Friday, 30 December 2011

Two super fast reviews - The Long Goodbye and Mr Norris Changes Trains

My god, look at the time. It's almost 2012. Last time I glanced up from frantically doing all the things it was only half way through December. I made Christmas dinner, I herded children, I wrote essays, I bought presents, I gave presents, I made things and cleaned things and fed people and went places and did things and I also read some books! I think. I can't even remember, really. So these two reviews will be short and to the point, and then I will go lie down in a darkened room and rest for ever.

First up: Mr Norris Changes Trains, which is confusingly called The Last of Mr Norris when in America. Presumably this is because trains are boring to Americans and/or publishers want you to spend more money, but in this case it's amusingly apt - it's a book all about wigs and international intrigue and it goes by several different aliases.

It's often published with, and almost the flipside to, Goodbye to Berlin (which I read and reviewed a few months ago). While Goodbye to Berlin sort of papers over all the terrible things that are happening politically, Mr Norris looks straight at them - which, oddly, has the effect of making its effect far less lingeringly stomach-churning than Goodbye to Berlin's.

For what is essentially a spy novel about the doomed Communist movement in Berlin, Mr Norris Changes Trains is - strange word, but the one I keep coming back to - unexpectedly charming. It's also the most gentle and funny look at homosexuality and extreme sexual fetishism that I've ever come across. The point I think it's trying to make (and, as far as I'm concerned, making very well) is that wanting to have sex with lithe German boys or asking a prostitute to whip you while you wear a dog collar and lick her boots is really far less offensive to humanity than going out and punching a Jewish man to death.

Mr Norris Changes Trains is a  wry, witty and distinctly not-your-average look at Berlin's underworld during Hitler's rise to power in the 1930s through the eyes of someone who bears a striking resemblance to Christopher Isherwood (I get the feeling this may be a common theme throughout Isherwood's novels). It's exceedingly polite, exceedingly funny and an exceedingly good read.

3.5 stars.

After Mr Norris Changes Trains (possibly it gave me a taste for underhand activity) I read The Long Goodbye, a distinctly more grim look at a life of crime.

Even people who haven't read a Chandler novel will know, vaguely, what one contains. It will be full of grim, similar men loping about with guns in their pockets and menace on their faces, while the cicadas chirp and the dust settles on the side of the road as a symbolic sign of civilisation's decay. Bodies will pile up in hotels and motels and parlours, impeccably dressed and generally clutching the remains of their last drink (if anyone in a Raymond Chandler novel is sober, it's either an oversight or a passing phase). But what is surprising about Chandler is that under all that slang and punching ("Hand over your gat, shamus, or the dame gets a sock in the kisser" and so on, interminably) he's an extremely accomplished and fairly beautiful writer. I think he writes pulp better than most Booker prize winners write at all.

Of course, there's a nastier side to all that tough talk and hard hitting. The book is catastrophically racist, sexist and homophobic. The women are living dolls who say no and mean yes and then dance about in front of Philip Marlowe with all their assets showing (most of the time he heroically resists temptation but slaps them about a bit to relieve his feelings), the gay men are evil like Disney villains and so weak they can barely stand on their pointy-shoed feet and the Mexicans laugh shrilly, twirl their knives and need constant verbal and physical abuse to keep them in their rightful place. I've written about the problems with reading this sort of fiction before - how do you, as a sensible, thoughtful human being, justify enjoying a book that refers to Mexicans (among many, many other even more horrific slurs) as 'cockroaches' and opines that their employers ought to beat them more in order to - if I understood this odd logical leap correctly - keep them sweet? My conclusion then, as now, is that you can't let your anger run away with you. It's vile, but it's just as much part of Chandler's cultural moment as the highballs and gats and outrageous suits. I like Chandler's writing - I really like his writing - but all the same, I think what he writes about is often fairly odious.

In this case, The Long Goodbye is about the strange and meandering case of Terry Lennox, who does something terrible (or maybe he doesn't) and Roger Wade, who is a mean drunk (or maybe he isn't). There's the inevitable cast of evil babes, wicked billionaires and hard-nosed policemen, and of course Philip Marlowe, who makes smartass world-weary comments and untangles the many threads in the case. It's weird, it's atmospheric and it's often distasteful, but for all its unpleasant flaws I still can't help liking it a lot.

3 stars.

(And, for those that are following my 1001 Books progress, I'm up to 18.88% on the list. Auspicious. Bring on the New Year.)

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Review - Birdsong

OK. Readers of the world. What has Sebastian Faulks done to you? What dark arts has he been employing? Because that is the only reason I can think of to explain Birdsong's inclusion on numerous Best Of booklists (including my very own 1001) and for the glowing, goggly-eyed review snippets that are plastered across my edition's back cover.

Honestly, what did he do to persuade an actual human being (and a literary critic, at that) to declare that 'This is literature at its very best'? Because, dear readers, this is not literature at its very best. This is a bad book.

