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Mr. Scott Wortley (Falkirk, Scotland)
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Love, etc.
Love, etc.
by Julian Barnes
Edition: Hardcover

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars treading water - disappointing Barnes, 8 Jan. 2004
This review is from: Love, etc. (Hardcover)
Julian Barnes is capable of writing great novels. Staring at the Sun; and Flaubert's Parrot are both excellent - the latter particularly representative of the best of Barnes's writing style. This style is similar in some ways to the later novels of Milan Kundera, where plot and character study are secondary to the ideas that are explored in various digressions. (Although at his best Barnes has a sympathy for character - especially female characters - that Kundera either does not achieve or is not interested in). Indeed, in a recent collection of critical essays James Wood suggested that Barnes is more of an essay writer than a novelist, and this can be seen especially in Flaubert's Parrot and A History of the world in 10 1/2 chapters.
Given the high standards of the best of Barnes's fiction his readership have certain expectations that if not met lead to great disappointment. Julian Barnes' previous novel, England, England was one such disappointment. A heavy handed satire, toying with notions of nationality and nationhood, it somehow found its way onto the Booker Prize shortlist (perhaps saying more about the paucity of modern British fiction and the quality of the judging panel than the quality of the novel). It is disappointing to note that the novel under review, Love etc, is not a return to form.
Love etc is a belated sequel to Talking it over (1991), and was the name of a French film adapted from Talking it over in 1997. Talking it over itself seemed to stem from the half chapter in a History of the World in 10 1/2 chapters - an essay on the meaning of love. Taliking it over had three principal characters, Stuart - the quiet boring one; Oliver - the flamboyant pretentious one; and Gillian - the sensible one. The three characters were caught in a love triangle. The plot seemed to echo that enjoyed so often by new wave French cinema. The novelty of Barnes approach was that each character took it in turns to address the reader. The novel was an exercise in perspective and unreliable narration (some years after Martin Amis's similar Success).
Love etc. adopts the same approach. There are the three central characters picking up where Talking it Over left of. They are ten years older, little wiser. Stuart is still relatively boring, has somehow managed to make a lot of money in the US, has remarried and separated, and keeps something nasty in his wallet; Oliver is a waster, still pretentious, still in love with Gillian; and Gillian is still relatively sensible. There is a greater role in this novel for Gillian's mother, whose gnostic words of wisdom litter the novel like Confuscian thought. The characters also still directly address the reader.
There are advantages in this approach. When done well the character's approach to the reader is not mediated through an ominscient authorial voice. When done well, the reader is shown how the same event can be viewed in many different ways by different observers. However, where the stylistic device gave Talking it over its novelty, grates here. We've seen it done before and the process feels like an exercise in ventriloquism. The characters all seem like different facets of one character, rther than distinct personae. The characters are too alike, their individuality based on stylistic quirks (Oliver uses big words; Stuart is banal), rather than any particular revelations of character.
Barnes gives the novel a "shock" ending which while handled sensitively seemed like an attempt to give the novel an issue to deal with rather than a necessary action of the characters.
This novel is disappointing, and this review has picked out what for this reviewer were weaknesses. Saying that, what is disappointing for Barnes is still a level above most contemporary English literary fiction.
The novel is very readable. It has a wry wit; and raises interesting observations and questions on the nature of love. However, I think, ultimately, that the novel fails.
This novel can be read without having read Talking it over, but the characters have more depth if Love etc is read after Talking it over.
If you want to try a Barnes novel I suggest Flaubert's Parrot or Staring at the sun. If you enjoy Love etc, try Alain de Botton's Essays in Love, or - in a very different style - Ivan Klima's Love and Garbage.


The Thirty-Nine Steps (Penguin Popular Classics)
The Thirty-Nine Steps (Penguin Popular Classics)
by John Buchan
Edition: Paperback

