Friday, 18 April 2014

One Man's Opinion: GRAVESEND by WILLIAM BOYLE


Gravesend is a stunning read. It takes an area of Brooklyn and makes it a central character in a novel that ignites the attention from the off.

The story swirls around an incident from years earlier like a whirlpool of water preparing to disappear down the plughole. The incident in question is the killing of a young, gay man (Duncan) who was lured down to the beach for some action by a gang of thugs and bullies.

Daniel’s death has touched so many lives. Most importantly it has wrecked his brother, Conway, and shattered his father.

Things come to a head when Ray Boy, the leader of the thugs, is released from prison. This forces Conway’s hand as Conway has been planning to kill Ray Boy from the off. The only problem is the Ray Boy that Conway meets isn’t the one he hates. In a cruel twist, Ray Boy’s tattoos tell Conway of his enlightenment and this changes everything. In some ways, Ray Boy’s change also had a big impact on me as a reader, the villain coming as close to being a hero as anyone else in the book. This dynamic simply adds to the energy and the tension of the read.

Conway’s on the skids. He takes a day off to lick wounds and drink himself safe. He considers his failures: ‘It wasn’t even noon. On a Monday. Pretty much every self-respecting person was out in the world working. Hauling trash, conducting trains, butchering meat, fighting fires, teaching, doing construction, whatever. And here they were. Fucked. People to pity. Not even noon on a fucking Monday. No wonder the Irish girl gave them that Spaghetti Western death stare.’

Ray Boy’s change isn’t lost on his nephew, Eugene, now a feisty teenager who wants to claim a reputation like his uncle’s as his own. Eugene is devastated by the changes in the man who has returned from prison and sets up a plan that might just bring the old Ray Boy back.

There’s a whole chapter dedicated to the things Eugene hates about life. On the surface, this may seem a little negative, but it’s full of contrasting shades that it gives an incredibly detailed sense of who he is – by focusing on the darkness, it draws attention to the light and to just about everything else. It’s a fantastic piece of prose.

Allessandra is another of Gravesend’s lost souls. She’s back to live with her father after missing her mother’s last days. She’s been out in LA and is struggling to find her way in an area of town that lacks the sophistication she’s become used to. Allessandra was one of Conway’s crushes back in the day and she also happens to develop a thing for Ray Boy and his good looking, easy action. There’s a short passage that I loved in which Allesandra considers giving in to the booze. In doing so, she describes some the people of her town: ‘Drink every day at The Wrong Number. Say to hell with work. Become one of these neighbourhood ghosts, old alkies in wrinkled black clothes that just skeleton around on feet like broken shopping cart wheels. When it got real bad, she could just dig in trash bins for bottles like the old Chinese, haul them down to Waldbaum’s for drinking money, live in this house until her father died and they took it away from her and then she could go to a home, the one over on Cropsey, where she’d wear Salvation Army clothes and lose her hair and teeth in the sink. An actress? Forget it. Once maybe, in another city, another time. Just wispy bones and yellowing skin now. The old boozer that kids throw rocks at for kicks.’

The characters in the story are perfectly linked. They live in a world where ‘everything’s some kind of sad’ and do their best to stay afloat. Thing is, we know from the off that there isn’t room for everyone on the raft and that someone’s going to go under, we just don’t know who’s going to end up where.

I really loved this book. By focussing on the one area and the people brought together by the one incident, Boyle manages to talk about the whole of the human condition. There are beautifully constructed descriptions, not least when dealing with the introspections of the characters. Boyle allows the reader to get inside the minds of all who inhabit the tale and this is wonderfully handled. The stark writing style allows for a ‘warts and all’ description of a gritty environment as well as a poetic sense of the wonder and fragility of the world.

Top marks at every level. A must read from a real heavyweight.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

One Man's Opinion: THE BROOKLYN FOLLIES by PAUL AUSTER



Brooklyn Follies is told by an older man, Nathan, whose cancer is in remission and who has decided to return to his Brooklyn home to see out his final years. While there, he sets out on the writing down of the follies of his life in order to pass the time.

