Book Review

Similar to trekking from Texas to Montana, this book takes a while...

Similar to trekking from Texas to Montana, this book takes a while…

I’ve been busy. I know, you’re shocked, but it happens sometimes. A lot of this is to do with  Lonesome Dove, the 1985 Pulitzer Prize winning Western novel epic by Larry McMurtry. Now I love me some westerns. I love The Good, The Bad and The Ugly; I adore Red Dead Redemption; now I am enamoured with Lonesome Dove. Seeing as how I have been known to review movies, games and books in the past, the fact that I have a Western in the top five for each shows how strongly I feel about the genre. Hang on: Did I just give away that Lonesome Dove is in my top five favourite books of all time? Did I just confirm it with that question? Why aren’t you reading Lonesome Dove yet? Do it; it’s great.

One of the main staples of the Western genre is a strong emphasis on the setting. Lonesome Dove does nothing to disappoint in this aspect. Following an epic cattle drive from Texas to Montana, McMurtry does an incredible job at making the rolling plains appear real and dangerous. The titular Lonesome Dove – the setting for the whole first quarter of the book – is a town that sticks in the readers mind, as much as it does the main characters. It evokes the feeling of a pastoral bastion (check me out!) that serves as a refuge for the characters and helps the reader understand why they constantly want to return.

The aforementioned cattle drive is dangerous, though; this is the Ol’ West after all – a lawless land where one risks being shot or scalped every time they set foot outside the door in the morning. Having become a fan of books by George R. R. Martin in the last few years, I wasn’t expecting to be so surprised by characters being killed off to the extent they are in Lonesome Dove. What McMurtry manages that Martin does not, is to make every character’s death seem important in the development of the supporting cast. No one is bumped off needlessly; each character (that dies)  meets their end for a reason. It seems less that the cast is cut down because the writer harbours some secret scorn for them, but rather because he feels so strongly about them and the characters they leave behind.

Each of the characters is superbly well rounded – you reach the point where they’re so fleshed out that you can almost predict their reaction to certain events – even if you can’t predict the events themselves. This is what leads to the ending being such a perfect turn of events. Each character remains true to the morals and values they have established throughout the book. There’s development, yes, but the characters are the same characters at the beginning as they are at the end. They gain new skills and experiences, but their overwhelming characteristics causes them to make the choices they make at the end. This, ladies and gentlemen, is good character writing.

When you read a book for more than a certain amount of time, you become heavily attached to it. Come on, we’ve all done it! If you spend a month reading a book then that book becomes part of you. It becomes part of your day. It’s what makes the commute to work/school/grandma’s house worth the journey. It becomes the last thing you do before going to sleep and get ingrained into your consciousness while you sleep. I am happy to say that I miss Lonesome Dove tremendously now that I’m not reading it any more. I guess it’s a good thing there’re more in the series…

Strangely, the ghostly presence of those puppet strings is always noticeable…

Ever since HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, I have loved the ol’ classic gangsters. This love has been fueled by Public Enemies, Mafia 2 and of course, more Boardwalk Empire. I decided, with the release of the prequel to the Godfather – The Family Corelione – I decided it would be a good idea to read the novel that inspired it all. The fact that I was able to pick it up for two quid sweetened the deal…

One thing I found painfully obvious early on is that the novel covers a lot of years in a short amount of time. The structure lends itself to this as sometimes you have a single day spanning multiple chapters, whereas in other cases a year will pass in a brief paragraph. You really get the sense that you are reading an epic here; the family takes the role of a dynasty and their legacy becomes more intricate with every passing page.

The characterisation foxed me somewhat, as the novel stumbles drunkenly from the primary setting to various flashbacks at whim. Often, an entirely new character is introduced without any previous mention and every other character just acts like they’ve been around for months. In terms of the books chronology they have, but those months happened between chapters as far as the reader is concerned. Then, just as we’re beginning to cast our own judgement on the character in question, we get a lengthy flashback of pure exposition to explain their motivation. The it seems as if book is being deliberately obtuse.

Then again, the story covering all those years is most defiantly worth telling. Puzo throws a few curve-balls every now and again to keep you on your toes. The characters are interesting enough when you finally get to meet them, but then again, they sometimes don’t get the full face-time they deserve. One particular character is set up to be an absolutely awesome, essential, gun-toting badass but dies within a couple of chapters from the front cover, only for it to be mentioned again at the end just how much of an awesome, essential etc. he was all along. Still, those who get their full five minutes in the spotlight do so for a reason. There are several unimportant characters who a complete backstory and become really engaging and interesting – despite being worthless in terms of the over-all story.

At the end of the day, yes, the Godfather is a good book. It has a solid narrative and compelling enough characters. I can see why it is showered with the praise it is, and why it is considered a classic worthy of so many children that make up the classic, organised crime fiction of today. More importantly, it was worth my money. Having said that, I only paid a couple of quid for it. Was there something I could have bought for a similar price that would have amused me as much? Probably not; although that is more to do with the prices of sandwiches sky-rocketing.

It’s almost worth buying a solid copy to put up on my bookshelf in triumph.

Holy Walrus on a wakeboard; Birdsong is a brilliant book. Seriously, Birdsong is one of those books that leaves you feel changed for several days after reading. It becomes a very important and intimate part of your life for the time you spend with it and you feel deeply saddened when it come to finishing the final page. Birdsong was the first proper book I bought and read on my Kindle, which made me even more sad as I didn’t have the finished novel to display on my bookcase as a trophy.

