Thursday, January 20, 2005

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Wednesday, August 20, 2003

Title: The Cutting Room
Author: Louise Welsh
Publisher: Canongate

The Cutting Room is the highly acclaimed debut novel by Scottish writer Louise Welsh. On the one hand celebrated as being a striking new crime novel, while on the other being described as a work that transcends the genre. Personally I think I'm in the transcends genre camp, though that is most likely because I don't entirely believe that it is a crime novel at all.

Despite the fact that I found The Cutting Room to be reasonably enjoyable, I do have to say that I mainly found it unsatisfying. At the root of that dissatisfaction is the complete lack of tension that I feel. As we reach the climax, there is a twist of sorts and the tension should come from the last mad rush. However it doesn't really have the effect, I don't really get that mad rush - nothing that is happening really seems to make a difference.

Rilke is an agent for an auction house, and with the death of Mr. McKindless it looks like they are being offered the biggest job the company has seen in a long time. However Rilke is sent off on a tangent of obsession when he finds some photographs in the attic of the house. They seem to show the murder of a young woman, and there seems to be a link to the dead man. This is where I hit on the core of the book, and the reason why I get no real sense of tension or urgency. The photographs are clearly old, so if a woman died, then she died some 30-40 years before. If Mr. McKindless was involved in her death, then he isn't going to be threatening anyone else, since he is dead. In fact Rilke seems to spend far too much time trying to determine whether the photos are even real for us to feel particularly concerned by their content. On his quest for the truth Rilke certainly meets plenty of dubious characters, and is warned that they are bad bastards and he shouldn't mess. Despite this suggestion there is no evidence of threat until the last 20-30 pages and even then it's too quick to change the feeling of the previous 200.

Almost as central to the book as the photographs is the character of Rilke, and the fact that he is homosexual. In some ways I can't decide what to make of the portrayal of Rilke. At one point he expresses negative feeling towards the gay clichés, Judy Garland records and affected campness. So we know that Rilke isn't that kind of gay, in fact for the most part Rilke is just a regular guy - which, lets face it, is how it should be. However Rilke seems to spend a reasonable amount of time in parks, bar toilets and generally with strangers, taking every opportunity to have sex. In some ways this comes across as another kind of cliché, the cruising and the ease and the promiscuity of the scene. Sure, this is a more honest portrayal, no doubt, than the Judy Garland style approach, but it is still one that seems exaggerated by the familiarity. On the other hand for people that pay attention to these kind of things, the fact that Rilke is the main character is probably a big deal, especially when the response to the book is taken into account.

With that in mind it will be interesting to see how the film fares. The latest press reporting that Robert Carlyle has been cast in the lead role. As cinema is a more popular medium the debate over the prominent gay role will no doubt be more conscious. In some ways I think the ending of the book feels somewhat cinematic and as such it may well work better on the big screen. The cast of characters should also be quite colourful for an adaptation.

For me the whole interaction of the character and who he meets is more interesting than the actual thing which is supposed to drive the book. His reaction to a young man he meets being perhaps the most endearing thing about the character, contrasting the bulk of what we are shown. Still I remain unconvinced in the end, with some heavy handed scenes, and certain lines of the book really detracting from the whole.

August 2003

Title: Going Out
Author: Scarlett Thomas
Publisher: 4th Estate

Going Out is the most recent novel by Scarlett Thomas, which has just been published as paper back, following an oversized edition. Going Out is essentially the story of Luke and Julie, two 25 year olds who have been best friends for years. Luke was diagnosed with XP, the illness which means he is allergic to sunlight (think those precocious children in The Others!), as a child. With the result he has been house bound all his life, carefully avoiding any exposure that could set off his allergies. His greatest ambition is to get out and see something of the world past the television. Julie has become increasingly paranoid and a hypochondriac, just about everything scares her. She won't travel by plane or train and can just about manage b-roads. The thought of staying inside, safe, for the rest of her life appeals. However Julie would do anything for Luke to get better. This is how the pair end up on a road trip to Wales - a healer having contacted Luke to suggest that if he comes to see him he might be able to help. The first half of the book is concerned with the set up, introducing these two and the rest of the characters. The latter part of the book sees all the characters suddenly brought together for this journey - on which each have their own goals.

