Monday, 30 August 2010

Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha

by Roddy Doyle

This is sort of a review of two books, not one. The first is the excellent Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha.

 I've enjoyed quite a few adult books written from the perspective of a child -- and I'd include The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas in that category (it was on the adult book table when I picked it up four years ago.)

This is the best, though. This is the most authentic trip inside a ten-year-old's head I have ever taken. And by ever, I mean in the last twelve years and four months.

It all comes down to what is relevant to whom. In a child's world, the narratives that are being played out are completely different. He doesn't even notice the things that would be central in the adult's view of the same story. Instead, he picks up on things we're too used to seeing to notice.

And he splices anecdotes together like the postest, modernist cat there is. Sometimes he tells us nothing, sometimes he fires information at us like a machine gun. Not only does this echo perfectly with how the inside of my head used to be, but it's also completely hilarious. It's a sad book, but the Ha Ha Ha of the title is a fairly accurate review on its own.

It's plotless, sort of. Again, that comes down to the child's perspective. The single 'plot event' in the book happens in the last dozen pages, but it's only our adult perspective that labels that as the 'plot event' in the first place. The main movement in the book is the shifting atmosphere of the child's world. Paddy Clarke is zooming out: what used to be the whole picture for him is now just one small part of it.

It's unfortunate for Jeremy Dyson that I started reading his novel What Happens Now straight after Roddy Doyle's slice of excellence.

What Happens Now starts off from a child's perspective: and it doesn't match up. Rather than being plotless, I'm overly aware of events being pointed out as 'significant'. Rather than entertaining prose, the overly serious Alastair Black is taken too seriously by the book itself.

It's not at all a bad book. If I hadn't been recently spoilt by Roddy Doyle, I probably would have enjoyed it. But as it happens, I didn't finish it. By the time it got to a critical semi-rape scene, I wasn't involved enough to see it as sad; only distasteful.

It's an interesting point, tht I've overlooked before: how much does our reading context affect our view of a book? If you read a debut novel after a Booker prize winner (like here), is that fair? What if you read a book about train crashes on a long train journey?

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Gods Behaving Badly

by Marie Phillips

A couple of times recently, I've been forcing myself to keep reading a book. They've been good books, but I've been reading them as a duty rather than a pleasure.

BANG. Not this time. BANG.

It's fun to shout BANG.

Gods Behaving Badly is a pleasant, funny and completely easy read. I think there was less than two days between the first page and the last, though I was never at more than a leisurely pace, and generally getting on with other things in my life.

It's a debut novel, as well. Just thought I'd throw that out there. I've started to associate the ability to make reading easier with old masters, but Marie Phillips cracks it aged 31.

The book itself is a sexier, less clever Tom Holt effort. Meek, nice and useless main characters have to overcome powerful, clever bastards; classic myths in ingloriously modern contexts provide the funnies; yet you don't need a classics degree to enjoy it.

More could be made of everything. That's the flipside to a light novel. The Gods are saved by rat-faced Neil, when he points out the obvious (to anybody who's ever read Pratchett) idea that their power is drawn from people's belief in them. The fact the Gods don't realise this themselves could be a really telling insight into their narcissism and cattle-like view of mortals. Instead, it passes by without comment.

There's many such moments, and they would have bothered me if I was in a nother mood. But with my hopes firmly set on a chilled out pleasure-read, I secretly hurrah'd every time Phillips glossed by them to make a joke about Aphrodite (pictured) working on a sex line.

A note on my Summer Of Strangers. There's only two books left on my TBR list that qualify (by being authors I've never read before). I will class the end of summer, and therefore SOS, as when I've read those two. Expect a full review of the process after that, and then a month or so of catching up with the excellent authors I have been holding back on for ages.

Friday, 20 August 2010

The Hop

Hello Hoppers!

It's been a busy week at Learning to Read (after a fairly chilled summer), and it's going to get busier: here's my list of books to read.

And here's what I've read this past month:

Twelve Bar Blues is a novel about jazz, hookers and stories.
Aberystwyth Mon Amour is a crime noir set in Wales.
Power, Sex, Suicide is the amazing story of the mitochondria in our cells.
Cloud Atlas is an incredible, impressive and entertaining story that spans a millenia.

And my personal recommendation of the week... Mark Watson's Eleven, a story about the spiralling consequences of all our actions. It's a great book.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Twelve Bar Blues

by Patrick Neate

This book is all about stories, and all about identity. And as I was remarking to a Man in a Pub last night, stories and identity are pretty much the same thing. Our identity is just the particular spin we put on the events of our own lives (and we should watch out for that. We're natural storytellers.)