Our story follows the exploits of Stephen Wraysford as he spends a summer in the countryside surrounding the river Somme, and then a following four years having people shoot at him at the same river. At least Birdsong studied well when it came to history and was smart enough to know when the battle of the Somme actually took place. It also has two chapters set in the 70s about uninteresting people doing uninteresting things. Sebastian Faulks creates some compelling characters in Wraysford and his companions, but the more contemporary nut-jobs have almost nothing interesting to do except fill us in on what happened to the old-timers in the years between. Admittedly, this is a cunning technique employed by Faulks, as he realises that without spending another three books telling the reader what happened to all the characters, you can use a retrospective approach where upon he outright tells you instead of explaining it. I felt somewhat unsatisfied by it, as Wraysford (as well as having the same name as me) was a character I cared about; I had shared his struggles up to that point and didn’t want some idiot just telling me what happened afterwards. I wanted to go through it with him.

Thankfully, this years’ BBC dramatic adaptation cut out all of the bollocks from the 70s to make a tighter, more composed story. This leads to a few minor changes and some unfortunate pacing problems. But this is made up for by the fact that you get to see Robb and Benjen Stark alongside Ozymadias in the trenches. The only character I actually had a problem with was Wraysford himself who, as should be expected by someone who read the book first, wasn’t what I expected. Eddie Redmayne put in a solid performance as Stephen, but I always saw the character as cold and mocking in the book, whereas Redmayne make him appear distant and devastated. Admittedly, he does “distant and devastated” remarkably well, so I can’t really fault him.

In all, Birdsong was, as I alluded to in my opening paragraph, very difficult to put down. It’s realistic, believable characters made for a very enjoyable read that further opened my eyes to the horrors of the trenches. With moments where the characters fly off the rails, fall in love or fall into despair, Birdsong makes the journey of one lost man who is scared of both birds and the world he now lives in, a true wonder to behold.

I was stunned to find this book is over thirty years old.

Let’s get one thing straight – I love me some George Martin. Ever since watching Game of Thrones last year, I’ve become fixated with his novels and he’s rapidly becoming my favourite author. Gushing aside, Fevre Dream is without a doubt my third favourite book of all time; it’s proceeded only by The Hobbit and To Kill a Mockingbird so that third place is actually pretty good…

Part of the reason this novel is so great is due to it’s impossibility to predict. Without outright telling you what happens, here’s a mild SPOILER WARNING: there’s a twist you see coming that turns out to be acknowledged, then proved false and then proved true anyway /SPOILERS. One thing I find really interesting about Martin, is how he swipes away characters with such ease. Oh come on, that’s not a spoiler: if you’re in anyway familiar with the works of this gentleman, you know how he has a great disregard for his characters’ well being.

That said, never have I found more compelling characters than in a book by “the American Tolkien”. Perhaps they’re so endearing because of their constant threat of death every page, but Abner Marsh and Joshua York are different and engaging enough to make them interesting for the whole read. One thing I particularly love is that Abner is constantly described as a physically incapable, ugly, unlikeable man – yet you find yourself urging him on more and more as the book continues. Even the vilest, slimiest creatures like Sour Billy can carve out a soft spot in your heart to occupy.

 

Spoiler Alert: There are no hippos…

Yup, you should read this. Seriously, this book is funny, clever and really interesting. Fry has that rare ability to make even the most ridiculous anecdotes serve the story brilliantly in one way or another to the point where the reader may actually become worried that the rest of the human race is clearly not as smart Mr. Fry.

The story follows Ted Wallace; a poet who’s brash, vulgar attitude suits him so perfectly to high society to confuse and bemuse all those around him. He visits an old friend at his country estate and from there things get strange. I was perfectly engaged with the story and characters – but then a dude shagged a horse and I didn’t quite know where I stood any more…

A few summers ago I had the pleasure of reading “The Stars’ Tennis Balls” and loved every second of it. “The Hippopotamus” is equally good and also bloody brilliant to an even bigger degree. The characterisation is better in “Hippo'”, partly because the whole book covers a shorter period of time.

The book is actually “Laugh out Loud” hilarious. It is, like I said, very clever. It is exceptionally excellent in every way. I have no criticism for this book at all and actually miss the time I spent reading it.

Now that is a good cover.

The Sisters Brothers is more a collection of short stories than one specific tale. It follows several weeks in the life of the fictional Sisters brothers with whom the novel shares it’s name – duh! Told from the point of view of Eli Sisters, we get an insight into the life of two bounty hunters wrestling with their moral compass that always happens to point in the opposite direction to their current objective – whatever that may be.

It would be perfectly fair to compare this book to To Kill a Mockingbird as they both demonstrate a series of events enriching and preparing the main characters before a main, defining moment and then sinking back into their normal lives and more unrelated events. It is easy to get wise to it’s peculiar story telling methods quickly and you often get a brief description of a character that lingers in your mind; you being aware that they will become much more relevant later on.

Patrick DeWitt also manages to add a touch of noire to the narrative. The dark humour, use of flashbacks and complex characters all add to this effect. As I moved closer to the end, I became worried that DeWitt would lose the momentum he had managed to keep while the characters faffed about in various different settings now they were rooted to one spot for more than ten pages. Thankfully, this was not the case and you can expect the book to continue with its course throughout the entirety of the novel from cover to cover.

I wouldn’t say that this book is unforgettable by any standard. It seems to know perfectly well that it is just going to sit in the background and doesn’t really aspire to do any more.

But.

If you get a chance to read this book, you would be a complete fool to not do so. This is not only a really interesting, funny and thought provoking book, but it also deserves all the  awards and titles it received and was nominated for. I whole heartedly wish DeWitt great luck in the rest of his writing career as this first foray into the lime light was well worth the price of admission.