Going Out is very much a contemporary novel, so that it is already dated by the references which mark when it is set. Which isn't to suggest that the book is out of date, rather that Scarlett Thomas has made this a novel dense with pop culture references. In a way that really makes the characters alive, making it easier for us to follow and appreciate what is happening. Being set in the south east of England with a journey to Wales, there is a certain level of this book which might work best if you are British. However Thomas' ability makes this a thoroughly enjoyable book, with characters that are lively and a situation that is filled with a light humour. Overall I found this an entirely enjoyable novel, and coupled with having read Dead Clever before, I can safely say I have become a big fan of Scarlett's work.

August 2003

Title: Slaughterhouse 5
Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Publisher: Vintage

The Vintage Crucial Classics print is a selection of 12 classic novels produced in a limited edition format. These books are being sold at a special price of £3.99, including work by Graham Greene, Angela Carter, Iris Murdoch, and Mikhail Bulgakov. Of the dozen I have so far bought Bulgakov's The Master And Margarita, and Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse 5.

Despite the reputation of Vonnegut I have never read any of his material until now. Starting off Slaughterhouse 5 I get impressions of Philip K Dick's work, a writer from the same general time, who at least initially seems to have the same kind of vibe. Though as I work my way forward the difference that makes Vonnegut who he is starts to come through.

There are a couple of interpretations of Slaughterhouse 5 available. One is that Billy Pilgrim is a unique individual, who has come unstuck in time, travelling from moment to moment over the course of his life without warning; including being kidnapped by aliens and made to live in one of their zoos. The other interpretation is that Billy Pilgrim is barking mad, a man thrown into World War II at the deep end and living with the repercussions for the rest of his life.

As far as Billy Pilgrim is concerned it all makes sense. He studied to become an optometrist. Was sent to Europe before he could finish his study. Was soon captured by the Germans and made a prisoner of war. As a prisoner of war he was witness to the catastrophic bombing of Dresden. Upon returning home he finished his training. Married and had children.

The flow of Slaughterhouse 5 however is not that straight forward. Just as the life of Billy Pilgrim would seem not to be that straight forward. Vonnegut cuts the narrative up, propelling us on with a certain tongue in cheek effect. One moment Billy is on his honeymoon, the next in a prisoner of war camp, the next in an alien zoo. Through which he has to maintain a certain outlook so he can keep going, his motto becoming - so it goes.

The bombing of Dresden is what Slaughterhouse 5 is really about. The first chapter accounting for Vonnegut's own experience as a prisoner of war, who witnessed the bombing himself. He explains how this is a book about those events, how it is not a big book, because only so much can be said. A comment which is true, this is not a big book, just over 150 pages, but even with that Dresden remains a presence. Something inevitable and dark, which can't be shifted, and reflects throughout the real tragedy that is Billy Pilgrim's life. Even if he manages to shrug everything else off, we the reader are left with the effect of Vonnegut's story.

August 2003

Title: Sweetmeat
Author: Luke Sutherland
Publisher: Doubleday

I have just finished reading Sweetmeat, the second novel by Luke Sutherland. Sutherland was involved with alt.rock band Long Fin Killie, before more recently working under the name Bows, who released several CDs on the Too Pure label. Jellyroll was his first novel.

Sutherland creates a considerable character with Sweetmeat. Bohemond is as Sutherland gleefully and regularly points out a "fat black chef", and he really means fat. The fact that he has long hair and permanent make up doesn't help when it comes to people's responses to him. Bohemond is used to being treated like a freak, and throws himself into his cooking instead of dwelling on it. Still he does dwell on his unrequited love for Hermione, who owns the hotel where he works. They saved each other's lives, and Bo has been in love with her since.

