Daniel Williams

Archive for the ‘Review’ Category

‘The Cold Six Thousand’ (2001)- James Ellroy

In American, Book Review, Literature, Review, Writing on 30/10/2012 at 16:53

The Cold Six Thousand (2001) is the second part of James Ellroy’s Underworld USA trilogy. The trilogy covers American from the 50s to the early 70s, but it’s full of Ellroy’s bias that everybody is corruptible and that the mob rules all. The Cold Six Thousand kicks off right where the first book, American Tabloid (1995), left off with the assassination of President Kennedy. The first part of the novel concerns the cover-up that follows. Then we follow the next five years – Vietnam, Howard Hughes in Las Vegas, civil rights protests – ending with two big assassinations.

The three main characters are Ward J. Little, a former FBI man now mob lawyer; Pete Bondurant, something like a mercenary; and the new character Wayne Tedrow Jr. I was glad of a new main character because he was sympathetic and reluctant to kill, which is a big contrast to the rest of the cast of characters. But, no surprise, that doesn’t last long, soon he’s off torturing and cooking heroin.

The big thing to mention with The Cold Six Thousand is that Ellroy makes his sparse style even more minimalist. The tight, short, sharp sentences work well in American Tabloid, given the title it fits that the prose feels like headlines. But in The Cold Six Thousand Ellroy cuts the prose down the absolute minimum and, at times, seems like somebody parodying his style. After a few hundred pages the repetition becomes infuriating. The ‘simple’ style does not make the novel easier to follow, in fact it makes it harder, as Ellroy has several plot-threads and subplots on the go it becomes hard to untangle them and really understand what’s going on. By the end I felt like I was only vaguely aware of the choices the characters had made that led them to where the story ended.

I read this book quite soon after finishing the first one. I really liked American Tabloid, even though the characters did some dark things, and if you know Ellroy’s work you know how far he likes to push his characters. But what worked in American Tabloid was that it followed contrasting fall of one character and the rise of another. In The Cold Six Thousand a similar thing happened but the contrast never seemed as sharp as in the first book. In pretty much every aspect I did not like the second book as much as the first.

The style, lack of character development, and overly complicated plots make The Cold Six Thousand a very tough read and not a rewarding one. Perhaps if I get round the last part of the trilogy, Blood’s A Rover (2009) it’ll make the second part worthwhile, but right now I’m truly glad to be finished with The Cold Six Thousand and I think I need to take a long break before I pick up any James Ellroy again.

‘The Wounded and the Slain’ (1955)- David Goodis

In American, Book Review, Literature, Review, Writing on 11/09/2012 at 15:07

David Goodis is an author I only heard about recently in the context that he is the forgotten great of noir fiction (and at the moment I can’t get enough noir). It took a while to get a copy of The Wounded and the Slain (1955) from the library, and all his other books have gone missing. But after reading the novel, do I think that Goodis is up there with Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett? In short, I’d have to read another one of his novels to truly find out. While The Wounded and the Slain is not a bad novel, there were things about it I really disliked.

Describing the plot is a difficult thing. To make it sound interesting I’d have to give away the twists that comes two-thirds in the story. But on the other hand the basic outline doesn’t really sell it. The Wounded and the Slain is about the Bevans, an American couple on holiday in Jamaica. James Bevan is an alcoholic, heavy on the self-pity; Cora Bevan is his frigid, beautiful wife. The plot kicks off a third of the way through the book, and then it slows down, then picks up, then slows down again, and repeats all the way till the end.

The first thing I have to say is that I struggle with alcoholic characters when they manage to be as witty and articulate as James Bevan. I get frustrated at how much forgiveness for drinking that David Goodis gives the character, and I can’t help wondered if Goodis is writing this through experience. It seems that we the readers are expected to forgive James Bevan because his wife is so frigid it drives him to frustration and drink. Their relationship follows the pattern of an alcoholic- pleasant in the morning, argumentative in the afternoon, abusive in the evening.

One quotes that adorns the book calls David Goodis the Kerouac of noir. I can kind of see what he means, the prose is almost free flowing. But in the old ‘Show, don’t tell’, Goodis is on the side of telling. His narration frequently goes into internal monologues that really slow the story down.

Despite all this, the novel has some great scenes. Every now and again there’s a flash of something really interesting. There’s a flashback chapter set in New York that I think really works well, suggesting, perhaps, Goodis works better on home ground.

