book review - Strange Energy - Benjamin J. Myers

I did this for Waterstones.com but wanted to share it because after all it is another book consumed this year and although aimed at an audience much younger than myself it showed if the pace and passion are there you will get something from a book.

From the first page as the Bad Tuesdays, 14 year-old twin brothers Splinter and Box and their 11 year-old younger sister Chess, jump from a train over razorwire into a guarded factory this book is gripping.

The siblings, street rats that have to steal and live on their wits, are a fundamental part of the fight between The Committee and Twisted Symmetry with both forces working across time and space to dominate the universe.

Sent through a time hole by The Committee to discover why children are being taken by the Twisted Symmetry the Bad Tuesdays face a battle with dog troopers, man-eating plants and the dreaded Inquisitors.

Before they head off into the unknown they are warned “trust no-one” and as the youngsters are forced to choose sides the question of working out right from wrong becomes pivotal.

In a new world with deadly challenges Chess becomes more important in the trio and sibling rivalry bubbles up and Splinter is forced to decide who he is fighting for. Can he cope with losing authority and share in his sister’s talents or is he unable to deal with her eclipsing him?

This is written with pace and verve with the reader being captivated as the characters enter different worlds and come into contact with various friends and foes. Strong descriptions mean that lands with two suns and volcano’s emerge with a convincing vividness.

This is the second book in a six title series from Benjamin J. Myers and with plans to print the rest of the books at the rate of two a year those waiting to find out what happens to the Bad Tuesdays and the next phase of the battle to control the universe will not have to wait long for the next gripping instalment.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

World Literature Weekend

there can be fewer ways to enjoy a Saturday afternoon than in the company of some great authors and a bookshop full of readers. The London review of Books world literature weekend offered a series of events but the two I went along to showed just how different voices in literature can be but also proved how there is a story wherever you look.

First up was Chinese author Ma Jian who was talking about his work about the story of Tiananmen Square and how his book Beijing Coma is still banned in his home country. Just hearing someone talking Chinese and show a combination of passion and a slight weariness at having to talk about something that clearly gives him grief was worth turning up for.

But what made his session so compelling was the wisdom he could bring to the debate not just about China but also about Iran. A generation that was slightly too optimistic and failed to understand its own brutal history is perhaps a description that could also apply to those in Tehran.

As he left thanking people for turning up you sensed that this was a man with great humility who managed to puncture the savage brutality of a totalitarian state with his words and wisdom.

Equally as interesting was Faiza Guene who writes books about the underclass in France. Not just those from the large estates, the banlieues but the immigrants. She talked about a life where you are never accepted by the country your parents have chosen to live in but how you have no connection with the land that they came from. Left in this no man's land are the sorts of people she writes about.

Her lack of arrogance, from someone who struck it big on the literary scene when she was only 17, was great. She made the audience laugh but she also made us think and although it was a different type of oppression she was describing for her and her characters it was just as real as the world that Ma Jian describes.

Already thinking of clearing the weekend to go next year. A great way to spend a Saturday.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Couples - post II

Updike is very good at using a small cast of characters to describe the state of a nation. Through the social club that is the husbands and wives that meet at weekends and sleep with one another the attention to detail on the background and landscape is telling you something about America.

The majority of the group are anti-Kennedy republicans who have no idea what awaits them in the form of the assassination, Vietnam and the social upheaval of the 1960s. So in that respect this is a snapshot into the calm before the storm.

But these people seem to be inspiring anger rather than pity with their lives full of holes that affairs and the intrigue around them are used to try to fill. As a result this is not an easy book to read. The 450 pages lie before you as a long road. But just as with Rabbit Run you know that in those pages you will learn something about America, about the view of that time that Updike wants to recollect and produce and that keeps you going.

More soon...

Thursday, June 18, 2009

book review - Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close - Jonathan Safran Foer

This book was recommended as a companion piece to Don De Lillo's Falling Man but it came with a warning that it was very stylised. That determination to deliver a book that is different from the rest is clearly something Jonathan Safran Foer wants to hit you with from the off with the use of photography and pages of clever typography.

