Monthly Archives: October 2008

Amsterdam – Ian McEwan

My Gran simply cannot understand why I like Ian McEwan novels and I simply do not understand why she cannot like them. Despite the fact that it had it written in massive letters on the front it wasn’t until I was half way in that I saw that ‘Amsterdam’ had won the Man Booker Prize in 1998. I don’t know what the longlist was that year, I will look it up, yet I think its win is deserved.

This book is one of McEwan’s books that show exactly why I think he is a great writer and why I love his novels. The start of the novel centres around the funeral of Molly Lane (brilliant character name) who ‘could still turn a perfect cartwheel at the age of forty-six’ which I think is a brilliant way of summing up someone we never actually meet in a novel but who’s death and affairs it centres around.

At the funeral are at least three of her ex-lovers whom she would still entertain whilst she was married to her husband George. Clive Linley is successful composer though slightly conservative who is looking to write his masterpiece. Vernon Halliday is the latest editor of The Judge a long ruining but sadly failing newspaper which needs a change in style. Julian Garmony is the foreign secretary who could become the next Prime Minister and possibly ruin the country forever. However though her relationship is what ties them together initially it is the actions that follow her funeral that change their lives forever.

Like ‘The Innocent’ which I read earlier this year McEwan leads you down the garden path thinking that the story is about one thing when it is in fact about many. I have seen reviews where this is said to be a dull uninspiring book yet I was strangely gripped. I wonder if these people love ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ and ‘Heart of Darkness’? After Molly dies photo’s are found she took of Garmony cross-dressing. George gives them to Vernon and tells him to publish them, but should he, is he that desperate to shame Garmony and make The Judge successful again? When Linley goes away to the Lake District for inspiration and to get away does he see something that could have changed people’s lives forever and will he love with the guilt, and why do the ex-lovers feel the need to carry on competing?

I thought this was a fantastic book possibly one of my McEwan favourites and there have been quite a few. If you want understated plots that have sudden shocks with characters that you would hate to meet but secretly would love to be for one day and fantastic prose then I can’t see why you wouldn’t love Ian McEwan and Amsterdam. So there you are Gran, get reading!

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Filed under Ian McEwan, Man Booker, Review, Vintage Books

Perrault’s Fairy Tales – Charles Perrault

After reading the divine Stella Duffy’s ‘Singling Out The Couples’ which is such a modern fairy tale I had an urge to look back at the fairy tales that I loved when I was younger. Fortunately not too long ago Polly and myself had gone a little crazy (we had had one too many Sherry’s I think) in one of the late night bookstores in town and bought all the different collections of Fairy Tales by Wordsworth Classics.

I tucked myself up in bed with the delights of ‘The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood’ imagine my horror that this was not the ‘Sleeping Beauty’ by Ladybird that I had read when I was little. I mean back then she pricked her finger slept for a hundred years and was woken, along with the court and her parents, by a handsome prince who fought through thorns to find her… the end.

He didn’t then keep it a secret from his family and travel back and forth until one day his father died and he was King, then announcing his wife and two children. He also didn’t go to war and leave the mother in law Queen with Sleeping Beauty, the mother in law being half-giant and demanding she eat both her grandchildren and her daughter in law. There wasn’t a nice man who saved them all and hid them only to be found out. The prince didn’t return just as his mother had filled a cauldron with snakes and other delights over a fire to kill them all with, rescue them and chuck his mum in. Well do you know what in the original all that did happen, well it really did. I was shocked.

I felt like I had found ‘Fairy Tales: Uncut’ and as an adult I felt like I had been let into a new secret. I actually like the darker twists for example the fact that Little Red Riding Hood gets eaten and that’s that the wolf gets away scot free. I rediscovered Puss in Boots which I loved and Tom Thumb which I still don’t like along with Cinderella these stayed true to form. I also found some new ones that I loved such as Donkey Skin, The Fairies and the gore fest that was Blue Beard. Plus some new ones I didn’t like The Ridiculous Wishes which was ridiculous and Patient Griselda which Germaine Greer would hate, it makes women out to be completely stupid and that they will put up with anything.

I also liked the ‘moral of the story’ although for some of them like ‘beware the words of wolves’ were a bit vague and some of them should clearly have been re-written ‘the moral of the story is beware all mother in laws’. I have thoroughly enjoyed going back to my childhood in an odd way and discovering some more of the darker secrets surrounding some of my favourite old tales. Oh, I have just realised, I have really enjoyed some truly old classics.