If I had to name check Goodis against another author it’d be Fyodor Dostoyevksy. The Wounded and the Slain reminded me a little of Crime and Punishment (1866) in the way it progressed in the last third. And like Dostoyevsky, despite all his flaws, Goodis’ writing has a strange power to it. Goodis isn’t quite as powerful as the Russian, but he’s certainly got something.

I’d like to read another David Goodis, just to see if he really is a fogtotten master. Anybody who can recommend which of his to go for next, let me know in the comments.

‘The Stone Cutter’ (2005) Camilla Läckberg

In Book Review, Review, Swedish, Writing on 04/02/2012 at 18:19

I really wanted to like this book. I like murder-mysteries and I’d never read one of the Scandinavian crime novels that are very popular at the moment. I’d seen the Wallander shows on TV and liked them, so I thought I’d give one of Camilla Läckberg’s novels a read. I really wanted to like it. I wanted it to be an entertaining thriller. Halfway though the book I was trying to focus on what I liked about it, but by the end I gave up all pretence of enjoying it.

The Stone Cutter (2005) is set in the small town of Fjällbacka. A body of a little girl is pulled out of the water and its soon discovered that her death was not an accident. The crime is investigated by the town’s small police force of five people. Patrik Hedström, the good-egg cop, heads the investigation. But meanwhile, his girlfriend, Erica, is struggling at home with their newborn baby. The book also flashes back to the 1920s with a subplot about a spoilt rich girl and her lust for a stone cutter- though why his character or his profession the deserves the title of the book I have no idea… maybe something was lost in translation because by the end of it the relation of the character of the stone cutter to the plot was, well, minimal at best.

The book is long by a crime novel standards, clocking in at about 550 pages in paperback, and the plot is so very, very slow. The trouble is all the sub-plots. Several times something starts out as looking as though it’s going to be related to the mystery of the death of the little girl, but is then revealed to be a red herring, and then becomes a sub-plot for a minor character for the rest of the book. Camilla Läckberg really goes into too much depth with minor characters. I know she’s trying to flesh them out to make it interesting, but it really bogs down the plot so much. If I had to offer her editing advice it would be not to be afraid of the red pen. She really needs to use her red pen more. I would read scenes and even whole chapters and think- this adds nothing to the plot. They don’t even develop character, they just emphasis something about the character we’ve already been told.

Speaking of characters, the majority of them are one-dimensional. I felt no empathy or sympathy to any of the characters at any point. Patrik and Erica struggle with the newborn, but you know it’s all going to work out by the end. Okay, I admit that I read this book without realising it was part of series, but it would seem to me that they won’t really develop. In this book they have a newborn at home. I imagine the previous novel would have been about them dealing with her been pregnant, and the fourth book will be (spoiler alert) about them getting married. That doesn’t seem to be real development because you know it’ll all work out for them at the end.

But to return my point about characters, a lot of minor character’s backgrounds and history got told, but by the end she still managed to leave some character threads unresolved and even made serious lapses in characters behaviour that had been previously set up. One more thing about characters- she introduces two sets of characters in exactly the same way. Two married couple are introduced by having the husband complain about something and the woman to agree in dialogue but then we see their thoughts in which they don’t agree. Then two young men with mental problems are introduced by them both sitting in their rooms looking in-depth at something… and both these introduction are presented without context to be revealed later. I like repetition, but this just seems like a complete lapse in judgement.

I’m sure the novel is well researched because the same pieces of information get repeated over and over again by different characters in exactly the same way. One of the characters has Asperger’s syndrome. I know not everybody knows about Asperger’s, but pretty much every character goes ‘Well, what’s that then?’ and another character will repeat the same facts about Asperger’s. By the third or fourth time it happened it really grated on me.

Maybe something is lost in translation because I can’t see the appeal of the book. I don’t think ‘by the numbers’ is a bad thing if it’s done well. But this isn’t done well. It just falls flat and plods on without any real focus. Some of the ‘clues’ and revelations relied far too much on coincidence and on ignoring character’s previously set-up character. At the end the murder is pretty much solved by the fact the policeman happens to watch the right TV show about poisoning (I kid you not). I really did want to like this book. I wanted an entertaining murder mystery, but the murderer turns out to be pretty the person you always thought it was.

If you hadn’t guessed, I was pretty damn unimpressed.

