Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Review: May We Be Forgiven

May We Be Forgiven
May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Tuesday. 1am:
3 stars would be unfair, so this is really 3 and a half. A brilliant last 100+ pages really made up for the animosity I was feeling towards the books central characters and themes. Will review fully when I've slept on it....

Tuesday. 6pm: ...So. I've slept on it and knocked it back down to 3/5, purely for the fact that I found a third of this novel infuriating, and here's why.

Harry is the older brother of the bullying, violent, egotistical TV executive George and the book opens as he and his Asian wife (the first of the sickening borderline racist stereotypes) are visiting his house for Thanksgiving. And from there on in it all goes wrong. In the first 50 pages we're presented with an amazing series of events culminating in tragedy that affects everyone around them. No matter how hard Harry tries to make amends for his 'bad deed' he's constantly either screwing it up, or just adding to his woes. The problem is, Harry is such a child that in the beginning, his inability to grow up hampers everything, resulting in a spiral towards internet hook-ups for sex, picking up a very strange girl and taking her home...for sex (for such a loser, Harry does get around a bit) and then there's the self-medicating anything and everything he can get his hands on, causing a major health alert in the first half of the book.
But eventually, the responsibility he is forced to take on in the form of his niece and nephew, give Harry a massive wake-up call and he starts to face up to what he's done and his journey to redemption begins.
It's a long journey too, during which his work as a Nixon scholar and author takes him closer to the disgraced President than he thought he would get. His re-evaluation of Nixon causes Harry to also look at his own life, work and what he actually needs in this World as opposed to what the American Dream is telling him he needs. Sometimes the Nixon analogies get in the way and Homes lays the satire on a bit thick. It's also annoying as that sub-plot means another showing for the clipped Asian accents-I'm all for realism, but when it's used to voice a character who was born in the US, achieved a high standard of education and is hired to work with the printed word, it's lazy and leaves a nasty taste in the mouth as you read it.
When it comes to the supporting characters, several are definitely surplus to requirements, as are a few of the bizarre scenarios that Harry finds himself involved in (and readers will know exactly what I mean when I say 'The Woodsman'...why Homes...why?) and I felt this dragged the narrative about Harry's journey down. Also, for a novel so grounded in the harsh realities of life (no matter how daft, they do happen) the two instances of 'magic' jar and are out of place; whilst one is an understandable metaphorical narrative device, the other is forced.

As a commentary on all that's wrong with the Western world, it works well: can't solve your problems-take medication, the key to happiness is a massive tv, elderly and those with mental health problems either locked away and forgotten about or treated like lab rats, the threat of bad publicity worse than the welfare of an 11 yr old girl and Homes weaves these opinions into the story well.

Other reviewers have commented on the novel's almost 'Disneyesque' ending and while I can see their point, I did kind of like it: hasn't everyone got an Aunt Lillian, totally devoid of tact, opening her mouth and saying just the wrong thing at the wrong moment?

Without giving too much away, Harry's redemption is hard-earned, but well-deserved, if only it was better edited and with less of the 'Mickey Rooney School of Asian Depiction'.

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Sunday, 14 July 2013

Review: Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was harsh to rate this only 3 stars when I finished it last night, but I was slightly annoyed by the last 100 pages or so. My inner voice was screaming "Oh get on with it" as we (yet again) go from the stands, to another room, for another long protracted discussion about a movie deal that's ultimately going nowhere.

Billy Lynn is very much a 21st century hero- a wild, reckless and bored youth, forced by circumstance into the army and from there, into bloody conflict in Iraq. His story is told, mainly, on a cold Thanksgiving before, during and after the big game at Dallas Cowboys. There's booze, there's punch-ups, there's a hot cheerleader, but most of all there's a very well painted picture of attitudes towards not only soldiers, but the wars they are fighting. While these attitudes are portrayed as solely American, among the banner waving patriotism, as a UK reader, it also rings true of attitudes over here, so don't let the 'All-American' setting deter you from picking this up. Admittedly, if American football isn't you're thing (are you broken?) then you may zone out for small sections of the narrative.

My only criticism of the novel is I would have like more flashback to the family, his sisters especially, as they fascinated me.

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Saturday, 6 July 2013

Review: Sock

Sock by Penn Jillette

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a difficult novel to review, especially if you are a fan of Jillette not only in his roll as bullshit bashing magician, but as a social commentator. Penn tells it like it is-constantly. And that is the problem with Sock.

As a debut novel it is brave, clever, insightful and raw. Unfortunately,if you've read any of his other works as I had with God,No! http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/8495145-god-no, read any of his work online, or seen Penn & Teller:Bullshit, it's all old and just comes across as preachy ranting.

Don't get me wrong, I loved the first 100 pages or so, and using 'The Little Fool's' childhood sock monkey as the central voice is an inspired move. After that, it does tend to become a chore, making the 'broken fourth wall' trick just tiresome and annoying; so much so, that in the end you're praying for another voice to come through. Annoyingly, when that 'voice' does come through, it's just and even louder, shoutier version of what's preceded it.
Like other reviewers, I'm split on the song lyrics gimmick. At times they're clever, but there are instances where it takes you out of the story while you sit there running said lyric through your head.

If you're new to Penn and his ways then go for it. If you're experienced, then don't get your expectations up.

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