13 of 18 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars a shocker from Buchan, 8 Jan. 2004
Some modern Scottish thriller writers are contrasted (not always favourably) with two perceived greats of Scottish fiction - Robert Louis Stevenson and John Buchan. I love Stevenson, the fast pace of his stories, and his characterisation. This was the first Buchan I read. While it will not be the last I felt a little disappointed.
The Thirty Nine steps is said to be one of the most important novels in the thriller genre. Featuring Richard Hannay a former South African miner, who is caught in a spy story, the effects of which may lead to war in western Europe.
The story is fast moving. Hannay is placed in predicament after predicament (like the Perils of Pauline) following the discovery of a body in his London flat. He escapes to Galloway, then Dumfriesshire (rural south west Scotland). Pursued by both police and foreign agents Hannay's life is at risk - and we witness his use of a number of disguises, and his experience as a mining engineer, in escaping each predicament.
At times the novel feels like a loosely related series of escapades, but the final chapters (as in Childers' The riddle of the sands) pull the disparate strands together satisfyingly. Fast paced with an appealing central character, the novel is recommended as a quick and easy entertainment. However, there are some flaws readers ought to be aware of.
In the Scottish sections of the novel Buchan writes the dialogue of the locals in dialect, contrasting this with the the "received pronunication" of the other characters. As a technique it appears to belittle the validity of the dialect spoken, and appears to patronise the locals. Although, Buchan's sleight here is countered by his portrayal of the locals. They share a certain cunning and deviousness. Additionally, the use of dialect (and a particular type of lowland Scots dialect) renders parts of the text difficult to follow.
Most concerning about the book is the inherent anti-semitism. Analgoies and metaphors rely on negative imagery of jews; and one of the characters (scudder) is overtly anti-semitic in his comments. While this was a prevalent attitude in a certain strata of British writing pre- World War Two, it jars today - and rendered parts of the novel, for this reader, offensive.
Buchan is certainly readable, but his work has dated. His influence is apparent in the work of Greene, and inherent in his work are the influences of American thriller writers of the early twentieth century, and Conan Doyle's Holmes, Challenger, and Brigadier Gerard stories.
If you enjoyed this novel you might want to try Graham Greene's Gun for sale; The Confidential Agent; Stamboul Train; and The Ministry of fear.


Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry
Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry
by B S Johnson
Edition: Paperback

29 of 34 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars angry satire but by no means Johnson's best, 8 Jan. 2004
BS Johnson is one of those experimental writers, controversial during their lives that subsequently vanishes from print. Johnson was a journalist, a socialist, and a fine novelist. Best known for The Unfortunates (his book in a box where every chapter is separately bound and the reader is invited to read them in any order he or she wishes), Christie Malry's Own Double Entry is perhaps his most accessible novel.
However, this "accessibility" is in the midst of a studiedly experimental text. This is a corruscating satire in which Johnson targets one of the symbols of capitalism, the double entry system. The very basis of accountancy, and the manipulation of finance, Johnson turns this building block on its head as his central character, Christie Malry, a young man with a future, decides that he will live his life accoridng to the principles of double entry.
Johnson's novel has acute observations on a variety of issues in British life that still merit comment. How working class people come to vote conservative, the manner in which people's worth is measured financially; and all of this is in the midst of an angry satire where Malry wreaks vengeance on the system. It is a bitter cycnical novel, with a dark wit.
There is love, sex, and death; and an unusual use for shaving foam. And all of this is presented in a slightly distant way, where Johnson continually turns to the reader and winks, letting you know this is a novel. Characters are aware of their place in fiction, and Johnson deconstructs the novel to let you see how it works.
This description may be off putting, but this is classy fiction. It is funny, and angry. I enjoyed this work, but preferred Johnson's The Unfortunates; which I feel has more depth, and more humanity.
If you enjoyed this you may like Graham Greene's Dr Fischer of Geneva or The Bomb Party or Michael Dibdin's Dirty Tricks (a Thatcherite satire).


Maigret and the hundred gibbets
Maigret and the hundred gibbets
by Georges Simenon
Edition: Paperback

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Superior Maigret, 8 Jan. 2004
In the first year of publication of Maigret novels almost a dozen were published. The rapidity with which Simenon produced the books in that first year did not detrimentally effect the quality. Having read Maigret novels from throughout the series I am of the view that those novels in the first years are as good as any Simenon produced: Lock 14, The Yellow Dog, A Man's Head, The Bar on the Seine (each of which has recently been reprinted in the UK), are each of the highest quality. But for me The Hundred Gibbets tops these and is on a par with the best of Simenon's fiction (such as The Blue Room).
Through his curiosity as to why a man was packaging 30,000 francs in Brussels posting the money on Maigret resolves to follow Louis Jeunet. His trailing of Jeunet and switch of Jeunet's suitcase leads Jenuet to commit suicide in Bremen and places in Maigret's possession of a blood stained suit. The wonderful opening chapter sets in motion a densely plotted well characterised thriller based around Simenon's birthplace of Liege in Belgium.
Maigret has a depth here that some of the later novels lack, and the sense of place is palpable. The plot involves uncovering an incident from many years before. The Belgian characters involved in the incident are well drawn, most memorable being the businessman van Damme. His confrontation with Maigret and continual appearances around peculiar incidents are delightfully done.
Highly recommended I would suggest that this is an excellent strating place in reading Maigret and if you enjoy this would recommend any of the Maigret volumes referred to previously, or the Zen novels of Michael Dibdin.


