Well, I failed to finish a book – why does that feel so bad?

First of all, I hate not finishing a book. It’s a horrible thing to do because for all you know, you may be missing a wonderful read later on. It may be hard in the beginning but there may be rewards later. So I don’t give up easily. I struggled with parts of War and Peace but I was certain that the pay off would be worth it and it was. That’s the thing if you struggle on – generally, it feels worth it because if nothing else, you got to the end.

Also, it is hard to know when to let go. How far in do you need to be before you know that nothing is going to change for you? It’s a difficult one. Too soon and you’d definitely have regrets and wonders; too far in and you might as well finish it. This time I was about a quarter of the way in. Seemed like far enough that I’d know.

The book in question was The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith by Peter Carey and it was one of my books for the TBR challenge. (So now I have to read one of my alternates. The Shipping News by Annie Prouix, if anyone’s interested.) I’d read Peter Carey – Bliss and The True History of the Kelly Gang – and enjoyed his writing before. But this, I just couldn’t get to grips with it. I was avoiding reading it – always a good sign that you need to abandon a book.

I appreciate that this book is quite the feat of writing. Carey has invented an entire new country, along with that country’s language. The novel revolves around a group of actors after the birth of Tristan – a very unusual boy. He wants to be an actor but no one else wants that for him; in fact they suggest it is impossible for him, given his deformities.

There are lots of quirky characters – none of which seem quite believable. The plot is based on the rivalry between Efica and Voorstand (for Efica read Australia and Voorstand maybe England or America) and the different cultural and political systems. Some of which was very clever but it didn’t move me and I found myself zoning out when I was reading it.

So there we are – an unfinished book. I feel guilty for not finishing  – which I’m aware is slightly ridiculous. But at the end of the day, life’s too short for bad books. Although to be fair, this isn’t bad, just not to my taste.

 

TBR Challenge 2019: The Plague by Albert Camus

Genre: Disease, Allegory, Classics

Narrative Style: First person but which gives the points of view of lots of other characters

Rating: 3/5

Published: 1947

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: In the town of Oran in North Africa, the rats are starting to die in unprecedented numbers. The locals start to panic. Then people start to die from a unexplained fever. At first the authorities do not believe what the doctor knows, this is a return of the bubonic plague. 

Reading Challenges: TBR Challenge 2019 – Time on Shelf – about five years.

This was an interesting rather than an enjoyable read. Camus is a clever observer of human frailties and the descriptions of the various reactions to first, the plague and then, the quarantining of the town, seem apt and still have resonance today. However, the characters felt a little flat, a little too of a type to have real emotional resonance.

There are many ways of reading this novel. At first glance, it is merely the story of a town fighting for its life, going through various stages of reaction to an emergency. Various battles are fought at an interpersonal level. Then there are the sociological elements such as Doctor Rieux’s fight with the authorities to have the plague taken seriously and his willingness to sacrifice his own life to treat those that are sick. There is the priest who preaches that the plague is God’s punishment. Finally, there are allegorical elements as to what the plague represents. As this was written in 1947, the Nazi threat would likely be high in Camus’ mind. At the end of the novel, when the plague has retreated, many return to their lives confident that it will never return. Rieux knows better and that it will return when the circumstances are once again correct. If that is not a moral for our current times, I don’t know what is.

Camus’ style is readable and the novel is clever but I stayed detached. It felt like what it is, an allegorical tale, with characters serving that purpose rather than developing in their own right.

TBR Challenge – Powder – Kevin Sampson

Genre: Music, Masculinity

Narrative Style: Third person from various perspectives

Rating: 3/5

Published: 1999

Format: paperback

Synopsis: Keva McCluskey, lead singer with the unknown Liverpool band, The Grams, wants nothing more than the fame and success he feels are his due. When he meets Guy de Burnet, of newly formed Rehab records, he realises that his dreams may be about to come true. Will fellow band mates and manager, Wheezer, be a help or a hindrance on the way to the top. 

Reading Challenges: TBR Challenge 2019

Time on Shelf: My husband bought this at the time. He read it and really enjoyed it. I didn’t get round to it. So twenty years after he recommended it, I finally read it. No wonder he doesn’t often recommend a book for me to read.

I really wasn’t sure what to rate this book. There were some things I really enjoyed about it but also some things I really didn’t. However, it is generally quite well written and I did feel compelled to read on so I guess the good points won out.

What I really liked about this was the way it reminded me of the nineties and of the music scene then – a time when I was very enthusiastic about music and a time before The X factor and all those talent shows. There is a genuine love of music behind this novel. It also seems like I would imagine it is like when a band first takes off with all the madness of touring and recording. Sampson has long been involved in the music industry – as a journalist and a manager – so the novel has an air of authenticity.

However, this is also a very laddish book. And in that it is also very much of its time. At times it felt like an extended edition of Nuts. It is full of lewd sexual encounters. In fact, most of the women in this novel are little more than holes to be filled by the band. I’m not a prude and some of these encounters were amusing especially as guitarist, James Love gets more and more twisted in his needs. It just would have been nice for some of these women to be given a personality not just body parts.

