Monday, March 24, 2014

Review: Glitz

Glitz by Elmore Leonard

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Elmore Leonard is the master of suspense crime thrillers, and 1985's 'Glitz' is the novel the catapulted him into the big time. It's hard to see why, because the author is trundling along in third gear here.

'Glitz' is everything a pulp novel should be: well-plotted with well-defined characters: a story of flawed good people pitched against mundane, low-rent evil; a novel that entertains without ever approaching the status of art. Leonard's world has all the seediness of Raymond Chandler's, with our hero being drawn into a murky underworld and getting mixed up with some thoroughly disreputable characters, but with none of the humour or originality of imagery that raises Chandler to the status of genius.

Miami cop Vincent goes to Puerto Rico to recuperate after being shot, where he finds himself being tailed by bad man Teddy, whom he put away several years before and who harbours a grudge against him based on little more than the look in Vincent's eyes when he arrested him. A girl he meets leads him into the company of a casino owner and his wife, as well as a nightclub singer, which takes him to Atlantic City where he becomes a freelance murder detective after one of the above falls off a balcony. Meanwhile he hooks up with the nightclub singer and gets drawn into tidying up some of the nasty underworld activity associated with the casino. Teddy, perhaps disgruntled that his intended victim isn't giving him his full attention, commits another couple of pointless murders, partly to enhance his status as bad man and partly to give the book a high-enough body count to fulfil the requirements of the genre.

There aren't many plot holes, although some characters do some unlikely things that prove highly convenient to the plot. Some of the characters have annoyingly similar names: Teddy, Ricky and Jackie; DeLeon and LaDonna. The dialogue is excellent and perfectly pitched; the prose suitably economical.

'Glitz' is a fun read, but it's best read without the knowledge that some people think it's a masterpiece, which it clearly isn't.

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Friday, February 28, 2014

Review: The Man Who Watched The Trains Go By

The Man Who Watched The Trains Go By
The Man Who Watched The Trains Go By by Georges Simenon

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It's my first brush with Simenon, so I'm expecting this 1938 roman dur to be something a bit noir and a bit psychological: somewhere between Albert Camus and Raymond Chandler. I was close on the first call: The Book With A Title Too Long To Quote In Full does seem to foreshadow Camus' [b:The Stranger|49552|The Stranger|Albert Camus||3324344], but it quickly becomes clear that this is a satire, not a thriller. Time to reorganise those Goodreads shelves again.

When his boss tells Kees Popinga that the company, and thus Kees himself, is on the brink of ruin, the mild-mannered, responsible family man decides to shrug off all socially imposed conventions and do whatever he pleases. Step one is to abandon his family, step on a train and seduce his former boss's mistress. She has other ideas and laughs so hard that he leaves her gagged on her hotel bed and debunks to Paris. Unfortunately, he gags her too tight and she dies, leading to a manhunt through the streets of Paris.

Simeonon has great fun puncturing Popinga's confused vanity: having declared that he is free from social conventions and the opinions of others, he then sits down and writes lengthy, self-justifying screeds to the newspapers complaining about how he has been misrepresented and misunderstood. In his new, 'free' life he is even more a slave to society's opinion than he ever was before.

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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Review: Psychotic Reactions And Carburetor Dung

Psychotic Reactions And Carburetor Dung
Psychotic Reactions And Carburetor Dung by Lester Bangs

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Bangs might have been 'the greatest music journalist ever', but his rambling, gonzo style is still an acquired taste. There was a clue to his limitations in the opening piece in [b:Main Lines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader|64668|Main Lines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste A Lester Bangs Reader|Lester Bangs||62770]: when he's not writing about music, Bangs is self-indulgently tedious. In short, there's a passion to his music writing that evaporates as soon as he strays into other areas.

This book contains plenty of his quirkily brilliant music journalism - hence the three stars - but it's weighed down by far too many rambling pieces with only the vaguest relevance to rock'n'roll. There's even a section entitled 'Unpublishable', and believe me that's an accurate description. One item details how he'd spent every New Year's Eve since 1967; then there's a book review followed by five pages of notes for the same review, which is an unutterably pointless waste of space.

Then there's a rambling, 12-page piece that I think is a movie review - though I had to check on the internet to be sure - which includes four pages of Bangs' own fantasy and a scene-by-scene synopsis of the film. It's tedious as hell.

Main Lines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste is a brilliant collection, so how can another collection by the same author fall so flat? Probably because the editors of Main Lines thought of Bangs as a music journalist, while this collection's editor, Greil Marcus, was a friend of Bangs and wanted to present "the story … of one man's attempt to confront his loathing of the world, his love for it, and to make sense of what he found in the world and within himself."

