Sunday, December 23, 2012

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas one and all. Hope father christmas brings you the books you have asked for and that 2013 is going to be a positive year.

Hope to be a better blogger next year...but I've said that sort of thing before. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The break-up

This was written for a cycling short story competition. Sadly pipped at the post but the theme was The Bike and it had to be done in no more than 1,000 words.

The break-up

Time was already against him as he unlocked the garage door and stepped into the gloom to pull his bike out from the tangle of wheels and pedals belonging to his children's brightly coloured smaller versions of his own mud covered hybrid.

The bike has been a bargain at just £104 on eBay, although he had been forced to drive from South East London to Colchester one Thursday evening to get it after winning the auction. A small but solidly built man had opened the door and shown him into the lounge where a bike resembling the small thumbnail he had seen on the web stood waiting leaning against the stairs.

"I got it a year ago for £300 expecting to get into cycling. I tried it but didn't like it. Most of it's brand new," he said as he wheeled the bike towards the door.

"Oh just one thing," he said once the bike was well clear of his house, "you might want to have a look at the back brakes. They might not be safe."

Then the door was closed and the two of them were alone. It was a dark autumnal night and despite not being able to see most of the finer details he couldn't take his eyes off the bike.

Before this investment he had been using a mountain bike purchased for £15 in cash at Deptford market. That bike had ended up being confined to three working gears with a tendency for the chain to slip going uphill when the slightest pressure was exerted on the pedals. It could have been fixed but it could never be justified on the grounds of throwing good money after what had been such a dodgy choice of two wheels.

That left him with a restricted budget and the internet. Surfing night after night hoping that he could stumble across a bargain Bianchi or a mis-labelled and under bidded on Specialized it became clear there were many others doing the same.

His final choice, a Trek 7100X hybrid, had the gears, the brand name brakes and components and looked the part. A combination of blue and silver he could already see himself gliding along London streets as he headed too and from work.

It was love at first ride and compared to the mountain bike the pace was higher and the ride was smoother. Slipping into the Lycra and riding to work had never felt so enjoyable.

But coming back from work one day to pick up the bike at Forest Hill station revealed a buckled wheel as a result of a van reversing into the bike shelter adding to problems he had already experienced with the brakes that he had been warned about.

He had to pay the bike shop to fix the wheel and the brakes and despite misgivings about the experience he tried to get back onto the saddle and rekindle that love affair. A few months later he happened by pure chance to cycle into the riots in Peckham High Street, as the masked youths swarmed across the road, they knocked again the bike and the back wheel buckled again. The costs of fixing the bike mounted up past the amount it had cost to get in the first place.

Squeaks, bottom brackets wearing out and chains slipping on the nasty home climb up Shooters Hill started to undermine the riding to work experience. As he was over taken by thinner, lighter road bikes with riders resplendent in team jerseys, enjoying clip in pedals and smooth rides he began to dream of buying a better bike.

It was now just a question of striking when the sales were at their height and as he pedalled along he could picture himself cutting an impressive figure on a lighter bike that would make him whizz to work in record time.

Pulling the Trek out of the garage was something that he now did with a heavy heart. The bike had not done anything wrong, had only let him down due to accidental damage, but now he had dreams of being a better rider and this bike could not take him there.

Soon he knew he would be closing the garage door on the bike for the last time.

"It's not you. It's me. I've changed and I'm sorry but I don't want the same things anymore."

A bit of creativity

I have been doing a bit of creative writing recently when the urge hits. I'm not a vain person - far from it, I have self esteem issues if anything - but thought that this blog would be a good place to post them.

So for those that stumble across the next couple of posts let me apologise in advance for what my seem to be self indulgence. It's just this is a good place for me to store things.

Monday, September 24, 2012


I've not really been blogging much since milo was born. But spam comments keep coming and beeping in the inbox. The best thing seems to be to switch comments off so that's what's going to happen for the time being.

Friday, July 13, 2012

book review: Kiera's Quest by Kristy Brown

Young adult fiction has to do a couple of things to work well. It needs to grab you from the off and it needs to maintain a pace until the end.

This does both as a story of parallel universes unfolds with evil trying to destroy good. Only Kiera can save the day but she knows very little about witch queen's and orphaned princes and has to get up to speed quickly.

As she discovers what's going on her troubled life is revealed and you feel that she can barely cope with the day-to-day let alone succeding with a quest to save a world from evil.

The chapters fly by with the pace maintained and you are told enough to understand but there are plenty of questions still left unanswered, which will be no doubt answered in subsequent books.

The action plays out around a core of four friends that find that one of their number Kiera suddenly starts acting strangely and winds up talking to a doll she believes is a prince that can communicate with her. She suffers taunts and fights at school as she tries to work out who she can trust as she tries to confide in friends the quest she has set out on.

The idea of trust is the main theme I will take away from this book. In some senses it is a coming of age tale with a trouble teenager finding out that trusting people can be a real challenge. Just as you think you know who is on your side and a friend the goal posts move and you wind up even more vulnerable than before.

I'm not going to reveal much of the story because that would spoil things plus this is very much a story in progress so working out of evil has really been vanquished is a bit of a case be continued.

An enjoyable read that grips you from the off and keeps that pace going until the end. Good characterisation and a strong story set this up as being the start of a solid series.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

book review: Finding Soutbek by Karen Jennings

Occassionally you will see children interviewed for some lifestyle programme and they are asked what their favourite subject is. When asked about history sadly some will reply that it's 'boring' or 'just about old kings and dates'. Those statements will be countered by that old quote about not knowing history and allowing horrible things to be repeated.

But history can also be a powerful force providing identity, pride and even hope to people that are struggling to find much good in their current situation but find solace and inspiration from the past. That is one of the themes Jennings is exploring here with the town of Soutbek struggling to find a place on the South African map. Ignored, despite a fire and flood that have devastated half the town, it's a History of the town that provides some hope. It describes the adventurers that first discovered the town and as the book becomes popular the tourism and national interest provides a glimpse into a different future for Soutbek.

Along with looking at the importance of history there is also a strong investigation of poverty and wealth and the condequences for those that find themselves on the dividing line of those two states. The mayor and co-author of the history book are trying to put the town on the map but Soutbek risks division and segregation once the upper town is destroyed in a fire and the inhabitants have to come down to the lower town.

As those from the destroyed homes camp out in the fish factory by the sea and start to litter the town with the smells and sites of poverty any dream of it becoming a tourist destination are smashed.

At the centre of it all is the mayor Pieter who has risen to a position of wealth and influence after a career selling stolen goods accompanied with a determination not to remain in poverty.

He loses sight of what really matters - love and family - and as it all comes tumbling down is left to realise that the family he cared so much for in terms of providing status and wealth, were not particularly interested in either.

This is a slow building story, interspersing the present with the past of the memoirs of Soutbek's founders, but the idea that the town was founded in a spirit of openness and love becomes a bitter irony as the upper and lower town becomes segregated. Bearing in mind this is set in South Africa and Pieter is the first black mayor, there is a great sadness that the have and have-nots have emerged again.

