Fantastic first novel by Neville

On March 18, 2016, in Book recos, Good reads, by John Ellis

nevThe ghosts of Belfast went by too fast.

I enjoyed every chapter of Stuart Neville’s first novel ‘The Ghosts of Belfast‘. I felt as though I was getting to know a writer with great style while also meeting Belfast for the first time. The premise of a thug haunted by the ghosts of innocent people, dead by his misdeeds easily carries the novel to its unpredictable conclusion.

Through the haunted killer Gerry Fegan we get some insight into the politics behind the historical violence in Ireland and the motivations of its bad guys.

The Wheatsheaf Literary Society gave “The Ghosts of Belfast” a good review – an average of 3.5 pints (out of a possible 4). I give it a 4 and will definitely make time for the Neville’s subsequent novels.

You can check out all of Stuart Neville’s novel on his site.

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memoir-antproof-english-3.previewWho makes up an Antproof case?

I read this wonderful book believing that an antproof case might be, or could have been at some time, a real thing. It appears to be a creation of Helprin’s mind. But I bought it. Never questioned it. I questioned nothing in this fake memoir. What an accomplishment.

Helprin’s unnamed memoirist dishes out memories in small servings with no indication that they will all connect on a deeper level at the story’s end. This is one for the bookshelf because you will want to read it again. I suspect that it will reveal new things with every pass, much like ‘Gould’s Book of Fish’ or ‘Moby Dick’.

 

About the Book

From the Author’s site: A roman à clef of sorts, Memoir From Antproof Case is the story of a narrator who never reveals his name even as he confesses the secret that has shaped his life. This life begins with the killing (in self-defense) of a man on a New York Central train, and following as the result, adolescence in a Swiss mental asylum; then of course Harvard (because parallelism is essential to literature); dangerous and exciting years as a fighter pilot in WWII; a career in investment banking; marriage to Constance, a gorgeous billionairess; divorce from Constance, a cruel and uncaring billionairess; the robbing of a huge amount of gold from a supposedly impenetrable vault; retirement in Brazil along with a new marriage, divorce, and the birth of a beloved son who is not his own. And all the while, he, of no name, sees as his chief enemy in the world, the force he must oppose, the evil he must conquer . . . coffee. Coffee is the instigator of his many actions that lead him into many inescapable corners. But as odd as it may seem, the reason for this is one of honor upheld, loyalty not abandoned, and love unforsaken. The story is as compelling as the writing is exquisite and as, finally, the reverberations run deep.

 

Yellow Birds

On October 2, 2015, in Book recos, by John Ellis

The_Yellow_BirdsThe Yellow Birds will stick with you

Kevin Powers’ “The Yellow Birds” is definitely not war porn. This is an account of physical and mental torment that does everything but glamorize warfare. His account of young men in martial positions, fighting in questionable clashes ought to be enough to turn most of us against the men (because it’s mostly men) who send these young men into insane and life-ending conflicts.

The book is frequently compared to “All Quiet on the Western Front” and its easy to see why. Power’s character lives. Remarque’s character dies. Both leave us with a better understanding of the emotional damage that occurs when old men send young men to fight each other and die. Sadly, the original title of Remarque’s novel, 1n 1928 was “Nothing new on the Western Front”. Whats new? Nothing.

 

 

 

A Bend in the River

On February 11, 2015, in Book recos, Good reads, by John Ellis

bendCan you picture Africa in the 1970s? I couldn’t. 

The decade doesn’t stand out for me. I was too young to care about world events or what was happening in small towns in Africa whether they were near a bend in the river or not. That was a long time ago.

I found myself stopping often as I read “A Bend in the River“. I had to educate myself on the social, political and economic pressures facing immigrants to Africa at an unstable time. I had to read about Mobuto. I had to understand what independence meant at the time and how it affected ordinary people. The time-outs gave me time to ponder the novel and enjoy it more.

