Monday, November 29, 2010

Thoughts at the half way point of Coming up for Air

This book starts with great humour. It's hard not to see some of myself in the lead character George Bowling who is struggling to come to terms with his life. Swamped by two children and the dreary existence of being an insurance salesman he seems to be drifting through life failing to find any satisfaction or meaning.

Where did it all go wrong? To some extent the First World War marked the changing point taking George away from the life he knew. With both parents dying during the war he had no home to go to after wards.

There were opportunities of course and he took some of them but he seems to have ended up 45 and fat and far from happy by the time the book gets back to the present and he finishes reminiscent about the past.

Great so far and looking forward to the rest...

Saturday, November 27, 2010

book review: Roman Soldier's Handbook by Lesley Sims

This review has been dictated to me by my eldest son who has really enjoyed this book:

"It is old modern history put into fun ways for children to understand. They have some jokes which are really funny. It is a really interesting book that I have enjoyed reading very much. It is quite history packed. At the back you have a map of the Roman countries and it is full of Roman facts."

"I took this book into school, where we are learning about Romans, and showed my friends. They thought it was great and Samuel really wants to read it."

"The best thing about the book where the way the pictures took you inside to places like the general's house and they had horses and stables. That was the best part."

This book gets a Roman thumbs up and four and a half stars out of five.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Inspiring Orwell

It's strange how you can pick up a book that speaks to you across the years and in this case has a tone of voice and content that is similar to something you might try to write yourself.

With November almost at an end it's fair to say that my efforts to write a 50,000 novel have ended around the 12,000 word mark. But among those thousands of words there is a clear idea and a story that I might eventually want to take forward.

What is amazing is how my grumpy and frustrated tone that emanates from the main character is similar to George Bowling the main character in Coming up for Air. If I had doubts that someone who is slightly angry and bitter with his lot could resonate with readers then this book, although I'm only 60 pages in, is providing me with real food for thought and encouragement.

Thanks George.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

book review: Circus Bulgaria by Deyan Enev

"In the office, I took out my notebook and cigarettes and knocked off a story in a couple of hours. The endings were the easiest part for me. They'd hit the reader on the head like a hammer. Then, like any writer I needed to share with someone the miracle of creation."

If the aim of this book of short stories, almost excerpts of daily life both real and imaginary, is meant to summarise the state of life in Bulgaria then a few words are conjured up in your mind including harsh, cruel, strange, magical, comical and hopeful.

There are plenty of stories that cover the harsh consequences of living in a country that has such a wide disparity between the poor and the wealthy. A boxer is hired by a mafia type boss to become one of his thugs and is shot when he refuses to hurt his own brother but at the graveside a bundle of notes is offered to clear any sense of debt to the grieving sibling.

The longest story about a film producer who arrives from England looking to tell the story of the woman who was kept living with pigs and raped by the farmer ends with a bitter twist that leaves the producer desperate to get out of the country.

There are moments where this is like reading a collection of dark fairy tales about boys who thought they could fly, ghosts who pass on watches to pawn brokers and mutes who believe that a miracle will restore their speech.

But what weaves through even the darkest tale is a sense that those involved want to change their lives and futures and as a country perhaps this is the post communist ambition. There is a strangeness about some of the customs and traditions held by the people described in this book. But there is also a sense that the strangeness and fear of change is a very real one that is felt by everyone from the poorest right up to the other end of the scale.

Enev displays a blackest of humours, which is how some of his characters handle the brickbats that life throws at them. The writing here is sharp, delivers the endings that hit the reader on the head like a hammer and is almost cinematic in the ability to conjure up images in your head that you know will stay for a long time. Some are welcome but the majority are going to be challenging for some time to come.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

is this giving me a headache?

Maybe it's because I'm not feeling well, apologies for the lack of posts the last couple of says, but it has been a challenge to get into The Interrogative Mood by Padgett Powell.