The result is that for a while you struggle to get a handle on quite where this story is going. The main character of Oskar the little boy at first is difficult to empathise with. He is grieving the loss of his father but he seems to be an amalgamation of Gunter Grass's Tin Drum lead, reminded me of A Curious Incident... with his touches of odd behavior. In addition to him the character of the dumb grandfather who talks with words on his hands and in notebooks makes it quite difficult to relate to.

The grandparents are there to hold up the parallel of the terrors of war and the Dresden bombing and firestorm reminding you, if you needed it, that terrible things have happened before and sadly will happen again.

But as the story unfolds you starts to understand that although stylised sometimes too much there is a clever story here of one boy searching for a way to come to terms with his grief and sense of loss. As he traverses New York trying to work out the last mystery his puzzle loving father left for him a host of damaged people are introduced and although Oskar can rarely 'heal' them he does seem to start to learn that many people are suffering and the secrets he keeps are perhaps no worse than some of the others eating away at people.

The moment when he finally decides to tell the stranger who can solve the puzzle of the key he has been trying to search for since the start of the story the contents of his father's last message is very powerful.

If the Falling Man expressed the confusion and anger left by the attacks on the twin towers then Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close leaves you with a sense of the struggle that many relatives had as a life far from finished was snuffed out without explanation or a chance to say good bye.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Colony - post V

Without giving the ending away this book raises questions like puzzles that you roll around the mind long after closing the cover.

What does it mean to be a prisoner and at what stage do you give up your liberty? when do you know that your ideas will never come to fruition? How do you carry on in situations when it would have been better to have died?

Those are the things I will be trying to fathom out following this because those are the big questions that emerge from what on the face of it appears to be a realtively straightforward story with a select cast of characters.

In many ways this feels like a film in the sense that your imagination is called on to roll out the scenes of jungle captivity and this would be one of those movies that left you debating it and thinking about it from the minute the lights came up.

This is not about heroes and villans or even so much about the physical idea of captivity but for me it is about the idea of being a prisoner to your own fears and thoughts whether they come to you in a trench or on an island prison miles from home.

A review will follow soonish...

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Colony - post IV

The murder of Edouard unsettles the camp and inevitable violence begets violence and Sabir finds himself alone. As he sits among some ruins miles from civilisation with his legs cut and swollen and fever rising he seems doomed.

So it is a clever moment for Wilcken to switch the focus back to the Colony and pick up the story with another character. Again Edouard is the connection with an old solider coming to find him. The relationship between Manne and Edouard seems to be a strange one with it more based on mutual respect than friendship.

As he retraces the steps more of Sabir than Edouard he comes across the commandant and his wife and is embroiled in a dying marriage. Does he help her escape? Does he try to find his old acquaintance Edouard who has disappeared into the jungle? What is he really there for? Again there are lies around lies like an onion that make it difficult to get a clear idea of what is really driving these characters and that is what keeps you reading.

The theme of escape is continual not just from the Colony and imprisonment but also the heat. The options range from the drink consumed by the commandant to the fantasies of some of the prisoners about saving their money to pay for transportation out of the dead end that is the islands.

More tomorrow…

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Colony - post III

The idea of escaping from captivity only to find yourself in another form of prison, one of fear, is the situation that Sabir finds himself in.

As the plan to escape flounders in the storm there are more questions than answers being provoked by the select characters being used by Wilcken. Most of those questions hover around Sabir’s old comrade from the trenches Edouard. Very little about him tallies up and you suspect that underneath all the lies there is a whopper.

The question of desertion from the war and desertion from the Colony are both inter-twined and Sabir does have regrets as he leaves behind a life as a gardener and the fantasies of the Commanders wife that might have become a reality.

There is a great deal of description about location but most of the barriers are mental rather than physical.

More tomorrow…

Sunday, June 14, 2009

bookmark of the week

This is a magnetic bookmark from the Ian Fleming exhibition at the Imperial War Museum. It simply states one of the most well known lines from The Spy Who Loved Me "He was only some kind of spay, a spy who loved me"

Saturday, June 13, 2009

D-Day - post I

If you judge a book by its cover and the blurb that is splashed across it then you could be mistaken for picking this up with the impression it was by the world’s greatest historian. Beevor is good but the narrative history strand that he is part of is by no means something that he alone carries a torch for.