Sweetmeat starts with the imminent wedding of Hermione. Bohemond plots to cook the most fantastic meal ever, so that Hermione will realise what a mistake she is making and turn to Bo instead of her husband to be. Interspersed with these plans, Faulkner the head of the hotel's band and an aging adventurer regales guests with wild tales. Tales which have an edge of the fantastic to them, an edge which permeates the atmosphere of the hotel as the book goes on.

Reality becomes a fracture. Relationships become too complex. In his desperate desire to capture Hermione's heart Bohemond does foolish things. At times you want to slap him, tell him to get a grip, point him in the direction of what is really going on. In some ways the odd little events manage to do this for us, the images and glimpses of things can't be real start to guide and turn Bohemond and soon he is involved in something else entirely.

At first the fairy tale/story telling aspect of Sweetmeat is a little distracting. It is a ploy I've seen before, interspersing core narrative with tangents, sometimes coming across as padding. But these tales start to merge with reality and the result starts to become magical. Sutherland's prose and Bohemond's faith (naive as it may sometimes be) bring the reader in and keep them captivated. Initially not sure what to make of Sweetmeat in the end I enjoyed this book a lot.

August 2003

Title: After The Quake
Author: Huraki Murakami
Publisher: Vintage

After The Quake is the most recent book by Japanese author Haruki Murakami. A series of six short stories, all linked loosely by an earthquake. Each story makes passing reference for the most part, one of the characters likely being from the area or knowing someone where the quake happened. As the stories goes on they each get further and further from the actual event, which is to say they are in chronological order.

As I say the references to the earthquake are passing, in all but one story, so the links to each other are a little tenuous and the stories can easily stand as individuals. The narratives tend towards the snapshot form rather than plot form, which is something I am becoming conscious of in literary short stories. This tends to make the pieces brief and to be honest not entirely memorable. We meet a girl who likes to hang out with a man that builds fires. A woman who gets away from her past on holiday, swimming every day. A man who deals with the aftermath of a failed love triangle while lamenting the death of the short story. and a giant frog who will fight the worm who would destroy Tokyo.

The super frog story is actually my favourite of the pieces here, there is a strong sense of the absurd and a definite humour that appeals, with more of an actual plot seeming to come through. The other pieces work well enough at painting their pictures, but overall After The Quake is too short.

August 2003

Title: So I Am Glad
Author: A.L. Kennedy
Publisher: Vintage

So I Am Glad is a curious novel. Saying what it is about is easy, explaining how that works probably less so. When a strange man comes down the stairs and into kitchen of a shared house in Glasgow, Jennifer assumes he is Martin, the new guy who is going to stay with them for awhile. Rather he is an amnesiac, with no memory of who he is or how he came to be in the house. Not long after his appearance he realises that he is in fact Cyrano De Bergerac, which is odd given he remembers dying 300 years earlier. When he decides he is being a burden on Jennifer he decides to leave the house, but with nothing to his name and in a foreign time/country he has limited options. Jennifer has had growing feelings for Cyrano, which given that Jennifer doesn't tend to have feelings about much is quite something. So she is quite distraught by his disappearance - a period which sees both of them hit bottom. With reunion helping the two to some degree, but the darkness of the time between needs to be resolved.

Quite how a 300 year dead French man ends up in Glasgow is never really covered, its not really a worry when it comes down to it. The core of the book is Jennifer who from my reading of Kennedy's work to date seems to be one of her classic characters - to some degree appearing perfectly normal, while being animated by an inner turmoil. Though given how calm Jennifer claims she is turmoil is likely too strong a word.

Kennedy writes Jennifer as narrator, so much of the story is through her thoughts and reflections. Tending towards emotional ground, as this is essentially for the most part a love story. There is also a strong thread of darkness through both characters - Jennifer has had violent relationships, and Savienen comes from a different age where men killed each other for honour, which sets him up for the life of violence led while outside the house.

