Friday 28 March 2014

The Suicide Shop - Jean Teule

It is possible that this is the ultimate Black comedy, it is at least up there with the incredible Danish film The Green Butchers.
Having recently read 'Eat Him if You Like' I was really looking forward to reading something else by Jean Teule. This was a very enjoyable follow up. The story is set at an unspecified point in the near future, much is still the same what has changed is that people have lost the will to go on. The general malaise has led to brisk business for the Suicide Shop run by the family who form the central characters of the story. The Tuvache family have been in the death business for generations, and are happy to keep up the honour of suicide. The vast array of methods on offer speaks to the dark brilliance of Teule's mind, we have the usual revolvers (supplied with only one bullet), nooses, poison but then we also have deliciously unique methods branded concrete blocks to assist with drownings and even the kiss of death provided from the blossoming daughter of the family. The only member of the family who is able to look on the lighter side of life is the youngest son Alan. His view on life reads like something drawn directly from the pages of Candide. 'All is for the best', like Dr Pangloss Alan is the eternal optimist. His Panglossian attitude leads him to see sunshine and flowers where his family see only the risk of cancer and poisonous blooms. Singlehandedly he takes it upon himself to turn around the fortunes and attitudes of his family, leading to a delicious twist in the tail of this snappy little novel.

Monday 24 March 2014

Look Who's Back - Timur Vermes

So he's back..... in about a week Hitler will be hitting English bookshelves. I was first made aware of this brilliant novel when a Spanish customer came in asking for 'the book with Hitler's hair on the cover', I have to say that it took a wee bit of googling to track down which book he wanted, Er ist wieder da! by Timur Vermes, it seems that English is pretty much the last language to be gifted with this story. It has been worth the wait.
The story is based around a pretty simple, if potentially controversial premise; Berlin 2011, Hitler wakes up on the site of his bunker. He knows who he is but is confused to discover that sixty six years seem to have passed since he was last in the city. Obviously no one can seriously believe that it is the Adolf Hitler, and the assumption is made that a performance artist is trying to promote his image. He quickly gets a slot on a TV comedy show, where his message starts to hit home with the German public. All very tongue in cheek and very clever. At no point does Hitler modify or alter his message, the German Volk are superior in every way, the focus for women should very much be Kinder, K├╝che and Kirche, and of course that all of the ills faced by Germany can be laid at the feet of International Jewry. He repeatedly makes these points, but they are taken as satire, as parody, as a mirror being held up to the supposed evils in modern Germany; no one is willing to agree that they are taking these views seriously. Actual Neo-Nazis even attack Hitler for being a Jewish patsy mocking their own deep held beliefs and beloved former leader. Despite all of this disbelief Hitler's ideas are shown as being accepted and even adopted by many of the characters he encounters, the internal monologue allows us to see that several of these new 'followers' would be for the camps if Hitler were to have his way, but even his contempt is taken as a comedic farce.
Like other reviewers I'm tempted to say that this book is a work of genius. It manages to have some moments that are simply perfections of ridiculous satire and yet also can say dangerously profound things about modern race relations, and about perceptions of Germany during the Third Reich. Considering some of the messages about general German war guilt (or in fact current unwillingness to accept or acknowledge the dangers of considering it as something in the past), I am impressed that this has been such a big seller in Germany. 
Having had a chance to think about, and digest the book in general I am inclined to see beyond the comic initial layer, and think it actually is quite a scary read. There are certainly comic moments where Hitler is forced to confront modern day living, but overall the message seems to be just how easily something could grow again. The analogy that springs to mind right now is the situation in The Crimea and the Ukraine vs Russia. It's evident that propaganda has just as much impact in the modern world as it ever did, greater access to information does nothing to reduce the impact of clever propaganda and in fact only allows more outlets for it.
In this particular book it is the very fact that Nazi horrors have become part of the history and fabric of Germany's past that allow a complacent public to listen to Hitler once again. He is viewed as a comedian and so the dangerous underlying message behind what he is saying is allowed to pass virtually unchallenged.
Timur Vermes has created something that works well on both a superficial and quite profound level, as I said at the outset this is a genius of a novel.

