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The Trial (Vintage Classics)
The Trial (Vintage Classics)
Price: 3.41

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Nameless menace stalks hero and reader, 25 May 2011
This is more difficult to review than Kafka's 'The Metamorphosis' as it is fragmented and incomplete, though, strangely, Kafka gave it an ending. In fact, everything is strange about the book, which is Kafka's intention - it's clear that he wants the reader to feel as disoriented as the 'hero' Josef K, a successful senior bank official who wakes up one morning to find his lodgings invaded by secretive policeman, come to inform him he is being arraigned for trial for some nameless crime.

We never get to a trial as such, only a sort of preliminary hearing. The court and all its officials are housed in a tenement block in a poor part of town, where living quarters and offices of court are merged into one another or linked by mysterious corridors, some of which seem to open up unexpectedly, like a darker version of Lewis Carroll's Wonderland. At K's office, too, bizarre scenes and exchanges take place at the opening of a door. It all contributes to a sense that nothing is quite what it seems, and everything is menace. We can't even be sure of K; all we know about him is by his own reckoning, and although he is, in the early stages of the book, very pleased with himself there are hints of character traits which are very unpleasant, not least his lecherous and vaguely misogynistic attitude to women.

The power of the novel comes from K's growing obsession and sense of foreboding about the trial. We see him gradually disintegrate before us. The more he seeks to know the less he knows. The characters around him seem at once to know everything and nothing. The threat is claustrophobic and, like his supposed crime, nameless. The ending that Kafka gives us is ritualised and solemn - perhaps in the way that executions are universally, whether they be labelled 'legitimate' or 'illegitimate'. The symbolism is political, but the shiver is deeply and unforgettably personal.

Reviewer David Wiliams writes a regular blog Writer in the North.


Metamorphosis
Metamorphosis
Price: 0.77

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Surreal masterpiece, 14 May 2011
This review is from: Metamorphosis (Kindle Edition)
I was inspired to read Kafka by listening to and unexpectedly enjoying 'Kafka the Musical' on BBC Radio 4. I downloaded the David Wyllie translation of 'The Metamorphosis' onto my Kindle for free from Project Gutenberg, and I'm very glad I did. The situation - man wakes up to find himself transformed into a giant beetle - must have seemed even more bizarre one hundred years ago than in these strange times; but from this unlikely premise, and in the space of a modest novella, Kafka provides a wealth of satirical comedy and pathos. The selfless and ultimately tragic hero Gregor Samsa leaves an indelible impression on the reader. The great sadness of the story lies in the fact that his family seem more concerned with the indelible stains left by his spoor on the bedroom wall. If, like me, you are late in coming to this great story I recommend you put it at the top of your to-read pile.

Reviewer David Williams writes a regular blog Writer in the North.


Smut: Two Unseemly Stories
Smut: Two Unseemly Stories
Price: 3.60

8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Two slight tales from a master teller, 11 May 2011
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It's probably fair to say that my rating for this book would be a little higher if I were reviewing a writer I am not familiar with, but as Alan Bennett is one of my favourite authors my expectations are proportionately greater, and 'Smut' does not not rate as highly as most in the corpus.

'Smut' comprises two longish short stories about unconventional sexuality in apparently conventional domestic situations. The fulcrum of 'The Greening of Mrs Donaldson' occurs when a student couple, tenants of the widow Mrs Donaldson, suggest she might like to watch them have sex in lieu of unpaid rent. 'The Shielding of Mrs Forbes' turns on the blackmailing of Mrs Forbes' newly-married son by his gay lover, a corrupt policeman. The stories are comic, wittily written in the Bennett style - deceptively homely with acerbic twists and curtain-parting satire. They are proficient sketches by a master, without much depth or texture.

And I think that's the trouble, really. The stories are slight. The characters (with the exception of the emergent Mrs Donaldson) do not grow much beyond caricature. Bennett offers us more than whimsy, but not a great deal more. There is not that much we can carry away beyond the simple pleasure we find in the telling; as we do having watched, say, a well-turned Ayckbourn farce. I found myself wondering whether there was enough here for these two stories (though they are complementary) to merit publication on their own.

Sometimes you end a book wanting more for all the right reasons, having invested so much in the story and the characters that you are reluctant to leave them, want to be along for the rest of the journey or a new one, or because you have developed some new understanding as a consequence of reading the book and want to reach for further enlightenment. Here, I wanted more because I felt vaguely dissatisfied despite my enjoyment of the experience as far as it went. I felt a bit like Peggy Lee when she sings, 'Is that all there is?'

Reviewer David Williams writes a regular blog as Writer in the North.