A powerful book that does make you dwell on the idea of your own response and obligation to others. It also underlines the truth that money does not equal happiness.

Monday, July 09, 2012

book review: Walks in the Wheatfield by Richard Jefferies

One of the numerous attractions of reading is the way that a book can transport you to a different world and give you a mental break from the day to day routine of a commute.

This book describes a world completely alien to me as a city dweller. The ways of the country are things I know little about and this is not only a glimpse into a landscape of wheat fields and rabbit burrows but also of the past.

The narrator tells simple stories about his development as a countryside expert in shooting and land management and so you are taken into a world where a day is quite happily spent hunting birds, clearing out rabbit burrows for a neighbouring farmer or simply valuing the importance of wheat.

Not all of the story is easy to follow and it's not always green and pleasant in the countryside, but in terms of transporting you away for a few hours it does the job perfectly.

In some ways it made me think more about the countryside and the jobs undertaken by those that live there alongside the fields, trees and animals. Watching Countryfile or occasionally dipping into the Archers does not deliver quite the same experience.

Along with it being a hymn to the beauty of the countryside this also acts as a requiem for a lost age. Pre-war shooting birds was as far as it went but before long those same farmers would have to take to the trenches and the countryside described here would change even further because of mechanisation.

See this book for what it is: an almost perfect escape into an idyllic past balanced with real life creeping in at the edges.

Monday, June 25, 2012

book review: The Chalk Circle Man by Fred Vargas

What holds most crime books together is the personality of the detective leading the hunt for the killer. Think Morse, Holmes or Maigret and you get the picture.

Here you are introduced to the eccentric and distracted jean-Baptiste Adamsberg who seems to ignore most of the usual conventions of detective work strolling around and in a Colombo type way getting under the skin of those he feels are involved in the crime.

The crime in question here takes time to build with objects found in Paris in the middle of a chalk circle. As the circles become something of a cause celebre it goes from being something strange to something much more sinister once a woman is found in a circle with her throat cut.

From that point on the tension mounts as the police look to crack the case. But at the heart of it causing a fair amount of frustration is the gentle Adamsberg who takes his time before fingering the culprit based on a series of observations and a wonderful insight into human character and motivation.

The real measure of if a thriller with a recurring character has grabbed you is if you would answer in the positive to the opportunity to reading more. In this case I would although crime is a genre that you tend to dip in and out of and sometimes you want the detective in charge to feel some of the tension.

In many ways what makes this more of a rounded book is not just the style, the characters but the distinctive French voices coming through. Translated by Sian Reynolds from the French there are mentions of regional attributes that Adamsberg brings that add to his profile.

Of course Paris itself also plays a role here providing a background of rain washed cobbled streets to the circles and the murder.

A good read and the name Adamsberg may well appear again on this blog.

some oldies

before I manage to finish something new i'm going to try to get round to posting some of the reviews of books i finished a while ago but never got round to sharing thoughts about. I have at least ten of these so hope to get those up over the course of the next couple of weeks to at least provide something 'fresh' to look at.

hello again

apologies for the absence but having another child has rather changed my reading routine. In some ways it's not a lack of sleep but just the change of having another little life in the house. This time around, knowing it's going to be the third and final time, has had more of an emotional impact than I expected. Each moment is precious and even when you are not with the little chap your mind wanders and reading has been difficult to non-existent.

Apologies for that and hopefully things will get back on a more even keel because I have a handful of books people have been kind enough to send that I really must review soon.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

From the Mouth...

This is late in the day but the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (IFFP) was awarded to Blooms of Darkness, which I reviewed recently.

Personally I would have liked to seen the Sjon win or New Finnish Grammar with Blooms of Darkness a bit of a Marmite book for me. I guess you either liked it or didn't but the judges must have done.

Having been a member of the Shadow IFFP prize, which was a real honour, it was interesting to have a debate and see which way we came down on our own choice of winner.

The choice of the panel, which included excellent must-follow bloggers, was From the mouth of the whale by Sjon.

The chair of the Shadow IPPF Stu over at Winston's Dad, summed up the reasons for that book being chosen

"We all liked and some of us loved this book no one really had a bad word about it ,I think from when ever any one of us judges read it we feel for it as a book and Sjon’s voice .We felt Sjon had captured through Jonas eyes the 17th century Iceland so well ,this was helped by Victoria's translation that through its usage of older languages and grammar gave it a feel of a book that had just been unearthed not a modern book .A worthy winner for the fist  shadow IFFP winner 2012."

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

book review: The Great Fire of London by Peter Ackroyd

Having read some Peter Ackroyd before the technique of overlapping history in different parts of London is not something unfamiliar.

But this was the first time he tried it in his debut novel and this sets up what he later on perfected as a style that would become synonymous with him. A few years ago in his London series on television he explained the ley lines and the way that London seems to hold history like a sponge.

What happened in some parts of the City hundreds of years ago still echoes today and in Ackroyd's world has the power to influence the present.

A film maker plans to make a modern day take on Little Dorrit and starts hunting round the old site of the Marshalsea prison. Other characters - often as bizarre as those that populated Dicken's books - are introduced and a cocktail of doom is mixed slowly as the filming begins.

Although Little Dorrit is a work of fiction there is a passage where a professor with a reputation for Dickens explains that it was a method of portraying reality and the conditions and world that are described in that novel - with the great poverty and the grimness of the debtors prison - existed for real.

Remembering that point is key to the story because in some ways the picture becomes clouded with one woman going to seance and having Little Dorrit visit her. Quite how a fictional character could speak from the dead is a point that blurs the edges.

But blurring the edges is what Ackroyd likes doing and he is control here not just of choosing which parts of the Little Dorrit story to use, much like the film maker in the story, but also of which areas of London will act as the backdrop.

London is a character here with its areas of poverty and neglect coming through into the story as areas that spawn the modern day extreme characters that Dickens would have used. There is Little Arthur who is not quite as likeable as Little Dorrit with his child killing history and Pally his friend who comes across as a simpleton but with a darker side.

As you would expect in a City of extremes along side these people live the normalish as well as the younf bright things that dream of dancing and making films where some of the poor people will make great background extras.

It works as a story but perhaps bringing in the other great London event in the shape of a modern versuion of the Great Fire is slightly unnecessary. It's covered in a couple of paragraphs and feels like it needed more room to breathe as an idea on its own. Otherwise a good read and a reminder that London isn a city of myths and legends where the past touches the future.

book review: From the Mouth of the Whale by Sjon

This starts with a biblical come fairy story and the magical imagery of angels, demons and the supernatural stay throughout. Set in sometime in the 1600s in Iceland it follows the story of naturalist and inquisitive minded Jónas Pálmason the Learned who it turns out has ended up being exiled to an island for his knowledge.

As he recounts what happened to him and why he is on the island you encounter a mind alive to only interesting things and a man who has become a victim of politics and powerful Icelandic families looking to counter his particular line in poetry, naturalism and healing powers.

