Roses are Meh – Research by Philip Kerr

researchResearch by Philip Kerr has raised an interesting question in my mind, that I’d never really thought about before. How do author’s feel when they release novels that are inferior to previous works? Do the even know? With Bernie Gunther and his original Berlin Noir trilogy, Kerr created one of modern crime fiction’s finest characters and gave him stories to match. The subsequent Bernie Gunther novels, whilst a couple of them approach the original three, simply aren’t as good. I was interested when I learned Kerr had written a new non-Gunther novel. I’ve read a couple of his others, (Dark Matter and Hitler’s Peace), which I’d mostly enjoyed. How would Research compare? To be honest, at best, it’s mediocre.

Successful pop stars with long careers, are generally carried by their early work; their seminal albums. They might still be going thirty years later, but nobody especially wants to hear their new stuff. Who wants to listen to high-flying birds, when you could be having a champagne supernova? Outlaw Pete is not Born to Run and let’s not even start on Wings vs The Beatles. Obviously it’s not always true, but I often wondered how artists feel about consistently producing work that’s poorer quality than their old stuff. Perhaps they don’t care if the money keeps coming in. Perhaps they believe it is just as good, after all public popularity is hardly the yardstick of high quality.

With authors though I imagine the effect is more marked. Popular music is catchy hooks and memorable lines. Writing novels is heart, body and soul; hours of hard work, lovingly polished. That’s not to say some songs aren’t painstakingly crafted, but nobody wrote a bestselling novel in under 10 mins. If you’ve lived and breathed all your novels, surely you know would which ones are good and which ones are just OK.  Unless of course you were James Patterson and somebody wrote your novels for you. Then perhaps you’d have no idea.

One of the narrators of Research novel might be similarly clueless. John Houston is an ideas factory. He churns out plots and a team of anonymous writers turns them into novels. They sell millions. Houston is filthy rich, his writers comfortable. He lives the high-life in Monte Carlo, they live in bitter resentment. His wife has just been killed. They all might be in the frame if Houston didn’t look so open and shut guilty. The other narrator is Don Irvine, the closest thing the unlikeable Houston has to a best friend and the first writer employed in the ‘atelier’. The basis of the novel is, did Houston kill his wife? If not, who did and how an earth did they do it? It’s like something James Patterson didn’t write.

The novel is fairly entertaining. Lots of jokes about the publishing industry, which are funny if you like that sort of thing. Plenty of literary references to enjoy or endure, depending on which way your mind is set. There are some witty rejoinders, though Kerr seems to have forgotten that whilst his authors might write quips into their novels, if they speak that way all the time, they sound like the result of a bad creative writing exercise.

The main problem though is that the central story just isn’t that interesting. By the end I couldn’t remotely care whether the perpetrator got away with the crime or not. The story leading up to it was far-fetched yet hum-drum ordinary. The reveal in the middle was as exciting as sitting on punctured whoopie cushion. This sort of novel, with a mystery running through it’s core, lives or dies by the twist in the final pages. The one that turns the novel into something else entirely. You’ve seen the Usual Suspects, you know what I’m talking about.

Kerr neglected to put it in.

The novel bumbles along, with cloak, daggers and duplicity. We’re treated to a few extra bodies, and then pffft; nothing. The novel closes and the reader wonders why he bothered. It feels like somebody forgot to print the last fifty pages, where all the trickery is revealed. I have no idea whether Kerr thinks this novel is as good as his others. It’s so much weaker it’s hard to believe that he does. Writers have to earn a living, they need to keep producing novels. Not every book can as brilliant as the last, but this one is a massive disappointment.

Many Thanks to Corinna at Quercus for sending me a copy of this book. 

I know your face – Glow by Ned Beauman

glowThis is the third, and most straightforward Ned Beauman novel I have read. After the description defying Boxer Beetle and the looping swooping picaresque Teleportation Accident, Glow is almost run of the mill. Had it been written by somebody else, rather than describing it as straightforward I’d be saying it was a psychedelic mind-bending crime caper, because, well, that’s what it is.

Raf, a young man with a sleep disorder and a penchant for experimental drugs is at a rave in a laundrette in Peckham. Here he meets the enigmatic Cherish. He proceeds to give her some dodgy ‘Glow’ before she disappears leaving Raf wondering whether she ever really existed. After that things fall apart.

