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Red Riding Nineteen Eighty Three (The Red Riding Quartet)
Red Riding Nineteen Eighty Three (The Red Riding Quartet)
by David Peace
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Incredible final piece of the jigsaw, 27 Feb. 2011
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In this, the final piece of Peace's Red Riding hood quartet, we get as much closure as we could expect to have from this stunning, oblique, challenging and confusing series.

Told by three people, in three contrasting styles and with a timeline that jumps backwards and forwards between the present of 1983 and all the times of the other books, this could and probably should be unreadable. Peace's familiar, repetitive, chopped up style is in evidence, coupled this time with moments of poetic beauty and an obvious confidence in his material.

BJ, the rent boy who featured heavily in 1974, is the first viewpoint. Beginning at the shootings perpetrated by Eddie Dunford at the climax of the first novel and weaving his way through the multiple plot lines of the other books, through BJ we learn things that were hidden from us throughout 1974, 1977 and 1980. It is astonishing the way in which Peace reveals the extent of BJ's involvement, the sheer complexity and plotting that hold up the quartet is mind-boggling. A telephone conversation that we hear half of in the first book is revealed, but thrown in in such a subtle way that the casual reader could easily miss the import. These are books that reward close reading, and BJ's story exemplifies this. He is the unfortunate glue that holds the whole thing together. Tortured, hunted and terrified, we learn here that BJ knows all that that has previously been hidden from the reader. The pleasure from 1983 comes from putting the pieces together.

John Pigott, an overweight, drunk and stoned lawyer is called by Michael Myskin's mother to appeal against Myskin's prison sentence for the murder Clare Kemplay in the first novel. At first convinced that he will be unable to help he tries to convince Mrs Myskin that we is not the man for the job. But when Myskin's friend is killed in Police custody, Pigott can't refuse. He begins an investigation that will take him to the core of the police force and his own copper father, whose suicide brought Piggot back to Yorkshire in the first place.

The final thread is Maurice 'The Owl' Jobson, one of the senior police officers who featured throughout the series. At the beginning of 1983 another girl has gone missing and while desperately trying to find her Jobson is forced to remember the horrors of the early cases. Again we are shown events from the previous books from a whole new perspective and slowly over the course of the book things begin to click into place. Jobson's guilt at first hides the extent of his involvement in the widespread corruption that holds Yorkshire in its grip, but as he begins to face the things he has done, we begin to given glimpses into the horror of the overall picture.

It is hard to review this as a stand alone book. Indeed if anyone picked this up without reading the others it would make little sense. As a book on it's own it would be too dense and confusing. However, when taken as the end piece of a stunning quartet it is revelatory. I am filled with admiration for Peace's ambition. To sustain so many characters over such a long time period, but to maintain a sense of the individual with each book is just incredible.

Peace tackles subjects that most authors would shy away from, paedophilia incest, murder, police corruption, and he does so without apology. This is not the England of stiff upper lips and of bowler hats. This is the North, where we do what we want.

The quartet is an enormous achievement. Clearly not to everyone's taste; they are dark, oppressive, brutal and wilfully stylistic. But for someone who is wiling to take a risk on something that is not easy reading, they are one of the most rewarding experiences that one can have in modern literature.

The Bloody Chamber And Other Stories
The Bloody Chamber And Other Stories
by Angela Carter
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.15

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Dark, sexy and disturbing retelling of our old favourites., 27 Feb. 2011
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This book has been on my shelf for a while waiting to be read, but I have always found a reason to read something else instead. Recently I friend recommended independently and I remembered it. I picked it up and a few breathless hours later had finished it.

A collection of short stories that are linked thematically and have common threads that run between them, The Bloody Chamber has been described as a re-imagining of classic fairy tales with a feminist slant. But they are so much more than that. The stories throughout go back to the original purpose of fairy tales and rather than rewriting fairy tales in a modern manner Carter has returned to their original dark roots and weaved in modern concerns.

They are dark and erotic and often very disturbing. Familiar tropes are there, werewolves and hidden rooms and beauty and the beast, but there is a real sense of malicious glee in the writing. These are not the anodyne tales of our childhood, they are wild and imaginative.

Much is made of Carter's writing style, but the truth is her writing varies wildly throughout the collection, the title story is reminiscent of Poe, Company of Wolves is oblique and teasing, whereas Puss in Boots strays close to bawdy farce.

Familiar as these tales may be, they are not the fairy tales we know from our childhood. They are new ones, taking old stories as a starting point and creating something new and exciting from them.

Cat's Cradle (Penguin Modern Classics)
Cat's Cradle (Penguin Modern Classics)
by Kurt Vonnegut
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.28

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Clever, funny, prophetic, but maybe feeling its age, 23 Jan. 2011
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Short, clever, confusing, irritating, intelligent, funny. Parts of it are total genius. Parts of it seems dated. And parts are infuriating.

