Sunday, 29 May 2011

Let The Great World Spin (Colum McCann)

--The blurb--
"In the dawning light of the late summer morning, the people of lower Manhattan stand hushed, staring up in disbelief at the Twin Towers. . . . It is August, 1974, and a tightrope walker is running, dancing, leaping between the towers, suspended a quarter-mile in the sky. In the streets below, ordinary lives become extraordinary. Corrigan, a radical young Irish monk, struggles with his own demons as he lives among prostitutes in the Bronx. A group of mothers, gathered in a Park Avenue apartment to mourn the sons who died in Vietnam, discovers how much divides them even in their grief. Further uptown, Tillie, a thirty-eight-year-old grandmother, turns tricks alongside her teenaged daughter, determined not only to take care of her 'babies' but to prove her own worth."

--The review--
At first sight, Colum McCann's latest offering, entitled Let The Great World Spin, has a very different and arguably less appealing face than the only other novel of his that I have read, Dancer (2003). Six years after Dancer's publication, would Let The Great World Spin prove equally enjoyable? Initially it would appear not, with the first parts of the book consisting of little more than a catalogue of substance abuse that were of little or no interest, similarly to Jon McGregor's Even The Dogs (a book which I have tried and failed to finish of late). Also like Even The Dogs, it is fabulous in its level of detail, and the fact of it being so graphic means that it is certainly not for the weak. But while Even The Dogs is a depressing and miserable collision almost of Eastenders and Skins on the page, Let The Great World Spin is more intriguing, changing scene totally from chaos to calmness and taking us from blood and screams to camomile and lace, making readers question just how all of this will fit together.

The novel's rhythmic qualities mean that although it is long we seem almost automatically carried along by the strength of the thing. The skill with which its characters are drawn is such that it would transfer successfully, in my mind, to the silver screen, and its potent mix of tragedy and gallows humour adds extra poignancy to the spliced moments that make up individual lives. Its illfatedness is almost Gatsbyish and makes it part of a great literary tradition, with its car crash being reminiscent of several famous others. We ultimately want to know what will happen to these poor souls; we know it will end badly and yet keep reading anyway.

Let The Great World Spin also very closely replicates the work of Don DeLillo and Marcel Proust in so uncannily mirroring how we think and how things prey on our minds. Although I have read Don DeLillo's Falling Man recently, and so be making links that are not really there, it seems too to be a portrait of a post-9/11 world, by showing how we are affected by such significant events, whether or not we realise it. The long chapters and stream-of-consciousness style are also features that are reminiscent of Proust, perhaps further cementing my earlier assertion that McCann is truly part of a long and successful literary heritage. He encourages us to see ourselves in art and art in ourselves, which has an inspiring effect in spite of the novel being so deeply suffused with tragedy. This is further compounded by the fact that the small children at the end of the novel are the only ones who have the chance to escape their doomed background, environment and parentage. We are given hope by them, but equally made to feel sorry for those in the story who were deprived of the same chance.

In spite of the non-chronological order of events, which does not always make the storyline easy to follow, Let The Great World Spin is nonetheless relevant and full of impact. It is not only about where we choose to direct meaning, but how and why, and this lends it an absurdist slant: we fill in our lives with meaning in the only ways that we know how, and this does not always involve colouring inside the lines. Although the novel can be disorienting due to the number of characters that it concerns, this is one reason why it merits multiple reads, and it is arguably a grand achievement that in spite of this sense of disorientation, the whole thing pulls together wonderfully, reflecting the world in which we live through a never clear-cut prism of broken dreams.

Other works by Colum McCann
Fishing the Sloe-Black River (1994)
Songdogs (1995)
This Side of Brightness (1998)
Everything in this Country Must (2000)
Dancer (2003)
Zoli (2006)

Friday, 20 May 2011

Our Street: East End Life In The Second World War (Gilda O'Neill)

--The blurb--
"Our Street is the perfect companion to Gilda O'Neill's bestselling My East End. This book focuses on the lives of Londoners in the East End during the Second World War. Showing the concerns, hopes and fears of these so-called 'ordinary people' Our Street illustrates these times by looking at the every day rituals which marked the patterns of daily life during WWII. It is an important book and also an affectionate record of an often fondly remembered, more communal, way of life that has all but disappeared."