I really want it to click and flow but the constant questions are not making for good reading accompanied by a headache and a feeling of flu. It's no doubt a clever book, and reminds me of some of the word play that the likes of Georges Perec loved to do, but right now sadly something with a more conventional narrative is required.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

occasional series: bookshop of the week

I have driven past Daunt Books but not had the chance to get inside. But that was finally remedied today and what a visual experience. A galleried showroom takes the breath away. But what really inspires is the way books are sorted by country. next time I go away on holiday this is going to be a first destination. Funds are sadly lacking right now but there was inspiration on every shelf. The Swiss section alone had me learning and drooling.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Thoughts at the half way point of Circus Bulgaria

Not quite at the halfway point but as this book is a collection of stories wanted to capture the thoughts before getting too much further into it.

There must be a tradition in Eastern Europe of writing short stories that contain humour, sadness and the down right disturbing because this is the second book I've read that fits that description and comes from that part of the world.

The first one, The Elephant by Slawomir Mrozek, was a collection of stories that had the power to make you laugh out loud and at other points were incredibly moving. This is the same starting with the tale of the lion tamer from Circus Bulgaria being forced to sell his lion to make ends meet. As he drinks in the bar with the windfall he has not just lost his best friend but the meaning to his life.

Then there are other stories that stick in the memory like the boy who having lived in a single room for seven years believes he has found out the secret of flying grabbing pidgeon wings and attaching them to his arms. As he launches himself out of the tower block window that ends as you might expect.

But there are quirky stories about a ghostly figure sitting on a bench in the park able to send rays of good feeling to those other wanderers sitting on the benches.

Looking forward to the second half and a bit.

A review will follow next week...

Thursday, November 18, 2010

book review - Who Killed Palomino Molero? - Mario Vargas Llosa

"Why couldn't Alicia Mindreau fall in love with that skinny kid who played the guitar so beautifully and sang with that tender, romantic voice? Why was it impossible for a little white girl to be in love with a little cholo? Why did the colonel see that love as a tortuous conspiracy against him?"

There is something almost knee-jerk about wanting to read a book by a Nobel winner and as an introduction this slimline volume is an ideal start.

In a nutshell a man is killed, but tortured in a fairly brutal way before dying, and two local policeman Lituma and his boss Lieutenant Silva set about solving the case of who murdered Palomino Molero. Set in 1950s Peru this book is as much about racism and class as it is about crime solving and the two policemen come up against barriers throughout their investigation.

The first barrier is the victim's status as an airman because it means that the investigation has to take place involving the airfield personnel who are determined not to help.

The second barrier is one of racism with the victim being a cholo and looked down on by the white officers at the base. Part of the reason for his death is his racial background not being good enough.

The third barrier is one of understanding. Although Lieutenant Silva is very good at reading people he fails to fully understand the mental illness that Palomino Molero's girlfriend is suffering from. Her delusional state means that the relationship was probably doomed even before it was ended by murder.

Good books and great writers manage to say a lot of things in a small space without bamboozling the reader with too much information - deep but a light touch. Vargas Llosa shows here that he is able to use a murder story as a way of illustrating several points. Throughout though you want to know how and why the crime was perpetrated and long for justice.

it is perhaps the way that the divided society fails to accept the outcome that highlights more than anything else just how deep the resentments against class groups goes and how even when a crime is solved there can be those who remained unsatisfied.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Thoughts at the half way point of Who Killed...

A hot and dusty field near an airbase in Peru is the backdrop for a grizzly discovery of a tortured corpse. Two policemen take up the case and the more they discover about the victim the more they sympathise with him.

All the fingers point to the officers at the airbase being involved in the killing and bit by bit Leuitenant Silva and Officer Lituma start to get closer to finding out what happened.

But they are up against not just the military system but also class and race barriers and they recieve little help from the military and at the same time their own people seem convinced the murder will be hushed up by those in power able to pull the strings.

A review soon...

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

book review - The Ministry of Fear - Graham Greene

"'Your old fashioned murderer killed from fear, from hate - or even from love, Mr Rowe, very seldom for substantial profit. None of these reasons is quite -respectable. But to murder for position - that's different, because when you've gained the position nobody has a right to criticize the means. Nobody will refuse to meet you if the position's high enough. Think of how many of your statesman have shaken hands with Hitler.'"

Set against the terror of a blitzed out London one man has to solve a mystery that not only threatens his own life and sanity but potentially the safety of Britain in it's battle against the Nazi's.

