The Stag and Hen Weekend by Mike Gayle

The downside of loving a book is finding a follow up that won’t disappoint. Facing this problem after finishing The Art Lover, I decided to play “safe”. While I knew the “literary” quality wouldn’t compare, I have always enjoyed Mike Gayle’s books so I chose his The Stag and Hen Weekend.

It’s a book I’ve had for several months but had hesitated to read, but why the hesitation?

It was caused by the structure of the book. It tells the stories of soon-to-be-weds Phil and Helen and their respective pre-wedding party weekends. The reader is given the choice of which of these separate accounts to read first.

 stagandhenThey are printed back to back, Helen’s story has a pink cover, Phil’s blue. When one has been finished the reader turns the book around and reads the other. But which to start first? The choice makes a real difference; the reading of the first part will affect how we’ll perceive events in the other. It’s a choice that can only be made once – we can never go back to see how things could have seemed different if we’d chosen the other starting point.

Eventually my choice was made for the most trivial and non-literary of reasons. The pink side had a small barcode – something that usually appears on the back of the book, so I chose to start with Phil’s story (the blue cover).

I’ve written about Gayle’s books before on my original blog site*. They all involve everyday relationships between close friends and the effects of romantic complications. This book starts eight years into the relationship of Phil and Helen, one week before their planned wedding.

Phil is being taken away by his friends to Amsterdam for a “stag weekend”. Helen’s friends are taking her to a “hen’s weekend” at a luxury hotel and spa in the Derbyshire Peak District. Complications arise when the past starts to disrupt both of their weekend celebrations and make them question their plans for the future.

The beginning of the Phil’s story disappointed me. I found the characters and their interaction unconvincing. Maybe the relationship between Phil and his friends (all approaching 40 but acting like mid-teenagers) was too different to my personal experience. Or maybe the opening scenes were too cluttered with characters – necessary considering the circumstances (several friends celebrating), but difficult to present effectively if every one of them is given an active voice: something Gayle tried to do.

For me this side of the story didn’t really pick up until the introduction of an “enigma” related to the past when Phil and his friends meet a vaguely familiar woman at a night club. From this point I started to see some of the qualities I’d appreciated in Gayle’s other books. He can write convincing and compelling one on one interaction between men and women.

I found Helen’s story was written more evenly, without the stylistic highs and lows of Phil’s half of the book. But I felt her story lacked the mild intrigue of Phil’s story. I’d already been made aware of significant things via Phil (although partially misrepresented by Phil and his companions’ wrong conclusions).

Quite early into the book I started to wonder about the ending(s). How could each part have a satisfactory ending and still leave enough questions to be resolved at the end of the other? I couldn’t see there being a nice neat conclusion and I wasn’t wrong – but I was surprised at how effectively the ending was handled.

For me it was the most thought provoking part of the book.

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* http://out-shadows.blogspot.co.nz/2010/12/mike-gayle-and-friends.html

The Art Lover by Andromeda Romano-Lax

the-art-loverI want to thank the Australian publishers who decided to change the name of Andromeda Romana-Lax’s book.

The original title of The Detour perhaps better describes the content of the novel, but if not for the change to The Art Lover, it wouldn’t have attracted my attention.

Most of my book purchases around that time were art related, mainly non-fiction, but I’d also bought the few novels I’d seen about art and artists. The Australian title of this book suggested it would fit into that category but it didn’t fulfil those expectations.

But honestly, I don’t care! I loved it.

Ernst Vogler is given the responsibility of travelling to Rome to oversee the transport of a famous marble statue back to Germany in the early stages of Hitler’s programme to “collect” Europe’s most prestigious art works.  What should have been a straight forward exercise becomes increasingly problem-laden from the very start of Vogler’s journey.

Can he meet the deadline and deliver the statue to the German border on time?

The novel looks at three distinct stages of Vogler’s life. It starts and ends in 1948 telling most of the story in a flashback to events ten years earlier. Along the way we also see incidents from his childhood that set him on the path leading to Rome and his life-changing journey, through Italy

What more can I say without revealing too much and robbing potential readers of the joy of discovering the story for themselves?  Maybe just a few isolated words to give a taste?