--The review--
As a 1990s kid, it's understandable that I and some of my academic interests should be a product of the restrictions of the UK education system at this time. One of these interests stems from my study of history; in spite of many years of study, the Second World War is one of only a few periods that I know much about and which continues to hold my interest, as well as that of a significant proportion of the British public. Thanks to the ageing combattant and non-combattant survivors of the war, and the younger generation who have had the war's history thrust upon them, WWII-related books and products continue to thrive in today's market.

The aforementioned survivors naturally want to tell the stories of their experiences, and Gilda O'Neill is one of these people, having inhabited the East End of London during the war period. However, Our Street tells relatively little about her own experiences, consisting of a patchwork of testimonials from others, which are of readable lengths and captivate the reader immediately with tidbits of tales which make our jaws drop due to the complete improbability of their occurrence today. This awareness of incidents that are totally outside our span of experience as younger readers also triggers the sobering thought of how different the world will be when we are of pensionable age to the 1990s world we inhabited as children.

For the older generation, in spite of the horrifying experiences that some of the interviewees have gone through, a sense of nostalgia and feeling of the 'Dunkirk spirit' is reawakened, and this aspect of community and strength and familial ties is equally palpable to younger readers. O'Neill ties together the testimonies reasonably successfully, although at times it feels a little forced. The flavour of the East End is equally alive, distributed with vigour through the use of dialect and descriptions of the cityscape and housing estates, and readability is enhanced by the splitting of the book into themed chapters such as evacuation and food. This also enables a 'pick and mix' approach, as it is therefore unnecessary to read the book in chronological order.

To assume the dual role of author and editor, as Gilda O'Neill has done in this book, is surely no easy task, and while she arguably does not completely succeed, the result is still an accessible tome that appeals to those that were there just as much as to those who were not. Her passion for her own personal past and for the history of her past in general is clear, and incites the reader to seek out more of her books - fictional as well as non-fictional.

Other works by Gilda O'Neill
The Cockney Girl (1993)
Whitechapel Girl (1994)
Dream On (1998)
The Lights of London (1999)
The Bells of Bow (1999)
My East End: Memories of Life in Cockney London (2000)
Playing Around (2000)
Just Around The Corner (2001)
Getting There (2002)
The Sins of their Fathers (2003)
Make Us Traitors (2004)
Of Woman Born (2005)
Lost Voices: Memories of a Vanished Way of Life (2006)
The Good Old Days: Crime, Murder and Mayhem in Victorian London (2006)
East End Tales (2008)
Rough Justice (2008)
Secrets of the Heart (2008)

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Across The Barricades (Joan Lingard)

--The blurb--
"Kevin is Catholic. Sadie is Protestant. In Belfast they are supposed to be enemies - so what chance do they have when they fall in love?"

--The review--
In spite of having studied history at school until I was 18, I know disarmingly little about the history of the world in which we live. Perhaps mercifully, however, Northern Ireland and the Troubles were among the units of study, and while of course several aspects of this tale are fictionalised, Joan Lingard unmasks some of the extremities suffered by people living there without pulling any punches. People were, it appears, quite literally prepared to die for their personal choices, and prepared to equally risk the deaths of other innocents.

Even though the basis of the story is fairly harrowing, Lingard introduces these issues gently to the teens and pre-teens at which this book is targeted, concentrating mainly on the human interest behind the love story while keeping history on the periphery. The plot is of course affected by political goings-on, but jargon is kept to the barest minimum, and focus is maintained on what has happened, rather than on why it has happened, making for a good introduction to this time in history (for the target age group, why these things occurred can come later). It is also helpful and moving with regard to showing how close our world has been to terrorism for so many years; even with the tenth anniversary of 9/11 approaching, it is important to remember the sad fact that terrorism did not start or end with September 11th.

The author has also taken care to write concisely, packing a compelling story with believable characters into a text of readable length. A short story that can be read in one or two hours, this novella is an easy read in terms of length, vocabulary, and the success with which the author sustains readers' interest in the plot. However, it is of course not an easy read given the gravity of the subjects that are raised, and while young readers will naturally have questions that need answering after and during reading, adult readers too may well feel compelled to go and learn more about the country's devastating history - it being crucial also to remember that Across The Barricades, having been written in 1972, precedes by quite some years the pivotal Good Friday Agreement and the decommissioning of the Provisional IRA.

