Alphabet Soup Challenge – Author Edition – G – Lanark by Alasdair Gray

Genre: Scottish Fiction, Allegory, Metafiction

Narrative Style: Non chronological, Third Person

Published: 1981

Rating: 3/5

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Lanark can’t remember who he is or anything about his past. His most recent memory is a train journey which has brought him to Unthank, a place where the sun barely rises. He longs for the sunshine. He meets a group of people but is unable to connect with them. He longs for love but is unable to find it. Is there any way he can escape from Unthank?

Reading Challenges: 2020 Alphabet Soup – Author Challenge

I thought I’d enjoy this more than I did. In fact, for quite a bit, I thought this would be a five star read. I really enjoyed the first three books but then it felt as though it was never going to end. Maybe that was Gray’s problem – he couldn’t figure out how to finish things off.

The novel starts with Book Three and Lanark’s arrival in Unthank on a train. Anything before that is a mystery to him. Unthank is a land of darkness – the hours of sunshine are getting less and less. There is an entertaining episode where Lanark goes to register so he can get money which is Kafkaesque in its pillorying of bureaucracy. There are swipes at the authorial process when Lanark is encouraged to write by Sludden, one of a group of people who lounge around in a cafe all day, and then, after a painstaking description of the writing process, is told that what he has written is no good.

It is clear that Unthank is some sort of punishment – hell, maybe – for an incident in Lanark’s life before. This is supported by the fact that Lanark keeps asking women if he killed them. This becomes even more apparent when Lanark starts to develop dragonhide. (Other characters have equally weird ailments such as eyes or mouths all over their bodies.) He then finds himself in the Institute where once cured, he is made to become a doctor and cure others of the same ailment. When he manages to save a woman, he is given the chance to speak to an oracle and find out about his life before.

Now we are given Books One and Two – the life of Lanark before Unthank when he was Duncan Thaw. The style changes here. We are now given a – mostly – realistic portrait of a Scottish childhood and young adulthood. Thaw has always wanted to draw but finds he is thwarted in many ways. His parents want him to get a more sensible job. The focus is on money and living the same life that everybody else does which Thaw does not want. Even when he eventually gets to art college, he finds it provincial and depressing, pushing him towards a teaching career he does not want.

Thaw is prone to fits of depression, illness and hallucination. During one of these times, he may have killed a woman. As a result, he kills himself and this is how he has ended up in Unthank. Now, he is given the opportunity to leave the Institute and find a better future for himself and the woman he saved. But before any of that, he must return to Unthank.

This is where it started to go wrong for me. The allegory became increasingly complicated as did the satirising of bureaucracy. There were unending obstacles for Lanark. It ceased to be funny and clever, becoming annoying and increasingly post-modern. There is a section where Lanark meets the author of the novel and they argue over what the end of the novel should be. Included in this section are a series of footnotes giving all the other writers that have influenced the story, seemingly trying to head off any potential critics who pointed out allusions. All very clever, but not much fun to read.

By the end of this novel, I didn’t mind how it ended, just that it did. I was quite sympathetic towards Lanark in the beginning; by the end I was just hoping for his death and for it to be over.

Full House Reading Challenge – The Falls – Ian Rankin

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Genre: Detective

Narrative Style: Third person from a variety of points of view

Rating: 4/5

Published: 2001unknown-1

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: A student disappears and the obvious target is her boyfriend. But isn’t that a bit too obvious? Rebus thinks so. The mystery deepens when it appears that she was playing an online game which lead her to the place where she died. When a strange doll in a coffin shows up near the home of the missing girl, Rebus becomes obsessed with finding other coffins that have appeared in the past. Is this case linked to other disappearances some 20 years ago? 

