Tuesday, November 01, 2011

The month in review - October

With my commuting reading time gone as a result of cycling a pattern of reading at night and in chunks over the weekend has emerged and as a result so has the average number of books I get through a month started to become clearer. Five is not as many as I used to be able to get through but neither is it as low as sometimes it has threatened to be so I'm fairly pleased with things.

It means that of course the volume of books I get through this year is not going to match last but after having thought about it I'm more philosophical now than I have been and more prepared to just be grateful for the reading time I get.

Books read in October:

The Wanderer by Knut Hamsun
Made in England by Gavin James Bower
A Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
Engineers of the Soul by Frank Westerman
Incognita by William Congreve

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Under the Autumn Star

The Wanderer is split into two stories and partly for the sake of remembering and partly because I'm reading so slowly that the temptation to dual post is one I'm taking because it at least indicates I'm still doing something.

The first of these two stories about a wanderer Knut Pedersen starts off with him wandering around the Norwegian countryside looking for work but avoiding commitment. He has a complicated past, which is hinted at on various occasions, which reveals that he is a wanderer through choice rather than birth and has a background that is of a higher status.

But he seems happy enough felling trees and fixing the plumbing but what complicates his life is his way with the ladies. He is either falling for them or him for them and it is made more complicated by his inability sometimes to read the signs. If anything he seems inept although potentially successful. Nerves are blamed and when he does finally fall for someone his chance appears to have been missed. Mind you it doesn't help that his targets are wives or daughters of his employers making an extra layer of complication.

In many respects the story reminded me of A Month in the Country but there is the slightly more edgy feeling because with winter coming on Knut really does have to find work. In addition he is restless and this has an impact on his relationships with employers, fellow workers and friends.

Will put thoughts about the second story On Muted Strings into a review post soon...

Monday, October 10, 2011

book review: Laikonik Express by Nick Sweeney

There are several things going on here ranging from the finding yourself type tale, the I want to write something but what should I write story and a pure old fashioned love story. The fact that they are intertwined and done so with great humour and a brilliant sense of location makes this the interesting read it ends up being.

The central axis of the book is the friendship between English teacher Nolan Kennedy and his erratic friend Don Darius. They met in Istanbul, where the story starts with Kennedy drifting along struggling with his own writing but determined to get the work of his friend published. Darius has left a manuscript that Kennedy thinks is a work of genius and he sets off to track his friend down in Eastern Europe to convince him that it should be edited and published.

Darius turns out to be a friendly chap who has a love of vodka and a less than enthusiastic relationship with writing suffering from bouts of indifference and lack of confidence. Plus he is on a mission to find the woman he glimpsed on a journey and fell in love with. Tracking her down involves heading off on the Laikonik Express into the snow covered streets of Poland and into a world that is strange and fuzzy as the vodka numbs the senses but creates a platform to develop friendships.

Kennedy is living life through his hopes for his friend and by the conclusion of the love story it is his own tale of traveling and his own doomed relationship with a Chinese girl that seems not only to match that of Darius but to overtake it in terms of literary value. He just hasn't seen it yet in his idolization of his friend.

Love might not blossom like the movies but the chance for it to find a way drives the narrative and for a while gives both friends a sense of purpose. Once that has lifted the harder challenge of working out what to do with life emerges as something that Kennedy at least seems to be aware he must face.

The description of small Polish villages, out of the way bars and the rail network in Eastern Europe are all delivered expertly from someone who has clearly spent some time in that part of the world. The experience of writing and the challenge of finding a subject is also something you suspect that the author has wrestled with but with this coming of realisation story about love, friendship, booze and literature he has been able to deliver a narrative that draws you in and keeps you going.

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

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

book review: The Scarlet Plague by Jack London

Apart from the references to airships which gives away the limits of London's knowledge of just how far technology could go this book could be an apocalyptic vision of any future.

The idea is of a plague spreading across the globe taking man back to a primitive society where the survivors are divided into a hierarchy based on muscle rather than class. There are hardly any people left from the time of the plague but one of the few tells his story to a trio of boys dressed in cave men like skins. His tale charts the first signs of the disease which struck down its victims and killed them in hours. A scarlet appearance was followed by numbness of the feet then up through the body until it reached the heart and killed its victim.

There was no way to fight the spread of the disease because those trying to fight it were killed before they could come up with an antidote. As society fell apart the cities burned and brute force took over. Those that did survive did so because of luck, their genetic make-up, rather than because of modern medicine.

As the narrator retells his story you get the feeling of a world imploding and the impact of the destruction of cities and learned people is to drag things back to a primitive state where language and books are in danger of being forgotten.

Considering the age it was written this is the work of a powerful imagination which was working right at the boundary of what London thought would sound plausible. He pulls it off in the main although of course now the idea of airships makes it all seem a bit Phileas Fogg.

But as an illustration of how science fiction can make you think and ponder on your own reality this is bang on the mark raising interesting questions about class, knowledge and human cruelty.

Monday, August 29, 2011

book review: Stabat Mater by Tiziano Scarpa

The power of music to change lives is well documented but when the life is so damaged and bereft of love the chance for the sounds to do more is perhaps even more heightened. That is the case here as the story of a 16 year-old orphan being raised by nuns unfolds. She has been taught the violin but not taught to love, think or understand the world around her but that changes with the arrival of Vivaldi.

As he uses his music to conjure up the seasons and to draw out of the audience thoughts of the sea, feuding lovers and nature in all its glory he opens the minds of his young players and sparks off a friendship with the focus of the story Cecile.

She is a complicated girl that shares her experiences with the reader in the form of a series of letter to the mother she never knew, the same mother who left her abandoned to be found by the nuns at the orphanage. As she spends her nights writing to her mother in the darkness she is joined by imaginary companions like the snake headed lady who she sees as representing death.

What strikes you as her letters tell of her daily struggle to find some sort of happiness is just how lonely she is and how deep the hole that her absent mother has left in her life. Until Vivaldi turns up with something different even the music she plays so magnificently on her violin cannot distract her from the misery of the convent.

But when that music is unleashed and the challenge to her as a person to live and make a mark in the world is given to her by Vivaldi it is one that she takes providing the reader with perhaps the best evidence that music really can change a person's world.

Written in chunks without chapters this has a lyrical almost dreamlike quality. Sometimes, just as the main character struggles to remember what happened in a dream or for real, so the reader finds themselves wondering where the boundaries lie. But that is a good thing and not frustrating because you know that the effect is to reinforce that you can only imagine but never quite grasp what happens behind the closed convent doors or behind the masks the violin players are forced to wear in public.

Thought provoking and for one of the first times had me going straight from last page to stereo to crank up the four seasons. This lives on if you embrace it in the music and the thoughts that you could allow yourself to have.

Friday, August 26, 2011

book review: Rome Tales edited by Helen Constantine

"Entering the forbidding portal, climbing the staircase and then passing through the darkened rooms of the vast building, I was going through my tunnel, through with no thought or presentiment of all the light on the other side, of what a contrast lay in store for me as though deliberately devised by some friendly genius leading me to discover Rome by subtle pathways and with the keenest sense of adventure."

