My recent reading (i.e., this year):
1 – Ian Rankin – Naming the Dead (one of the Rebus series).
I don’t normally like crime fiction too much, but this was lying about so I thought I’d give it a go. Anyway I enjoyed it a lot. Its being set in Edinburgh was a plus for me as I loved the place (in 1995), and knew a few of the more obvious places mentioned. I also enjoyed the characterisation of minor figures in the book and the fast pace of it.
However – and I say this only having read one of his books – I really don’t think Rankin deserves his eight knighthoods and fifty-two ‘Service to Literature’ awards or whatever the chap has. Are the Brits so short of a decent 90s and 00s literary champion they are clutching at straws a bit? To start with the ‘whodunnit’ device is basically that of ‘The ABC Murders’ by our beloved Athaga Crispie, a fact which Rankin disguises by setting the book during that amazing week in which Britain won the right to host the 2012 Olympics, hosted the G8, and suffered the Russell Square bombings. Were it not for all the side-action the basic plot would have been obvious pretty quickly. I care about that in a detective novel. If I know whodunnit already then what’s the point?
Secondly, and more importantly, the writing towards the end is chock full of bathos. The constant retrospection by Rebus on the past words of the other characters is intended to reinforce the ‘themes’ of the book but only serves to reveal that it doesn’t really have any. I parody it to make a point:
“Oh, I lost control of the steering for a second,” said Siobhan.
Control. That word again. Rebus thought back through the past few days and realised it had all been about control. People contolling people. His own lack of control over himself. MacRae’s control over his future.
Future. That word again. Rebus thought back through the past few days and realised it had all been about the future. Haunting us. Tempting us. Holding out promises it could never possibly keep.
Etc. Come on Ian. It’s a detective novel. Besides we don’t need to be reminded of what your characters said fifty pages ago.
Still, he’s got the eighty knighthoods so I suppose he thinks he’s probably on the right track. Six and a half out of ten from me.
2 – Augusten Burroughs – Dry
This is an autobiographical account of of a clever but derranged advertising executive struggling with alcoholism. While I’d normally like the idea of an advertising executive suffering, this one is actually pretty sweet, so I felt for him for most of the way through. A central motif is the idea that litre bottles of Dewar’s whisky keep insidiously cluttering up his apartment and crowding out other things in his life. The effect of this image on me was to make me want to go and buy one, which I did. Anyway not a bad read. I’d give it eight out of, say, twelve.
3 and 3a – Bill Bryson – Down Under and Notes from a Small Island
I like Bryson a great deal, despite my heaving jealousy for a man who is capable of trudging aimlessly around rural Britain drinking in pubs and then calling it ‘work’. Both these books are very funny, but the one on Britain has the edge – I find his obsession with English town architecture and rural scenery very endearing, whereas his equivalent obsession with Australia is with our dangerous animals, which after a while starts to read a bit like a transcript of one of those ‘Nature’s Deadliest Killers’ TV shows, albeit a very funny one. I will give them 6 and 7 out of 10 respectively.
4 – Raymond Feist – Magician
This was in the shelf when we got here. I enjoyed it a lot but it is total rubbish, really. It is about a young boy called _________ who fulfils an ancient destiny by defeating the evil ____________ and his otherwordly minions. The hero has the help of various other figures including a wizard called ___________ who is wise and powerful but also a bit flakey and overcommitted, and thus keeps disappearing and leaving the young protagonist to fend for himself. There are a serene and mysterious woodland people called ________ who sometimes help the good guys but only on their terms, and a gruff stocky race who live in the mountains called _______ who are loyal provided there’s plenty of ale and a few fights to be had.
If you can’t get a copy of this particular book, several hundred others would do. I’d give it nine, out of about forty.
C.S. Lewis – A Grief Observed
I read this recently while feverish and miserable. He is so ruthless about the sickly pleasures of indulging his own self-pity that mine quickly evaporated. While I was reading it, that is. Anyway I can’t rate this, except to say that it is very fine.