The Society of the Crossed Keys - Stefan Zweig
This book has been published to coincide with the release of the Grand Budapest Hotel unlike other film related books this maintains the simple styling of the other Zweig books published by Pushkin Press.
Stefan Zweig was a massive name in literature in the first half of the twentieth century although his fame seems to have missed Britain. He wrote novellas and novels, plays and biographies; and his work was adapted for stage and film both in Europe and in Hollywood. He was a star, but by the start of the 21st century his work was virtually unknown. That is until the wonderful Pushkin Press started republishing his works. Now an extensive collection of his writing is available in English. I first came across Zweig when a copy of Beware of Pity came into the shop, as a massive fan of central European literature and of anything relating to the Hapsburg empire especially I knew that I would enjoy this novel about the concept of honour in the Austrian officer class in the run up to the First World War. I was right, the novel is wonderful I urge anyone who has any interest in the period to read it. Since then I've been able to read a fair few of Zweig's other works, some of his biographies and a few of his novellas, each one has been a perfect self contained piece of writing.
When I heard that there was going to be a new film made to encapsulate the essence of Zweig I got rather excited; even more so when I discovered that it was to be filmed at the incomparable Grandhotel Pupp in the old imperial spa town Karlovy Vary (Carlsbad during the Hapsburg period) and would be starring Ralph Fiennes. It all sounded perfect. So I was very keen to read the accompanying book that was published to go alongside the film. I was right to be keen, The Society of Crossed Keys is a wonderful introduction to all things Zweig. It features a selection of his writings that offers snapshot of his range and style. Of greatest interest to me was the selected chapters taken from Zweig's memoirs, The World of Yesterday. I loved the depiction of early 20th century Vienna. I read as much as I can about this area and period, and am always so pleased to see just how little seems to have changed in the hundred years or so between then and when I lived in the city. These selections manage to be absolutely fascinating as well as amusing and containing some hints of the darkness that would soon overshadow everything else in the region. The section about University life is just marvellous. It combines a timeless account of student life with the idea of honour amongst students that is so uniquely Germanic.
As an introduction to Zweig's fiction we are given an extract from Beware of Pity, that nicely continues this idea of honour being paramount. This is only a short extract, but it is enough to capture a flavour of the rest of the novel.
The novella Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman is included in it's entirety, this is a very stylish story set against the backdrop of the French Riviera in the 1920s. This almost reminded me of the Ford Maddox Ford story The Good Soldier. As with most Zweig stories this is a tale wrapped up in another tale, he was extremely fond of writing little onions that had layers to peel back. This story is an absolute gem, the characterisation of the female characters is superb. It is a joy to read writing of this standard, especially when the translation is so sympathetically done.
To top the book off there is a transcript of a conversation between Wes Anderson, the director of The Grand Budapest Hotel, and George Prochnik who is Zweig's biographer. This gives an insight into why Zweig's life and work has started to fascinate readers again. So many of his novellas seem to be ripe for a new audience and this book alongside the film should open up his work to many many more people.

Wednesday 19 March 2014

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender and Doughnut

Two totally different books here but both quite brilliant.

With shades of Douglas Adams, Doughnut is a foray into the life of Theo Bernstein, following him on his timey-wimey inter dimensional journey into YouSpace. Combining theoretical physics with near total insanity this is a wonderfully entertaining read from start to finish. I am particularly fond of the Disney inspired universe that Theo encounters along the way.
Theo's life as a wealthy and respected physicist has collapsed after he misplaced a decimal point and subsequently blew up the Very Very Large Hadron Collider, taking a good chunk of Switzerland with it. Everything looks bleak until his old professor leaves him an odd collection of items in his will and the adventure into other worlds begins.
Tom Holt has created a cast of wonderful characters and dropped them into a weird and wonderful story that is a joy to read. Nothing is what it seems and you are as likely to stumble across a heavily armed cartoon duck as across anything else. Quite magnificent. I can't wait for his next book, The Outsorcerer's Apprentice to come out in July.
Equally wonderful and yet totally different is The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender. This is a simply beautiful story with some fantastical elements that combine to give us a lyrical look at the dangers of love. Despite the title this is actually the story of three generations of a family, all of whom have been damaged by love. The writing style, and descriptions of the indulgences of sweet foods, brought to mind the magic of Joanne Harris's Chocolat, as well as The Snow Child. Both of which link magical elements with struggles to be accepted by small minded individuals. 
For some reason this is another book that is being marketed as a Young Adult read, I have to assume that this is due to the age of the titular character. I find it difficult to think of any other reason for this marketing choice. There are some adult themes here, and I don't think that some of the descriptions of love and it's pitfalls are likely to be appreciated until the reader has suffered a fair few of them first hand. I think this is a book that could be returned to at different stages of life, and that will be enjoyed in different ways as you grow. In fact I really don't think I would recommend this as a YA book at all, and would be much happier to see it placed in general fiction alongside books like Chocolat, The Night Circus and The Snow Child.

