Sharp wit and sharp weapons

Country of the Blind
by Christopher Brookmyre

This book is just right if you have a day free to do nothing but read – whether it’s a restful holiday or a rainy Sunday. The plot is thick and fast and the language fun but also sharp-edged. Brookmyre always picks a clear target in his novels, a dartboard to throw poison arrows at, and in this case it’s the Tory Party, so I was happy.

In fairness there is a scene early on in which a wise (Tory) father advises his youthful (liberal) daughter not to assume that all members of the widely hated party are monsters, quoting Orwell’s Two Minute Hate. When said character advocates more discourse and exchanging of ideas, I had to wonder what Brookmyre thinks of the current UK coalition government. But I digress…

Like all Brookmyre’s novels (at least all those I’ve read, which is a lot of them) this is crime fiction written with vicious humour and some very interesting lead characters, a number of whom feature in his other books. Lead character is investigative journalist Jack Parlabane (in his second outing, because I read this out of sequence) who is about to get married and is therefore earnestly trying to give up his former tendency to get involved in very dangerous things, things that tend to get even more dangerous when he throws himself into the mix. And when he sees the initial reports about the murder of billionaire media mogul (and Tory backer) Roland Voss, Parlabane is more than happy to stay out of it. The police already have the four suspects behind bars, after all. However, the clues soon start piling up that all is not what it seems and Parlabane inevitably gets involved, only to discover that it goes deeper than even he had suspected.

Good crime fiction doesn’t rely on good writing and for every well worded witticism here there’s an unnecessary repetition or an overemphasis that grates a little. I also tend to struggle a little at first with the dialect, as Brookmyre favours setting his novels in his native Glasgow. Not that the entire book is written in dialect, but there’s a lot of speech. Another bugbear I have is Brookmyre’s habit of opening a chapter with the end or middle of a scene, and then going back to how it started, which is interesting (if confusing) once or twice but several times is tedious.

Those reservations aside, I’ll admit that I’m a fan. This is no whodunnit – the who is revealed fairly early on and the how not long afterward. The race to the finish is about whether Parlabane will figure it out and find a way to prove it before too many innocent people die. He doesn’t work alone, of course. His insider in the police, DS Jenny Dalziel, is underused in this story – I seem to remember she had a bigger role in Quite Ugly One Morning – but there’s so many other characters that this is forgiveable.

Parlabane is the classic loveable rogue, with an air of 007 about him. He bends rules left, right and centre but he gets away with it because he is without doubt the good guy and I can’t remember the character ever doing something that I personally disapproved of (unlike Bond).

The book is steeped in references to current affairs and culture and as such I’m not sure how well it will age. Reading this 13 years after publication is one thing – I can well remember the growing frustration at years of Tory government and the hopes for the 1997 election, even if I wasn’t quite old enough to vote yet – but give it a little more time and there may be one too many references to politicians already forgotten.

The other thing that dates this book was something I particularly liked about it: the modernisation of the newsroom. The 1990s saw the end of handmade layouts in favour of DTP software – something I’m more than a little familiar with – and it was with great interest I read the rants of the news editor about the unreliable output from the computer, and about the switch from huge artboards to the now-ubiquitous Mac. It was a minor detail really, but it was one of the things that can make all the difference, allowing you to trust that the author does at least some research – a vital necessity in crime fiction, I would argue.

This really is a fun, well plotted adventure that keeps you reading without relying on unexpected twists or manufactured countdowns. It sat on my to-read shelf for far too long but I suspect that the next one won’t have so much dust gathered on it.

Published 1997 by Little, Brown.

Eyes bigger than my capacity to read

In a shameless copy of a brilliant idea by Novel Insights, I have painstakingly listed all of the books that I own but have not yet read – my TBR list. There’s quite a lot of them because I am very naughty about buying more books than I read, but it’s a useful exercise to have undertaken so thank you Novel Insights for the idea.

