• Welcome to BookAndReader!

    We LOVE books and hope you'll join us in sharing your favorites and experiences along with your love of reading with our community. Registering for our site is free and easy, just CLICK HERE!

    Already a member and forgot your password? Click here.

That Difficult First Novel

Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of ready Andy Miller’s ‘A Year of Dangerous Reading’ . Like seemingly all humans, I’m pre-disposed to enjoy lists of any sort; as a reader and writer, a list about books is nirvana-esque in nature. These were all books that had Miller had lied to people about reading, both in general and in his previous incarnation as a worker in a bookshop.

I couldn’t have timed reading this book more wrongly if I tried. Miller even warns people that this book shouldn’t be conceived as a list of books people should try and attempt, match or complete; rather, it just a cross section of books he felt like he had to read. In the week I bought this book, I had bought around ten others. Stupidly, I chose to read this first. Before I knew it, I was adding to my collection – every book that he wrote about and enjoyed, I wanted to experience the same feeling as him, so infectious was his delivery. I ended up buying:

‘Under The Volcano’ by Malcolm Lowry

‘Atomised’ by Michel Houellebecq

‘Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky’ by Patrick Hamilton

Unlike Miller, I had fair warning that the Hamilton novel was in fact a trilogy, semi-autobiographical in nature, about the patrons of ‘The Midnight Bell’, a pub in London. I’ve since read ‘The Siege of Pleasure’, the second book in the trilogy, but that won’t be touched upon here – it is more likely to feature along with the concluding part, ‘The Plains of Cement’.

I’m not going to pretend and act as if I am able to critically analyse every aspect of a novel I read. I could try and wax lyrical about the juxtaposition of characters, the use of the pronoun and the cyclical structure of a narrative, but that doesn’t necessarily evoke the way I read and understands books. I often feel like the pupils in my lessons; I often know that I like a book, but can’t often always pinpoint why outside of ‘…because it was good’. You are unlikely to meet New York Review of Books level evaluation here; what I do hope you get is honest interpretations of books that I have read.

One of the reasons I have so many books is the same reason I feel like I had so used to buy so many CDs: I’m forever looking for the voice that grabs me and carries me away. I found it last with Julian Barnes, though I had similar experiences with authors as diverse as John Williams (‘Stoner’), Junot Diaz (‘This is How You Lose Her’) and Atul Gawande (of a future column’s fame); diverse at least in terms of time period, themes explored, ethnicity, if not gender (something I’m working on).

Hamilton grabbed me and truly didn’t let me go.

This power admittedly waned on the second book (my one reference to it), but inside the head of Bob, one of the workers at the Midnight Bell, as he begins to embark on a dizzying relationship with a flighty ‘lady of the night’ called Jennie, the story roars along apace. It is written in the third person, but Bob is the main character, and it is his internal struggle as he is constantly let down by this lady with which he has delusions of a future that forms the backbone of the story.

I don’t really want to give spoilers for books – books are probably the most obvious medium that can’t survive the pre-emptive reveal of the twist or the ending, due to the amount of time and effort that needs to be put into it as an entertainment form. Therefore, I’m not going to take you through the narrative step by step. If it sounds good to you, buy it – you won’t be disappointed.

Hamilton’s prose style is what I would describe as ‘no wasted motion’. Everything is clear, precise and to the point, though rather than make it feel monotonous or cold, this gives it a much more lyrical air than might be expected. There’s a snap to the altercations between the oddities and the staff at The Midnight Bell, a fizz as Bob tries to reconcile his true feelings for Jennie. Almost bi-polar in nature, I’ve not personally read a better evocation of the first stages of love (or at least, love that perhaps isn’t meant to be) than you see in The Midnight Bell. With limited time wasted, Hamilton is also able to create a real sense of time and place through his use of description; we feel part of this slightly grimy local pub, connected to its cast of misfits and characters.

Without wanting to be too technical about a feature of style, I also really enjoy the use of capital letters for both concrete and abstract nouns in the book (something I never thought I’d say). It is used by both Bob and Jennie to emphasise key emotions and ideas that are explored in their conversations and thoughts – a simple technique used very effectively. It helps to shape their beliefs in the interaction between single men and women, class, the employment of Jennie, and their burgeoning emotions for each other.

For a book written in the 1920s, it doesn’t feel out of place at all. Hamilton has managed to create an engaging and pithy storyline that still feels fresh and interesting today. Go out of your way to have a look – it is available as part of the trilogy for around £6 on Amazon – and hopefully be swept along by Hamilton’s writing in the same way Bob is by Jennie’s beauty.

