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.

Songs from the Vault

Time for another edition of Songs from the Vault (the last one being May!). No theme, just great tunes.

First up is I Feel Love by Donna Summer and, as important, produced by Giorgio Moroder and Peter Belotte. Recorded in 1976 and released in ’77, it topped the charts in numerous countries including the UK. I went to an Unkle gig earlier this year and the band played along to the tune. Experiencing this classic through a massive sound system was one of my highlights of 2019

You can trace a line from I Feel Love to the next selection, the 1996 techno classic Wisdom to the Wise (Red 2) by Dave Clarke (remixed by Robert Hood). Like IFL Wisdom is pretty sparse but featuring a murderous kick drum. The ‘bring the lights down’ sample, which half makes the tune, is from the Intro to Guru’s Jazzmatazz Volume 2.

One of the bands that I appreciate more and more as I get older is Yo La Tengo. Their ninth studio album And Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out (2000) is a particular favourite (how can you not like an album with a name like that!). Our Way to Fall, the album’s second track, is a quiet, unassuming sort of tune, and beautifully rendered.

I have a soft spot for a-ha, and an even softer spot for Stay on these Roads, the title track off their 1988 album, which I play more than is probably healthy. The band released an MTV unplugged album in 2017 featuring the track, which is as enjoyable as the original.

I’ve tried to include some jazz tunes in SFTV given that it’s the music I listen to mostly. I spent the last week on a jazz course playing with and learning from some of the country’s top musicians. One of the tunes I learnt was John Coltrane’s masterpiece Naima, named after his wife, and which featured on Coltrane’s classic Giant Steps album (1959). Belying its beauty, Naima looks pretty horrendous in terms of its chord progression but I’m pleased to report that I didn’t murder it entirely while performing it!

That’s it for this edition of SFTV, I hope you’ve enjoyed these selections.

Book review – Ordinary Grace

I’ve let over a month go by without posting anything. Life’s been pretty hectic but I hope that usual service will resume. So…

Ordinary Grace (2013) by American author William Kent Krueger starts with the simple phrase, ‘All the dying that summer began with the death of a child…’. At this point you’re not sure about how the book will unravel; whether it’s a crime thriller or something of a more supernatural nature, like Stephen King’s It.

What follows is a description of the summer of 1961 seen through the eyes of thirteen year-old Frank Drum. Drum’s sidekick along the way is younger brother Jake, though we spend a fair bit of time with the rest of the family: prodigious elder sibling Ariel, and parents Nathan, the town’s pastor, and Ruth, who’s taken upon herself the direction of the church choir and the town’s cultural events. The Drums are central to the community of New Bremen, where, through Nathan’s calling, death is a common part of life. It’s Frank, however, who in the summer of ’61 was seemingly at the heart of the tragedies visited upon the town.

The Brandts are another key family in Krueger’s story. Not only are they a pivotal player in the town’s economy but they’re connected to the Drum’s through local celebrity Emil, a famous pianist, who’s mentor to the prodigious Ariel and former lover of Ruth. Emil, who became blind in the Korean war, is looked after by his deaf sister, Lise, who has a special bond with Jake, through their inability to communicate with others. Furthermore, Ariel is in a relationship with Karl, Emil’s nephew.

As with many a book set in a small town, we also have the usual selection of local characters, including Nathan’s army comrade and confidante to Frank and Jake, Gus, and the local reprobate, Morris Engdahl. That’s not to say that any of theses characters are superficial. They all play their role perfectly as do the key protagonists.

I read on Krueger’s Wikipedia page that his favourite book is To Kill a Mockingbird. This doesn’t surprise me one bit. One can quite easily see ‘Scout’ and Atticus Finch in the characters of Frank and Nathan Drum, respectively. On reading Ordinary Grace, other books also came to mind, including Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend, and Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which is exalted company.

At its heart the book is a coming-of-age story which is perfectly rendered by Krueger. Whether or not it ranks among those books mentioned above is academic, few do. What matters is whether it’s worth reading and this book most definitely is. Highly recommended.

Book review – Look to Windward

Look to Windward (2000) is the sixth of Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels, Banks’ series of sci-fi novels about an advanced civilisation known as the ‘Culture’. Banks of course wrote (Banks sadly passed away in 2013) regular fiction and added the ‘M’ (for Menzies) when he was writing sci-fi. I’m not a big sci-fi fan but have read my share of the classics, such as Dune, 2001, and Ender’s Game. I’ve also read the first four Culture novels and enjoyed them all, especially The Player of Games. If you’re wondering why I skipped #5 in the series, it’s only because #6 had better reviews and the fact that each Culture novel is quite distinct from its predecessor, so you’re not missing anything by skipping one.

Look to Windward finds us in Masaq’ Orbital (home to 50 billion inhabitants) on the cusp of the commemoration of a major battle of the Idiran war, which took place 800-years ago: It’s taken 800 years for the light to travel to Masaq’ from two collapsed stars, which featured within the battle. To commemorate the occasion, one of Chel’s most famous composers, Ziller, now an inhabitant on Masaq’, will conduct a new piece of music at the ceremony. At the same time Major Quilan has been dispatched from Chel to pursuade Ziller to return, much to Ziller’s annoyance, who does his utmost to avoid Quilan despite the efforts of his well meaning colleagues. Things aren’t so simple, however, as Ziller suspects Quilan may have plans to murder him, though bigger things are at play.

The world (or should that be universe?) of the Culture is a fantastic place, with all manner of beings and ways of living (and dying). It’s the little things that I enjoy about Culture novels such as the names of the Culture’s General Service Vehicles (ships that build ships): ‘Just Read The Instructions’; ‘Of Course I Still Love You’; ‘Very Little Gravitas Indeed’, etc. The cast is a fine one too, which in addition to Ziller and Quilan includes an avatar of the ship’s Mind (the AI which runs Masaq’), a furry triped named Kabe, and a drone named E.H. Tersono. The dialogue between each of the characters is witty and sometimes quite moving, something which Banks has always excelled at.

Whilst reading Windward, I was reminded of the term ‘space opera’, which is an apt description of the book, bringing to mind terms such as lavish and grandiose. However, in creating the lavish world of Masaq’, Banks is, for my taste, overly descriptive at the cost of the plot, which takes a good while to get moving. Moreover, the novel includes sub-plots which might as well not be included for all the value they bring to the novel, i.e. not a lot.

While the novel has a lot going for it, I’ve enjoyed other Culture novels a lot more (such as the aforementioned The Player of Games, and Consider Phlebas), and would recommend those ahead of Look to Windward.