What I can say without equivocation is that it contains more ideas in its short length than most writers can muster in their entire career.

The narrator (John) is researching a book about what Americans were doing on the day the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. In the course of his research he meets the children of Felix Hoenikker, one of the men who invented the bomb. He learns about Hoenikker's legacy, Ice 9, a substance that was invented so that troops wouldn't have to deal with mud on battlefields. Ice 9 is an alternative version of water, solid crystals at room temperature, but once it comes into contact with water it causes the water to also change to Ice 9. John eventually ends up on the Caribbean island of San Moreno, birth place of the religion Bokononism and as events conspire it becomes obvious that Ice 9 will be the proponent of the apocalypse that started with the invention of the Atom bomb.

There is some amazing work here, Bokonism is worth reading the book for on it's own; a religion based around the idea that all religions are lies, but if the lies make you live a better life then they are worth following. And built around the idea that each person is tied to a group of people, who will work together to complete one important action - in this case bring about the end of the world. Bokonism is a religion I could follow.

The book is full of Vonnegut's characteristic humour and his voice is strong throughout. There are some really, really funny set pieces and some thought provoking ideas about human nature, our self-destructivenss, our need for faith and our reliance on technology.

The main problem with Cats Cradle is that taps into fears which aren't really there as much in our society nowadays. We no longer have the Cold War to worry about and whilst the threat of nuclear war is still very real it is no longer the pervading fear for the general populace. We look inwards now for the threat to our nations and so what would have seemed urgent and frightening at the time of writing now feels somewhat dated.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 23, 2012 9:20 PM BST

by Colm Tóibín
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

3 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Reads like an old fashioned film, 23 Jan. 2011
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This review is from: Brooklyn (Paperback)
This is a simple, old fashioned and gentle novel that I enjoyed reading, but has grown in my mind in the weeks since I finished it. It reads like a black and white movie, it feels like something from a more innocent time. And is utterly charming for it.

'Brookyn' follows Eilis Lacey as she emigrates from 1950's Ireland to New York. She leaves behind her family and the little village that has been her world and immerses herself in the cosmopolitan bustle of New York. Finds work that she loves and is good at, meets a boy and then receives word from home that draws her back to Ireland.

And there is little more plot than that. It is an ostensibly simple premise, a simple plot, with a small cast of characters, yet there is something about it that sticks in your mind. The tone and feel of the book is warm and welcoming, the period detail is perfect, although the actual prose is very pared back, certainly there are no page long descriptions of New York.

Toibin seems to understand that the reader is aware of the city, of the way it looks and it's history of immigration, he doesn't describe Eilis leaving Ireland or arriving in New York and the journey itself is only a small part of the novel. He places a lot of trust in the reader and this in turn allows the reader to place trust in him and let the book unfold.

Even the way he draws the characters is basic and slightly distant. For the most part he just shows events without revealing feelings, allowing the reader to fill the gaps, which makes it even more impressive that the book has stayed with me.

This novel got heaped with such high praise that it is quite possible that readers finding it because of its reputation will be disappointed, but a reader stumbling across it couldn't fail to be charmed by its traditional feel and well constructed story.

The Sparrow
The Sparrow
by Mary Doria Russell
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Asks big questions in an entertaining manner, 22 Jan. 2011
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This review is from: The Sparrow (Paperback)
I read a lot of science fiction when I was younger, but have struggled with it in adulthood. Probably my failing, but I have never been able to take the leap of faith that is often necessary. Recently though I have had an urge to revisit SF, with a feeling that it will be an important genre for these times. I was keen to avoid the high camp space opera and wanted something that was routed in the reality we know, but with the freedom of imagination that good SF can provide, and Arthur C Clarke or Philip K Dick maybe. I was recommended The Sparrow as a SF novel that doesn't rely on the genre tropes and would be an easy step for someone who normally reads Literary Fiction and I was very pleased to find that 'The Sparrow' goes along way to living up to the promise I was given.

Set in the near future, the sound of song from a planet in the relatively near reaches of space is intercepted by a radio telescope. This telescope is funded by the Jesuit movement and they decide to fund a mission to visit the planet and make contact. The visiting party comprises of a combination of priests and professionals, men and women of science and men of faith. All is going well until they land on the planet and the communications stop. A second mission is sent to discover what happened and find only one survivor, hideously disfigured and unable to tell them what happened. They send him back to Earth where the Jesuits attempt to learn what occurred on the mission.

The novel is told using 2 narrative strands, the priest talking to the Jesuits, and the events leading up to the discovery of the planet and the subsequent mission. The two are expertly paced so that the events are revealed at the perfect time to keep the reader intrigued throughout.

