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.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Thoughts at the half way point of The Rich Boy

Fitzgerald is best known for The Great Gatsby and the title story in this collection of three short stories introduces someone who also has great wealth.

With wealth seems to come unhappiness, a restlessness that prevents Anson Hunter from finding happiness. He has the looks, the career, the income and the life he wants but his inability to commit to the one woman he really loves means he cannot find the love he seeks.

The result is that Hunter becomes even larger than life, turns more to the bottle and struggles even harder to inspire the love he seeks himself in others. It works and another relationship is formed but again he lets the woman go and ends up reading about the marriage in the society pages.

Despiute the great wealth tyou are left feeling a slight symapthy for XX. Not too much because he has inspired his own problems, but enough to make you realise that being rich does not always mean happiness.

There are two other stories in this book which I am looking forward to and will mention those in the full review, which should be posted tomorrow.

Monday, January 16, 2012

book review: A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

“If I had a view like this to look down on every day, I would have the energy and inspiration to conquer the world. The trouble is, when you most need such a view, no one gives it to you.”
There is something rather hynotic about finding out what happened to people from your past. It explains the success of sites like Facebook and Friends Reunited as people look for clues to what became of their old flames and friends.

There is also a dual attraction of getting to fast forward through someone's life if the absence of contact has been a long one and so you can go from college friend to their middle age in just a clik and a read of their activity.

That dual desire is something that gets tapped into here at both levels. Minor characters who we meet perhaps just for one chapter get their life story told for us before they go, so for instance we find out that people chase or fail to get their dreams, before we get back to the main few characters.

The two main people the book focuses on are Bennie,l a record producer and his PA Sasha. They both have problems, his perhaps one of growing old in a young person's world and her's a kleptomania that points to deeper problems from her past.

Starting with those two sharing alternate chapters the style is to roll it out to reveal more of their pasts as different characters come into play. So as we find out about Bennie being in a band we are in turn introduced to the main band members. That then reveals the influences on Bennie and fill in the blanks of his past.

Likewise with Sasha we get to see her through the eyes of old boyfriends and family as she spends a troubled youth scraping by around the world using theft and guile to survive.

Their are coincidences, moments that perhaps seem too convienent but then again that's what makes the story work so I'm not complaining.

There is also a sense that moments that shape us when young can stay with us forever and that is both a positive and a negative. The world is changing and that also provides problems for Bennie and Sasha. The music industry isn't what it is and at the end the 'pointers' who download and listen to their music on devices using their fingers are the ones dominating the landscape.

The book has recieved a lot of praise but I'm not sorry having delayed reading this because it provided a chance to come to it in the quietness after the first rush of reaction had died down.

I enjoyed it, found some of its perhaps a bit too structured, but overall will remember it for its challenge to look at your own life and think about the story you are writing for those friends and old acquaintances to stumble across on Facebook or LinkedIn.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Bookmark of the week

Another one from the National Gallery in London. This is simply called Tiger by Sam Everitt.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Thoughts at the half way point of a Visit From the Goon Squad

Think of a daisy chain of people all holding hands that eventually meets back in a circle.

This feels like that as it charts the lives of record producer Bennie and his PA Sasha.

As you read about them and their pasts you then pick up the story from another characters history. This goes on in a way that creates its own rhythm.

It's a fun read in terms of living back through the years when vinyl mattered and punk rocked.

Quite where it will end is hard to predict but the journey getting there is an enjoyable one.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Reading plans for the rest of the month

It might have started to become obvious but the reading plans for this month are all around American writers. I have to travel to the US for work next week and so am taking a few books with me that represent writers from that country.

The trip has been on my mind for a while so it perhaps influenced the decision to take off the shelf and dust down the Vonnegut and McCarthy I started the month with.

Whenever I go away if possible I try to take a writer to read from that country and ideally from the place I am going to. In this case I sadly didn't have the time to research and plan to take books by writers from Boston but hope that a range of American writers will provide an interesting backdrop to my stay.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

book review: Child of God by Cormac McCarthy

"It was quiet in the room. After a while the man behind his desk lowered his hands and folded them in his lap. Mr Ballard, he said. You are either going to have to find some other way to live or some other place in the world to do it."

