Category Archives: Book reviews

It’s Insecure Wednesday Again

And once again the first Wednesday has crept upon me, unawares – and the question we are asked to ponder this month is: which writing rule do you wish you’d never read?  I didn’t have to think too long about this, because I’ve always thought that Hemingway’s stricture of ‘paring everything to the bone’ was unhelpful and wrong-headed.  Hemingway made a virtue out of minimalism; he stripped away everything he considered to be unnecessary and crowed loud and long about paring to the bone.  But at first, while I instinctively disliked the idea, I couldn’t find arguments against it.  I mean, you don’t want excess vocab, do you?  Flowery descriptions, overstatement, repetition; none of these are good habits for an author, are they?

Many people respect Hemingway as one of the twentieth century’s great writers; but I’m afraid I think he’s overrated.  This is not just because I dislike a lot of what he stood for, such as the macho values he found while living in Spain, expressed in the bullfight (I went to a corrida once and it made me feel ill*) it’s because of this particular stricture.  If you pare things right down to the bone you end up with a skeleton, not a fully-fledged novel.  You want flesh on those bones; you want veins and arteries, skin and hair and nails.  You want features and mannerisms: you want a body.

In the end it’s not so much that I wish I’d never read his advice; it’s more that I wish I’d never acted on it – because for years I was suspicious of anything approaching verbiage in my own work.  I ended up slashing many a valuable phrase because Hemingway’s strictures had got into my mind.  Paring to the bone can be a useful editing tool, but not an end in itself.

So that’s it for today.  Happy writing, fellow Insecure people!

Kirk out

*only so that I could say I knew what I was talking about


Filed under Book reviews, language and grammar

Honey I Spent the Voucher

Yesterday I went ahead and spent the Waterstones voucher (no apostrophe is intended, for the apostrophe has gone) which Daniel got me for Christmas.  With it I bought both light and life, which I will explain in a moment.  But first the apostrophe.

I’m sure I’ve blogged about this before *, but the saga of the Waterstones apostrophe reminds me of a pub in Northampton which went from sensible to silly and then just plain absurd.  I have mixed feelings about apostrophes: when they are used I like them to be used correctly, but they are in general so poorly understood that I think we should abolish them altogether.  However, this pub in Northampton started out as a perfectly respectable establishment called the King William IV.  It then being the eighties, it reincarnated as a silly fun-pub catering for yuppies and styled itself King Billy’s.  But over the ensuing months bits of the name dropped off, leaving the name as King Billy’ (losing the ‘s’ but keeping the apostrophe) and then as King Billy with half an apostrophe, something wordpress is unable to reproduce.  So that the failure of punctuation mapped the downfall of this once respectable pub.

Here it is, apparently now closed but due to reopen; if the brewery can be believed (and who could doubt the word of a brewery?)

So with this voucher, as I said, I bought a light.  It’s a very useful light as it clips onto the pages of the book you are reading enabling you to read in bed without needing to get up and turn the light off afterwards.  And I also elected to buy a book of short stories.  I prefer novels but the problem with a good novel is I devour it in a matter of days (I’m already on my second reading of the Rebus I got for Christmas) whereas short stories last me a lot longer.  They also have the merit of introducing me to authors I may never have read.  There is much to say about this particular volume of short stories, but I’ll save it for another post, except to comment that the introduction laments the lack of outlets for writers of the form – a view with which I concur utterly.

So as I come to the end of this post I notice another year has begun.  I wish you all – what do I wish you all?  Everything you wish yourselves, unless what you wish is like this (go to minute 32):

Kirk out

*I did – it’s here:

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Filed under Book reviews, friends and family, short stories

A Convenient Waterfall?

I’ve been thinking some more about Rebus since I wrote that last post, and wondering if Rankin is trying to kill off the golden goose.  It’s odd to think of Rebus as in any way golden, since he’s such a curmudgeon.  Contrary, bad-tempered, aggressive, unhealthy (almost terminally so) and yet somehow always on the side of the angels, Rebus has kept us all guessing for nearly thirty years, since ‘Knots and Crosses’ first appeared in 1987.