Of course one hopes that an author gets better with each new work. So it should not really be a surprise that I found that I enjoyed the recent novel Everything You Need to a greater extent than this previous novel. Still over all I did enjoy So I Am Glad, and am likely to continue to explore Kennedy's work back the way while waiting for another forward step.

August 2003

Title: The Earthquake Bird
Author: Susanna Jones
Publisher: Picador

Instead of being a seventh son, Lucy was a disappointment. A fact she was never allowed to forget as she was neglected or mistreated as a child. So when she was old enough Lucy was only too happy to get as far away from home as possible. For Lucy that means Japan, where she has been for 10 years now. so she is less than pleased by the arrival of Lily. An English girl who has run away, to find herself a stranger in a strange land. Lily sees Lucy as her saviour - a woman from the same part of England, who knows how things work here. For Lucy though Lily opens wounds, triggering memories she'd rather not have.

The Earthquake Bird starts with the arrest of Lucy for Lily's murder. From there the story unfolds in Lucy's head - locked in a cell and refusing to answer any of the police's questions. With this Lucy's character and history are built up. First meeting her Japanese boyfriend, starting her job and the like. The things from her past, dark moments which seem to implicate Lucy. The introduction of Lily and how despite it all they became friends. Susanna Jones pulls all the pieces together in her first novel so that we really don't know whether Lucy did kill Lily or not right up till the end.

The quotes on the back of the book promise a shocking conclusion. For me though the tone of the book is off-kilter enough that little seems surprising. Lucy refers to herself regularly in the third person, which seems curious. With that, our perceptions of what is going on are shaped by the way Lucy looks at the world. Overall I enjoyed The Earthquake Bird, the writing style is strong and readable. The mix of cultures provides an interesting backdrop, especially where it is ones that contrast so much, and where the character will never quite fit in.

August 2003

Title: Felaheen
Author: Jon Courtenay Grimwood
Publisher: Earthlight

Felaheen is the third in Jon Courtenay Grimwood's Arabesk Trilogy, a cycle following the rise of Ashraf Bey from prison inmate to son of the most powerful man in Africa. All along there has been an 'is he, isn't he' scene set up, regarding whether he was just a convenient pawn put in place at the right time, who has run with it, or if he is indeed who they say he is. At the same time Raf has found himself playing the role of detective. In Pashazade he stood accused of murdering the aunt who brought him to Africa. In Effendi the father of the woman he loves was put on trial. Leaving Felaheen, where someone is trying to kill the Emir of Tunis, his alleged father.

In some ways Jon Courtenay Grimwood has fallen into a rut with this series. It doesn't really flex and expand as it should. The use of flashback damages the pacing, so that it takes longer to get into. Felaheen avoids the stumbling overlap that initially tripped up Effendi but still comes out as the weakest of the trilogy. A plot is certainly there, enough bits and bobs, suspects and distractions. So that by the time we get to whodunit it seems too easy, too out of a hat, for the reader to really care.

Which is a real pity, because Pashazade had a lot of potential to be built on. Ashraf is of course too cool, things done in his head make him truly post-human. His niece Hani obviously comes from the same background, an 11 year old genius, who is destined no doubt to surpass her uncle. The growth of Hani, and how she contrasts/compliments Ashraf and his past is one of the real successes of the series. Though perhaps at the expense of Zara, who was a bomb in Pashazade and a damp squib in everything else, a radiant woman defying her culture, ready to go off at any minute. While she is present in Effendi and Felaheen it almost seems that Grimwood can't quite work out what to do with her - so instead of being this striking character she is pouting wallpaper. Another addition which worked well was Edward, Ashraf's assistant. An average man who is good at his job and utterly bemused to find someone who noticed enough to take him seriously. Bumbling in some ways, but there is a certain joy as he relishes and celebrates the role.

Ultimately fellaheen is disappointing, there is a lot of potential in there that never quite comes together. Saddening me to say Pashazade remains the highlight.