The Remains of the Day
The Remains of the Day
by Kazuo Ishiguro
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.32

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Subtle masterpiece, 6 May 2011
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This review is from: The Remains of the Day (Paperback)
Usually I like to read a book before seeing a film adaptation, but in this case I came to the book late, several years after seeing 'The Remains of the Day' on screen. It meant that the narrator and central character, the butler Stevens, arrived for me entirely in the voice and form of Anthony Hopkins. Far from this being a distraction it worked wonderfully, like having one of the world's greatest actors come to read to you personally. It also worked the other way, allowing me to appreciate even more how well Hopkins had interpreted the part.

I am aware that authors can get irritated by readers who start to talk about the film version in tandem with the book - and I have heard Ishiguro admit that it took him a while to reconcile himself to the oft-heard line 'James Ivory's Remains of the Day' - but I also know that the author admires the film a great deal and sees it not just as complementary but as a separate piece of art in its own right; exactly my sentiment.

What Ishiguro does so well is to convey nuance through voice, and that is precisely Hopkins' strength, one of the reasons he was the ideal choice for Stevens. The book, of course, allows much more scope with its use of interior monologue, often to comment on the action that he describes, and which in the film we see played out as it happens. The book structure has Stevens in the mid-1950s taking a leisurely drive across south-west England to meet up after many years with former housekeeper Miss Kenton (now married), and during the trip reflecting upon his years at Darlington Hall, his relationship with Miss Kenton and with his employer, Lord Darlington. It is a useful, fluid device that gives the author the flexibility to roam where he wants across the intervening years, to give us hints and glimpses of things that Stevens has not yet fully revealed.

One thing we learn gradually is that Stevens' employer is a Nazi sympathiser and anti-semite who has been used as a pawn by Hitler's men to try and keep Britain out of the coming World War. Darlington is not an essentially bad man but (like the butler who acts as his apologist) has a very limited world view, distorted by long-held assumptions of class, privilege and tradition. It makes both men myopic in other ways too. The callous dismissal of two faithful female servants who happen to be Jewish is one result of that affliction. For Stevens, his inability to properly recognize the love he is being offered by Miss Kenton, or to interpret for himself (never mind articulate for her) his own inner feelings, is ultimately disastrous.

'The Remains of the Day' can be seen as a political parable (the unthinking obedience of the British servant to the ruling classes has its parallel in the response of the 'ordinary' Germans to their political masters), or as an elegy on the British class system; but it is most powerful at the level of individual lives, as a love story whose tragedy is that it never got going, whose principals are left, in the remains of the day, alone in their unspoken desperation.

Reviewer David Williams maintains a regular blog as Writer in the North.
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Never Let Me Go
Never Let Me Go
Price: 4.47

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Subtle and engrossing, 18 April 2011
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This review is from: Never Let Me Go (Kindle Edition)
The key ingredient to Kazuo Ishiguro's success with the reader in this understated but deeply disturbing novel (and, incidentally, why I am doubtful whether the film adaptation, which I haven't seen yet, will work with the viewer) is the way he lets us see everything through narrator Kathy's perspective - and then some - without ever changing that perspective. The effect is that we gradually come to an agonized understanding of the helplessness behind her nostalgic naivete and walk with her towards an abyss which she cannot or will not fully acknowledge.

Although Kathy is at one level aware that she and her friends are clones, nurtured to become spare human part providers in this alternatively real 70s-90s Britain (a bleak, soviet environment), she fails to grasp the horrifying nature of their fate. Everything is wrapped in euphemism - carers, donors, recovery centre, completion - and what is effectively imprisonment is remembered as a sort of pleasant boarding school with quirky rules and a few eccentric 'guardians'. Although she is puzzled by certain events and actions, and follows her friends Ruth and Tommy in pursuing various clues and rumours, she does so in a fellow passenger sort of way. She is not without motivation, but this is directed into trying to understand her friends and help them maintain equilibrium (the only times she seems anxious are when equilibrium is disturbed), rather than in exploring the wider questions of purpose and destiny.

Ruth is a larger personality than the acquiescent Kathy, intensely egocentric and manipulative, especially of her friends. She does achieve a kind of maturity before her own 'completion' when she turns her manipulative skills away from spite and offers what she genuinely believes to be good advice that will bring Kathy and Tommy together and offer them a chance at least to defer their inevitable demise.

The only character who seems to have glimpses of the horror that awaits is Tommy; ironically his clearer perception leads to unpopularity among his peers at the establishment, and to his being labelled as inferior intellectually, creatively and emotionally. Tommy's tragedy is that the opposite is the case.

Ishiguro is at his brilliant best in developing the relationship between Kathy and Tommy. I hope it is not bathetic to say that, while I was reading and thinking about these two, a couple of lines from Paul Simon's song 'America' would repeat in my head:

'Kathy I'm lost,' I said, though I knew she was sleeping.
'I'm empty and aching, and I don't know why.'