The follies have led him to where he is, a lonely man who has managed to lose his family in one way or another; carelessness, boredom and chance have all played their part in this.

 Life changes when he bumps into his nephew, Tom, in a bookstore. Tom is an ex-academic who has worked his way through taxi driving to find his new home. Philosophically, Tom wants to withdraw from the human world so that he can live life in a pure form as inspired by some of his literary heroes. It’s an idea that Nathan can understand and they spend time together discussing their love of ideas and literature and to work out where they should be heading.

They’re joined in this by Tom’s boss who turns out to be an art-fraudster and an ex-convict who has been living with a new identity to protect his interests.

The plot thickens when various other family members join the story, especially when Tom’s niece arrives to live with them having escaped her mother and step-father and sworn herself to silence.

The plot thickens and becomes more complex as the lives of the group are woven together. The resolutions are pleasing and satisfying and the book closes with a positive tone that offers a pleasing glow and a sense that there needs to be a little reflection done just at the point when all seemed done.

This is unlike most of the work I’ve read by Mr Auster. There’s a slightly different feel to the work than I’m used to and it took me a while to find my way. Often that difference relates to the tone and this is largely due to the voice of the character who tells the story. Some of the themes seemed familiar and there are definite trademarks in here. What I missed in the work, though, was the sense of rhythm and tone that I’ve tended to enjoy in his books as if the poetry and flare had been cut away. Follies has a lighter tone and seems to swim in shallower waters. It’s like an artist who works in fine detail has put down the small brushes for a while and decided that broad strokes can be just as powerful as tools.

I liked the story. Enjoyed the ups and downs of the lives as they bounce off each other and through their journeys.

If I understood the book, I’d say there’s something wonderful in its conclusions. There’s an acknowledgement of the hopelessness and futility of existence at its heart because that’s where we all are – doomed to die and to be forgotten. There’s also a delight in the breaking away from this truth in order to live. It’s not in the withdrawing from the world that one can find enrichment and happiness (or even failure and unhappiness), but it’s in the taking of decisions, the mistakes that are made, the people we grow close to and the warmth of those interactions that help us build our own epitaphs. It suggests a level playing field of sorts where acts of greatness are to be found everywhere. That we are all heroes at some point in life and at some time or other and this needs to be celebrated and understood to help make the most of our time here, for ourselves and those around us.

Auster tells a story of Kafka in the last year of his life as he tries to help a girl to overcome her distress at losing her favourite doll. To help her, he creates a story that allows her to come to terms with the loss, ‘for as long as the story goes on, reality no longer exists’. My take on this relates to that need to work on our own lives to hide away from that painful truth. That in the building of relationships and patterns we are creating stories of our own and that these stories are our salvation.

Even though I felt this novel lacked a little seasoning in some way – a little salt or pepper, perhaps - I did really enjoy it. Well worth a read and the time it will take to draw your own conclusions.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

How To Approach An Author Event in the style of Chuck Palahniuk and Douglas Coupland


 
Last Friday night, I was fortunate enough to get to see Chuck Palahniuk and Douglas Coupland chatting together at the New York Public Library. I’d heard that a Palahniuk event is rarely uneventful and I was pretty curious about the way things might play out. Having attended hundreds of author events over the years, I can safely say that this one stood out for its difference and its energy and it’s got me wondering about the whole format of such things.

I’d had my ticket for a good while and it had offered me a point of focus for my holiday in Brooklyn.