There are some similarities between this novel and Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting. It is obviously aiming for a similar grittiness and honesty. And it is written in a similar style with little in the way of over-arching plot – more a series of vignettes about the band and the various hangers on. However, it lacks the emotional depth of Welsh’s novel. The characters are stereotypical and do not develop. I felt little for them and didn’t really care whether the band would survive or not. James Love is similar to Welsh’s Sick Boy but there is no hint of anything underneath his womanising so it all becomes dull and tawdry.

Still, it was amusing and it did make me nostalgic so I’m not sorry to have read it. It is quite a long read at 500 pages. Maybe if it had been shorter, I wouldn’t have got so impatient towards the end.

 

 

TBR Challenge – A Room With A View – E.M. Forster

Genre: Classics, Romance

Narrative Style: third person, chronological

Rating: 3/5

Published: 1908

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Lucy is on holiday in Florence with her chaperone at the start of the novel. She is keen to experience life but is often hampered by the mores of the day and her conventional chaperone, Miss Bartlett. Her life is unbalanced when she meets the unconventional Emersons, particularly the son George. When she returns to England, her life no longer seems so straightforward. 

Reading Challenge – The 2019 TBR Challenge

Time on Shelf – about 5 years. This was inherited from my husband’s aunt. I felt I ought to read it rather than wanting to so I put it on the list to make sure that I did.

I definitely have mixed about A Room with a View. I liked it better than Where Angels fear to Tread which is the only other Forster I have read but I really didn’t like that so it’s not saying much. In a lot of ways, I feel about Forster like I feel about Austen. The writing is clever and sharp but ultimately doesn’t move me.

When I read Where Angels Fear to Tread, I thought I’d never met a writer who seemed so ill at ease with his own masculinity and that of other men. In this novel, it seemed that the unease could be extended to the whole human race. Forster observes his characters well but I felt he was removed from them. And as such, they seemed more like representations of certain ways of being rather than fully drawn characters.

The story itself is very simple. Lucy feels obliged to marry a man she does not love because he is from the right social class. She has to choose between him and the unconventional George, who works on the railways. Part of the problem is that we do not see that much of George so it is hard to understand exactly what it is that is so loveable about him.

I’m not a big fan of romance. And for all the social observation and cleverness that is all this is. It’s not a terrible book. It was pleasant to read, just not for me.

TBR Challenge – You Really Got Me: The Story of the Kinks – Nick Hasted

Genre: Music, Biography

Narrative Style: Third Person, Chronological

Rating: 4/5

Published: 2011

Format: Hardback

Synopsis: Hasted takes the story from The Kinks origins in the early sixties up to the modern day. Using interviews with original members, he traces the history of one of the sixties most interesting bands.

Reading Challenges: TBR Challenge 2019

Time on the shelf: This was bought when it first came out in 2011 as my husband is a bit of a Kinks obsessive. 

I’ve always liked The Kinks. Some of my favourite songs were written by one of the Davies brothers – Waterloo Sunset, Stop Your Sobbing, Death of a Clown to name but three. Having read two of Ray’s books – X-Ray and Americana – I thought it would be good to get a less biased view of what life with The Kinks was like.

It seems that life with The Kinks was dramatic and even life threatening. This biography is filled with incidents that if one or two of them happened to a band you might consider them unlucky. Not helped by the almost constant fighting between the Davis brothers and between them and other band members. Pete Quaife started to travel with the roadies to escape the constant fighting and ended up nearly dying in a car crash. Mick Avory threw his cymbal at Dave on stage, knocking him out and immediately went on the run. There are many other incidents that would have felled lesser bands but somehow The Kinks kept going.

There is also insight into the writing of the songs and the mindset of Ray and Dave Davies. Hasted uses a lot of quotations from various interviews so the reader gets a genuine insight into the creation of some of the most iconic songs of the sixties. However, this use of quotes from the various band members, and other involved parties, does break the narrative up and I would have liked more straight reporting of events.

However, this isn’t really an unbiased look. Hasted is obviously a huge fan and you would have to be to be able to write this book and still love all involved afterwards. Both Ray and Dave are very difficult people and their personal histories are filled with failed marriages and bad behaviour. The worst of which – such as Ray’s troubled relationship with Chrissie Hynde – were glossed over and not really investigated. Bad behaviour is reported but not really commented on.

Another thing that I found annoying was Halstad’s insistence that The Kinks were the only band that were any good or meant anything. Generally, when another band or song was mentioned, it was in a critical light. Okay, so the Kinks are very good but that doesn’t mean that everything else was rubbish.

Overall, this was an entertaining read. It certainly made me wonder how on earth they kept turning out hit after hit when they could hardly stand to be in the same room together.

TBR Challenge – The Virgin’s Lover – Philippa Gregory

Genre: Chick Lit, Historical Fiction

Narrative Style: Third Person

Rating: 1/5

Published: 2005

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Mary Tudor has died and Elizabeth’s position as the new queen of England is precarious. With threats from the French and the Catholic church, she feels there are few people she can trust. When she starts a secret relationship with the already married Robert Dudley, she makes her position even more dangerous as few approve of the match. 