Interspersed throughout the text are entries from the notebooks that Jónas makes to track the things he sees around him with comments about animals and plants. His experiences - a particularly lively spot of ghost hunting - and his determination to share it land him on the wrong side of those with vested interests in keeping some things mysterious.

Those that trade in narwhal horns describing them as unicorn horns are just some of the people who would fear the self-taught naturalist.

Exiled on the rock having vivid dreams Jónas is not allowed to leave unless someone offers him passage on a boat. This finally happens and he is taken to Copenhagen where he meets a like-minded professor who strikes up a friendship with the old man and then does what he can to release him.

But he remains on the rock mourning a dead wife and those of his children that have died and the imagery becomes even more vivid. Passages where he swims to the bottom of the sea to chat with dead sailors are some of the most memorable and had cinematic descriptive qualities.

There is as much said as not said with this story which is describing a genuine world where knowledge could be a dangerous commodity. Strange self-made religious ceremonies and absolute beliefs in sea monsters and unicorns are views held by many. The problem for Jónas is that pricking those bubbles is a dangerous thing to do.

But you can't help but end up liking the old man. He allows you to join him in his strange world where the real, imaginary and mystical merge and it creates a story that is going to linger long in the memory.

Some readers might find the style a bit of an issue, particularly the styart, but this book is well worth persevering with and rewards those that do.

book review: The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco

You get to the end of this book and its not until you read the bits and pieces that are usually things you skip that you realise the sheer scale of the ambition.

On one level the story is about the nature of conspiracy and how easy it is to invent, embellish and sell to various secret services a lie to further political or personal ends. But on another level it is an insight into what can make someone spend their life hating a section of society and how that hatred can drive them to extreme acts.

The book is written as a series of diary entries by Captain Simone Simonini, a man who has become so well versed at lying he struggles to remember the truth about himself. As he works through his life story you discover a tale of someone that was taught from birth to hate the Jews and distrust and despise those things that he did not understand.

As a result an Antisemitism mingles at moments with other causes, including a fairly regular dig at the Free Masons. But the main character, who is a forger of wills for his day job and an expert at delivering aged documents to help whatever cause he believes in and will reward him, is someone that you don not like. There is little to admire in a man that is so full of hate combined with ignorance imparted to him by his grandfather. Despite moving from Italy to Paris the man continues to see life through a filtered lens that means even when friendships could be cultivated with Jews he snubs that possibility out.

The title of the book comes from the masterpiece conspiracy put together by Simonini where he describes a meeting of Jewish leaders in a cemetery where they plot to take over the world. Even those he tries to pedal the document to can see through the forgery but that doesn't stop it being plagiarised and becoming part of the cultural background of the late 19th century world that Simonini moves in.

He is prepared to kill, lie and steal to get what he wants and even in the time period the story is set against he sees some success for his efforts. The Dreyfus Affair, where a Jewish officer was wrongly accused of pasisng military secrets to the Germans, is a case where proof is lacking but antisemitism manages to imprison an innocent man.

But of course it is what will happen much later with the lies described as fact in the Prague Cemetery document that will sow such hatred in the 20th century.

This is a very ambitious book that covers a fair amount of ground. In parts it seemed to become bogged down and the diary style was sometimes a weakness in that it provided mainly a one-sided view of events.

You are left thinking about the scale of the deception at the conclusion of the book but a bit shaved off would have got the reader more quickly to that moment.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Independent Foreign Fiction prize shortlist

Over the past few weeks I've been reading a selection of books that were longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. Along with other bloggers we assembl;ed a shadow jury that would come up with a shortlist of six.

The final list we came up with was revealed by most of my fellow bloggers yesterday ahead of the announcement this morning of the official shortlist.

There are differences, as you would hope there would be with different readers and opinions being expressed, and some of the books that made the official cut were not as popular with us as they clearly were with the other official panel.

As with these things there is always debate about choices and the merits of the individual works. Usually I'm just watching from the sidelines but it has been a priviledge running along in parallel with the process.

Here is the shadow IFFP jury shortlist:

Seven Houses in France by Bernardo Atxaga (translated by Margaret Jull Costa)
The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco (Richard Dixon)
Parallel Stories by Péter Nádas (Imre Goldstein)
Scenes From Village Life by Amos Oz (Nicholas de Lange)
Next World Novella by Matthias Politycki (Anthea Bell)
From the Mouth of the Whale by Sjón (Victoria Cribb)

Here is the official IFFP shortlist:

Blooms of Darkness by Aharon Appelfeld (Translated by Jeffrey M. Green)
The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco (Richard Dixon)
Alice by Judith Hermann (Margaret Bettauer Dembo)
New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani (Judith Landry)
From the Mouth of the Whale by Sjón (Victoria Cribb)
Dream of Ding Village by Yan Lianke (Cindy Carter)

Please read comments made by the other bloggers taking part in the shadow jury. They have read much more widely than me and have some very interesting views on the shortlist selections:

Winston's Dad

Tony's Reading list


Wednesday, April 04, 2012

book review: The Names by Don DeLillo

Language, specifically the names of things, is a theme from all angles in this book which manages to unsettle the reader until the last word.

In a nutshell the story follows an American former journalist, now risk analyst, who is living in Greece. James is separated from his wife but they start the story in close proximity working at an architectural dig on a nearby island. The dig is looked after by Owen Brademas a figure who is central to the plot although rarely takes centre stage.

Language comes into the tale straight away because it is a barrier. James is learning Greek but ends up telling lies to the doorman in his building because he doesn't know the right words to describe what he is really doing.

Likewise the communication breakdown in his marriage is exacerbated by his habit in the past of listing his faults and then reciting some of them in strange voices.

What words stand for is something that obsesses Owen and starts to run off on James and then in turn on his film making friend who hears of a cult that kills people that are named in the locations they are murdered. For instance Maud Kolo in Milton Keynes. For a while I thought that the main character James was destined to be dragged somewhere that matched his initials and killed but you come to understand he is more of an observer.

He is trying to read the language, both written and in signs and body language, and come to conclusions rather than becoming the story himself.

As a result he is in an ideal position to watch the ex-pat community, breeze through Greece, Turkey, India and beyond as he gathers risk data and even meet and talk to the cult about their activities.

The book is not always easy to get through and there were times you felt that the hunt for the cult was one that might not be worth the effort. As James heads for India and collects more stories of random deaths you start to suspect that there is no great mystery behind it after all.

Perhaps that is the real lasting impression here, that you can look for meanings too hard in things and sometimes language and words can not really be used to justify base acts of brutality.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

book review: Blooms of Darkness by Aharon Appelfeld

This story gives an account from an  11 year-old boy into what it's like to hide from Germans at the height of the holocaust. Hugo's father has already been taken to the labour camp at the start of the book and him and his mother Julia are waiting to sort out their own plans of escape.

Hugo is meant to be taken by a peasant into the mountains but the man fails to come and the mother and son have little choice but to crawl through the sewers out of the ghetto. Hugo is taken under the protection of Mariana, a prostitute who lives and works in a brothel designed to keep the soldiers contented.

