Daniel Williams

Posts Tagged ‘book review’

‘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.

A Year of ‘Tea, A Tie, and A Red Pen’

In Miscellaneous on 03/09/2012 at 17:24

This blog had been going for a year. This is longest I’ve managed to keep a blog. I think the sporadic nature of the posts make it easier for me, writing posts when I want to rather than feeling I have to every week, or something. I don’t know if this is good for the reader, but it keeps me happy.

Anyway, for the first year anniversary of the blog (which, admittedly, I missed by a couple of weeks), I’d link back to the 5 most popular (by view) posts on here.

5- Summer Reading Challenge

4- Two Poems

3- Valentine’s Haiku

2- ‘The Energy of Slaves’ (1972)- Leonard Cohen

1- ‘Men Without Women’ (1927)- Ernest Hemingway

Despite the nostalgic tone, I’m not one for looking back. I’ve got to look forward. That’s the kind of person I am. I’m hoping I can keep this going for another year. Hopefully with more success in terms of writing. If I get something published between now and August 2013, I’d be pretty damn happy.

Like all creative folk, especially those in my generation, I am constantly torn between creative work, and having to act like a real person and get a job and make money and try to look happy doing it. All the worrying about important things like money, jobs, relationships really doesn’t matter to me as longing as I’m writing. And all I hope is that I never run out of stories to tell.

http://youtu.be/r2pt2-F2j2g

Summer Reading Challenge 2012

In American, Canadian, Literature, Miscellaneous, Welsh on 31/08/2012 at 11:16

In my borough (and in other parts of the country) the libraries have a summer reading challenge for children. They have to read six books over the summer and get stickers, medals, etc. I blogged about this last year. As I was volunteering to help out again this year, I did the challenge myself. My six books aren’t as eclectic this year, but that’s because I’ve been on a crime/noir binge.

1)         The White People and Other Weird Stories (2012)- Arthur Machen: I spent ages trying to track down any copy of Machen’s stories. I couldn’t even find his books in his home country of Wales. I ordered this book from America. In some ways I prefer Machen to H.P. Lovecraft, but he does have a tendency to go very Victorian (one story has a paragraph that lasts about twenty pages!)

2)         Tigana (1990)- Guy Gavriel Kay: I don’t read fantasy all that often. I picked this up because I’d heard about it on Sword and Laser’s youtube show. It was a good read, some interesting characters and themes. The story is about a city with a spell on it that nobody (except those born there) can remember its name. I don’t much about the world of fantasy fiction, but I imagine Tigana is in the literary end of things.

3)         Drive (2005)- James Sallis: I’ve heard this book called an existential crime novel, but, truth be told, I didn’t quite get it. I watched the film afterward and that didn’t strike me too much either. In the novel there is a lot of non-linear narrative, while I like flashbacks, I’m not a fan of a plot too much out of order. This books gets a lot of good press and I know I’m in the minority but, as always, this comes down to personal taste.

4)         The Goodbye Look (1969) Ross MacDonald: Lew Archer is a private eye hired to recovered some missing jewellery. I’ll admit, I get a real kick out of noir and private detective fiction. I went on to read another Lew Archer novel called The Galton Case (1959) and I preferred that to this. Still, it was a lot of fun to read.

5)         When the Women Come Out To Dance (2002)- Elmore Leonard: This was a great collection of short stories. In each the dialogue, plot and characterisation were masterful. The story ‘Fire In The Hole’ was quite possibly my favourite due to the slightly unconventional protagonist of Raylan Givens.

6) The Big Nowhere (1988)- James Ellroy: This is the second in Ellroy’s LA Quartet, followed by LA Confidential (1990). This is a compelling book, but it has to be one of the most brutal, nasty stories I’ve ever read. There are a lot of good things about it- it’s well written and I like Ellroy’s prose style, dialogue and characterisation, but it’s the world of the story that troubles me. I have a strong stomach when it comes to violence and bleak worldviews, but The Big Nowhere pushed me to my limit. I read the last third of the book as quickly as I could because I didn’t want to be carrying around that world in my head for any longer than I had to. I like flawed characters, but the there was nobody in this book who really, truly, had any kind of redeeming feature. I’ve read Ellroy before and I remember it been strong stuff, but not this bleak and nihilistic.

‘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.

Summer Reading Challenge

In American, Indian, Literature, Miscellaneous on 04/09/2011 at 17:15

In my borough (and in other parts of the country) the libraries are having a summer reading challenge for children. For the challenge they have to read six books over the summer. For doing so they get stickers, bookmarks, a medal and a certificate. I decided to try and read six books myself, despite not receiving any stickers, medals or certificate. But I did take a couple of bookmarks for my troubles. My six books:

1)      Knight’s Gambit (1949)- William Faulkner: I can’t say I really enjoyed this book. I’m not a fan of Faulkner’s prose style, I find it unnecessarily difficult, though I’m sure many a scholar could tell me why I am wrong about this. I wanted to read this book because I’d heard they were Faulkner’s only attempt at crime stories.

2)      A Special Providence (1969)- Richard Yates: The story is about an 18 year-old dreaming of success in World War 2, with the middle chunk of the novel about his mother and his upbringing. I’m a big fan of Richard Yates and thoroughly enjoyed this book. Possibly the best book out of the six.

3)      The Long Fall (2009)- Walter Mosley: I wanted to read a crime novel as a break from the heavier stuff. I’ve read one of Mosley’s books before and I preferred that story. This didn’t really engage me like Blonde Faith (2007).

4)      The Painter of Signs (1976)- R.K. Narayan: A charming and funny little story about the relationship between a sign painter and a young woman devoted to the promotion of family planning. It was quite sweet in places.

5)      A Visit From the Goon Squad (2010)- Jennifer Egan: I did write a review of the book on here, but to summarise- it’s great.

6)      Across the River and Into the Trees (1950)- Ernest Hemingway: This was the sixth novel by Hemingway I’ve read, and it’s my least favourite. I didn’t really think much of the quite thin story, and the character of Renata only existed to be in love with the hero. This was quite a disappointment because I am a fan of Hemingway.

‘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.

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