L is for Lehane

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I promise to try to keep the film versus book review to a minimum in this review.

However, there will be a bit of it – I’ll try to keep it to this section. Gone, Baby, Gone, is a book written by Dennis Lehane. Lehane also wrote Mystic River, directed by Clint Eastwood and with a galaxy of stars. Gone, Baby, Gone was the directorial debut of Ben Affleck. If you’re in the UK, you’ve probably never seen it as it got a pretty limited release. That’s because the missing child in it looks a little bit like Madeleine McCann. Nevermind that the book was written in 1998 – I reckon that if The Two Towers came out now, it would also have a delayed release.

Anyway, so the book is about two private investigators, Angie Gennaro and Patrick Kenzie. Apparently it’s a sequel, as all the way through there are references to another case which the two were involved in. This was slightly annoying, although I think I’d find it more annoying if I’d read the other book and then had to put up with repetition of prior knowledge in this book.

Amanda McCready is a three or four year old girl who is reported missing by her good for nothing junkie mother. The police, the neighbours and the rest of the family aren’t doing enough, so the PIs are hired to chip in by the aunt and uncle. Over the next few hundred pages, a story unfolds with lots of shady characters and corners for Gennaro and Kenzie to poke around in.

There’s nothing technically wrong with Lehane’s prose, but I found it to be sludgy and slightly boring. After reading Kesey last week, it was disappointing to read Lehane’s clunky dialogue and awkward exposition. Amanda’s age changes between pages – she’s referred to as a three year old on one page and four two pages later.

Besides that, he repeats himself a lot. Like a lot. Like, enough times to fill Wrigley field ten times over. And he loves Boston. And Ireland. Like, everyone’s a Boston Irish. And they love America. And Ireland. Well, you get the idea. Probably the worst part of this was that Lehane thinks he’s a good writer, evidenced in the swagger of his paragraphs.

I also found the characters difficult to tell apart. From the cops to the villains, they all had a 2D, cookie cutter feel about them which meant it was hard putting a personality to the name. Even for the big reveal, I struggled to remember was involved. Helpfully, Lehane reminded the reader of who everyone was. Even the main characters were difficult to pin down – at the end of the book, I knew nothing of Pat and Angie. I had no emotional investment in them because all I knew was that they were private detectives who semi-lived together.

The plot was let down by the sketchy characters and sludgy dialogue, but was still interesting. I can’t go into too much detail because there’s a pretty big twist at the end. Basically, it’s a morality tale about how sometimes justice fails and normal citizens find that they have to do things they think are right, but the law doesn’t. The most pleasing aspect of the book was this grey area between good guys and bad guys – you don’t get very good or very bad guys (or gals), but a caricature of what normal people are.

Another thing that turned me off Lehane was how negative the book was (I know, just read the review for a bit of irony, right?). Of course, in a book about child abductions it’s not going to be rainbows and lollipops all the way, but there were needless niggles and character aspects built in to random people’s personalities. Bubba’s hatred of The Smiths seemed to transcend the character and come straight from Lehane’s mouth, and so didn’t seem relevant or appropriate. Also, I love The Smiths. There were other examples, which have been buried elsewhere in my brain.

Gone, Baby, Gone is not a bad book, but there are millions of better ones out there. My recommendation, if you like crime, is to read Marshall Karp or Christopher Brookmyre.

K is for Kesey

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Everyone knows the story of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. If you haven’t seen the film or read the book, you’ve seen one of the parodies floating around – Spaced’s being the best one, in this reviewer’s humble opinion. The main character, Randle P McMurphy, draws everyone around him like a moth to a flame, dominating the narrative. Right? Wrong. The book’s narrator is Chief Bromden, the apparently deaf and dumb Indian revealed to be the eyes and ears of the mental hospital.

