Archive for Book reviews

Book review – A Prayer for Owen Meany

I knew I’d been rather tardy of late, at least with my blog, but I hadn’t realised that the last I’d posted something was in 2019.  Time to remedy that with a good old book review…

I don’t know why I’ve never read any John Irving books. I suspect that it was for the simple and shallow reason that the covers put me off. I can’t remember either what turned me onto A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989). I suspect that it was for the similarly shallow reason that the publisher had changed the cover artwork, and the fact that it was a change from some of the lighter stuff I’d been reading.

We come into contact with Owen Meany at the tender age of eleven; a tiny boy (compared to his peers) with a shrill, unnerving voice, which he suspects is down to the granite dust, the provenance of which is the quarry where he lives and is the bedrock of his family’s existence. Meany also suspects that he is God’s instrument, which makes life particularly complicated when you accidentally kill your best friend’s mother, the best friend in question being our narrator John Wheelwright. It’s also complicated when you see a vision of your gravestone during the town’s production of A Christmas Carol. The gravestone in question, indicates the path that Meany will and should follow in life.

We follow Meany through his school years, through college and beyond, traversing the events of 1950’s and 1960’s America, leading us to the point where we are faced with the truth about Meany’s purpose in life.

At 628 pages, APFOM isn’t a quick read. It took me a while to get into it but investing more time paid dividends. Irving builds the novel and its inherent tension nicely, as we get closer and closer to the day when Meany is fated to die. From what I’ve written you’d think that it’s a pretty serious work of literature dealing with themes such as religion and the concept of fate. Well it is but there’s a lot of fun to be had along the way. For example, Meany has a regular column – The Voice – in his college newsletter. The articles, all in capitals (echoing Meany’s shrill voice), give Meany a platform to share his irreverent views on his college’s policies, staff, and life in general. We’re treated to heady topics such as whether it was right for the college to expel a boy for killing cats; and whether it’s right for Meany and others to be ‘FORCED TO EAT CATHOLIC FOOD?’

I shouldn’t forget about our narrator and Meany’s partner in crime, John Wheelwright. Ironically, given his role as narrator, it was sometimes easy to forget about Wheelwright given the focus on Meany, but Irving subtly builds a deep and complex friendship between the two, each of whom are on a spiritual journey of sorts.

I’m glad I picked up this John Irving book.  If you want something to distract you during the present circumstances, Owen Meany’s your man.

Book review – Porterhouse Blue

Tom Sharpe’s Porterhouse Blue (1974) isn’t my usual type of go-to novel; social satire, in this case a satirical take on the traditions of our elite colleges, those who teach and study in them, and the perennial battle between traditional values and modernity. My only other encounter with Sharpe was the 1985 TV series Blott on the Landscape, which, if memory serves, was quirky and quintessentially English. I wasn’t a huge fan, so on being recommended Porterhouse Blue I was slightly sceptical.

Our novel finds us in the fictitious Porterhouse college, Cambridge, where Sir Godber Evans, an alumni of the college and a former Government minister, has been appointed (by the Prime Minister) to become master of the college. Evans’ appointment is unprecedented – unlike his predecessors, he wasn’t appointed on the previous master’s deathbed. Moreover, Evans as a reformer within parliament, and eager to remedy the stuffy old ways that he was immersed in while a student at the college, is on a collision course with the college’s senior tutors, fellows, porter, etc.

What follows is a running battle between Evans and the staff over proposals such as the introduction of a contraceptive machine in the men’s toilets, women students, a canteen, and even accepting students on academic merit rather than the size of their family’s cheque book. Meanwhile, Zipser, a research student, is fixated by his landlady, and an investigative journalist, also an alumni of the college, is on the prowl.

First things first, it’s well written and the characters are nicely drawn, especially Skullion, who’s been porter at the college for nigh on forty years, and isn’t looking for change any time soon. However, while heavy on the satire, it was light on the humour. I just didn’t think it was very funny. Perhaps, if I’d read it on its appearance in 1974 I might have found more delight in inflated contraceptives floating about the college, much to the consternation of Skullion. The thought occurred to me while reading Porterhouse was how good the novel would have been were it to be written more in the vein of literary fiction. However, it wasn’t.

Looking at the cover of the book, I think it nicely summarises the content. Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover.

Book review – Saints of the Shadow Bible

Last November I picked up the 18th novel in Ian Rankin’s Rebus series (and reviewed it in these pages). At that time, it’d been a decade since I’d read a Rebus novel, not being aware that Rankin had brought him out of retirement (albeit in a civilian role). My overall impression of Rebus #18 was positive, albeit accompanied with the sense that something was missing, and hoping that that missing thing would return in Rebus #19.