The afternoon was spent down on the boardwalk along Brighton Beach and Coney Island. It had been a long time since I’d been there – not far short of 20 years – and things have changed. It’s like everything’s been polished and dusted and the old and brittle has been replaced by the new and shiny. It still gave me an almighty buzz to be there, wandering past the handball games and the chess tables, then under the French Connection railway lines above Brighton Beach Avenue for a tour of Russia. It was made all the more vibrant for me because I was in the middle of reading the amazing book, recommended by my good friend Rory Costello, Gravesend, set not too very far from where I was and frequently featured in the novel. I’ll be explaining why Gravesend is a book that shouldn’t be missed when time allows.

I took the Q train up to Central Park and wandered through the sea of human traffic, mainly against the tide. At 42nd Street, I took a left and enjoyed a break from the masses. There was Bryant Park, where I’d left it in the rain all those years before, just after the big screen had told King Kong’s story. Right next to it, my destination, the New York Library’s main building. It has a beautiful facade, all that white stone and Greek pillars. It also has a beautiful inside.

I took my seat in a wonderful auditorium, under an enormous dome and its modern soft-lighting. A man came on to explain what we were to do with the beach balls, sharpies and glow-sticks that were at every seat and I waited. The idea was that if anyone had a question, it should be written on one of the balls.

Just before the main feature, the director of the live events explained that the idea behind the author appearances is that they should make a ‘heavy institution dance’ and that the line-up for my evening was likely to make it levitate. He was partly right.

The event parted company with the traditional right from the off.

All of the balls, with questions or not, were to be thrown into the centre of the audience by those on the outside and to the outside by those at the centre. With the lights off, several hundred balls with their pink and yellow luminosity and their weighty words filled the air and bounced off each other as if involved in some mighty science demonstration. When they settled, we did it again.

The next things to fly in the air were bags of sweets, health and safety be damned. Chuck and Doug threw them out with different degrees of skill. I’d say Chuck, swinging easily inside his body had maybe been practising whereas Doug C may not have.

The drawback to the sweets was that the first question was screened out by the sound of hundreds of wrappers being opened, but I don’t think we missed much and the chocolate tasted good.

After a series of questions, the ball thing happened again. At random, people with balls (not meaning courage or testicles) read out the questions in their possessions. The good thing about this method was that the questioner wasn’t hogging a microphone and showing off as much of their knowledge as possible within their moment of fame.

There also happened to be a reward for the people who asked a question. It was a rubber arm that looked like it had been severed from a body just below the elbow. And it was signed by Chuck. They were thrown expertly and a surprising number of them were caught, always to a sincere round of applause.

There was another twist in the event that I hadn’t come across before. There was a reading of Doug’s new book, something I’d been looking forward to. When the time came, I was surprised that the author didn’t move – he didn’t stand, pick up a book or open his mouth. Instead, the reading was played into the room and voiced by an English actor. Doug sat there smiling and it created the impression that we were reading his mind somehow, that he was projecting his thoughts to us while twitching his eyebrows and tapping the pads of his fingers together. I’d not seen this happen before and look forward to the next time.

To round off a happy evening of interesting ideas and insights, the signed arms that were left in the boxes were thrown into the crowd.

I was taken aback as I’d spend that last quarter-hour of the event planning my theft of one of them so that I had almost every eventuality (bar arrest) covered.

One of the arms came close. I stood up a little too enthusiastically and missed the thing. Something about the act of determination embarrassed me and I sat down again and stayed that way. When one went straight for the woman in front of me and slightly to my right, I was disappointed that Chuck’s throw hadn’t been just a single degree different. Thankfully, the lady was rubbish at catching and batted it straight into my lap. I grabbed it round the wrist, as if it might be ready to escape, and held firm. The thought that I should give it to the lady who couldn’t catch filled me and I suppressed it with all the energy I could muster. I had a touch of guilt; I also had a new arm.

So it was that I found myself under the beautiful ceiling of Grand Central Station carrying a bloody limb. It was a glorious moment and I stood and enjoyed it for a few minutes before disappearing underground to take the 4.

As events go, this was completely different. I felt like I’d had all the discussion and shared wisdom that I could have hoped for and a taste for a new approach to author appearances that I would like to experience again.