Tuesday 18 March 2014

The Girl With All the Gifts - M. R. Carey

Have just come across a video for this book, I really love it when publishers do this. I think they add something extra special to the process. Makes it a proper event for more than just absolute book geeks like me.

Watch the video here.

The Boy With the Porcelain Blade - Den Patrick
I found The Boy with the Porcelain Blade quite a difficult book to get into, the story alternates between the past and present which takes a little getting used to. Also the central character, Lucien, is really rather hard to like, he is self centred and arrogant; the inner conflict, that I think is the point of him, comes across more as mild sociopath at least until you start to learn a little more about the Orfano. Having said this, once you do get beyond the first ten chapters or so, the story opens up and begins to draw you in further.
The world featured here is Italianate in nature, and has a deeply Renaissance flavour. Think Assassin's Creed, meets The Borgias, meets classic high fantasy. All names are Italian, and a set few untranslated Italian phrases are used throughout the novel. I have to say that I found these to get a little repetitive and slightly irritating due mainly to their frequency in the text. The world itself is nicely imagined, complex and quite complete in terms of socio-political structure and full back story. There has obviously been a great deal of thought put into the myths and history of the world which does add depth to the experience of reading this novel. The whole feel is deeply Gothic, and in fact starts to feel more like a horror story towards the end. Most of the common fantasy elements are here a crazy king, a tormented hero, loyal retainers and a mystery to uncover.
There is a really good story here, and the characters grow on you; which is a good thing as their conflicts are the main focus. It just takes some time to get into it's stride, which is a shame as I do think that the start may well put some people off. Book two is out in the near future and it will be good to see how the story progresses there. 

Monday 17 March 2014

The Extraordinary Journey of The Fakir Who Got Trapped in an Ikea Wardrobe - Romain Puertolas

My second book choice for the day was chosen partly for it's funky cover, but mainly for the total contrast with the darkness of Bird Box.

On the face of it this is a light hearted and slightly silly book in the same style as the Hundred Year Old Man. We have a semi-Swedish setting (OK so it's a French Ikea, but I did say semi-Swedish), we have an insanely long title and we have an unlikely tale that spans continents and draws in a wide range of characters. The Fakir of the title cons his village into getting him a ticket to Paris so he can visit an Ikea and buy a new bed of nails, having conned a Parisian taxi driver and holed away overnight in the store he becomes trapped in a wardrobe that is being shipped out and his adventure begins. All rather silly, and rather funny. If that is what you want to take from this story then it is all there. It is amusing, and just ridiculous enough to keep you entertained the whole way through. However there are some serious undertones to this story, the Fakir is not in Europe illegally, yet circumstances end up forcing him into the position of illegal immigrant. in this role he is able to meet others who are looking for a new life in one of the 'good countries'.
These meetings allow these secondary characters to explain why they have decided to endure such hardship in order to reach a new life in the West, as well as allowing the author room to discuss some of the cruel treatment inflicted upon these individuals by traffickers and by the authorities. The examination of British immigration seems to be particularly scathing, although Lampedusa in Italy also comes in for some stick.
I'm sure that most people will pick this up, as I did, looking for some light comic relief; I just hope that they will all appreciate the serious moments that add depth to a fun lighthearted story.