But what you do get here is an account of a period of the Second World War that is everything including the kitchen sink. Details like Eisenhower smoking four packs of cigarettes a day in the run up to D-Day might not seem necessary but are the sorts of visual image that make you realise just what it was like for those at the top.

As the first couple of chapters paint a scene of disunity and fear as the allies try to get on with each other enough to launch the D-Day offensive. Beevor doesn’t waste too much time filling in the background and so you get the story starting with just a few days to go until the launch. That creates a sense of engagement that some dusty summary of the first few years of the war would have never managed to do. So far this feels like a good follow-up to Stalingrad, which benefited from a story that was so powerful the numerous generals and army group details washed over you.

More to come next week...

Friday, June 12, 2009

book review - Cosmopolis - Don De Lillo

The mistake with this book was to treat the story of the millionaire young executive obsessed with his own mortality and assuaging his desires as a literal one. When it was pointed out that this was science fiction then things improved dramatically.

Because although set in New York you weren’t looking for a date and time reference. This could be now or it could be in ten years but the fundamental questions will remain intact. Those questions evolve around the character of Eric Packer but are to do with the question of the morality of making large amounts of money without a regard for anyone or anything and to do with the fear of death. On the money front Packer spends the book destroying his company as he bets all against a fluctuation in the Yen that he is wrong about. He keeps backing his judgment dragging millions of value out of his empire until by the end he is worth almost nothing. He is determined to push everything including the line between right and wrong and life and death shooting one of his body guards for no apparent reason.

But as he tours round New York in the back of a limousine there are other questions about the distance between the rich and the poor. The odd and the normal. Packer has a daily check up from his doctor and as he sets out to get a haircut he is reminded of his humble origins, craving for sex and his loveless marriage. But as he starts to lose everything he starts to discover that he is not some sort of financial god. He also sobers up pretty quickly when faced with the threat that has been dogging him from the start, a bitter ex-employee who is out for revenge.

What makes this short story work is that De Lillo is packing a great deal in with anti-capitalism riots, thoughts about marriage and the big one a view about the consequences of the super rich using their money to change the universe. The patterns that Packer thinks he can see are just not there when it really matters and it is with some shock he has to acknowledge that things can be random, asymmetrical.

Reading this in the midst of the credit crunch is bizarre because it to a degree people like Packer got us into this mess. The belief that somehow individuals could master the entire economic system created some of the conditions we are now living with. In Packer that arrogance is taken to an extreme and not only does he believe he can control the fate and direction of national currencies but he can live as he wishes with impunity. When fear comes it is almost amusing to a man who has so lost touch with normal human emotions that he seems unable to register what is happening unless it comes through a ticker on a TV screen in his limousine.

Although he couldn’t have possibly known it De Lillo has created a book that has its moment right now and in Packer a figure for these times.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The catch-up continues

I have been blogging for a couple of years now but never before has it proved to be so difficult to keep on top of it. There are some excuses that no doubt could be made to explain it but one of them is that work has become so exhausting on a mental level that the space to find thoughts about books has been squeezed more and more.

The result is that one of the pleasures in sharing thoughts about books has edged closer to becoming a chore.

I'm hoping that by blitzing it and catching up on myself things will reach equilibrium again and improve.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

book review - The Falling Man - Don De Lillo

If one of the roles of fiction is to relate to the times and provide a reaction to events that causes you to pause and think then taking on the tragic and terrible events of the Twin Towers is a tall order for any writer.

In the main part Don De Lillo pulls it off because he manages to convey all of the emotions you would expect with anger, confusion, regret and ongoing grief all on display here. Where things get interesting is the way that those emotions are not necessarily shown by the characters you would expect. So for instance you get the wife who had to wait for her husband to walk out of the towers alive showing more ongoing anger than he does and you get some of the very minor players in the story having some of the most profound reactions walking out on executive positions to start poker careers as an example.