Hugo then spends the best part of a year and a half in a closet attached to Mariana's room and lives in a state of constant fear that he will be discovered. He enters into a dreamlike world of memories and visions of his parents and friends to sustain him through the cold nights and long days.

But a friendship and then a love develops between him and Mariana. She is damaged and hunts out the innocent love that Hugo is pressured into offering and then introduces him to adult ways.

In some ways this relationship, which is maintained even after the Germans have fled and the Russians breakthrough, is the central one in the book. Hugo finds himself eventually left alone as Mariana is taken by the Russians to face her fate as a collaborator.

Alone you come to understand just how fully the war has robbed him of his childhood. His parents and friends might have gone but you sense a greater loss, and one he will bear for the rest of his life, is the way he has suffered over the period of his hiding. In some ways it is a coming of age tale set against a horrific backdrop.

But for me the book lacked the depth I was hoping would come. At some points it reminded me of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas with the reader clearly knowing well before the main character what was going on. But I found the relationship between Hugo and Mariana one that seemed to trivalise what was going on. Her lack of real interest in the Jews and their fate an his inability to understand her world leave you frustrated at a comprehension gap that grows wider rather than narrower as the story unfolds.

There were some moments in the book where the author had captured that sense of fear, chance and how fate can be settled in the strangest of ways but for the most part the education of Hugo is something almost mundane and it need not have been.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Thoughts at the halfway point of The Names

In between reading some books that are on the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize shortlist I have also been getting through The Names by Don DeLillo.

It's one of those books that feels dense and fairly quickly backs that impression up with a story that weaves around a failed marriage, archeology, international intelligence and a murderous cult. Quite how they all interact is down to the central character who interacts with the archeologist Own who discovers the cult near a dig in Greece.

The story takes place mostly in Greece set among a small group of US expats living on what seems to be the edge of Europe as they dabble in affairs in Turkey and beyond.

But this is a story mainly about language and the cult is central to that. They kill people who's names match the location. So for instance you would take a hammer to the skull of someone called Martin Knowles if he happened to live in Milton Keynes. There is a slight caveat to that and the person must be ill and have a condition that is eventually going to kill them anyway.

But as the book builds and there is a feeling of the inevitability that the central narrator is himself going to be a victim of the cult. I might be wrong there but we will see how it pans out.

A review will follow on completion...

Monday, March 26, 2012

book review: Next World Novella by Matthias Politycki

Hinrich wakes up one day to discover his wife has died of a stroke. He initially starts to think of all the things that you should do in that situation to register the death. But as he lingers, something he does quite a lot, he starts to read the papers she was working on before she died.

Her papers show notes and revisions on one of his old stories. The story was biographical but in a way that tha author never expected anyone to realise. The way that his wife changes names and adds revisions makes it quite clear that she knew about his secrets and his desires.

As he starts to come to terms with that he begins to unpick their life together finding that the version of history he liked to believe was true was in fact also a work of fiction.

As he talks and moves around the room in the apartment that now contains the corpse of his wife the man begins to find out that punishment for infidelity, even an attempt that failed, is something can take time to come to the surface.

Hinrich is left alone, unforgiven and exposed as a man of weakness. He might regret the past and start arguing his side of the story but with his wife no more it is an argument he will never win and a one-sided conversation you will sense will haunt him until the end of his life. An ending that they had promised to spend together, catching the boat across the water to the afterlife. His wife has left him alone in every dimension .

The novellas from Peirene Press are books that can be consumed in a couple of hours. But my experience so far with the couple of titles I have read is that although short to read they take a long time to digest leaving a deep impression. This is no different.

book review: New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani

Language defines us all. What tells you I'm English in seconds are the words that come out of my mouth. But imagine if all I had was a name tag sewn in a sailors jacket and no memory of anything else, even my mother tongue.

That's the starting point for this story of a doctor, patient and country caught in the middle of the Second World War. The doctor, Peter Friari, is a Finn who finds himself far from home both spiritually and physically. He is asked to care for a man who has been clubbed around the head and left for dead on Trieste quayside. The only distinguishing mark is a name label sewn into his sailor's jacket - Sampo Karjalainen.

That Finnish name is seized on by Dr Friari who is determined to help get the sailor home and starts his education of the Finnish language. The recovery is slow but determined and after a few weeks Sampo gets a chance to travel back to Helsinki. He struggles to communicate with those around him but starts to try to tackle the language and master Finnish.

Once back in Finland he finds a country that is haunted by a fear of Russian invasion. Memories of the past mingle with the present with myths and legends being called upon to galvanise the troops and remind those fighting of great former deeds.

Through this war torn land Sampo spends his time with a priest learning the language and writing down his grammar lessons and diaries in a notepad.

It is this same notepad that forms the basis of the story. Introduced as a document found in the hospital where Sampo had been staying the Doctor shares the story with the occasional commentary of his own - helpfully inserted in italics.

Sampo's story, intertwined with the doctor who is haunted by his past and trying to resolve his feelings for his country, is one about identity.

Grammar might not spark off thoughts of excitement but understanding language is what defines us all and as Sampo struggles to find his own past and work through Finnish he discovers a fair bit about the people around him, even if he doesn't find his own past.

A very clever story that rightfully deserves it's place on a longlist of books for a translated fiction prize as it is all about language and the importance of words, memories and identity.

book review: Please Look After Mother by Kyung-Sook Shin

"Even though nobody knew that you were in my life, you were the person who brought a raft at every rapid current and helped me cross that water safely. I was happy that you were there. I came to tell you I was able to travel through my life because I could come to you when I was anxious, not when I was happy.”

The idea of losing your mother is a difficult one to contemplate but what if you realised after you had lost her physically that you had been missing her for years before that sudden disappearance.

The idea of this book is to make you think about what you value and to act almost as a warning not to forget the people you love before it is too late.

Told in four chapters and an epilogue the story is told from different view points. Starting with the explanation that an elderly mother of five children who has health issues gets separated from her husband on the train on a trip to Seoul the hunt for the missing mother then unfolds.

Chapter one is told through the eyes of one of the mother's daughters. A successful novelist the viewpoint makes you think that for that chapter at least this is some sort of biographical work. The daughter realises that she had started to take her mother for granted long before she went missing and the time she gave her had become less and less.

Switching then to the older son you get an insight into the love and care that the mother bestowed on her first born. he is left realising that he pledged to himself to make her life better but he never quite delivered on those promises. Both the son and the daughter express regret and hope that given the chance they can find their mother and make good the things they failed to do.

Through the eyes of her children you get an insight into the mother's world - a hard rural existence scrimping and working all the time for the family. At one point her husband leaves her and she has to fend for herself and she has to struggle with loss and hardship throughout her life. Rather than help her with those the family ignore her problems or fail to deal with them properly.

The third chapter switches to the father and is one of the most moving because you get an insight into the grief he is unable to share with his children. Regrets weight heavily on him and he is lost without his wife.