August 2003

Saturday, June 21, 2003

Title: Feed
Author: M.T. Anderson
Publisher: Walker Books

It bemuses me that Feed - by M.T. Anderson - is listed in some places as being for children, or probably more accurately "young adults". What does "young adult" mean anyway - sounds a bit like a condescending euphemism to me. But hey, I digress, Feed is filled with swearing, not something I particularly associate with novels given that kind of categorization - though, who knows, maybe things have changed since I was that age?

Anyway, the point is, it would be a pity if Feed were dismissed as a "kids" book. M.T. Anderson's writing is too on the ball to be missed. The characters are all young adults themselves, and that is reflected in their speech patterns, with Anderson taking it a step further. The dialogue is very loose, which has a very natural flow, at least initially - progressing to a point where you become conscious of the dumbed down vocabulary, the constant stumbling conversations of even adults in this future America.

The feed is the ultimate media device, plugs straight into the body at an early age. Takes over some major biological roles and generally monitors everything for the purposes of profiling. Which is used to help target you with product 24-7, while also narrowing you towards an easier niche, so that there are fewer niches and more sales. You walk into a shop and get bannered - ads, specs, special offers. You get your music and "TV" from the feed; they've calculated which chord structures will make 13-year-old girls scream.

It is the spring break. Titus and his friends have gone to the moon. It kind of um, sucks. But it changes his life when two things happen. The first event is when Titus met Violet. Violet is different from everyone he has ever met, but the two of them hit it off. The second event happens when Titus and Violet are in a club; they are hacked and end up in hospital.

These two events combine to provide a different view of the world. A world past the ideal of the feed. A world where not everyone approves. Where America has annexed the moon and the rest of the world is pointing some big guns in their direction. The world is dying, riots are breaking out, everyone is ill, but its okay cause the soaps say it's all hip.

Feed is layered with a caustic subtlety, enough critique of the things that are wrong with contemporary Western culture to give the reader a nosebleed. Filled with humour and a strong eye for detail that is combined in an entirely readable narrative.

June 2003

Friday, June 20, 2003

Title: These Demented Lands
Author: Alan Warner
Publisher: Vintage

These Demented Lands is the second novel by Alan Warner, something of a sequel to his debut Morvern Callar. One gets the impression that These Demented Lands follows close on the end of Morvern Callar. Though for the most part the character isn't referenced by name, in fact her name is even blanked out of the text where it should appear, only used at the ending.

These Demented Lands is delivered in alternating sequences, each coming from the two lead characters - referred to as "the girl" and "the air crash investigator" by each other. Like Morvern Callar the girl's sections are delivered in dialect, while the air crash investigator's is closer to standard English. This has a curious effect in terms of how the reader reads each section. The switching between perspectives of the characters also allows for a shifting insight into who the people are, as well as how they see the supporting cast around them. A perception of Morvern was something that I felt lacking in Morvern Callar, so here she is more fleshed out, of course by this stage she has changed considerably from the shelf stacker we first met.

Both the girl and the investigator are living in a hotel on a Scottish island. The rest of the residents are honeymoon couples, setting them up for more active roles in the games that the hotel owner plays with people. Each seeming to clash off each other to some degree, while holding the hotel manager as a common enemy. Around them there are some curious characters - John Brotherhood (the hotel manager), the devil's advocate (camped out in a tent, a judge of whether people are worthy of sainthood), Chef MacBeth (the hotel's incapable cook), the argonaut (the island's premier salvager), a couple of brothers with their father in a coffin, and a team of students trying to guide a herd of cattle across the island. All of whom add a certain surrealness to the proceedings, putting the demented in the title.

These Demented Lands gives the impression of being more compact than Morvern Callar, the events all take place in a more restricted location and seem to have a more compact continuity. The evolution of Morvern leads from a shop girl in the highlands to someone who has been travelling, seen the world and experienced so much in that time. A character who benefits well from this experience so that we witness a more rounded and grown character.

These Demented Lands is a strong follow up to Morvern Caller. Some have described it as being a little surreal, but for me it was entirely readable and thoroughly enjoyable.