Actually, I don't think the writing is particularly terrible. It's just lazy - a random firing of adjectives and adverbs that don't fit and don't make an awful lot of sense. Sebastian Faulks seems not to understand how to make language work for him. Words aren't just collections of letters, they mean something, they have connotations and nuances, but Faulks appears to have missed this important creative writing lesson. How else do you explain his description of a husband in the middle of arguing with his unfaithful wife as rejuvenated, or mentioning that someone bursting into a packed meeting hall to start a riot has candid eyes? Yes, candid means open, honest, but it also (at least for me) has overtones of calm and friendly. Which I don't think you get much of at a riot.

When I was reading I had huge difficulty getting any sort of mental image from the scenes at all, because all those wrong words kept bursting in and disrupting my thoughts. Possibly as a result of this I found it very difficult to connect with any of Faulks's characters. 504 pages of Birdsong later, I would be hard pressed to give you any sort of explanation of what sort of person the hero Stephen actually is. What is he like? Well, I suppose I could say that he's got dark hair, he's weirdly mature for his age, the war makes him angry - but those things don't add up to a character. He's just a human-shaped word blur. But if Stephen is a blank slate, don't even start me on his 'love-interest' Isabelle. Her hair is strawberry-chestnut coloured (really. Seriously. We get told this more than once) and, er, she has really great skin (also repeatedly described), but in terms of a personality she's just a big hole for Stephen to put his issues and his penis into. I've read better love stories in Hello!

As far as plot goes, it's supposed to be a sweeping and tragic account of World War I, an epic romance, a tale of one woman finding out who she really is, and so on. Love story, soldiers, suffering, you know the sort of thing. But whatever the plot is at a macro level, most actual scenes can be summarised as follows:
The room was quiet. They looked at each other. Emotions passed between them. They shared an experience, such as sex or a dramatic and unlikely conversation, described using many unsuitable adjectives. The structure around them creaked ominously, because all life ends in death. Outside, the birds were singing.
 Oh god, the birds. The birds are EVERYWHERE, fluttering and cheeping and being meaningful - except that they're inserted as a metaphor so often that they cease to have any particular meaning at all. I guess Faulks meant to make some point about freedom and natural life, but all it did to me was to make me really hate birds for a while. 

Actually, for a book that's all about emotion, I don't think I felt moved by it (in the ways I was obviously meant to) once. The characters either have the responses they ought to feel - which inevitably tend towards the melodramatic 'Alack, my love, the tragedy of our lives!' sort of thing - or they have bizarrely over-experienced, over-understood thoughts on the universe that, for me, ring equally false - because who ever heard of an Englishman saying, "I saw the void in your soul, and you saw mine?" No, when they want to convey that sort of deep love towards another human being they pause for a long time and then say something like, "Should be a nice day tomorrow." Now that's a conversation I could believe in.

I found Birdsong without suspense, without interest and without soul. The twists didn't suprise me, the story didn't carry me and the sex scenes just made me snigger on the Tube. Give the man a Bad Sex award by all means (he more than deserves it), but don't, for heaven's sake, read this book.

2.5 stars.

(My latest Litro blog, by the way, is getting into the Christmas spirit by singing the praises of books as gifts. This is not, in case you are wondering (or my family) a hint. I'm just, as you may have noticed, a fairly pro-book kind of person. Enjoy.)

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Reviews - Arthur and George and Detection Unlimited

NaNoWriMo 2011 is over, and I am officially a winner. Phew, look at that handsome purple colour on my stats. It was actually - strange as this is to admit - not that difficult to do. Maybe I write too much. Now that I'm done, though, I'm wondering what I'm I supposed to do with all my extra time I have. Leisure! What is it? I feel like a medieval scribe on day release.

Anyway, the final part of my November was busyness as usual. I did an interview with the talented and most interesting Polarbear - whose latest show finishes on the 3rd, but whom you should keep an eye out for in the future. He's a very nice guy and I only blanked out and said UM while I was talking to him once. Or maybe twice.

The Literary Review's Bad Sex Award shortlist 2011 has also been announced! Oh joy, oh happiness, oh crowning moment of my year. My personal favourite The Blue Book didn't make the cut (read my review of it for some choice examples of why I thought it should have), but there's some pretty choice stuff all the same. I've written an article about it for Litro (and for the record, I'm now backing David Guterson's Ed King. It's - wow. Just wow.)

And on to the reviews. This week's theme appears to be detective fiction (which is never far away, for me. I've got a bit of a thing for it, and when I start my dissertation in a few months' time you are all going end up SICK of me talking about crime and detection and people doing gruesome things to each other in barns and privies and country manors). The two books in question are from two writers who came at the concept of writing a mystery novel from two very different perspectives, and with - I think - varying degrees of success.