Reading Challenges: TBR Challenge

Time on shelf: Five years – I inherited this when my mam died. We’d enjoyed reading and recommending Gregory’s other novels so I avoided reading this one when I couldn’t discuss it with her. 

I was expecting to enjoy this. I’ve read Gregory before and thought that her novels were intriguing and gave a convincing impression of what life at court was like. Not so with this book.

It wasn’t just the setting that was unconvincing. The characters were flat and impossible to like. Gregory seemed enamoured of Robert Dudley and often mentioned his dark good looks and the ridiculous effect he had on Elizabeth. His ambition and his handsomeness were the only features of his personality so it was hard to see exactly why the queen might love him so much. Elizabeth was frequently reduced to jelly, little more than a quivering mass, by her lust for Dudley. I understand the impulse to make Elizabeth more human but, in this novel, she lost all power and became the the Tudor idea of womanhood, unable to function without her male advisors.

The beginning of the novel plays out like an Elizabethan sex romp. It is like a cross between a Carry On film and a bad porn movie. Not that it is explicit, it’s more that the scenarios feel like something from porn. Elizabeth dresses as a servant so that Dudley can take her in the stables. Out hunting, Dudley drags her from her horse to do it in the leaves. It was all quivering loins and heaving bosoms. It was so unsubtle that it was laughable and it really detracted from the political elements of the story.

It was also hard to have sympathy with Amy, Dudley’s wife. She is portrayed as pathetically in love with Dudley who is somehow so charismatic as to have both these women absolutely besotted with him. She spends most of the novel in a puddle of tears, refusing to grant him a divorce, mooning around like a lovesick schoolgirl. Again, she was little more than a plot device.

Finally, Gregory is taken with the idea the Amy was murdered by Cecil – with the Queen’s approval because she is so incapable of resisting Dudley’s charms and it is the only way to not marry him – as part of a plot to bring Dudley down. Although there were many rumours at the time about Dudley’s involvement, most historians do not think this was the case. And Gregory’s tale does nothing to convince the reader that this might be a possible version of events.

 

TBR Challenge – The Martian Chronicles – Ray Bradbury

Genre: Science Fiction

Narrative Style: A series of interlinked short stories that show the human journey from arriving on Mars through settling there to leaving again. 

Rating: 4/5

Published: 1950

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Through a series of interlinked stories, Bradbury explores the human relationship with Mars. Beginning with invasions – and Martian attempts to thwart them – Bradbury’s stories look at colonialism, human nature, loneliness and war.

Reading Challenges: TBR Challenge hosted by Roof Beam Reader.

Time on shelf: This has been on my kindle for about two years. The last Bradbury short story collection I read was a bit hit and miss so I avoided this one for a bit.

This was, for the most part, very enjoyable. I’m not a massive fan of short story collections as I usually find some don’t quite hit the mark but the narrative links running through the stories helped the whole thing to hang together.

It is always a bit weird reading science fiction from a long time ago. (So long ago, in fact, that the stories are set in the early 2000s. It is weird to think that Bradbury’s distant future has already faded into the past.) Even when Bradbury was imagining amazing future technology, he was hampered by the knowledge of his age and things sometimes felt a little quaint.

However, the main point of Bradbury’s fiction is not to write a perfect version of future technology but to look at the way human nature will be shaped by technological developments.  So he looks at the way that humans would behave when they arrive on Mars – how they immediately turn it into another version of earth, trying to remove all Martian traces and not caring how much they ruin the planet (And the Moon Still Be as Bright). He looks at relationships between Martians and humans – although most of the Martians have been killed off by chicken pox. In the story The Fire Balloons, priests are sent on a missionary mission to Mars and Bradbury discusses the idea of what sin might mean on a foreign planet.

Some of my favourite stories were early in the collection and revolved around failed expeditions. In The Earth Men, the newly arrived spacemen are taken for mad men and placed in an insane asylum. Due to the Martians telepathy they can see others’ hallucinations and so all assume that the Earth men are merely mad. Telepathy also figures in The Third Expedition. When the crew arrives, everything resembles their hometowns along with long dead relatives and they come to believe that Mars is really heaven. However, nothing is what it seems as the Martians have used telepathy to lure them into a false sense of security.

The final two stories are both poignant. There Will Come Soft Rains shows the way an automated house will continue running even after nuclear war has destroyed civilisation. Finally, a family escapes the war on Earth back up to Mars. Hoping to repopulate the planet now that Earth is ruined, a number of people have hidden rockets until they could use them to escape. They burn all documents they have brought with them and relate to their identity on Earth including a map of Earth. In the end, having promised his sons the possibility of seeing Martians, he shows them their reflections in a river.

As with the best science fiction, the themes are still relevant to our modern society especially as the race to get to Mars is underway. The technology may seem a little hokey but the ideas are still important.