What you get with McCarthy is a world that is undefined. You don't get the specifics of time, the lack of quotation marks means speech blurs into thoughts and actions and it's not always clear where the line between wrong and right starts and ends.

The result is a reading experience that challenges you to stick with a main character who over time becomes a serial killer and a necrophiliac. Lester Ballard is introduced as a man about to lose his home to auction. After that he becomes a wanderer and lives in a shack until he stumbles across a couple that have committed suicide in a car. Their last act before the fumes overtook them was to make love and it is the naked couple that Ballard discovers.

You can tell he is struggling to control his emotions as he goes to and from the car stealing money, drink and eventually after several return visits entering new dark territory by stealing the female corpse. This becomes his possession both sexually and in terms of company as he dresses her and lies with her by the fireside in his shack.

Accused wrongly of rape a spell in jail reintroduces Ballard to the local law enforcement and you sense he will meet them again later as his killing spree grows.

He doesn't stumble across a couple dead in a car again so he has to put the death into the situation shooting out with his rifle and taking the female corpses back to a cave he lives in after his shack burns down.

As he slides into madness and starts wearing female clothes he becomes even more isolated from reality. This is deepened by deep snows, then a flood which cuts Ballard off from the town. That gives the madness time to take hold but his luck runs out when he tries to shoot the owner of his old home and comes off second best in a rifle versus shotgun fight.

But Ballard never quite faces up to his crimes and just as in other McCarthy novels the question of whether he should have felt guilt is one that the reader is left to wrestle with.

"You think people was meaner then than they ware now? the deputy said.
The old man was looking out at the flooded town.
No, he said. I don't. I think people are the same from the from the day God first made one."

Although very readable this is not a pretty work of fiction in terms of subject matter and the images you are left with are earth, caves, corpses, rifles and the worse kind of sex. I'm trying to work out quite what enjoying this read means about me.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Chance for unpublished authors with ebook prize

Reading the Metro on the way into work saw a news in brief mentioning the Kidwell-e-Ebook Awards (that rolls off the tongue) which is a new literary prize.

The awards are part of a two day ebook festival taking place in August. More details of that can be found clicking here

I guess some will shrug their shoulders and bemoan the addition of yet another lit prize to the calendar but if it does promote as intended unpublished as well as established authors it could be interesting.

Over the second half of last year I managed to read some books that were either first publications for some writers or in a couple of cases things that had not yet received mainstream publication. Those writers were very keen for their work to get an airing and so for the unpublished and new writers this prize could offer a real showcase for their work and that will be a positive.

Got to be careful here as I am yet to join the ebook revolution so can't really talk too much about that side of reading but you would hope the awards would take in to account innovative use of the format and quality. The worry is that with digital data available it could just become a 'who got the most downloads' award.

Anyway that's my comment on the news, combined with some useless musings.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Thoughts at the halfway point of Child of God

Going into the world of Cormac McCarthy is always dark, earthy and usually disturbing in the graphical portrayal of violence and sex.

Child of God delivers all of that but you find yourself sticking with the main character Lester Ballard as he loses his house, becomes a peripheral player on the edges of society and reason and ends up living in a shack in the wilds.

Lester is not a good guy but as he is first introduced he is as thee rest of us a 'child of god'.

Quite what will become of the semi vagrant Lester out in the woods with his rifle is what keeps you reading.

Monday, January 09, 2012

book review: Bagombo Snuff Box uncollected short fiction by Kurt Vonnegut

"When Kiah got the car into the six-lane turnpike, he ceased feeling like an intruder in the universe. He was as much part of it as the clouds and the sea. With the mock modesty of a god traveling incognitio, he permitted a Cadillac convertible to pass him. A pretty girl at its wheel smiled down on him.
Kiah touched the throttle lightly and streaked around her. He laughed at the speck she became in his rearview mirror. The temperature gauge climbed, and Kiah slowed the Marittima-Frascati, forging himself this one indulgence. Just this once - it had been worth it. This was the life!"
Quote from The Powder-Blue Dragon.
There are several themes that come out of this collection of stories that were written by Kurt Vonnegut at the start of his writing career. He was penning these ideas at a time of great change in his home country. The Second World War had been won and the materialism that dominated the 1950s was yet to be overtaken by some of the dark times of the 1960s. But even with cars and dishwashers becoming things the common person could dream of what came with that technology was change and its that sense of tension between the new and the old that forms one of the main themes of this collection.