'The Sparrow' achieves what all good SF can do, ask big questions about human life, using other worlds as the metaphor. The obvious connections to the Jesuit missions on Earth are well exploited and Russell uses the priesthood to bring into mind the balance between faith and science. She manages a big cast of characters with aplomb and while some of them are a little close to stereotypes it never threatens to derail the book. That are a lot of heavy weight ideas held within the pages and the danger would be that it could become too preachy or weighed down with science, but Russell never allows either to happen and instead presents a thought provoking story, which is also hugely entertaining.

by Paul Auster
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Superb return to metaphysical form, 18 Jan. 2011
This review is from: Invisible (Paperback)
We're back in familiar Auster territory, in fact it could be argued that he only ever really writes about one thing, the illusory layers of reality and the process of fiction as a way of illustrating them. This is thankfully closer to the metaphysical brilliance of The New York Trilogy than some of his more recent work.

Whatever Auster writes I admire because he is such a master stylist, but of late I found that I haven't really enjoyed his books and have found them to be more of 'ideas' than a novels. Thankfully Invisible has kept the philosophical, ideas heavy prose which he is so adept at and married it with an intriguing and clever plot.

And he has had such fun writing it, this is a puzzle of a book for people who love the written word; he plays games with tenses and timelines and structure and point of view here that had me putting the book down to consider for a minute and then grabbing it back again smiling as I worked out the implications.

There are some many welcome Auster signatures here, the distant narrator, the moment of coincidence that changes everything, the plot that works on a number of levels, stories within stories, ruminations of the writing process, that it seems as if he is giving the reader a knowing nod.

Adam Walker is an undergraduate and poet in late's 1960's America when he meets a charming French man Rudolph Born and his girlfriend Margot at a party. After chatting briefly Rudolph offers to fund a literary magazine with Adam at the helm. Walker becomes friends with the couple and embarks on a clandestine affair with Margot. One night whilst leaving a restaurant Adam and Born are confronted by a young man with a gun. Born stabs the man with a flick knife, Adam runs to get an ambulance and when he returns both Born and the man are gone. The following day he finds reports in the paper that a body was found in the park with multiple stab wounds.

Or that is one of the possible options for what happened. I don't to give too much away about the literary devices he uses, but we flit from first to second to third person to reported diary entries, cover 30 years and look back, learn things that make that version of events impossible, only to discover something that makes them possible again.

This is powerful confident story telling, bravely playing with the reader, but never to a point where you feel manipulated or cheated. Post modern without being preaching or clever for the sake of it. The genius of this novel is that on the surface it is a simple plot about a pivotal moment in someone's life and the ramifications of that moment, but by the time you finish it you're questioning everything that happened and the nature of storytelling itself and the readers place in the process.

The Humbling
The Humbling
by Philip Roth
Edition: Hardcover

2.0 out of 5 stars One book too many in too short a space of time?, 18 Jan. 2011
This review is from: The Humbling (Hardcover)
This short novel has everything you'd expect from Philip Roth, sharp and concise prose, self-examination, intelligent observation, but somehow it just doesn't hit the heights I would want it to.

Simon Axler, (and I have to assume that at least to a degree he is supposed to be Roth) is an ageing stage actor who suddenly finds that he can't act anymore. His heart isn't in it. He has lost all faith in himself.

He attempts to commit suicide and checks himself into a psychiatric hospital to recover. Upon his release he enters into a relationship with, Peegan, the daughter of two old friends, despite her having just come out of a long lesbian relationship. For a time this looks as if it may go some way to redeem him, but his sexual desires and paranoia push her away.

For a book that deals with emotion the tone is cold and distant, with a lot of reported speech and very little real feeling on show. For much of the narrative it feels as if he sleep-walked his way through it. 'The Humbling' gives the impression of a writer of great skill who is only in third gear.

The uncomfortable impression I had during the reading, and one that I could never really shake, was of listening in on an old man's sexual fantasies, mixed with his concerns about whether his creative skills are diminishing. The irony being this book came at a time when Roth was being particularly productive, and that 'The Humbling' may well represent one book too far.

It deals with familiar topics of death, old age, sex and how we measure success; but he never seems to be doing more than turning over old ground here. There is nothing new or surprising in this novel, all is much as you would expect and with an author of Roth's stature and skill this counts as a disappointment.

Crooked Little Vein: A Novel (P.S.)
Crooked Little Vein: A Novel (P.S.)
by Warren Ellis
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.15

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Funny, dark, but a little limited, 9 Jan. 2011
Warren Ellis is known for his graphic novels, which whilst still literature are a completely different animal, so it was with some interest that I read Crooked Little Vein. And found it to be unfortunately a limited success.

It is without doubt very funny. Very funny and very grim. This is the darkest of dark humour. Any book that starts with 'I opened my eyes to see the rat taking a p*ss in my coffee mug.' is not making any attempt to hide what it is. At times it is laugh out loud funny, but always a guilty laugh.