Arthur Rowe starts off by buying a cake in a raffle by being tipped off by the fortune teller to its exact weight. He isn't the man meant to get the cake and soon afterwards a whirlwind journey begins that first sees someone attempt to poison him then to have Rowe framed for the murder of a man at a seance.

A bomb dropping and wiping out his memory saves him from being killed but the sense that he will solve the mystery surfaces again and in a story that reminds you of 39 Steps and in moments of some of the Bond's the book moves to a gripping conclusion.

To say anymore would give too much away and spoil the enjoyment for others but what is safe to say is that Greene is having fun here. The plot weaves and runs with the reader, as well as Rowe, never knowing who can be trusted and which side is good or evil. The fact Rowe is himself is a murderer is a brilliant twist that establishes that confusion about which side to back.

Despite his past the reader sides with Rowe and wants him to succeed. To a degree he does but finding out who you really are can be a terrible price to pay.

One of the other highlights of the book along with the plot is London itself. Greene describes a bombed and fearful London in a way few other writers have and manages to place a reader into a world where a sound overhead could mean death or a near miss.

Taking you down into the strange world of those who sleep on the underground Greene uses London brilliantly to evoke the sense of shifting ground and danger that is also being played out between Rowe and those determined to find out what he knows and kill him.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Thoughts at the half way point of Ministry of Fear

Arthur Rowe is a simple man who wanted to kill a bit of time at a church fete but by winning the guess-the-weight-cake he triggered a series of events that meant it was him not just time that was being killed.

Greene introduces the reader to a blitzed out London and a dreary world of rented rooms and the sad world of those unable to fight, left behind in the war torn capital.

As the story starts to unfold things go from strange to horrific for Rowe as he is accused of murder and ends up having to disappear underground to escape the law. One light shines in the darkness but with an Austrian background and links to the cake perhaps Anna Hilfe isn't the friend Arthur Rowe is hoping she might well become.

A review soon...

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Book review: Men In Space by Tom McCarthy

"Across all these images the words LIFT OFF are flashing. On the main dance floor swathes of young Czechs are holding their arms up. Their index fingers cast small silhouettes onto the screen: hundreds of shadow-fingers pointing upwards, urging the rocket, the sketched saint, the city, the whole country up towards the stratosphere, beyond, out into orbit..."

Recently when you think of Tom McCarthy you think of 'C' and this also sparks off another c for clever. Not just for the plot, which weaves together to create a story that pulls together several characters against the backdrop of a fragmented Eastern Europe.

Describing the story makes it sound extremely simple but in reality its a clot more complex than just a case of criminals asking an art dealer to copy a stolen painting so they can sell it off.

As an astronaut trapped in space while the former USSR countries fight out who's responsibility it is to bring him back the characters on the ground struggle to work out what freedom in a former Communist state means for them.

It means drugs, art and pushing boundaries but it almost means that there will be those happy to take advantage of it both in terms of criminals and those in the state who have been institutionalized into abusing their power.

As the consequences of freedom filter through, with the former state policeman abandoned to the static he hears after years of surveillance, the artist who gets lost in his own drug fueled visions and the criminals who turn on themselves after failure, it's clear life is not easy under a new regime.

McCarthy clearly knows his art describing an artistic scene in great detail. Central as a link is the icon which depicts the holy one hanging above the sea and land. That man in space also keeps those around him in limbo as the stolen art work goes from criminal to artist back unwittingly to artist.

The detailed story of the icon painting is a metaphor for what is happening more widely across the country as people come to terms with what is happening post Communism. The sense of uncertianty provides some freedoms, and those drinking the millennium in are taking advantage of some of those, but it also ushers in a sense of uncertianty.

Do the old rules still apply? With those in power still trying to hold onto their positions and abuse the back channels they have always had access to it's no surprise that those people continue to do that.

What remains apart from the hope that things will be changed is the brutality. Death still comes at the end of a gun swiftly and with little regard for the individual whether or not the trigger is pulled by the criminal or the policeman.

