loulamac’s #CBRV review #72: Anonymous! by Andy Powell

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This is a novel written by an ex-colleague of mine, and he’s been brave enough to let some of us read it. He wrote it in the month of November as part of NaNoWriMo 2013, and so I’m not going to knock the structure or point out typos. With a bit of editing this could be alright.

Much of the novel is set in the ego-filled, somewhat bonkers world of London marketing agencies. We first meet the main characters, who share the narration of most of the novel, on a night out in an over-priced bar that’s full of posing wankers. Mark is in the marketing department of a .com travel agency, Dee works in the client service team of the agency his boss has just hired. Somehow, in this den of over-priced Czech lager and banging house tunes, they identify each other as kindred spirits. Soon they’ve fallen in love, and after a very public proposal, they end up on their honeymoon in Mali. Which is where things go a bit wonky, for our protagonists as well as the novel.

As I said, I don’t want to knock this too much. Andy has a keen eye for the silliness and absurdity of the world of advertising (which is where the ‘!’ comes in), and so he should as it’s where we both work. The romance is sweet too, with Mark and Dee falling head over heels in love really quickly, and Andy captures that special kind of madness well. He does struggle to give the two narrators different enough voices, but that can be worked on. When the action moves to Mali, things lose focus a little with too much time given over to descriptions of long jeep journeys and African sunsets. All in all though, this is a great effort. Writing any kind of novel in November is a lot more than I managed.

loulamac’s #CBRV review #71: Slugs by Shaun Hutson

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I first pored over this preposterous horror novel back in the heady days of the early ‘80s, when I was ten years old. It belonged to the elder brother of one of my schoolmates (he also owned James Herbert’s The Rats and The Fog), and I used to read the particularly racy and gory bits aloud to my squealing friends at lunchtime. I’m pleased to report that, while there’s no question that it’s trashy and naff, it has stood the test of time pretty well.

Life is plodding along in the quiet English town of Merton, the hot summer being the worst that people have to deal with. Things are going to get nasty though, as beneath the town’s streets, carnivorous slugs are multiplying, and they’re about to get a taste for human flesh. They first emerge from their lair in the local alcoholic’s cellar to eat him alive when he returns from the pub one night. Health inspector Mike Brady (Chief Martin Brody’s spiritual twin) is one of the first at the scene of carnage and spots slime trails all over the house. When slugs start coming up in his back garden and one tries to bite his finger, he begins to wonder…

All the usual tropes are there, as well as a few borrowed from horror’s kissing cousin the disaster story. There’s the hero who’s the only one who knows what’s going on, and isn’t believed by people in positions of power; there are the sexually adventurous teenagers who come to a messy end; there’s an innocent child who falls victim to the voracious menace (i.e. the slugs). The final raid on the sewer system, where our plucky hero is accompanied by a blue-collar buddy and a scientist, is essentially the final section of Jaws but underground. Not that I mind, if you’re going to borrow, why not borrow from one of the finest creature features of all time?

loulamac’s #CBRV review #70: The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

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The British Film Institute in London has a ‘Gothic’ season on at the moment, and will be screening a fair few ghost stories over the next few weeks. The 1961 film ‘The Innocents’ is of course one of them, which prompted me to re-read the source novel. While I’ve become a coward in recent years, I do love things that go bump in the night, and so was hoping I’d be gripped by a book that’s so often touted as one of the great examples of psychological horror. I wasn’t.

A group of friends gathered in an old house are presented with a manuscript that one of the group was given by a governess many years before. It tells the tale of her first position, where she was employed as the ward of two orphaned children. Her employer, the children’s uncle, has little interest in them, and so she is dispatched to care for them in his secluded country house. This physical isolation mirrors her emotional solitude, as the only company she has are the two young children and the housekeeper. The governess has not been long at the house, when she begins to see a man and woman in the grounds. On describing them to the housekeeper, she realises that she is seeing the ghosts of the previous governess Miss Jessel and Peter Quint, another employee who was also her lover. These two had intense relationships with the children in life, and the governess decides she must do all she can to stop the spirits from interfering with the children in death. The real battle comes when the children reject her attempts to protect them, and seem to conspire against her.