He is brutally honest about his work in an introduction and coda to the collection of 24 short stories revealing that he had to edit some of them to get them into a condition he was happy with to have them republished in his volume.

One of the themes is around the idea of technology and success with the materialism of post-war America starting to dazzle even those that previously might have thought car ownership was beyond them.

In The Power-Blue Dragon a car mechanic buys an Italian racing car in a purchase designed to show the world just what sort of man he is. The car has the ability to turn heads but few pay much attention to the boy driving it. The lesson here is that respect is something that cannot be bought with a cheque and happiness will not always result after flaunting wealth.

That idea of flaunting wealth is at the heart of The Package which starts with a man and his wife returning to a state of the art house after a holiday abroad. He has sold his factory and made millions and he is happy to let an old school friend look him up. The chance to show off and bury the resentments of the past are just too good to miss but at the end the arrogance caused by success and wealth blinds the main character from the truth. He has a victory but it is a hollow one.

Drawing on his background working for industry there are numerous references throughout the stories to the workings of large corporate entities and the men who run them and the people who work for them.

A post-war generation looks for excitement and a chance to sell-off the factories and hard work of their parents just to feel they can live. Of course they can only 'live' because of the effort made by their parents.

That theme is shown in both Runaways and This Son of Mine, where in the first story a poor boy falls in love with a Senators daughter. When the union is given the blessing of the parents the attraction of rebelling against authority falls away and the loveless relationship is laid bare.

In This Son of Mine a factory owner finds his highly educated son reluctant to take over the factory. Emotional blackmail and weakness lead the status quo to remain but without happiness on either side of the generational divide.

One of the other themes here is music, particularly in the form of the high school band. One band and band master crop up in two stories Ambitious Sophomore and The Boy Who Hated Girls charting the lengths to which people will go to to be part of a band and to stand out for their town. The sense of proportion is lost by band leader and band members alike as they pursue a dream which seems so limited in the face of the concerns of real life.

But if there was one other riff that chimes through this collection it has to be around the impact of change. Remember Vonnegut is a man changed by war, what he saw and what he experienced, and other characters are in the same position, as in the story Souvenir. But it is not just war time scars that continue to cause problems it is the sense of technology changing the way we all live.

The time and motion man who turns up in a town, in the story Poor Little Rich Town and rewrites how people live just to save time and money fails completely to understand the emotional reasons people do things and the hidden costs of saving money.

If you want a taste of classic Vonnegut, mixing the sci-fi and the fantastical with the modern and routine, then ironically it appears right at the start of the collection in the story Thanasphere. The idea that there might be ghosts in space is a clever one and this is hauntingly told.

But there is so much more to Vonnegut than just running wild with his imagination on the boundaries of space. What this collection shows is that he can deliver character, depth of emotion and deal with some very large questions all in the boundaries of the small story format.

For those that have not read his short stories, and my hand was raised before opening this book, then it is worth having a read and getting a different take on the American Dream when it was starting to really get going.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Bookmark of the week

The other bookmark I picked up at the Leonardo exhibition at the National Gallery.

Brilliant study of hands by the master.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Little Foxes

I don't often blog about my reading with the kids but having sat with them tonight and read the first couple of chapters of Little Foxes by Michael Morpurgo I just wanted to make a comment about it.

He uses great language. Using words that kids don't use everyday which leads to questions and then leads to learning.

Although its only two chapters in he also is able to focus on and develop a character you find yourself rooting for from almost the start.

Looking forward to getting through this one. Highlights of last year included some Famous Five and Dinosaur Cove.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Reading interrupted

Having started the year by at least blogging again the plan of course was to get back into reading ways.

The return to work coincided with strong winds so a tube to work rather than the bike. So far do good because that's time to get through about 50 or 60 pages to and from work.

So imagine the horror as seven pages in there is a tap on the shoulder from a colleague. The politest thing to do was of course to put the book away.