There's not much else to say about Twelve Bar Blues. It's chock full of stories. They centre around prostitution and jazz and race, but they also include a witchdoctor and a gangster-pastor and a Louis Armstrong.

It should be a depressing read. There's violence, poverty, rape, discrimination and prostitution all over the place. But the infectious storytelling (which is the same thing as jazz, for the most part) makes this an optimistic and hugely entertaining journey.

I picked it up in my most recent bookswap session, and I'm glad I did. Not only was it addictive and excellent fun, it also came at a good time for my own writing. I'm at crisis point with my current work in progress, and I think I've just diagnosed the problem: it needs more stories.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Aberystwyth Mon Amour

by Malcolm Pryce

Aberystwyth Mon Amour is a crime noir novel set in Aberystwyth. There's ice-cream salons and 24-hour whelk stalls and a ridiculous kind of Noah's Ark thing going on.

It should, then, be a parody. But it can't seem to make up it's mind.

I'm reminded of Jasper Fforde. In Shades of Grey, he deftly mixes obvious comedy with a serious, intelligent plot. Pryce is going for the same sort of thing in Aberystwyth, but he doesn't quite make it.

The problem is, he can't make up his mind. At least I think he can't, because I'ev read the book and I can't make up my mind. Surely if he had decided one way or the other, the first thing he'd do would be to let the book know.

It's an enjoyable book, and that comes from both sides. The comedy is funny, the crime plot is competent and happily convoluted. But they don't sit so well together.

He has the same approach as Fforde, so why doesn't it work? That approach is to root the comedy in the very substance of the world, and then write about it as if it is completely serious. Fforde never sniggers when he introduces us to a world where spoons are postcodes, ID cards and black market currency all in one go. Pryce doesn't bat an eye-lid when he tells us the Welsh teacher is also the mafia don. So far, so good.

But it's not quite the same, because it's a different type of humour. Fforde builds his world out of absurdity. And when absurdity becomes normal, it not only becomes even funnier, it also becomes -- perversely -- believable. That works, both ways.

Pryce, though, with his (excellent) Chandler-prose and numerous nods to the tropes of a whole genre, often shifts from absurdity to parody. And when you make parody the normal substance of the novel, it becomes less funny.

Parody means laughing at the whole thing from the outside, and so the book itself becomes the joke. And, surprise surprise, that seriously undermines any of the jokes in the book. It becomes less believable, as well: you can't be involved in a world which you're consistently withdrawing from to acknowledge the joke of it.

All this might sound too critical. I really enjoyed Aberystwyth Mon Amour. It was funny and tricksy and different enough to keep me engaged. But I never felt completely at home with it, or even that I completely got it.

Sunday, 15 August 2010


by Mark Watson

You might know Mark Watson as a comedian. That's fine, he's a very funny guy. But he's a novelist, if not first, then foremost.

His third novel, Eleven, is funny, but only when funny can be squeezed in between small and important events, unwisely forgotten moments, consequences in chain, and good, flawed people.

I nearly added 'clever prose' to that list, because there's a lot of that around as well. But I'm not sure it that's such a good thing.

The problem with clever, make-you-smile/make-you-think similes and metaphors is that they make you smile/think. Both of which are distancing states of mind when you're getting lost in a story. It's not worth being clever if it makes the reader forget what character he was reading about.

Watson is too smart a writer to fall into that trap, usually. He doesn't show off with his prose, and he doesn't outsmart you in references and allusions. But the threshold of reader-sensitivy (a real concept, from now on) is already heightened in Eleven, and so he can't get away with his normal inventiveness without drawing attention to it.

The TOR-S (threshold of reader-sensitivy. Keep up) is heightened because Eleven is written in the present tense. So the line -- quoted by Watson in his book-launch as a personal favourite -- the air is cold to the touch like cutlery in a forgotten drawer, doesn't wash past like it normally would, leaving an aftertaste of originality and an interesting picture half-submerged in the subconcious.

Instead, it makes you (me, anyway) stop for a moment, put the book down, and try to remember if I've ever touched cutlery in a forgotten drawer. Was it any colder than the cutlery in the kitchen drawer, which I usually remember?

If I wasn't already on less familiar ground because of the present tense, I think it would have slipped past. So why the present tense? It obviously comes at some cost, so does it need to be there at all?

Those weren't rhetorical questions, by the way. You can go ahead and answer them.

I'm waiting.

Okay, I'll tell you.


The present tense/clever prose combo might make it harder to get beyond the text and sink into the story at first, but you get there in the end. And when you do, the present tense nails it. To the nearest wooden surface.

Xavier Ireland (there's a reason for the idiot name) unknowingly triggers a chain of eleven events. These are mirrored by events in his own life, which cause and document the change in Xavier as he becomes more involved in his own and others' lives. These two chains race each other -- will Xavier become responsible for his actions in time to intercede in the spiralling chain he unwittingly kicked off?