There has been much debate in literary circles about whether the ghosts are real, or if the governess is insane. I took the book at face value, and chose to go with the notion that the evil spirits wish to take possession of their erstwhile charges. Unfortunately though, I found the prose impenetrable and convoluted, which hindered any building sense of menace and atmosphere. While some passages (particularly the one where the governess sees her predecessor sitting below her on the stairs) are creepy, this is no The Haunting of Hill House.

loulamac’s #CBRV review #69: Mad About the Boy by Helen Fielding; audiobook read by Samantha Bond

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I’ve never been particularly touched by Bridget Jones and her adventures. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had a laugh at her disastrous wine-induced decisions and thought ‘thank fuck that’s not me’ more times than I can count, but she never spoke to me like Carrie and the girls (or Sally Jay Gorce for that matter). I just never got it, you know? That feeling of mild, detached amusement continued with this belated latest instalment. Detached amusement and mild boredom.

Bridget is 51, and a widow. Yes, a widow. I realise this fact led to much howling and gnashing of teeth amongst fans, but I never gave a crap about Mark Darcy (he’s in the same ‘get me away from this chump’ bracket as Aidan in SATC) so I didn’t care that he’d been killed off. She’s also a mum of two small children (smaller than you’d expect given her age), and has been celibate since Darcy’s death four years before. The book is basically about her finding love again, while struggling with her weight and not knowing what to wear. Along the way she also writes a screenplay and makes friends with the boho woman across the road, and there’s a sub-plot about head lice isn’t as funny as Fielding seems to think it is.

Fielding has never been Le Carré or Dickens, but the combination of diary entry, text and exposition disguised as diary entry is a muddle that wasn’t helped by the audiobook format. Samantha Bond is of course a consummate pro, but I couldn’t help but cringe at some of the words she had to read. The plot was excruciatingly smug, twee and predictable, without any of the charm of its predecessors. And herein lay the book’s biggest problem. While Bridget, with her affluent middle-class problems, was never an every-woman, she was always funny, sympathetic and REAL. While we might not shag our bosses and get jobs as TV reporters, we’ve all drunk too much wine, begrudged our married friends their ‘happiness’ and had to rely on control pants more than we’d like to admit. This skinny, toy-boy shagging, well-enough-off-that-she-doesn’t-have-to-work Bridget, doesn’t seem to have any grounding in reality, and so had even less to say to me than usual.

loulamac’s #CBRV review #68: Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

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This is one of those books that I felt, as a fan of both sci-fi and 20th century American fiction, I should read. That feeling of obligation is perhaps what kept it on my ‘to read’ shelf for so long, as often these must-read seminal novels turn out to be disappointing. I am delighted to say that Slaughterhouse-Five is not one of those books. It’s bleak and shocking, but it’s also very funny. What’s more, it’s witty and clever, without being smart-arse. I liked this book, a lot.

The story, told un-chronologically due to a mix of flashback and time travel, is of Billy Pilgrim. Born in Ilium New York, Billy enlists in the army during World War Two, and finds himself captured by the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge. He and his fellow prisoners are held in Dresden in the fifth block of an unused abattoir, and so Billy survives and witnesses the aftermath of the fire-bombing of that city in February 1945. On his return from Europe, he qualifies as an optometrist, marries the boss’ obese daughter and has two children, has a PTSD-fuelled breakdown, survives a plane crash, discovers he is a time traveller and is kidnapped by aliens and kept in a zoo on their home planet, where he has a baby with a fellow-abductee, an American film star. None of this is explained, or revealed to you in any particular order, but that doesn’t matter. You just to go with it, and have fun. Boy do you have fun.

The novel is full of remarkable, ordinary characters (failed science fiction novelist Kilgore Trout was a favourite of mine), and the writing is a delight, as the destruction of Dresden is described in the same matter of fact way as the eating habits of Pilgrim’s gargantuan wife. Terrible things happen to people, and one of the things Billy (and you along with him) learns along the way is that while death is just around the corner, but might not be the end. So it goes.

loulamac’s #CBRV review #67: The Flinch by Julien Smith

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This self-help book is meant to be so life-changing that the publishers are giving it away for free. Either they’re thinking that they have a duty to the human race to share this explosive piece of writing, or they’re doing it on the basis that you’ll then go on to buy Seth Godin’s ‘Poke the Box’. My money’s on the latter.