Reading Challenges: The Full House Reading Challenge: Genre Page Turner

This was a bit of a catch up read. The first Rebus book I read was right in the middle of the series and at first I just read whichever books I could get my hands on. Although I have read the first six in order, I have also read the last three. So rather than read the whole lot in order again, I am now in the process of plugging gaps. Of which this is one. I rationed myself a bit – I read the previous book – Set in Darkness  – before Christmas and deliberately did not let myself read this straightaway. As a result I was excited about reading it.

It did not disappoint. John Rebus is an interesting character who never tires in his efforts of self-sabotage. He becomes so obsessed with an old case where strange coffins containing dolls appeared shortly after the disappearance of a young woman that he misses more obvious clues to who the murderer was in his current case.

Siobhan was also playing lone wolf this time, showing that it may be true that she spends to much time with Rebus. It is interesting that there seem to be few options for her – she can either play the male game like Gill Templar and gain promotion or she can be an outsider like Rebus. As with Rebus, her keeping her information to herself could have gone badly wrong. However, it is not like things work out all that much better for characters who do toe the line such as Grant Hood.

The history of Edinburgh is one again used to good effect. The discussion of Burke and Hare and the strange Arthor’s Seat dolls gave the novel a macabre aspect which was very enjoyable. It is this element, as well as Rankin’s clear love for the geoegraphy of Scotland, that raises this series above the usual.

In the end, there were some cliches. The last minute rescue of Rebus’ girlfriend, the evil pathologist and the revelation of the murderer were all overused tropes. Having said that, this book was first published in 2001 and it is quite feasible that they weren’t so tired then. There is a proliferation of detective stories these days, both in print and on TV so it is bound to feel as if some stories have been told before. And even if they were already cliches at the time, I am willing to let Rankin off the hook because the writing was exceptional.

Books Read in 2015 58. Rob Roy by Sir Walter Scott

Genre: Adventure, Classics

Narrative Style: First personUnknown

Rating: 3/5

Published: 1817

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Francis Osbaldistone doesn’t want to continue in his father’s business, forcing his father to appoint his cousin Rashleigh. This is the beginning of an adventure that will involve Francis in the Jacobite Rebellion and the ways of highwayman Rob Roy. He also meets the love of his life, Diana Vernon who is involved in events more than he can imagine. 

Reading Challenges: TBR Challenge. Time on Shelf – 20 years.

The synopsis I’ve just written makes this book sound more exciting then it actually is. The book is 500 pages long – the story could easily have been told in a lot less. It takes a long time to get properly started and even once there is action, Scott insists on documenting just about every second of our hero’s life. Every meal and conversation. This makes it very hard going, particularly Frnacis’ conversations with his servant which are written in a dialect that bordered on incomprehensible at times.

Francis is not a very exciting character. Quite why he didn’t wanted to become a clerk when he was so well suited to it is beyond me. He is not nearly as interesting as Rob Roy. Given that the book is named for him, he is in remarkably little of it. This is a shame as he seemed much more interesting than Francis.

When there is action. it is exciting and well written and the plot is actually quite interesting. It became a slog because of all the extra information and scenes that weren’t strictly necessary. Like Dickens, Scott tends towards long and complicated sentences with multiple clauses which sometimes left me wondering exactly what I’d just read. This also made it less enjoyable.

Towards the end, when the story was quite action packed, I started to enjoy it more. And any part of the book where Roy was mentioned was also exciting. It was a shame that those parts weren’t more frequent. I’m not sure I would read anymore of Scott’s novels based on this one.

Books Read in 2014 57. The Flood by Ian Rankin

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Genre: Literary Fiction, Mystery

Narrative Style: Third Person, Chronologicaldownload (17)

Rating: 2/5

Published:1986

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: As a result of an accident as a child, Mary Miller has always had pure white hair. It has earned her the reputation of being a witch and she is something of an outcast in the Scottish town where she lives. Years later, she and her son Sandy are still on the outskirts of the town and looked on with a mixture of fear and pity by the other town folk.