After reading Rome Tales you are left with a mixture of feelings about the City. You sense its history, both political and religious, its culture and its transition as the population changes and city becomes more multicultural.

Through a series of short stories, by different authors from various eras, it is possible to get an insight into a city that contains its imperial Roman history along with the shame of fascism under Mussolini as well as the superstitions and ghost stories handed down through the years.

This collection is also a place to be entertained with tales of film makers recreating the city on celluloid and intrigued by some of the colourful characters that are drawn to Rome to make money and a new life for themselves.

The collection starts with a story taking a pop at the pope and it ends with one looking out at the City through the eyes of the man sitting in the Vatican. In between there are stories of ghosts, lovers and the sort of details of daily life you would never get from a tourist visit to Rome.

Interspersed with pictures of the city and containing helpful information about the authors and a map to illustrate where the tales are set this would make the perfect companion for a trip to Rome.

What you come away thinking about is not just how much history there is in the city but how much life continues to flow through its streets. The shadow of the Roman history could potentially block out anything else but stories here about a girl heading for an abortion, a lesbian tourist caught trying to embrace a statue and an insight into the streets that were the setting for La Dolce Vita in the late 1950s demonstrates that the heart of Rome still went on beating.

The other point to make about this book is that it proves, not that I think it needs to be proved, that the short story format can be a very powerful way of illustrating emotions and feelings about a place. This collection contains various authors that produced work over hundreds of years but because of the intelligent way it is complied it still manages to flow. The pieces are united by the City but they are also united by talent making it easier to go from one writer to another.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

book review: The Ascent of Isaac Steward by Mike French

"The black horse kicked hooves into the yellow sky; its long mane flowing north across southern plains. It stopped as a red light flared up before it and receded back onto the bonnet of Ishmael's F355 Ferrari. A young boy stepped out and started to wipe it down."

This book wasn't the easiest to follow at times but that's a result of the ambition of the imagination of French and as a reader you have to work hard to stick with it.

Isaac Steward is a fairly simple man when you first meet him but as his memories unfold around him you find out he is coning to terms with a terrible secret that has ripped his family apart and leads him to the very brink mentally and physically.

Once you start getting the pieces of the jigsaw you can get a grip of sorts on the story but this is a bit like a rollercoaster and they were times I was out of the car just holding onto the rail waiting for a period when I could climb back in and feel comfortable again.

That's partly because a decent chunk of the story happens in Isaac's subconscious where his good and bad memories are struggling to control his emotions. Bad memories have the power to do him great harm so happier times with punch and judy shoes on seas side holidays are ferried in to keep the equilibrium going.

the bad memories are locked up secure in HMS prison Gyrus but below the prison wals lies a beach where the punch and judy characters stroll and the battle for control of Isaac's mind plays out.

But if you have done something that caused great tragedy then it will at some point have to recognised and dealt with and sure enough the balance in Isaac's mind finally shifts to a place where facing up to those bad memories is unavoidable.

Partly because of the names, good biblical ones, and the appearance of angels and demons this has the feeling of being much more of a literal fight between good and evil.

This book wasn't that easy to read and there were moments I struggled to visualise hat was happening. But, and this is the important bit, I got something out of it and there was a story that worked for me so in that respect the book delivered.

Monday, August 22, 2011

book review: The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

"Typewriters disappeared next, replaced by video display terminals. Overnight, the newsroom's distinctive clack-clack-bing went silent. The rumbling basement presses hushed, too, with the work outsourced to modernized printing sites around the globe. No longer did vast rolls of newsprint slam into the backside of the building in the late afternoon, jolting any dozing reporter awake. No longer did delivery trucks clog Corso Vittorio at dawn as workmen loaded the papers, copies still warm."

Having been attracted to this book because it covers the world of journalism it was with a sense of familiarity that I read of the world of a newspaper facing the challenges of declining revenues and a failure to grasp the importance of the web.

The paper, based in Rome, has seen its readership decline along with its financial fortunes. Set up in the 1950s as a per project by a US millionaire the paper has been handed down from father to son as a weight around the neck for three generations. Nobody seems to know what to do with the paper from an ownership point of view but the financial realities means that the situation cannot last forever.

Chapters arranged to tell you about the different people who work on the paper, from the reporters, sub editors up to the editor and accountants, are interspersed with the history of the establishment of the paper.

In many ways this reminded me of Then We Came to the End with that same feeling of despair and detailing how a corporate environment can shape a person's world. There are the same moments of humour and tragedy but this is perhaps different in the sense this is not linked directly to the recession.

The story of newspapers failing is going to be one that is a theme of the next few years. The world of the web has supplanted the daily newspaper for many readers, looking for the story right now via the TV, twitter and online news sites rather than to wait for tomorrow's paper to tell them all about it. Plus the era of the star columnist, the Keith Waterhouse, is threatened by the blogosphere where there are more voices than you could ever have time to hear.

But in the world Rachman explores what really matters is not just the pounds and pence that drive the media business but the impact a working place has on someone's life. Self-esteem, love and happiness are all tied up with work and in that sense the newspaper industry is just like any other. If anything the decision to place the action in Rome is part of making it more general because you don't identify with the paper as being one you would suspect was one you read.

The moral of the story seems to be around the temporary nature of news compared with the lasting power of love but for many of the characters that lesson is one that passes them by. Well constructed and written in a way that means just as you wonder how many more characters you will be introduced to the curtain comes down and things are rounded off without any loose ends.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Out of this world

The British Library has a track record of putting on some excellent exhibitions that are not only free but packed with thought provoking ideas. I haven't been able to get up to one for a while but wanted to get to the Out of This World exhibition concerning science fiction.

One of the promised highlights was to be able to see some annotated notes by one of my favourite authors JG Ballard, which was indeed worth looking at just to see the extent to which he was prepared to self edit, but there was lots more besides.

The exhibition not only covered books which have been around space exploration and other worlds but also dealt with the ideas of traveling into the mind and the science fiction of a relatively ordinary world that could change once put through a dramatic change. Ballard of course is an expert at that but there were other ideas about the rise of robots, the death of the earth and the concept of co-habiting with other civilisations.

In the middle there was a Tardis which reminded you, along with a copy of Herge's Tintin Explorers to the Moon, that science fiction has always had a place in mainstream culture whether it be in the imagination of children or entertaining us all at prime time on a Saturday night.

A great exhibition and for me personally a reminder not only to get back into some Ballard but to open my mind to other authors that were prepared to explore reality.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

book review: Red Plenty by Francis Spufford

"Were they ready to measure up the Soviet way against the American way? Were they ready to let the people see a little bit of the scale of the task that still lay ahead? In his opinion, if you believed that the good times were coming, if you trusted that graph, it was necessary to behave like it."

How do you give an idea of what it was like living and working in one of the largest nations on earth in a critical period of its history? Concentrating on the leaders might be an option or going to the other end of the spectrum and trying to get the voice of the common man.

