Sunday, 30 September 2012

Review: The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

I think it's fair to say a lot of people came to The Casual Vacancy determined to hate it.  Some people were going to attack it for not being Booker Prize worthy.  Others were going to loathe it for not being Harry Potter.  Many, judging by Amazon reviews, were more interested in the Kindle price than the book itself.  Motivated partly by these naysayers, and partly by my love of her earlier work, I would admit to being equally stubborn in my determination to love the book.  I wasn't disappointed.

Make no mistake, The Casual Vacancy is a strange book - at once very contemporary and deeply old-fashioned.  Only a few weeks ago I was celebrating the long-and-slow virtues of Anna Karenina, written at a time when novelists were unafraid of meandering merrily along with a big cast of characters and a slow-burning plot.  Rowling's new book is in that mould.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Review: The Lighthouse by Alison Moore

At the risk of being flippant (and, more certainly, the danger of releasing spoilers!), my initial forays into this years Booker Prize shortlist has suggested there's a very simple formula for obtaining a nomination - write a depressing novel about depressed Brits holidaying in Europe, have it published by a small publisher, and finish it off with a surprising death.  Success is assured!

Joking aside though, where The Lighthouse clearly outdoes Swimming Home (which for all its potential I can't say I enjoyed) is in creating a pair of protagonists with whom we can feel great pity.  Whereas Levy's prose style in Swimming Home swerved off towards obscurity, Moore uses a calculatedly blunt style to reflect the emotional stuntedness of the book's central character Futh - a newly single middle-aged man hiking in Germany, whose tragic back story emerges bit by bit as the novel goes on.

At times, Futh's character seems almost overdetermined.  Not only does he experience Oedipal desires for his long-departed mother (he eventually, and wisely, stops telling his long-term partner and his readers the ways in which she reminds him of his mother), he also obsessively remembers his father's sexual encounters which he was forced to watch as a boy, leading to a cloying physicality in the books opening chapters across both storylines - one highlight (or lowlight) being the memorable 'He bites into his egg and she hears it being wetly masticated in his mouth'.  Charming.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Review: The Good, The Bad and the The Multiplex by Mark Kermode

[Photo Credit: Jorge Royan]

If you hadn't ever listened to Mark Kermode's radio reviews, you would be able to predict the tone of his latest book by its subtitle: 'what's wrong with modern movies?'.  The magic of the man is that what might simply be a Grumpy Old Man rant (and it certainly is that) manages to remain wonderfully entertaining.

Kermode (or 'The Good Doctor', as he is often called on his Radio 5Live show) ostensibly turns his attention to a different topic in each chapter: multiplex cinemas, the role of the critic, the British film industry, 3D movies, and so on.  In actual fact this only provides a sliver of fixed ground from which he can roam freely, spinning off anecdotes and name-dropping movies, directors and actors at a quite mind-boggling rate.  Suffice to say in chapter one, which purports to be a story about a trip to a multiplex to watch a Zac Efron movie (we like Zac Efron, we do not like multiplexes), it takes 28 pages of diversionary activity (and, to be fair, descriptions of queuing) before we even make it to the cinema screen.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Forgotten Bestsellers: Where are they now?

Today I stumbled across a fascinating website, or rather, section of a website.  It lists the top 10 bestselling books in the USA for each year from 1900 to 2005, based on the Publishers Weekly figures.  Look at it here!  In the absence of a similar list for the UK (tell us in the comments if one exists), I found it so interesting to scan through history at these former chart toppers.

Obviously it's fascinating to skim through and see big names appear and disappear.  The Hound of the Baskervilles makes the top 10 in 1902, Joseph Conrad rather surprisingly only cracks the top 10 with The Arrow of Gold in 1919, Gone with the Wind achieves two consecutive years at the top in 1936 and 1937, in 1983 not one book managed to sell a novelisation of Star Wars' Return of the Jedi by an American "medical specialist" named James Kahn.  I was probably most surprised to see Winston Churchill topping the charts in 1901 with The Crisis; unfortunately a little research revealed this to be a different Winston than our celebrated bald prime minister.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Review: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (book)

It took longer than hoped, but I've finally finished Anna Karenina.  Two weeks and 806 pages of very small text later, I'm left wondering how to describe this wonderful wonderful book.

As a caveat, as already discussed, I'm a fan of sprawling Victorian-era novels.  If you aren't, then don't even try to begin Anna Karenina - it's got all the hallmarks of the genre: a character list that spans several pages (all with confusing similar and often genderless Russian names), large passages of earnest moral debate, still larger passages where the author apparently forgets the plot.  If you can cope with all of that, you will love it.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Serials: a whole new world of episodic possibility

As the Guardian reported this week, Amazon are releasing a new range of serialised books - spend $1.99 on the first installment, and you get the rest of the story free as it is sequentially released.

Of course, this isn't the most original of innovations.  Two of the titles with which Amazon are launching the range are Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist, which were initially released some 160 years ago in serialised form, along with many other Victorian novels.  It is also not true to say the practice has died out in the meantime, as anyone who tunes into Eastenders or Casualty (or indeed, any episodic television series) can attest to.

But what is really exciting to me about this announcement though is it's obvious relation to new technology.  The announcement was made alongside the release of the new Kindle Fire, which is more akin to an iPad than the first generation Kindle, and serialisation perfectly suits the new digital age - you can download and read a bitesize chunk, accessing more if you so choose, with neither reader nor publisher having to worry about the hassle of multiple printed documents.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Review: Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

You don't need to be a cultural neanderthal to view with a little trepidation any contemporary novel which not only dares to have an introduction, but dares to have an introduction which boasts the author's fiction  is 'less concerned about the stories it narrated than about the set up in which desire and speculation, fantasy and symbols circulated'.  This is what you get, I surmised, for daring to try and read books from the Man Booker longlist.

You could forgive the pretension, but to be fair on Levy this introduction actually does her down - Swimming Home has a very interesting story, albeit one which the consciously obscuring style does it's best to conceal.  Joe and Isabel Jacobs are holidaying with their daughter Nina and their supposed friends Mitchell and Laura.  Their (non-existent) holiday bliss is interrupted by the appearance in their swimming pool of a mysterious teenage botanist, Kitty Finch, who is desperate for Joe (a poet) to read something she's written.

Ironically, for a novel centred around a holiday swimming pool, this couldn't be further from supplanting Fifty Shades of Grey (or should we now say Monday to Friday Man?) from the 'read by the pool' list.  Kitty might rise out of the swimming pool, but lazy readers risk drowning in the promised 'interzone' - at times passages demand instant re-reading just for the reader to keep up.