I'll be adding work here, but please do have a look at http://thatdifficultfirstnovel.co.uk/ - I also cover books I haven't read for many reasons, as well as the difficulties of writing a novel.
Occasionally, I pick up a book on a whim, and it just grabs me by the collar and won’t let go. It is the same feeling you have when you hear a band whose music just works for you, making you feel excited about the medium as whole, let alone the song itself. A book with no wasted motion, where every page has a moment, a revelation, insight into the characters and the world they inhabit.

‘Disgrace’ was one of those books.

Last weekend, I went to Nymans, a National Trust property that I particularly enjoy – mainly due to its second hand book shop. I shuffled around the garden, following my fiancé, until I was allowed a treasured five minutes in the shed that constitutes the premises in which the books are kept. There were a number of books I could have bought, but I settled on three. One was ‘Disgrace’ by J.M Coetzee, a book that I had nefariously acquired back in the days I thought that nefariously acquiring books was the way forward; a situation that I have long since moved past. I may have looked over the first page once, but as I would ‘find’ a lot of books, many books tended to just end up in the ether, had because I could rather than because I wanted them.

The book was a 1999 Booker Prize winner. Whilst being an award winner in and of itself isn’t a guarantee of quality, I’d only ever read two other Booker Prize winners; ‘Life of Pi’ by Yann Martel, which was a beautiful novel which engaged me from start to finish; and ‘A Sense of an Ending’ by Julian Barnes, arguably my favourite book of all time. The pedigree thus far had always been more than impressive, so I was pretty hopeful.

As I’ve said before, I don’t want to spoil too much in any of these reviews, as I find a book can be spoiled fairly easily by too much prior knowledge – the desire of all of my students to know the ending to ‘Of Mice and Men’ before we get to it in class a classic example.

‘Disgrace’ tells the story of David Lurie, a lecturer at a Cape Town University who loses everything due to his wandering eyes and roving hands following an affair with a student. With nothing left, he moves out to the countryside to live with his daughter, Lucy, who runs a farm in Eastern Cape. Lurie’s struggles to reconnect with a woman who has long since ceased to be ‘Daddy’s Little Girl’ are all too relatable, and when things take a turn for the worst in the most distressing way, his inability to be able to support his daughter in a way that is suitable for both family members is at the centre of his internal struggles.

For a man who has had more than his fair share of triumphs with women, it is Lurie’s clashes with his daughter that drive the story forward. Even though the ‘disgrace’ that he suffers sees features of his life spiral out of control, he is seemingly able to finally ‘come of age’, realising the mistakes he made. His time spent as a romantic literature lecturer led him to see his romantic liasons as the work of Eros rather than any actual slight on his character; by the end, it seems that he is aware of the occasionally ludicrous way that he has led his life, even though it takes a lot of heartbreak to reach this tipping point.

I feel ill-placed to discuss that political flavour of the novel, but with it being set in South Africa, the main storyline does see tense clashes between the expectations and beliefs of the white and black members of the community. This mainly plays itself out in Lucy’s storyline; her life forever altered by an encounter with three black males, yet her acceptance of this way of being is almost as shocking as the situation itself.

If I had to place ‘Disgrace’, it would nestle somewhere in between ‘Life of Pi’ and ‘A Sense of an Ending’ in terms of my enjoyment. Unlike ‘…Pi’, which I felt dragged a little at times, ‘Disgrace’ never wastes a moment of its 220 pages. The tension on every page is tangible, forcing you to discover more about the lecherous lecturer and his independent daughter.

Now, maybe I should seek out some more Coetzee, as if it is anything like ‘Disgrace’, I’m in for a treat.
'The Uncommon Reader' by Alan Bennett

In two weeks, I am due to get married. An exciting new step in me and my fiancee's life, following the purchase of our first house in the summer last year. Due to both of our occupations being that of secondary school teachers, major events are always timetabled into the six week holiday in an attempt to make the most of the long period of rest and relaxation afforded to us following a tiring and turbulent year.

Preparation for a wedding leaves little time for reading. When coupled with the inevitable parties and functions that liberally litter the end of a school term, I've felt like I had stalled in my progress. Sure, I was reading books, but I just wasn't anywhere near completing one - not something so important per se, but as my attention has spiraled from one book to the next, nothing has really gripped me, leaving me feeling adrift and unengaged. I needed a 'quick win': a book I could read and finish, picking up some much needed momentum along the way.