I'm not going to tell you the answers, but I will tell you this: the past tense is fatalist. In the past tense, the result of the race would have been fixed from the start. That's the problem with books. But present-tensing hasn't decided yet.

That's not to say Watson ignores the past tense. Because there's a third narrative, alongside and in-between Xavier and his responsibility. Xavier's past, which is fatalist (we know it has a sad ending already). This third strand weaves in, sometimes encouraging the others, sometimes hindering, and... Aaah, it's just clever. You'll like it, I promise.

I mentioned that, despite the distracting cutlery, I got involved in this book early enough for it to count. That's because of the two relationships that make up the foreground. There's Xavier and his sweetly incompetent, we've-all-got-a-friend-like-that wingman, Murray. And then there's Xavier and his brash, more-personality-than-you-know-what-to-do-with cleaner, Pippa.

The spiralling consequences, the past he can no longer ignore, and the present he can no longer deny responsibility for are what make this story move. But I wouldn't even have been reading it if it wasn't for the charming, flawed, uneven and awkward friendship that it begins with.

Oh, also: my first Amazon review.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Power, Sex, Suicide

by Nick Lane

Douglas Adams said the answer to life, the universe and everything was 42. Nick Lane says it's mitochondria. Apart from the fact it spoils one of the questions in the Bookshop Quiz I set some friends the other day, I prefer this new answer. 

Power, Sex, Suicide (catchy title, hey?) certainly convinced me of the importance of mitochondria, in our past (awesome!), in our present (a mixed bag) and our future (hang about....)

Lane takes us competently through the impressive role of the little chaps in the formation of multicellular life, sex, and the entirety of morphologically complex biology. The whole ruddy lot, as Alan Partridge would say. And he shows us some really excellent evolutionary explanations at the nuts/bolts level on the way.

But it gets a bit less palatable, though no less convincing, when he shows us their current and future significance. It's not a new idea that mitochondria play a significant role in ageing and even death, but we've got the details wrong, it seems, and we've completely missed out on the huge implications. Oops.

Old age and its ravages are not a build-up of individual mutations, ill-effects and late-triggering DNA bombs. It's a lot less daunting than that. The whole depressing lot of it can be laid at the feet (to clarify: mitochondria don't have feet) of a change in the environment in the cells from a build up of oxidization. That's a much smaller, singular, and solvable issue than the old model. The key word there is solvable. Say it after me: solvable.

Great, right? We can solve ageing, get rid of dozens of the worst illnesses we know about, and Not Die. Great, right?

I don't know. That scares the hell out of me.  We're already overfilling the planet with people... imagine what we'd be like if the old stock stays around. We won't stop getting new stock in, we'll just fill up, then starve. That's a messy business, all round.

Or we will adapt, and become a race of a specifically (and culturally) limited number of citizens, something like the Heaven of Jehovah's Witnesses. You know, there will only be 144,000 people at any one time. You can only have a child if there is a hole to fill -- ie. someone dies. Not old age death, not degenerative-disease death, but death death. Prospective parents would hire out assassins on their neighbours, or try and convince Granny to do the decent thing and take the damn pill, I mean she's been around for 200 years, let someone else have a go... Or the generous amongst us will give people their own suicide as a present. &c. &c. 

That nightmare aside, getting rid of all these things is/would be amazing, and no amount of bad sci-fi should count as an ethical rebuttal. But still, when they make an apocalypse/dystopia film epic of this scenario, I want to be the person who shouts 'WHERE WILL IT ALL END?' in the first ten minutes, then dies in a way that later seems ironic... and is never mentioned again, until he is finally and unsurprisingly referenced in the final scene of the film, just after it inevitably ended in tears and a destroyed planet. Roll credits.

Monday, 2 August 2010

To Be Read

Once or twice every year, I sort through all the books I own but haven't read yet, invent some complex and worthwhile system for organizing and reading them, and then promptly forget how it works.

Not this time. (Okay, probably this time as well.)

The new system is called the Desk Shelf. Instead of having the books in some easily-forgettable, easily-ignorable corner, i've stuck them right on the middle of my desk. This has two benefits, which I shall call 'features.'

Feature One.

My desk is set up against a fat brick chimney. It's lovely, even though most of the brickwork is covered up by colourful deco adverts and the like. As well as being lovely, though, it is also not quite as wide as my desk.

That's important. Because the books lean up against the chimney, and that limits how many there can be. If I have too many books in the Desk Shelf 'zone', they will topple off and annoy me. So Feature One is a limiter: I can only add new books to the Desk Shelf when I have made space for them. In other words, I can only buy books when I've read one of equal thickness. Or given them away unread (it happens, and it hurts.)