Rebus #19 – Saints of the Shadow Bible – (2013) sees Rebus back on the force, in the rankling (no pun intended!) position of Detective Sergeant; a demotion. The title sounds more like a Dan Brown novel and refers to the crew (the ‘Saints’) that Rebus first ran around with on joining the force, each of whom swore an oath on what was known as the ‘Shadow Bible’. The Saints played hard – more ‘Life on Mars’ than ‘Line of Duty’ – and not always by the book. Following changes to Scotland’s double jeopardy law, the Solicitor General wants to reopen a case which could cause problems for the Saints, who’ve gone their separate ways. Leading the investigation is Malcolm Fox in his last case for ‘Complaints’ – the force’s internal affairs division. Fox and Rebus aren’t the best of friends and Siobhan “Shiv” Clarke, now a DI, and Rebus’s boss, is referee. As ever, there’s another case on the boil which becomes entwined with the Saints.

So, does the missing ingredient return and what was it? It’s hard to be precise but it’s fair to say that Saints feels like a Rebus book of old. With Rebus back on the force and the sparring that entails, I think we find our missing ingredient. There seems to be more of Shiv in comparison with #18 – if memory serves – and watching the relationship with Fox unfold is a delight. You can take for granted that it’s well written, with excellent characterisation, and Rankin does his usual excellent job of weaving together a number of seemingly disparate and believable stories.

It’s highly recommended but you really should start at the beginning with Knots and Crosses. You’ll thank me.

Book review – White Noise

White Noise (1984) is regarded as classic of modern literature. The attraction for me, however, was the author, Don DeLillo, whose novel Underworld impressed me enough to check out another of his books. Our chief protagonist is Jack Gladney, professor of Hitler studies at a provincial college. Gladney lives with his wife Babette and a throng of children from their present and past marriages. The book is seemingly about nothing in particular though one theme emerges in the form of death, as Jack and Babette share their fear of death and their fear of dying before or after the other.

Things get more interesting in the second part of the book, which is titled ‘The Airborne Toxic Event’, from which the American indie band took their name. Little did I know however that that realisation was to be my favourite moment of reading the book. The event in question is the result of a chemical spill in the vicinity of the family’s house, which forces the family to evacuate to temporary accommodation. On returning home (for the third part of the book) we become aware of how Babette’s fear of death has led to some ill-judged decisions which ultimately lead to even greater drama.

White Noise is apparently a critique of modern consumption, whether that be the consumption of media or physical goods. It also takes a shot at academia and the over-intellectualisation of things, which evinces itself in the simplest of things, e.g. whereby Jack and Babette refer to each other in the third person (which was especially annoying). While one could probably dissect the book in an intellectual fashion and marvel at DeLillo’s ability to satirise modern society, I found the characters to be shallow and loathsome with few redeeming qualities. Completing the book took some effort; while the change of the pace in the second part of the book was welcome, the third descends into farce, though there is a wonderful dialogue between Jack and a nun towards the end of the book.

Frankly, I couldn’t wait to get the book out of the way before I could move onto something which verged upon a plot, rather than a treatise wrapped in the shape of a novel! I wouldn’t recommend White Noise but there appear to be plenty of people who would.

Book review – A Delicate Truth

A Delicate Truth (2013) is another of John le Carre’s standalone novels (as opposed to his George Smiley series), and firmly within the spy firmament for which he is so well known. This time round we follow in the footsteps of a young, ambitious foreign office official, Toby Bell. Bell is private secretary to a morally ambiguous FO minister, who’s particularly friendly with a defence contractor. The minister is embroiled in a botched mission in Gibraltar, involving our friend the defence contractor, which Bell only becomes aware of through a former diplomat, Sir ‘Kit’ Probyn. Probyn was on the ground during the operation and informs Bell that innocents were killed and that a cover-up is in play, leading to the death of others involved in the operation. Bell therefore finds himself at the centre of things and needs to decide whether to remain loyal to his minister or to blow the whistle.

Numerous reviews of this book suggest that this is Le Carre’s first true post-Cold War novel. I can’t really comment on that, having read a fair few but not all of Le Carre’s works. What is interesting however is that this novel feels the closest to reality. The Gibraltar operation isn’t a million miles off the notorious 1988 SAS operation, Flavius, which resulted in the supposedly unlawful deaths of three IRA members. The close relationship between a minister and defence contractor also finds art imitating life. Liam Fox MP resigned as defence secretary in 2011 following allegations his friend, a lobbyist, had inappropriate access via Fox to departmental meetings, and thus falling foul of the ministerial code. Lastly, the suicide of Dr David Kelley (whose death led to the Hutton Inquiry) also appears to be reflected in the book.

Ironically, the largest event in UK spying history (that we know of anyway!), the outing of the so-called Cambridge Five, including Kim Philby, as Russian spies, doesn’t have a parallel within A Delicate Truth. Spying within the upper echelons of the UK’s secret service has been a theme throughout le Carre’s novels, especially the Smiley series and he’s clearly made a conscious decision to keep the high-level skulduggery to a minimum, focussing on a relatively junior member of staff stuck between a rock and a hard place.

One of the things I most enjoy about le Carre’s novels is the high-level skulduggery, so it’s fair to say that I was a little disappointed, finding the subject of the book to be a little pedestrian compared to the full-on spy novels I’m accustomed to. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book, which has plenty to offer in terms of thrills, twists and turns, and at just over 300 pages is a pretty quick read. Recommended.