Taking back to the library a selection of books on poetry (my latest attempt to break the back of that beast, to moderate success), I saw a copy of 'The Uncommon Reader' by Alan Bennett. Slim, small and by an author that I had begun to dabble in during this year, it fit the profile of the 'quick win' I needed, so I loaned it out (along with a book about making a good wedding speech).

Forty five minutes later, I'd finished the book and added one more to my challenge. However, it would be crass to view this book as something as little as another notch on the metaphorical literary bedpost of my year. It is a delightfully funny, if slight, look at the Queen's burgeoning love of reading, inspired by an altercation with a traveling librarian. Soon, she is spending more time reading than actually being Queen, with even her most basic duties supported by a hidden book away from the gaze of the public. This is neatly contrasted with the responses of her help, as confusion reigns as to why the Queen might want to read. The idea of reading being an act of exclusion, due to the number of people who don't read, is an interesting concept which is explored throughout the book.

This book is effectively a love-letter to reading, which is an easy sell for anyone who enjoys books as much as many of my fellow readers do. It celebrates the ability to explore worlds outside of your own in a truthful manner, rather than the highly polished representations you may get through other media or even presented to you face to face. It allows you to delve into the mindset of people who live myriad different lives to the one you lead, even if you are someone as well traveled and exposed as the Queen, for example.

There is a melancholy within the book that I can empathise with: I'm never going to read all the books that I want to read, and wish that I'd started to read as voraciously when I was younger. Other ideas that the books seeks to explore in its mere forty minutes (or thereabouts) are the all-encompassing strain of reading on your time, coupled with the concept that, as wonderful as reading is, it is not the same as actually experiencing or doing. At some point, it should be a gateway to develop your own voice and creativity - something that has been awoken in my over the past few years.

Some of the prose stylings of Bennett I do find difficult - I'm not sure why. Whilst his narratives are good (considering I've dipped into a few of his other stories this year), I feel that the written word doesn't flow off the page as easily as I would like to. It isn't the use of complex vocabulary per se, but the narrative voice can feel a little stilted for me personally, yet probably wouldn't be an issue for many others. Just a word of warning, really.

So this was how I got my 'quick win' and my reading mojo kickstarted. I finished another book the same day, which I'm sure I would have done anyway, but felt that the Bennett tale reignited a desire in me to read and finish some of the books I had in front of me.

.....now back to the wedding planning.
Bit of a change up, as I do my yearly attempt to get more engaged in comic books/graphic novels.

'Marvel Comics: The Untold Story' by Sean Howe and 'Secret Wars'

Ever since my move to using a Kindle (as well as tried and trusty paperback books), I've had a yearning to try and experience the world of comic books. Outside of Asterix books when I was young and Persepolis when I was older, I'd never made a concerted effort to read anything from Marvel, DC or any of the other companies producing graphic novels. Primarily, this was due to the difficulty in working out the continuity - a story with fifty potential years of backstory is difficult to get your head around, and a jumping on point is not always obvious. Also, the ability to acquire the comics/trade paperbacks for a reasonable cost was often difficult.

Enter Marvel Unlimited.

For £9.99 a month, I'm in a position where I can check out most of the old Marvel stuff, covering years, storylines, characters and major events across the timeline. Rather than feeling I need to read everything leading up to a story arc, it allows me just to pick and enjoy. However, I did feel that I needed to get the most out of it and read around the subject a little more - I was recommended 'Marvel Comics: The Untold Story' and purchased it straight away.

For someone wanting to get an overview of the machinations behind the development of Marvel as a company, from the initial production all the way up to the heady heights of the Avengers movie release, you can't ask for a better book. As a comic novice, some of it went over my head, but Howe tries to do his best to explore the characters behind the comics, as well as give some over-riding understanding as to the development of the superheroes on the page. Maybe I'd have got more out of the book if I had a working knowledge of some of the people who worked in the industry, but I didn't feel like it necessarily hampered me and I left the book feeling like I had a better knowledge with which to tackle the Marvel Universe.

The big issues coming from the book center around the peaks and troughs of the comic book industry - riding high and selling huge at times, barely registering culturally at other points. At times, it feels like Marvel survived in spite of the management of the company, with owners bumbling from one failed venture to another, yet with workers creating stories and characters that continued to appeal to an audience over the course of fifty years. Another problem over the half century that arose several times was the idea of who the characters belonged to, with some writers battling Marvel for the rights to better remuneration for their intellectual property. Finally, we saw the battles between Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (often centred around this idea of intellectual property) as their relationship turned sour, and arguments pervaded over who created the foundations for the Marvel Universe.