The 137 (!) books on my list would probably take me about two years to read and I am clearly not going to stop buying books for two years, but I will at least try to buy them at a slower rate and also to read at a faster one. Most of them were bought by me, but some were given to me, some acquired when I was the intern who got first dibs on the unwanted review copies at a certain magazine, some passed on to me by friends or family, some I have been hanging on to for so long I couldn’t say where they come from.

It struck me that this would make an interesting permanent feature, so I’m going to try to keep it up to date. Even if I don’t remember to update it constantly, it’s been a useful exercise for showing up my book-buying habits and if I compare it to what I’ve read over the last four months, I suspect the two won’t quite match up. Is that always the case or am I particularly overambitious?

This won’t include every book that I review because I do get loans from friends and I may even go to a library again one day. Maybe. Clearly, I have no pressing need. This may even result in a clearout of some of those books that I have tried and failed to read, nevertheless hanging on to them for years in the belief that I will read them one day – unless anyone enthusiastically recommends any of them to me, spurring me to try again.

I notice that I have a bad habit of buying several books by the same author after reading one of their books and then not getting round to that pile (case in point: Salman Rushdie). I should stop doing that.

I am reminded that I still need to get hold of Balthazar by Lawrence Durrell so I can read the full Alexandria Quartet, rather than 3/4 of it. I’ve been trying to find it in the same lovely old Faber edition that I have the others in. I also notice a few books from my degree course here, which I should probably have read about eight years ago. Oops.

Now I need to stop listing and get back to reading!

My TBR

These are books that I own but have not yet read. The idea was shamelessly stolen from Novel Insights, so thank you/apologies to her for that.

A few of these I have actually started reading at some point and then given up on – mostly “classics” or I would have got rid of the book – and I have marked these with an asterisk.

EDIT: I have now moved this to its own page. I will update it there. This post can stay as a historical record, or something.

A
Edward Abbey – The Monkey Wrench Gang
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Half of a Yellow Sun
Isabel Allende – The Sum of Our Days
Tash Aw – The Harmony Silk Factory

B
Honore de Balzac – Old Goriot
Iain Banks – Dead Air
Louis de Bernières – Red Dog
Vinoba Bhave – Moved by Love
Christopher Brookmyre – Not the End of the World
Christopher Brookmyre – A Tale Etched in Blood and Hard Black Pencil
Anita Brookner – Falling Slowly
Anita Brookner – Providence
Mikhael Bulgakov – The Master and Margarita
William Burroughs – Naked Lunch
A S Byatt – Still Life

C
Albert Camus – The Myth of Sisyphus
Angela Carter – Nights at the Circus
Bernardo Carvalho – Fear of De Sade
Blaise Cendrars – Dan Yack
Blaise Cendrars – Moravagine
Miguel de Cervantes – Don Quixote*
Raymond Chandler – Farewell My Lovely
Vikram Chandra – Red Earth and Pouring Rain
Anton Chekhov – Three Plays
Jonathan Coe – The Rotters’ Club
Colette – Break of Day*
Colette – Cheri/The Last of Cheri
Colette – Claudine at School
Colette – Claudine in Paris
Colette – The Rainy Moon and Other Stories
David Crystal – The Stories of English

D
Roald Dahl – My Uncle Oswald
Charles Dickens – The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Charles Dickens – The Old Curiosity Shop
Charles Dickens – The Pickwick Papers
Fyodor Dostoyevsky – Crime and Punishment
Carol Ann Duffy – Feminine Gospels
Alexandre Dumas – The Black Tulip
Lawrence Durrell – The Alexandria Quartet [3 books – one’s missing]

E
Umberto Eco – Foucault’s Pendulum
Umberto Eco – The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana
Bret Easton Ellis – The Informers

F
E M Forster – A Passage to India

G
Neil Gaiman – Coraline
Neil Gaiman – The Graveyard Book
Gabriel García Marquez – One Hundred Years of Solitude
Luiz Alfredo García Roza – Southwesterly Wind
Graham Greene – The Heart of the Matter
Graham Greene – The Ministry of Fear
Andrew Sean Greer – The Confessions of Max Tivoli
George and Weedon Grossmith – The Diary of a Nobody
Ursula le Guin – The Earthsea Quartet*