But this has happened before and it's one of the most annoying things. I'm naturally fairly anti social so having to make small talk about work or football is painful when you have been ripped away from the printed page.

Anyway that's a long winded way of saying I've failed to finish the book I hoped to this week.

Determined this slow start is not the way things will continue. For now at least I'm blaming the interrupted reading on that tap on the shoulder.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

book review: Unthology No.2 by various writers

Short story collections by a variety of writers should always provide a patchwork of reading experiences with the different voices and styles. Good collections manage to deliver that as well as provide some overall takeaway theme for the reader and here it is very much about encouraging the development of creative talent.

There are thirteen stories in this collection and some of the names are familiar, particularly Nick Sweeney who has had a book reviewed on this bvlog before. The idea of taking up-and-coming writers and providing them with a place to show off their wares is an admirable one and there are certainly a few stories here that will be referred back to in future years as the early days of solid literary careers.

In terms of the most memorable it is perhaps unfair to pick out a few among the thirteen but I particularly liked Differences in Lifts by Lander Hawes, The Swan King by Ashley Stokes, The Poets of Radial City by Paul A. Green and Nine Hundred and Ninety Something by Nick Sweeney.

Starting with the Sweeney first what this writer gives you is a great sense of location. Taking you to locations in Eastern Europe and Turkey is something that was a feature of Laikonik Express and he does it again here. A clever story about a group of criminals preying on unsuspecting tourists comes with a twist that will deliver a smile. But it is the way he describes another world that will stay with you.

Talking of different worlds the landscape described by Paul A. Green is one where poetry is seen as a way of underming authority and as the poets stage one great protest against the state the status quo is challenging in a way that perhaps you would not expect from the poetic form. But this is a different reality and one convincingly delivered.

There were times that reality seemed all to familar with the coming of age and bogeyman story written by Ashley Stokes. The Swan King is a figure maligned and wrongly blamed. Part Rear Window in the way the main characters watch from their flat and part To Kill A Mockingbird in the way a relatively harmless odd figure is turned into some sort of bogeyman this gets under your skin. Secrets come back to haunt those looking for the killer of a student and the desire to be popular, liked and loved is one that doesn't just haunt the Swan King.

The other story that I have perhaps unfairly highlighted from a great collection is something with a futuristic feel from Lander Hawes. It's a world where work, careers and keeping on the straight and narrow dominate but when one man finds little support for his complaints about the lifts he demonstrates just how much a seemingly petty issue means to him. Strange and disturbing in the sense that although clearly not set in our time and space the corporate nonsense it describes is something we can all relate to.

Overall this is a great showcase for up and coming writers and it gives you everything a short story collection should. Great writing, different styles and a chance to be shocked, saddened and entertained.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Book review - Dark Steps a collection of short stories by Martin Pond

"As the stocking flutters to the floor, I finally get what's wrong with everyone."

The title of this short story collection prepares you for tales that are dark and leave you with some lingering thoughts that remain in the mind long after you have finished reading it.

The collection starts with Waiting Room, a story where the reader grasps what is happening to the main character thereby making it even more tragic.

It then goes into stories about strange voices, strange events and the sort of things that disturb. There are ghostly tales and with The Inheritance a clever twist on the idea of a father passing down his talents to the son.

As well as delivering stories that are dark, sometimes with an almost horror like style, the other main theme running trough the collection is of stories with a twist. Leaving the reader to fill the end of the sentence by completing the picture in their minds is something that has to be well delivered.

It is here time and time again and there is also a certain enjoyment that comes from sharing in reading a writer that is starting on his journey and perfecting his craft.

A good read that deserves to get wide circulation.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Thoughts at not far off halfway through Bagombo Snuff Box

Despite some criticisms of Vonnegut, and the reviews I've read of the latest biography of him adds to the potential reasons for disillusionment, I have to confess I like him.

Sometimes his writing takes refrains and pushes them to the limit but here in a collection of short stories the writing is tight and clever.

This collection was some of his first published work and he paints a picture of a post war America trying to find itself. Does the future lie in discovering the secrets of space? Can wealth bring happiness? Or can lessons be learnt from the life and death split second events of war?