This book treads a different path, although the leadership thing is there with a view of the world through the eyes of Khrushchev, by concentrating on those that have the ability to really change the future. The scientists, the economists and the biologists who find themselves in the Russia of the 1960s with a real feeling that the system is there to be changed. Not torn down and replaced by improved. The goal is to beat the US to show that socialism can beat capitalism. This is the belief held by Khrushchev and he pushes very hard to inspire the next generation of thinkers to make it happen.

As the years go by different chapters introduce you to characters that believe they can really make a difference with new ideas and exploiting new technology. But they are all trying to do so against the backdrop of a state that is simply not able to introduce some of the economic devices, like free movement of prices, to real deliver the goods. This is an economy and society that has been ruled by fear and so introducing free thinking is not something that comes naturally.

The scenes set in the scientific community in Siberia describes brilliantly the moment when people discover they are among friends and able to speak the unspeakable. But it also goes back later to demonstrate the fickle nature of the regime which liked to follow a thaw with a heavy crackdown.

The best way to think of this book is to read it in its entirety and then let it soak in completely because this is like looking at a number of photographs that are being carefully selected to sum up a generation. Occasionally when reading it you wonder where it is going but by the end you not only get it but wonder why this period of Russian history has not been given greater exposure. It is clearly an interesting time and the country is opening up post Stalin.

Although you feel that the brief was for Spufford to deliver a straight forward history this manages to engage the reader much more effectively than some dry academic study. He makes the economic and scientific arguments come alive because he tells it through people, through stories and emotions we all feel so his decision was the right one.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

book review: The Whores of Coxcomb Hall by Egg Taylor

"Sweets, cake, fruit and sundry comforts were stored in the bleak and forbidding tuck box shed. Five hundred boxes lined the shelves. Most were tough as teak, with weighty padlocks, but some- on lower shelves, in easy reach - were pale and new and quite defenseless. By order, the shed doubled as storage for shoe polish kit and the air was tick with Cherry Blossom wax. The wax was a great leveller. Every item in the boxes was scented with it, and the duckboard floor was black and treacherous from the buffing of a thousand toecaps.
This was an emotive place. Within the boxes were those things that had been packed by mothers, and here and there, by fathers too. Special things parents had wrapped with their own hands."

Sex is one of the main themes of this story and one that probably attracts a response from the reader in just the first couple of chapters. But strange as it might sound you quickly forget about that as sex is just one of the weapons used in a power struggle that is raging across various parts of life at Coxcomb Hall.

On the one hand there is a fight between the head and financial reality, another between one teacher and the colleagues who are having an affair with his wife and then the struggles of the boys themselves.

The setting is a public school, a very minor one, in the late 1960s that is corrupt and rotten but stumbling on with its assembled collection of alcoholic and socially isolated staff and boys who have been largely dumped by their parents and forgotten. Into this world steps Mrs White, a young woman married to the aged Dr White, and her determination to escape from her current predicament by accruing as much money as possible. She does that by granting sexual favors to the boys as well as charging for sex from two of the staff.

Her plan seems to be going well but she comes up against a puritan teacher named Jackson as well as the head boy Ossaff who rules by fear. The combination of goodness and pure darkness combine to undo Mrs White's ambitions.

But across the school the pressures of money, hate and jealousy are heading into an inevitable collision that will mean the end for Coxcomb and the power structures that have existed for years.

There are so many echoes in this book not just of other titles but also films. If obviously comes to mind but at points you find yourself thinking of the strange world of Gormenghast as the odd characters of the school are described and placed into a context where they are very much influenced by their buildings.

You keep reading because although the characters are generally nasty, the http://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gifsex brutal and manipulative or illegal there is a wish to see the end and work out where liberation is coming from. The way Taylor gets you there is worth waiting for.

It is also worth mentioning that the first few chapters can be enjoyed via Facebook.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

book review: Les Belles Images by Simone de Beauvoir

"'I tell you what, we'll talk about it tomorrow. But if you know any unhappy people, we'll try to do something for them. You can treat sick people, give poor ones money - there are masses of things you can do.'
'Are there really? For everybody?'
'Dear me, I should cry all day long if there were people whose unhappiness couldn't be cured at all.'"

The idea of choosing this book as a holiday read was that by the time I got to Paris I was reading about Parisians. The problem was by the time I had got to the [point when I pitched up on a campsite in the Parisian suburbs the characters of this book had quite put me off heading for the Champs Elysees.

They are meant to of course as Simone de Beauvoir portrays the vacuous world of the rich in Paris. in a way that leaves you despairing of their lack of connection with the real world. They search for happiness and fulfilment among the top class restaurants and their weekends away in the country but don't know how to respond when someone brings real pain and horror into their lives.

So they protect the bubble by running away from the news, banning their children from reading newspapers and keeping the conversation to safe naval gazing subjects of conversation.

At the heart of the story is Laurence who we are told has had a nervous breakdown five years previously and then slowly heads towards another. What sparks her off is her daughter mentioning that she is unhappy and upset by the suffering in the world. Despite the best efforts to stop her from reading newspapers the influence of a more worldly friend is difficult to stop and so the seed of unhappiness is planted in the apartment leaving the ambitious architect father and the fragile mother to cope with the consequences.

At the same time a parallel story displaying the vanity and shallowness of the older generation is running with XXX's mother being dumped by a rich aged boyfriend because the 56 year-old fancies getting involved with a 19 year-old. The mother screams at her daughter that a woman without a man is nothing and highlights that even someone who is apparently successful believes that society cannot view her in those terms unless she has a rich man on her arm.

The world this book refers to is sadly still probably there and certainly the world of the vacuous rich is one that you can certainly imagine still being like this. What keeps you reading isn't any sympathy for the characters but a sense of fascination that something so natural and innocent, the idea that not everyone is happy, can cause such distress. It proves, if it needed underlining, that regardless of your wealth and success you cannot cocoon yourself from reality.

There are also some messages here about the position of women in society, with the mother showing a desperation to be with a man in order to be accepted by society and the attitude towards Laurence as one verging on the patronising and bullying by some of the men in her life.

Not the most enjoyable read but then it was never designed to be and although it's looking a bit old in some respects the world she took the scalpel to is still there and still deserves to get this sort of literary examination.

Friday, July 22, 2011

book review: King of Tuzla by Arnold Jansen op de Haar

"For two days his company had been under the command of Nordbat, the Norwegian-Danish-Swedish battalion that had been billeted around Tuzla, initially for a period of two weeks. Who could say whether it would stop at that? Links with the battalion in Srebrenica had been temporarily severed. Just as well: from now on he was more or less his own boss. He was king, King of Tuzla."

Reading this story of life on the inside of a UN mission to Bosnia reminded you of that news footage where the blue helmeted troops looked so helpless in the face of a conflict that tore the former Yugoslavia apart.

That sense of frustration is evident in this account of life on the sinde of a Dutch unit sent to police an airport in an area disputed by rebels fighting out differences which went back generations and were bogged down in the complex differences of race and religion.

