Pages Turned

It occurs to me that, as we head into the final quarter of the year, I haven’t really talked much about what I’ve been reading this year outside of the larger reviews.

While I set myself a target of 40 books again this year (currently reading number 31), I really wanted to get a specific couple of books off of the ‘to read’ list and absorbed, I think I’ve done that.

First such book on the wish list was finishing James Ellroy’s LA Quartet. White Jazz differs somewhat from its predecessors as it’s very much a single-thread narrative in the style of Black Dahlia. Massively rewarding and full of Ellroy guts and power as Lieutenant David Klein unravels the biggest of puzzles – some real heavy stuff even for Ellroy. I loved every fucking page of this book and the entirety of the LA Quartet. I find it strange to think it came out in 1992 – Ellroy’s take on late 50’s LA is so vital. It also introduced Pete Bondurant who is one of main narratives in American Tabloid – which was another tick on the list as I wanted to go from the LA Quartet to Ellroy’s Underwold USA Trilogy. American Tabloid makes a smooth transition from the LA focus to a fuller, corrupt take on American History (with a fair few artistic licenses) right up to the gun shots in Texas. I’d like to get to The Cold Six Thousand but there’s a few more on the list first..

Another tick on my reading goals for the year was to catch up with Arkady Renko – the Russian detective from Gorky Park, one of my favourite historical fiction / thrillers. Took a while to find – not often kept in stock new and I went the ebay route for a used copy – but worth it; Polar Star takes place pretty much completely at sea. Renko is basically in exile and hiding from the state and finds himself thrust into solving a murder  on board a fish processing ship in the Bering Sea. I really have a thing for this cold war stuff and Martin Cruz Smith does a faultless job of making a thriller a literary work and combining a genuine mystery with enough genuine historical and political framing to tick all my boxes.

Speaking of historical references… I’ve fancied reading Maus for longer than I can remember not wanting to.  My wife has a copy of it but my reading of French isn’t up to it so I was happy to pick up an English version at a good price not too long ago. I don’t usually get on with the graphic novel thing but this one is staggering in both its power and its honesty. Well worthy of the acclaim it still receives and an important read.

I also picked up with that bloke called Reacher again but The Midnight Line didn’t really do it for me. Much like Personal it almost feels like Child is treading water here, the formula isn’t anything new and there’s no real stakes here – just ticking the boxes: Reacher gets intrigued about something, follows a trial, cracks a few skulls, things still make no sense, cracks a few more, solves a minor riddle, goes on his way.  A couple of years ago I enthused about All The Light You Cannot See by Anthoy Doerr… I still do; it’s a great book. I’d had his About Grace on the shelf for a while and finally go to it at the tail end of summer. It’s… not bad. There’s a couple of really good chunks in there but it’s not on the same level.

A few years further back I similarly enthused about Louis De Bernieres’ The Dust That Falls From Dreams,  the first in a planned trilogy. I read the second this year: So Much Life Left OverA little more focused in terms of characters, predominantly following the arc of Rosie and Daniel’s life, this slightly slimmer book is no less grand in terms of its reach or impact. De Bernieres one of those few writers with the ability to genuinely hit every emotion in the space of a few chapters. It takes a little adjusting each time as De Bernieres’ previous trilogy and novels took place in more exotic and poetic locations than this series but I really look forward to the final novel which will probably be no earlier than late 2020 at my guess.

Non-fiction wise there’s only been two hits on the list, one of which – Mark Blake’s Pigs Might Fly: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd – has already been touched on. The other was a reread of one of my favourite non-fiction books: Herbert A. Werner’s Iron Coffins: A U-Boart Commander’s War, 1939-1945 which I’d first read some ten years ago, lent out and never got back. I managed to find a copy at a recent air show and it’s always worth reading and will no doubt feature in an upcoming Top Ten Non-Fiction post.

This seems like a good place to leave it for now… back to that Springsteen series.

 

Pages turned

I seem to have become a lapsed blogger again. It’s what happens when life gets busy and spare time either shrinks or becomes more important. In this instance a new role has kept me busier and lunchtimes have not lent themselves to composing updates.

However – I’m now done for the year so let’s catch up, shall we?

I’m pretty much on-track to hit my self-imposed target of 40 books this year with the last one well underway with a week and change left of 2017. I managed quite a bit of progress this last month or two though with a book like The Big Nowhere by James Ellroy there’s no way to read it quickly.

Ellroy’s writing has been praised by many before and better than I’m sure I could. I will say that his is a unique and powerful voice that envelops a reader and sucks you into the seedy underbelly of 1950’s LA with a knack for the ‘big’ storylines that cross and weave into something huge. If I’m forced to I’d rate The Big Nowhere over The Black Dahlia – a much wider ranging story – and am anxious to move on to LA Confidential in the New Year.