The head of the pirate radio station that Raf listens to disappears in unusual circumstances, and curiously, the station starts broadcasting a Burmese culture segment. When a crumpled man claiming to be from M16 starts talking about silent white vans plucking strangers off the street, Raf finds himself embroiled in a complicated corporate plot.

In the main I enjoyed Glow a great deal. It has that same askew world-view that Beauman brings to his other novels. It’s the world I live in but it’s described in a manner I’ve never contemplated before. His prose brings a freshness to the old and tired, and there are few things tireder than a inner London suburb. There is a wonderful theme running through the book of circadian rhythms. Various characters, for different reasons find their body clocks are out of sync with the rest of humanity. The way Beauman depicts these disorders makes them feel other-worldly. A great number of words are devoted to the psychotropic nature of drugs such as MDMA and the fictional Glow. Tied into this is a plot involving American corporations operating in Burma. This SE Asian theatre, the drugs and the multiple strands of misinformation put me in mind of Dennis Johnson’s multi-stranded novel ‘Tree of Smoke’.

The plot tends towards the preposterous, which again is typical of Beauman’s novels, but there is big enough vein of truth to make the events plausible if improbable. The thriller aspects of the novel entertain, the descriptions of the effects of the drugs inform (sometimes overly so) and the writing often dazzles. Occasionally I found the rarified language used grated, sometimes feeling out of context from setting and narrator, but it doesn’t derail the novel as a whole. With Glow Beauman has written a novel based upon a common premise and given it a fresh and unique flavour. I’m not sure if this will convert Beauman’s detractors or gain him a new following, but if you’re a fan there is much to enjoy here. If you’ve not read Beauman before I think I’d recommend starting with Boxer Beetle.

This book was sent to me as part of the Amazon Vine Programme. 

So, he’s handsome then? – A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

A-Discovery-of-WitchesThis book is too long. The story is interesting, but there’s about three hundred pages of redundant description. To make matters worse it’s not even a complete story. I did know there were follow up books, but I had thought this volume stood in its own right, which it don’t.

I’m prepared to concede this book isn’t aimed at me. The numerous references to Twilight and the words, ‘illicit’, ‘sexy’ and ‘romp’ in the blurb, should have tipped me off.

Brooding and wonderfully handsome vampire Matthew Clairmont, I assume, has female readers swooning. He certainly seems to have an affect on narrator Diana Bishop; we’re told he does over and over again. We’re told he is handsome, that he broods, that he wears grey clothes. He’s an animal, he’s caring, he’s protective. His skin is cold. He’s strong, he’s fast, he’s brooding, he wears grey clothes.  He’s handsome, his skin is cold, he’s brooding, he’s lived for a long time, he’s an animal, he’s clever, he’s handsome, he’s protective, he broods, he wears grey clothes; and, oh yes, he’s cold. Not sure about blood-sucking, but DoW certainly sapped my will to live.

She’s a witch, he’s a vampire. Two races, naturally mistrustful when not outright hostile. She’s in denial about being a witch. He’s lived for centuries. He’s a monster, she’s…er… a history professor. He has cold blood (did I mention that), and is, apparently, above averagely handsome. For reasons that are vaguely explained they fall madly in love with one another almost immediately, but it’s a forbidden love. Mixed race relationships definitely frowned upon. The scene where Matthew takes Diana back to his family castle to meet his centuries old witch hating mother is like Twilight crossed with Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Anyway he’s all arcane knowledge, pent up aggression and ice cool control. Imagine George Clooney as a salt-water crocodile.

OK – I exaggerate. The romance stuff did take up too much of my time, especially as it’s so overblown but the fantasy/magic via academia thread eventually lured me in. The three races of creatures living amongst us, daemon, vampire and witch, is hardly original, but the evolutionary biology standpoint that Harkness takes does give a fresh angle. Science vs supernatural is always a blend I enjoy, and the author lends it some academic rigour that feels plausible whilst it entertains. Origin stories are nearly always interesting and so it is with the root of Diana’s power, particularly whilst she is investigating what she can do. The various branches of her witchy talents are interesting and well thought out.

I know this book is very popular and has a large following, but I can’t fathom why. It’s like Twilight but more grown up, the Da Vinci Code with more rigour, but it’s little more than that. There was enough in it to keep me reading, though I was sorely tempted to stop a number of times. There are places where it’s just plain boring and, as I may have mentioned, repetitive. It is intermittently readable and exciting, but templars, witches and old books aren’t enough on their own to make a brilliant story, no matter how many times you tell me how handsome the lead vampire is. Perhaps its academic leanings have dressed the book up to be something more interesting than it really is (probably in enigmatic monochrome), but I found it little more than average.