Marcus has taken a great writer and sought out his weakest and most dated writing - thankfully fleshed out with some of his good stuff - in an attempt to create a sort of posthumous autobiography. But Bangs was Marcus' friend, not mine, and I simply don't care.

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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Review: Sweet Tooth

Sweet Tooth
Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For a novel by a Booker Prize winner, Sweet Tooth seems, well, slight. McEwan seems to be cruising in third gear here, but then, McEwan in 3rd gear is like an Aston Martin in 3rd gear: exuding easy class while leaving mere Ford Mondeos in its wake. So four stars it is.

The blurb advertises a novel of betrayal and subterfuge; what it doesn't say is that the author is as untrustworthy as anyone. The result is that what seems like a highly readable yet not especially gripping novel has layers of subterfuge and dishonesty that run through every character and extend to the author himself.

The story concerns Serena, who is recruited into MI5 in the early 1970s and finds herself in charge of funding an unwitting author, who is expected to produce work that will validate the West in its ideological struggle with the Soviets. This gives McEwan the chance to find an outlet for the outlines of books he's now never going to write. Fair enough, author Tom's debut From The Somerset Levels looks a bit too close to [b:The Road|6288|The Road|Cormac McCarthy||3355573] by Cormac McCarthy for McEwan ever to publish it himself.

As the ending reveals, McEwan has been playing several games with the reader, all of which raise an appreciative chuckle. It's only then that the fundamental dishonesty of the book is revealed, with teases hidden away and lies usually having two levels. It's this that reinstates the fourth star that Sweet Tooth lost by being a thriller that is neither thrilling nor dangerous.

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Saturday, February 22, 2014

Review: Master and Commander

Master and Commander
Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It's difficult to see why such a grossly flawed book could have won such high praise. Sure, there's a decent story here, but the prose is pedestrian, the action is confusing and O'Brian is obsessed with the minutiae of 1800s maritime life to the exclusion of all else. He doesn't want to tell a story; he wants to show off his research. What's worse, he doesn't even want you to understand what he's writing because his baffling descriptions of how a sailing ship works are intended to show that he's cleverer than you. Being confusing isn't simply an error: it's intentional.

So there are some fascinating actions fought, but O'Brian skips over them so he can get back to the really important business of describing how the topgallants are lanyarded through the larboard fo'c'sle or some other such nonsense.

Characters are introduced by other characters talking about them, so we don't get to learn about their personality; we simply have it explained in a style befitting a school report. O'Brian is clearly an exponent of the 'tell-don't-show' school of writing, and his characterisation is shallow. One of the most important relationships in the novel - that between Aubrey and Dillon - goes sour for barely explained reasons, and the dramatic tension that this could have created is lost by Dillon simply being written out of the book without any resolution, as if the author realised he had an interesting human story developing and wanted to kill it before it got in the way of another few paragraphs about rigging.

The blurb on the back of my copy includes a tribute from [a:Amanda Foreman|183491|Amanda Foreman|], which is worth quoting because it describes what a book such as this should do but utterly fails to do:
His novels … embody the cruelty of battle, the comedy of men's lives, the uncertain fears that plague their lives; and yet, not far away, is the vision of an ideal existence.

This is staggering, because O'Brian deliberately fails to do any of these things. Had he bothered with them, then Master & Commander would have been a brilliant novel. Instead, it's frustratingly half-baked.

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Friday, January 17, 2014

Black Sabbath live at the Birmingham NIA, 22 December 2013

"When I say jump, you jump" 

Call me cynical, but I'm almost embarrassed to admit to enjoying Black Sabbath at Birmingham's National Indoor Arena. But I did, and big thanks to George for inviting me and Tim, Guy, Rachel and Naomi for being fabulous company, as always.
Being there matters less than telling people you were there

Sabbath were good, as were the support, but being a miserable old sod I like moaning. It makes me happy. Besides, you can still enjoy a show without losing sight of the hopeless sterility of it all.

It's collusion. It's a conspiracy to ruin the gig-going experience. It's not just the promoters. The venue, the band and dammit the audience are all in on this.

First up, the band. The NIA is a huge stage. Geezer Butler stood on his own, stage right, and looked like the loneliest man in Birmingham except when Ozzy shuffled over a couple of times to check his pulse. When you've got a right-handed bassist and a southpaw guitarist, they should be the other way round. Having the necks of the guitars pointing inwards puts enough distance between the players that they're not a band any more; just a collection of individuals. Audience and band keep their distance, just in case any un-approved human interaction disrupts the carefully planned event.