Finding out that Across The Barricades is part of a series (of which this book is the second of a quintet) that continues to feature the protagonists, Kevin and Sadie, is heartening: we have engaged with these main characters and do not wish to leave them just yet, and perhaps with further books, we are able to see not only what becomes of them but also of Northern Ireland, as seen through the author's eyes.

Other works by Joan Lingard*
The Twelfth Day of July (1970)
Into Exile (1973)
A Proper Place (1975)
Hostages to Fortune (1976)

*All of these books comprise the remainder of the Kevin and Sadie quintet. A far more exhaustive list of Joan Lingard's books for children and adults is available on Wikipedia.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

The Wind Singer (William Nicholson)

--The blurb--
"After Kestrel Hath rebels against the stifling rules of Amaranth society and is forced to flee, she, along with her twin brother and a tagalong classmate, follow an ancient map in quest of the legendary silver voice of the wind singer, in an attempt to heal Amaranth and its people.After Kestrel Hath rebels against the stifling rules of Amaranth society and is forced to flee, she, along with her twin brother and a tagalong classmate, follow an ancient map in quest of the legendary silver voice of the wind singer."

--The review--
Not being a regular reader of fantasy should not put off potential readers from reaching for this book; the narrative hook of a nation controlled by exams and tests and the engaging nature of the very human characters soon, in a funny sort of way, draws you into this fantasy world quicker than you can say "Lord of the Rings". It is the mixture of human and fantastical elements which, woven together with William Nicholson's clear dexterity, make this book so appealing to children and adults, and while it certainly does bear some similarities to the great fantasy precursors that have gone before it (such as Lord of the Rings, the works of Diana Wynne Jones, and, to some extent, the works of JK Rowling and Garth Nix), The Wind Singer is clearly all its own book.

Nicholson's skill in blending the chilling, the humorous, the touching and the suspenseful is to without doubt be commended. He is also to be praised for introducing the dystopian genre to children in a way that is fully accessible, with enough adventure and nightmare without being too terrifying. In addition, the storyline is concise and absorbing, leading to a label of being literally 'unputdownable' as readers hang on eagerly to see the story's denouement play out in all its eventually triumphant glory.

However, there is one criticism; for reasons that are not completely fathomable, the ending seems rather rushed. Did the author run out of steam? Was his deadline looming? Or was it just so clear in his mind about how the story would end that it all just came out in a rush naturally? Either way, the ending itself deserved more development, attention and care.

After following the adventures of the unique cast of goodies and baddies, though, it's easy to forgive the author this one transgression - particularly as it is already arguably quite long for the target age group. One could say that even more detail could have caused readers to give up and wander away - although given the book's action-packed nature, this is perhaps unlikely.

A rollicking tale that keeps up the pace, The Wind Singer is an expert portrayal of character and adventure that immediately draws readers towards not only the other works in the Wind of Fire trilogy, but to Nicholson's other works thereafter.

Other works by William Nicholson
Slaves of the Mastery (Wind of Fire Trilogy; 2001)
Firesong (Wind of Fire Trilogy; 2003)
The Society of Others (2004)
The Trial of True Love (2005)
Seeker (Noble Warriors Trilogy; 2005)
Jango (Noble Warriors Trilogy; 2006)
Noman (Noble Warriors Trilogy; 2007)
The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life (2009)

Sunday, 8 May 2011

An Odd Boy (Doc Togden)

--The blurb--
"Volume one of an odd boy is a memoir of an eccentric aficionado of Bach and Blues, poetry and painting. A portrait of the artist as a lad, set in the experimental cultural ferment of the late 1960s. It is a coming-of-age adventure, both surreal and innocent, humorous and poignant, depicting an era when the Arts set a generation’s imagination on fire. The author’s life is a rare roulette wheel of childhood wonder and tragic debacles; a debilitating stammer and a powerful singing voice; bad luck and fierce good fortune."