First up is Julian Barnes's Arthur and George. Admission time: this has been on my shelf for years. My mother bought it for me when it first came out, and with typical fifteen-year-old insularity I didn't see why I should bother with a book about people who didn't even have last names. So I ignored it until last week, when a friend informed me that it was a crime novel in disguise. I read it immediately.

It turns out that both Arthur and George do have last names, one of which is a very famous last name indeed. I'm not going to spoil it for you (although I was told myself) because there's a very nice little oh! moment when you realise who it is you've been reading about. In fact, who Arthur and George both are turns out to matter just as much, and both of their identities are central to the direction of the plot. It's a very clever bit of narrative engineering from Barnes.

At the heart of Arthur and George is the retelling of the story of a real-life late-Victorian trial (again, I'm not telling you which one, although if I did I doubt you'd be enlightened - this has slipped very much out of the frame of general knowledge, one of the reasons why Barnes has picked up on it). Barnes uses a brilliant mixture of detailed research and sensitive imagination to write an account of the crime and its consequences that feels both compelling and real. What he's got to tell is fascinating, if awful - an account of spectacular police bungling and a terrible miscarriage of justice - and the first 200 pages or so had me completely gripped.

From there, though, things got a bit more murky in terms of enjoyment. Arthur and George is one of those books in which, by the middle of the text, the main event has already taken place . It always strikes me as a very bad idea, structurally, because no matter how well you write, what you've got to say after this point is essentially the world's longest postscript. And so it is here. After the trial, Arthur and George suffers a crisis of identity. Is it about the life of a great man? Is it an examination of a religious movement? Is it the story of an affair? Is it a crusade for justice? It's all of those things to some extent, but none of them are enough to give it focus and direction.

Now, it's possible that I feel this way because I was sold Arthur and George as a crime novel. Crime novels are expected to snap along like nobody's business, whereas the mood of this book is far more restrained and introspective. All the same, I'm not sure if Barnes is technically accomplished enough to convey all the insight he's trying to pack in in lieu of plot. He's at his best when he's describing events, not musing on human nature.

Arthur and George was clever and interesting, and I definitely enjoyed it more than anything else I picked up for the first time last month. But all the same, it has its flaws, which are enough for me to give it a

3.5 stars.
Next, we've got Detection Unlimited by Georgette Heyer. These days, Heyer's more famous for her Regency romances - and, in fact, I only had the dimmest notion that she wrote crime novels too until I was reminded of it by long-time fan and fellow blogger Desperate Reader. 

Detection Unlimited is a murder mystery very much in the tradition of the English Golden Age, a froth of high artifice and extraordinarily impossible circumstance, what Raymond Chandler describes in his (brilliantly jaded) essay 'The Simple Art of Murder' as 

the same careful grouping of suspects, the same utterly incomprehensible trick of how somebody stabbed Mrs. Pottington Postlethwaite III with the solid platinum poignard just as she flatted on the top note of the Bell Song from Lakmé in the presence of fifteen ill-assorted guests.

It's one of those books that you have to accept on its own terms, otherwise you'll go mad from plotholes and the sort of trickery-for-its-own-sake that 99% of actual human beings couldn't dream up in fifty years even with a gun (or a solid platinum poignard) being held to their throat. It's fun enough, it's ridiculous enough and at the denouement it's revealed that Heyer was playing a much bolder and more interesting hand of cards than I thought she was.

All the same, though, I had what can politely be described as Problems with it during my reading. While a mannered writing style is expected and to some extent even required, I'm not sure there is a book in existance that needs to use the word 'besought' to indicate speech more than three times. In fact, I think that once is one time too many. Heyer's detective, Inspector Hemingway, also caused me a lot of concern. Most Golden Age detectives have characteristics that give a modern reader serious pause in their attitude to those human beings unfortunate enough to be poor, odd or foreign, but Hemingway does it with such blissful license and obvious intention of being incredibly light-hearted and funny that he makes Josephine Tey's fearsome bigot Inspector Grant look like Albert Schweitzer.

It's ironic - and telling - that Inspector Hemingway bears a very close resemblance to the (real-life) Inspector in Barnes's novel whose insularity and narrow-mindedness ruins George's life. Inspector Anson decides that the schoolboy George is 'not a right sort', and from then on there's nothing George can do done to save himself. Similarly, when Hemingway hears that there's a Pole involved in the case he judges him before he even sets eyes on him (although as Not Guilty - in Hemingway's bemusing universe Poles are infuriating but totally irrelevant). In fact, everyone who is not upper class and in possession of at least a nice little historic red-brick in town does not matter in the slightest, nor are they suspects in the case - even though we're never really told why they should be so definitely ruled out. Hemingway works on whim and caprice, and though it's presented as a joke it feels at the very least like dangerously bad police work.

There's just a lack of logic here, a skipping over from A to G without any basis for the leap, and I ended up feeling completely swallowed up by the gaping plot holes that Heyer barely even bothers to paper over. I can't give it more than

2 stars.