Naipaul makes it so easy to picture the ancient lifestyle of rural Africa that a scene involving a fighter jet makes the plane and its payload seem anachronistic. Thank you V.S. for opening my eyes to another time and place. Thank you for reminding me that the world is not one place but a constellation of places, each one evolving in its own way, at its own pace. Sometimes the distance between the stars is greater than it appears.

This book is more than a record or account of the times. There are beautiful passages and observations on life that are as relevant on the river as they are at the Cineplex on Kermit’s opening night. So “A Bend in the River” lives up to its commercial and artistic praise. It’s a wonderful story of displacement, hope, disillusionment and chaos. It’s also a master class study in the art of writing and the making of beautiful sentences. I plan to read more of Naipaul’s work soon.

Ouch, the Python bites

On February 11, 2015, in Book recos, Good reads, by John Ellis

CleeseWarning: It’s much of a cheese shop 

John Cleese and his over-educated pals gave me whatever comic timing I have. I owned every Python record and could pontificate along with any skit. So, when my sister Jennifer bought me a copy of “And so…”, the John Cleese autobiography, I tore into the text and finished it by New Year’s Eve. Like you other Python fans, I expected a book on Python, told in Cleese’s words, full of anecdotes told out of school. What I got was something completely different.

I have no basis beyond my opinion for what I’m about to write but I think John Cleese is trying to set the record straight before it’s too late and he’s only remembered as a high-stepping snob on a short-lived sketch comedy show. I believe this is why Python comes up so rarely in the book.

Cleese wants to be remembered as a writer, not an actor or comedian. He is most proud of his ability to write exceptional sketch comedy and he wants us to know how hard he worked at the craft. Don’t get me wrong. This is revealing and interesting stuff. It’s easy to think of Cleese as a lucky and privileged guy who isn’t the slightest bit stuck up but he’s more than that. He’s still a little lucky, privileged and stuck up but that’s not all.

I’m glad that “And so…” is not a tell-all. I feel more respect for Cleese after reading it but I’m also left feeling a little sad. I’m not sure he enjoyed the ride as much as we did.

If you’re expecting Python, this book comes with a message on the cover and the message is ‘beware’. At the opening of the Sydney bridge club, they were fishing readers out of the main sewer every half an hour…  oh stop.

Don’t expect a lot of Python but expect to learn a little bit about the craft of great comedy and how to get a laugh. That ought to be reward enough.

 

Sweet reading

On January 31, 2015, in Book recos, Good reads, by John Ellis

SweetlandSweetland 

The story of Moses Sweetland is wonderfully conceived and masterfully executed. I was to have read it for a meeting of the Wheatsheaf Literary Society but I didn’t. So, I had the advantage of sitting through its review before I later broke the spine with some knowledge of what to expect. I thank Bill Coristine for insisting that I read this book. He gave me his copy and said, YOU will love this book. I think he did it because we both loved “Suttree” by Cormack McCarthy. Moses Sweetland will stick with me as a character. Thanks for the nudge Bill. And thanks for the great work Michael.

Sweetland is both the name of the main character and the name of the island where he lives, which bears his family name. Moses Sweetland is a stubborn holdout that won’t accept the federal government’s voluntary relocation deal and so he comes into conflict with all of the residents (of Sweetland the island) who want the deal (the cash). It’s a simple and compelling plot driven by the questions: why is he so stubborn and why won’t he leave? Below the surface are darker themes of aging, craziness, loyalty and inevitability. The life of Moses dissolves at the same rate as life on the island of Sweetland. Perhaps it’s a little sad. But don’t we don’t all want to die in our bed, so to speak? (Not a plot spoiler.)

Michael Crummey shows great respect for his readers by providing clues throughout the ages and letting the reader ponder Sweetland’s motivation at his or her own pace. Nothing is rushed or spoon-fed and all is revealed in a beautiful and believable conclusion.

 

 

 

 

 

On “On Writing” by Stephen King

On November 28, 2014, in Good reads, by John Ellis

I wish I had read Stephen King’s “On Writing” before now.