Family. Fear. Joy. Tragedy. Love. Pain. Guilt. Freedom. Possibility.

A wonderful book, many layered but not over-complex; my only “criticism”? I was disappointed when it ended – I wanted to read more and could have lived with the book for much longer.

_________________

see the author’s blog here: http://romanolax.wordpress.com/

Entering the Reader’sTwilight Zone

the-art-loverAfter completing Zadie Smith’s book of essays (see previous posts), I wasn’t sure what to read next. My eventual choice was The Art Lover by Andromeda Romano-Lax (published as The Detour elsewhere). It’s been sitting on my bookcase for a few months since I bought it on a trip to Canberra.

After reading the first three chapters during my work lunch break I decided to find out more about the author.

She has a wordpress site and while skimming through its contents I came across the title of something she wrote for another blog:  “The purpose and joys of rereading” –  if you look back to my previous post about Zadie Smith you’ll see why this title jumped at me.

I couldn’t resist taking a look at the article to find out why this term “rereading” is beginning to haunt me.

http://49writers.blogspot.co.nz/2011/04/andromedayour-turn-purpose-and-joys-of.html

 

Cue the Twilight Zone music!

 

 

also see:

http://romanolax.wordpress.com/135-2/

Changing My Mind by Zadie Smith

Changing My Mind was structured like a sandwich. It began and ended with academic essays related to books and authors I haven’t read. So through the first 90 or so pages I wondered whether it was worth persevering. Fortunately I stayed with the book and came across the more appealing sandwich filling.

The “filling” that made the book worthwhile includes essays on:

zadie0001The craft of writing.

Politics.

Human nature and identity.

Film reviews.

 and lastly

Personal memories of childhood, family and in particular of Smith’s late father, to whom the book is dedicated.

Then came another academic essay to enclose the sandwich

In the academic essays, the idea of “rereading” comes up several times, and those references seem to  show an aspect of Smith’s reading practice, and her literary interests, that differ greatly from my own.

I am not a rereader.  I rarely read novels twice, and when I have it has been many years later when I’d forgotten enough of the story for it to be like reading the book for the first time. The only time I recall finishing a novel and then immediately restarting it was almost 40 years ago with Frank Herbert’s Dune.

When I re-read Dune, it wasn’t because I needed to dig deeper into its wordplay or its philosophy of life or to admire the author’s skill, it was because I loved the story and the characters.

When rereading is mentioned in Smith’s essays I think it relates to more “literary” or “writerly” issues, and while those things don’t really motivate my reading of fiction I can understand the idea behind them. After recently finishing The Satanic Verses I thought I’d probably get more out of the book if I read it again; a second reading would build upon the first and maybe some of the puzzling aspects (of which there were many) would become clearer. 

If there wasn’t so much else to read it might have been something to consider. But there are far too many other books around that I find much more appealing. And the need to understand The Satanic Verses doesn’t come high enough in my life’s priorities to want to spend another couple of weeks reading through it again.

When I read fiction I am more interested in plot and character than in philosophy or gaining insight into the meaning of life – for that I’ll stick with the Bible: a book where continued rereading is more than justified.

Can Zadie Change MY Mind?

Guantanamo Boy was one of those can’t put down books, the kind that makes reading a pleasure, despite its grim and disturbing content. The downside of a book like that is finding something as a follow-up. What can I start reading next that can compare?

Unfortunately, out of all of the possibilities available – shelves full of candidates – the two books I’ve started aren’t inspiring me.

scan0001Lee Krasner: a biography is slow going at the moment. I’ve read a few art biographies over the past year. Most of the others I enjoyed and I gained an insight into the artists and their work. With Krasner I’m feel I’m mainly reading list after list of names of her fellow artists, people I’ve mostly never heard of. I’m almost a quarter of the way through and apart from the Introduction I’m finding it hard going. The intro seemed to show promise of some good reading ahead, but so far the promise is unfulfilled.