Then the mother herself speaks. I struggled a bit here to work out who had picked up the story in chapter four and I'm not sure if that is because it changes to the first person or ir its because the ghostly movement takes time to understand.

Overall the book is powerful, makes you think not necessarily about your own mother, but certiantly those that you care about. It makes you determined not to promise and fail to deliver and not to regret the things you did not do and thought you would.

Monday, March 19, 2012

First impressions of New Finnish Grammar

For a translated work of fiction its rather neat having a story that is all about language. In this case a man with a lost memory is encouraged to relearn Finnish and start to head back towards his home.

The action is set against the backdrop of the second world war and the subject of the book starts with the relationship between a doctor and his patient. The doctor finds himself in the service of the German army far from home and identifies with the sailor who is in the same position in terms of being far from his native land.

This relationship between doctor and patient is one that is fairly crucial in the early stages and one based on a shared language, or at least a presumed sharing of language.

So far very good and looking forward to how it unfolds further...

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Shadow IFFP 2012

Never let it ever be said that the world of social media is not one where friendships are made and connections formed that add happiness and interest. One of those book loving friends I have made Stuart Allen (otherwise known as Winstonsdad) has asked me to be part of the jury for the Shadow IFFP Prize.

The idea is that we shadow the judging process of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and have a bit of fun doing it. I have read one of the long list, Next World Novella, but am yet to post a review (will do that soon) and am aiming to get my hands on another couple. What unites the people who are doing this is a love of translated literature and so the chance to read some good books is not an opportunity to be missed.

The other judges apart from Stu and me are:

Mark of Eleutherophobia blog

Gary of Parrish Lantern

Rob of robaroundbooks

Kinna of kinna reads

Lisa of ANZ lit lovers 

Tony of Tony's Reading List

The longlist is:

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami (Harvill Secker); translated from the Japanese by Jay Rubin

Alice by Judith Hermann (The Clerkenwell Press); translated from the German by Margot Bettauer Dembo

Blooms of Darkness by Aharon Appelfeld (Alma Books); translated from the Hebrew by Jeffrey M. Green

Dream of Ding Village by Yan Lianke (Constable and Robinson); translated from the Chinese by Cindy Carter

From the Mouth of the Whale by Sjón (Telegram Books); translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb

Hate: A Romance by Tristan Garcia (Faber & Faber); translated from the French by Marion Duvert and Lorin Stein

New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani (Dedalus); translated from the Italian by Judith Landry

Next World Novella by Matthias Politycki (Peirene Press); translated from the German by Anthea Bell

Parallel Stories by Peter Nadas (Jonathan Cape); translated from the Hungarian by Imre Goldstein

Please Look After Mother by Kyung-sook Shin (Weidenfeld & Nicolson); translated from the Korean by Chi-Young Kim

Professor Andersen’s Night by Dag Solstad (Harvill Secker); translated from the Norwegian by Agnes Scott Langeland

Scenes From Village Life by Amos Oz (Chatto & Windus); translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas De Lange

Seven Houses in France by Bernardo Atxaga (Harvill Secker); translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa

The Emperor of Lies by Steve Sem-Sandberg (Faber & Faber); translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death

The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco (Harvill Secker); translated from the Italian by Richard Dixo

Monday, March 05, 2012

Thoughts at the halfway point of The Sisters Brothers

Despite the potential unsavouriness of following two hired guns who kill at the drop of a hat you start to like Eli, the narrator of the tale of the two Sister Brothers.

Both clearly have psychological problems but it is Charlie, the older brother, who comes across from the start as being the more deranged and dangerous. He takes life easily and enjoys the deed.

But this is an enjoyable book following the two brothers as they head off on a assassination mission demanded by their employer the Commodore. As they head off towards the gold rush and the West they start a journey into their own relationship.

It's an easy read, with short snappy chapters, and it draws you in. Looking forward to seeing where it will end.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Month in review - February

Let's not beat around the bush. February was a poor month on the reading front. This as a result hit the blog because it's hard to post about very little without sounding rather desperate.

With only three books read things hit a new low. It wasn't too depressing because on other fronts targets were hit - particularly in my efforts to run a decent number of miles this year. But my credentials as a book blogger, which are flimsy to start with, will no doubt have taken another knock.

Anyway onwards and hopefully volume wise upwards into March.

Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow
To a God Unknown by John Steinbeck
Gonzo Republic by William Stephenson

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

book review: Gonzo Republic Hunter S. Thompson's America by William Stephenson

"Thompson was very well read and extremely articulate in print, but he was not a philosopher or even an intellectual. He was, first and foremost a journalist, who preferred to seek the Dream and report on the quest rather than to theorize about it. He never sat down to formulate his ideas systematically in the abstract; instead, he composed everything in response to some experience."

In a way it's easy to label Hunter S. Thompson's life's work as a quest to pin down the reality of the American Dream. From the moment he received the assignment to write a book about it he was struggling but that struggle to define something that almost defies explanation became something that shaped his writing.

Add to that some of the other things he became famous for - developing Gonzo journalism where he was to a large extent the story and living the events rather than observing them impartially - along with his legendary drug use and you end up with someone who becomes a persona and even ends up merchandising that image.

But this bvook shows there was more to Thompson than just an image. Indeed he seems to have struggled to come to terms with it himself moaning about the way it pigeon-holed his ability to be seen in a different light.

His politics and beliefs were shaped by a particular view of America and what it should stand for. There was no place in his American dream for those who murdered presidents and no place for presidents who disgraced their office. His hatred of Nixon stayed with him until the end.

But he was not just interested in politics and the sub-groups that existed in their own bubbles, like the Hells Angels he first wrote about or the hippies he briefly lived alongside. He was also drawn to gambling and sports and his knowledge of those provided employment and an income at points in the second half of his career.

For those that have read any Thompson there are helpful insights here into the way he was making points with exagerrated scenes of violence or drug use. You end up appreciating more episodes that at first glance could be dismissed as fanciful.

But where perhaps this book could have gone further is to try and explain the cult of Thompson that seems to have grown even more after his death. The flame is carried high by Johnny Depp but there are others who also see his work as a beacon in the darkness of an America that has lost its way.

Perhaps more on those developments would have explained even more not just the way that Thompson saw and was shaped by America but the way he had also left his dent on the nations consciousness.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Thoughts at the halfway point of Gonzo Republic

Hunter S. Thompson is one of those writers that likes to blur reality. Reading his books is fun but because he places himself in the story it might be entertaining but not always totally convincing.

This book aims to look at why Thompson developed the Gonzo style, what he hoped to achieve by it and helps a reader through the motivation behind the author's work.

It also makes it fairly clear from that start that the mistake is not just to take Thompson too literally but to assume that as a result everything he is saying can be dismissed as a fiction.

Insights into a troubled childhood and a writing style that emerged more by luck than judgement sets up the book for what should be an interesting second half. With Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas written and Thompson well established you know how the story ends but what happened in the intervening years should make a good read.

A review will follow on completion...