I’ve yet to write that post I keep meaning to on Terry Pratchett. In the meantime my rebuilding of my Pratchett collection is going well. I’d say that of the 41 Discworld novels there’s what I consider a ‘golden’ period where Sir Terry hit his stride and get his style on the nose. For my money it’s from 1989’s Pyramids through to Monstrous Regiment in 2003. That’s a hell of a time frame for quality output  that recent re-reads Reaper Man and Feet of Clay both fall within. It had easily been 15 years since I’d read Reaper Man and I’d remembered nothing of it aside from ‘Death takes a holiday’ so I loved every page. The same could also be said of Feet of Clay though my memory of that one was clearer so I knew almost exactly where it was going – that being said it was still a pleasure to re-read. The Dark Side of the Sun, that being said, is pre-Discworld Pratchett and his voice was not yet found. It’s a very heavy-sci-fi book and feels, for the most part, as though Pratchett is trying too hard to force himself into a style that’s not his. There’s a brief section where the humour and narrative that would make him one of the UK’s biggest-selling authors makes an appearance but, for the most part, the 158 pages of The Dark Side of the Sun felt like a slog through three times as many.

Thinking of my need to clear a few more books by the end of the year I played a ‘cheat’ card and read 61 Hours by Lee Child – because reading a Reacher book never takes more than a couple of sittings. After being disappointed by the recent Night School I was very surprised by 61 Hours and would say it ranks up the top of those ten or so Reacher novels I’ve read to date. A great concept and plot setup and the countdown really pushes you on. The fact that Lee Child took Reacher out of his comfort zone and stuck him in an inhospitable location that often handicapped him really helped and I get the feeling Child himself was trying to shake the format up too – especially as he left Reacher’s fate unknown at the end.

Page Turning – Three More

According to Goodreads I’m pretty much on track for my 40 books challenge this year – two days into July I finished reading the 21st book I’d started in 2017.

So with a longer review for one of those four cleared since I last dropped any summary, here are those other three rounding out the list of those completed.

Night School by Lee Child

The most recent in the Jack Reacher series and one which – perhaps as Child didn’t know where to take his one man army immediately  after Make Me – hurtles us back in time to the mid-90’s (I wouldn’t mind getting on that time machine) to a time when Reacher was still actively serving in the army.

I’m now up to nine of the twenty-one Reacher novels and I’m beginning to be able to form an impression as to which ones are strong and which ones are merely ok. For my money this one sits in the latter category.  Make Me was a real strong entry after the relative water tread of Personal and took Reacher in a direction that showed growth and potential. By heading back into the past Child removes any real sense of jeopardy and it becomes more of a “Reacher gets into fights in Germany” read than anything else. The closeness of events to those of Killing Floor mean there’s nothing revelatory about Reacher’s past offered up and Child’s method of writing without knowing where events are going is too often on display when it comes to the ‘mystery’ at the centre of events.

Let’s hope The Midnight Line is another step forward rather than more standing still. Not bad but I’d be disappointed if I’d paid anything more than the £2 this one cost me.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (some spoiler)

This one had been sat on the Want-To and then the TBR list and pile for a while now. My wife got to it first and praised it and there’s no denying the regard it’s held in. I’d be gobsmacked if somebody hadn’t heard of it; its infamy probably known more than its contents.

So… do I rave about this book? Well, nobody can write like Nabokov, that’s for sure. I’d not read a line by him before now but even the first sentence is pure brilliance: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”

The dark comedy is sublime, the character of Humbert is one for the archives and so brilliantly painted and there are times when one can’t help but feel for him and, yes, so much of this misperceived (by those who haven’t read it) novel is less about Humbert’s pursuit of his nymphet as it is about Lolita’s absolute playing and exploitation of his sickness.

BUT, here’s what stops me wanting to read this again and again in the same way I do about a book like The Master and Margarita* and maybe I am a prude, or over-thinking this but a large part of this novel is essentially Humbert on a cross-country tour of America having sex with a very under-age girl. It makes for a very uncomfortable read – especially when he points out her crying herself to sleep every night – and, yes, this is intended, yes Lo is “seduces” him and yes his revelling in such activities makes the downfall so much more dramatic  but the lengthy segues that detail the realisation of Humbert’s desires (no matter their forming and Lo’s scheming) are still just too visceral to make an enjoyable read for my tastes.

But – while I won’t necessarily read this one again – it is a hugely well written and brilliantly told story that underlines Nabokov’s importance in the literary cannon and should be read at least once but any such student of the form.

