Tuesday, 21 September 2010

The Yiddish Policemen's Union

by Michael Chabon

It's hard to talk about this book without talking about the world it's set in. During World War II, before the state of Israel, Alaska was a serious contender for the new homeland of the Jewish refugees from Germany and across Europe. It had the support of the US secretary of the interior, but died in Congress. The point is, it could have actually happened.

In The Yiddish Policemen's Union, it did actually happen. Meyer Landsman is a detective -- complete with failed marriage and drink dependency -- in the Jewish settlement of Sitka, Alaska, and there's a dead body in the crappy hotel he lives in. Oh, and it's two months until the 50-year lease on Sitka runs out, and the whole of Jewdom is going to have to go to sea in a sieve. (Yes, Chabon references Ed Lear. Yes, that made me happy.)

While the point of the novel (in my humble O) is the gentle and thorough exploration of a world where Sitka is a Jewish settlement coming to an end, that's not the obvious focus. Sitka is outlined, coloured in and shaded through the details and framework of a clever, noirish crime novel.

The first dead body is found on page one, next to a half-finished chess game. The victim lived under a false name, hustled chess to buy smack, and may well have been the Messiah, naughty boy or otherwise. The whole thing excels as a crime novel; the dialogue is sharp and fast and beautiful, the supporting cast excellent, and the detective often hopeless.

It's this focus on the crime novel that makes the world of Sitka so convincing. Alternative worlds are never as convincing as when they exist exactly where the real world exists for us; in the background, unworthy of comment, while life happens in the foreground.

So far, so good. A compelling idea, a clever story, etc etc. But there's something even better about this book.

I usually don't pay much attention to 'fine prose'. I like prose that gets me straight into the story, and lets me forget about the fact an author once sat at a computer or typewriter and made it all up. The only time I'm drawn to clever prose is when it's funny. When it's Vonnegut or Wodehouse.

But I had a revelation with Policemen's Union. For some reason, I read out a line or two aloud... and it felt good. Very good. So I started reading more of it aloud, when I was alone. Then I started reading it aloud in my head, which I promise makes sense. The mere act of reading it like that brought much more attention to the particular shape and feel of the words, and -- crucially -- stopped me unconsciously skimming descriptive passages.

The allusions and connotations and sideways connections throughout the text opened up a whole new dimension of writing to me, which I feel a bit naive for having not spotted up to now. It was only last month I was initially put off from a very good book by overly-clever description, but Chabon is pitch-perfect. There is a deadpan, slightly sad humour throughout, and a romantic realness in everything.

Once again, I have been utterly surprised by the content of a Chabon novel -- they're never alike. And once again, I've really loved it. If I told you I wasn't jealous, would you believe me?

Sunday, 5 September 2010

A Tale Etched In Blood And Hard Black Pencil

by Christopher Brookmyre

I finished Brookmyre's Country of the Blind in record time, and went to choose another book to read. There's Bennett, Chabon, Christie, Holt, Jackson, Lodge, McCarthy and Wodehouse on my To Be Read shelf, all of whom are somewhere between LIKED and ABSOLUTE FAVOURITE I WOULD DEFEND IN AN ACTUAL PHYSICAL FIGHT.

But instead of any of those, I picked the other Brookmyre I had on there. It's not because he's better than the others, though I think he's there or thereabouts (as football pundits say.) It's because he's addictive. I think the pages are laced with something. Didn't they used to make paper out of hemp? Eh?

They did.

But that's probably not the point. What's addictive is the particular mixture of convoluted plots, smart and funny prose, yadda yadda yadda (as football pundits say.)

It's a unique blend, and it works, and it has a downfall. The downfall is that after reading only two of his novels, I was beginning to think Brookmyre was a one-trick pony. But when that trick is simply BEING AWESOME, it's sort of all right. But still a little disappointing. (But still all right.)

So imagine how happy I was when A Tale Etched In Blood Etc Etc turned out to be a bit different. (If you need help imagining my happy-face, just tell your nearest five-year-old that when he grows up he will be able to go into shops and buy a load of sweets, whenever he wants, and 50p will not be a huge deal at all.)

It's still got the standard Brookmyre plot, but calling one of those standard is like accusing one of Faberge's eggs of not being free range. When you're staring at one, it sounds like the least intelligent criticism this side of 'if people evolved from apes, why are there still apes around?'

The difference is all down to the other half of this book. Split between the present day unravelling mystery/police case/nasty murders is the year-by-year story of most of the main players in school together, from the first day of school to the leavers prom.

The childhood Brookmyre conjures up is excellent. It has some of the sweet detail of Roddy Doyle, though without the perspective. Instead of that, the focus is wider, and each step in the loss of innocence is examined, wistfully but never nostalgically. There's also the best explanation of Playgroud Football I have ever come across, which Brookmyre put in separate essay form.

