Friday, September 30, 2011

book review: Busy Monsters by William Giraldi

Man falls in love with woman. She falls in love with idea of finding giant squid. She leaves and he goes crazy aided by a friend who has access to guns. Coping with jealousy and love has rarely been dealt with in such an entertaining way.

Because the main character Charles is a memoirist for a magazine the chapters are self-contained entries into his column and nothing is sacred. Even those that speficially ask him not to write about their lives are ignored.

As a result by the time he reaches the climax of his search for the love of his life Gillian everybody knows his motivation and his odd experiences on the way.

And odd they are ranging from setting off to kill his girlfriend's former possessive boyfriend only to find suicide has saved him the effort or the hair-brained idea to head into the woods to find a big foot to compete with the world wide fame that his girlfriend has received for tracking down the giant squid.

Needless to say add automatic weapons to the mix and there is a three month spell in jail in between some of these adventures. It's all fairly enjoyable.

The main character expresses himself sometimes in a Russell Brand sort of way with language set up as a hurdle for both other characters and occasionally the flow of the action. But that is a minor gripe.

In a world where the worst monster is man and the moods we all wrestle with can dominate our behaviour its a clever idea to project onto that the idea of seeking real monsters whether they be giant squids, big foots or for one character the legend of the Loch Ness monster. There is even a chance to get in some UFOs and alien abduction moments. These slimy, hairy and large monsters vie for attention along with the all too real ones of jealousy, lust and anger.

What keeps you going, just like those reading the memoir column and hoping for a happy ending, is not just the love story but the humour that runs through the narrative like Blackpool in a stick of rock.

Scenes that stick in the mind include a big foot hunter running screaming into the woods, a futile attempt to sink a boat with a rifle and the run in with a bitter lustful UFO hunter.

The story of boy meets girl then fights to defend his love might be as old as the hills but its delivered in a way that feels original and contains great comedy along with room for you to ponder just what your own monsters might be.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Top 100 books

People seem to love lists so the chance to have a browse of another one will no doubt get the debate going. World Book Night has unveiled its list of the top 100 books gathered from asking people what are the ten books they love to read. The idea of course is to use the list to get a steer on what choices to include in World Book Night 2012. Having browsed the list the first observation is there seems to be a healthy mix of the classic and contemporary. have a look by clicking HERE.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Book review: They Shoot Horses, Don't They? by Horace McCoy

"'What's the matter with Gloria?' James asked me one day as we came back to the floor from the sleeping quarters.
'Nothing. What do you mean?' I asked. But I knew what he meant. Gloria had been singing the blues again."

The Europeans don't have an exclusive grip on the dark, moody and existentialist with this Serpent's Tail Classic showing that American authors were quite adept at putting the dark into a black tale of despair and nihilism.

The story evolves around one of the dance competitions that ran across America in the 1930s giving those with stamina the chance to dance marathon competitions for money. Not only was it a case of last man standing but the tension of numerous couples being cooped up in an end of the pier type show for days on end also led to the chance that the tension would boil over and end the dancing through fights or tantrums.

You know how this story is going to end because it starts with Robert Syverten standing in the dock admitting that he killed her and that he doesn't really have a defence.

The story then moves to what led Robert, a young man dreaming of making it in the movies, from shooting Gloria a bit of a flakey girl also dreaming of making it as an actress. They meet as extras and she tells Robert of a dance contest that is not just attractive because of the monety but because it might put them under the spotlight for agents and directors.

more than a hundred couples start and the evenings are interrupted by one man being run-off as its revealed he is a murder suspect. As the hours drag on the couples drop out and the short breaks prove to be insufficient to patch up sore feet and tired heads.

An old woman comes and watches Robert and she seems to sense the impending doom as the young man spends more time with Gloria who is bitter and has a darkness about her. Her mixed approach to using sex as a way of furthering her own career and of her hatred for those using morality as a weapon drive a rift between Robert and his partner as he fails to keep up with her anger.

The contest enters the third week and both of them are at the point of exhaustion and a stray bullet fired in a scuffle kills the old woman who had been such a loyal supporter. The contest ends and its in the open air by the sea that a fatalistic Gloria asks Robert to shoot her which provokes the young man to do what she asks. When quizzed by a policeman why he replies with the killer line "They shoot horses, don't they?".

The book has a pace like a slow whirlpool pulling the dances and Robert and Gloria ever closer to breaking point. As the weeks go by and the point of being in the dance slips away and the potential rewards more elusive the need to compete seems to take over. Once that is removed what does life have to offer? The depression is in full swing and McCoy pulls no punches about the bleakness of life. What really is there worth living for if you can't make your dreams come true? Great stuff.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

book review: The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter

"And in my fraying head there plays a new medley of war and instability, financial collapse and bad schools; foreclosure, eviction; cynicism, climate crisis; 7/11 - and the melody switches to my personal theme song (Concerto of Failure and Regret in E Minor) as life bleeds out from my feet and puddles in the hallway..."