'Crooked Little Vein' centres around the archetypal burned out Private Eye, hard drinking, hard smoking, womanising, blah, blah, seen it before. This Private Eye is Michael McGill and he is at the end of his rope when The White House Chief of Staff, who turns out to be a heroin addicted maniac, bursts into his office and sends him on a mission to find an alternative Book of Constitutions. This book hides the real aims of the original government and is made of such materials that it emits a noise that is too low for a human being to hear, but also renders the listener to totally believe what is being read.

He is given a palm computer full of leads and a generous expense account and sent out to find the book.

Inexplicably the book has fallen into the hands of sexual deviants and McGill finds himself working through the American sexual underground on its trail.

There is no doubt a gleeful air to this book, Ellis enjoyed writing it and it is fun to read. There are enough bizarre and disgusting characters in enough bizarre and disgusting situations to make this thoroughly entertaining. McGill is your standard Private Eye, his assistant Trix is your standard femme fatale, albeit with a facial tattoo and the baddies are suitably bad. Some of the set pieces are hilarious and Ellis certainly has a very warped mind, Godzilla Bukkake?

There just isn't enough of a plot to sustain itself for a whole novel in my opinion. It consists mainly of one set of deviants being deviant in front of the main characters and then pointing them in the direction of the next bunch of deviants who are then deviant in front of the main characters and so on, until a massive coincidence wraps the whole thing up.

Ellis has got so many tropes of the genre down to a tee that it seems a shame that he has missed the most vital one, a gripping and twisting plot.

And I'm left with a horrible nagging doubt that this would have worked better as a graphic novel, it would have looked fantastic.

That said, it's good fun to read and is worth a few hours of any one's time, as long as they have a fairly strong stomach.

No Beast So Fierce
No Beast So Fierce
by Edward Bunker
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Gritty, eloquent and inevitable, 9 Jan. 2011
This review is from: No Beast So Fierce (Paperback)
You may know Edward Bunker as Mr Blue in Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs. He was actually an unrepentant, charming and extremely eloquent career criminal. He spent 18 years of his life behind bars for various violent crimes, mostly robbery. No Beast so fierce was written while serving one of his sentences.

So, as you would expect this is about as realistic and genuine a crime novel as you can get. What you don't expect is just how good Bunker's writing is. For someone with little education and this being a debut novel, the quality of the prose is astonishing. Stripped back, gritty, but also seeing the poetry in the life of crime, whilst never being affected or forced, you have to admire the man's craft.

'No Beast so fierce' follows Max Dembo in the weeks after his release from prison and his inevitably impossible attempts to stay on the straight and narrow. Initially he avoids contact with ex-cons and friends that he had before he was incarcerated, but as his parole officer puts pressure on him, Dembo snaps, attacks the man and becomes a fugitive once more. Setting up a heist big enough to allow him to flee America he gathers a crew and begins to plan. The novel takes place mostly in the events that lead up to the robbery and the aftermath. The way in which Bunker constructs the book is brilliant, relationships that seem fleeting filler at the start of the novel hold great importance later on and every element in the plot serves a purpose.

There is so much detail in here, so much criminal knowledge, that it draws the most authentic picture of the life of crime I think I have ever read. At times it is hard to remember that this is fiction and not an autobiography, particularly as it is written in the first person.

What makes it stand out is the complete lack of moral compass or apologetic tone. At the risk of using a cliche, this book tells it like it is. Dembo is neither a likeable character, nor a totally evil one, he is simply what he is. This sense of the balance between nature and nurture suffuses the book, but Bunker never passes judgement on it, just presents it for the reader. And it is this that makes it such a disturbing and exciting read.

The Spare Room
The Spare Room
by Helen Garner
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.36

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Moving, short and rewarding, 28 Dec. 2010
This review is from: The Spare Room (Paperback)
This is a short novel that is full of richly rewarding writing.

It covers 3 weeks when Helen allows her terminally ill friend Nicola to stay with whilst she undertakes some experimental therapy in an attempt to cure her cancer.

The three weeks put an enormous strain on their friendship as Helen struggles to deal with both the strain of caring for Nicola and Nicola's refusal to accept that she is dying.

This is simple book, with a simple premise, but it is written with an honesty of emotion that you rarely see in modern literature. It doesn't shy away from the complex and painful emotions that are par for the course in this sort of story, but there isn't the slightest hint of playing for cheap tears or any attempts to pull the heartstrings. This is raw and angry writing, so much so that it is hard to believe that it isn't drawn at least partially from real experience.

And while it is full of pain and anger it is also full of the love of life and a celebration of friendship.

Because it is such a short novel it is incredibly focussed in it's structure, imagery and writing. This is a book that knows what it is, knows what it wants to say and goes about it in a direct way. I read it in one sitting and marvelled at it. This is as near to literary perfection as I have read for some time.

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