Challenges: TBR Challenge

Time on Shelf: A good couple of years. I picked it up because I was curious. Rebus is one of my favourite literary characters. I wanted to see if Rankin could do anything else. And then I got a little nervous about whether I would like it or not. 

I was right to be nervous. This did not appeal to me at all. I feel a bit guilty saying this as if I was insulting a close friend. I really like Rankin’s Rebus books and I really wanted to like this but it just didn’t happen.

It wasn’t that it was badly written. If anything it was over-written, trying a bit hard to be literary. It felt as if Rankin was yet to find his voice and sometimes the prose was a bit tortured. Some of the descriptions of the area were reminiscent of the wonderful descriptions of Edinburgh in the Rebus books and some of the characters were ambiguous as to whether they were good or bad, a theme that often crops up in the Rebus books but this wasn’t enough to bring the story to life.

The plot is stretched too thin, I think. The story is interesting enough and there are hints of what is to come but is not enough to keep the reader’s interest. It is a slight story, really, concerning the possible father of Sandy and Sandy’s liaison with a gypsy girl living in the old manor house.

The ending was also disappointing. Although loose ends were wrapped up, it brought no satisfaction. I’m glad that this wasn’t the first Rankin I read as I am certain I would never have read another.

 

 

 

Books read in 2014 – 40. If You Liked School, You’ll Love Work by Irvine Welsh

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Genre: short stories, Scottish fiction

Narrative Style: varies – five stories in collection

Rating: 3/5

Published: 2007

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Rattlesnakes – three friends drive out into the desert to take drugs and end up stranded with unexpected results. If you liked school, you’ll love work – an expat struggles to juggle all of the women in his life. The DOGS of Lincoln Park – a trendy young woman who loves her dog more than her friends is disturbed by the arrival of a Korean chef in her apartment block. Miss Arizona – a struggling screenwriter meets his match in lonely Miss Arizona. Kingdom of Fife – Jason King and Jenni Cahill struggle with the boredom of living in a small Scottish town.

Book Challenges: Eclectic Reader Challenge – Anthology genre

This collection was a mixed bag. I’m not a massive fan of short stories but Welsh’s previous collections (The Acid House and Ecstasy) were both excellent so I thought I’d give it a go for the anthology genre in this year’s Eclectic Reader Challenge. I’m not sure why they didn’t quite grab me this was fairly typical Welsh fare. All the usual ingredients. But then maybe that was the problem.

Rattlesnakes started well. You know you’re in a Welsh story when someone gets bitten on the penis by a rattlesnake and the only way to avoid death is for his best mate to suck the poison out. However, this story was spoiled by the borderline racist depiction of a psychotic Mexican. When he finds the pair in their tent, the story becomes pointlessly seedy and the main aim seems to be to make the reader as uncomfortable as possible. So far, so Welsh, you may say but there was nothing underneath the shock, no subtext or cleverness, just smut.

If you liked school, you’ll love work seemed like a case of masculine wishful thinking. The narrator takes great pains to say that he isn’t particularly attractive or slim, yet woman love him and despite some close calls, he never does get caught out. Nothing about this character or any of the women rang true. A series of stereotypes in a series of false set pieces.

The DOGS of Lincoln Park. This is where the collection started to pick up. Welsh carefully plays with racial stereotypes as he forces the reader to make certain assumptions about his Korean chef’s eating habits. You are then left with uncomfortable feeling that you believed the racist hype and assumed that the dog had become dinner.

Miss Arizona. This was a little bit Tales of the Unexpected but very enjoyable. The narrator is clearly trapped somewhere when he starts to tell his tale of making a documentary about his favourite director and interviewing his ex-wife who is heavily into taxidermy. It isn’t too hard to work out what has happened but is a good read nonetheless.

Kingdom of Fife. This is the only story set in Scotland and as such rings the most true. Welsh really does have an ear for his native tongue and captures Jason’s voice well. However, his depiction of Jenni Cahill was less successful and I wasn’t really convinced by her or her sudden change of heart about Jason either.