Tuesday, 22 September 2020

Andy Hamilton - Longhand


Rating: 5/5

Review: Excellent stuff

I thought Longhand was excellent. Andy Hamilton has been writing top-class comedy on radio and TV for a very long time; this is well up to standard.

The book is in the form of a (long) letter from a man to his partner of 20 years explaining why he must suddenly leave. It is difficult to give an outline of the plot without significant spoilers, so I won’t. However, it’s readable, very engrossing, has plenty of very amusing bits which are laugh-out-loud funny in places and has Hamilton’s familiar underpinning of lightly-worn learning and wisdom. Here he takes some of the Greek myths and subjects them to the scrutiny of a modern consciousness, finding a great deal of comedy in their sillinesses and contradictions, but also, as he does so brilliantly in Old Harry’s Game, finding the genuine, sometimes profound human revelations in them.

It’s excellently done and I was completely hooked. The story moves at a good pace and Hamilton’s characters and settings are wholly believable. I loved the little insights that crop up regularly, like this about the big moments in our lives “Weird, isn’t it, how often the climaxes end up feeling anti-climactic. The big scenes never seem quite real.”

The format of actual handwriting works very well, I think. Hamilton always writes his scripts in longhand and has a lovely, readable italic hand. (There is also another clever reason for the title which is lightly revealed early on.) I found the whole book a real pleasure; it’s an excellent piece of work from one of our very best comic writers and I can recommend it very warmly.

Monday, 14 September 2020

Paul Morley - A Sound Mind

Rating: 2/5
Very hard going 

I’m afraid I struggled with A Sound Mind. Paul Morley says some interesting things and makes some valid points, but oh dear – he does go on. And on. And on.

The subtitle of the book gives a clear idea of the content. It’s the story of how Morley began to develop an interest in and then a love for classical music, having been a rock critic for decades. There are some interesting observations, especially as I (like many others, I suspect) have made a similar move toward classical music as I have aged. He is very acute, too, on things like the universal, instant accessibility of huge amounts of music and how it means that we probably value it less than when an album was a significant investment of pocket money. But…

All of this is almost submerged in a deluge of self-referential verbiage. Quite early on, Morley actually talks about rock critics’ “compulsion to use too many words,” but apparently without any self-awareness, because it certainly applies here. He makes the error of assuming that all his readers are as fascinated as he is by every nuance of the development of his emotional and intellectual response to classical music. I’m afraid that this reader wasn’t and this, along with some clumsy and almost incomprehensible semi-metaphorical ramblings about plane journeys and the like made the whole thing very hard going for me. (And if I read one more sentence with endless lists of “from Haydn to Bowie, from Webern to [insert name of obscure band]….” I will not be responsible for my actions. OK, Paul, we get it – you’ve listened to a lot of music.)

At well over 600 pages, I suspect that this would have been a much better book if it had been half the length. There are quite a lot of interesting and penetrating observations here, but finding them is a real effort. I think the book is summed up for me in this little quote: “...the prog-rock concept album, with its own bloated, self-involved aesthetic that needed urgent, almost therapeutic puncturing by punk rock”. He is, as so often, absolutely right, but can’t seem to see that his own book is just as bloated and self-involved and needs urgent, almost therapeutic puncturing by a good, strong editor. I can’t really recommend it.

(My thanks to Bloomsbury for an ARC via NetGalley.)

Wednesday, 9 September 2020

John Banville - Snow

Rating: 3/5
I found Snow rather mediocre, I’m afraid. It’s not actively bad, but it does plod, it’s not as clever as it thinks it is and there’s not much Banville brilliance in evidence.

The set-up is like a vintage Agatha Christie. Set in December 1957, a Detective Inspector is sent from Dublin to investigate the murder of a priest in a large country house. It is peopled by stock Christie characters - which Banville points out several times - it contains some arch references to Murder On the Orient Express and so on. Banville “subverts” the genre with some explicit sex scenes, but otherwise it pretty much plods through a Country House Mystery plot. It’s all terribly knowing and postmodern, but for me it did not make a good read and became pretty irritating. Even the intimate characterisation and evocative scene-setting which I have found so involving in books like Ancient Light aren’t really there; just little sparks every so often.

The plot and motivation are very well-worn, with pointers toward priestly malfeasance very early on. I think that by now we know that priests and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in Ireland last century did some dreadful things which were covered up; as a core plot it really needs more than Banville gives it here to be other than a rehash of what we’ve read many times by now.

The book does have its moments; a scene between the Inspector and the Archbishop is very well done, for example, but even the structure is very clumsy in places, with an out-of-place monologue from a different point of view toward the end and an unconvincing epilogue.

Snow isn’t terrible by any means, but it was a bit of a slog and didn’t do much for me. I suspect that I may have reached the end of the road with John Banville; I haven’t genuinely enjoyed a book of his for some time and I can’t really recommend this one.

(My thanks to Faber & Faber for an ARC via NetGalley.)

Friday, 4 September 2020

Carl Hiaasen - Skin Tight

Rating: 5/5
Hugely enjoyable 
This is great fun. I have come very late to Carl Hiaason but I am thoroughly enjoying catching up on his books.