H
H Rider Haggard – Allan Quatermain
Knut Hamsun – Hunger
Thomas Hardy – The Return of the Native
Joseph Heller – Catch-22*
Joseph Heller – God Knows
Ernest Hemingway – A Farewell to Arms
Ernest Hemingway – For Whom the Bell Tolls
Ernest Hemingway – The Snows of Kilimanjaro
Ernest Hemingway – To Have and Have Not
Hermann Hesse – The Glass Bead Game
Michel Houellebecq – The Possibility of an Island

I
Christopher Isherwood – The Memorial

J
Henry James – The Bostonians
Henry James – The Portrait of a Lady*
James Joyce – Dubliners

K
Richard Kelly – Southland Tales II – Fingerprints
Richard Kelly – Southland Tales III – The Mechanicals
Mark Kermode – It’s Only a Movie
Jack Kerouac – On the Road
Milan Kundera – Immortality
Hanif Kureishi – The Black Album

L
J Robert Lennon – The Light of Falling Stars
Primo Levi – The Periodic Table
Charles de Lint – The Ivory and the Horn

M
Niccolò Machiavelli – The Prince
Thomas Mann – Death in Venice and Other Stories
Yann Martel – The Facts Behind the Helsinki Reclamation
Hisham Matar – In the Country of Men
M Somerset Maugham – The Moon and Sixpence
Daphne du Maurier – The Glass-Blowers
Daphne du Maurier – The House on the Strand
Daphne du Maurier – The King’s General
Daphne du Maurier – The Progress of Julia
Ian McEwan – Enduring Love
Robert McGill – The Mysteries
Haruki Murakami – Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman
Iris Murdoch – Under the Net*

N
Vladimir Nabokov – Pale Fire
Irène Némirovsky – David Golder
David Nicholls – Starter for Ten
Geoff Nicholson – Bedlam Burning

O
Elsa Osario – My Name is Light
Jim Ottaviani – T-Minus: the Race to the Moon

P
Chuck Palahniuk – Non-fiction
Alan Paton – Cry, the Beloved Country
Elliot Perlman – Three Dollars
D B C Pierre – Vernon God Little
Sylvia Plath – The Bell Jar
Dennis Potter – Blackeyes

R
Rainer Maria Rilke – Turning Point
Salman Rushdie – Fury
Salman Rushdie – The Ground Beneath Her Feet*
Salman Rushdie – Midnight’s Children
Salman Rushdie – The Moor’s Last Sigh
Salman Rushdie – Shame
Geoff Ryman – The Child Garden

S
J D Salinger – For Esmé: With Love and Squalor*
Paul Scott – The Jewel in the Crown*
Hubert Selby Jr – Requiem for a Dream*
Will Self – Great Apes
George Bernard Shaw – Pygmalion
Mary Shelley – The Last Man
Mary Shelley – Lodore
Murasaki Shikibu – The Tale of Genji*
John Steinbeck – The Grapes of Wrath
Stendhal – The Red and the Black
R L Stevenson – Travels With a Donkey
Theodore Sturgeon – More Than Human

T
Dorothea Tanning – Chasm: a Weekend
William Thackeray – Vanity Fair
Hunter S Thompson – Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72*
Hunter S Thompson – Hell’s Angels
Mark Thompson – A Paper House: the Ending of Yugoslavia

V
Voltaire – Candide
Kurt Vonnegut – Slaughterhouse 5

W
H G Wells – boxset of short stories and novellas [3 books]
H G Wells – The History of Mr Polly
Thomas Wolfe – You Can’t Go Home Again
Tom Wolfe – The Bonfire of the Vanities
Virginia Woolf – Orlando
Virginia Woolf – Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid

Total = 137

The end of childhood

Ripening Seed
by Colette
translated by Roger Senhouse

Colette is one of those highly rated authors whose works I continue to read but fail to be bowled over by. I think I understand the attraction but I am not personally attracted.