And that's where the collusion with the venue comes in. They want everything to be well-managed and ordered. The approved brand of beer comes in approved plastic bottles, which have to be swapped for approved plastic glasses before you go into the hall itself, where your wristband gets checked for the umpteenth time. There's no smoking, of course, but you can't just go outside any old door for a puff - there's a designated outdoor area squeezed between a building site and the car park, chosen specially for being the most grim and miserable place to stand on a wet evening in December. It's unapproved fun, and if we can't stop it we'll make it as unpleasant as we can. Apart from every single played on Top Of The Pops in 1975-6, the worst thing about 70s music was the drum solo, but here at least it served a function. I managed to barge my way out of the hall, buy a beer, traipse about three miles to the smoking area, buy some merchandise and still get back in time for the crunching opening chords of Iron Man.

Sabbath make a great noise live, and the acoustics at the NIA are the best I've ever heard in a sports hall, but Ozzy Osbourne has to be one of the worst frontmen in the history of rock. He was in very good voice, but there's more to fronting a rock band than just singing. Ozzy knows this, but someone should have told him years ago that shuffling across the stage in a semi-crouch like an old man queuing for a soup kitchen, clapping his hands and shouting "Yeah!" at every opportunity doesn't make you Dave Lee Roth. A couple of times in every song he approaches the mic and bellows, "Lemme see yer hands!" before sobbing "We love you," at the end of almost every song.

Then there's the bossing of the audience. When Ozzy says, "This is Tony Iommi; shout his name!" you either shout his name, and a few of the audience did, or you shout, "We know it's Tony fucking Iommi," as we did. And when Ozzy shouts "Jump!", you jump. Most of the crowd did. They were distressingly obedient.

Rock now has rules, and the audience obeyed them. Old farts from the first time round (us), some of them with their teenage kids, turned it from a gig into a day trip to a heavy rock theme park. Ozzy bellowed “Lemme see your hands” again, but most people already had their hands up, brandishing smartphones and even the occasional iPad set to record video. They didn’t come to a live event; they’d come to a life event and were determined to record the fact so they could tick it off their list of 1,000 Things To Do Before Finally Admitting You Really Are A Sad Old Git And Probably Always Were. 

And What did they record? A sea of tiny screens in front of them recording the sea of tiny screens in front of them, and way off in the distance, an enormous screen that dominated the stage, relaying live film of the concert for those too far back to see. Just possibly they might have caught the odd band member, but that was incidental. They didn't come to a gig; they came to to collect social-media-friendly evidence that they'd attended An Event. All this so that when they got home they could upload it onto Facebook and YouTube, so all their friends, acquaintances, work colleagues, former schoolfriends and random people they met at a party four years ago could see their amateur film of a professional film of an event they could actually have seen live if they weren’t so obsessed with their iWanks.

Finally there’s charade of the encore: “We’ll do one more song if you make enough noise.” Or, “You’ve paid for it, but you’ve still got to beg.” I said to Guy, “I wonder what they’ll do if we all keep really quiet.” The audience did their best, but it’s difficult to summon up the passion. Rock’n’roll ceased to be a life-changing experience long ago, and it was all a bit forced. Still, Sabbath played their role in the farce: they went off stage long enough to put the kettle on and put four teaspoons of Ovaltine in four mugs before returning to the stage, noodling around with the riff of ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’ and finally asking what we wanted to hear. “Neon Knights!” we bellowed, but they didn’t seem to hear. Eventually they lurched into ‘Paranoid’, which was a bit of a shock. I assumed they’d left it out because they were sick of playing it. “I preferred the Dickies’ version,” said Guy, but we all bounced along just the same.

Then the balloons came down. They were meant to be black, but most of them were a shade that can only be described as deep purple. Maybe Ian and the boys had been in town and had a few left over. The lights came up and everyone queued for the car park while the band went back to the hotel for muffins and bed.

The rituals of rock are getting as rigid as those of the Catholic Church, and the inclusion of ‘Dirty Women’ – complete with ‘retro’ (thus ironic and not sexist at all) topless photos on the huge screens – shows that rock's attitude to women is no more advanced. In both cases the rituals are slick, well-rehearsed and professional, but the original message was lost long ago.   

Track listing
War Pigs
Into The Void
Age of Reason
Wall of Sleep
End of the Beginning
(drum solo)
Iron Man
God Is Dead
Dirty Women
Children of the Grave
Encore: Paranoid

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Review: Roman Empire: Power and People

Roman Empire: Power and People
Roman Empire: Power and People by Dirk Books

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Booms' and Crerar's book isn't a history of the Roman Empire, but rather a story told through the British Museum's artefacts. In this, it has similarities with the book version of A History of the World in 100 Objects, which was a broadcast triumph for the British Museum and Radio 4 a few years ago.

So instead of a narrative history, we get a collection of essays on different aspects of the empire told through discovered objects. As the title suggests, the story is divided between the political dominance of the empire and the lives of ordinary people (although with the emphasis on the rich, because they left far more artefacts).

It's a short book, well-written and highly recommended.

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