June 2003

Title: Blackbox
Author: Nick Walker
Publisher: Headline

Trying to explain Blackbox is likely to be a difficult task I reckon, at least without giving too much detail away or totally confusing the reader. Approaching Blackbox the thing that is most known about the debut novel by Nick Walker is that someone died on a flight and that the death has affected a number of people. Early on we have the speculation of flight numbers - if this is flight 841 does that mean there were 840 previous flights? With this, Walker tells his story in sections, counting down those flight numbers and steadily introducing us to his cast of characters, a large enough group that a character list is included at the end for you to keep track of them all.

Straight off I'll say that Blackbox is very enjoyable. Watching all the pieces come together one by one until the climax is intriguing. Walker introduces us to characters, and then links them to other characters, then links those to yet other characters. The result is a web and actions bring things together so a full circle is evident. Early on the idea of six degrees of separation is echoed, and it is clear that the concept is one of the core thoughts behind the writing. with part of the enjoyment coming from the pieces falling into place, so that the presence of characters, and the way they are behaving fall into place.

The cast of characters includes sisters, brothers, wives, husbands, fathers and daughters. Actions include lies and deception, betrayal and mistaken identity. Characters are filled with guilt at what they have done or anger at what has been done to them. The flow keeping the reader going, so that we come crashing off the key sections with a striking inevitability.

In writing terms I get a comparison to Chuck Palahniuk coming up. The fact that Palahniuk's Survivor also features a count down and a character recording his life on a black box contributes to that as well - though that is really just coincidental base level. Walker delivers a dark humour in his writing, but is less caustic than Palahniuk. Blackbox also feels denser and like more of a writing achievement, Nick Walker delivering a solid piece of work here.

June 2003

Title: Coin Locker Babies
Author: Ryu Murakami
Publisher: Kodansha Europe

Coin Locker Babies is one of only a couple of books available in English from the Japanese author Ryu Murakami. The story of two boys who meet in an orphanage and become firm friends based on the fact that they were both abandoned to die in coin lockers. A fact that stays with them throughout their life. Half of the book is spent following them as they grow up, followed by the years covering their late teens and the climax of their story.

In the orphanage it becomes clear that the two boys have problems. Both of them reacting to those in different ways - one climbs on to random buses and travels as far as possible, the other gather bits and pieces and pretty much builds nests for himself. Eventually it is decided something has to be done and the two are taken to hypnotherapy. This seems to have worked, and eventually the two of them are adopted as brothers by a couple.

From there they grow up on an island until they are 17. One of them runs away to Tokyo, where he dresses as a woman and sells his body, searching for promises of fame. The other goes to Tokyo to find his brother, but in the process has his dark side opened, and driven on by his new girlfriend he wants to destroy Tokyo. Coin Locker Babies is a dark book, dwelling on the problems and the destructive habits of the two boys. Each of them desperately searching for something regardless of the consequences of their actions. As the story progresses it seems that they each head to opposite extremes - one in prison, while the other is at the top of his game.

It is inevitable in many ways that Ryu Murakami will be compared to Haruki Murakami, both being prominent Japanese authors with the name Murakami, both being side by side in the bookshop. But a real comparison is not fair, the two of these authors are very different and they are both setting out to achieve different things. The writing style of Ryu is very straight forward, with a rawness as he explores the emotions of his characters as each of them seems to go slowly mad. Dark and evocative, though certainly not as out there as perhaps some would suggest. After picking up Coin Locker Babies I learned that Ryu was the writer behind the story that became the film Audition - with it being likely that more people reading this will be familiar with the film then it is fair to say that you can see his style coming across there to some degree. Though in terms of the strength of narrative I think Coin Locker Babies is a stronger piece than Audition. Overall Coin Locker Babies is a good read, though perhaps spends too much time on the build up.