This angle for the book gives it a whole new level, another perspective that I wasn’t expecting. McMurphy is larger than life, and Jack Nicholson’s performance in the film one of his best because the character was so well drawn by Ken Kesey. The fact that the reader does not get to know his innermost secrets works really well, as Chief idolises him in the same way as the other inmates do. In fact, he’s probably closest to him as their beds are next to each other’s. McMurphy figures out that Chief is not deaf and dumb, but has simply got used to everyone assuming that he cannot speak, and therefore cannot hear. McMurhpy gives him his voice back, and gradually moves him out of the fog that has engulfed him for so many years.

For those who don’t know the story, McMurphy breezes into the ward as a convict in prison for assault and battery, who decided that he would be better of serving his sentence in a comfier mental hospital. While there, he galvanises the other patients as far as he can, setting up poker tables, monopoly, televised sports games and even a fishing trip. Nurse Ratched presides over the ward, and is not pleased that everything is changing. There follows a battle of wills between McMurphy and Ratched where the reader is not always sure which is the patient, the clinically insane.

Mental health is obviously a big theme for the book, and it’s hard to decide sometimes who is struggling with serious issues and who is simply a ‘normal’ person, dealing with everyday issues. Chief sees everyone as machinery, being ‘fixed’ by the faceless Combine until they fall into line in the outside world. Amazingly, this way of looking at things becomes normal very quickly, although there’s still the nagging feeling that Chief is seriously damaged from years of electro shock therapy.

McMurphy validates his hallucinations quite late on in the book. Chief hears a noise under his bed, and looks down to see one of the aides scraping off chewing gum from the bed. I thought it was another one of Chief’s waking nightmares, until McMurphy props himself up on his elbow and asks what he thinks he’s doing down there. This small exchange makes the reader question each episode that the Chief has described – is he really certifiable, or is he seeing things the way they really are?

On the flipside, Nurse Ratched is clearly a few sandwiches short of a picnic. This is even pointed out by one of the ‘sane’ adults, another nurse who runs the Disturbed ward. If Nurse Ratched is meant to be normal and is clearly not, what does that say for the people in her care who are meant to be insane and don’t appear to be?

Kesey is described in the introduction (yes, I read those too) as being part of the Beat generation – Kerouac, Ginsberg and so on – but to be honest I felt that this was more because he was in the right place at the right time (he had a van they could borrow, for example) and less because of his writing. Maybe that’s being unfair – if anyone knows more about Kesey’s involvement with the beats, please feel free to share it. Whether he was on the periphery or not, the writing is beautiful. Chief conjures up nightmare images of people carved open to reveal machinery underneath, clouds of cotton enveloping and disorientating all of those inside. The characters are all sharply defined, from the hapless Billy Bibbit to the closet homosexual and McMurphy’s rival, Harding.

If you’ve seen the film, read the book. If you’ve seen clips of Jack Nicholson as McMurphy on E4’s 100,000 Greatest Actors Ever Countdown Part 5, read the book. If you’re interested in mental health, read this book. I cried like a small child at the end because Kesey created his characters so skilfully and subtly, I didn’t even realise I cared until I finished the last page.

A good egg

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For Mr Charming’s birthday this year I wanted to get him some trainers he’d oohed over a little while before. I ordered them from Sole Trader on the Monday before his birthday, assured that the delivery will arrive on Wednesday.

That evening, I realised that I’d managed to order the wrong size of trainer! After six years, you’d think I’d know what size shoe he is. So I was in danger of being a bad girlfriend by leaving my man with no proper birthday present, and only peripheral ones.

I trawled the internet searching for those specific trainers (pretty hard to find, actually) and even looked up the couple of specialist trainer shops in Norwich, with no luck. Eventually I stumbled across Alan’s Store, a skater/BMXer online shop which sells brands like Vans, Volcom and, inexplicably for me, Nike.