Zanzibar
Zanzibar
by Giles Foden
Edition: Hardcover

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars draft for a forthcoming movie? Disappointing novel, 3 Jan. 2003
This review is from: Zanzibar (Hardcover)
Giles Foden is a journalist and his first two novels were very promising. The Last King of Scotland, a fascinating study of Idi Amin and the charisma of power and corruption - and one of the best first novels of the 1990s; Ladysmith, a fine siege novel. On the strength of these two novels Foden was proclaimed by Allan Massie one of the best young British novelists. However, while the big breakthrough as a literary novelist awaits it is customary for promising British novelists to turn their attention to cinema. One cannot blame them. There is little money to be made in literary fiction, even as one of the best young British novelists. So, a young man's fancy will turn to thoughts of big name actors, big budget action thrillers, and the end result sees novels by numbers. Sadly Giles Foden seems to have followed the same path as Philip Kerr.
This novel deals with al-Qaida and the US embassy bombings of the late 1990s. The novel was substantially completed before 11.9.2001 and its content evidences the diligence of Foden's researches into ther organisation (although there is a didacticism here that is not present in his earlier novels). It looks at the early links between bin Laden's organisation and the American CIA, one of the three central western characters being a CIA agent involved in training al-Qaida operatives in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation. This strand is for me the most successful part of the novel. Quiller is an interesting character, battling his past failure, trying to make recompense. He echoes those characters that populate Foden's previous novels (although even aspects of his character - such as his missing limb - feel like caricature). However, Quiller is off centre too often. Instead the plot centres around a young American marinne biologist Nick, (Memo to central casting - man on a mission, driven, unable to commit: promising for Ben Affleck?), and his sometime love interest Miranda, a diplomat at the US embassy in Tanzania (memo to central casting - attractive, strong woman, stumbling into love, powerful scenes when on solo investigation. All scantily clad sections wholly essential to plot due to extreme hear: Try J-LO?). Neither wholly convinces, and the love story feels like a pitch for a movie.
I wonder if the book was rushed out to remain topical. It could have benefited from a longer gestation, the paring down of the plot, the building up of the characters.
The pages keep turning, but a week after I've finished the novel there are few scenes that remain in the mind, no long lasting impression. One could say it was perfect airline reading, and one can see a big budget all action movie, if it were not for the problem that Foden makes clear the complicity of the US in the development of bin Laden's movement.
On the strength of Foden's previous work I will look forward to his next novel, but I don't think I'll be revisiting Zanzibar.


Nineteen Eighty Three: Red Riding Quartet Pt. 4
Nineteen Eighty Three: Red Riding Quartet Pt. 4
by David Peace
Edition: Paperback

13 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A stunning conclusion to the Quartet, 27 Dec. 2002
When a figure dominates a genre as James Ellroy does modern crime fiction, then it is inevitable that blurb writers suggest unnatural comparisons between authors and the master. Many have suffered. Ian Rankin is Scotland's Ellroy; and David Peace is Yorkshire's. While some writers suffer from the comparison, Peace does not.
His series of novels set in and around Leeds at the time of the Yorkshire Ripper murders is in my view the finest modern British series in crime fiction. Dark, desperate, highly stylised, moving, they engage with modern Britain - drawing on a number of topical themes: abuse; corruption; conspiracy.
This the final novel in the quartet revisits many of the threads initiated in 1974, but are presented in such a way that knowledge of the previous novels is not necessary.
The three principals here: BJ, a rent boy, Piggot, a corrupt solicitor, and Jobson, a corrupt policeman, are set in three different interlinking narratives. In demonstrating how his style has developed since his earlier work, here various devices are used effortlessly. Piggot's chapters are written in the second person, BJ refers to himself continually in the third person. The device differentiates the narrative threads, but also serves to demonstrate the distancing each character has from their story.
The characters are all too human, complex people with complex motivations. Violence is presented explictly, the consequences of actions explored (throughout the whole of the twenty five year span covered by the novel).
The subject matter - violent child murders and abuse - may be too much for some. The writing style may be too much for others. BUt make no mistake, David Peace is the most exciting and most important thing that has happened to crime fiction in the UK in a very long time.


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