Upon which I discover Les Miserables is actually very good

I have recently been addicted to a dramatised version of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables that has been playing on BBC Radio 4. Turns out this classic story, which frequently appears in ‘the best novels ever’ lists, is actually pretty bloody good. Marvellous, in fact. A portrayal of humanity and love most other works would struggle to equal. Who knew?

I have downloaded the behemoth (1200-odd pages!!) French tale onto my e-reader and only need a holiday curled up on a sofa with a bottle of brandy and no disturbances (ha!) to make my way through it. It will happen. I just don’t want to say when.

It also turns out that thirty-odd years of witnessing theatrical posters and TV commercials for cast recordings of the musical production were not enough on which to base my knowledge of the great book. I always presumed it took place during the French revolution, what with all the poor, grubby people and flag waving. Lucky I never pretended I had read it. Though the story begins only a decade or so after this time, it would still have been odd if I had started talking about guillotines and letting people eat cake. Now that would have been embarrassing…

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Books I’ve talked about when I’ve talked about books at book group (part two)

I missed book group last week. It makes me sad for all the missed joys mentioned in the first part of this post series and also because when I can’t get around to reading the book-group book I feel it means I am not using my potential reading time as I should. It means I am letting work-reading start to take over again. It means I am checking emails while commuting when I could be reading my books. It means I am watching too many TV shows where an expert comes in to fix a bankrupt country house/failing hotel/failing restaurant or where amateur cooks try to make me feel un-gourmet by pretending they are proper chefs, and maybe we should all get over our fascination with goat’s cheese and pop-up restaurants. Not that we should blame the goat’s cheese.

So, yes, I wasn’t reading as much last month and I missed my previous book group meeting. Well, I opted out. But before that moment of truancy I had read a lot of book-group books. And if you didn’t catch the link to part one of this series above, I’m giving you another chance to click on it here.

Sometimes outsiders fear book groups are full of self-proclaimed intellectuals full of high talk about this literary theory and that rather brilliant but unfathomable novelist. Telling them you discussed Kafka the other month doesn’t help this fear. Mind you, if they’d been at the pub where we hold our meetings and overheard our conversation, they may not have felt so intellectually threatened. It went a little bit like this:

‘Oh my god, I just couldn’t finish it.’

‘I finished it but I didn’t really get it.’

‘I think I get what he’s on about but I don’t think I really care.’

‘Although, I am kind of glad that I can now legitimately use the term Kafkaesque.’

I was glad of that too, well not about using the term so much, but having now read a novel by Franz Kafka I will no longer feel as deceitful about the odd reference to him or his writing that I may have occasionally made in the past without having ever read any of his work.

So The Trial was not a resounding success, but not everyone hated it. The person who chose the novel, for example, adores it. He chose it for book group because it is one of his favourite books and he wanted to see what other people thought about it. He held up well, I must say. And he continues to attend our meetings so mustn’t think we’re entirely stupid. Plus the university student who sold me my copy at the bookstore raved on about dear old Franz for some time. And as once mentioned in a post a few years back, author and playwright Alan Bennett often wrote of Kafka in his journals.

So what did I think? I found The Trial a challenging reading experience. It took a lot of brain power to get through and as a reader who prefers a steady plot and reasonably clear character motivations my reading of this novel was slow. It was also tentative. I kept waiting for a penny to drop, for a revealing, for a proactive change in the character and/or his situation, I  kept waiting to feel as though I understood exactly what the point of the book was and therefore could allow myself to feel smart. I kept waiting. I also had a gap of a week or more between readings, which was not a good idea. It was difficult to get back into the tale even to the small degree that I had been ‘in it’ previously. I was on holiday and who wants to be reading Kafka while on safari? Well, maybe Alan Bennett and that girl from the book store. Maybe a lot of people, for all I know. But not me. It felt like homework. I was lying under a tree in the Namibian bush and I did not want to be doing homework.

Like my book group cohort who was glad they could now use the term ‘Kafkaesque’ without shame, I am still pleased that I have read The Trial, though perhaps not for the reasons I should. It is always better to be able to say that you didn’t really like a novel having read it, than pretend you know all about it when you haven’t. Plus sometimes it is good to challenge yourself, to exercise your mind and see how far it will stretch,  to be able to discuss how a book made you feel instead of avoid writings you are frightened you might not understand. In the end you may not enjoy the book, it might even make you feel a little bit thick, but going through the process and then discussing it with others can still be one of the joys of book group.