‘Rashōmon and Seventeen Other Stories’ (2006) Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

In Book Review, Japanese, Literature, Review, Writing on 17/01/2012 at 19:55

This collections splits eighteen short stories into four categories: ‘A World In Decay’, historical fiction and the stories that made the writer popular; ‘Under The Sword’, again historical fiction with focus on soldiers and samurai; ‘Modern Tragicomedy’, these stories take place in Akutagawa’s day, but with Kafkaesque or post-modern twists; and finally ‘Akutagawa’s Own Story’, possibly autobiographical stories, written shortly before the author’s suicide. In every story categories there is the strong voice of Akutagawa- a wryly comical cynic. The darkness and cynicism are most prevalent in the last two categories, as Akutagawa moves from cynicism with the world and people, to pessimism about himself and his own life.

My favourite stories in the collection were all within the first part of the book. Those include the ones famously turned into Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950). My favourite of these stories was ‘Hell Screen’, about an egotistical painter and his daughter. I really enjoyed the darkness and the hint of the supernatural with this story. It has an unreliable narrator, who spends a lot of time trying to defend a character. This technique came across as a little obvious, but in worked well the character.

It’s the last stories in the book that have been bothering me. Knowing that Akutagawa feared mental illness and eventually killed himself, these stories are hard to ‘enjoy’. Technically they’re very well written. ‘Spinning Gears’ is near perfect in putting together very short passages to build up an overall picture of distortion and nihilism. But I could never say I ‘enjoy’ these stories. I admire them.

I do really like Akutagawa’s style. His blend of darkness and humour appeals to me and I shall certainly want to read more by him. The Penguin Classic’s edition of Rashōmon and Seventeen Other Stories (2006) has been an excellent starting point. The stories are all of interest and these two great introductions, one by the translator, Jay Rubin, and the other by Haruki Murakami. Murakami’s introduction looks at the influence of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa on him as both a reader and a writer. But in trying to read more of his work, I’ll try to stick to the early stories.

‘Fevre Dream’ (1982) George R.R. Martin

In American, Book Review, Literature, Review on 18/12/2011 at 09:26

Recently, when asked what I was reading, I said ‘A book about vampire on steamboats’, but that description makes Fevre Dream (1982) sound more fun than it is. Over the last couple of months I’ve been reading George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. I find the books compelling, despite my misgivings with Martin’s writing style and decide to try one of his other novels.

Fevre Dream begins in 1857 when down-on-his-luck steamboat captain and owner Abner Marsh is given a business deal from the mysterious Joshua York. York offers to fund the building of a brand new steamboat that will be the pride of the Mississippi River. But Abner gets his steamboat at a price- Joshua will be onboard as his co-captain, and brings along his odd friends who only ever seem to appear at night.

If you have any awareness of vampire tropes you’ll be able to tell where the story is going. There’s ‘good’ vampires and ‘bad’ ones. There’s a chapter about the history of vampires. There’s a human helper who’s been promised that he’ll be made forever young… you can see where it’s all going. I have no problem with genre fiction, it’s just this novel uses the tropes without doing anything particularly different or interesting with them.

This was not nearly as compelling as even the weakest of the Song of Ice and Fire books. It just wasn’t as out and out entertaining as a book about New Orleans, vampires and steamboats sounds.

‘The Masterpiece’ (1886) Émile Zola

In Book Review, French, Literature, Review, Writing on 26/09/2011 at 20:55

This is the fourth novel by Émile Zola I’ve tried to read and only the second I’ve finished. This novel is part of the Le Rougon-Macquart series, which are twenty novels that follow various members of family, as well as exploring different aspects of French society; each can be read individually or as part of a bigger picture. The Masterpiece aka L’Œuvre (1886) is the fourteenth novel and deals with art and artists.

The painter Claude Lantier, and his friends, despise the current state of art and long to create something new and original. Claude wants to paint a masterpiece that will unify his ideas and visions. He also meets a young woman, Christine, on a dark and stormy night in Paris and their relationship blossoms before becoming compromised by Claude’s obsession.

The Masterpiece is supposedly the most autobiographical of the Le Rougon-Macquart novels because of Zola’s friendships with several famous painters. One of the characters in The Masterpiece is Pierre Sandoz, who is pretty much a 19th century Mary Sue. Sandoz is a novelist, who is described in at various points as been wise, kind, and lyrical. Not only that, but he is the only one of his friends who becomes a ‘true’ success both financially and artistically because of his familiar sounding series of novels. I couldn’t really take to him because every character liked and trusted him.