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Singling Out The Couples – Stella Duffy

Another Stella Duffy book to add to the collection of books of hers this year and I loved it, I loved it, oh how I loved it. I saw Stella Duffy reading from this at this months Polari (a fabulous literary evening in London’s Soho) and the way it started like a fairytale or Greek myth made me move it straight to the top of my TBR. I am so glad that I did. As a child I devoured fairytales like they were going out of fashion and my mother taught classics so I was regularly read

‘Singling Out The Couples’ is a magical modern fairytale. A princess from a land far beyond the tube system arrives in London. Cushla isn’t your average hard done by Princess, this Princess if different for she has no heart (because the compassion fairy was late due to problems on the underground). In having no heart the one thing that Cushla hates above all other things is love, and in particular couples in love.

She sets out to break these couples up in anyway she can using her birth given magic. We watch as she separates first Jonathan and Sally (by sleeping with Jonathan), second Martin and Josh (by becoming one of the men’s first female lover) and thirdly Philip and Frances (by finding Frances’s inner lesbian) it’s a metro-sexual fable in its own way. However in the land that is far away not all is well and the king and queen send out her brother to stop her wild antics and to stop her from growing a heart. Does it like a fairytale of old have a happy ending? You will have to read it and find out and seriously you should read it.

Stella Duffy has a way with words, it cannot be put any other way. I don’t mean pretentiously I mean she seems to love words and uses them freely and quite unashamedly which is how it should be, it read slightly like poetry in its own way. That and the mixture of a fairytale is quite a heady mix. I am really surprised that this hasn’t been optioned for TV as I can imagine it making a great three part show (maybe I should get working on that) for winter weekend Sundays.

If you like to be taken to far away lands seeing London through strange stranger’s eyes like I do, then this is a book for you. I enjoyed it no end.

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Filed under Review, Stella Duffy, Virago Books

Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad

What is it with me and classics? I am beginning to get a little bit distressed by this now. Apart from Brideshead Revisited none of the ones I have tried this year have set my literary heart a flutter so far. This I think has to be my least favourite of the classics, I simply didn’t get it. I can’t pretend that I did, I just didn’t.

I did think some of the prose was simply stunning, but sadly I couldn’t put it into context, I couldn’t work out who the narrator was for a few pages which I found most disconcerting. The narrator is Marlow and he is telling his crew of a voyage he once took (this took me three re-reads to figure out – I know you should try with a book but there is trying and there is a trying book, this was the latter) travelling to the heart of an African continent to find the dictator Kurtz.

The journey he goes on opens his eyes to the true situation in Africa and also is a journey into the human mind… fallen asleep yet? I almost did. The good thing about this book was that it was short. I am wondering if I need to re-read this one day as maybe I will take more from it, I seriously doubt it though.

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Filed under Joseph Conrad, Penguin Classics, Review

Dirty White Boy – Clayton Littlewood

Sometimes when you know an author of a book you can be really worried when they ask you to do a review. Now I only know a few writers and they know that (with my job in a magazine) if I can do anything to help/promote them I will, I also hope that they know that any review I write will be 100% honest and not be glowing just because I think the sun shines out of their bottom as a person. I would also never put a review up of someone’s debut novel if I thought it was bad… what would that achieve? So Clayton you don’t need to worry I really enjoyed ‘Dirty White Boy’.

Clayton Littlewoods book started life as a blog on myspace, the cult of blogging having led to several book deals it seems to be an area to watch ‘Wife in the North’ and ‘Belle Du Jour’ to name two. Hmmm why would I have two blogs? The blog started when Clayton and his partner rented shop space on Old Compton Street in London and started their clothes store ‘Dirty White Boy’ he started making notes on the people who came in, the crazy landlady, the brothel upstairs and the sights and sounds of a street that never sleeps. This blog got a huge following leading to a column in the London Paper and now the book.

The comparisons it has had made to it are things such as Armistead Maupin and also Samuel Pepys diary but from the noughties. You can see why the comparisons to Tales of the City, his prose is sumptuous and witty and the characters that he tells you all about are fascinating and quirky, plus Old Compton Street and San Francisco are both gay Mecca’s. The comparisons to Pepys are that it’s almost a diary (well I suppose blogs are ‘the new diary’ to a degree) charting the life of London and in particular one of the streets at the heart of it.