Feature Two.

The books are right there in front of me whenever I sit at my desk. That's where I sit when I write songs, foodle around on the internet, do the blogging, and sometimes read. THe point is, I will be seeing a lot of them lined up there. This stops me forgetting about the books, and also -- theoretically -- gives me the opportunity to build up anticipation for them.

I say theoretically, but I instigated the Desk Shelf system (beta testing) yesterday, and already can't decide between three previously overlooked novels to take with me to Edinburgh next week, because I'm excited about each of them.

Here's a picture:

Currently in the Desh Shelf 'zone':

The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes 
Three-Act Tragedy -- Agatha Christie
Death on the Nile -- Agatha Christie
Hickory Dickory Dock -- Agatha Christie
Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha -- Roddy Doyle
What Happens Now -- Jeremy Dyson
Alexander at the World's End -- Tom Holt
Paradise News -- David Lodge
Therapy -- David Lodge
Gods Behaving Badly -- Marie Phillips
Aberystwyth Mon Amour -- Malcolm Pryce
Eleven -- Mark Watson
Piccadilly Jim -- PG Wodehouse
The Clicking of Cuthbert -- PG Wodehouse
The Inimitable Jeeves -- PG Wodehouse
Big Money -- PG Wodehouse
Jeeves in the Offing -- PG Wodehouse
Pearls, Girls and Montk Bodkin -- PG Wodehouse
Sunset at Blandings -- PG Wodehouse

My Autobiography -- Charlie Chaplin
Ronnie Barker -- Bob McCabe
PG Wodehouse -- Frances Donaldson

The Human Touch -- Michael Frayn
In Search of Schrodinger's Cat -- John Gribbin

What a pretty list! And no, I don't have a thing for Wodehouse. What are you talking about? 'Thing' indeed... Never heard of the chap. Or chapette. Could be a girl for all I know. Never heard of him. Or her.

The three I'm wrestling with taking to Edinburgh are:

Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha -- Roddy Doyle
Alexander at the World's End -- Tom Holt
Aberystwyth Mon Amour -- Malcolm Pryce

(I'm already taking Eleven by Mark Watson.)

Any thoughts about those three? Any Pryce fans, Doyle haters, indifferent Holtists? Help me choose.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Cloud Atlas

by David Mitchell.

The last two months have been pretty barren, blogwise. Ten posts in two months! That's pretty minimalist. It's going to pick up again now, though. That's not a promise, it's a threat, and you can keep that in the fridge for as long as you want.

So, Cloud Atlas. This 500+ page book has about 200 pages of lengthy, worshipful quotes from esteemed literary sources (and steemless ones) before you even get to the flyleaf. And as I am the only person I've ever met who thinks qoutes from critics, reviewers and other authors are an excellent way to judge a book, I had pretty high expectations.

Long story short: it met them. Cloud Atlas is excelllent.

"It's an awe-inspiring virtuoso display of voice, world-building and scale. It's funny and exciting and clever and hugely creative." Ben Carroll, Learning To Read.

Add that to the quotes, Sceptre. Yeah.

Cloud Atlas is six different stories, covering centuries past and future, and fiction and non-fiction (sort of). The characters and stories are distant from each other, at times, but they still overlap. It's these overlaps that make the book exceptional as well as just impressive.

I might have talked before -- I should have -- about how much I like the use of multiple narrators to see differenet sides of the same story. It's such a great kick to see a character and/or event from the outside that you've already got to know and trust from the outside. It's especially great when they disagree... OOH YOU TRUSTED THE NARRATOR AND YOU GOT BURNED, or HA! LOOK HOW WRONG HE WAS ABOUT HIMSELF. It is, in some slight way, like hearing other people talking about you. Everyone likes that.

My own current novel -- Polaroid -- is an exercise in this, but in an opposite way to Cloud Atlas.  Whereas my approach is to get as close to the sources as possible, and have the sources as close to each other as possible -- to isolate where the difference comes from, or something -- Mitchell puts centuries between his sources, sometimes, and they don't necessarily all take place in the same universe. One source can read another as fiction.

I get such a kick from that.

I was going to criticise Cloud Atlas for it's last-page (okay, last two.) message, which is a moral turn-around from the world view we've been slowly construcing from the other 527 pages. What a gimmick/rip-off/joke/amateur, etc.

But actually though.

It sort of works. For a start, it makes the whole book less depressing (not that it was depressing.) It's a good message. Secondly, it's typical of the book so far to have the rug pulled from under our feet, truths turned into lies before our (very) eyes, etc etc. There is a second message in Cloud Atlas:

David Mitchell is cleverer than us.