June 2003

Title: A Wild Sheep Chase
Author: Haruki Murakami
Publisher: Harvill Press

I have now read all of Haruki Murakami's novels to date (not including non-fiction Underground and story collection The Elephant Vanishes). I started with Dance Dance Dance and ended with A Wild Sheep Chase. Which is a very typical thing for me to have done. Dance Dance Dance was a random choice, taken from curiosity rather than knowledge. Knowledge came soon after as I tried to find out more having enjoyed DDD so much. So it is I find it somewhat ironic that the last book of his that I read should actually be one that is directly related to the first, and in fact it quickly becomes clear that Dance Dance Dance is a sequel of sorts to A Wild Sheep Chase. In real terms it probably doesn't make a lot of difference which order I read them - the links are made regardless. So that as I read A Wild Sheep Chase it quickly falls into place as being the same nameless narrator, his same mystery girlfriend with the gorgeous ears and the same Dolphin hotel.

The narrator has recently broken up with his wife and just started seeing this new girl. A girl who warns him that a phone call will be about sheep just as the events that lead him on a wild sheep chase are set underway. An advertising campaign that he has been responsible for featured a random photo he had been sent by a friend. But the photo features a sheep with a star on its back, a sheep that he now has to find or face the wrath of a powerful and secretive right wing businessman.

Before he knows it he is falling up leads on this sheep, with his girlfriend in tow. Hearing story after story about the mysterious power of this impossible sheep and its dangerous plans for the future of Japan. This leads him further and further into the wilds, with each new and odd character pointing the way.

A Wild Sheep Chase quickly becomes one of my favourite books by Murakami. The way it fits in with Dance Dance Dance raising the pair to a whole new level. The inferences of what is going in terms of psychic happenings and mystery work away at my mind, slowly blowing it a degree at a time. Taking the two together totally changes the two apart, because we get a better feel for who the narrator is, a greater understanding of why he reacts the way he does. The figure of his girlfriend is fleshed out by A Wild Sheep Chase, putting her well up there as one of the best and most elusive of Murakami's women - his women being seductive characters, filled with charm and mystery. Perfect foils for his inevitably male and inevitably non-descript leads.

As with the other novels by Murakami that I have particularly enjoyed he sets up a continuity that seems perfectly normal. One that we can get into and relate to, then weaves in a level of oddness. With the likes of Hardboiled Wonderland he totally flips that idea out there, though with Dance Dance Dance and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles and A Wild Sheep Chase the construction is more subtle and effective for that.

Once you become aware of Murakami and look around you quickly realize that there are a lot of people reading his work. In some ways whether you get into it or not probably depends on you individually and where you start with his work. Personally I feel that A Wild Sheep Chase and Dance Dance Dance are essential reading, as are many of his other works.

June 2003

Title: The Black Album
Author: Hanif Kureishi
Publisher: Faber and Faber

Shahid is the second son of a suburban family. A family trying to find its place between a Pakistani heritage and Britain in 1989. With the death of his father, Shahid has broken free - fled to college in London. There he has a new world opened to him. A world which quickly becomes split and leads to conflict.

The inspiration to come to this college were the good things he heard about the lecturer DeeDee Osgood, whom he falls in love with quickly, finding himself delighted when she returns his interest. At the same time he meets Riaz, a well respected spokesman for the local Muslim community. While he is fascinated by both DeeDee and Riaz and the cultures they represent they are not complimentary. Coming from an atheist background he struggles to come to terms with his new Muslim friends and their beliefs. The fact that they disaprove of the books and music he loves doesn't help. Books and music that DeeDee encourages, taking him to raves and feeding him drugs.

There is something almost surreal to the journey that takes place in The Black Album. Shahid wandering through a haze of bemusement and confusion. When he is caught up in either part he is determined to reject the other - down with the white woman and her corrupting drugs, switching to love for this woman and a rejection of the fundamentalism and extreme ideas. Everything really comes to a head with the declaration of a fatwa in response to Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses. A background of book burning and flash point politics is described, one which Shahid struggles to deal with.