In Skin Tight, Mick Stranahan is an ex-Private Investigator living a quiet, isolated existence on a stilt house out in a Florida bay when events at a cosmetic surgery clinic mean that a case he once investigated might threaten the clinic’s owner. As a result, Mick’s own life and those of others are at risk and a convoluted and somewhat bonkers plot ensues – and it’s terrific fun.

Hiaason writes very well, he is genuinely witty (and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny) and has a high old time taking swipes at the worst of Florida: corruption, vain and vacuous rich residents and visitors, slimy lawyers, dodgy plastic surgeons, ludicrous TV hosts and so on. There’s a great cast of characters and Mick himself is a fine, calm and competent protagonist. The whole thing is a pleasure which I can recommend very warmly – and I’ll be reading more Hiaasen very soon.

Sunday, 30 August 2020

Ian Rankin - A Song For The Dark Times


Rating: 5/5
Another very good Rebus instalment 

Ian Rankin has definitely still got it. After reading a couple of rather disappointing new books from long-established authors I approached this with a little trepidation, but I enjoyed it very much.

Rebus is ageing with the rest of us and is now suffering from COPD. He is, therefore having to make changes to his way of life, including giving up smoking and cutting down on the booze. He is retired, of course, but he is still his old, dogged, determined, contrary and sometimes bloody-minded self. When his daughter Samantha’s partner goes missing in the far north of Scotland, Rebus goes there immediately, pursuing enquiries in spite of repeated warnings from local police to stay out of it and leave it to them. Meanwhile, DIs Siobhan Clarke and Malcolm Fox are investigating a murder in Edinburgh, which may have some connection to Rebus’s case.

It’s very well done. Rankin remains a brilliant storyteller and I was hooked throughout. It’s not as dark as some Rankin classics, but Big Ger Cafferty is still a malign presence and the Clarke/Fox stories are developing very well in their own right. There is some interesting stuff about POW camps in Scotland during the war as the history of that time becomes very relevant to Rebus’s enquiries, but Rankin never overdoes it. He has clearly done a lot of research, but doesn’t overburden us with it, so it forms a very believable background without bogging down the story. (Some other authors may wish to take note of the skill of a light touch here.) Rankin’s characterisation and dialogue are, as always, excellent, the sense of place is very well done and I found this a really good read.

There are perhaps one or two coincidences too many and it may not be absolute classic Rankin, but I enjoyed it so much that I’ve rounded 4.5-stars up to 5. Warmly recommended.

(My thanks to Orion for an ARC via NetGalley.)


Saturday, 29 August 2020

Nick Hornby - Just Like You

Rating: 3/5
Readable but disposable

I’m afraid I didn’t think all that much of Just Like You. It’s perfectly readable but it all felt like very familiar terrain and didn’t add up to much in the end.

The story, set in 2016, is of Lucy, the white, 42-year-old Head of English at a tough North London comprehensive school and Joseph, a young black man, 20 years her junior who works in her local butcher at the weekend. They form a relationship and Nick Hornby explores the issues which arise. The trouble is, he doesn’t explore them very deeply or convincingly. It all meanders along amiably enough, but the background of Lucy’s privileged, wealthy North London acquaintances, awkwardness around race (and some out-and-out racism) and the Brexit referendum all seemed very stale. This is particularly true of the Brexit stuff, which has been extensively explored by a lot of writers and for me Hornby adds nothing new. Even the age-gap, class and interracial issues in Lucy and Joseph’s relationship seemed somehow rather trivially dealt with, so it felt more like a Richard Curtis romcom than much of an emotional or political exploration.

I also have to add a personal hobby horse. A head of department in a large tough school who has no work to do at home and limitless energy and time both in the evenings and at weekends? I’m prepared to suspend disbelief to a pretty large extent when reading, but there really are limits. Every such teacher is almost always either working, trying to cope with domestic demands or asleep. I will restrain myself from ranting further.

For me, Just Like You is readable but disposable and a long way from the insightful brilliance of classics like Fever Pitch or High Fidelity. I van only give it a very qualified recommendation.

(My thanks to Penguin for an ARC via NetGalley.)

Monday, 24 August 2020

Carl Hiaasen - Squeeze Me

Rating: 5/5

Terrific Stuff

I thought Squeeze Me was great fun.

Set in Florida, the plot involves the lives of the very rich and of the President being disrupted by the appearance of some huge Burmese pythons, a species which has established itself in Florida largely through abandoned pets as they became to big to handle. Angie Armstrong is a wildlife removal specialist who becomes involved and then enraged by the cover-up and attempt to frame an innocent man for political gain. A convoluted, amusing and rather gripping story ensues.

I thought it was terrific. Angie is an extremely engaging protagonist and Hiaasen writes very well about both his characters and the Florida setting. It has genuine wit and some laugh-out-loud moments and the scathing satire both of Donald Trump (whom he is careful never to name) and of the rich, privileged world in which he moves is extremely well done.

This is the first Carl Hiaasen book I have read but I’ll certainly be reading more. It’s a very entertaining read and I can recommend it very warmly.

(My thanks to Sphere for an ARC via NetGalley.)