 --The review--
With its intriguing premise and a title that seems deliberately designed to provoke an "I'll be the judge of that" reaction from would-be readers of this autobiographical debut, it is perhaps not difficult to see why people might be inclined to pick up a copy of An Odd Boy, especially since it is available in the convenience of ebook format first and foremost, following the increasing trend of today's book market. 

However, it is perhaps more difficult to see how or why readers might justifiably continue reading, given how far the novel is littered with minor irritations. The disjointed and patronising preface could probably be ditched altogether, and its tone of pretension unfortunately sets the tone for the rest of the book, with the text continually interspersed with quotations from various famous personages. Even naive young potential university students are not advised to write their personal statement in this way - in most cases, readers just want to hear the author's own words. Irrelevant information is often given, content is at times unoriginal (I did wonder if he was just trying to bring out his own version of Jonathan Coe's Rotters' Club, and failing), and the author is inclined to tell rather than show, making characterisation at times rather one-dimensional.

The narrator also tries to portray himself as a victim, but since he is too pretentious to be taken seriously, sympathy is in short supply. While his assessment (and others' assessments) of himself as an "odd boy" may well be correct, I'm not sure that his eccentricities merit an entire book on the subject. It is narcissistic; the portrayal of malapropisms used by others is unsuccessful in terms of trying to amuse; and, furthermore, the author also seems to think name-dropping will make up for his own (and his book's own) shortcomings (it doesn't). But this is not the worst of it: the entirely unnecessary footnotes are full of patronising remarks, such as the consideration that readers may not know who Evelyn Waugh was, what various British slang words mean, what the BBC is, or what 78s are. It is not, in my view, an author's job to explain the vocabulary that they use - rather, it is the reader's job to grab a dictionary or encyclopaedia and find out for themselves.

Perhaps worse is the sheer amount of typographical, geographical, and other types of error that permeate this book. Punctuation and italics are often poorly used, spelling mistakes include misspelling the name of the band Dire Straits (which is more than a little ironic considering how much music is supposed to mean to the author) and the word "whet" in the phrase "whet whistles", and grammatical errors include such horrors as "had forbade". The geographical mistake mentioned is in fact crucial to the narrative being presented - given that Borehamwood, Berkhamsted and so on are in Hertfordshire, not Herefordshire as maintained by the author, perhaps this explains why his searches for Alice were in vain?

It is clear from this, and especially also from chapter four, that significant cuts to this book are required, which makes it extremely surprising that ISBN numbers are provided on the book's flyleaf for both paperback and hardback editions of the book, as well as for the ebook. None of this does anything to help the ailing reputation of e-publishing (which suggests that there is still a lot of work to be done on the industry as a whole before it can pose a genuine future alternative for readers the world over). 

In spite of all of the criticisms above, however, An Odd Boy is not a totally unenjoyable read. While the idyllic image with which we are presented in chapter one is on the schmaltzy side, it brings with it something slightly portentous: the union of the two people described surely cannot be as perfect as we are led to believe or presumably there would be no book, so the perfection described is perhaps intended to signal a future deficit thereof. It is amusing in places, especially when it comes to discussions on the topic of God and religion, the bond between the author and Mr Love is genuinely touching and meaningful, and the author's excitement at being introduced to the Blues is clearly palpable (and not only that, but infectious, making the reader want to start listening to this music just as obsessively).

The work of Doc Togden is certainly much more engaging when he is showing us a more relaxed or honest view of his personality, rather than when he is trying to project a superficial and pseudo-intellectual version. Even though the text becomes at times egotistical and over-venerated, the interspersions get worse (with terrible teenage poetry added), and he tries to dress up his objectification of women as being somehow noble (when in fact he's just being a normal red-blooded male), the novel is infinitely better once the author gets over the illusion of his own precocity, and it is an easy read which is increasingly engrossing as the characters become more developed.

An Odd Boy therefore certainly has potential, even if it is as times badly expressed by a man who has clearly been told all of his life that he is brilliant and intellectual, only to never realise that there are others in the world who are just as intelligent (and, indeed, even more intelligent) than he is. All in all a satisfying read which ultimately feels unfinished; an editor needs to take a red pen and some scissors to it, and quickly.