This book is, based on my experience, a typical example. The story is simple, the writing is simple, with lucid descriptions and a lot of detail about the setting. Characters’ thoughts and feelings are voiced and yet we never truly get to know them. Perhaps it doesn’t help that the book is so short.

Vinca and Philippe’s families have holidayed together in Brittany every summer of their young lives. They have grown up together thick as thieves, under the assumption that their innocent friendship will one day turn into marriage. But this summer Vinca is 15 and Phil is 16 and suddenly teenage hormones make it hard to remain innocent. The appearance of a mysterious older woman in Phil’s life only complicates things further.

The storyline is largely predictable because, well, people are. There is a definite air of sadness about the loss of innocence; in fact I found the point to be pressed a little too hard. Maybe it’s because I was never sad to leave my childhood behind (because I was always eager to grow up, not because I had a bad childhood), but I find it hard to relate to this series of delicate, poignant moments.

Some of the language is beautiful and the story has stood the test of time pretty well, which I think is greatly helped by the seaside setting – kids still swim, rockpool, clamber over rocks and largely exist without noticing their parents.

I will continue to buy Colette’s books when I spot them in second-hand bookshops (few if any of her books are still in print in English) because they’re not bad and maybe one will touch me and get me enthusing.

First published 1923.
This translation first published 1955.

A thing of beauty

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
by David Mitchell

I bought this book the day it came out. I never do that, but I have loved all of Mitchell’s previous books so I went to Waterstones and walked home with it, lovingly stroking the exquisitely designed cover. I started reading it that night. And yet here we are months later and I’ve only just finished. So what happened?

Well, first of all, this is a beautiful book. Physically beautiful, I mean. So I didn’t want to carry it around with me and risk damaging it. The hardback is clothbound, illustrated with a picture of Japan, highlighted in blue glitter. The endpapers continue the theme, with Japanese-style artwork in blue and white.

And it’s definitely well written. Mitchell weaves a spellbinding story, with a huge cast and what I think – though I’m not certain about this – is some serious attention to historical detail. When you get caught up in a big, complex plot it’s easy to not notice the writing but Mitchell’s writing is as excellent as ever. But it did take me a while to get into.

This isn’t a book to read for 5 minutes here and there, with another book in your handbag and a third one at work, which is what I tried doing. The opening section is set at sea and between the 18th century seafaring vernacular and large cast I struggled a bit. I even put it down for a few weeks at one point. Once the action moved to the book’s main location – Dejima – I settled in and found myself hooked.

The setting is fascinating, historically and geographically – the Japanese port of Dejima, near Nagasaki, in 1799. At that time it was the location of isolationist Japan’s only link to the west – a trade post of the Dutch East Indies Company. Dejima is almost an island, separated from mainland Japan by a well guarded gate that Dutch visitors may only pass through with special permission, which is rarely granted. Dejima is occupied year-round by a handful of employees of the Dutch East Indies Company, charged with keeping the Dutch warehouses and their goods safe between trading seasons.

The book’s hero, Jacob de Zoet, is a clerk who has reluctantly agreed to come to Japan to earn enough money and raise his social standing enough to marry the woman he loves, Anna. He has a five-year contract with the Dutch East Indies Company and must spend those five years in Dejima, stranded between trading seasons with the limited European staff and their liaison with Japan – the official translators.

Much of the detail of this book – and the humour – derives from the cultural and linguistic divisions between the characters. Mitchell does a fantastic job of the scenes where two or three languages are being spoken, none of them English, and you know who is speaking which language and who understands which parts of the conversation. It’s masterful, I think.

There’s a lot of mistrust and resentment between the different races depicted but there’s also sharing of knowledge. One of my favourite characters, Dr Marinus, is a Dutchman who has settled on Dejima and trains Japanese apprentices in the art and science of “Dutch medicine”. The Dutch tradeship brings him new European textbooks every year, which he studies and shares through the translators. He attends meetings of Japanese scholars where the men debate scientific progress, philosophy and politics, including the wisdom of Japan remaining isolationist. I loved these scenes and would have liked more of them.

