Mr Vertigo

MrVertigo

by Paul Auster

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first read Mr Vertigo in the nineties, but picking it up again recently and reading the first page I was totally hooked. (Coincidentally Man on Wire was on TV the other day and they are almost the same stories told in different mediums.) Mr Vertigo has one of the best opening lines ever: ‘I was twelve years old the first time I walked on water. The man in the black clothes taught me how to do it and I’m not going to pretend I learned the trick overnight…’

It is the story of Walter Rawley ‘Walt the Wonderboy’ – a smart mouthed orphan on the streets of 1930’s St Louis and also our narrator for this fantastical old-fashioned tall-tale. On the very first page he takes up with the mysterious magician and showman Master Yehudi who makes him a deal that: ‘If I haven’t taught you to fly by your thirteenth birthday you can chop my head off with an axe.’ (this is also an amazing hook line for the first page of a book.) The rest of the story chronicles his adventures as the master teaches him to fly and they go on a vaudeville tour of America that starts in triumph and ends in disaster.

This first section of the book where Walt is learning to fly is totally engrossing, and beautiful heart in the mouth writing almost as good as you imagine the first flight is for Walt. It’s a great mix of magic realism and Huck Finn and I love the fact that Walt has to put himself through such hardships in order to achieve his goal, it gives the story a gritty edge as opposed to the airy-fairy flying of Peter Pan. Yet there is still a sense of a young child’s wonder and imagination in a world where anything is possible if you believe it is and this is mixed with the harsh realities of the time – the racism, crime, poverty and the Wall Street crash, albeit some of these effect Walt more than others.

The second (and less interesting) half of the book chronicles Walt’s life as a grown up first as a big shot gangster and then as the usual everyman with ups and downs. It is only as an old man that he is finally able to come to terms with his failure and successes as a human being and reflect on his childhood. I found the very last section very moving especially Walt’s last thoughts on what humans are capable of. I suppose his flight is a metaphor for the height of human achievements, learning a skill to such a high ability that you transcend the mundane and it becomes sublime and enlightening, what it is like to lose that ability – that brilliance and realise that you are just an average Joe like everyone else, but how there is always a chance, however slim, to regain it if you believe.

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Close Range: Brokeback Mountain and Other stories

Brokeback_mountainby Annie Proulx

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is such a beautifully written book. The prose is so well crafted and polished until it shines. Annie Proulx’s subtle mixture of the character’s voice and local dialect and slang with her own elegiac descriptions is a great example of free indirect style. She is amazing at describing landscapes and summing up people in a few sentences and she’s good at the subtlety of smell (all these cattle ranchers pong). My favourite stories were Brokeback Mountain – but you kind of imagine the story with the actors, having seen the movie a few times – and also The Mud Below – which was about a rodeo rider, and I imagine they also used bits of in the film. The rest of the stories are consistently good too.

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Bone: The Complete Cartoon Epic in One Volume

bone-collectionby Jeff Smith

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Three cousins – the Bones – are run out of Boneville and get lost in the desert. They wind up in a mysterious valley, where they meet a young girl Thorn and her Grandma Ben and get sucked into an epic adventure of good versus evil, magic, dragons, yokels, talking bugs, and stupid stupid rat creatures.

This is such a brilliant graphic novel. A cross between the old Disney comics – think Carl Barks’ Donald & Scrooge McDuck or Floyd Gottfredson’s Mickey Mouse adventure strips – and Lord of The Rings – you wouldn’t think such a thing was possible, but it is and it works really well! The three Bone cousins reference those old Disney comics in their design and character poses as well as their sassy forties(?) American comic book dialogue. Phone Bone is a kind of Mickey Mouse good guy hero; Phoney is the Scrooge McDuck of the gang with his greedy money-making schemes and Smiley is more of Goofy type – but one who plays dumber than he really is. The humans too are nicely designed cartoon characters that reference a more modern nineties Disney style. The inking and the strong graphic black and white design of the panels is beautifully done. But what makes the comic is the banter of the Bone cousins as they go from comedy scenarios to high fantasy adventure.

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The Inheritors by William Golding

The inheritorsMy rating: 4 of 5 stars

A last tribe of Neanderthals (the People) arrive in their Summer home – a rocky outcrop near the top of a large waterfall. Peaceful hunter gatherers with an earth-mother religion, they do not understand tools, nor can they formulate complex thoughts, they speak simply and also they communicate telepathically through pictures. One day they smell strangers nearby and gradually the become aware of a tribe of Homo Sapiens (the new people) who have come up the river in dug out canoes and are camping on a river island. The new people steal the Neanderthal children and kill the tribe elders, only Lok and Fa, a man and woman, are left, and they set out to rescue the children.