They had the trainers, in the right size and they were even slightly cheaper than Sole Trader, brilliant. I placed the order around noon the day before Mr Charming’s birthday, where I added a note:

Hello,

My boyfriend’s birthday is tomorrow and although I know it’s extremely short notice, I would be grateful if you could send this out as soon as possible. I’ve been looking for the trainers for months, after he spotted them in a magazine, and know he’d be thrilled with them on his birthday. It would make me look like a good girlfriend as well!

Please call me and let me know if there’s anything else you need.
Thanks,
Suze

Around four hours later, I got this reply:

Hi Suze,

Your order has now been despatched via Royal Mail Special Delivery and should be with you tomorrow. Make sure to let your boyfriend think you ordered these weeks ago, and then you’ll get more birthday cake 🙂

best Regards,

Excellent, right? The best thing about it was that they arrived on his birthday, just as we were finishing the present unwrapping – I thought we’d have to keep Royal Mail time of anywhere between 12 noon and 4.59pm for post.

Personal, fast and friendly service – I’d recommend alansstore to anyone looking for skater/BMX stuff that’s more individual than Free Spirit. They seem to have pretty hardcore useful stuff too, which I know nothing about, like trucks and grip tape.
Enjoy!

J is for Jewell

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I went for a very easy J – Lisa Jewell’s Vince & Joy. I object whole heartedly to labelling or pigeon holing anything from music to films to books, but very generally speaking so-called chick lit is far too successful. There are some authors I like who are smeared with the chick lit brush – Meg Cabot has written some fun stuff, Jodi Piccoult tends to be tarred with it and Marian Keyes is capable of writing interestingly. Unfortunately Lisa Jewell does not fall into the category of ‘worthy chick lit’, if you will.

Vince & Joy follows the love, losses and tribulations of Vince and Joy. They meet as teenagers in a caravan park in Hunstanton (yay, East Anglia reference) where they enjoy two weeks of intense connection, and both lose their virginities, to each other. One morning, in fact, the morning after, Vince wakes up to find a soggy note from Joy where all he can make out is ‘I’m so ashamed’. He assumes that this relates to their night of passion, but of course the reader knows that it’s something to do with Vince’s pretty mother and Joy’s pervert father. When this is finally revealed, five hundred pages later, it’s a bit of an anti climax.

I read the whole thing so I obviously didn’t detest it. The story begins with Vince at a friend’s house, while they cheer him up from the latest dumping. They begin to talk about their first loves, and from there Vince tells the story of Joy. I liked this way of getting into the story, as contrived as it was.

The whole thing rattles along pretty well, lots of near misses, disastrous relationships on both sides and lots of fate/destiny moments to keep romantics happy. The other thing I liked about it was that it was told in the majority from Vince’s perspective. His voice is slightly feminine, but then his character is a bit wet so it fits in quite well.

Vince and Joy were obviously the main characters, but there were hundreds of other people involved who flitted in and out. Most of them were pretty well drawn, but a couple were confusingly similar. Vince and Joy both end up with kooky, hippy housemates at one point. Later on in the book, the woman I thought was Joy’s housemate has a revelation when she spots joy in a magazine. Of course, it’s Vince’s ex housemate who’s never met Joy, just knows about her. Maybe that’s just me not paying proper attention, but I did find it confusing.

Although the flashbacks are interesting, the five hundred odd pages propel the reader through inevitable relationship failures towards the end, where you know that Vince & Joy are going to end up together because they’re meant to be together. Of course, when that finally happens, the book ends. I was a bit disappointed with this – I wanted to see them get married and have kids and grow old together. I think that’s probably a compliment for Jewell, that I wanted to see more of the characters and wasn’t thoroughly bored of them.

I’d recommend this book, or any of the other near identikit pastel covered novels, if you’ve got a couple of hours to kill. Or you find it in a train station. Nice, but not really satsifying. The literary equivalent of a big bowl of vanilla ice cream. Good to have but you regret it when you’re starving later.