When the recession was in full swing books started to come out that were clearly inspired by the sense of doom that was permeating the Western world. With redundancies, house prices collapsing and repossessions all daily news the response from some writers, particularly in the US, was to pen novels that addressed that situation.

Then We Came to The End was one of the first I read that described a working world in an advertising agency collapsing in on itself and this book has a similar starting point with Matt Prior about to lose his home. The book tells his story and his oddbeat response to impending doom in a way that is clearly meant to be funny. It doesn't always pull that off because there are perhaps some problems trying to make the hero some sort of likable anti-hero as Prior looks to solve his problems by selling drugs.

His move into dealing cannabis starts in a mad moment when he pops out not just to get milk but to get some air to escape from the home he is losing and the wife he is lying to. After meeting some drug dealers and being dubbed 'slippers' because of his attire that evening he starts to see real possibilities to save his home and get things back on track.

But he becomes sidetracked by the idea that his wife is having an affair with an old college flame and spends too much time picking over the bones of his past. The idea of offering financial advice in the form of poetry might have failed by Prior doesn't seem to have any real alternative plan.

He manages to sell drugs to some of the very same people who have been part of his collapsing world from ex-colleagues to those that are involved with squeezing him with the credit crunch. He even ends up in the bizarre situation of managing to convince the dealers that he might be a suitable person to buy and run the operation.

But of course morality creeps in and although this might not be the happy ending we are all looking for it does indicate that the credit crunch can be something to look to get laughter out of. In its way that was the main problem for me with the book. It didn't make me laugh as much as it probably should and I never found the idea of selling drugs as 'crazy' as it was probably meant to be.

The other danger of course is that a novel so clearly identified with the credit crunch is one tied to a specific moment in history and could find a readership drifting away from wanting to find laughter in a black time to one that is simply happy to move on and forget all about it.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

book review: Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones

"I had found a new friend. The surprising thing is where I’d found him – not up a tree or sulking in the shade, or splashing around in one of the hill streams, but in a book. No one had told us kids to look there for a friend. Or that you could slip inside the skin of another. Or travel to another place with marshes, and where, to our ears, the bad people spoke like pirates. "

I can still remember the moment when I opened Animal Farm after having been sent home with it by my English teacher. The book took me into a magical world of animals and made me desperate to understand the politics it was a metaphor for. It gave me a love of that book and literature that has never left me.

So the idea of a teacher using Charles Dickens to inspire a class of children thousands of miles away from both London and Victorian England is one that is totally understandable.

The way that the story would stick with one pupil in particular, the narrator of the story, is also something that those of us who have had an inspirational English teacher will relate to.

But this is not just a tale of inspirational literature and also covers the brutality of communities living in the tropical islands of the Pacific. In the tiny school the only white person on the island Mr Watts tells the children about life through reading Great Expectations.

The story inspires Maltida to dream of a world beyond the confines of her difficult relationship with her mother and a life away from the line of shacks that line the beach.

Her dreams might start in her mind but her choices are forced upon her as a tribal war arrives on their beach and rips apart the magic that Mr Watts has spun.

The story shows the power of the imagination and the wonder of literature. It is a homage to Dickens and his abilities to draw readers of all backgrounds into his stories and give them something that they can use to shape their own thoughts.

A good read there were times you couldn't see where it was going but Jones manages to make the character of Watts even more interesting through the eyes of another and the true extent of the inspirational teacher's story doesn't become fully clear until the end.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Catching up

There is a pile of books that have been read but not reviewed by my desk and I am determined to get through them. So over the next few days I am going to be posting reviews from books that i have just not got round to talking about.

I apologise if some of these reviews therefore seem to be disconnected to earlier comments I made about them but I simply didn't know a better way of doing it.

So look out for some new reviews of old reads going up.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Month in review: August

Managed to have a month of good reading building on the back of a strong July, where the books were great holiday companions. When I can the aim is to get through seven books a month and so to do that two months running is great after a real dip the previous couple of months.

I guess the highlight of the month was probably the quirky but fun Red Plenty and the Italian prize winning Stabat Mater. Also enjoyed the eclectic mix of Rome Tales which took you on an alternative tour of that great city through a collection of short stories.

Onwards and upwards in September hopefully.

Books read in August

The Whores of Coxcomb Hall by Egg Taylor
Red Plenty by Francis Spufford
The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman
Rome Tales stories translated by Hugh Shankland
The Ascent of Isaac Steward by Mike French
Stabat Mater by Tiziano Scarpa
The Scarlet Plague by Jack London