The other book I started just before Guantanamo Boy. It’s a book of essays by Zadie Smith: Changing My Mind. And like the Krasner biography I’ve been finding it hard going. It isn’t helpful that the first section of essays is made up of the kind of literary studies that I did for assignments in University. While I enjoyed writing them 20 years ago (I loved the mental workout after more than a decade of menial office work –I entered Uni as a 30 year old “mature-age” student), I don’t find them very interesting when I’m not familiar with the books they are examining; books that I’m not likely to read myself.

zadie0001Maybe I should ask myself “why Zadie Smith?” Her book White Teeth is the only book I’ve abandoned during my reading campaign started a few years ago. I tried and tried to stick with it but I eventually ran out of steam and put it aside. This book of essays could have seen me following that same path – but I want to stick with it until I break through to the next section where Smith writes about the process of writing. That will be the real test for this book: when she writes about topics that DO interest me.

So why on earth would I give so much time to an author I’ve clearly struggled to read in the past? There is a simple reason. I like Zadie Smith and I want to like her work. I’ve heard her interviewed a few times and she speaks so well with intelligence, humour and insight. She makes her work seem appealing and I want to discover the books she leads me to expect.

Guantanamo Boy and Man’s Inhumanity

guantanamo boyAnna Perera’s Guantanamo Boy is fiction, but is based on real accounts of the Guantanamo concentration camp the USA established off-shore during the “War on Terror”.  It tells the story of an average English boy, Khalid,   kidnapped from Pakistan while on a family holiday and handed over to American forces on suspicion of being involved with a terrorist plot. He is later flown to the Guantanamo facility after “confessing” (under torture by waterboarding) to involvement with Al Qaida. From that point on he is subjected to even more inhumane treatment including sleep deprivation, beatings, lack of basic sanitation or exercise, regular interrogation, poor diet…

Maybe if I saw this book in isolation I’d be more sceptical of the situations it portrays, but it is NOT isolated.  A year or so ago I read David Hick’s Guantanamo: My Journey about an Australian captured, imprisoned and tortured by US forces over several years.

9519353While Hicks perhaps wasn’t entirely forthcoming regarding the reason he was in Afghanistan when  he was taken prisoner, there can be NO excuse for the treatment he endured at the hands of the US government from that point until his eventual release,

No matter what Hicks’ “crimes” may have been – they were nowhere near as serious as those of the governments (US and, by complicity, Australian) that subjected him to the inhumanity of Guantanamo. If this had been done by other governments, those responsible would probably be facing war crimes charges, but the “victors” write the rules.

The premise of Guantanamo Boy should be hard to accept – it seems so outrageous. Who can believe that the US government would do such things? But the evidence is there to those who open their eyes. And scarily the book was entirely believable because of those like Hicks who have given very similar testimonies of their own experiences in the camp.

Many years ago I read a book about the Communist treatment of Christians imprisoned because of their faith, who were regularly tortured and abused over the years of their imprisonment. I think it was Tortured for Christ by Richard Wurmbrand. Some of the treatment described in Guantanamo Boy and the Hicks book is identical to the Communist treatment of their Christian victims.

Reading about Guantanamo made me realise how the German people were able to turn a blind eye to Hitler’s atrocities and even, in the case of camp personnel, put Hitler’s orders into practice. People just don’t want to know what their beloved nations are doing. Or if they know they like to justify it.

And with that example I’ve made links between the behaviour of Communists, Nazis and recent Western Governments. I think the comparisons I’ve made are entirely valid – and they show how close ALL of us can get to justifying inhumanity when we think it might suit our own interests.

Sick Irony

Sick Irony

Spoiled Again!!!

When is a spoiler not a spoiler?

Maybe when it’s in the title of a book?

Moving on from The Satanic Verses I’ve started reading Guantanamo Boy by Anna Perera. Now THERE’S a title that gives us a very good idea of what the book is about, and I’m tempted to say it gives enough away to TECHNICALLY be a spoiler, but I have to admit it was the title that drew my attention. It suggested the book dealt with a topic that interested me.

The blurb confirms and expands upon the title – that the story is about an average teenage boy who ends up in Guantanamo Bay – prisoner of the Bush administration, after being snatched away from the other side of the world. More “spoilers”!

I have to wonder, if I’d been able to start the book with absolutely NO preconceptions, how different would the reading experience be? I suspect the whole shocking effect of the story would be increased if the boy’s kidnapping and transportation was unexpected.