Monday, November 08, 2010

book review - My Friend Maigret - Georges Simenon

"Who would have dared not to take him seriously? Heaps of people, who did not have easy consciences, trembled at the mention of his name. He had the power to question them until they cried out with anguish, to put them in prison, send them to the guillotine.
In this very island, there was now someone who, like himself, heard the sounds of the bells, who breathed the sabbath air, someone who was drinking in the same room as himself the previous evening and who, in a few days, would be shut up once and for all within four walls."

The story starts with a down at heel former criminal being murdered on the island of Porquerolles. The night before his body is discovered the petty crook had been telling the villagers at the pub that he was a personal friend of the great chief inspector Maigret. As a result it is assumed that the attack was an indirect one on Maigret and he needs to come and solve the case for his own protection.

But things are not as easy as they sound because Maigret is being shadowed by a Scotland Yard detective studying French methods. Maigret can hardly reveal his methods are about pottering around smoking his pipe and listening to people so there is a tension there from the start.

Added to that tension is the relationship between Maigret and the deceased and a prostitute who was a girlfriend of the victim and was also helped in the past by the policeman.

That help seems to cross the line between policeman and offender but it is a grey area that Maigret finds himself in a few times on the investigation and is part ofn his methodology.

In the end the crime is solved through Maigret's methods with some help from the Englishman who manages to make a few passing comments that stick in the French detective's mind.

They have to go through the rigmarole of interviewing the villagers but it is out and about between the cracks of human life that the key to the mystery lies and where Maigret finds the answers.

Reading Simenon is like slipping neck-up into a hot bubble bath. He relaxes, amuses and gently challenges the concentration of the reader before tying it all up neatly at the end.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Thoughts at the half way point of They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

If you thought it was just Camus and Sartre that did the whole "Life is rubbish so I might as well die" line in existentialism then think again because Horace McCoy delivers something just as dark with They Shoot Horses Don't They?

Halfway through and you already know how the story ends because it starts in a courtroom with the narrator facing death for murder but the story unfolds detailing how he got to know Gloria and just why he killed her. Her gloomy bleak outlook on life wears the young man down and even when things might go well she is determined not to let them.

Two failed actors hanging round Hollywood meet and then enter a dance marathon competition together to try and raise money. The competition last weeks and over that time Gloria continually talks of death. Why didn't Robert escape from her? That remains to be found out.

A review will follow shortly...

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Thoughts at the half way point of My Friend Maigret

In some respects a Maigret story is my reading equivalent of a pack of Minstrels. Something to relax and enjoy, a bit of comfort and something totally pleasurable.

The grumpy Parisian detective has his own ways of working but in this story he is hampered by the shadowing of a detective from Scotland yard who has been sent to see how the great French crime solver works.

The case that presents itself is one that starts off on the wrong foot with an criminal who was boasting of his friendship with Maigret being shot dead. The assumption is that the person who killed him has a hatred for Maigret and so the detective is sent to the island in the Med where the crime has occurred to find the killer.

As the English policeman heads with him the reader is given an insight into the mind of Maigret and the way he works, which if he was given the choice would be just to walk round the village smoking his pipe.

A review will follow shortly...

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

The month in review - October

An odd month where things started well but ended in a rush. Freedom was a big book that left you thinking big thoughts anbd that perhaps made it difficult to pick up other things and get lost in them. The reviews went by the wayside slightly (although the intention is to back post them) as the final week caused a flurry of reading.

Highlights included not just Freedom but the Booker winner The Finkler Question and the Not the Booker winner The Canal. All three books deserved thwe attention they have been given and although different in style and content they challenge you to think. You need a bit of time to do that and perhaps the aim of sticking to seven books in a month was not just naive this month but a bit foolhardy. Anyway here is the list:

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
The Land of Green Plums by Herta Muller
The Canal by Lee Rourke
The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson
Leaf Storm by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Maigret and the millionaires by Georges Simenon

Monday, November 01, 2010

Writing instead of reading

For a change I intend to try and write something this month. Having signed up to the National Novel Writing Month I have this month to produce something that is 50,000 words long.

I have an idea but have no clue if it will stretch to that length so will set off today to try and see what happens when you take a loose idea and try to flesh it out a bit.

Despite doing this blog and twitter I don't really write anything 'creative' so it's going to be interesting and slightly scary! Will keep you updated on progress or lack of.