Book 6: Inishowen By Joseph O’Connor

November 26, 2008 at 8:49 pm (Review) (, , , )

This is a story about an alcoholic detective (Martin Aiken) and an American woman (Ellen Donnelly) who is searching for her mother in Ireland, she was one of the children of an unwed mother sent to America for adoption. Both parties have had recent traumatic experiences and are drowning the emotional fallout caused by them. Obviously their lives become intertwined.

I liked this novel in a general non-specific sort of a way but had a couple of specific problems with it. I found the conceit that drew the two main characters together more than a little contrived, there is a howling coincidence at its heart that I hated a bit. Also there is a little bit to much of ‘oh isn’t Dublin a small place always running in to people’. Dublin is small but the rule in Dublin is if there is someone you’d love to run in to accidentally you will not, ever. However if there is someone you’d like to avoid like herpes then you will meet them, repeatedly in the course of an hour. The book does not adhere to this. 

O’Connor also touches on the oposition between how some Irish born and some Irish Americans felt about the troubles in the North. I’d have liked him to go in to this more but he did what Irish born often do when this comes up with each other and with Americans, which is swiftly drop it and change the subject. I’d have liked this conversation to go on a bit longer, especially since one of the characters clearly has strongly held views on this. I don’t think he quite managed to say what he was trying to. 

Martin Aiken is well created he feels real and complex. A study in someone coming undone that manages not to be maudlin or pitying. Ellen is also well rounded, her motivation understandable my only proviso is that in the circumstances she finds herself I think that some readers will find the idea that she would leave her children unlikely or incomprehensible. Some of the supporting players are well drawn, the best of which is Lee, Ellen’s son. O’Connor creates a very convincing teenage boy. Less convincing is her husband, his internal life never seems consistent to me he doesn’t feel fully formed. 

At times O’Connor writes dialogue in the Dublin accent. Normally I find writing in accent brain scrapeingly annoying but it’s not that bad in this because O’Connor obviously really knows and understands the accent and so it flows well (not as much as when Roddy Doyle does it but well none the less).

Inishowen is worth a read and rips along at a fair pace, with some interesting characters. The twist you will likely see coming a mile off but in the context it doesn’t matter much as it’s less about the plot and more about characters. 

As a side note Inishowen is a small place in Donegal that is incredibly beautiful and feels like the very end of the world. If you get a chance go there.


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Book 5: The Tin Roof Blowdown by James Lee Burke

November 19, 2008 at 9:45 pm (Review) (, , , )

James Lee Burke has set all his Robicheaux novels in the environs of New Orleans and Louisiana. There are about 10 books featuring this detective this one is set in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. If you are aware of the previous books then you will be aware of the affection that Lee Burke has for New Orleans and its people. While he never flinched from the less savoury aspects of the city, it was clear that this was a city he loved. It is therefore understandable that his rage at the hand fate dealt the city and then  the grotesque neglect of the government in the face of that fate, is palpable and at times jumps off the page so vividly that for a moment you’re that furious too. The vivid descriptions of a city destroyed by nature and neglect are powerful and form the true crux of this book.

The story centres primarily round the search for looters and the blood diamonds they stole from a local kingpin sort. In the process of escaping the neighbourhood they’re looting 2 of the looters are shot. The other two leg it to varying degrees. It is in the process of investigating the shooting that Robicheaux becomes ensnared in the plot. Which is to do no justice to the complexity of the story and the way the characters interlink. for the most part they are all linked well and elegantly my only reservations with the links  is the connection between the looter and one suspects in the shooting (a neighbour of the kingpin, Otis Baylor). It seemed a bit trite and contrived to me but otherwise they worked.

Far more interesting than the plot and how it is hung together, is how the story works as a morality tale. It looks at how when evil comes in to our lives it is how we find a way to live with that evil that is important. In the case of Detective Robicheaux when a PI who also has an interest in the diamonds threatens his daughter, he creates a ripple that affects the fibre of the family. In the case of New Orleans horror comes in the form of hurricane but how people both in and outside of New Orleans react to that is where the real tragedy lies. 