This large book encompasses many things – there’s humorous stories of daily life, the personal and public ups and downs of Jacob de Zoet, philosophical discussion, great adventures and mysterious evildoers (particularly in the middle section in which Jacob hardly appears), and also romance. Jacob is certainly in love with his Anna but there is also a young Japanese midwife who catches his eye, making him question his allegiances.

I’m glad I persevered with this book because it became something quite extraordinary. It is as exotic, remarkable and rich in detail as its beautiful cover suggests.

For an alternative viewpoint, check out these reviews by Leeswammes and Farm Lane Books.

Published 2010 by Sceptre.
ISBN 978-0-3409-2156-2

Music to my ears

This week we went to a music quiz at our local pub and what it reminded me – besides the fact that I have pretty poor music knowledge despite rating it as one of my better subject areas – was how soul-joltingly amazing music can be.

I mean, generally I’m a words person. This will come as no surprise I’m sure. And there are certain bands – mostly the ones I grew up with – whose lyrics I know inside out and back to front. I followed my Mum’s habit of writing out lyrics so that I could sing along to whole albums. I mean, Smash Hits only supplied lyrics to the big singles!

But for the most part I listen to the music, not the words. I love to turn up the volume, lean my head back, close my eyes and let the music wash over me.

This means that (a) I’m not nearly as good at music quizzes as I’d like to be and (b) when playing Singstar I am constantly surprised at what the lyrics really are. It’s often a pleasant surprise because lyrics can be remarkably poetic. I leave you with some favourite examples:

But her friend is nowhere to be seen
Now she walks through her sunken dream
To the seat with the clearest view
And she’s hooked to the silver screen

(David Bowie)

I have spoke with the tongue of angels
I have held the hand of a devil
It was warm in the night
I was cold as a stone

(U2)

If life is an open book, she’d rather read the pictures for a while
Let the bastards moan
’cause where she falls, she falls

(Ooberman)

Dreams of sights, of sleigh rides in seasons
where feelings not reasons, can make you decide
as leaves pour down, splash autumn on gardens
as colder nights harden, their moonlit delights

(Lightning Seeds)

Life lies a slow suicide
Orthodox dreams and symbolic myths
From feudal serf to spender
This wonderful world of purchase power
Just like lungs sucking on air
Survival’s natural as sorrow

(Manic Street Preachers)

The simplicity of reality

84 Charing Cross Road
by Helene Hanff

I hadn’t heard of this book until The Girl mentioned it on her old blog, but it turns out to be a bit of a modern classic. It’s quite simply the publication of actual letters exchanged between New York writer Helene Hanff and London bookshop Marks & Co. The correspondence lasted 20 years, from 1949 until the bookshop closed.

It’s a beautiful correspondence. On both sides there’s a great love of books (of course), open and engaging friendliness and plenty of humour. Hanff is wry, witty and deeply sarcastic. She’s also generous to a fault, sending food parcels to her London friends while they are still knee-deep in post-war rationing, despite her own meagre and unpredictable income as a TV writer (the exchange rate helped affordability considerably).

Hanff’s main correspondent is the bookshop’s chief buyer, Frank Doel, whose sudden death in 1968 prompted the idea behind the book (which, fittingly, is dedicated to him). It seems an unusual thing to do, in my eyes, and I don’t think Hanff expected the vast readership that the book eventually achieved.

The letters begin when Hanff, unable to find good quality hardback editions of her favourite books in New York, responds to an advert placed by Marks & Co. With characteristic contrariness she always pays by cash, in dollars, using an English neighbour to perform currency conversions. Over the years she amasses quite a collection, from Greek and Roman texts to English diarists to Jane Austen (one of her few sojourns into fiction).