The premise of The Flinch is that we’re all carrying around atavistic programming that drives our response to threatening or challenging situations. This is the flinch of the title, our instinct to draw back, protect ourselves, put our hands in front of our faces. Thousands of years ago, when our ancestors lived in a world full of very real threats (sabre-tooth tigers, bears etc), the flinch was what kept us alive. But, Smith contends, what used to keep us alive is now holding us back. In the 21st century, capitalist Western world, very few of the things that we face and flinch from represent any real threat. We are simply programmed to avoid a sense of danger or insecurity, and as a result we don’t go for our dream jobs, get out of dead-end relationships. In avoiding the things that scare us, we are limiting our potential, and this book, through some cheesy self-help prose and a series of ‘homework’ exercises, seeks to break that cycle.

It’s an interesting premise, but not dissimilar to that of ‘Poke the Box’ or ‘Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway’. So while using the frame of ‘the flinch’ makes it mildly thought-provoking, the content and message of the book is hardly ground-breaking.

 

loulamac’s #CBRV review #66: Under the Same Stars by Tim Lott

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It’s August 2008, and the western world is reeling in the wake of the sub-prime collapse. Salinger Nash is 40, and is the kind of middle class intellectual who has opinions on global political-economic matters. He makes ends meet as an illustrator, living with his girlfriend in the suburban sprawl to the north-west of London. Out of the blue one day, Salinger gets a call from his elder brother Carson, who lives in New Orleans. Carson has received an unaddressed letter from their estranged father’s wife. Salinger hasn’t seen his father for thirty years, not since Henry followed his dream and moved to America, abandoning his wife and children. America captivated their father (the brothers are named after his two favourite American writers), and Carson proposes that he and Salinger go on a road trip to track him down.

Salinger has been plagued by depression all his life, and has a strained relationship with Carson, who has hasn’t seen since their mother’s funeral two years before. Despite this, he finds himself on a plane to New Orleans, and over the next couple of weeks has his world view challenged by his born again Christian brother and sister-in-law, an American Indian healer, a redneck cop and his stepmother. He unearths some uncomfortable truths about his childhood, and seems to come to terms with who he is.

As the reader, I never came to terms with who Salinger is. Early on, we are told that Salinger likes ‘splashing out on the basics’ – expensive sourdough bread and French unsalted butter – while his girlfriend is happy with ‘Kingsmill and Anchor’; he reads a broadsheet, she a tabloid. So within a few pages I realised I was reading yet another contemporary novel peopled by unlikeable narcissists, and again I can’t tell if the writer was trying to make a statement or if he didn’t realise how unpleasant his protagonist is. Deliberate or not, the result was that I struggled to enjoy a book that has some flashes of brilliance, particularly in the dialogue between Salinger and the pompous Carson. These flashes couldn’t save it though, as in other places the prose is over-written and fussy (‘The rude snorting of a rubbish truck grew louder and louder as it approached, pig-like, along the street outside’, the word ‘lachrymose’ used twice in three pages). The constant references to the great American writers of the twentieth century don’t help either. Steinbeck this isn’t.

loulamac’s #CBRV review #65: The Conductor by Sarah Quigley

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In the summer of 1941, Nazi Germany broke its non-aggression pact with Stalin’s USSR, and marched on and besieged Leningrad. Hitler’s plan was to wipe the city from the face of the earth, and he very nearly succeeded. Over the 872 days of the siege, air raids and artillery bombardment reduced the urban area to rubble, while famine, disease and the extreme cold of Russian winters claimed the lives of 1.5m people. Destruction on that scale is impossible to fathom from my safe middle-class 21st century viewpoint, but in The Conductor, a brave fictional web woven around real-life events, Sarah Quigley brings the shocking statistics into sharp relief through the experiences of individuals.