The main trio of characters is Keith a survivor of the attacks, Lianne his estranged wife and their sun Justin. Taking the son first he struggles to come to terms with the attacks watching from his friend’s window for planes that are going to make a repeat performance. They have an almost childlike secrecy around their fears but they voice the thoughts of many adults.

Lianne becomes pivotal to opening up the themes of how the individual and the collective react and remember terrorist violence. She deals with Alzheimer patients struggling to recall even the most basic details of their lives and wonders herself what she thinks of everything that has happened. She loses her temper and becomes fixated on a performance from a physical artist known as the falling man.

Readers will know that the falling man is of course a reference to those that fell from the burning towers to their deaths but even here it is as if De Lillo is challenging you to establish boundaries. What is your reaction to the falling man act that drops from buildings to remain suspended just feet above the ground? What are your thoughts about those who had to make the decision to jump to certain death?

Meanwhile Keith, one of the few characters in the book directly set in the towers during the attack, seems to drift back into family life then out again touring the world playing poker. He has lost his certainty and his life remains impacted by terrorism years after the event.

But De Lillo is also challenging the reader on the debate about terrorism itself with a character that has links in the past to terrorism in Germany. The sketched figure of Martin, Lianne’s mother’s boyfriend, raises the question around acceptable forms of terrorism. If he was fighting a corrupt state and an oppressive regime in the 1960s then doesn’t that same sense of being right exist for those fighting what they see as a corrupt regime now?

The only minor criticism is the way that the characters often feel sketched and it is not until you read more De Lillo you start to appreciate this is his style. In a way the people you meet on the page are metaphors for larger debates.

Still in terms of pulling together a story that encapsulates the feelings that terrorism can provoke this is a heavyweight work and one that shows the power of fiction to tackle and describe the almost unspeakable pain and terror of the Twin Tower attacks.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

The Colony - post II

One of the positives of The Colony that emerges fairly early on is that the main character Sabir is not over bearing leaving you to wonder as a reader what you would do in similar circumstances.

As he befriends and takes advantage of the heavy drinking and idealist warden that hje is building a garden for he dreams of escape. But with these things so prone to failure should he sit things out and enjoy the reasonably good life that he has been able to attain in captivity?

Making that decision harder is the experience of one escapee who turns up in the middle of the night to make life difficult for Sabir. If this apparent escape specialist can find it difficult getting off the island then surely the same will be the case for Sabir.

But as more of the back story is filled in this also becomes a question about the individual and the reaction to war. As Sabir remembers the trenches was he not also a prisoner in a way part of a colony of men and machines? That thought starts to fill the mind.

More soon...

Monday, June 08, 2009

The Colony - post I

There are some books that echo in your mind because they retread paths taken by others. So it is with Papillon and a bit of Heart of Darkness that you start to get pulled into The Colony by Hugo Wilcken.

First impressions are of a writer confident enough to describe a world that he hasn’t experienced in a period that has been clearly well researched. You quickly believe in the proposition and want to know how the plot will develop.

The action starts on board a prison ship with the main character Sabir eavesdropping on his fellow prisoners as they head towards remote islands that act as an almost inescapable prison outpost in the French empire.

The sense of heat and trepidation comes across with Sabir not alone in hoping that once on dry land he will not be forced to carry out hard labour. He lies and tells the authorities he is a gardener and from there the tension increases because you know that he has no skill to produce the warden’s garden and his hopes of escape hinge on remaining away from hard labour.

More soon..

Sunday, June 07, 2009

book review - Anansi Boys - Neil Gaiman

When you come to an author for the first time you never know where is a good place to start. By default this was the only Neil Gaiman that the local library stocked so it made sense to pick up the heavy hardback of the Anansi Boys.

It's hard to describe quite what you discover here as the tale of Fat Charlie moves from the straightforward into something completely fantastic. The humour is there from the start but the switch into fantasy happens with the introduction of a brother, Spider, who sweeps into Fat Charlie's world and turns it upside down. The reason why this book works even when bird women are flying through the streets of London and a tiger is stalking a parallel universe is because there is a story there that is accessible.