It is fitting that it ends at the time of the Avengers film release, as almost fifty years is spent trying to get Marvel onto cinema screens in a lucrative manner. Stan Lee comes across as melancholic at times, yearning for the red carpets of Hollywood, yet stuck in the Marvel bullpen churning out comic stories. The book highlights this desire effectively, thus giving the ending a sense of a real peak and the accomplishing of a dream, at least on Lee's part.

During the 1980s, the Marvel writers decided (as another gimmick, amongst Number 1 issues and fancy covers) to have an event that brought many of the main characters together in one place. 'Secret Wars' was really the first of its kind, as heroes and villains are taken away by the Beholder, and tasked with fighting to the death in competition for the Beholder's promise to grant the victor's true desires. The fact that Howe's book suggested that this was a cash-grab designed to shift comics and merchandise doesn't detract from what must have been a huge deal for comic book fans at the time. Even now, it holds up...relatively well.

There are a lot of chances for the heroes and villains to go at it in large (impressively rendered) set pieces, and any opportunity to see Doctor Doom or Galactus in action is worth reading. That nothing really changes by the end (a staple concept within the world of the Marvel 'Event' style, seemingly) outside of Spiderman's new suit - a concept developed during the Venom storyline later on in the canon - and that the women are presented how you might expect women to be presented in a male dominated creative industry in the 1970s is something that, as a modern reader, you are forced to get your head around.

Still, as an oppurtunity to check out the biggest names in Marvel in one neat, packaged storyline, it works well and is an excellent jumping on point for a newcomer. At the least, it is the first full storyline I've read from Marvel, and it has me excited to check out more.

Note: I finished the book and waited until I finished the comic to write this. Therefore, I've got two other books that I've not yet reviewed waiting in the wings, thus the numbering.
'A Visit From The Goon Squad' by Jennifer Egan

When I was younger, if I could have chosen to be anything when I grew up, I'd have wanted to be a rock star. Never minding the fact that I had no ounce of musical talent, I loved the idea of being part of a touring rock group, writing amazing songs that people would listen to in the comfort of their homes, as well as standing on stage at nights in front of huge audiences screaming back lyrics from the songs that I had helped create. Over time, that turned from a dream to an unrealistic wish, but I have always had an interest in music, even if my ability to keep up with latest trends has waned as I've grown older.

'A Visit from the Goon Squad' is effectively a letter to the power of music, of having a dream to make something of yourself within the industry, and the difficulties that would be faced in the never-ending struggle to be relevant and survive in an ever changing world. It charts the crushing reality of the lives of those who never quite made it, yet always had those times when they felt that the world was their oyster and they could truly be 'the next big thing'.

It is impossible to talk about 'A Visit from the Goon Squad' without referencing the structure. It doesn't have a cohesive narrative, per se, and instead reads like a collection of short stories, each with a cohesive link to the 'main character' (if you can suggest there is one in this book) Bennie Salazar and the band 'The Flaming Dildos'. Each story spins off to look at snapshots of the lives of Bennie, and others who were in some way interacted with him through his career. Each chapter can technically be read as an individual story if you so want, and this structural choice allows Egan to do some interesting things, such as a chapter that is presented in the form of a Powerpoint-style presentation.

There is a sense of kinship and loss pervading all the stories, as we see the wistful memories of times gone by coupled with the difficulties of modern living once the dream has died. In some stories, Egan is particularly cutting about the dissolute lives of the people who had once interacted with Salazar in one way or another, yet it is this honesty that helps keep up the momentum of the book; not every story is a happy ending in real life either.

Without wanting to spoil the ending for you, the final chapter does go some way to reconciling a lot of the stories that have gone before, as well as acting as an endorsement (I feel) of music as a way of bringing people together. No matter who you are, good music has a way of linking people in society that way that very few other things can. Even as we move from the heady 70s-80s (the time in which I believe the book starts) to an unspecified modern time, with all that entails in terms of technology, it is essentially music that wins out. As our access to to art is arguably devalued by the rise of pirating and the ease with which one can now access pretty much any piece of music, book or creative endeavour with relative ease, I feel the book seeks to champion the ability of music to triumph over these types of adversity.

This has been a book that had been on my list since I began to read a lot more about reading in general - it was hard to find a top 10 list of modern novels without this book sitting somewhere near the top. It is clear to see why. Not only does Egan manage to use unique structure to create a book that is unlike many people will have read, it also shares a message that I feel is important, without being preachy or hitting the reader over the head with it.

It's simple really - never underestimate the power of a good song (or in this case, a good book.)