And yet in this latest book I can’t help wondering if Rankin’s heart is really in it – or whether, like his revered predecessor Conan Doyle (there are a number of references to Sherlock in his work, including the character Brian Holmes and the Chief Inspector ‘the Farmer’ Watson) he is looking for a way out.  It wouldn’t be surprising; there must be a limit to the number of falls Rebus can take; the number of fights he can survive and – latterly – the number of ways in which, as a retired policeman, he can inveigle his way into an investigation.  In ‘Rather be the Devil’ he nearly cops it (no pun intended) once more as a shadow on his lung is being investigated – but instead of being a force for suspense it’s a background detail, as though his survival were never in question.  Which maybe it wasn’t: you can’t imagine Rankin’s publishers being happy about Rebus dying.  Not unless there was a handy waterfall nearby…

A propos of which, I am very happy to note that the BBC series ‘Sherlock’ is due to return very soon:

Can’t wait for that.

In the meantime, I shall re-read ‘Rather Be The Devil’ before I spend my Waterstone’s voucher.

Kirk out

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Rather Be The Devil

Those of you of a certain age and disposition will recognise that title not only as a John Martyn track but as the latest (and last?) Rebus book.  Last night I clicked through a few old John Martyn tracks (I’ve got the CD somewhere but it’s probably in storage) and saw some ancient videos of the man in his prime.  Martyn’s voice and style are unmistakable, like molten fudge served on hot coals, his lips barely enunciating the words as he sings from a throat constricted by emotion and perfectly adapted to his slithering, slapping guitar accompaniment.  I love John Martyn even though I’ve never been an a-grade fan, never saw him live nor bought all the LP’s but still he can turn my soul to jelly in a couple of bars.

It’s quite fitting that he should feature in so many of the Rebus books since in many ways he and the detective are alike.  In his youth Martyn was utterly beautiful with slim, delicate features and dark curly hair – but alas, in middle age (he barely hit old-age, dying at 60) he became a grotesque parody of his former self; bloated and bandy with one leg amputated below the knee, most of his problems brought on by drink and drugs.

Enter Rebus in this his umpteenth print incarnation, named after the above John Martyn track, ‘Rather be the Devil.’

————————–SPOILER ALERT———————————

Unfortunately for Ian Rankin, having begun what turned out to be a lengthy sequence of novels with John Rebus already in his forties, he has now had to retire him, and it’s getting harder and harder for both the detective and his author to squeeze him into the action.  Besides, Rebus is – or might be – dying; a shadow on the lung he christens Marvin (think about it*) threatens his very existence and, miracle of miracles, he has given up the fags.  He has a girlfriend now and through her gets involved in a cold case; this, however, does not prove the main thrust of the action.  The cold case proves to be linked to other cases involving gangsters including none other than our old friend Cafferty.  Through a mixture of guile, deceit and purloined business cards, Rebus wangles himself into the investigation, to the increasing frustration of former sidekick Siobhan Clarke and former adversary Malcolm Fox.  These two clearly constitute the future, but what’s Rankin in Edinburgh without Rebus?  And there’s the rub.

The storyline is as good as any of the others, but for me what was missing here was some level of emotional engagement.  Maybe it’s me, maybe it’s the book, but I’d have liked to know a little more about Rebus’s inner life: I’d have liked some conflict with his girlfriend rather than having her simply bookend the story: I’d have liked some more suspense about whether he was going to live or die.  In the end he’s just let off the hook and it’s a bit of an anticlimax.

So all in all, worth reading but not the best Rebus ever.

Kirk out

*Hank Marvin – got it now?


Filed under Book reviews, friends and family

Cosmic Ordering: Have You Been Mis-s0ld? Compensation May Be Available

This is a review of a book which came to us via a friend.  It’s called ‘Cosmic Ordering,’ author one Jonathan Cainer, and the blurb says: Turn the universe into your obedient servant.  Cosmic ordering works for millions – and it can easily work for you.  Whether you seek love, money, power, luck or success, you can have it.  Often almost instantly.

The natural reaction to this is to say, what utter balls!  But, mindful of the fact that authors are not usually responsible for the blurb on their jackets, let’s turn to the text itself.  Purportedly written by your (or my) guardian angel, it states: ‘you want to know how you can fill your life with more of what you want – and less of what you don’t want.  I’m here to tell you that this is gloriously possible.  And what’s more, it’s easy.’

And, on the next page: ‘I am the genie of the lamp, your wish-granting fairy, your lucky leprechaun.’