Bird Box - Josh Malerman
It's difficult to explain my feelings about this particular book. On one hand I thought it was an original and well thought out story with some genuinely spooky moments. On the other there were several scenes and characters that I felt could have had so much more to them, and having finished the whole thing I was left feeling unsatisfied.
The concept is relatively simple. Something, some creature, some event, some miasma in the air is making people go mad. Not rocking back and forward in a corner mad, but full blown tear your loved ones limb from limb and then scoop your own eyes out with a melon-baller mad. Once the madness hits there is always violence ending in murder and eventual suicide. No one knows exactly what causes this insanity because no one has seen the cause and stayed sane long enough to give any kind of testament as to what they have seen; the only thing that anyone knows is that if you see what ever it is, then you instantly go violently crazy and kill.
Obviously this has led to hysteria, presumably world wide as the madness spreads from Russia and into the US. Those who can cover their windows and stay inside, any trips outside involve blindfolds and closed eyes.
The story follows two time lines for Malorie; the first starts just as news of the crisis is starting to break from Russia at this point she is living with her sister and has just discovered she is pregnant. The second time line is set almost five years into the crisis, and follows Malorie's attempts to escape with two young children from the house that they have been living in for the past four and a half years. The two time lines are tightly interwoven with flashbacks giving meaning to Malorie's actions in the later scenes. We learn about the group that helped Malorie after events ran out of control on American soil, and the reasons why she has spent the last four years on her own with the children.
There are some absolutely vile moments, scenes of brutality and of the aftermath of terrible violence, these are made worse by being viewed only obliquely. Several of the worst moments are only experiences through the sense of touch due to the need to keep ones eyes closed at all times. This sense of something unspeakable that you can smell, feel and sometimes hear but never see does give a depth to the story that would be lacking if more visual descriptions were given. There are rumours that film rights for this book have been obtained already, and it will be interesting to see how a visual medium will cope with building the sense of unease and decay without using visuals. I have the idea that it will end up looking very similar to Blair Witch in many ways.
My main issue with the book stems from the lack of any form of closure. I can cope with not really knowing what the 'creatures' are that are causing this madness, in fact I don't know that the author could possibly come up with a satisfactory explanation for what they are or for their motivation. Far better that this is left to the reader's imagination. There are a few too many loose ends for my liking though, a few too many moments where some form of explanation seems to be required and yet is absent. My biggest niggle of all is related to the safe haven that Malorie is trying to reach by river. Although I understand one of the obvious reasons why they would have been spared the horrors (am trying SO hard no avoid spoilers right now!) I would have liked the book to have continued just for another chapter or so, just long enough to give us a complete explanation. As it was it seemed as though the story just abruptly stopped. I have to say that I found this just a little irritating which is a shame as my overall impression of the book is positive. It manages to be atmospheric and unpleasantly visceral at times, which is what you want from a book of this genre, I just would have liked there to have been more philosophy and a stronger conclusion to tie it all up and balance the overall story.

Sunday 16 March 2014

No Harm Can Come To a Good Man - James Smythe
I love books by James Smythe, the man is a genius. No Harm Can Come to a Good Man is another example of just how brilliantly he writes. The story is simple. ClearVista is an app that searches out probability; it draws on all the available data out there on the internet, and can answer any question accurately. It is used to check on the safety of flights, the best route for your satnav and to help you decide what car to buy; everyone uses it daily.
Laurence Walker uses it. Laurence is a successful and highly popular Senator. He has served his country in the forces, has a happy and stable family life, and is tipped to be the next Democrat nomination for the Presidency. Everyone knows him, and everyone loves him. As the first step on the campaign trail all he has to do is answer 1000 questions for ClearVista and get the promotional video that will show the predicted outcome of his campaign. He is a rising star in US politics, what could possibly go wrong?
Laurence Walker's life can go wrong..... Tragedy hits him personally, and ClearVista proves to be too good at predicting the potential outcomes of it's own predictions.

Is there a conspiracy to bring down Senator Walker? Are all predictions simply self-fulfilling? Or is Laurence Walker actually not such a good man at all?

This manages to be both a chilling look at a world totally reliant on a piece of software where it's predictions become fact no matter how unlikely they seem, and also a brilliant look at a family in crisis as their world falls apart around them.

You are what the world believes you to be.