But that’s the nature of the publishing beast today – and also the nature of the reader. There are so many books competing for our attention that we want to have some idea of what a book is about before we commit to it.

Where is the delicate balance between giving the consumer enough information to make them want to “invest” money and time, and literally spoiling their enjoyment by giving too much away.

Several years ago I found the the film The Sixth Sense was a big disppointment. A friend had told me how good the film was – especially the twist at the end. However, before I saw the film several things came together to spoil that ending. Firstly there was the knowledge that there WAS a twist. Secondly I read a review that described the opeining scenes of the film, but the final piece of the spoiler jigsaw was in the movie trailer’s famous line, “I see dead people”.

So even before I entered the cinema I had worked out the probable ending and everything I saw throughout the film confirmed my expectations.

But I seem to be in the minority these days.  Promoters now think nothing of giving away important plot points in their advertising and it’s becoming more and more difficult to enjoy a story (in book or film) without already knowing what to expect. See a movie trailer and you’ve more or less seen the movie. Read the blurb and you’ve read half of the book.

The Satanic Verses – finished at last!!!

It’s finally over. The last page is turned.

The Satanic Verses has bitten the dust.

It was like running a marathon, an endurance event, painful at times, needing gritty perserverance, but I got through its 547 sometimes tedious pages.

But at times it wasn’t so hard. Along the way there were a few refreshing sections to make some of the journey easier. And it DID feel good to read those last sentences.

It’s perhaps a book that would benefit from a second reading. But that’s a possibility I don’t intend to test, at least not in the short term. I’m sure I must have missed a lot of literary gems: jokes, cleverness and tricky wordplay that went over my head. Rushdie likes his language games – and cultural references that mostly missed their mark with this reader.

For me the problem was the lack of engagement with characters. It wasn’t until the end of the book that I found any emotional connection. Then there was one section that rang very true with a family face to face with death, so powerful and moving – maybe enhanced by the lack of emotion throughout the rest of the book.

But maybe I’m being unkind to Rushdie. Maybe  I missed an important point and it was ME and not the book that was off target. Whatever the situation, I’m now free to move onto something else and after two decades I finally have “I read The Satanic Verses” bragging rights.

satanicverses

Steam Punk from Richard Harland. Anticipation and Reflection.

song of the slumsA book near the top of my MUST READ list for this year is Richard Harland’s Song of the Slums, to be released in May by Allen and Unwin.

Before I write anything else I have to confess an apparent “vested interest”. Richard Harland was one of my lecturers/tutors at University in the early 1990s and he wrote me a very generous reference when I was looking for work afterwards.

While this may appear to give me reason for bias in my response to Harland’s books, I will also add that for one essay, Richard gave me the lowest mark I ever received for any assignment during my whole time at University (and I still remember after 22 years). So can we pretend that the positives have been cancelled out and a balance of neutrality has been restored?

On his website Harland reveals that Songs of the Slums is “set in the same world as ([his previous books] WORLDSHAKER and LIBERATOR, but going back a bit in time. New characters, new story”

I cant’ wait!!

The following reviews of Worldshaker and Liberator are taken from my original “Out of Shadows” blog.

WORLDSHAKER

shakerWorldshaker was a book I didn’t want to leave. I read it at every opportunity and was disappointed when I reached the end. It’s the kind of book that demonstrates why continuing series of novels can be so successful. It is a book that creates a world and characters so interesting that you want to explore and experience them some more.

Harland has created an alternative history, a world where the industrial innovation and creativity of the Victorian era has taken a huge leap beyond the bridge and shipbuilding wonders of I K Brunel. In this world political necessity has driven steam age technology to achieve far grander goals than was the case in the “real” Victorian age.

Worldshaker is a massive “juggernaut”, part ship, part tank, part earthmoving excavator, which houses and employs citizens of various fixed classes. Perhaps a comparison could be made to futuristic stories of massive star-ships transporting nation sized communities through space – except juggernaut communities are earthbound and restricted to Victorian age technology.