Now, I have an instinctive dislike of self-help books which portray the universe as no more than a kind of giant Argos store where you can just order up whatever you want.  And so far, that’s what this book seems to be.  A page or two further on, my angel reiterates,’my job is to get you what you want…’ and then clarifies, ‘I did say want.  I did not say need.  Whatever you want, I’m here to supply it.’

Remember that, because we’ll come back to it.  Want, not need.  Chapter one goes on to say that unlike the fairy stories, you can have an infinite number of wishes.  You can wish for whatever you want, at any time you want.

Ah, but then we find there’s a problem.  Really?  You astonish me.  Well, the first caveat is that you can’t ask for something – like the Koh-i-Noor – that belongs to someone else.  Because that would put your angel in conflict with that of another person and result in a stalemate.  OK; I can see that.  Besides, I don’t really want the Koh-i-Noor; I wouldn’t know what to do with it.  But if I want to win the lottery I can’t do that either because that would put me in conflict with thousands – possibly millions – of others wanting the same thing.  This is not a new concept; in this scene of Bruce Almighty shows what happens when the all-powerful Bruce says yes to everyone’s request:

OK I’ll have to upload that later as I’m in the library right now.  But basically it’s chaos: nobody’s happy.

Right, so I can have anything I want whenever I want but I can’t win the lottery or have something that belongs to someone else.  But anything else I just ask for and it’s mine, right?  I mean, you are the genie of the lamp: my wish is your command.  Right?

Well, not exactly: in subsequent chapters we learn that if we want something hard or far-fetched we have to put in a lot of work to make it happen (it’s no good wishing to be a famous author if I haven’t written anything yet); that if you’re in a hole the best way out may be to crawl through a tunnel; that if you are in a terrible situation, contentment may be a better solution than being removed from your circumstances; that the dead cannot be reanimated but that you can be helped to accept their passing; that an attitude of gratitude is helpful and a desperate longing can drive away the thing you desire, and so on.  It’s all beginning to sound terribly familiar – and when I get to the final description of ‘how to order what you want’ it’s practically indistinguishable from many kinds of prayer and meditation.  In short, these ideas are not new: they are prevalent in most major world religions and practised in many kinds of prayer and meditation.  And it’s not that I have a problem with any of it: it’s just not what the book purports to be about.  And when, towards the end, we are told that most people don’t really know what they want so they have to dig deep and ask for guidance I begin to ask, how is this want, as distinct from need?  That of course is not defined.  Very little is: it’s not that kind of book.

It wasn’t a complete waste of time: I did get one or two nuggets from it.  And it could be worse; it doesn’t try to extort money for courses or enroll you in any kind of cult.  But if this book was PPI, I’d be calling my solicitor right now.

Still, if you want to – ahem! – order the book, here it is:

Kirk out



Filed under Book reviews, friends and family, God-bothering

Black and White Mountains

It seems to me entirely understandable that to some primitive people, God lives at the top of a mountain.  Even nowadays many people still regard mountains as sacred, and when I hear about the amount of debris climbers are leaving on Everest and K2, I feel saddened and sickened.  As it happens, I’ve just finished reading a novel about that, but first I want to tell you about my walk.  I didn’t have a camera with me and in any case no camera would be capable of doing it justice – so you’ll just have to be content with my words.

First you climb out of the back gate and up the lane.  I could see easily the path that yesterday’s flood-waters had taken, pushing leaves and debris aside and cutting a clear-edged swathe like a serpent through grass.  I was thankful the house was out of its path, though it occurred to me that if the floods got much worse you’d need sandbags to stop the water cascading down the steps and in through the front door.

So, once up to the top you can turn right, down the hill and through the valley, or you can go left.  Today I went left, up past the castle and then down to the tiny village of Kentchurch where you will cross the border into Hereford.  This is a great walk for views: you can do it across the fields but with small dogs there are too many stiles for comfort, so I stuck to the road.  (This is normally quiet but for some reason today there were more cars than I’ve ever seen on it.)  Anyway, you go down the hill and round the bend and there you stop and look over the gate, for here is the most spectacular view in the neighbourhood.  Wherever you go around here, there are stunning views of hills and mountains with banks of trees running to gold and russet and brown.  But this is special, because you have all that, and then in the distance you have the Black Mountains.  These are usually dark and brooding (hence the name) but today they had snow on them; snow running down the gulleys like rivulets of lava; snow sharpening the edges of stone; snow reflecting the sun on the top.  It was cloudy everywhere else except on the mountaintop – and with the sun shining on the flat white summit it looked like another world altogether.  I thought of Narnia and Aslan’s country.  I thought of other worlds: I thought of what it must be like to be up there.  Here’s a picture from much closer:

But if Nicci French’s book ‘Killing Me Softly’ is to be believed, far too many people are climbing mountains; and when it comes to the big peaks they are mostly ego-driven guys with more money than sense.  These commercial climbers do not treat the mountain with respect, and thus endanger both their guides and the environment.  But this is incidental to the main story, which centres on a bizarre and obsessive relationship.  It’s a great read, dark and disturbing but also – refreshingly -showing a heroine with independence and guts who, although she gets into a ridiculously controlling and secretive relationship with a mountaineer, also manages to find out the truth about her husband and have him arrested.  I won’t say any more but here it is if you want to read it:

Kirk out

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Over-Reacher: ‘Die Trying’

Life is full of coincidences, don’t you think?  I’d heard of Lee Child – or rather seen his books in the library – and put them in the same sort of category as, oh I don’t know, Patricia Cornwell; as in, best-sellers whom I hadn’t read and felt no great compulsion to read.  Then again there might be good reasons for reading best-sellers; such as, to find out what others see in them and maybe to harvest some storytelling techniques.

So it was an odd event that propelled me into reading one of Lee Child’s ‘Jack Reacher’ books. ‘Die Trying’.  I’d been thinking about what books to bring to Wales with me and had not come up with anything.  Most of our books are in storage and I didn’t have funds to buy a load more, so I was kinda stuck.  And guess what?  On the seat at the bus stop in Loughborough,  sat a large, fat, hardback book.  No-one was waiting.  It had just been left there.

I looked inside.  It appeared to be an old library book which had started life in Loughborough, been transferred to Hathern, then to Quorn and finally to Leicester Prison.  I began to wonder about that book.  Who left it there and why?  Was it an escaped inmate who had left it as a signal to his mate that he had taken the bus?  Highly improbable: the stuff of fiction.  Still it could have belonged to a released prisoner who no longer wanted it.  Or maybe they left it behind by mistake.  Whatever the reason, I am not one to resist the promptings of fate (as Professor Trelawney once said) and so I popped it in my bag.  Jack Reacher.  Who and what he was, I was about to find out.

It’s a looooooooooong novel, that’s the first thing.  650 pages.  Mind you, this is a large print edition so I guess you can reduce that by a third if it’s normal print.  I quite enjoyed the first section as it was about an abduction and as I read a lot of crime fiction this was familiar territory.  And yet as the novel unfolded it became clear that it was a sort of paramilitary story.  Not my kind of thing at all; and yet, partly out of curiosity and partly because I hate to leave a book unfinished * I persevered.

******* SPOILER ALERT*************

‘Die Trying’ is basically about a group of ‘freedom fighters’ trying to establish a state; a sort of white, right-wing version of the ISIS caliphate.  I would have found the story more compelling if there had been more psychological insight; however this was kept to a minimum as the focus was on strategy.  Pages and pages were devoted to loving descriptions of guns and other hardware; how they operate, who uses them, how they are designed, what their weak points are and in particular how Reacher, an ex-military policeman, is able to overcome obstacles and win through using a combination of experience, logic, cunning and ruthlessness.

And yet, horrid as it is and full of grisly carnage, there’s something compelling in such a narrative.  Quaker and peace-lover though I am, I feel the same pull when I watch, say, recruiting adverts for the Army.  These always focus on overcoming your obstacles and achieving your goals; and though I know full well that the major obstacles in joining the Army are a) obeying orders and b) killing people, these adverts still exert a pull.  I like to imagine myself crawling under nets and swimming ravines with a rifle clamped between my teeth, only my cunning between me and certain death…

But this is a very masculine novel.  Apart from one strong female character (who is mostly absent from the main action) it’s a ‘boys-and-their-toys’ book.  It’s also a film in waiting, since much of the action is described in a highly visual way with plenty of detail and very little in the way of interior narrative: this is hardly surprising since Child started out as a screenwriter.

And then, guess what?  Just as I was coming to the end I turned on the TV to see a trailer for a film about – yes, Jack Reacher.  Starring Tom Cruise.  It looked awful.

Anyway, here’s the book:

‘Die Trying’?  On the whole I prefer Die Kinder – except that turns out to be German for children…

Kirk out

*unless it’s by Alexander McCall Smith


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