It’s only the second novel of Zola’s I’ve finished, the others I gave up on, which is not something I often do. My feeling is that I admire his work as oppose to liking it. I think his series is a brave undertaking, and I find the idea of showing inherited traits throughout a family fascinating. The main problem for me is that I don’t like his style. I can’t help my groan whenever I see a paragraph that goes on for a page or more, and there are a lot of them. In the other novel of his I finished, The Drinking Den aka L’Assommoir (1877), it followed the same structure- characters are at their happiest about a third of the way through the story, and then the rest of it follows their disintegrating lives. Also, I think he fails on the old Creative Writing motto of ‘show, don’t tell’ because he normally tells us about a character before we have a chance to see them interact.

There is much I respect about the novel. I like what it does have to say about art, be it painting, music or writing, and how’s it a thin line between passion and doomed obsession for something unobtainable. Claude is an interesting character, and his progressively erratic behaviour was well played out. But still, I just can’t fully embrace it. Like the old break-up routine- it’s not you, it’s me. I just can’t get to grips with Zola’s style no matter how much I admire what he’s trying to achieve.

‘The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea’ (1963) Yukio Mishima

In Book Review, Japanese, Literature, Review, Writing on 27/08/2011 at 12:36

The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea (1963) is an odd book. It starts off with a 13 year-old boy spying on his mother undressing and it only gets stranger from there. The boy’s mother, Fusako, begins an affair with a sailor on shore leave. The sailor, Ryuji, has a love-hate relationship with the sea and dreams of a glorious destiny. The 13 year-old boy hangs around with a group of teenagers who call each other by numbers and believe they are geniuses in an overly sentimental world. This doesn’t sound too bad, but as the story progress the boy continues spying on his mother and the sailor, and his group of friends begin to put their theory that they are above others and are permitted to do anything into practice. Half way through the novel you can guess how it will all turn out, but, like a Greek tragedy, waiting for the moment of violence is part of the perverse pleasure of reading The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea. The ending of The Sailor Who… is a grim one, but anticipating the expected outcome had my heart racing while reading the last chapter.

The book is quite poetic in places. Unsurprisingly the imagery of the sea, ships and sailing occur throughout, but it never feels forced. In one moment a character wishes to have a hard heart like an anchor. That really worked for me.

Yukio Mishima covers some of the same philosophical ground as Fyodor Dostoyevsky in the group of boys who believe they are above others. But whereas Dostoyevsky’s characters have religion and his novels often end with redemption through suffering, Mishima’s only redemption seems to be through death. Maybe my judgement is clouded by the knowledge that Yukio Mishima ended his own life. There is a moment in the book when one character looks down on another for having failed a suicide attempt.

The Sailor Who… is a dark, violent and strange story, but none the less its made me curious about the author’s other works.

‘Perfect Lives’ (2010) Polly Samson

In Book Review, English, Literature, Review, Writing on 21/08/2011 at 12:05

Despite the glowing words of praise that cover the copy of Perfect Lives (2010) I can’t say I was impressed with it. The quotes call it funny, compelling and moving, but I thought it never gets beyond its middle-class trappings. Polly Samson seems to be lampooning the middle-classes while remaining very much a part of it, and celebrating it in the final story. The book begins with an epigram from Leonard Cohen, and on finishing Perfect Lives, I found that one quote had something more interesting to say than the stories in the book.

The prose had a tendency towards a knowing lyricism; you can almost hear the author saying ‘I am going to be poetic now’. I’m not a fan of that kind of prose. She makes some melodramatic descriptions, the worst offender been this, which I had to read three times before I realised she was been serious: “Leszeck’s eyelashes would always make every woman he met think about having his baby.” I’m sure some people think it’s marvellously poetic but it’s very silly to me.

The stories are all set in a seaside town. Not much is made of the setting, other than it’s a middle-class seaside town. Characters crossover, much like in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad (2010) by Jennifer Egan. In A Visit From… the connections between characters are never presented with a flourish, but appear casually and without comment, as connections between people do in real-life. In Perfect Lives when a character from another story turns up in another, there often is a melodramatic flourish in the reveal. The character that appears most (an unnamed amateur photographer) is sadly the least interesting and goes on no real journey other than a happy acceptance of a bourgeois life.

Unlike A Visit From… none the stories in Perfect Lives moved me. Polly Samson finds nothing insightful about the characters she presents. I think part of my trouble with reading this book was I took a dislike to it pretty early on. Taking a dislike to a book early on is like when you take a dislike to a person you just meet- no matter what they say you’ll always find it a bit irritating.