As ever Lee Burke crafts an interesting story with an immensely appealing if flawed central character. However it is the story of a city that raises this above his usual level. The story of New Orleans is devastating and Lee Burke does not spare us discomfort. He is unflinching and unrelenting and because of that elevates this story to something bigger and more important than merely a novel. It’s a historical document.

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Book 4: Neil Gaiman: American Gods

November 18, 2008 at 9:43 pm (Review) (, , , )

Lordy, this has been a pain in the arse. I loved this book and as a result it is nearly impossible for me to say anything constructive about it. It seems that intelligently told stories of gods and people reduce me to moron. I love it, I love it. Seriously I love it. I apologise now for the slightly disjointed nature of this review. I’m just going to talk about some of the things I loved. 

First off this is a smart book. Do not let anyone tell you that fantasy or the oft associated science fiction are stupid. They’re not. Or at least not any more frequently than crime fiction and by my estimation significantly less than romantic fiction. This is particularly intelligent because it manages to mix many mythologies and theologies without ever being too heavy on the ‘Odin was a Norse god people believed x,y,x about him’ exposition. If you are interested in and know a bit about different mythologies then there are lots of lovely touches and jokes for you to enjoy, if you are not it will not matter a jot, it will still be an entertaining read.

Gaiman also manages to make many of the gods in to remarkably fully formed characters. Sure they’re gods but they have fully formed personalities, their behaviour in the context of the story always makes sense and Gaiman never resorts to having them behave a particular way to advance plot, and so he doesn’t have explain it away with ‘they’re a god so the can do that’. Each god possesses entirely their own personalities, gifts and curses. 

In the mythology of the novel gods arise from belief. I love the idea that gods and their power arise from our belief in them because it rings so true for me. You might not believe in Jesus or Mohammad but you can’t possibly deny their power and influence in the world, which stems from people’s belief in them. What compounds the excellence of the idea is the execution. Gaiman makes it work and work well within the context of this story. 

The story centres round Shadow a recently released ex-con whose wife was killed in a car accident. Who finds himself drawn in to a war between the ancient gods and the god’s of modernity. For some of the book he seems to float around the landscape following instructions and rolling with the increasingly odd punches. He has the disconnect that his common to people who have recently suffered trauma or bereavement. It is testament to Gaiman’s skill as a writer that this works without him ever hammering you over the head with this is a person traumatised and without it ever feeling like he’s merely a cypher and not a fully formed character. His grief and distress becomes apparent through how he behaves and interacts with the world. It’s also there in how he begins to reconnect with the world. It is one of the better illustrations of a  bereaved individual never resorting to histrionics or showy emotion, in any work of fiction I have read.  

I suppose the bottom line for me and why I loved this so, was the ideas. Ideas about divinity, humanity and how to be in the world. It’s a fantastical novel set in our world and ‘backstage’ in the world of the gods but it manages to ring true. It’s the truth of it that gets me. It tends to be what gets me about any work of fiction or art. It doesn’t have to be real but it has to be true and this is true. Read it.

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Gaiman Review

November 14, 2008 at 12:01 am (General) (, , , )

A review of Neil Gaiman’s American God’s will be up before the weekend is out. Due to an unexpected trip out of town it took longer than expected to read and is definitely taking longer than expected to review. I will eventually figure out what I want to say about it beyond, it’s freaking awesome read it now! And then I will post the review.

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Book 3: Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

November 6, 2008 at 7:57 pm (Review) (, , , )

Disconcertingly I discovered a few pages in that I had seen the film of this on late night TV. It was one of those things that you catch the start of and watch the whole way through because it seems infinitely preferable to bed at the moment. (Why is it that bed seems a chore at night and a heaven of endless delight in the morning?). Anyway it wasn’t very good, nor was it very bad and I don’t think its half remembered scenes have affected my perception of the book too much. 