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Thompson anniversary

Sometimes when you are reading there can be odd coincidences that happen. I remember reading Hemingway's Spanish Civil War classic For Whom the Bell Tolls only to put the book down open a weekend paper to find an article about the war and its ongoing impact in Spanish life and politics.

The same thing happened again with the decision to read William Stephenson's book looking at Hunter S. Thompson and his life and times. The seventh anniversary of Thompson's death has fallen today and it seems like a good time to be reading all about his influences and work.

There is a great blog that still comes from Owl Farm where HST lived and wrote and you can read more about the anniversary there.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

A giver again

It's with great happiness I am to be a World Book Night giver again. Last year was great fun giving out 48 copies of All Quiet on the Western Front.

I will be doing the same again this year handing out copies of A Tale of Two Cities to those that smile and ask for it.

Will update my progress and giving plans.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

book review: To a God Unknown by John Steinbeck

There is a tension in this book from start to finish. A sense of expectation and dread that Steinbeck manages to heighten and lessen but always keep there to come centre stage when the moment requires.

Joseph Wayne starts the story telling his father he wants to head West and stake his land while he still can in the land rush that is spreading across California. He leaves behind three brothers who he believes will present too much competition for the land.

So already there is tension about land ownership and although this disappears when Joseph sets up his own farm there is the threat, casually dropped by the natives to the area, that the area is prone to drought. That tension grips the farmer and returns again and again to haunt him. But as long as he has the tree, which he believes is the home of the spirit of his dead father, life seems to be okay.

He invites his brothers out to stay on the land and the homestead grows to become a real family plot. Joseph even marries and fathers a child but that sense of impending doom always hovers over the land. Joseph is not the only one who reverts to home made religions to try and master the elements and even the priest comes across as a figure that walks the line between established religion and a knowledge and even partial sympathy for pagan ways.

But you always sense that the darkest fear Joseph is struggling with will come to pass and at that point this mixture of homemade religion and the influence of desperation and even madness combine to bring the book to a powerful conclusion.

What Steinbeck underlines is the relationship between man and the land and the elements. Just as a sailor can try to understand the sea but cannot tame it the farmers struggle with the lack of rain and the heat. They can prepare for the worst but they cannot stop it.

That strain puts a great deal of pressure onto the characters and they respond differently. The three brothers all have their coping mechanisms but it is the decision of Joseph, as the head of the family, that you focus on. You never feel easy reading this book because that sense of tension is always there.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The gift of reading

My eldest son, who has dyslexia had his birthday and one of his presents was a book from the publishers Barrington Stoke.

I picked the book after asking people on Twitter for recommendations about reading choices for reluctant readers and the name Barrington Stoke came back from several people. I chose First Ninja by Chris Bradford as a good place to start and we sat down and my son read us all the first chapter before he went to bed last night.

I was then woken by the alarm this morning and headed downstairs to find my son on the sofa with the book just finishing the last chapter. Okay so it's a short book but it's the first he has read at that speed for a long time and he was bouncing around the place afterwards. He was full of the joy that reading and enjoying a book can give you.

He has promised to come on to the blog and share a review of the book with you later this week.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Thoughts at the halfway point of To A God Unknown

Half way into this book and life seems to be going reasonably well for the Wayne clan headed by Joseph. He has set up the farm of his dreams, invited his brothers to join him and found love.

The threat of drought seems a long way off and life on the farm is about birth and growth. The slight blot on the horizon is the pine glade around a large moss covered rock and a stream which is a reminder of the quirks of nature, and is a cold strange place the had a place in the history of the Indians who preceded the farmers.

That sense of darkness, unknown mysteries and perhaps just an inability to control nature is always on the edge of the picture even if what is happening in the foreground seems to be happy and enjoyable.

You sense that the tension that glade and rock seem to stand for will come to a head in the second half. We shall see...

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Celebrating a Dickens anniversary

There are always anniversaries of famous authors that litter the calendar but today's, the 200th anniversary of  the birth of Charles Dickens, is one of those that has captured the imagination.

It is perhaps because his books are not only still in print and read but also because they are the staple source, along with Jane Austen, for those television executives looking for something to turn into a costume drama. Only a few weeks ago the latest incarnation of Great Expectations finished on the BBC and there are bound to me more Dickens in the future.

We had a set of his books in the house when I was growing up all in uniform dark brown covers with gold capital letters across the spine indicating the title of the book. The set put me off reading him for a long time because it was oppressive and rather intimidating. The way the books were bound in that dark uniform set seemed to squash any ideas in my mind that they would be full of wonderful characters and transport me to a different world.

Not different in the sense of overseas as much as time traveling back to a dirty, squalid and often unfair London where Dickens managed to cast a light into a world of hardship, cruelty but often love. He did it with great characters and as I discovered them, and there are still more to come as I never finished that set, I began to understand just why he was such a good writer.

So happy anniversary to Dickens and may his wonderful characters be enjoyed by many generations to come.

Monday, February 06, 2012

First Impressions of To a God Unknown

I don't know why this has just struck me because I have read Steinbeck before and particularly East of Eden when family is the main theme. But starting out on To a God Unknown my first thoughts were about Tolstoy and Tolkien.

The reason is that that sense of setting a family in historical context has a 19th century feel to it, something Tolstoy also does well, and the decision to put an emphasis on that combination of family, heritage and geographical location is the signature style of how Tolkien starts his stories.

That is where the comparisons end though because having established that Joseph Wayne is heading away from the family farm to stake his own land in California the story quickly becomes about his adventure.

He picks his land, becomes spiritually attached and following his father's death calls out the rest of his brothers to join him.

Fore Joseph the great oak tree that branches out above his newly built home is his father. The spirit of his deceased parent is something he associates with the tree and as a result you already feel the tension over the future.

More to come as I get into it but wanted to share some first impressions.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

National Libraries Day

One of my first memories is going through some doors, down a slope in my pushchair and looking through a large internal round window that was in the children's section of Blackburn library.

My mother has always loved libraries and instilled that into myself and my brother getting us library cards from a very young age and introducing us to a magical world of books.

That love has never left me and until this government was elected I always took it for granted that not only would libraries always be there but the same experiences I had would be ones I could pass onto my children.

Although I'm lucky that my local library has not been closed down when unfortunately so many others have the shadow cast by the closures and the general attitude to libraries hangs over everything. The neighbouring borough of Lewisham has closed libraries, and we have even marveled in despair at the empty shelves and abandoned books as we have peered through the windows into some of them. Although Greenwich has held relatively firm the new book acquisitions seem to have slowed and the general morale of the staff seems to be low.

Taking libraries away is one of the most ill thought out cuts that has been introduced. It deprives people of the riches of the written word, prevents children from learning and takes some of the heart out of the community.

This national libraries day perhaps more than most the horn needs to be blown to praise and save our libraries.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Book review: Ragtime by E.L Doctorow

Think of ragtime and you conjure up images of Scott Joplin and a very distinctive piano based sound that tends to stay in your head for a while.

What makes a rag so memorable is the rhythm and the pace and that bursts through on the pages here as the story ebbs and flows across the critical years of a family between the turn of the century and the first world war.