Colbert Porpentine, heir in waiting to Worldshaker’s Supreme Commander, is thrown into contact with a girl who has entered his room to hide from the authorities. She is a member of the lowest of the low, a “filthy. A reflex decision not to expose the girl’s forbidden presence puts Col’s privileged position at risk and leads him to discover the price that others continually pay to maintain the lifestyle of the Juggernaut’s elite classes.

Worldshaker has what I consider to be a novel’s most essential qualities: strongly believable characters that I care about; an exciting storyline with interesting and original ideas and on a more practical level – short chapters.

I have found long chapters can be a stumbling block to successful reading. It is a major reason I’ve always struggled with Lord of the Rings. By the time I finish one long chapter, the task of reading another of similar length can seem too daunting, especially when other things are competing for my time. With shorter chapters it is easy to read “just one more chapter” several times in succession until a significant portion of the book has been read.

Worldshaker would be classed as a Young Adult title and it was a pleasure to read a book untarnished by the presence of graphic sex and foul language. From recent experience, books that don’t resort to such devices are becoming increasingly hard to find.

LIBERATOR

liberator
Many stories reach a satisfactory conclusion. The hero overcomes the odds and defeats the villain. Cinderella is found by her Prince Charming and rescued from a life of drudgery: and they all live happily ever after. At least that is the impression given by a neat and satisfying conclusion. Richard Harland’s Worldshaker would fit into that “satisfying conclusion” category, but the follow-up novel, Liberator shows us what happens AFTER the initial euphoria of a “happy” ending.

It shows that such endings are only temporary and one problem solved will merely lead to another. Liberator begins not long after the concluding events of the earlier novel and things have deteriorated very quickly. The Leviathan WorldShaker has been renamed Liberator to reflect the freedom gained by the lower class “Filthies” – but that freedom could now have severe consequences for the previously privileged “swanks” who chose to stay on after the Liberation, even those who played a significant part in overturning the former oppressive, elitist regime.

It soon comes clear that elitism and oppression are not the exclusive traits of those born into privilege. This book was just as enjoyable as the first in the series. Again I was compelled to read it at every opportunity I could make. Both are very near to the top of my favourites of recent years

At Risk by Stella Rimington

AT RISK0001Stella Rimington is the former head of MI5, apparently the inspiration behind the casting of Judi Dench as “M” in the James Bond films. Since leaving that position she has written her autobiography and several thrillers based on the spy world she knew. At Risk is the first of her books that I’ve read.

The first adult books I read (as a child and young teenager) were spy fiction as were some of my favourite TV shows at that time. And James Bond films were some of the first non-Disney films I saw. I loved that kind of thing – even though I’m sure I didn’t understand a lot of the “not suitable for children” content.

Considering the content of those books and films, the spy world of my childhood was clearly one of fantasy: world travel, glamour, bravery and ingenuity under extreme circumstances…
All very different from the more authentic (?) world Stella Rimington portrays in At Risk. I place the “?” after authentic because I have no way of knowing whether there is authenticity but I found the situations were plausible and the characters convincing.

Liz Carlyle is Rimington’s intelligence agent from MI5. In this book she investigates an anticipated terrorist attack, liaising with other intelligence and law enforcement agencies to track down the suspected terrorists and their target before their plans can be carried out.

The investigation relies on paper trails, computer networks and intuition instead of fast cars, shaken martinis and bedroom exploits. It is more like police work, tracking down leads, following up witnesses, trying to join puzzle pieces together from a headquarters set up in a community hall instead of travelling the glamour spots of the world rubbing shoulders with the rich and powerful.

In the first half of the book every second chapter seemed to introduce new characters and it took a while to find out where they fit into the overall story. Looking back, there is still one chapter and one couple whose purpose I can’t figure out – maybe I missed something and need to check that part again.

In the later chapters, as we find out more about the terrorists and their plans, we get to see their human side. They are not hard, amoral villains deserving a suitably spectacular and just end to their lives. There are emotional and logical reasons motivating them; and we find there are plenty of shadows between the extremes of black and white, right and wrong in the intelligence and military worlds.

I now have two more of Rimington’s books and I look forward to seeing how they compare, but first I still have a third of The Satanic Verses left to read.