The book is beautifully written, full of carefully measured sentences and keen observation. It has moments of humour my favourite being ‘She was an old woman, but she managed to look like a young woman with a ravaging disease.’. All of which makes it sound like l liked it however, while there is no doubt that Robinson is seeking to write on the big themes, family, death and our place in the universe I am unconvinced of her success. I am able to see why the platitudes on the cover were written about this book there is no doubt of her skill as a creator of sentences but I struggled to find the heart or even any warmth at the centre of this book. For all the elegance and grace of the prose presented here I could not shake the feeling that it was not really telling me anything of significance either about the characters or myself.

Next up: Neil Gaiman, which I expect to view more favourably.

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Book 2: The Princess Bride by William Goldman

November 5, 2008 at 10:37 pm (Review) (, , , )

I started this before the review of the film went up on pajiba. So I feel somewhat redundant reviewing the book here since spisaster expressed far better than I could, the appeal of this story. So go read that and I will add few thoughts below. 

Beyond the film (which is one of the best adaptations ever) the book has some wonderful musings on how you get started on the path to being a reader or a writer and how a story can grip you like nothing else when you are a kid. It makes me wistful, in that the level of absorbtion in the story that you can acheive as a kid becomes harder and harder to find as an adult. Sometimes I wonder if all the reading that I do is in search of that perfect escape again. Sometimes I think it is.

It’s a great story read it, watch it, love it.

Also realise that it is not real and do not ever ask a bookseller for the unabridged Morgenstern version.

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My Bloody Valentine

November 3, 2008 at 4:13 pm (Music) (, , )

Just to show I’m listening too. I saw these guys at Electric Picnic and I’m still blown away. They were the only band to make me laugh by being that good.

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Book 1: A Certain Justice By P.D. James

November 2, 2008 at 3:34 pm (Review) (, , )

P.D. James is along with Ruth Rendell a Grand Dame of English mystery writing. Her reputation as a master of suspense and a writer of considerable skill is on the basis of this well deserved. I have read two other James’ an earlier Daglish novel and Children of Men which I strongly recommend to all. A Certain Justice centres around the murder of QC Venetia Aldridge. She is a cold, distant and ruthlessly ambitious woman. She has few, if any friends and a troubled relationship with her daughter. All of which makes her sound like a cliché but fortunately the quality of James’ writing elevates her from this. The key to this novel is the elegance of James’ writing weaving plot and character elegantly and never resorting to cliché.

The main character is nominally at least Detective Adam Daglish. He has appeared in a number of her books and is a respected poet as well as Detective. He is a man of some refinement and diplomacy who head is own special unit of Scotland Yard who specifically work on cases that are potentially controversial or require particular delicacy. It says a considerable amount about James’ as a writer that she does not introduce them to us until more than a third of the way through the book.  She is more interested in establishing the other characters, our victim and the suspects, thus allowing us to care about the outcome of Daglish’s work then perhaps we would otherwise. It takes a great deal of confidence to wait that long in a classical detective novel to introduce the detective in question. You have a sense that the characters are real people fully formed. For even the most minor of witnesses we are given some trait or quirk that makes them human. There are no convenient cyphers here, people do not act in service to the plot each acts in accordance to their character, how you would expect but without being predictable.  They are after all people who have found themselves connected to a murder and react to this in interesting and disparate ways.

The sense of place that James creates is potent. She so beautifully evokes London that I can smell and hear the streets that she is writing about. It is particularly the areas round the river and the courts of law.  It is hard to say if someone who had not been there would feel this quite so definitively but I am sure that it would be a satisfying read either way. Also especially enjoyable are the adroit observations that James slides in that that sum up some small but telling aspect of a character or that reflects a wider truth about the English character and the society it perpetuates. The sense of era is far looser there is no real way of telling which of the post war years this is set in but this is of no detriment to the book.

I will be reading more of James as part of this read which is probably as good a indication of her quality as anything. She writes engaging stories with characters that follow you after you’ve put down the book and started another.

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