 

Pyramids by Terry Pratchett

Pretty much impossible to review any of Sir Pterry’s novels in anything other than adoration. I’ve mentioned before both that it would be tricky to overestimate the  importance of Terry Pratchett in my library and literary explorations  and my desire to gradually re-read the Discworld series.

I think Pyramids often slips through the cracks when people talk about Discworld novels, I might be wrong. It’s not one that features any of the recurring characters – there’s no Rincewind or Nanny Ogg, for example – but it’s an important one. Sitting seventh in the published order it marked Terry’s first move away from the Wizzards and Witches that had dominated thus far. Prior to re-reading this one I’d done the same with Sourcery and couldn’t help feeling that perhaps even the writer was getting a little tired of the theme. Pyramids was one of the first in what’s now called the ‘cultures’ series as well as the exploration of belief on the Discworld.

Like many of those pre, say, Men At Arms, I had only vague recollections of Pyramids having read it originally some two decades ago and not since. Of course I remembered Pteppic and You Bastard, the Disc’s greatest living mathematician and – as with all of those I’ve revisited in the last couple of years – reading this one again was a real joy. Preatchett really was in a league of his own and to sit there chuckling away at this one served just to remind how much of a loss it is to no longer receive the joy of a new Discworld novel every year or so.

 

 

 

*I cannot recommend this one enough, just make sure you get a good translation as I’ve seen far too many bland ones on the shelf that seem to suck the passion and charm out of the prose.

Make Me

..he ducked his own hand under his own coat, grabbing at nothing but air, but the two guys didn’t know that, and like the good range-trained shooters they were they went for their guns and dropped into solid shooting stances all at once, which braced their feet a yard apart for stability, so Reacher stepped in and kicked the lefthand guy full in the groin.

I was late getting to the Jack Reacher party. Perhaps because I took a long break from reading books that could be slotted into the ‘thriller’ genre or perhaps because I’m sometimes wary / sceptical of such one-character driven series. Of course that changed when I did pick up Killing Floor. I also admit I got into it the wrong way round having watched the Jack Reacher film first.

There’s been a lot said about Lee Childs’ character and a pretty good article that also covers why, perhaps, I was hesitant in picking up my first Reacher books (is it ‘low taste’?) but I am now hooked. I’ve since cleared seven and there’s an eighth sat on my bookshelves lined up as my next-but-one read.

I’ve got a couple of weeks holiday rapidly approaching so went on the hunt for some holiday reading and there isn’t really much better for that than Lee Childs’ work. So I grabbed Make Me and Nothing To Lose – I’m not reading them in order, really – but ended up making the mistake of scanning the first page of the latest. It’s a mistake as you really only need to scan the first paragraph and Child will have your attention and interest piqued. I hadn’t picked it up sooner as I’d thought it may be better to read the earlier books first and, honestly, wasn’t hugely taken with the prior effort, Personal.  Either way, a couple of days later and I’d finished Make Me – number 20 in the Jack Reacher series.

Having not read even half of the series I can’t really pull the “best of the lot” or really cite favourites (though Persuader would take some beating) but I will say that Make Me is a bloody decent instalment and really does improve on Personal. It feels like a good solid Reacher novel and adds a lot more to the character than I was expecting and moves the character on in ways that have previously been missing.

Make Me starts off in what is now standard routine – Reacher finding himself, by chance, in the middle of a situation to which his sense of justice and skills and experience lend themselves. In this instance he’s climbed off the train at a town called Mother’s Rest out of idle curiosity over the town’s name. From here he’s pulled into another mystery, aided by another (in a long line) of women that he also takes a romantic interest in.

To be honest, though, that’s where the ‘norm’ finishes. The mystery in Make Me is a genuinely intriguing one and ends up going down some very, very dark roads. The humour is also a lot sharper and it did give me a good chuckle to find the one-man-army that is Reacher trying to get to grips with modern technology.

But, and here’s the thing, the Reacher of Make Me is a lot more human than previous entries have shown. There’s hints of, perhaps, a long-lasting relationship with Chang that perhaps even the author hasn’t decided where to take (given that Child writes without knowing exactly where the story is going and that the next Reacher novel is a step back in time) and we learn that Reacher can be injured in a fight by a single adversary.

Perhaps Child is aware that an audience can only see Reacher deliver the same lines (how often has Reacher had to explain his lack of permanent abode) and moves (there are, realistically, only so many ways to describer a head butt)  so many times before losing interest. Perhaps he too wants to add more to the character and give him something other than an endless road and line of adversaries to smack about. Regardless, I thoroughly enjoyed Make Me and am looking forward to see where Child takes his character next. I’ll have to wait for the follow up to Night School to find out, I guess. Still with a new Reacher-per-year timetable, the wait won’t be too long after all.