As Fat Charlie's boss dips his fingers in the till and rips off his clients it is a loose comment by Spider that starts an avalanche that is almost plausible in the real world. As the mixture of the worlds of old mixes with the new the other story that you want to develop and see to its conclusion is the ugly duckling turned hero. This is all fuelled by humour that shows a deep understanding of what gets smiles on both sides of the Atlantic.

From the perspective of using literature as escapism it is hard to beat this. The fantasy is not overdone for those that like to keep their feet in the real world but the book acts as a door to another world where there are happy endings and even crazy bird women can end up being satisfied. See this for what it is a clever, witty and imaginative tale told by a writer of talent. Those looking for some headache inducing tale of love and loss will have to look elsewhere.

A great introduction to Gaiman and waiting at some point is American Gods...

Saturday, June 06, 2009

book review - Hangover Square - Patrick Hamilton

Literature often struggles to convey the intangibles but Patrick Hamilton manages to convince you of the mental condition that his main character George Bone is suffering from with his mind going Click as he struggles to remember what he has been doing.

All he can remember when he comes out of his periods of amnesia is that he has to kill Netta a woman who is tormenting him with cruelty. But he keeps postponing the moment when he will carry out the deed and carries on a life of misery punctuated by bouts of unfounded optimism supported by drinking. But this is a story not of just about alcoholism as much as of a life of idleness where the public house plays the function that the workplace would in other lives. it is against the backdrop of the bar that Bone, Netta and the others in the gang can meet, dream, scheme and bully.

Bone is always the butt of the jokes and the love, which he never hides, that he has for Netta is used to abuse and torment him. She takes his money and his favours ands constantly throws them back in his face. When he hopes to have a moment with her alone someone else is also dragged along and he is used as part of a scheme Netta has for trying to break into films. Because Bone knows an old school friend with connections with a theatrical agent he is in a position to be played for a fool. The climax comes in Brighton and a depressed Bone suffers his final agonies and triumphs before his mind clicks and he forgets them all.

As Bone drifts through his empty life dreaming of becoming a golf professional and moving to Maidenhead or developing a friendship with the cat of the hotel he is staying in London, and the microcosm of Earls Court, is used to show a city on the brink of war. Those laughing and wasting their time in the bars had only months left to do so before the bombs come and the front arrives at their door. Hamilton is painting out a world than for some needed change. But he is also making the point here that while the politicians were trying so hard to make peace and Hitler's armies were marching across Europe it was possible, even easy for some, to indulge in naval gazing.

The final twist as the mid clicks with one final and devastating effect leaves you mourning Bone but also wondering just how the inter-war generation could get it so wrong. As their final minutes of peace were disappearing they were drinking themselves into oblivion with no ambition other than to court other drunkards or to find more money to keep buying the booze.

At points the story is so well described it is like watching old black and white footage of London and the characters that Hamilton describes are believable and engagable. But the intervening years between when the book was written and published means that the moral compass has shifted direction somewhat and it is not as immediately clear as to what conclusion you should be making about these people.

The arguments about the good and bad of Bone and Netta keeps running in your head long after the book has finished.

Friday, June 05, 2009

book review - The Spire - William Golding

William Golding is one of those authors who ends up as a staple on English exam syllabuses because he is almost poetic in his use of imagery and symbolism. That means of course that you have to invest some concentration to get the point of what he is trying to say and to take the full ramifications of his sometimes oblique references to significant events.

The result can often be disappointing for your casual, non exam preparing reader, who doesn't sit in a classroom going through it line by line working out that the colour red might stand not only for love but danger. The crux of the story is around the belief held by Jocelin, the dean of the cathedral that the structure can support a spire. He gets the funding from a rich aunt who then makes demands on him that he is unwilling to fulfil. But he is also deaf against the remonstrations of the builders and the master builder Roger Mason that the structure cannot support a spire. The lack of foundations are seen by Jocelin as a test of faith and by the builder as a challenge to sanity.