Despite being written in simple language this is quite a difficult book to read. This is because WIlliam Golding has chosen to tell the story in style that suggest a Neanderthal mindset. Though it’s written in the third person the narration is skewed to suggest the protagonist – Lok’s – view. As he spies on the homo sapiens a lot of their behaviour is alien to him. He also has a strange way of describing everything — from the geography of places to interactions between characters — there is sometimes no distinction in his observations between the real and unreal and this gives the story a dream like quality that is often hard to follow.

The Neanderthals in the book are verging on that cliché of the simple, peaceful tribal people who, once again, represent humans before the fall, before consciousness. Where as the homo sapiens are more badly behaved, drinking, killing, beating etc. Stylistically it is an interesting device to use the writing to suggest the Neanderthal mind, I think it works really well but throws up lots of issues. At two points the narration jarred for me, when Lok used the words: ‘make love’, which sounded too twentieth century and also at another point when Golding stepped away from Lok’s view to give an authorial comment, and I can’t remember why, otherwise the style works really well. One of the other strange side effect though was that at the end when the narration switches to a Homo sapiens man’s view, he is suddenly starling sophisticated by comparison in the way he formulates ideas. The distinction works well but also makes the Homo sapiens feel very advanced.

The book’s introduction suggests that Neanderthals didn’t have language, which makes sense, language is what separates us from other animals, it is the start of abstract thought and duality – separating and portioning everything out and printed words suggest that so strongly too, so maybe it would be impossible to use written language to create a Neanderthal view of the world, but Golding has given it a damn good try!

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Black Jack by Leon Garfield

Black-JackMy rating: 3 of 5 stars

1750 and Tolly Dorking is set to look after the coffin of a hanged man – Black Jack. But Black Jack has cheated the hangman’s noose with a length of pipe and when he awakens he drags Tolly off to help him find an apothecary. Thus begins their adventure. They meet Belle a mad girl, who is lost in the woods and all three join up with a band of gypsy caravans as they try to discover where Belle is from.

I recently saw the Ken Loach film of this children’s novel. I loved it and so wanted to read the book and see how that compared. The plotting in the book is definitely better, things that were unexplained in the film now make sense. I think the child leads come to life a little more in the film, but maybe that’s because I saw it first. The writing is quite sophisticated for a children’s story and sometimes I found the prose style a little dry, but there’s no denying it is very well written. Leon Garfield’s character descriptions and his eye for detail are amazing. I particularly liked the description of Hatch arriving at the lunatic asylum –

“a foul filthy face was pressed against the glass. Then, seeing itself observed, the semblance of a grin appeared, and its sharp, sharp eyes glittered like Judas windows in what seemed to be a mansion of mud.”

I found the love story between Tolly and Belle a little flat, even as a chaste first love there could have been more interaction between them. But despite this it was an enjoyable read full of great characters.

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Just Kids by Patti Smith

just-kids-patti-smith-book

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In 1967, when she was nineteen, Patti got pregnant. She left college and quit her factory job and after giving birth gave the baby up for adoption. When she came home, she decided to move to New York to start a new life. She wanted to be a painter and poet and though she had no job she knew a few friends who were students in Brooklyn. She ended up sleeping on their floors or some times rough on the streets. Then, running away from a date, she met Robert Mapplethorpe. The book is their story. How they became lovers, then friends and then muses to each other.

I loved this book so much. The writing is beautiful and poetic and somehow craft-like, sewing in little motifs that Patti and Robert talk about. The sequences of Patti and Roberts meeting is romantic and the ending so deeply touching that it made me very tearful! Throughout the book they both have a single-minded commitment to their art and support each other in their artistic endeavours. They ended up living in the Chelsea Hotel and meeting a lot of the famous people of the era. The friends, lovers, mentors and hero’s Patti discusses are all remembered with warm open-hearted kindness so that it never feels like she is name dropping for the sake of it. And her love, and romantic, maybe somewhat rose-tinted view, of the down and out New York of the sixties and seventies – the garrets, the alternative bars the dirty lofts and the flea-bag motels – comes through on every page. There is a definite and interesting overlap with ‘City Boy’ which takes place in New York of the same period, but Edmund White moved in very different circles, his book featured more literary types and also the Stonewall riots and the gay liberation movement. Where as Patti and Robert – whose work is so confrontational in its sexuality, seem outside of this. Patti’s world revolved more around the beats, Warhol factory outsiders and rock and rollers, but most of all it is about her enduring friendship with Robert and how it shaped her life.

