Tuesday, April 27, 2010

'Bad Day in Blackrock' by Kevin Power

It would be easy for me to hate Kevin Power. The man is less than two months older than me and has already written a prize-winning novel. I had always thought that aspiring novelists, bar Cecelia Ahern, were meant to sit around vaguely mulling life over until they were 35 or so. The fact that this novel is rather good makes it even more difficult to bear.
Bad Day in Blackrock is a fictionalised look at the death of Brian Murphy outside Anabel's nightclub in Dublin, involving three former Blackrock College students. It's a brave topic for any novelist, let alone a new one, and it inevitably left Power open to accusations of insensitivity. All names have been changed, of course, and some details are altered for the sake of narrative clarity, but it remains an immediately recognisable story to any Irish person.

Yet one only needs to read a few pages of the novel to realise that this is a far more respectful, measured way of examining a delicate issue than the oft-seen 'Tell-All Exposés' that unemployed tabloid journalists like to produce about contentious court cases. Power is examining the way of life of affluent South Dubliners at that moment in time, and the factors that can lead to such things happening. As such, he occasionally runs the risk of sounding like Ross O'Carroll-Kelly without the comedy. A morally barren, self-absorbed, hedonistic picture quickly emerges, whilst Power manages to stay sympathetic at the same time. These are young people behaving badly because their schools and their parents have told them that they can.
As someone who has had daily contact with precisely this milieu through teaching in a private school I find it hard to argue against this. Read Bad Day in Blackrock if you have an interest in how much of Ireland is raising its children. Or just read it if you like well-written, perfectly structured fiction that refuses to err on the side of bombastic, even when it must have been ever so tempting.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

'The Da Vinci Code' by Dan Brown

I read The Da Vinci Code at that point of saturation it had a few years back when a visitor to earth might have come to the conclusion that humans had only ever published one book, and decided to leave it at that. The experience was much akin to that of making love to Mary Harney: momentarily exciting, as long as you didn't think about what you were doing too much, followed by a massively unsatisfying climax and months and months of self-loathing, recrimations and seeking explanation for that which you already know there is none.

Hey, we all make mistakes. But delving further in Dan Brown's ouevre is surely akin to finishing up with The Harnster, lighting a cigarette, and then wondering aloud what Ann Widdecombe and Shane MacGowan were up to for the evening. No. Just no.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

'The Beach' by Alex Garland

I was bought a copy of The beach when I was 18 by someone who insisted that I'd love it. I wasn't so sure: the cover was the film tie-in version, prominently featuring Leonardo diCaprio with no shirt on. Hardly my kind of thing to be reading stuff with the twat from Titanic on it. But I gave it a go, and now feel like I owe an awful lot to that book.

The narrative, telling the tale of English backpacker Richard and his slow descent into madness on an island paradise shared by a handful of idealistic travellers, is arresting from start to finish. It awoke a dormant wanderlust in me and carried me along on waves of euphoria, fear, and horniness. Reading it, I felt like I was Richard - with his Vietnam movie fantasies, thwarted sexual desires, and hypocritical longing for a place untrammelled by other tourists.
More importantly, I was discovering for the first time as an adult the power that literature could have on me; a power that went far beyond anything a film or TV show could hope to achieve. Garland has only produced two more novels since (or three, if you count the novelisation of Sunshine, the film he wrote for director Danny Boyle) and while both could well claim to be more accomplished pieces of literature it's unlikely that Garland will ever manage to write anything as thrilling or as resonant as The Beach again. Few have.

Monday, April 19, 2010

'Skippy Dies' by Paul Murray

There was a time when I baulked at the sight of the larger novel. It's easy to become fixated with how many pages there are in a book, and how many you still have to go, particularly when the novel feels more worthy than engaging. I schlepped slowly through Haruki Murakami's 600-odd page The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles last year, assuring myself that it would be worth finishing, and that if I could even cover as much as twenty pages in a day then I would have the thing finished within a month.
Skippy Dies, the second novel by Irish author Paul Murray, did not feel that way. It's over 660 pages long, but during a few quiet days in Donegal I raced through it, devoting sittings of up to four hours at a time to it.
It's a remarkable book, set in the fictional Seabrook College - a place that bears more than a passing resemblance to Dublin's Blackrock College. The protagonist,14 year-old Daniel 'Skippy' Juster dies in a doughnut shop on the first page. The book thereafter devotes two-thirds of itself to the build-up to Skippy's death and the factors that led to it. Myriad other characters swarm comfortably about the place, and topics like fidelity, bravery, divorce, drug use, child abuse, religion and ambition abound whilst, astonishingly, never weighing too heavily on the reader. Murray manages to keep a lightness and humour to matters by employing more than a touch of fantasy in his writing. The conversations between the teenage boy characters, for example, read almost like an X-rated version of Saved By The Bell. But in a good way.
What this means is that, though Murray has all manner of important things to say about Irish society and about teenagers today, he manages to do so without ever becoming hectoring or shrill. Skippy Dies is an epic, in the very best sense of the word, and is well worth checking out.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

You Have to Start Somewhere

Dostoyevsky, Banville, Russell, McGahern, Nabokov, Fitzgerald, Eliot, Proust.

I haven't read any of them, at this point in time. This is a blog about books by someone who is far from an expert on them, he just likes them. There will be little in-depth analysis, no talk of motifs, little in the way of delving into influences. I'm not a professional book-reviewer, so I won't be able to offer sneak previews of the hot new thing hitting our bookshelves in a fortnight. You may not have read a single one of the books that I have. There'll be no ratings out of ten given, because I don't believe in them. There'll be no particularly good reason to visit.
But there'll be honest reviews of books I've read and had something to say about, so I'll be delighted if a few people drop by. And if they don't, I'll still have read those books.