I is for Irving

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The I and J authors have been surprisingly difficult to find, although it’s been easier with surnames than it was with first!

My I is John Irving and his book, The World According to Garp. For me it’s one of those books, like The Fountainhead, which is always mentioned but very few people have actually read. I’ve had it for a while but hilariously, haven’t read it. The interesting thing about it is that I couldn’t find out what it was about – the back of the book gives nothing away and I didn’t want to use Wikipedia because that tends to give a page by page plot rundown, with no spoiler alerts.

So, for those of you in the same situation as me (fearful of spoilers but interested in the plot, here goes. It’s about Garp. And the world according to him. Ta dah. The book begins with Jenny Fields, a war nurse who wants a child but not the hassle of a husband. In the early pages of the book she slashes a would be paramour with her scalpel, which she carries in her bag for just those situations. At this point I thought the story would follow her life. She gets pregnant by a dying gunner called Garp, whose brain was so damaged by his injuries that he can only repeat his name. She names the resultant son Garp. Just Garp, at the beginning, but eventually giving in and bestowing him with initials – T.S.

She and baby Garp move into an all boys school where Jenny is the nurse. At this point the focus changes from Jenny to Garp as he grows up with the rest of the live-in children. The rest of the book follows his loves, his children and his running, entangled with subjects such as what makes a successful book, feminism, monogamy and the overall responsibility we have for other humans.

Garp’s an author, but much to his dismay Jenny becomes an author first, when her highly feminist novel A Sexual Suspect, becomes an international bestseller and a bible for disillusioned ladies. After that, Garp lives in Jenny’s shadow and the more she becomes the figurehead for beaten and bruised women, the more resentful he gets.

The World According to Garp is well written and interesting. It’s made more interesting by the inclusion of some of Garp and Jenny’s) writing throughout, defined by different font. Normally this irritates me in a book, but this time it helped to move the pace along and show the reader that there’s a change in environment. These books within books serve to deepen the layers of the novel, without meaning to sound too pretentious. When reading it I had dreams of unicycling bears and starving French armies, which I always think is a good indication of how good a book is – when it gets to you on a subconscious level, and leaves you thinking about it for weeks afterward.

Aside from being a story about a man who’s also a writer, lover, father, son, runner and wrestler, it also has a couple of stand out tragic episodes, tinged with really dark comedy. I don’t want to give anything away but the story builds and builds to a complex climax interwoven with all of the previous markers in the book. It made me read an extra thirty pages before going to sleep just so I could find out what happened. Unputtdownable, I guess you’d call it.

I’d recommend this to anyone who fancies a memoir/life story that’s a bit different – more thoughtful, thought provoking and well-written. I’m looking forward to reading more John Irving, in fact I think The Cider House Rules will be the next one.

H is for Hornby

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There must be some kind of zeigesty thing going on as my friend Owen wrote a blog this week on High Fidelity. Either that or he’s just nicking my ideas…

I’ve read this before, and obviously seen the film a few times, but I felt like reading something familiar. For those of you who don’t know, it’s the tale of Rob Gordon, a man recently dumped by his long term, live in girlfriend. It’s a single focus story which means, as with all first persons, that you can’t quite trust the protagonist. In this case, however, you feel that he’s more honest than most. Be warned, there might be spoilers ahead.

Rob’s not a very likeable person, but like any normal human being he has good and bad points in his character. He owns a record shop, Championship Vinyl. A quick google turns up about 60,000 hits for ‘Championship Vinyl shop’, and one site lists it as ‘the greatest record shop that never was’. Other than that, he’s in his mid thirties and still thinks he’s a student. He’s also obsessed with the past, and quite a large part of the book’s taken up with him tracking down all of his ex-girlfriends in an effort to prove that he’s blameless for his recent break up with Laura. Perhaps I’m being harsh, but that’s just the way I see it.