Edge by Jeffery Deaver

I’m not usually judgmental of others’ reading habits. As long as there is some kind of decision-making process behind what they read, I don’t really mind how they spend their reading time. I like to think I’m not a superior-reader type, and you only have to read through the titles I post on to see that I’m not a hardline highbrow-literature digester. I’ve even been known to make a general-type of statement (and making general-types of statements is a sweeping habit of mine) when discussing the topic of ‘Men’ that ‘I don’t like men who read’. This, as with most of my general statements, is not entirely accurate. For starters they at least have to be able to read, and for after-starters if they do read for pleasure I do find that attractive. I think my point is more that one does not have to be a super-keen reader, or much of a leisure-reader at all, for me to appreciate them as a person. (And to be honest—back to the Men thing for a second—if I was sitting on a park bench reading Joyce and some nice-looking chap sat down next to me and said, ‘Oh, Joyce, he’s my favourite writer, what do you think of the book?’ I’d fear I was trapped in a romantic indie movie where we were all going to end up sad but appreciatively wiser at the end. It’s just not my style of wooing.)
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This all being said, when someone – and I’m now speaking of all classifications of people – likes the same book or author as me, it does create a stirring within of a need to bond with that person. Nay, a stirring that we are already bonded. When someone really likes an author or book that I like it suggests to me that we share thoughts, tastes and ideals on a number of levels. That we have both been privy to a secret that only certain people can share. That we speak the same language. It’s perhaps why I feel so attached to the members of the book group I belonged to in Sydney, and why I feel the need to join one in London (should do something about that).
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Of course you always need to consider the popularity or success of a book or author before latching on to your book-soul-mates. When the two of you like Pride and Prejudice and To Kill a Mockingbird you may need to delve deeper to see if you really do share a crazy kind of book-loving love.
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As many of you know, Jeffery Deaver is one of my favourite authors. But due to the man’s popularity, I don’t necessarily get all stirred up when someones tells me they like his books—it certainly piques my interest, but there usually has to be more to it. This could be the other volunteering him early on as a favourite, or if I refer to him or one of his books (it’s very common for me to refer to books I’ve read in the most random and everyday conversations, such is my life informed by my habit) and they latch on to his name or start chattering away about quadriplegic forensic investigators I know there might be more to this potential book-friend. I found a Deaver-friend recently (and it has turned out to be more than a passing thriller-friend-phase) and was so happy to share this with them that I leant them my copy of his most recent title, Edge.
While busy keeping up with two series and penning the latest James Bond novel, Jeffery Deaver decided to bash out a standalone thriller called The Edge.
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Corte is a protector of witnesses who seems to work for no organisation anyone can name. Cool, calm, stoic, professional, necessarily private, also a board-games connoisseur. He is assigned to protect a family who have been targeted by a ‘lifter’, a freelance extractor of information. Henry Loving is the elusive fiend whose method of choice for extracting information is a sheet of fine sandpaper, some rubbing alcohol and the target’s bare toes. Loving also happened to kill Corte’s mentor, so this time, it’s personal.
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As ever, this Deaver novel is a consuming, fast-paced read. You feel as if you gain insight into the main character and also into his profession. Towards the climax you feel the desired fluctuations of anxiety and fright, only to remain satisfied when you close the covers. Occasionally the witnesses were a trifle irritating, but I guess that’s the reality of being in the protection game (and of a writer creating issues to overcome in a narrative).
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I like that Mr Deaver doesn’t limit himself to his successful series, and that he seems to continue to tell all his stories well despite the pace at which he delivers them to the world. I’m still more than looking forward to reading the next Kathryn Dance novel (I’m assuming, seeing as the last series update was a Lincoln Rhyme book), but in the meantime, standalone stories such as Edge will keep me well fulfilled.

In Book Town

Pile o’ Books is currently in Edinburgh, Scotland enjoying the book festival and this beautiful city in general. There really is a strong sense of literature here, even once you are out of the confines of festival square. Within the festival compound there is nothing but a feeling of love for all things book. Where else can you look up from your novel while enjoying lunch in the sun and see nearly every other punter likewise supping and reading.