But added to that conflict there is a challenge for Jocelin in fighting his attraction to Goody Pangall, the wife of a much mocked servant who helps clean the cathedral. When he discovers an affair between the red haired woman and Mason he is torn not just by anger and grief but also by jealousy. He has failed to protect the servant, kept adultery out of the cathedral and not been able to reach or teach any of the parties involved.

The stress here is on whet do you believe. In Fire Down Below there is a similar argument about the prospect of a fire developing in the hold of a ship. It becomes a question of faith and divides the ship's crew.

Here Jocelin badgers and protests until the end when the spire is built. But he loses his mind, position and faith as things unravel. Goody dies in childbirth losing her life as well as mason's baby. that drives the master builder to drink and as the church authorities move to dismiss Jocelin there appear to be no winners in the battle of the spire. As he breathes his last Jocelin is told the spire is still standing but that it is expected to fall any day and cause damage to the building. Will it fall? That of course is the sort of question of faith that has driven the dean to madness.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Breakfast of Champions - post III

The Breakfast of Champions introduces a technique that other authors hint at but never go the whole hog with. Occasionally you are reading about a main character and an author will slip in some sort of preview about what is going to happen next.

You always suspect it is aimed at preventing boredom or convincing you that a main character is going to be alright in the end. Vonnegut keeps telling you that Dywane Hoover is going to go mad and that Kilgore Trout is instrumental in it. But the reason he keeps telling you that is because he is showing just how much he is in control of the story. Because he suddenly has the creator of the fictional world sitting in the middle of the action wearing a pair of sunglasses in a dark bar.

he takes fiction to somewhere that it rarely goes and it leaves you asking just who is in control of our lives and just why are the limitations on our horizons accepted as if they were established background to introduce a chapter sketching out the landscape?

The world that Trout and Hoover inhabit is sick and dying and despite the attempts of major corporations to pump some positivity into it through marketing messages "the breakfast of champions" it just makes the unreal nature of our existence all the more obvious to Vonnegut.

This is a bit like watching a flim with the last third ending up with you sitting with the cast and crew and the film happening all around you. The power with that is that after you get used to the idea you start asking why the film is being made in the way it is, why the characters are acting in such a way and wonder just why the world they inhabit is so bleak and artificial. If nothing else Vonnegut gets you thinking.

A review will come soon...

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

book review - American Tabloid - James Ellroy

This is a real doorstopper of a book running around the 600 page mark and it's content is almost just as heavy as James Ellroy charts the backdrop leading up to the assassination of JFK.

Using a trio of characters that are connected to some of the major figures of the early 1960s Ellroy weaves in between good and evil highlighting, if the point needed making, that there are no saints in a world of politics, mafia, drugs and power.

So you get Pete Bondurant the ex-cop turned hired gun who works for Howard Hughes teaming up with Kemper Boyd the FBI man working for Hoover while playing the Kennedys' who are desperate to be elected. Thrown into the mix is Ward Littell an FBI man who starts as a friend of Kemper and an enemy of Pete but shows that under the influence of money and the desire for self preservation he can trade friendships for personal gain without too much trouble.

But the star attraction in this story is the history of the period. Kemper and Pete are brought together through the opportunity to make some money from both criminals and government bodies who want Castro out of Cuba. The problem is that the muddled Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 leaves them and their backers with failure. The other major strand is the battle against Robert Kennedy and the mob and in particular Jimmy Hoffa. The Teamster union boss is seen to have been abusing the union funds and throughout the book Robert Kennedy is trying to prove that through the work of law abiding citizens like Ward Littell.

On top of those duel strands are a host of characters that underline just how exciting and crazy this was in terms of being around and a player in the US in the early 1960s. Frank Sinatra mixes with mafia bosses. Howard Hughes starts to go mad as he moves to Vegas and the Kennedy machine wins the presidency and then fails to patch over the conflict between the corruption that got them there and the desire to be seen as changing the system.

The bullets that were fired in Dallas are the culmination of a political poker game that is being played for the highest stakes. Castro might be shouting out about communism but for those that have seen their casions and income from Cuba cut this is about power and control. For the Kennedy's Ellroy has an uneasy difference between the brothers with Jack the realist and his brother Bobby the firebrand on a mission. The failure of either to correct the inadequacies of the other also forced disaster.