The main focus of the story is the mother, father, son and the grandfather and mother's brother who live in the house together. Father and his brother-in-law work in a bunting and fireworks factory which seems to be doing pretty well. The son is introduced mooching around in a sailor suit and so you sit back and wait for a story charting his growth to a man to emerge.

In some ways it does but this story is not about him. It is about some pretty big things ranging from the state of American race relations, the position of the oppressed working classes and the prospect of secret societies founded by the richest men determined to find the answers to conquering death.

It starts with a child being abandoned in the garden. The determination of the mother to help the child and the poor mother sets the family on a course that involves it with some weighty issues. A ragtime playing pianist courts the child's mother and life seems to be going well until he is raciallty abused by firemen. They vandalise his T-Ford and as a result he becomes determined to get retribution.

That determination leads to a terror campaign bombing firehouses and intertwines with the emerging civil rights movement, which is depicted as wanting a compliant rather than confrontational relationship with the authorities.

That story would be gripping enough but add to the mix some of the most well know figures of the time and what you get is a heady mixture of history and fictional emotion.

Houdini the great magician emerges as a tragic figure in love with his mother and desperate to find a thrill that will satisfy his longing for adventure. Freud pops over on a boat and leaves fairly sharply after finding America distasteful. But it is the obsession with mastering the afterlife that drives J.P Morgan. Henry Ford comes across as a grumpy factory boss with the riches but not the grace or brains that usually come with them.

Put it all together and you end up with a wonderful tale of a country at the start of a new century trying to come to terms with itself and dealing with the demands and desires of the people who make up the population of that great continent. Sound familiar? That's exactly why it translates as such a good read for today as well as tomorrow.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Month review: January

Got to admit it's been a pretty pleasing start to the year reading wise. Haven't cycled much but the reading has been on track as a result. Not always going to be able to do that but good to kick off in January with some positive reading.

The theme was American and the authors were a mix of new and old. Good experiences all round and I'm sticking with US writers for a bit longer.

Anyway here are the books read last month:

Bagombo Snuff Box uncollected short fiction by Kurt Vonnegut
Child of God by Cormac McCarthy
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
The Rich Boy by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Falconer by John Cheever
A Generation of Swine by Hunter S. Thompson
You & I by Padgett Powell

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Thoughts at the halfway point of Ragtime

Houdini, Freud and Henry Ford grace a story of a country on the brink of change.

The story centres on one family and stretches out from them and returns to their home as those who live there return from adventures and love affairs.

Lightly a lot is being packed on here describing a country at the start of a new century on the cusp of all sorts of changes.

Of course as the boy in the story is finding out the most interesting changes are the ones that happen to yourself.

Very enjoyable so far and looking forward to the rest.

Monday, January 30, 2012

book review: You & I by Padgett Powell

"How many of us are there?
There's the two of us, right now. You and me. You and I."

Padgett Powell likes to write inventively. His last book was a series of questions from start to finish leaving the reader searching for their own answers. This time most of the questions get answered as two men discuss life, dreams and whether or not they will go and get some beer dressed in an orange jump suit.

It's been a while since I read the Interrogative Mind but I'm sure some of those questions got a repeat airing here as the two men bounce thoughts back and forth. You have a picture in your mind of two men, not so old ambitions have withered away but neither young, sitting on a porch watching the world go by.

They are clearly old friends and make references to shared experiences that sometimes they can remember and others cannot find it in their memories. They both seem to share the same view of the world and both get excited at the thought of 'losing it' and wandering off verbally into a random world punctured by anger.

Reading this book is not as much of a challenge as the questions after questions predecessor but neither is it perhaps a comfortable ride. Most, myself included, will come to this with a grounding in the old familiar narrative form. Searching for a middle and end here will lead to a headache. The conversation between the two men is going to go on until broken by illness or death and this is a snapshot into it. That sense of it never ending is in itself a challenge to the reader because it raises questions about not just what would your answer be to the questions but what would you do if you were stuck in a verbal relationship like this one?

There is a comfort in knowing that when you sit there with a friend and put the world to rights you are probably more coherent than these two characters. But ultimately just as they struggle to find the effort to make a difference and recapture a lost sense of momentum, perhaps that fate beckons for all of us.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Word of mouth

There is nothing like getting a good recommendation of a book that comes from someone who has really enjoyed it. Their passion can make you sail through the first few chapters sure that the destination is goling to be worth it.

So it was after my boss enthused about Ragtime by E.L. Doctrow that I headed to Waterstones and picked up a copy. The blurb confirmed his general overview and so it is in an attempt to read a work that not only describes an America of the past but speaks to an America of today that I start this recommended reading journey.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Thoughts at the halfway point of You & I

This is another book with plenty of questions marks in from Padgett Powell.

Just like the Interrogative Mind there are lots of questions being asked. But here there are answers as this is a dialogue between two men.

They are not old but neither are they young and their views range far and wide.

It's strange, fun and probably not going to come to much of a conclusion. But we will see...

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

book review: Generation of Swine by Hunter S. Thompson

"There is all the action you want, from time to time - but in the main it is a dull and dreary life, like journalism."

It takes a long time to get the style of this column and by the time you get it the next emotion is disappointment that he is not around now writing about the current Presidential race and the madness of US politics.

The reason it takes so long to get into the book is because it is badly dated and limited to a US national outlook that does not chime with a UK readership. The events being written about in the column that HST penned for two years for the San Francisco Examiner cover the years of 1987 and 1988.

Reagan is president and coming to the end of his period in the White House. He has become immersed in the Oliver North Iran/Contra scandal but because of his clear dementia he has little chance of being impeached. That leaves the mess potentially impacting the Bush run at the presidency and towards the end of this collection of columns it has become clear that Bush has sidestepped the scandal and looks set for the Republican nomination.

So much of the columns focuses on the runners and riders in both the Democrat and Republican parties with professional gambler HST giving the odds and the forecasts of what will happen.

But that and to a degree the mentions of topical foreign policy are not really the parts of the book that work now. They have not traveled well and I suspect even a modern day US reader would struggle to connect the references.

So having admitted that the content is usually dated, of limited value to an overseas reader you might wonder what on earth this collection of columns has to offer.

The answer is to do with style because what these fairly consistent length pieces do is pin HST down to a weekly deadline and a word count that forces him to be tight. Sometimes he is repetitive in the way he starts the columns indicating that he rather liked a pattern that perhaps killed off quickly 40 or 50 words. But it also allows him to show off his ability to deliver a heady mix of allegory, humour and accurate insight into people and events.

The allegory took me a while to get but that is the part that grows throughout the book and when you read these columns you realise that if it was talken literally then law suits and a swift end to the series would have followed.

This is not the best place to get a feel for HST, it's not even a good book in the sense of a reading experience but it has something to offer and there is a reward for trudging through the historical policitical references.

Monday, January 23, 2012

book review: Falconer by John Cheever

"He wanted to cry and howl. he was among the living dead. There were no words, no living words, to suit this grief, this cleavage. he was primordial man confronted with romantic love. His eyes began to water as the last of the visitors, the last shoe, disappeared."