Of course, this won’t be the first or the most energetic literary appearance ever, but it sure was different. I’d like to know what I’ve been missing. Let me know what you’ve seen so that I can work out my routine for when the NYPL send me my invitation to appear. I’m thinking water pistols, short-story-writing-through-participation and clothes swapping. Ideas on a postcard or in the comments.

 

 

 

Sunday, 30 March 2014

One Man's Opinion: OUT OF THE WHIRLPOOL by ALAN SILLITOE



On the back of my copy of Out Of The Whirlpool is a lovely quote that’s attributed to The Observer. It says, ‘Taut, laconic, superbly sandpapered novella.’ I really like that as it says all it needs to in many ways. Still, I intend to expand and add my own spin.

The image of sandpaper in the quote is very well chosen – it speaks of craft and work, as well as hinting at something abrasive.

Peter Granby is a young lad who has grown up in a hard area of Nottingham. The book opens with him seeing local streets being demolished, offering glimpses into the lives of those who’ve been there while turning those days into rubble and dust.

He’s out and about avoiding being at home, where his mother lies. Her whole situation is described thus in a letter he’s paraphrasing that’s from his mother to his grandma: ‘She’d had a breast off and her back was still killing her. ‘So come as soon as you can. I’ve got nobody else to turn to.’’ Laconic’s right. This small quote also shows something of the mixed points of view that are used. The leaps from one thought to another. Like a jigsaw that has been put together with the pieces in the wrong places and yet managing to tell more of the story because of that.

Following an act of kindness, Peter comes into contact with a middle-class, middle-aged woman, Eileen, and into the possession of a five-pound note. He spends it on a knock-off radio and this act of law bending will later get him into trouble with the police. It also gets him into a difficult situation with his grandparents:

“I gave five quid for it.”

“More fool you.” He slopped his supper of spuds, meat and greens as if the bomb were going to drop in two minutes instead of four. The length of fat that hung from his mouth like a snake didn’t stand a chance. Peter had never told about the woman giving him the five-pound note, for fear he wouldn’t be believed. “You’d better go upstairs if you’re going to listen to that monkey music.”

This is another of those slices of brilliance. A character nailed to the page with no chance of escape. It shines a beam on his working-class roots and the life of a generation that came before him.

The class divide is spoken of again when he ends up being rescued by Eileen after he’s once again over-stepped the mark.  A sprinkling of description about breakfast is all it takes:

‘Two fried eggs seemed as big a breakfast as even a condemned man would need…

‘The pot of tea was all for himself, with a large mug…

‘He wondered how she could drink black coffee with no sugar.’

It’s not long before Peter’s lust and need to find something that’s shaped like love create a situation with Eileen. Sillitoe handles that really well as ever, creating a strong sense of passion and more than a whiff of eroticism. Not only does he describe the sexual drives really well, he explores the power in the relationship and the way Peter is blown about in the power of its energy.

As the book tells its story, the many facets of Peter are revealed. They shine brightly and offer a superb example of character writing at its very best.

This is an absolutely terrific book. It offers punchy writing that displays am amazing ability to describe people, place and plot while avoiding any wasted words. Like that fat sucked up by his grandfather, excess stands no chance with Sillitoe’s talent.

A really top read that gives a strong sense of time and place and yet manages to feel incredibly alive and current at the same time.

Champion.    

Thursday, 20 March 2014

One Man's Opinion: THE RIVERMAN by ALEX GRAY



The Riverman is an old guy who is charged with the responsibility of fishing out the bodies from Glasgow’s Clyde. You might not think there’d be much for him to do, but when a serious problem is discovered in a major accountancy firm he becomes a very busy man.

There’s a lot to like about this book and there a few things that counted against it for me.

Essentially the plot is interesting and the characters are all well sketched out. There’s an element of suspense under the surface and this sometimes rises to really grip.