Despite this, though, I still like Rob Gordon. If I met him, I’d probably have a drink with him (not in that way) although he’d no doubt bore me to tears within about twenty minutes, talking about his top 5 songs not to drive to (Number One: Leader of The Pack) or quizzing me on my five first gigs, then cringing at choices I made more than a decade ago.

Music is a big part of the book, and it’s satisfying when you recognise the song being discussed, although it’s equally dissatisfying when you don’t. It’s the same with everything, I suppose – books, food, film… You’re part of a club when you know the reference, and when you’re not, you nod along and pretend you know what’s going on.

Another big part of the book is the location in London. Not the square mile, but the Zone 6 areas. It’s dingy and rundown but it grounds it in a reality that I felt the film lacked with an American setting. Don’t get me wrong – they did a good job transferring it, but everything was made a bit more shiny, glossy, hopeful. Marie LaSalle in the book is peaches and cream, slightly rounded, whereas in the film she’s Lisa Bonet – lithe, sexy and more coffee and cream. To be honest, these are minor gripes and I think both the book and the film stand up well to scrutiny. I have to wonder though, how happy Nick Hornby is at least two of his London based books being transferred across the Atlantic, the other one being Fever Pitch, which morphed from a football focussed book into The Perfect Catch, a baseball loving Jimmy Fallon wooing Drew Barrymore. I think the rights money probably eased that pain a little.

I’ve read a few of Nick Hornby’s books now, and High Fidelity is the most appealing one to me, probably down to the amount of music and the effect it has on Rob’s life, from teenager to middle-age. I’d recommend it to anyone who’s found themselves arranging their music in chronological order, or their films by director’s chronological order.

G is for Graham

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The Unfortunates follows mustard heiress Poppy Minkel through life as she dodges family obstacles and tries to be everything she wants to be. It begins with the sinking of the Titanic, as young Poppy searches for her father and comes upon their ‘Irish’ instead – the maid who her father was evidently having an affair with.

Books which have child narrators tend to suffer from the same fate – there’s a knowing tone from the author where the child describes what they see without context, leaving the reader to figure out what’s really going on. Sometimes this can work quite well, as in The Time Traveler’s Wife, where the voices of Clare and Henry are distinct from their adult selves but equally recognisable. Luckily Poppy isn’t a child for very long, as the story skips through her teens and early twenties, including WWI in the process.

She gets married, has children, moves from Paris to England and back to America in a relatively short space of time and without a lot of hassle – although by the time she comes back it’s the middle of WWII, she’s only really affected because she can no longer fly her bi-plane. This is another section of the book where you read between the not very subtle lines – Poppy is Jewish and so she finances the escape of a number of Jews from Paris, with the help of her artist friend. It’s frustrating because Poppy is not stupid – she has a number of businesses throughout the book and knows what she wants in other places, and yet she seems to be wilfully ignorant of huge issues, such as the German occupation. In one scene she re-visits the hotel she stayed in in Paris in order to re-claim her furs, left twenty years before.

Perhaps I’m missing the point – just because Poppy seems to care only for her furs and hats, does not mean she doesn’t care. There’s a fine line in writing characters, a balancing act where you want your reader to get to know your cast, without having their peccadilloes forced down your throat at every opportunity or conversely, knowing only what they say and not what they feel. Personally, I feel that Poppy was not written sympathetically enough. Parts of her story were tragic and heart breaking, but as a reader I tend to follow the character’s lead and as she soldiered on with her candelabra and boots, so did I.

I’ve read a couple of Laurie Graham books (the other being Gone with the Windsors) and I find that there’s a knowing, slightly smug humour which revolves around political in jokes, which I don’t generally get as my knowledge of early 20th century royalty/American presidents isn’t great. Maybe that’s my fault for knowing more about Katie Price’s family than our Queen’s, but either way I’m not keen on feeling like I’m missing out on a book because I don’t get the references.

I understand why people like this and other Laurie Graham’s but for me she’s not a favourite author.