Friday 14 March 2014

The Farm - Tom Rob Smith

I really enjoyed this, it feels totally different from his Child 44 books, and has a satisfyingly noir Scandinavian setting for most of the story that fitted nicely with my mood last night as I was reading it. The story only loosely falls into the crime category really, being much more of a suspense thriller. That a crime has been committed is implied throughout, however not only is the exact nature of the crime left open until a fair way through the book, but also the reliability of the only witness to this 'crime' is seriously in question. The narration is split between Daniel and his mother and the contrast between the styles of the two characters is brilliantly written. Daniel's confusion and indecision comes across perfectly while the sections narrated by Tilde, where she is outlining her view of events sound eminently plausible while maintaining a slight off note that keeps you doubting if she can really be trusted. Her reactions, ultimatums and interpretation of events kept me doubting her, and ultimately I was very glad that I did. I thought it was marvellous the way elements of fact, personal history and random events were brought together in Tilde's mind to create a whole that made perfect sense to her. I also found her insistence on her version and her absolute rejection of any attempts to change her mind to be convincingly accurate of the behaviours of someone suffering from a paranoid disorder. Her willingness to see everyone as an enemy rang totally true, as did her sense of persecution.
I loved the note of hope in the ending, following the stories of rural tyranny it lifted the whole book although I get the feeling that the problems faced by the various characters would only just be beginning.

Thursday 13 March 2014

Cat Out of Hell - Lynn Truss

If you have ever kept a cat then it will come as no surprise that they are in fact a species of evil geniuses. Cat Out of Hell is an absolutely brilliant novel that tells the story of the rise and fall of cats as masters of the world. It is very difficult to write a review of this book without spoiling the story, it is framed as a mystery after all. If you don't want to risk spoilers then please don't read further, simply go grab a copy of this and find out for yourself. What will be clear from all write ups though is that you can expect to meet at least one talking cat, a charmer called Roger, who just happens to be immortal. What you also get is a whole cast of brilliantly dastardly, hopeless and very funny characters who come together to take us through this simply wonderful story. It doesn't matter if you love cats or if you hate them, either way you will be able to appreciate this tale of murderous, devil worshipping felines and their human (and canine) minions. The whole thing is laugh out loud funny; one of those books that maybe shouldn't be read in public for fear of the strange snorting noises you may make while reading. The humour is dry and I'd say uniquely British in flavour, based largely about the ridiculousness of the whole situation that the human characters find themselves in.
For example in a moment of high tension one human finds himself trapped in his car by the murderous Captain, a large black cat on a killing spree....

'My only option was to put the car in gear and gingerly move off. Surely the Captain would jump clear once we were in motion? But he didn't. In fact, he seemed to think nothing of balancing on the snowy, slippery bonnet of a slow-moving Volvo driven without much conviction by a recently retired periodicals librarian who hadn't had a meal for days.'

In my opinion this is absolutely calling out to be televised, and there are some wonderful cameos available for British stars like Daniel Craig, Christopher Lee and  Stephen Fry, it's just a shame that Vincent Price will never be able to take the starring role required. Once you've read the story you will understand where I am coming from with this one; maybe we should start a petition?

While I read this, something that seemed to take no time at all, I was surrounded by my two cats, who both seemed rather keen to distract me from the book as much as possible. I can't help wondering if maybe they weren't that keen on my learning the truth about the cat/human hierarchy...... If I should die any time soon, there will at least be this record to lead those in the know to my killers!

Wednesday 12 March 2014

Book Giveaway

There are still a few days to enter my first ever book giveaway, courtesy of the lovely people at Arcadia Books.

Three copies of the award winning Zenith Hotel by Oscar Coop-Phane are up for grabs.

It is a gritty bit of Parisian noir that has been making some big waves. 

If you fancy getting yourself a copy, simply leave a comment on this post letting me know what year Zenith Hotel won the Prix de Flore.

Good Luck and Happy Reading! 

Tuesday 11 March 2014

Half Bad - Sally Green
I've had a good reading day today; this is the third book I've finished. OK so I also started this one today, but what can I say? Each one has been a really enjoyable experience and each on is totally different to the others that I've stormed through today. Shortly I will have to get on with constructing a new bookcase, as I have finally had enough of the insane heaps that have been threatening to take over the world, but for now here are my thoughts on Half Bad.