And on that note, I’m taking my book back out to the sun.

Two Salingers are Better than One

There are rare but beautiful moments when you know you are experiencing something close to perfection: attending a Wilco concert, eating the butter poached coturnix quail breast at Quay, watching Steve Waugh single-handedly drag Australia through the 1999 Cricket World Cup. And recently I experienced reading perfection: JD Salinger’s Seymour—An Introduction.

It’s a big call, isn’t it? And how on earth does one write about writing perfection when they are so far from that feat themselves? Imperfectly, I suppose. Ramblingly. Perhaps with an edge of pedestrianism. All of those things which are not present in Salinger’s work. It is trickier still because I read the collected novellas Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour—An Introduction over two months ago on a holiday, and so I now have that dreadful experience of being able to tell people that I LOVED a book and that they MUST read it but not being quite as able to explain why nor recall all that much about it. It’s a terrible affliction. It is harder still because I did my usual holiday reading ritual of leaving the book for another wanderer to discover, so I now can’t even refer to it to refresh my still-vacationing mind.

So, to be crass, my qucik precis: In Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters we hear the tale of Buddy Glass trying to attend his eldest brother Seymour’s wedding, only to find once he is there that Seymour is missing. Buddy is then subjected to an interminable car ride and then visit with some of the guests of the wedding, including the matron of honour. In Seymour—An Introduction Buddy attempts to in some way memorialise Seymour after his suicide (written about in the most excellent short story A Perfect Day for Bananafish) by telling the reader about his brother. I really liked Carpenters—really and truly—but I love, love, loved Seymour.

And though I am failing to tell you much, what I can tell you is that I was so struck with Seymour in particular that I copied sentences and paragraphs out of it into my journal, and that when I surrendered my book to a hotel room in Mykonos in the Greek Islands I wrote a little note to the finder of the book wishing them the same reading experience as myself. These are not things I usually do. I do not usually bother to dog-ear multiple pages, nor copy down quotes from a book I am reading (not unless I’m expected to write an essay on it) but Seymour threw me for a loop. It meanders marvellously as Buddy thinks things through, but is actually a deftly-constructed story that is both high brow and highly sensitive (and also humourous). It only intensified my already firm love for the Glass family.

This is one of those occasions where I’m asking for a little trust, dear readers. At some stage in the future we many try to ‘unpack’ (that awful sociological verb) the reasons why when I have had three months off work and plenty of time on my hands that I have barely kept up with my blogging. In the meantime, please forgive my lack of detail and discussion of these two novellas from JD Salinger and simply take my word for it that they will be a reading experience you will treasure.

The High Window by Raymond Chandler

I don’t have a lot of willpower. I can be stubborn, I can be persistent, but they’re other things entirely. But willpower. Put an item in front of me that I either like or suspect I will enjoy and I find it tricky to turn my interest elsewhere. This makes me a rather bad dieter, a fluctuating exerciser, an ‘accidental’ book and handbag buyer, and a regular flirt. It should also help give you an idea of just how hard I’m finding it right now to not write this entire review of Raymond Chandler’s The High Window in a Chandler-esque fashion. Because how on earth can one resist using such stylish expression?

Chandler’s writing, and the narration of his character Phillip Marlowe in particular, invites mimicry. Everyone thinks they can do it and everyone thinks they do it fairly well. Some people do it and don’t even realise who they’re imitating, such has Chandler’s style weaved its way through the gullies of our collective subconscious. The reason for this, I think, is because of the appeal of his storytelling style, of the language that he uses, of the specific and often slightly quirky observations he makes, of the dry wit. Boil all that down and we end up with words. The words he chose and way he uses them. A fellow blogger recently reviewed The Big Sleep, which has also been reviewed on Pile o’ Books before, by simply listing some of his favourite sentences from the novel. It was a cool way to talk about the appeal of Chandler’s style in an entertaining way, and to be honest I wish I had thought to do it first. Because for me, the pleasure of reading Chandler is all in the kick I get out of coming across his descriptions and observations, of reading his snappy dialogue, of hearing Marlowe’s comebacks to the clients, broads and scumbags who pepper his cases.

