An Ice-Cream War

There aren’t many advantages to being in lockdown, but one of them is that I have been able to participate in my sister’s German book club.  The wonders of technology. And it looks like I am going to become a regular member, at least until the restrictions are lifted in Germany and the group can meet in person again (which, with the way things are going, will be sooner rather than later). I’m very grateful for their invitation to join the group, I’ve really missed not being in a book club and they are a great bunch to meet with. How long it will go on for, I don’t know.  Fingers crossed a while.

As blog readers will know, I’ve been banging on about William Boyd’s novel Any Human Heart ever since I read it.  It’s one of my favourite books of the last 5 years, and was one of my top 10 books read in 2016.  So I was excited to read another of his novels for book club, An Ice Cream War.  There was a bit of trepidation too, for my love of Any Human Heart meant I had very high expectations, and had a slight air of pessimism that I was inevitably to be disappointed.

But happily, whilst the book doesn’t hit the dizzy heights of the aforementioned, it’s a really enjoyable read. Boyd has written a number of war novels throughout his career, this one being his first, about an aspect of WW1 I knew little about, the campaign in East Africa.  The story tells the intertwining lives of five characters from across the spectrum and does so with great aplomb. I did feel there was a slight deus ex machina to get the character of Felix to Africa after his brother goes missing, but otherwise the events felt true to life, underpinned with some quite savage satire, and genuinely shocking in places.

You’d expect a war novel to contain lots of death, and this one is no exception, but even knowing this, a couple of the main character’s deaths in the book still hit hard. Felix’s brother Gabriel survived a horrific bayonet injury only to be beheaded after making his escape from a POW jail. And this death only really came about because of a miscommunication between soldiers and officer. It did highlight how survival in war was in many ways based purely on luck, and the fact that Gabriel was on the verge of escape, so close to the end of the war, was a desperate end.

His wife Charis also falls to a terrible fate. The early part of the novel charts their courting, marriage, first fumbling sexual forays, then Gabriel departs for the front line. Charis and Felix embark on a torrid affair, which results in her suicide in the duck pond of the country estate.  There is a sickening foreboding hanging over their relationship, but Boyd skilfully plants the seed that she will leave the estate for good and set up a new life elsewhere, and when her body is discovered by Felix, it provides a sharp shock. The trauma of war had a huge impact on those left behind as well, perhaps forgotten, and the sorrow and despair so very real.

The main comedy of the book comes from the supporting cast. As is its wont when describing war, the British officers come across as officious, bumbling, stiff-upper lip types, particularly the inept Wheech-Browning. You get a sense of the chaos and confusion of the war effort, the poor communication, the over-the-top sense of duty, the snobby patriotism, shot through with satire rather than flat-out derision. There is an argument that such characters come across as cartoonish and one-dimensional. I’d have to agree, but I don’t think the narrative suffers from that.  It’s all they need to be, and it provides some relief from the violence, tension and misery of the war scenes and their emotional effect.

It was nice to read one of Boyd’s early novels, and you can see his narrative strengths shin through.  He writes about relationships brilliantly.  Especially the infatuation and desire of the early days and the honeymoon period.  There’s always a sadness, a longing beneath the surface, and an almost helplessness when faced by the object of said desire. I think what he captures so well is the fleeting nature of it, but how, through the power of the emotions felt, it can keep you awake years later with the force of the memory.

So another solid effort to add to Boyd’s canon. Enjoyed pretty much across the board, and leaves me wanting to hunt down more of his work.

2016: The Reading Year

When I joined Goodreads earlier on this year, I decided to set myself a reading challenge.   For no reason other than it’s a nice round number I went for 100 books for the year.  And though I didn’t quite get there, I’m still pretty pleased with 94.  I did it more to gain a yardstick for how much I do actually read, but undertaking the challenge did have an effect on my reading habits.  100 books equates to nearly two a week, so unless you’re both voracious and very quick, anything of length is out of the equation.  So I found it a bit limiting, and the reason I probably did fail is because I got caught up in a couple of 700+ page books which slowed me down considerably.

I did enjoy doing it, as it is nice to have something to focus on, it sharpens the mind.  But I don’t think I will be attempting to read as many books in 2017.  I already have a couple of hefty tomes in the queue for January and it will be pleasant to be able to immerse myself in them without worrying about falling behind.

So, of those 94 read, here are my ten favourites of the year, in no particular order:

Marlon James – A Brief History of Seven Killings.  A bit of a cheat this one as I started it in December 2015, but what a book for my first completed novel of 2016.  A sprawling epic of Jamaican society set against the attempted assassination of Bob Marley.   Multiple characters drawn expertly by James, stunning dialogue and patois, and some intense scenes of violence that take your breath away. A masterpiece.

Cormac McCarthy – All The Pretty Horses.  I had the pleasure of reading the entire Border Trilogy this year and for me the opening novel of the three is the best.  McCarthy’s descriptions of landscape in the American West are breathtaking and break your heart at the same time.  The love story at this book’s core is beautifully written and tinged with a sadness that left a lump in my throat.  Take a couple of weeks and read all three, you won’t regret it.

Willy Vlautin – The Free.  I’ve been telling anyone who’ll listen about this bloke since I read his first novel The Motel Life many moons ago.  Why? His books talk of the American underclass with a kindness and compassion that is incredibly uplifting.  Which is something we can all use at the best of times.  His band Richmond Fontaine are great, too.