Dmitri Shostakovich is one of Leningrad’s most famous sons. In the throes of writing his seventh symphony, he is a man possessed, and so delays his inevitable evacuation to the relative safety of Siberia for as long as he can. So immersed is he in his work that he sleepwalks through the campaign of German shelling, losing friends and colleagues to the war effort and the declining health of his wife and children as they waste away before his unseeing eyes. His best friend is violinist Nikolai, who lost his wife some years before. Raising his daughter with the help of his spinster sister-in-law, he is forced to make a choice that haunts him, and he finds solace in the music composed by his friend. Finally we have Elias Karlsberg, the second-rate conductor of the third-rate Radio Orchestra, who is plagued by self-doubt as he struggles to keep his elderly mother alive. Shostakovich flees to complete the final movement of the symphony, and after the full score is flown in over enemy lines, Karlsberg and his orchestra are commissioned to perform it for the dying city.

In the music of Shostakovich, the musicians and their conductor find beauty and passion in horrific circumstances. As the winter snows thaw to reveal corpses that have been mutilated for meat, the orchestra of ‘walking cadavers’ battles through personal loss, illness and malnutrition to deliver their performance, broadcast on loud speakers throughout the city and at enemy lines. It is a testament to Quigley’s writing that such themes as the triumph of the human spirit, or a weak man finding inner strength under extreme pressure do not seem trite or hackneyed. This book moved me.

loulamac’s #CBRV review #64: Smiley’s People by John Le Carré; audiobook read by Michael Jayston

George Smiley

John Le Carré George Smiley novels, how do I love thee? I can count the ways. The writing, the characters, the plot, the locations, the dialogue, the relationships. Wow. If you haven’t read any of these, read one now. NOW!

Smiley’s People is the third in the series featuring George Smiley and the Soviet spymaster Karla. While it comes after events of The Honourable Schoolboy, in its setting, tone and cast of characters it is more of a companion piece to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

It is some years after the events of that novel, and George has once again gone into retirement, living a monk’s life in the marital home that his wife has once again abandoned. A Russian émigré and ex-source is found dead on Hampstead Heath, apparently the victim of a Soviet assassination, and the enigmatic and remote Smiley is drawn back into the ‘Circus’ to tie up any embarrassing loose ends that might arise from the murder investigation. I don’t want to say anything more than that in case I give something away.

This was another audiobook to get my through marathon training, and Michael Jayston does a wonderful job. My only complaint has nothing to do with his excellent read, and everything to do with the tears of joy-inducing quality of Le Carré’s prose. His descriptions of Smiley, the way his glasses and raincoat can impart his state of mind, bear re-reading and dwelling over in a way that isn’t possible with an audiobook. I’ve promised myself that my first book of 2014 will be reading this with my own eyes. It’s BRILLIANT!

loulamac’s #CBRV review #63: Before they are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie; audiobook read by Steven Pacey

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‘We should forgive our enemies, but not before they are hanged.’ Heinrich Heine

The second in The First Law trilogy, Before They are Hanged picks up where The Blade Itself (read my review of that here) left off, and we are thrown straight back into the adventures of the mismatched band of characters we know and love.

Maimed inquisitor Sand den Glokta has been seconded to the southern Union city of Dagoska to investigate the disappearance of his predecessor, as barbarian Gurkish hordes threaten to overrun the city. Who can he trust as he tries to get to the bottom of things and keep the city safe? Warrior Logen, ex-slave Ferro and petulant nobleman Luthar have accompanied the sorcerer Bayaz to the edge of the world on his mysterious quest that will push them to the limits of who they are, and soldier Collum West finds himself having some tough choices to make as he babysits the Crown Prince as the northmen attack.

This might all sound like run-of-the-mill fantasy fiction fare, but Abercrombie’s deft touch, knack for dialogue and eye for human nature elevates it.  As you might expect from the middle volume of a trilogy, much of the story is set-up for the final book. What pushes this forward is the development of characters you have already invested in. There are battles, murders and love affairs; loyalties are tested and unexpected allegiances form. I LOVED this book.

Steven Pacey (the cute curly-haired guy from Blake’s Seven) gives an awesome performance in reading the book. I was an audiobook virgin and I wasn’t sure if I’d like listening rather than reading, but staring down the barrel of training for another marathon with the associated three hour runs, I needed something to get me through. Pacey is brilliant, investing both the internal and external voice of each character with distinctive mannerisms and motivations. His reading is a masterful interpretation of the menacing and mysterious world Abercrombie has created.