At the heart of the story is a solider, Tijmen Kleide Gildekamp, who through his experiences serving under the UN banner becomes disillusioned with the army life and in the hours of boredom punctuated with brief hair raising moments of fear he gets the chance to reevaluate his life.

It is a life of service and duty but one that is pretty empty of friends and real satisfaction and even as he sits wearing his King of Tuzla t-shirt looking out across the pock marked shelled runways he struggles to find sense in the military manoeuvres although he does start to get a sense of what he needs to do with his life.

The book benefits from the autobiographical knowledge of the author and the confidence he has describing not just the experience of serving in Bosnia but the background to how you get from a student at military school into the position of leadership. The close knit world of the army is clearly one that people struggle to leave and as Tijmen walks past the barracks and recalls his past there is that sense of regretting lost time not just spent in the army but spent making the decision to leave.

The description of the tension and almost anarchy of the front lines and the tightrope that the UN soilders were treading is brilliantly done and even those with no sense of history of the recent conflict will understand the difficulty for troops that were seen as an irritant and unwanted by both sides.

It's such a well worn phrase but in many respects this is a coming of age story that charts the journey of a man who discovers himself as an individual rather than just a cog in a machine and discovers that real bravery isn't just facing up to mortar shells and bullets but making a break with a life and a past to go off and do something different.

If you want proof that literature has the power to change lives then this illustrates it on every level.

Friday, July 15, 2011

book review: How I Won the Yellow Jumper by Ned Boulting

"I have been told though, by a friend who was watching in embarrassed disbelief in a house in Chelmsford, that I uttered words like 'some sort of thing with his bike'. I followed this up, apparently with the killer line, 'kissing goodbye to his chance of winning the yellow jumper'.
Yes, the yellow jumper. That's what I said."

The Tour de France can feel like an alien world. Talk of different colour jerseys, general classification times and numerous riders and teams can put off all but the most determined from finding out about it. But as Ned Boulting's experiences show once you make the effort to understand the sport you are hooked.

There are ups and downs, with doping scandals continuing to feature in the sport, forcing Boulting to add an epilogue in response to the revelations that last year's winner Alberto Contador had tested positive, but there is still more to admire here than to scorn and the riders and the logistics of the Tour are both monumental and deserved to be praised.

What Boutling does is shows that it is possible to get into the sport as a complete novice and then build up a knowledge and a love of the sport fairly quickly. His introduction to commentating for ITV starts with a cock-up, hence the book name about jumpers and jerseys, and manages to stay in a light-hearted vein until the end. He is flanked by former professional riders and legendary broadcasters but he manages to find his own place in the world of cycling.

The behind the scenes book reveals not just what it takes to film the Tour and work on it but what the event means to the people of France and the way the world changes for those three magical weeks in July. It made me smile and it made me share a frown as Boulting reveals his disappointments over doping. But importantly it provided more details of the Tour and revealed just why this event is so special.

Books about sport are incredibly difficult to pull off because they either appeal to die-hard fans who dissect them for flaws and unknown nuggets or are so generalist they don't add any value to those who share an interest and want to know more.

Boulting pulls it off and his technique is not just around his use of humour but his use of biography. This is his story of how he fell ikn love with the Tour and although we can't all commentate and get taken round in a car with a film crew that essential journey from bike novice to fan is one that we are all welcome to head down.

Friday, June 10, 2011

book review: Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada

"Quangel stood up. 'There,' he laughed. 'You know perfectly well that the man behind bars is the decent one, and you on the outside are a scoundrel, that the criminal is free, and the decent man is sentenced to death.'"

What hits you like a slap in the face is the date this book was written because it is something you never expected to discover that anti-Hitler feeling could have been voiced at the height of the madman's regime.

But here it is in a story that has a great deal to say not just about the value of resistance, even if it appears on many levels to be futile, but about why a society that brings the scum to the surface is such a horrible one to live in.

At the heart of the story are a husband and wife, the Quangel's, who find that their son has been killed in action. Otto, up to now a miserly and introverted factory foreman decides that he has to mark the loss in some way.

He begins a campaign writing postcards which he drops across Berlin criticising Hitler and his rule of Germany. The cards get noticed by the Gestapo and just that alone sends several people into a fury.

As the years go on and the postcards keep dropping the noose perhaps tightens around Otto's neck but so in a way does it for the regime.

A cast of some of the most disturbing and horrible low life characters litter the book and illustrate how the Nazi regime rewarded thugs and allowed them to terorise people in the name of the state.

But where Fallada is at his best is when he punctures the fragile world of the gestapo. Their arrogance is matched with stupidity and now and again the brain cells connect and they realise that their approach stinks and the law they talk of defending is a sham.

but for the most part you find yourself rooting for an odd quiet man who shows a great deal of bravery. he might not be the perfectly rounded character but when it comes to describing someone to stand up against Hitler's regime it is perhaps the ordinariness of Otto that really lingers in the memory.

Some people were brave enough to counter the propaganda and some writers were capable of writing about it and Fallada does that here admirably.

Monday, May 23, 2011

book review: Dearest Father by Franz Kafka

"Recently the belief that I was defeated by Father as a small boy and have since been prevented by pride from leaving the battleground, throughout all these years, despite enduring defeat over and over again."

As a father myself the idea of what my sons might be thinking about me kept coming to the forefront of my mind as I read this heart breakingly honest letter from Franz Kafka to his father.

their relationship was one clearly troubled and beset by the dominance of the father and the continual failure of Franz to feel he could live up to what was expected of him. He failed to take a role in the family business, failed to find favour for his writing and caused serious upset with his plans to marry.

But this letter, a love letter from a loving son to a father, is upsetting because there is a feeling that things would never change. No matter what Franz does or did it would make no difference to a man who is almost blinded by his obstinacy and pride.

That's a message for fathers now and a challenge not to provoke hate and servitude in our own children by pushing our own views down their throats.

As Kafka details the numerous occasions when his father and him clashed and the role of his mother as a not quite innocent bystander you feel for the man. You want him to be able to either breakthrough to his father or as an alternative to break free.

Sadly he is capable of neither and as we all know illness took him before there was a chance perhaps to reach one of those outcomes.

A beautifully produced OneWorld Classic contains a few extracts from Kafka's diaries that reinforce some of the points he makes in his letter.

he might not have wanted it printed but across the decades it has a message for fathers now and the clashes and battles he describes continue now in households all across his native Prague and well beyond.

Friday, May 20, 2011

book review: The Death of Napoleon by Simon Leys

"Other napoleons came and went around him; in the middle of the lawn, where a patch of white mist now hovered, one of them peered into the shadows through a cardboard telescope; another spread an old newspaper on the stone balustrade, as if it were a staff map. There were some who sat astride rusty garden chairs, lost in thought."

Fiction should play with truth and reality and this whole story does it wonderfully. Starting off with the premise that Napoleon has escaped from his prison island St Helena to be replaced by a double the story charts what might happen.