Michel Houllebecq – Submission.  This novel about an Islamic takeover of the French political system is everything you want this type of fiction to be – controversial, amazingly prescient, thought-provoking and angry.  Best of all for me is amongst all this is some of the darkest, funniest prose I’ve read in many a year.  A stunner.

Raymond Carver – Elephant and other stories.  He’s not the best short story writer there’s ever been for a laugh, you know.

Donald Ray Pollock – The Devil All The Time.  Discovering a new writer when they are as good as this is always a joy.  This dark, ultra-violent slice of American Gothic hit me like a sledgehammer when I read it, such is it’s visceral force.  Pollock worked in a paper mill for over 30 years before being published which gives me hope, too!

James Crumley – The Last Good Kiss.  Resdiscovering Crumley has been a highlight of the year. I read some of his books years ago and filled in a couple of gaps in 2016.  This, the first of the C.W Sughrue novels, is a bona-fide classic which contains possibly the finest opening paragraph in crime fiction history.  Read it with alcohol.

Ross Macdonald – The Galton Case.  I thought long and hard before including this but it deserves a spot.  Macdonald’s books are briliantly plotted and run so perfectly you can’t see the joins.  Couple this with stark, lovely description and brilliant dialogue and you have some of the finest detective fiction ever written.

Ryan Gattis – All Involved.  The Los Angeles riots of 1992 provide the backdrop for this multi-dimensional novel.  The narrative voice is exceptional, and the sixteen characters never become repetitive or blur into each other.  A great, great book.

William Boyd – Any Human Heart.  The novel as journal can provide an intimacy that can hook the reader immediately.  This does that and more, and the life of Logan Mountstuart draws you in and chops away at your heart bit by bit.  I think about this book a lot –  a really tremendous read which I would recommend to anybody.

It was also good to tick off a couple of classics in Anna Karenina and The Three Musketeers, and I also delved into Lawrence Block’s back catalogue and had an enjoyable few weeks with his unique style of noir.  Hhhh by Laurent Binet was a highlight that just missed out, and Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was also close.  All in all reading has been the same comfort this year as it always has, and I continue to be very grateful for the unadulterated joy it gives me.



The Last Hurrah

Whilst writing this blog I have been reluctant to disclose too much about my personal life, as this has been my outlet to discuss books, the art of writing and to get some of my work into the public domain. Of course what is going on behind the scenes has an effect on all of these things but I would rather use this space as an escape from the humdrum of everyday life – reading and writing is my form of escapism and I don’t want to muddy the waters.

But in this case it is almost inevitable, as since my last post I have left Australia and moved back to the UK. This upheaval has had an influence on every aspect of my life. My reading has suffered, I haven’t written anything of note in a while, and until I get back on my feet, I’m now out of a book club, which is an enormous shame, as I enjoyed the experience immensely. We had a close-knit, lovely group of people with an eclectic range of tastes which garnered some interesting conversation and at times robust debate. I did attend one last meeting a few days before my departure and despite the sorrow of the occasion for me it was a chance to talk about one of my books of the year so far.

The novel in the form of a diary is something familar to most. Adrian Mole is probably the most famous example of the form for me, I and many others I know devoured the first in the series on its release and even now I can quote passages of it almost verbatim. The idea that the reader is encroaching on the most private thoughts of the narrator can be thrilling and the format lends itself to immediacy and a fast pace.  And the novel we chose, William Boyd’s Any Human Heart, is as fine an example of the genre that I can remember.

The narrator, Logan Mountstuart, is, possibly through his sheer open honesty, a character who reveals a fair amount of bad behaviour during his ife – promiscuity, adultery, alcohol abuse, and so on. He makes some exasperating decisions. often at great detriment to himself, which alienate the people around him. From his actions, this is a man hard to put up with. And yet, despite his numerous failings, it is hard not to fall for his charm. His wit, humour, and refusal to conform form an irresistable cocktail and slowly but surely you get swept up in his world. There are passages of great poignancy when he talks of the death of his wife and child, and some of his reflections on life in old age are bang on the money and really resonate.

The narrative is imbued with chance meetings with celebrities of the twentieth century, including Hemingway, Woolf and Picasso. This was a sticking point for some of the group, who felt this was a bit of a gimmick in order to name-drop, but I disagree. I found it wove into the story easily and wasn’t the least bit contrived. It added some context and culture and placed Logan in the circles of the day.

The overriding feeling I had on completing this novel was a sense of loss that my relationship with Logan Mountstuart was now over. Since I finished it I have thought of it often, and to start with I almost grieved for him. For a novel to conjure up such strong feelings make it an unqualified success in my book. I would urge anyone to read this – genuinely one of the best I’ve encountered in a long while.

In contrast, Jessica Anderson’s Tirra Lirra by the River had no lasting effect on me at all. I can’t even begin to conjure up any feelings about it, positive or negative. A book I read and took nothing from. I appreciate I was in the minority on this as most of the group spent as remarkable amount of time singing its praises, going into the nuances of the main character Nora as she told the tale of her loveless marriage and subsequent relocation to England. It was an interesting discussion but one I’m afraid passed me by a little bit. If numbers of fans has weight, it’s probably worth reading. Not one for me, though.

So my book club days are over for a little while. I will always be thankful to the group for the laughs, great debates, and for introducing me to some books I never would have read otherwise. I came to Australia looking to find like-minded friends and put some of the spark back into my reading life – I can safely say being in this book club fulfilled both. I will miss it greatly.