Review: The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

I was listening to BBC Radio 4 this morning. The programme was Only Artists in which individuals working in the arts have conversations. The painter Rose Wylie said this to the comedian Stewart Lee: “The higher up you go, the more you’re allowed to do what you want.”

You can’t get much higher as an English literary novelist than Julian Barnes. It’s a given that any book by him will be well written. Having won the Man Booker prize with The Sense of an Ending, and having it made into a major film, he pretty much walks on water. In Rose Wylie’s words he’s allowed to do what he wants.
But I can’t help thinking about a parallel world in which Julian Barnes the Unknown pitches his first novel to a publisher thus: ‘It’s an imagined journey into the mind of the Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich. I chart his life (or what I think he made of it) in random mind-vignettes that could be read in any order because the chronology of the thoughts is irrelevant. Nothing is made up. There is no interaction with others except in his thoughts.’
Would Julian Barnes the Unknown have been published?
My brother, Dave, once told me the story of a young student (I can’t remember if it was Dave himself) who worked in a bakery. His job was to impale donuts fresh from the cooking process onto a spigot and pull a lever that would inject them with a measured dose of red jam. In order to give some interest to this repetition, sometimes the student would impale the donut but omit to pull the lever. He found some consolation for the drudgery of the job by imagining the disappointment that the buyer of the empty donut would feel.
For me, reading The Noise of Time was like biting into an empty donut. I felt cheated. I missed dialogue. I missed the logic of a chronological plot. I missed a properly told story.
And, as for the jumbled arrangement of the ‘chapters’, BS Johnson did it, and did it better, in The Untouchables, his ‘novel in a box’.
I liked The Noise of Time. I admired it. But …

 

29

11 2017

Sour Grapes and Robert Galbraith

I admit it, I’m envious of Robert Galbraith’s success. This is a writer who appeared out of nowhere, secured a publishing deal and has enjoyed huge sales for books that, judged by the precepts that wannabe writers are advised to stick to, should still be languishing in the slush pile.What is it about this guy?

If, as I have, you attend talks given by agents and publishing editors you will be told the basic rules that have to be followed if you want your manuscript to emerge into the light of publication. These include:

  • Write in properly constructed sentences.
  • Do not overuse adverbs.
  • Never use adverbs when attributing dialogue: ‘he said’, ‘she said’ is sufficient.
  • ‘Show don’t tell!’ In other words demonstrate characteristics, mood, tone etc. by showing how people are reacting to events or interacting with each other not by ‘tell’ statements. ‘Strike winced and rubbed his knee.’ is showing; ‘Strike was in pain from his knee (again).’ is not.
  • Don’t use obscure words when perfectly serviceable well-known ones will do.
  • Avoid clichés, especially where body parts are doing strange things. Eg. ‘Detective Sergeant Ekwensi then let her eyes stray around Strike’s glorified bedsit.

Robert Galbraith has chosen to ignore them. His prose is littered with what we are told are the literary no-no’s that doom a manuscript to never being more than that – a manuscript.

It makes you wonder what is it about him and his writing that saw his first book The Cuckoo’s Calling achieve not only publication but also bestselling status.

Follow the links to my Goodreads reviews of the second and third books in the Cormoran Strike series: The Silkworm and Career of Evil.

 

02

10 2017

Another 5* Review

No_Mean_Affair_Cover_lowI was very happy that No Mean Affair received such an enthusiastic 5* review from ‘Amazon Customer’ on the book’s page in Amazon recently. The reviewer says:

“The setting of a lot of the early part of the book resonated with my own Glaswegian upbringing and Robert’s description of life in the city at that time is brilliant, so I was hooked from page 1. Whilst a political novel is not my normal reading fodder, I found the story extremely compelling, and you really do feel for the central characters, with their love affair at once conflicting and assisting their individual political ambitions. I read this book in one 3 hour sitting – ‘couldn’t put it down’ – ‘page-turner’ and all those other cliches really do apply here!”

Thank you ‘Amazon Customer’!
You can read the review in situ here. It’s the place where you can buy the book in both paperback and Kindle versions.
If you’d prefer a signed copy, please contact me direct: robert@robertronsson.co.uk.

11

07 2017

Review – Where My Heart Used to Beat

Where My HeartI read this avidly, hungrily devouring the pages.
The protagonist is Robert, a flawed everyman who has lived a life but now, in its autumn, questions some of the decisions he has made (or, rather, has had made for him), the paths he has travelled, and the loves he has lost. But as I followed the path laid down by Mr Faulks I started to feel the structure of the plot creaking beneath my feet.
After an interlude in a New York hotel to introduce us to Robert, a character whom he wants us to be interested in but not admire, Faulks starts the action with a series of telephone messages. The most interesting of these is a McGuffin. Never expanded upon. Never explained.
Two of them lead Robert to take trips that prompt him to examine his past. The flashbacks and the flashbacks within flashbacks are hard to follow at times but Faulk’s excellent writing holds the reader in. Robert’s life is interesting and his forays into the world of neurology and psychoanalysis are illuminating.
But, for me, the book is flawed because Faulks drips information out at an unrealistic rate in order to create the space for the plot. A character called Pereira withholds information for no good reason other than Faulks needs him to. Robert fails to follow leads because, otherwise, the book would finish to soon.
The plot’s timing requires an act of monumental selfishness on the part of Pereira to combine with an act of superhuman disinterest by Robert to produce an ending that crashes in on itself and is likely to leave you shaking your head.

13

06 2017

Review – The Corrupted Part Two

CorruptedIt’s not often I give up on a book, but I’ve stopped reading this half-way through. I have problems with the structure, the plotting and the writing. The only positive I can think of – and it’s the reason that I read The Corrupted after hearing it on BBC Radio 4 – is the way that it brings real life characters and events into the sleazy London underworld.

Let’s deal with structure first. It seems obvious to me that this was originally conceived as a screenplay and then adapted into a novel. The reader is subjected to a barrage of short scenes that rat-tat-tat at you like machine-gun fire. About a third of the way in I tired of this chopped narrative and it was only because I hate not finishing a book that I persisted.

The plot revolved around the tensions between Brian and his uncle Jack. This revealed itself in Brian’s attempts to coerce criminal associates or corrupt policemen to ‘off’ Jack, either by ‘taking him to the pig farm’ or ‘banging him up’. So many conversations; so many attempts; so many failures to act. Perlease, just get on and do it yourself, Brian. You’ve proved to be as much of a psychopath as your uncle.

In a lesser but equally annoying plotline, a succession of police officers drift in and out of the criminals’ world. The same policeman will sometimes enforce the law or will randomly decide to turn a blind eye. The one consistently honourable officer is such a cliché of rectitude that he is not credible.

As far as the writing is concerned, so many sentences hit their points home with the insane force of Brian wielding his meat cleaver. We get ‘show’, we get ‘tell’ and we get ‘tell’ again, all in the same sentence. Then, in case the dumb reader has missed the point, GF Newman gives a character a piece of explanatory dialogue to hammer the point home.

I think this may be the first one-star review I’ve given on Goodreads and it may be uncharitable. But that’s how this book made me feel.

17

05 2017