The Emperor heads back to France leaning on the planning of an organisation dedicated to restoring him to power. But delays and bad weather means he is diverted and there is a wonderful moment when Napoleon goes with some British tourists to see the battlefield of Waterloo.

he finally manages to get back to Paris but without money or friends has to take refuge with a widow of one of his old loyal infantrymen. he uses his strategic skill to restore the fortunes of her melon business revealing to some of those around him as a result he is who they had thought he was.

But with the death of the double all those miles away on the island Napoleon can no more reveal who he is. Who would believe him and the fear that came with knowing he was still alive is snuffed out like a flame.

As he wanders through the gardens of an asylum watching the other napoleon's take the air before returning to the hospital his predicament as a pretender fully dawns on him.

This story is fun in the sense it takes one of the great historical 'what if' and takes it to a conclusion but it is also a disturbing prod at the question of identity. What does it mean to have your identity taken away from you, particularly when it's permanent through death? What does it fell like to have no one believe you?

One of the themes that emerges is that even those that followed Napoleon blindly into musket fire and the face of canon balls had no idea what he actually looked like. But the legend was stronger than reality and the idea of an aging, balding and over weight Napoleon returning from the dead to over throw the French establishment is one that even his most loyal foot soldiers will not b able to support.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A few thoughts on discussion on The Good of the Novel

Last night I attended a discussion at the London Review Bookshop provoked by the book The Good of the Novel, which has been published by Faber.

The evening threw up lots of interesting thoughts and there are perhaps not surprisingly more questions than answers when it comes to discussing the position of the novel now as well as the future direction it might take.

The evening started off with a few comments from Ray Ryan, co-editor of The Good of the Novel before asking a panel for their opinions.

I sat there with my phone and made a few observations based on what each person said and hope they might make a poor but fleeting record of what was said and provide an idea of the thoughts that were expressed on the night.

Ray Ryan, co-editor The Good of the Novel
The novel is always in society therefore difficult to analyse it independently of history.

Each novel sets it's own agenda and makes it's own demands of the reader.

Novelistic truth is not documented.

James Wood, well known critic
We go to it for pleasure. It gave me great feeling of freedom against the backdrop of a strict religious upbringing "An experience of realising reading the novel an area of freedom anyone could be represented thinking anything."

Very few outright tragic novelists. Secularism. Seeing the ways in which Dostoevsky could argue against himself in the Brothers Kasmanov. Began a movement away of whatever religious leaning I had.
Quite important now last decade a revival on both sides of atheism and envangelisism trying to pin us down.

Mental lives are flickering intermittent the novel as a form it alone can do. Hadn't yet had great novel that deals with atheism and fundamentalism perhaps it's coming.

Lee Brackstone, editorial director at Faber
Lee gave a publishers perspective: Publishers position often thankless. Position in chain of command between writer ad reader. We are the first people to cast artform into literary mold.
Lucrative narrative form. I tell other publishers to just buy what you love but Faber needs these things so just how useful is this advice? What pressures of the market to qualify taste? If market and everyman readers didn't exist what would we be publishing? Do the structures bring us the novel we deserve and if not what might that novel be?
Navigate between the gospel of the novel and the demands of a brutal market?
Visceral. To make these decisions and have responsibility in maintaining this list at Faber is a privilege. Novelist ability to deconstruct and surprise and reconstruct. Worries me that element of surprise will disappear where character, plot and style over come place and different voices.
Do readers want entertainment or challenge to comfort? Not novelist responsibility to represent the world but to make it a more uncertain place.

Frances Wilson, author and critic
What I'm interested in is the anti-novelism of novels. Intimacy kureishi it's not a novel might as well call it a fish a book whose intimacy spoke only to her. Rarely like scandal Of fiction that operates one inch from life. Novels should be dangerous or a risk you should be prepared to leave a different person.
Genius in the way kureishi re-framed the real.
If novels are meant to be vecihles of interiority take you inside the heads of Novels being morally uncertain. Deal with the complexity of thought and emotion.

Amit Chaudhuri, author and academic
Disliked the novel as a form for a long time. Viewed the cult of the novel with suspicion. Geoff Dyer berates the form. Always meant to be a poet. Larkin wanted to be a novelist but I always wanted to be a poet. Drawn to was rereadability one of my first experinence belief that certain sentences were enough and whole novel around it were a Nuisance. Get rid of it but do what? Feel like starting anew with each sentence. Novel became a series of fresh beginnings. Heard it had to do with plot and story and the problematic character. Wasn't going to novels for character was going to them for something spatial. Background. Description. which can be a criticism. I was drawn to description and background. Think of the story in a different way not about things happening but about a space. Found myself inhabiting and producing novels.

Novel became more successful with globalisation. Brought in rhetoric of plenty. Leaked into the novel. People were reading more. So what? World of infinite communication and plenty into which the novel had fallen the debate is not so much about the novel can elaborate on various views of the world whole thing haunted by main a happening in literature is the transformation in the interruption. Not the novel but what is the literary?
From critical theory and philosophy. Masterpiece only used by pr agencies not used in literary departments.

Then there were some questions and I picked out a few memorable comments and thoughts in response to queries from readers about what makes novels good and what the role of it is in society.

The good of the sentence rather than the good of novel.

New technology will allow novelist to look at form in a new way. David Foster Wallace was challenging it but no longer.

Novel performs function of a benign mirror happy to see something like us as well as something less pleasant.

James wood
Confirmation of the world and invention of the world. Realism can be very frustrating.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

book review: A Country Dance by Margiad Evans

"'I'm going home,' I say. 'You cannot undo what you have done, even with your Welsh tongue.''I will, though,' shouts the master.'Gabriel Ford will never take your word,' I answer back."

There is a certain lyrical quality to the few Welsh books I've read and it's here as the pastoral landscapes of the Welsh border clash with the battle between two men for the heart of a shepherd's daughter.

Penned by the Welsh-border writer Margaid Evans the story of Ann Goodman unfolds. She is torn by the mixed English and Welsh in her blood and finds herself the object of affection for a Welsh land owner and an English shepherd.

She moves between them as she crosses the border and although she is in effect engaged to the English shepherd Gabriel it is when working on the Welsh farm she becomes a woman the master sets his sights on.

Gabriel turns up to check up on his love and finds the master sweet talking her in Welsh. fights ensue and it is not until the very end Ann makes up her mind.

Apart from the three characters involved in the love triangle what stands out here is the description of a rural world that is bitterly hard. Village life is full of hardship, gossip and little joy.

Ann works hard and moves from one grueling task to another while facing the responsibility of looking after her ailing father and navigating her way through the troublesome waters of courtship from two potential husbands.

it provides an insight into the hills and valleys that leaves a lasting impression on the reader and the description of Wales is no doubt why it was chosen to be part of the Library of Wales series of books. It deserves to be read by a wide audience.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

The month in review - April

April was a difficult month reading wise. A lot was happening in my life with the division of the company I work for being sold and as a result concentrating on reading or finding the time was a challenge.