I won't reveal the end of the story, not because it is particularly dramatic or surprising, but it needs to be arrived at in the walk of the narrative. I will only say that the last long paragraph of the book is masterful, summative, absolutely character-precise, and left this reader emotionally drained. When I consider that Ishiguro has done all of that through the medium of a narrator whom he has persuaded me across nearly three hundred pages is emotionally neutral, I can only put my hand up and salute great writing.

Reviewer David Williams writes a regular blog as Writer in the North.


Alone in Berlin (Penguin Modern Classics)
Alone in Berlin (Penguin Modern Classics)
Price: 4.35

4.0 out of 5 stars Standing up to the Nazis, 11 April 2011
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I knew nothing about Hans Fallada's work; downloaded 'Alone in Berlin' onto my Kindle simply because it came up on my Recommendations and the blurb looked interesting. It was a great decision, and I hope I can add my little bit to encouraging others to read this harrowing but absorbing and grittily realistic novel of wartime Germany.

The book was originally published in 1947, not long after the events it describes and shortly before the author's death, but very surprisingly was not translated into English until 2009. It is set in and around Berlin, with the most outwardly mundane central characters - a factory foreman and his timid hausfrau wife - but it is their very ordinariness that throws into relief the brutality that surrounds them, and their quiet but determined courage in a city dominated by fear and suspicion; that, and the fact that their story is based on the actions of a real-life couple Otto and Elise Hampel, who from no political background embarked on a three year campaign of writing anti-Nazi postcards which they secretly placed in stairwells of public buildings around the city to be found and read by whoever might be passing. Their actions (prompted by the battlefield death of a family member) probably had little impact beyond enraging the Gestapo officers who were charged with finding and arresting them, but that does not make their heroism less - it emerges strongly in the novel, as does their humanity, much like that of the Frank family in the better-known journal of life undercover in the shadow of Nazism.

Fallada's writing is rough-hewn and uneven, but I guess a more highly-polished treatment would have had less effect - sometimes you need to feel the splinters - and at times (especially in the prison cell scenes towards the end of the story) it is starkly magnificent. The book is not without a certain black humour, but its overall impact is chilling, its lessons salutary. Anyone who has ever wondered how ordinary German citizens could stand by in the midst of Hitler's atrocities will come to a better understanding by reading 'Alone in Berlin'. They might wonder, too, whether they would have the courage to resist, as few do here, or take abject refuge among the silent (or whispering) majority.

The reviewer David Williams write a regular blog as Writer in the North.


Starter for Ten
Starter for Ten
Price: 5.49

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining and well-observed, 19 Mar 2011
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This review is from: Starter for Ten (Kindle Edition)
I bought this having thoroughly enjoyed 'One Day' by the same author. I had already seen the TV drama adapted from the novel, which meant that I knew what was going to happen, but I don't think this detracted too much from my enjoyment of the book, which I found humorous and evocative. (I guess it would have been even more evocative had I been a student in the Eighties rather than the Sixties.)

The hero Brian Jackson is a working class lad who fulfils an ambition to make it to university (is his name a deliberate allusion to the author of the seminal 'Education and the Working Class'?), and then an even greater ambition to appear on 'University Challenge'. He has many more downs than ups, however, including a barely-requited love of a beautiful girl, conflict with his old school friend, and a disaster on the TV programme he loves. Nichols manages to keep the plot moving and engaging despite his character's constant angst about everything from his acne to the way his books should be arranged in his bedroom.

There are some great one-liners, as you'd expect from an author who is well-known for TV comedy. Just one example: Jackson is invited to spend New Year at the home of his 'girlfriend' Alice, and is awed by this large rambling house. 'Opening the wardrobe, I half expect to find Narnia.'

Nichols offers some superb set-pieces too - a riff on the awkwardness of group conversations; reflections on the loss of virginity - which make me think of him as a latter-day David Lodge, who also often takes university life as his subject.

This is a first novel, and it is not entirely satisfying - the ending, for example, is predictable and lacks a coda - but it is funny, very well-observed, and makes a rewarding read.

David Williams, Writer in the North


One Day
One Day
Price: 2.00

4.0 out of 5 stars Moving and witty, 4 Mar 2011
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This review is from: One Day (Kindle Edition)
If you are a fan of witty observational modern writing, read this book. If you don't think you're a fan of romantic and tender modern comedy (think 'When Harry Met Sally', 'Notting Hill') read this book anyway, because it's that and much more than that.