Many Thanks to the team at Bookbridgr for sending me a copy of this book. 

One Sided? – The Circle by Dave Eggers

circleI’m quite torn by this book. It’s certainly readable and makes some persuasive arguments about the perils of an increasingly connected society. It is also over-simplified and one-dimensional, with allegory as subtle as being smashed across the face with a house brick.

Google, Twitter and Facebook have all been swept aside by ‘The Circle’. It’s the unifying piece of social media that just about everybody uses.  It was created by a Mark Zuckerberg figure, and led to the founding of a company that everybody in the world wants to work for. The novel opens with Mae Holland’s first day as a ‘Circler’. She’s thrilled and more than a little overawed. Her role is in customer satisfaction. Her aim, to ensure everybody rates her and the company 100. Anything below 97 is cause for concern. Mae has the perfect job in the perfect company, where her employers fulfil her every need and every night is party night. What could possibly go wrong?

The more I think about the book, the more I remember what I liked in it. Eggers is very good at stripping down our social media habits and examining each part. With a small amount of extrapolation he shows them for the absurdities they are. For example, the fact that 95% satisfaction is something to be concerned about; job threatening even. Clearly ridiculous, yet in the online age, anything less than 100% on feedback is considered a slight. And we’re encouraged to feedback on everything all the time.

So it is for Mae, only more so. When she fails to feedback, she finds she has upset her colleagues and friends at the Circle. She becomes obsessed with liking the right stuff, and ensuring she ‘smiles’ enough of her Circle’s posts, to at least give the appearance of engagement. Sound familiar? Further to that, much of The Circle is devoted to the idea, that seeing/hearing about somebody else doing something is the same as doing it yourself. Seeing pictures of a World Heritage site is as good as experiencing it yourself. This too is barely fiction.

The novel is set in the near future where the increased availability of cheap cameras, microphones and data storage, make it possible for complete access to a person 24/7.  The aim of The Circle is greater access to information and data, all the time. Transparency of thought, action and desire.The company claims it makes the world a better place, whilst at the same time, they use the data to monetise just about everything. It’s a world view very similar to the one created in Aleana Graedon’s The Word Exchange.  Mae is chastised by her superiors for taking some private moments. She is preventing countless others from learning from her experiences. Secrecy causes the world’s problems, one of the company’s three CEOs claims in a persuasive polemic. The technology anaesthetises us into going along with him.

The novel highlights the possibility of the world sliding into a capitalist totalitarian state, with the hearts, mind and wallets of the population ensnared by degrees. It does all sound frighteningly plausible, yet I’m not convinced. The novel is delivered very much from a single perspective. There are almost no dissenters, and the one person who does dissent is too rabidly anti The Circle. He’s a caricature.

I agree with Eggers that many people are sleepwalking to the point where they’ll no longer be able to find their way back from the shops without their phones, but there is a large slice of population, old and young, who are wide awake and fighting off the digital chloroform.  The book is over long. Perhaps this is to make the gradual erosion of Mae’s common sense in the face of her employer plausible. Death by a thousand cuts maybe, but each slice takes us over the same ground and it becomes tedious.

Worse is the reveal that isn’t a revelation, and a aquarium based interlude that contains the least subtle allegory since the resurrection of Aslan. Not only is this a breeze-block to the nose, I strongly suspect it would be impossible in reality. I’m not a marine-biologist, but even a rudimentary understanding garnered through watching the Octonauts, tells me the impossibility of the fish-tank Eggers created. To have something so fundamental so glaringly wrong threw the whole book out of kilter for me. With something so transparent and stupid included it’s hard to take the rest of the novel seriously.

Whilst I liked many of The Circle’s assertions, I was left disappointed by the novel overall. By the end Eggers sounded a bit too much like a madman standing on his soapbox in Hyde Park. Yes I think he has legitimate concerns, but his portrayal of them is not the measured, balanced response I might have expected. In the parlance of his creation, this is neither Smile nor Frown. I’m just bemused that the good and indifferent can lie so closely together.

For similar reads this year see also:

No Harm Can Come to a Good Man by James Smythe

Glaze by Kim Curran

Meatspace by Nikesh Shukla

(and the already mentioned Word Exchange)