I imagine that if I spoke to Polly Samson (after she hits me for disparaging her book) I’d find little crossover between the authors we like. There seems to be a hint of the British Victorians to her prose and I really dislike British Victorian literature. I can see why people would give this book glowing quotes, but it is not things I enjoy in a book. I don’t imagine she’d think much of my stories, either.

‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’ (2010) Jennifer Egan

In American, Book Review, Literature, Review, Writing on 15/08/2011 at 19:25

There has been some talk as to whether A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010) should be classed as a novel or a short story collection. No matter what it’s classed as I think it’s a great read. The book is made up of a series of interconnected short stories- a supporting character in one becomes the main player in the next, somebody mentioned in that story is a narrator three stories later. The stories also skip around in time, flitting from now to the past and the near future. Probably most famously is that one story (or chapter, depending on your view) is told through PowerPoint slides. I first thought this was just a gimmick, but the story turned out to really use its medium well.

The thing that could most argue for A Visit from the Goon Squad’s status as a novel is that themes of the passage of time and growing-up are the focus of most of the stories. The non-linear order of the stories allows the reader to see aftermaths of decisions before going back to the decision. One of the voices of the novel is an omniscient third-person narrator who gives details of characters futures before returning to present of the character in the story. This is none more poignant than in the story ‘Safari’ which reveals a child’s tragic future before returning to the child dancing. While it has comic passages I felt that the tone of the book was one of poignancy, been able to see characters pasts and futures can be heartbreaking.

My favourite stories in the book were ‘Safari’ and ‘A to B’, but because of the changing style of narrative voice, central character and time I think somebody else reading the book would prefer other stories. The story I liked least was the final one (if you actually want to read this book you might want to skip these next few lines- nothing major is revealed, but if you’d prefer the surprise of discovering for yourself skip this part) because it skips forward to a near-future where everybody connects by handheld devices that project 3D holograms. I suppose because it was set in the future the short did not have the same ring to it as when Egan wrote about the 70s, 80s or now. It felt to me a little like when you see a programme from the 1950s talking about the future- that by 2000 we’d by on the moon, wearing jetpacks, etc. I just find that looking to the future always looks silly once the future becomes present.

At it’s best A Visit from the Goon Squad functions as a Citizen Kane-like puzzle as we are asked to unravel who this characters really are from what Jennifer Egan shows us. I found myself trying to remember supporting characters and characters mentioned in passing to see if they’d turn up again in other stories. There are some red herrings- important incidents are mentioned but never shown. I liked this style. It kept me on my toes.

 A Visit from the Goon Squad is a funny, sad and well-written book that I gladly recommend.

‘The Energy of Slaves’ (1972) Leonard Cohen

In Canadian, Literature, Poetry Review, Review, Writing on 06/08/2011 at 15:07

For a songwriter to be called a poet is a compliment, but poetry and lyrics are two different beasts. One man who really is a lyricist and a poet is Leonard Cohen, he published poetry years before he recorded his first album. The collection The Energy of Slaves (1972) was published after his first three albums. Here is one of the poems:

Whenever I happen to see you…

Whenever I happen to see you
I forget for a while
that I am ugly in my own eyes
for not winning you

I wanted you to choose me
over all the men you know
because I am destroyed
in their company

I have often prayed for you
like this
Let me have her

That break between the penultimate and final lines just amazes me. That last line contains such power but is so underplayed. I hear it read in Leonard Cohen’s wry tones. In fact, I hear all of Leonard Cohen’s poems been read by the man himself. His wry, mordant voice echoes through the collection.

Like ‘Whenever I happen to see you…’ the more depressing poems are underplayed in their forms. The poems are often only a handful of lines long, but each word, punctuation or line break counts for something. The poems in The Energy of Slaves are very economical in terms of their form and structure. This next poem is quite probably my favourite break-up/put-down poem ever:

 I did not know until you walked away…

I did not know
until you
walked away
you had the perfect ass

Forgive me
for not falling in love
with your face or your conversation

The oft forgotten side of Leonard Cohen is just how damn funny he can be. Some of his poems really make me chuckle. The wry sarcasm shines through against the more depressing of his poems.

This book is a huge, huge influence on my own poetry. The minimalist style is one I’ve tried to make my own, though I owe Mr. Cohen a large debt in terms of style and in wry humour.

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