There are also a lot of strands to the book that, while enjoyable in their own way, seem to interrupt the flow of the police investigation and the various adventures that some of the population are involved in. A couple of cases in point concern the main women in the novel. Both of them seem interesting, but the biggest concern they have centres around questions relating to their partners’ fidelity. For me it did them a disservice on the one hand and the book on the other, given that these strands lacked tension. Alongside this, the narrative is divided into a large numbers of points of view and this didn’t really work for me. It’s as if a rather good piece of literary fiction and a pretty good police procedural have become tangled up and lack the necessary symbiosis to fully carry this off.

The main investigating characters are rather engaging. They come in the form of William Lorimer, the Chief Inspector, and the psychologist Solly Brightman. The pair work reasonably well together, but I’d be happier if there was a stronger bonding at the book’s heart.

Glasgow feels like one of the characters, as does the river in question. This was a real strength for me.

I enjoyed this enough to get to the end and can imagine a good number of readers lapping up the quality of the writing. Suck it and see.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Blow That Horn - RONE Awards


It's hard to be heard against the white noise of us all out there blowing our trumpets to try and get our work noticed. 

My approach seems to be like the comedy sketch where someone (a Brit) in a land foreign to their own (usually France) seems to think it's likely they'll be better understood by someone who doesn't speak their language if they raise their voice. 

When it comes to self promotion, I tend to try and blow the trumpet with greater gusto and simply add to the din (I'm no Chet Baker, believe me).

Here I am blowing again. I blowing and I'm asking for a little help in raising the roof.

HOW TO CHOOSE A SWEETHEART has been nominated for an award by the good people at InD'tale Magazine in the Contemporary General category. It's the first stage of the process and they're looking to create a shortlist for reading by the judges via a voting system.

There are 2 ways that you can vote for Sweetheart. One is to follow the previous link, subscribe to the site and vote directly on-line. The other is to send an email to anasmith@indtale.com some time this week naming the title and me as the author. It's a pretty simple process, but it does take a few minutes of the voters time. 

If you've read the book and think it worthy, if you fancy reading it this week and then deciding or if you feel like offering support I'd be most grateful.

Now I'm off to try and learn a new tune.

Many thanks to you and the team behind InD'tale.

x

Sunday, 16 March 2014

One Man's Opinion: THE ACCIDENT by LINWOOD BARCLAY


http://georiot.co/1NY7
 
Glen Garber’s wife dies in a road accident, taking out a local family in the process. Her blood is full of alcohol, yet she’s never been a big drinker.

This sits uneasily with Glen. Besides having to cope with the emotional stresses of the loss, he’s got to look after his daughter and continue a battle to keep his business afloat.

His journey takes him into the world of counterfeit goods, but the bags and the prescription drugs aren’t the only fakes he encounters – it seems that practically everyone he ever knew has been faking something or other.

The twists and turns are clever and woven into a structure that means this is one of those reads that is difficult to put down. There are very few chapters that end and don’t create an itch to find out what happens next that needs to be scratched immediately.

Glen is a fantastic central character. An average guy with an average life who watches as his life tumbles before him like a house of cards. Some of the most touching moments centre around his attempts to protect his daughter from the outside world, including his powerful mother-in-law, but he’s also keen to look after his employees and even some of the broken people he finds along the way.

There were a few points when I felt the author might have stretched things a little far. The way the mountains of bad luck and sinister revelations build, it is relentless and things are taken as far as they could be in every single direction the plot takes. I found myself questioning whether some things were credible and then that idea would be swallowed by the need to read on to find out just how incredible it might get. The bottom line is that the plot has been so well constructed that each tangent fits to the central hub really well and the characters are so well put together that their actions always make sense in terms of who they are in the circumstances they’ve been in.

It’s a very exciting read that has a really strong sense of pace about it. I’m generally a slow reader, but these 470 pages took me only 4 days and that’s really some going for me.  

Great fiction.