The street itself is pretty much the star of the show, the lead character if you will, with all the regular shoppers, tramps, prostitutes at becoming great secondary characters, only they aren’t characters, they are real. I interviewed Clayton recently and had the luck of meeting Pam the Fag Lady who was my favourite of the characters all in all. I also loved Angie the ‘Janice Dickinson-like’ transsexual and the crazy Madame in the upstairs brothel. There was only one aspect I didn’t like so much, running through it all was a love story of complete coincidence, now I believe in coincidence but in the novel for some reason it all matched up a little too neatly especially in the final blog of the book. That and some of the blogs seeming to have been edited in a new order for example Mika didn’t release anything in 2006, I know that’s incredibly picky but it made me come out of the moment randomly.

Other than those two minor, minor things I thought this was a fantastic account of the life of one of my favourite streets and I can only hope there will be a Dirty White Boy Part 2 coming our way in the next year.

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Mudbound – Hillary Jordan

Sometimes (even though you have a TBR pile as tall as yourself) you can hear about a book, or see one reviewed or notice a copy in a shop and you think ‘oh I shouldn’t’ – you quite frankly should. I know this after picking up ‘Mudbound’ by Hillary Jordan when I was in Sainsbury’s. Yes I know, I know, people are saying that supermarkets are ruining the book industry (don’t get me started on e-readers) but sometimes when you see something that your unsure about a bargain of £3.99 seems too good to be true. Oddly the strange title both made me want to read the book more and put me off at the same time if that is possible? Any way the book…

I have absolutely loved this book. Seriously I don’t think this review will ever be able to do enough justice to the book or how much I enjoyed it… well as much as you can enjoy something quite harrowing. The novel is set in the Mississippi Delta in the late 1940’s. It opens with a two sons burying their father, you are given a clue that the person who died didn’t necessarily die of natural causes. Watching the burial is Laura and the story starts with her in the past before the burial in the events leading up to it from when she meets her husband Henry and moves with him (reluctantly) to the cotton fields somewhere she finds daunting and unsettling.

Elsewhere the war has been raging on, once it ends Jamie (Henry’s brother) returns a changed man he has seen things that have shocked and scarred him and he wants to work the farm in order to escape the hustle and bustle of life. Another returned soldier is Ronsel Jackson whose family work the farm for Henry as one of the many black sharecroppers if he thought the war was hard he has no idea what is coming and the secrets he carries could come back to change his life forever.

The book is written from the perspective of all the lead characters. A personal favourite of mine was Ronsel’s wonderful mother Florence a strong and determined woman who you routed for and admired throughout the whole novel. Henry’s father Pappy is possibly one of the vilest characters I have read in a very long time just utterly despicable. Every single character was believable and even if you don’t agree with their behaviour or their beliefs you will become completely engrossed in each characters stories and motives. Each characters voice was completely whole and true and meant you saw all sides of the story even if one particular scene made me almost sick to the stomach and I didn’t see coming a mile off.

Not only did I find it astounding that someone could write such a fantastic first novel, I couldn’t believe that in just over 300 pages someone could take you on such a grand scale journey, a journey that covers affairs, religion, racism and war. Hillary Jordan uses a prose that simply draws you in and takes you along and has mastered an art some authors take years to grasp. She is definitely one to watch and I am 100% shocked that this book hasn’t been up for every award going. I can whole heartedly say this must be one of my top five books of the year.

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Filed under Books of 2008, Hillary Jordan, Review, Windmill Books

Finally… Shelves!

Yes I have moved… finally I am 100% moved. There was one awful moment in the move where a box of my books ended up across half of Tooting High Street leaving the old pad, but I am trying to blank that torture from my mind.
I am now all happily settled, still no blinking internet properly but that will come soon. In the mean time though I have been more than busy sorting out my delightful new shelves… yes shelves… you can see one of them here.

I have tried the whole putting them in spine colour order, which I admit looks gorgeous, but is completely impracticle if I need to find one of the books that you have read. I am only putting on book s I have actually read on them, the rest are on the TBR and in the TBR boxes (I now have managed to reduce these to only 5 boxes… well done me. I haven’t had shelves for my books probably for about 5 years so seriously this is quite an eventful day for me!

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