Half Bad is the first book in another YA trilogy that is keen to take the mantle from The Hunger Games. I really regretted not grabbing a proof copy of this a few months back when I got the chance, so was very pleased when a friend insisted that it was something I had to read, and thrust a copy into my hands. She was right; it really is a very good read. The story throws you right into the action from the start, where we meet Nathan a teenager who seems to be spending his life like a modern day Hansel. He is living in the middle of the woods, where he is kept locked in a cage by a hideous witch. The story follows his attempt to escape from captivity, an attempt that prompts his tracking bracelet to release acid which almost removes his hand. So far, so horrific. What we get next is a flash back to the events that led him to be trapped in his cage.
We learn that Nathan is a witch; his whole family are witches. Unlike most however Nathan is a half blood, his mother was a White Witch, and his father is a Black Witch. We discover that half bloods are treated with suspicion by the White Witch society that governs the British community of witches. Every aspect of life is regulated, and as a potential Black Witch Nathan is shunned by the rest of his community. It is only later that we discover just how unique Nathan really is, as his life takes an even more dramatic turn for the worst.
  Reading this does feel a little as though you are reading a slightly more adult Harry Potter. The world that Nathan inhabits surely owes a fair bit to the Potterverse; however this has the feel of the later books. There are no fun childish times in the school dorm. Here, instead we are thrown pretty much into the same kind of bleak and unforgiving world that you find from The Deathly Hallows. It is hard not to draw comparisons really, but that shouldn't be seen as detracting from this as a separate entity. It is very much strong enough to stand apart as well.

 The writing for most of the book is compelling and well done, there was a point during the section in Geneva where I though the story lost focus and simply drifted for a wee while. It did focus again after a chapter or two, but it was a little annoying at the time.
Mostly I thought that this was a really strong start to what should be a great new series. I hope that the second book lives up to the promise of this one.

Watch a great video for this book here.

The Dark Box - John Cornwell

This book provides a thorough examination of the role of Confession in the history of the Catholic Church, and of the Confessional in particular.
The preface lays out the bias of the author; a cradle-Catholic, and ex-seminarian who has had personal experience of the sacrament being abused. He describes personal struggles with performing confession as a child and youth, and very much sets the tone for the rest of the work.
The first section of the book gives a detailed and highly informative potted history of the role of confession in Christian history. From communal out pouring of public guilt and shame during the middle ages, to more minute examinations of the individual's soul throughout the Counter-Reformation. There are some fascinating insights into the role of Confessor in the lives both of ordinary Catholics and of noted holy mystics; my personal favourite comment related to St Theresa of Avila being advised to 'get out more' when she confronted her new confessor with her latest round of hallucinatory visions.
From here the book delves into the tightening of rules surrounding confession during the late 18th and early 19th century. The focus is largely on the lowering of the age for first confession and on the impact that stern ideas of sin and a vengeful God had on generations of immature child Catholics. The conditions and Rule of the Seminaries is examined, with the strict removal of outside influences being seen as an insurmountable bar to future Confessors' abilities to make sense of or deal with the actual world. Pius X comes in for severe criticism throughout this section, with both his methods and his motivation being questioned.
The final section of the book examines the abuses of the Confessional; both of a sexual and of an emotional nature. It is not clear if Cornwell feels that the Confessional acted to inhibit or promote sexual abuses during the mid 20th Century. On one hand the separation from the congregation as a whole, and genuine fear of 'the dark box' comes into play, but on the other the move away from using the confessional into more personally private spaces is seen as an opportunity for predatory individuals to groom and abuse their victims. The use of confession as a tool for reconciling the abusers to their own misdeeds is made clear; while the shameful role of the administration and the Vatican offices in particular in making inappropriate use of the seal of confession is listed as a contributing factor in much of the abuse.
The author contacted many individuals from both the laity and from holy orders, for their own experiences of confession. There were a variety of views expressed; everything from being brought back into the fold by a kindly worldly priest who was capable of giving good council, to horrific stories of abused children being given penance for the acts that had just been forced upon them by their abusers.
The vast majority of the criticism against the form of Confession used during much of the 20th Century falls to the reforms of Pius X, and in turn to the intransigent and unforgiving actions and pronouncements of his predecessors, most notably John Paul II.
This is not a feel good book by any stretch of the imagination. Most of the book is focused on the opportunities for abuse offered by the form this sacrament took following Pius X's reforms, and there are some harrowing stories on abuse recounted. However it is a comprehensive, well researched, look at the experience of confession for actual people.