This is usually the general area of a post where I would attempt to give a brief rundown of the plot of the book I’m discussing, but you know what, I’m starting to realise that I don’t really read Chandler for the ‘story’. Sure, sure, private detective tale, someones wants the hero to find something, someone is dead, some crazy bird is causing a fuss, our hero must sort out everything for all involved, get paid and try not to wind up dead in a ditch himself. I dig that kind of thing, I do. And we all know that Chandler is the writer other crime writers should erect a small shrine to and give thanks that he made detective stories what they are. But! I confess that in the end, at least with The High Window,  I wasn’t as concerned about what had happened to the coin, who’d copied what, double-crossed who, wanted which person dead, pushed which chap out of a window. I mean sure, I paid some attention—I was reading the book after all—but the ‘whodunnit’ and the ‘wotsgunnahappen’ were not my main focuses. I was more wrapped up in the words and phrases and descriptions. And if you read my post from last year on the Big Sleep, you’ll see that what I gushed about the whole time were these exact things.

So here is a rather short, crass review of Raymond Chandler’s The High Window, from a so-called avid and wide reader who may need her head read: ‘Words good, plot passable. Will read novels written by this author again but won’t necessarily be breaking into the local second-hand bookstore to snaffle another noir crime special on the double.’ (But can we make that a double? Thanks.)

I read The High Window in p-book form. If I had read it on my Kindle I would have used the highlighting tool on every second page. And because I read a paper version this book is sitting on my (currently sparsely inhabited) bookshelf in London. If you happened to be gawking about my bedroom, spied the novel and pointed at it, I would tell you that Raymond Chandler is a wonderful writer, a superb stylist and that reading The Big Sleep was a joyous experience for me. So read The Big Sleep first. And if you fall in love with the words and style of this breakthrough crime fiction writer, then you can read The High Window and enjoy those types of words and that same style all over again. You just may not recall exactly what happened to that coin, or perhaps, in the end,  just not care so much.

Q is for Questions

At the end of the year we start asking ourselves questions. Did I do all I planned for the year? Am I satisfied with my life? How did I spend my Christmas bonus so quickly?

Q is for Questions. And who asks lots and lots of questions? Well, small children. Usually in the middle of an important over in the cricket or while you’re telling their mother an inappropriate story. But also detectives; and don’t I just have a tonne of detective novels stored up in the pile. And what a great excuse in these festive and ‘light-reading’ times to get back into some Regency murder.  That’s correct my cravat-wearing, cobblestone-strolling aristocrats, it’s time for another Sebastian St Cyr mystery.

There’s something about a southern hemisphere Christmas which makes me look forward to lolling about on a verandah with a reading indulgence or a favourite friend. And a Viscount Devlin mystery fits both these criteria. In the latest novel by CS Harris, What Remains of Heaven, Sebastian is asked to investigate the murder of the Bishop of London in a recently opened crypt and that of the 30-year-old corpse the bishop’s somewhat fresher body was found lying next to. At the same time, Sebastian’s relatives continue to attempt to marry him off, an old army colleague is trying to murder him, and he and Hero Jarvis (daughter of the evil and powerful Charles, Lord Jarvis) keep sidestepping a rather important conversation.

I am yet to find a St Cyr novel which disappoints, though perhaps this one is a little tamer than the others. Mind you, there is still a crime to be solved; action and attacks, intrigue and interest, close calls and clues—both to the murder and to Sebastian’s past. Perhaps I’m just impatient that I didn’t discover some of the information about Sebastian’s parentage that I wanted to, nor get to see a couple of plot developments I’m waiting on (and am now assuming will be revealed in the next instalment). Perhaps I was just disappointed that our hero didn’t spend any time in the bath in this novel…

One day, CS Harris’ mysteries/romances will be made into a TV series and the lucky man performing as our Lord Devlin will become a heart-throb the likes of who we haven’t seen since that time some bloke called Colin Firth played Mr Darcy. In the meantime, while the tube-watching masses are ignorant of the existence of Sebastian St Cyr, we the book-reading (and sometimes tube-watching) population can pour ourselves a refreshing cocktail, settle into a comfy chair on the balcony, put our feet up on the rail and indulge in these well-written, elegantly entertaining and fun-to-read novels.*

* In previous posts discussing these novels I have stated that they also suit stay-in-bed winter weather. I think we can thus conclude that Sebastian St Cyr mysteries can be read at all times, in all seasons.