This is the first work by Hanif Kureishi that I have read, so there is little for me to compare it to, though I've read mixed opinions from those with more experience of the author's work. Personally I enjoyed The Black Album a lot. The first chapter captures my attention straight away. The way in which Shahid meets his neighbour Riaz for the first time is cryptic and mysterious, intriguing from the outset. In some ways there is a lot of rambling wandering - between college, family and activism. But it is here where the picture is painted, where all the parts become a whole. It is the pacing of all these components coming together that makes The Black Album work - evoking a period in time and one man's role in clashing cultures so well.

June 2003

Monday, June 16, 2003

Title: Pattern Recognition
Author: William Gibson
Publisher: Viking

Pattern Recognition is the seventh novel by William Gibson, a book he assures is a stand alone novel, not fitting into a trilogy like his previous novels. Gibson really created a name for himself with the Sprawl Trilogy - Neuromancer, Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive being the definitive Cyber Punk novels. With the Bridge Trilogy - Virtual Light, Idoru and All Tomorrow's Parties - Gibson moved closer to the present. Pattern Recognition is firm present form, though with the way these things work by the time it was published it was recent past.

Cayce Pollard is a woman in her early thirties. A "cool-hunter" and consultant for the advertising and marketing industry. Arriving in London to make use of her unique sensitivity to judge a proposed new logo for one of the big manufacturers of trainers. Cayce Pollard has an acute sense of pattern recognition, to the extent that she experiences physical reactions to logos and product that has saturated the globalized culture.

One of Cayce's passions relates to a series of film clips, which have appeared on the internet. She spends her online time on the Fetish:Footage:Forum discussing the finer points of these clips and how they fit together as a bigger picture. Arriving in London it turns out the ad agency has found out about the footage and wants her to help them find the maker of the footage. Recognising it as a memetic sensation, a cult following growing on the internet through a unique vector that the agency wants to exploit. This puts Cayce in a difficult position - possibly sell out her big interest to the very people who are contaminating public spaces with the items that make her ill, or turn down the opportunity to find out the truth behind her personal obsession.

Pattern Recognition doesn't need the levels of technological speculation expected in Gibson's work. The constant presence of cutting edge mobile phones and laptops provides everything on that front, just as the online communities reflect the extensions at work in Idoru. The core plot of mysterious maker and rich backer sending an expert on a quest to reveal all is a familiar one in Gibson's work, some might suggest it has become something of a formula. Regardless it is Gibson's ability with words that really makes him stand out from his peers. It is Gibson's ability with words that so many fail to imitate for all that they riff of the vibe that he set up at the start. The fact that the delivery of the ideas and characters in each new book seduces the reader as well is obviously another considerable factor in Gibson's success.

Pattern Recognition was a work in progress at the time of the terrorist attacks on the world trade centre. With that Pattern Recognition was changed forever in the same way that the lives of so many people were. Faced with the choice of scrapping what had been written to that point or coming to terms with those events, Gibson decided to come to term with those events in Pattern Recognition. As such the ripples are felt throughout Pattern Recognition, Cayce being from New York, her father having disappeared in the hours that followed. To some the references and flash backs that deal with this sub plot will seem tacked on, perhaps sitting awkwardly, but then the event by its nature is one that will feel funny regardless of who tackles the aftermath. For others these events are likely to bring more life to Cayce than the no-logo-backlash that is as central to what makes this woman. The feelings of uncertainty that Cayce retains at the blank in her life left by her father's disappearance must be one that contains a certain resonance in the wake of terrorist acts of that level.

Pattern Recognition fits well in the wave to the present that Gibson has established with the seismic event that was Neuromancer. As with Virtual Light there will be people that won't be happy with Pattern Recognition because it isn't another Neuromancer. It is also just as likely that there will be some unhappy because Pattern Recognition isn't another Virtual Light. Separating yourself from the past is a good idea when approaching Pattern Recognition, a good way to appreciate the patterns and the cast of characters which Cayce interacts with. Here is to more stand-alone novels where William Gibson continues to shine with his ability with words.

June 2003

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