Sadly that challenge is set to continue even more this month as I move offices and start a commute that denies me any reading time.

Still here is the look back over April with the following books read. Only managed to get six books read:

Next World Novella by Matthias Politycki
The Lost Honour of Katherina Blum by Heinrich Boll
Lineman Thiel and Other Tales by Gerhart Hauptmann
The Call of The Toad by Gunter Grass
Death in Venice, Tristan, Tonio Kroger by Thomas Mann
The Decision Book by Mikael Krogerus and Roman Tschappeler

Friday, April 29, 2011

Competition: Win a copy of the Decision Book

The kind people at profile Books have given me a copy of the Decision Book to give away to a lucky reader of Insidebooks.

Just tell me how many models of strategic thinking does the book write about?


Please email me the right answer at simon.quicke@rbi.co.uk and I will pick a winner and be in touch about getting the book to you.

Clue: read the cover ;)

Thursday, April 28, 2011

book review: The Decision Book by Mikael Krogerus and Roman Tschappeler

The Decision Book is not the usual book I would dive into as it contains a series of management models that are designed to make you work, think and interact better.

But because it is presented in such an easily digestible way with illustrations making the short descriptions of the management models more understandable there are high chances this book will be absorbed and prove to be useful.

The cover blurb offers fifty models for strategic thinking and because of the sheer volume there are some things served up that mean very little to you but others do go in. I picked out seven over the course of my reading and some of those have sunk in the brain and should help me in the future.

Also worth mentioning is the interactive nature of the book and the encouragement given from the authors to the reader to make up their own models and to take some lessons from the book. Pages at the back left blank for your own scribbles and jottings are part of the process of kicking off that dialogue.

Making decisions, particularly big ones, is never something easy but this book points out that many other great minds have struggled with how to make the right choices in the past and it is possible to learn from their experiences.

Life is too random to be defined by models but coming to a problem with a strategic mind is bound to be better than spinning a bottle and hoping it provides you with the right answer.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A response to Tristan

I've never been a great fan of hospitals and when asked one of my answers is that I struggle with the concept of a largely artificial community.

What I mean by that is the way that you are forced by circumstance into a situation with other people that you might avoid if you had more freedom.

In these communities of circumstance sometimes people can become confused about reality and it is exactly that scenario that Mann is writing about in Tristan.

A rather eccentric writer is holed up in a sanatorium and he falls for a woman who has been pushed to the brink by a difficult child birth.

The woman, who is described in angelic terms, finds the author amusing and interesting and through him discovers that not everything the doctors have told her she cannot do are bad for her.

As she plays the piano and Tristan and Isolde rings out in the sanitorium she finds some solace and provides the writer with the strength to tell her husband some home truths. Sadly they come too late.

Apart from reflections on the story what you are left with here are thoughts about the connections that can be made quickly and deeply between patients and the calming abilities of nature.

At moments you can picture the sanitorium as clearly as if you were flicking through a brochure on the place.

More soon...

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A response to Death in Venice

Death, as the title suggests, comes in Venice. That is a fact the reader knows from the outset but what sort of death is a more interesting question.

Death of a dream, a romantic ideal, as well as death in the literal sense is being described here.

But before I get into that just a quick comment on the description. This has not been an easy story to read because it doesn't flow. There are times when you wonder if something suffers from being too literary in style. That said you grasp what is going on here but it could have come across better.

What is said concerns Gustave von Aschenbach a writer who has headed off on holiday to get a break from his writing routine in Munich.

He becomes fixated and obsessed to a degree with another guest, a young Polish boy, who he can not reallu understand or makes any great connection with over his stay. But the dream of his beauty, the romantic ideal that the young man represents takes over Aschenbach.

Takes him over so much that despite his almost priviledged position of knowing about the plague in the city he fataly drops his guard and allows his obsession to derail him.

More to come from the other couple of stories in this collection, tristan and Tonio Kroger, over the next two days...

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Decision Book: post VII

The final dip into the Decision Book is a chance to note how thinking of the past has been gently challenged by the experiences of the present.

The old 80/20 model set out by Vilfredo Pareto at the start of the last century had not only become established thinking but a model that was so widely accepted that the idea the 80% might have some value to rival the 20% something that seemed highly unlikely.

But back in 2004 the editor of Wired Chris Anderson came up with the Long Tail model. Using the internet the point of the model was that the 80% of goods beyond the core 20% will eventually be sold and have more value than the core goods.

The long tail has now become something to drop into conversations as a justification for backing what might have seemed like risky bets in the past. The problem is that in that 80% there are surely degrees of quality and right at the end of the tail it must be a fairly lonely old time.

A review will follow later this week...

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Happy Easter

Hope the bunny brings you some books as well as chocolate

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Decision Book: post VI

In the final couple of posts from the Decision Book the focus moves onto using management models to understand other people better. In the next two posts I will pick out a couple I liked.

The first is The Maslow Pyramids model which in a nutshell looks at the basic human needs and then adds on top of those, pyramid style, the aspirations that are optional but nice to have.

So we all need to have food, a place to sleep, security and social relationships but let's face it we'd like to also add to that recognition, with its money and fame, and self-actualisation.

What it seems to make you think is that sometimes we can take for granted the essentials in our chase for the elusive wealth that is not perhaps that vital.

More next week..

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Decision Book: post V

One of the things people say as a cliche is to live in the present and not in the past. But there has to be a careful balance struck between being stuck in the past, or as The Decision Book describes it being caught in a memory-driven model, and the future.

There are also real dangers becoming a dreamer hoping that the future turns out better than the present or the past will leave you failing to make the right decisions in the here and now.

Not easy to get that balance right but the book is good at highlighting the dangers of both a memory and a future dreamer model.

There will be more posts about this book throughout the month with a chance for a lucky insidebooks reader to win a copy of the book.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Decision Book: post IV

The second section of the Decision Book, which is where the next couple of posts draw their inspiration, looks at how you can understand yourself better.

Cognitive dissonance are not two words I use that often. But they are ones I will remember now because it describes an interesting idea. How can you carry on doing something that you know is wrong with self justification is what those two words describe.

"How can we overcome this dissonance? Either by changing our behaviour or our attitude."

Not an easy thing to do.

There will be more posts about this book throughout the month with a chance for a lucky insidebooks reader to win a copy of the book.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Decision Book: post III

Setting goals is one of the most oft couple of words that you expect anyone talking about personal development to say.

The Decision Book contains the advice that goals should be challenging but also achievable. if you set a goal too high then it can have a demoralizing effect.

The example given is of running a marathon. I like running and might well want to run a marathon one day but more achievable goals of running more regularly and further distances are needed first.

It's like setting out to read 100 books a year having been nothing more than a casual reader before. You won't know how to pace yourself or recognise the danger signs that you are falling behind. Not that I have ever reached 100 books but just getting to 80 plus last year was a challenge.

There will be more posts about this book throughout the month with a chance for a lucky insidebooks reader to win a copy of the book.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Thoughts at the halfway point of Lineman Thiel and Other Tales

This short book contains three stories that the blurb on the back describes as being typical and influence by the German romantic movement.