Simple enough premise - two graduating students have a one night almost-fling in late 1980s Edinburgh. It's St Swithin's Day. For the next two decades we check in on the couple - their separate lives and their (platonic) intertwinings - on the same date. I'm guessing St Swithin's Day is used because of its predictive symbolism of ups and downs - if it rains on that day it will rain for 40 days and nights; if it doesn't, well it won't.

Emma and Dexter have plenty of ups and downs, both in their separate lives and in their relationship. Emma languishes in one unsatisfying job after another until she realises one third of a dream as a popular writer for children; Dexter seems to have all he wants when he becomes a well-known TV face, only to lose it all through his self-centred behaviour and excessive lifestyle. Both of them have brief unsuccessful marriages to other people, and desultory affairs. Only their friendship gives them stability of a sort. Do they get together? Well, take another look at the title. But if you think that's the end, think again. There is more depth to this story than your conventional rom-com. It is funny, true, tender and moving.

There are faults. Although Emma is a more sympathetic character than Dexter (she's meant to be), she's not so well-drawn; I can never quite believe her alleged agit-prop student past or see her in the role of rock chick bass player or theatre-ed actor, two of her early occupations. But I do believe in the relationship, with all its ups and downs, its twists and turns.

And let me again mention David Nicholls' writing. This is the first I've read of his, and I've already downloaded another to my Kindle; he is a real find - somewhat in the style of Nick Hornby (another favourite of mine) but for me a more assured, more consistent and sharper observer of our times as measured out in everyday lives.

Review by David Williams, Writer in the North.


Ordinary Thunderstorms
Ordinary Thunderstorms
by William Boyd
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.59

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Engaging, but I expected more, 18 Feb 2011
This review is from: Ordinary Thunderstorms (Paperback)
I had been slightly disappointed by the last William Boyd novel I read, 'Any Human Heart', largely because of its lack of focus and its sprawling nature. I expected this one, in the thriller genre, to be much tighter, and it was, though Boyd still manages to cram a lot of characters in (rather too many - a few are mere caricatures) and takes us on quite a journey round London, from corporate jungle to sink estates, with the river literally and metaphorically at the heart of the story.

The basic plot and devices borrow heavily from both John Buchan ('The 39 Steps') and Alfred Hitchcock ('North by North West') in that an innocent man finds himself suspected of murder and tries to evade capture from both the police and the real culprits, who have their own reasons for wanting to kill him. The hero, Adam Kindred, manages to make himself anonymous by throwing away all the trappings of modern life and identity - mobile phone, credit cards, an address. His stratagems for evasion, and the adventures and relationships that come along in the pursuit of some kind of freedom are the most interesting parts of the book. The actual 'crime' elements, while engaging, are built on such absurd premises that you have to stop yourself constantly asking, 'but why would they do that?', 'why does he make that choice?' 'why didn't the police just...?' If you don't ask, it's because you are swept along by the action and by the empathy Boyd makes you feel for Adam.

On the basis that the book is a page turner, and on the whole elegantly written, I am giving it a three-star rating, but to be honest I could equally have given it a scathing review, and gone into detail about its inadequacies, its implausibilties, and its occasional lapses into cliche. Maybe I expected more because of Boyd's reputation and because I have enjoyed some of his work in the past - 'Brazzaville Beach' for example. He is a frustrating writer. Somewhere there is a great book in him. This certainly isn't it, but at its best it's 'a good read'.

David Williams, Writer in the North


Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers
Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers
by Christopher Vogler
Edition: Paperback
Price: 11.19

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Well worth the journey, 8 Feb 2011
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Christopher Vogler readily acknowledges his debt to Joseph Campbell, whose 1949 seminal work on comparative mythology 'The Hero with a Thousand Faces' is the source of the Hero's Journey that Vogler uses as his template for an effective screenplay. Vogler's more contemporary style is perhaps more accessible for the modern reader, and his many examples from well-known movies ('Star Wars', 'Titanic', 'The Lion King') really help to demonstrate the practical application of the formula that he explains in rich detail here.

Make no mistake, it is a formula, and some readers have criticised Vogler (himself a Hollywood screenwriter and story consultant) for peddling a formulaic approach to the creative act. In fairness, he warns several times in the book about slavish adherence to the recipe, and is clear that no writer should simply spread out the journey map and start plotting the route accordingly. Like any writer's tool, this book is a valuable travelling companion, not a pilot. Vogler provides a good example in his analysis of Quentin Tarantino's 'Pulp Fiction' of a great script that contains all the essentials of a Hero's Journey presented entirely unconventionally with freshness and verve.

Novelists as well as scriptwriters should find this a useful and interesting guide. Don't let it be the only book you rely on (Robert McKee's 'Story' is another rewarding read) but be sure to take it with you if you are embarking on your own writer's journey.

David Williams, Writer in the North


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