This is not a particularly easy story to read. The tale of a man who kills his brother, is addicted to drugs and ends up in prison is not perhaps the ideal way to create a scenario and character that will lead to reader's hearts. But you find yourself on the side of Farragut despite all these things.

He describes how and why he became addicted to drugs - fed them during the war and then existence in a society that seems to be drugging the population in some form or other - and you find yourself half agreeing with him. Ironically it's prison that managed to make him clean after expensive clinics and therapists have failed to do the job.

There is also a well developed reveal of the murder with it clear that the relationship between the brothers is a strained one and the murder victim did to a degree ask for some sort of confrontation. That doesn't excuse the killing but it does allow you to side with Farragut when he describes it as exaggerated and an accident.

But that is all in the past and this story starts with the main character entering prison. The vivid description of the prison, the misery of confinement and the struggles to cope with the routine are all written brilliantly. As Farragut slips into a battle to keep his sanity and finds love in the arms of a prisoner who manages to escape the future looks bleak. His wife displays little chance of providing love and most of those prisoners and guards around him are struggling with their own emotional problems.

A riot at another prison ushers in a period of tension that provides Farragut with a chance to place himself in the heart of the community in F wing. He spends most of his time wandering through the memories of the past. Perhaps it is that process which encourages the sort of introspection that can lead to a life being turned around. Just as he breaks his dependence on drugs and methadone it is a more profound break with himself that prison provides.

Sure this is dark, sometimes brutal in its description of the world of the incarcerated and it has the power to shock. But what I will remember is the power of the writing, being taken on a journey that delivered from start to finish and an introduction to a writer I intend to read much more of.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Thoughts at the halfwaypoint of Falconer

When a book is described as 'The great American novel' it sets expectations. Naturally you start reading expecting to be impressed by the writing but it perhaps makes you read it with an open mind. If a book is great it's rather pleasing to come to that conclusion yourself rather than being told from the start.

Still getting past the blurb, and not having read any Cheever before, my mind was still fairly open. It didn't remain that way for long as the description, character and plot started to emerge.

This is a really good read. From the moment it starts describing the statue above the entrance to the prison and court house you are drawn into the dirty desperate world of the convict. That Farragut has killed his own brother is made clear from close to the outset as is his drugs problem. It also becomes clear that as a former college professor he is not the usual type that ends up in the Falconer Correctional Facility.

That Facility unfolds before the reader as Cheever takes you through the halls, cells and visitor rooms. he does so brilliantly.

bit by bit Farragut starts to face the prospect of losing his sanity. The drug addiction is a major problem but so is he sense of abandonment from people, life and love. He takes another prisoner as a lover and by the halfway point seems to have settled into some sort of equilibrium. But whether or not he can stay there is another matter.

A full review will come on completion soon

Friday, January 20, 2012

Reading on the fly

It can be cold, a baby can scream for what seems like hours and the food can be inedible. But one guaranteed joy of flying a fairly long distance is the chance it gives you to read.

As the hours stretch out before you the chance to lose yourself in a book without the worry that the phone or internet will distract you is something rather wonderful.

These days it's very rare for me to fly but when it happens I pack the books and enjoy every second of the reading time.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Thoughts at the halfway point of Generation of Swine

This is a collection of columns that Hunter S Thompson wrote for the San Francisco Examiner over a two year period back in the 1980s.

As you can imagine because these were topical weekly columns written for a local readership they have not all aged or translated well to a wider more modern readership.

What dates it fairly quickly are the regular political references to politicians and campaigns that have in some cases faded into the ether or were not things that managed to make a dent on the memory in the first place.

The second issue is trying to relate to a column that is referring to news events that barely registered a blip on the UK news radar even at the time of them happening.

So aside from these problems what you are left with is the writing. it is the usual HST fare with fabulous tales of drinking, madness, guns and politicians.

In some cases you find it hard to believe what he says took place actually happened - starting with the first column where his girlfriend gets a tattoo just so he has something to write about - but that of course is the way you have to read this stuff. You need to believe it happened, or at the very least suspend your disbelief, because if you go with him then this is very entertaining.

But I'm finding half way in that it is the problems with the way this collection of columns really hasn't aged well that is causing me problems and finishing it will be a relief.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

book review: The Rich Boy by F.Scott Fitzgerald

"Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where they we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves. Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are."

Fitzgerald knows how to tell a story. He knows how to introduce a reader to am world of the very rich. But he also knows how to deliver in the short story format, which is something he does again here well in these three stories.

The title story follows the life of Anson Hunter, a very rich man who struggles to value true love. Finding someone to love him is not too difficult but realising its real, not something that can be bought and replaced, is something he understands only after he has lost it. B ut this is a man not used to losing anything so he carries on looking to find or even better the love he has thrown away.

just as you think he has realised his mistakes, particularly when he is confronted by the past, he throws off the depression and listlessness that might befall people without his background and sets off again on the merry-go round of courting someone unable to give him the genuine love he needs.

Love is the theme again in The Bridal Party as an American living in Paris comes face-to-face with his old lover. Michael Curly stumbles across Caroline as she strolls along with her fiance and over the course of a few days he manages to befriend her again after a gap and declare his love. Her husband-to-be loses his considerable fortune in the 1929 stock market crash just as the wedding draws near. But this is still not a chance for Curly to get his girl back.

He comes into some inheritance but he doesn't have the luck or the imagination of the rich man who has fallen on hard times who looks like not only bouncing back immediately but also getting his girl.

"This show will cost Ham about five thousand dollars, and I understand they'll be just about his last. But did he countermand a bottle of champagne or a flower? Not he! He happens to have it - that young man. Do you know that T.G. Vance offered him a salary of fifty thousand dollars a year ten minutes before the wedding this morning? In another year he'll be back with the millionaires."

The final story, The Last of the Belles, is also about love and the mess that some people get into. An army base in the deep south is distracted by the three local beauties that compete for the hearts of the soliders getting ready to go off and fight in France. The main character is introduced to one, Allie Calhoun and develops a friendship with her. It remains platonic and he becomes an observer to the way Allie flirts with several men looking for the one that might be worth marrying. Thoughtful and strong types are replaced with the adventurous and arrogant but she remains closed off to them all.

Years later the narrator heads back and discovers she has married a local rich man. As he searches for the long since knocked down army base, he is perhaps also looking in vain for the lost youth he wasted being a friend of Allie Calhoun.

You don't have to like the characters that Fitzgerald writes about, or harbour ambitions to be that wealthy, to understand that the themes he is writing about are universal. Loving and losing is something that people of all backgrounds so. It's just that in the world of the very rich there is a weakness from the failure to understand love is not a commodity that can be paid for. That weakness makes it more tragic when someone like Anson, who seems to have it all, in fact has very little which is becoming even less as he faces a lonely old age.

The name Fitzgerald is always said in the same breath as The Great Gatsby, but as this book proves yet again people should read his short stories.