That influence seems to be most clearly seen in the response of the characters towards nature with nature playing more than a backdrop role.

In the first story the iced over lake plays a crucial role in deciding the fate of the sailmaker and his wife. They are portrayed as earthy and greedy but sympathetically so compared to the grandmother who lives with them hoarding her coppers and silver in a box.

The idea of living for now and enjoying life is contrasted with the decision to wait. Ultimately both approaches are wrong.

Then the title story starts with poor lineman Thiel finding comfort from widowhood then a second marriage to a bullying wife in the woods in his hut next to the train track.

His life could carry on with his wife bullying him but you sense that as she turns her temper on the son the linesman had with his first wife the clock is ticking for their relationship.

A full review will follow on completion...

Friday, April 08, 2011

The Decision Book: post II

Another post from this highly informative book. This model looks at the project portfolio matrix.

if you think of your life as a project, or a particular aspect of it in that way, it is useful to try and prioritize activities.

Cost and time are the two examples of potential sides of a scale that can be used to measure whether or not something is useful to a project.

For me it is often a question of time that dictates my decision, particularly around reading.

There will be more posts about this book throughout the month with a chance for a lucky insidebooks reader to win a copy of the book.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Thoughts at the half way point of the The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum

A woman kills a reporter and then turns herself into the police. It's an interesting way to start a story and you want to know why she pulled the trigger.

Boll starts with the crime and then works backwards describing what led Katharina Blum to get to a stage where murder seemed to be an appropriate response.

It seems strange that this quiet and diligent house keeper should find herslef in trouble and the start details how her friends are motivated to rush to her side to support her. But as the days leading up to the killing are detailed it's clear that underneath calm outward appearances not all was going well.

Blum is involved with a criminal who spends a night with her before escaping police capture. It is for this initial crime, aiding and abetting a felon, that Blum is involved with the police.

But the press starts to create havoc and the seeds for the reasons for Blum to murder a reporter start to be laid down.

A review will follow on completion...

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

book review: Next World Novella by Matthias Politycki

"There were not many, barely three pages. Doro's final set of comments began on the the third page. He could cope with her comments now too. He put all the pages in the correct order. And then? He would be done."

Big ideas don't have to be told in big books if the writing is as skillfully delivered as here in Next World Novella.

A professor wakes to find his wife has died of a stroke in the evening and he takes in the shock of the situation reading through the last notes that she was editing. As she usually edited his reports it is his material she was found slumped over.

But the work that Schepp finds his wife Doro was concentrating on is an old story that he wrote years before and never published. The story about a drunk who hangs out in a bar lusting after a waitress mirrors the professors own fixation with a waitress in a bar he stumbled into one afternoon after eye surgery.

What becomes clear is that the wife knew about the affair, at least the dream of an affair that was harboured by her husband, and it drove a wedge between them.

One of the promises they made was to enter the next world together and to hold each other's hands as they swam across the lake of the dead to try and reach the land in the distance on the other side. That promise is ruined by the secrets Hinrich kept from his wife.

That story contains enough food for thought but the way the novella ends leaves you with the distinct impression that even near the end all it would have taken is for Hinrich to have shown a bit of notice and the love would and could have been rekindled. Failing to listen and failing to notice are the real crimes of the lutsful professor.

The Decision Book: post I

When to make a decision is a rather useful thing to think about. Everyday we face the need to make decisions but the challenge is perhaps to think about the right way to respond to them.

The Decision Book is a collection of different models for strategic thinking and one of the first you come across in the How to improve yourself section is about the way decisions should be timed.

Referring to the Eisenhower Method, coined by the former US president, he talked about the need to determine which things were critical and which could be delayed or deferred, which will help determine the priority of a decision and as a result help you work out how long you should take to make it.

There will be more posts about this book throughout the month with a chance for a lucky insidebooks reader to win a copy of the book.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Decisions, decisions...

It's sometimes strange that you can be sent a book that seems to resonate because of a stage you are in your life or thought process.

So it was within a week or so of the Decision Book arriving for review that my working life was turned upside down and my company division found itself up for sale.

At a time like this the one thing that you can be sure of in a time of great confusion is that decisions are going to have to be made.

Decisions that will have a massive impact on the next stage of my life both work and home as I consider a new commute, working for a new company and numerous other changes to my life.

I will be using the Decision Book this month to help crystallise that thought process and thanks to Serpent's Tail am in a position to provide one lucky reader with a copy.

Keep reading for further details...

Monday, April 04, 2011

Plans are changing

Having got stuck into Next World Novella the plans for the month have now changed and I'm going to be reading mainly German authors.

It makes more sense to try and keep the theme of the month something that relates to my TBR pile, which includes a few German authors, as well as giving me an excuse to get some more Gunter Grass under my belt.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Time to catch up on the TBR pile

April is going to be a month of catching up with some of the books I have been sent or requested. So there is no overall theme for this month other than hopefully getting on top of the to-be-read pile a bit.

Starting with the beautifully produced Next World Novella by Matthias Politycki from Peirene it's the chance to dive headfirst into something that should be thought provoking.

From there it's going to be Laikonik Express by Nick Sweeney and then from there hopefully some other new writers.


Friday, April 01, 2011

The month in review - March

Crime writers seem to enjoy delivering stories that come in at the 300 page mark and so the month's reading was slower going than I'd hoped. There were some good things consumed and some books were taken off the to-be-read pile but there still remain a fairly large number of crime stories and thrillers to be tackled later in the year.

March reading:

The Terrorists by Maj Sjowall & Per Wahloo
Parallel Lives by John Tagholm
The Long Good-Bye by Raymond Chandler
The Mournful Demeanour of Lieutenant Boruvka by Josef Skovorecky
Talking about Detective Fiction by P.D. James
The Suspicions of Mr Wicher by Kate Summerscale
Headed for a Hearse by Jonathan Latimer

Thursday, March 31, 2011

A strange month

Haven't managed to get the reading pace I wanted this month but it's been difficult because there has been a lot of uncertainty at work which culminated in an announcement that the magazine I work for has been sold.

That has obviously led to a lot of conversations in corners and a dip in concentration as we all try to work out what it means for us all.

One fact is already clear, that it will change a daily routine I have been in for years and will change relationships with colleagues that stretch back in one case over a decade.

As a result the reading has been hard because the mind has been elsewhere but hopefully April might improve reading-wise.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

book review: Headed for a Hearse by Jonathan Latimer

"'I remember Sullivan, that's the house detective, gave a sort of snort when he went into the living-room from the hall. We all ran in behind him, and there she was on the living-room rug. She looked just like she was asleep, except for her pretty brown hair.'
'her hair?'
'It was all soaked with blood.'"

It's always going to be hard to play with the hard-boiled detective format but one option, used here by Latimer, is to wait a fair bit before you introduce the private eye into proceedings.