So far Vonnegut has tackled all of those questions with wit, inventive tiara and solid writing.

The second half should be as good and although the style of Slaughterhouse 5 is not quite here it is good to see a writer able to deliver some thought provoking stuff in the short story format.

A review will follow on completion of the book (soon hopefully)...

Monday, January 02, 2012

Exhibition inspiration

Although there are still a few books on the go from last month the exhibition yesterday made me want to head to the shelf and pick up a book that has been waiting for some attention for some time so a little bedtime reading awaits with Leonardo.

Looking back at 2011

Not the best of years reading wise with a fairly low number consumed. What was perhaps more disappointing was the failure to get a rythmn going during the year. Booker prizes passed me by as did most other literary events and at times it felt as if just finishing a book was a major challenge let alone keeping up with the world of literature.

Of course the hope is that this year will be different and that I will not only read more but get into the swing of things and stay there for a bit.

Anyway here's the list of stuff read last year:

1. The Islanders and A Fisher of Men by Yevgeny Zamyatin
2. 2017 by Olga Slavnikova
3. Short stories and Prose Poems by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
4. One Hot Summer in St Petersburg by Duncan Fallowell
5. Uncle's Dream and Other Stories by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
6. The Village by Ivan Bunin
7. Master and Man and Other Stories by Leo Tolstoy

8. Count D'Orgels Ball by Raymond Radiguet
9. Taking it to Heart by Marie Desplechin
10. The Counterfeiters by Andre Gide
11. Holiday in a Coma by Frederic Beigbeder
12. Jezebel by Irene Nemirovsky
13. The Princess of Mantua by Marie Ferranti
14. A Day in the Country and Other Stories by Guy De Maupassant

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

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

28. Country Dance by Margiad Evans
29. The Death of Napoleon by Simon Leys
30. Dearest Father by Franz Kafka
31. The Lives of Animals by J.M. Coetzee
32. Letters from a Lost Uncle by Mervyn Peake

33. Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada
34. Laikonik Express by Nick Sweeney
35. Mercedes-Benz by Pawel Huelle
36. Paris Metro Tales edited by Helen Constantine

37. How I won the Yellow Jumper by Ned Boulting
38. Beer in the Snooker Club by Waguih Ghali
39. Can We Borrow Your Husband? by Graham Greene
40. The Hare With the Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal
41. King of Tuzla by Arnold Jansen op de Haar
42. Fifth Business by Robertson Davies
43. Les Belles Images by Simone de Beauvoir

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

51. Hello America by JG Ballard
52. Busy Monsters by William Giraldi
55. The Queue by Vladimir Sorokin

56. The Wanderer by Knut Hamsen
57. Made in England by Gavin James Blower
58. A Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
59. Engineers of the Soul by Frank Westerman
60. Incognita by William Congreve

61. Unthology 2 by various authors
62. Ten Stories about Smoking by Stuart Evers
63. Dark Steps by Martin Pond
64. Departures by Tony Parsons
65. What we talk about when we talk about love by Raymond Carver
66. Break it Down by Lydia Davis

67. An introduction to English poetry by James Fenton

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Bookmark of the week

Haven't posted a bookmark of the week for a while and Sunday was always the day for it. So fresh from the Leonardo da Vinci exhibition at the national gallery here is one of the bookmarks they are selling.

Happy new year

Hello 2012 and hello again to the blog. I hope to be more productive this year. There are lots of reviews from last year still due to be done and there should be some new books to talk about as well.

Apologies for such intermittent service last year and hopefully 2012 will be better.

books read in 2012

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

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

11.The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt
12. New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani
13. Please Look After Mother by Kyung-Sook Shin
14. Blooms of Darkness by Aharon Appelfeld
15. The Names by Don DeLillo

15. The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco
16. Pastors and Masters by Ivy Compton-Burnett
17.From the Mouth of The Whale by Sjon
18. The Great Fire of London by Peter Ackroyd

May and June wiped out by baby being born

19. Walks kin the Wheatfields by Richard Jefferies
20. Finding Soutbek by Karen Jennings
21. Kiera's Quest by Kristy Brown
22. The Tour de France...To The Bitter End by Guardian writers