As a booklover one of the great attractions of this volume is the taste and knowledgeableness regarding the books discussed. Hanff is quick to spot a poor translation or an incomplete “abridged” work but she also raves unreservedly about the beauty of certain books – the material, the binding, the gilding, the illustrations. Her enthusiasm is a real delight and it’s easy to see why so many of the bookshop’s employees (and their relatives) muscled in on the letter-writing.

One thing I found a little jolting was that the edition that I read also included Hanff’s next book The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street as a sort of epilogue. This is Hanff’s diaries from her 1971 visit to London, when she finally got to see the bookshop (by then closed down and empty – in fact, Hanff takes the letters that had made up the shop sign home as a memento) and meet many of her correspondents and fans of the book. It’s certainly interesting and fills in some of the blanks that the letters don’t cover, but the delicate beauty of 84 Charing Cross Road just isn’t present and the magic of the first half of the volume is quickly lost.

The title stems from Hanff’s perception that she is being treated like a duchess, a status that she does not feel that she deserves. 84 Charing Cross Road was a slow-burner and did not top any bestseller charts; Hanff was only able to afford the trip thanks to advance money from Andre Deutsch for the UK publication and paid interviews conducted during the visit (that said, all her shopping appears to be conducted at Harrods and Selfridge’s, so she’s not that skint). The later stage, TV and film adaptations will no doubt have relieved Hanff’s situation somewhat.

My thanks again to The Girl for alerting me to the existence of this book. It absolutely deserves its status as a cult classic for bookworms.

First published 1971.

84 Charing Cross Road

Incidentally, for anyone who falls in love with this book and wants to go on a pilgrimage to the site of Marks & Co, be warned that its disappointingly non-bookish current tenant is Pizza Hut. But it’s still a beautiful building. Click on the photo above for a bigger view. Thanks to Liz of Eliza Does Very Little for posting about this so that I was forewarned.

The edge of sanity

Time Out of Joint
by Philip K Dick

Although this is part of the SF Masterworks series, the SF content of this novel is fairly slim and if anything the big reveal is a little disappointingly convoluted. For the most part the novel is about sanity and our acceptance of the reality around us. And in that respect it is brilliant.

A recent Guardian books blog suggested that SF, and Philip K Dick in particular, has great ideas but terrible writing. In my experience that’s complete rubbish. Sure, there’s some badly written SF but that’s true for any genre – and non-genre – writing. This is my first Dick novel and I thought it extremely well written. It’s not flowery or overly descriptive, which if anything is a style I prefer. The characters are complex and sympathetic, the majority of the story emanating from their thoughts, though the narration is third-person.

Middle-aged Ragle Gumm lives in suburbia with his sister, her husband and their child. Gumm stays home all day, making his living from a newspaper contest called “Where will the little green man be next?”, at which he is the national champion. He seduces the neighbour’s young, pretty wife, as much from boredom or a feeling that he ought to have a lovelife as any real attraction. He’s aware that his life is a little unusual, while at the same time being docile and unchanging.

But there are times when Gumm is convinced that it’s all very wrong, that the world around him isn’t real, that there’s a conspiracy at work. Perhaps he’s just insane. Or it could be a little of both.

What makes the story especially intriguing is that Gumm’s brother-in-law and nephew also notice oddities, irregularities that convince them that something strange is afoot, and the three of them work together to gather evidence and figure it out. But it is Gumm who is convinced that the world revolves around him, or that it appears to.

The depiction of uncertain sanity is so well crafted that almost anything becomes believable, because it could always be Gumm’s paranoia talking. As a picture of paranoia the novel is near-perfect. However, as I said, the attempt to explain everything away in the end with an SF storyline is a let-down. Unless, of course, you consider that section to be when Gumm passes the tipping point into pure madness. Which, now I think of it, works pretty well.

An afterword by Lou Stathis helpfully explains where this novel sits in Dick’s vast legacy of fiction. I will definitely be following his advice and adding The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldridge, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep?, A Scanner Darkly and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer to my to-read shelf.

First published 1959 by Lippincott.
ISBN 978-0-5750-7458-3