But as the story of Kemper the once star of the Kennedy entourage and then failed Cuban exiled leader and drug runner shows all too clearly the winds of change were blowing so strongly during the late 1950s and early 1960s that the chance to master them was beyond even the most capable of political players.

On to book two of the Underworld USA series...

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

book review - The Damned United - David Peace

A couple of things to declare from the start. firstly, I am not a Leeds fan and secondly I was probably too young and removed from holding a view about whether or not Brian Clough was a genius.

But in the spirit of making declarations it is worth pointing out that after having read the Red Riding quartet by David Peace I was in the mood for another book so came to this with familiarity of the style and the voice.

That voice is one of paranoid violence and in this case comes from the lips and thoughts of Clough as he rambles through 44 days in charge of a club that he hates surrounded by players and staff who despise him. Peace weaves in the back story of how Clough got to the position of being manager at Leeds with the success at Derby and the pivotal relationship with Peter Taylor, who importantly opted to pass on Leeds, but it is the Leeds story that is captivating.

A man with a drink problem, a fragile God complex and a hatred for the methods of others enters a club that has already enjoyed success and simply starts to tear it apart. Clough's aim was to make them better and play more attractive football but the way he went about it was bound to fail. he failed to turn up at training sessions, goaded the players and when they expected his backing as a manager he gave them none.

But Peace is careful to give his Clough depth and although he is a severely flawed character the reasons for his yearning for success and wealth are laid bare with his playing career cut short by injury and his hard upbringing in the North East. You never quite fall for the man but you understand, particularly with even the scantiest knowledge of what happened afterwards at Nottingham Forest, that Clough had something.

The fact that you put the book down with that opinion indicates that this is more than the one-sided hatchet job that some people have made out. Maybe Clough wasn't as aggressive but that's what Peace's Yorkshire is like. Maybe it was always going to be too dangerous taking on such a well known character and well documented events and using them as the ingredients for fiction. But for the neutral, the non fan of anything to do with the book, this is a gritty tale exposing the fragility of luck in sport and the naivety of those involved in the game.

A tough read but far from a defeat. Perhaps to put it in the context of a Clough Leeds result it was one of his better efforts, a draw.

Monday, June 01, 2009

book review - The Diary of a Nobody

Most humourous books from the late 1880s and early 1900s lose their comic magic as a result of the passage of time. Lumped in with that I would have to put Three Men in a Boat which sums up the distance between a readership now and one from the gentler past.

But The Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith is refreshingly alive. The humour here is subtle, clever and able to provoke not just a smile but the occasional loud guffaw.

Simply the lead character, Charles Pooter, is unable to see the way in which he annoys most around him with his pettiness and with the reader being one step ahead there is the enjoyment of watchign the accident that you have been waiting yto happen. But this is not about tragedy or using a lead character to show the injustice of the world in the spirit of Poor Folk by Dostoyevsky. Clearly the idea is to let things end with happiness and success for all concerned so Pooter might have his run-ins with servants and trades people but in the end is rewarded by his City firm for his loyalty.

He suffers the jokes of his friends and the insolence of his son but that is mainly because not many people, in fact only one, sees the world through the eyes of Mr Chalres Pooter. But you are never put in a position as a reader where you dislike Pooter and it is his qualities of voicing things that although slightly different for a 21 century context we all feel. The jokes are well worked and there is a clever weaving in of themes that ebb and flow with the reader enjoying the reappearance of the joke. But it is Pooter's indignation - a grumpy old man long before TV invented the concept - that really entertains. If he didn't get so worked up and at the same time display incredible insecurity and vulnerability then he would never work and the concept of the diary of a nobody would fail.

It is also worth making a point about the illustrations that add to the mood and from a modern reader's point of view provide a sketched window into a world of the past. Top hats, gas lights and grocer's boys are all fleshed out with illustrations by Weedon.

Quicke to consume but clever and inspiration for numerous other atempts the book deserves to continue to be read and enjoyed.