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Twenty One Stories by Graham Greene

GrahamGreene

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It takes me such a long time to read books of short stories I can never quite get into them because they are always like little fragments. Some of these ones I really loved – The Destructors, I spy, The Basement Room, When Greek meets Greek are all five-star stories. Lots of the others are very good too – I liked Brother and The Blue Room. The only stories I thought failed were the few where he tried to do something a bit gothic and a couple of others that seemed very dated. But I like Greene’s writing, he’s a master of free indirect style and descriptive phrases. I want to reread more of his novels – a few of which I read as a teenager.

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I Am Number Four by Pittacus Lore

i-am-number-four-image

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

John Smith is a teenage boy in high school and also an alien. He is Number 4, a Loric from the planet Lorien, whose people are eco warriors (like the Lorien elves in LOTR). His planet was attacked by the evil Mogadorians from Mogadon (like the clinical drug and heavy sedative?!) and he and eight other children, along with their guardians, were forced to come to earth and go on the run disguised as humans. While they wait for puberty to kick in and their magic powers to develop they are being systematical hunted and killed in numerical order by the Mogadorians.

This is a young adult science-fiction fantasy set in and around a high school – with all the clichés that entails. Its hero is an alien boy in that fairytale sense where, like in Star Wars or Smallville, he is in every way a human teenager, but with magic powers. This is important because there is the whole high school story line to negotiate, where he makes friends with the geek-outsider, beats the jock-bully and gets the pretty-girlfriend ( whose one character trait is that she builds a cat sanctuary!). I couldn’t help but feel if the alien-boy had a tiny bit more cultural and physical difficulty fitting in, rather than just the usual teenage issues and the matter-of-fact magic, it would have made him a more interesting character.

The book is well plotted and mixes between the alien and the high school story lines with some skill, but parts of the story and dialogue are very clichéd. The way characters react to the fact that their friend is an alien with magic powers and a load of other aliens have just rocked up to try and kill him is also highly unbelievable. There is some terrible writing and copy editing in parts of the action, which means I sometimes got a little confused. Also, the rules for the magic are a tad nonsensical and towards the end the author even seemed to add in a few new rules just when he needed them. Or, just as bad, he will spend ages clunkingly setting up a magical skill or twist just to use it in one sequence. But if those kind of things don’t annoy you too much and you can suspend your disbelief then its a fun trashy-read with lots of exciting action sequences. I think teenagers would love it.

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Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

Treasure Island Illustrations by Mervyn Peake
Treasure Island Illustrations by Mervyn Peake

by Robert Louis Stevenson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is such a good children’s book. The pirate characters are just brilliantly drawn, and their dialogue is just great – over the top and salted with pirate slang. Even the hero Jack Hawkins is interesting for a Victorian child protagonist and he gets a lot of physical action and adventure – which in reality would be way beyond his age and ability – this must be the prototype for all children’s adventure books that followed. Not only is the characterisation great but it is also brilliantly plotted and I am sure if you put it against the Hero’s Journey model it would hit all the beats.
I think, from memory of the movie versions (I recently saw treasure planet the animated version,) the plotting in the book seems more sophisticated, which is surprising too. It seems like they also stole whole chunks of its plot and characterisation for the original Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Altogether the archetype of children’s and YA adventure and I think it would stand up well to any modern competitors.

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Interview With the Vampire by Anne Rice

Interview_with_the_vampire

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have the audible audiobook version as it took me many years to get round to finally ‘reading’ this book, but I loved it. I think it has so many great characters and ideas and the prose is so atmospheric and alive, helped here by a good reading by Simon Vance.

The characters are paradoxically human in their dilemmas and concerns with death, immortality, morality, and the truth of life. I loved the way Louis describes things, especially his many description of heightened emotional or altered states. The details of his becoming a vampire, drinking blood, pushing himself to starvation, the grief of losing his friends, lovers and a child are all so vivid and full of blazing detail. In some passages it felt like it was grasping to describe the kind of awareness you would only get in a clear enlightened state, a pure moment of awareness of life – and this is maybe part the metaphor of the vampirism – the feeling of life vs the idea of it propagated by religion or humanity.

All of these scenarios and themes are woven into an exciting and engaging story. The closeness to the characters’ texture and emotions is so strong you really do feel as if you know them, and yet they are larger than life, these are bigger versions of human situations and relationships, reflected through this prism of vampires. Sometimes things do become a little soapy or baroque but on the whole the characters are so engaging and involving that you almost believe they could exist. That’s the end of my review and it came out a lot more gushing than I intended, but I really did love the book!

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