But not only are the childhood years strong, they interweave with the current day drama like a double helix, the two narratives borrowing off each other then blending for a pair of climaxes.

It's still unquestionably Brookmyre, and the question still lingers about how far from his (admirable) comfort zone he can stretch, but this is a good sign he enjoys changing it up as much as I did.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Blog Hop

Good morning! And if you're not reading this in the morning, YOU'RE LATE. SIT DOWN, SHUT UP AND PAY ATTENTION.

It's been a good week here at Learning to Read. There's been the fun Gods Behaving Badly, the excellent Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, and the possibly-even-more-excellent Country of the Blind. Not to mention the end and round up of my personal mini-challenge, the Summer Of Strangers.

Coming up are reviews of another Brookmyre, A Tale Etched in Blood and Hard Black Pencil, and Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union.

Today's Blog Hop Question is, do you judge a book by it's cover?

And the answer is yes. Not completely, but it's one of the big factors in whether I will pick up a book and find out more, when there's hundreds on the shelf. And when I'm choosing between two books that sound equally good, a pretty cover is going to be hard to turn down. My current love of Chabon  and Brookmyre probably owes something to them both having COOL AS HECK covers.


Thursday, 2 September 2010

Country of the Blind

by Christopher Brookmyre

This is the book to read if Cloud Atlas left you despairing over the state and future of mankind. Once again, the will-to-power is under scrutiny, this time in the guise of the complacent, mid-90s Tory government. It's the big-hearted cynic versus Them, and I'm not going to spoil the ending.

Who am I kidding? Of course I'm going to spoil the ending. The good guys win.

It's not too much of a surprise though. Country of the Blind is the second of five novels to date staring Jack Parlabane, so he's not deid yet. And, like Jack, this book has a huge beating heart, barely hidden beneath the cynicism, and big hearts never lead to Tory victories. 

Though it's a Jack Parlabane book, it doesn't mean he's utterly the main character. He's definitely the key, but equal time is given to the stitched-up Tam McInnes, and the young lawyer Nicole Carrow.

There's a reason, I think. I've said it already, this book has a heart. And in the middle of the cleverness, the explosive plot, the media moguls and government conspiracies and elite SAS-style bad guys, there's a whole host of touching relationships. There's Tam and his son Paul, Tam and his friend Bob, there's Nicole and her father.

But it is a Jack book, overall, because the most touching relationship, in the background almost all the time, is Jack Parlabane and his fiance, Sarah Slaughter. She's the anaesthetist who can match him for gruesome content at the end of a working day.

As well as being touching, as well as being a giant middle finger to the tabloidisation of the country, and as well as having a happy ending, Country of the Blind is hilarious, clever and compelling. I'm starting to think that those three are par for the course avec le Brookmyre.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Summer Of Strangers

It's time for a look back over the last couple of months. I decided, some time in June, to spend my summer reading authors I've never read before. And I coined it, somewhat pointlessly, Summer Of Strangers.

The general idea of the challenge was to widen (or 'enbroadanize') my reading habits, with the possible bonus of discovering a new favourite. And the possible pitfall of reading crotch.

Here are the stats:

Books Read: 12
Ficition: 10
Non-Fiction:Can't you work it out? Jeez.
Did Not Finish: 1

Any new favourites, out of those? Well, it's hard to call someone a favourite after one book, but there's a fair few possibles. Roddy Doyle, Patrick Neate, David Mitchell and the flawless Christopher Brookmyre are all guarnateed a follow up read. (In truth, I just finished my second Brookmyre. It was the first book I dived for, salivating, as soon as I was allowed. He's definitely a new favourite.)

And then there's a few I enjoyed, without being desperate to read more. If I come across another Marie Phillips or Sean Dixon, I will certainly have a good look, and see if there's room on my To Be Read shelf. I enjoyed Malcolm Pryce also, but probably won't follow that up. Things can be good while also being not for me.

The non-fick: while both good, neither Nick Lane nor Rob Bell set light to my imagination like a Dennett or early Dawkins, so I can safely say a return to my non-fick obssession days is not on the cards.

The bottom line is that I managed to avoid reading any crotch; which is either testament to my skill in acquiring books that suit my own taste, the overall excellence of literature, or my ability to enjoy almost anything. I'm hoping it's all three. I couldn't bring myself to finish my Jeremy Dyson, but that was largely due to me, not the book.

And there was Alan Bennett, who I have read before, but not as fiction. His book snuck up on me while I was waiting for a parcel to arrive, and I finished it in one sitting.

It's that sort of thing that I liked about this summer's reading. Avoiding my favourite authors meant my reads often came from odd places. The Nick Lane book was given to my Dad by my Sister's Boss, so of course it was handed to me to read, while Neate and Bell were both book swaps.

Prize for best serendipity goes to Peter Stafford, for being one of the only English language books on the shelf of second hand books in a small shop on a campsite in Denmark. Even then, I only bought it for the front cover.