Not only wait a bit but then even when he has been introduced play the character in a minor key until they suddenly emerge towards the last third as the principal driver of the action.

Does it work? Only to a degree. While you wait for the detective to take centre stage you naturally search for alternatives and even when the action is in full flight you find yourself as a reader holding back from giving the hero your fulsome support.

The reason for the mechanics of the book stem from the clever premise that a man who has just a couple of days before facing the electric chair suddenly decides to fight to clear his name.

Robert Westland is rich but starts the book almost happy to take the rap for the murder of his wife. But after a conversation with one of the real murderers in the cell next door to his own he decides he will fight.

Money being no object he hires a crack lawyer and a tram including colleagues, his girlfriend and a couple of recommended private detectives.

As one of the private detectives Bill Crane seems to take an age coming to the foreground of the action but once there he moves swiftly, aided by heavy doses of alcohol, to start to piece together what really did happen to Mrs Westland.

Part classic locked room part Chandler in feel the book does finally spring into life and deliver. But for me it took slightly too long and the plot twists that are unwound so quickly at the end happen before the reader is introduced to the story and as a result lose their ability to interest slightly.

Perhaps the book just hasn't aged as well as some of its contemporaries. In 1935 it might have had the reader gripped but in 2011 it struggles in places and that's not good for any 'hard-boiled' crime novel.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Thoughts at the half way point of Headed for a Hearse

A man finds himself on death row for killing his wife. But with just a few days left until his visit to the electric chair he snaps out of his shock and grief and decides to fight for his innocence.

Hiring a tough Chicago lawyer and a detective to help find out who framed him the chapters start to count down the days until hope runs out.

In-between great description of the prison and the feelings of those awaiting death there are passages that have not aged as well but overall so far it's not too bad a reading experience.

A review follows on completion...

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Thoughts at the half way point of Talking about Detective Fiction

If you like reading crime and detective fiction then most of the big names will be instantly familiar but this guide fills in some of the blanks.

Starting at the most logical starting point, with the literary reaction to the creation of the police force and detectives, this charts through the ages of crime fiction.

By halfway you have been introduced to Sherlock Holmes and the imagination of Edgar Allen Poe and James fills in very concisely the features and writers that constituted the 'golden age' between the wars.

this book has the feel of being a guide that will throw up inspiration for a while to come and will be re-read.

A review will follow on completion...

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Thoughts at the half way point of the Mournful Demeanour of Liutenant Boruvka

The idea of a detective who finds the idea of solving a murder and discovering someone has lied and killed one that is depressing is more entertaining than it sounds.

The key moment when Lieutenant Boruvka has solved the case comes with a sigh as the murderer usually pushes their luck too far and makes one lie too many.

Although presented in the style of a collection of short stories, there is a continuos narrative and you start to discover about the life and the problems of the detective and some of those that work around him.

You can't help but admire the way he not only fails to lose his temper when surrounded by incompetence but also the way he allows a murderer to feel they have almost got away with it before he sighs and pulls the rug out from underneath them.

A review will follow soon on completion...

Thursday, March 17, 2011

A Brilliant St Patrick's Day

Enjoyed reading the short story Brilliant by Roddy Doyle today. It came about because of Dublin’s UNESCO City of Literature designation and the decision by the St. Patrick’s Festival Parade to specially commission a short story by Roddy.

It is a story for our times causing you to smile at the response Doyle comes up with to banish the recession blues that grip Dublin and Ireland.

it doesn't take long to read and is available here as a PDF

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Chandler on the BBC

Although sadly I think it's gone from iPlayer the BBC Saturday plays of Chandler's Marlowe stories that aired last month were brilliant. Toby Stephens played the private detective and managed to drag you into a world of mystery and intrigue within just a few minutes on a Saturday afternoon.

The series resumes in the autumn and if you get a chance to make a mental note and listen in then it is well worth it.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Thoughts at the half-way point of The Long Good-bye

There is a real difference between the Philip Marlowe books written before the second world war and the one I'm reading this week which came afterwards.

The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely introduce you to a wise but clevcer Philip Marlowe who has the wise cracks and is prepared to take the punches to solve the case. The people he mixes with tend sto be at both ends of the social spectrum with the blondes living off daddy's money down to the thugs trying to intimidate him out of solving the case.

In The Long Good-Bye Marlowe seems to be tired, vulnerable and although the wise cracks keep coming they just don't have the zip of earlier attempts. The brutality of the war seems to have made his run-ins with hoodlums and casino owners lose that bit of tension.

There are also references to technology that didn't seem to be there pre-war. Then it was all about guns, cars and cocktail mixers but now it's television, coffee makers and electric shavers.

It can't have helped that Chandler's wife was dying as he wrote the book. It is still enjoyable but so far in it's sad to come across this Marlowe compared to the one from the 1930s.

A review will follow on completion...

Saturday, March 12, 2011

book review: Parallel Lives by John Tagholm

"In a sense, Majorie had saved his life and he realised this was her role, to give back to others what had been denied herself. he shook his head, as much for himself as for the dead therapist."

This is a thriller in the sense that it starts with a body being discovered and somewhat towards the end the reason for the death is revealed.

But aside from those points of crime novel construction this book moves away from the medium and is much more of a study of human beings and the way that therapy offers some people hope of finding an answer to their problems.

But once the therpaiset Majorie Nielson has been removed, abruptly in this case because it is her body being discovered that opens the book, those that depended on her for answers have to look into themselves for answers.

Not only do they have to look into themselves but for three of them, the main characters of the book, they look to each other and find that sharing their problems, fears and anxieties with others can bring some sort of resolution.

Tagholm writes character well and in this small cast you start to connect and care about the love story between Toby and Perdita. You want them to come through their darkness into the light.

Worrying about how and who might have killed Marjorie is part of answering the problems for the other remaining patient in the trio Peter Harrington. He works out what secrets he shares with the therapist and why she had to face the end she did.

But by then the focus is on happy endings and unlike most crime novels the sense of solving the crime comes almost as an after thought to the reader who has been focused elsewhere.

It's only after reading and thinking about it you realise how the death of the therapist is the crux of the whole book and even the reaction to the truth of her demise at the end is part of showing how her patients have moved on a developed in her absence.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Thoughts at the halfway point of Parallel Lives

It's hard at the start with a book where one of the main characters is a therapist after you have read All in The Mind by Alistair Campbell.

But once you shake of a certain sense of de ja vu you get into a story that is fundamentally different. For a start the therapist here dies at the very start of the book leaving her patients bereft as they were working their way through their problems rather than having got to a stage where the therapy had ended.

Tagholm uses three characters to start to build a story around what happened to the therapist. As a 78 year old woman with diabetes the initial view of the legal establishment is that this is a case of suicide. But her patients and secretary dismiss that idea and start the process of trying to piece together what happened.

It is made harder of course because firstly they don't know anything about each other and they know not a great deal more about the therapist.

It's going to be interesting to see how the plot unravels as the three patients meet at the funeral and start to look to each other to provide some of the answers about the therapist's death.

A review will follow on completion...