I made the mistake of believing that I understood his principles because he has been quoted so many times. “Kill adjectives! Kill adverbs! Kill your darlings!” He said. It made sense to me. Quoting E.B. White he said “Eliminate unnecessary words.” And so on. I thought I understood.

I bought “On Writing” expecting to find lists of dos and don’ts. I felt I had purchased a text book and my mindset was academic when I broke the spine. What happened next transformed my view of Mr. King. Over the first hundred or so pages, I got to know the man behind the legend. There is no talk of dangling participles or reflexive verbs, just King’s resume, written with great clarity and honesty. I didn’t know the extent of his drinking problem. I didn’t realize that he may have been operating outside of his faculties at the time when the world first embraced him as a favourite son. I didn’t know how hard he worked.

In the second half of “On Writing” King delivers on his promise to provide some guidance to would-be authors but there are no lists and no short cuts. The only formula that works for King is hard work and he’s very clear in his belief that there are no substitutes for talent and effort. Unlike lists, this full-length discussion of style gives him time to explain why and how his approach to writing produces superior work. It doesn’t feel like a lecture. It feels like the kind of conversation you might have with a successful but modest Uncle over lunch or a round of golf. But this Uncle is very clear about one thing: If you aren’t prepared to read and write a lot, you can probably find better things to do than writing novels or trying to become a professional content writer.

Should you read “On Writing”?

If you’re a fan of Stephen King, yes, of course. This is a humble and honest biography. You’re likely to put it down and be a bigger fan than you were. If you’re a reader, “On Writing” will help you become a more discerning one. If your job requires you to communicate with people in writing (most of us), it’s almost guaranteed that your style could be improved and your effectiveness quadrupled as a result. If your job is to create content in any form (video, web copy, editorial, social media, print) than you absolutely need to read it. If none of these apply to you, take a pass and rent the movies. You don’t have to read “On Writing” to love the work of Stephen King. But if you do, you’ll probably love him a little more.

If you can’t afford Stephen King, or he isn’t interested in the kind of content you need, you can always hire John the Writer.

 

Born Weird – not a confession

On February 28, 2014, in Good reads, by John Ellis

If you have siblings, this won’t seem so Weird

Andrew Kaufman’s novel “Born Weird” was nominated for the Steven Leacock Award in 2013. It’s the most recent book selection at the Wheatsheaf Literary Society – the oldest, established, permanently floating, men’s book club in Toronto. I’m one of 7 children and I found the sibling relationships well developed, pretty indicative of life in a large family and a little familiar in places.

I recommend this novel as a highly entertaining work of fiction with a happy ending although it has been dogged by a few lukewarm reviews. The Quill & Quire offers a nicely balanced review that shouldn’t prevent you from supporting Mr. Kaufman and his weirdness. He seems like a funny and talented guy. You can read the Quill & Quire review or just buy the book. The Wheatsheaf Literary Society will be interrogating this work on humour in mid-March. I may revisit this post with an update.

The meaning of happiness – for busy people

On January 10, 2014, in Good reads, by John Ellis

Too busy to read? Flickr to the rescue.

You could read all of ‘The Cossacks‘ by Leo Tolstoy or you could  just search the Web for the book’s real meaning. If you opt for the second, easier, lazier alternative, you could end up on this dude’s Flickr page. He’s scanned the one page that sums up the nature of happiness for Olenin, the “wealthy, disaffected Muscovite who joins the Russian army and travels to the untamed frontier of the Caucasus in search of a more authentic life.” Let’s hear it for the Internet!

What’s really funny is that this dude (in a rush to wisdom) was in too big of a hurry to generate a decent scan.

Now – what to do with all the time you’ll save by not reading all those old Russian novels?

BTW – Anna throws herself in front of a train. You can skip that one too.

Pretend you read it.

Great read. All Quiet on the Western Front

On October 19, 2013, in Good reads, by John Ellis

100 years later and little has changed

This month the Wheatsheaf Literary Society is tackling the war classic “All Quiet on the Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque. Advertised as The Greatest War Novel of All Time, this is an account of a young soldier’s struggle to understand why he should be killing other young men who are just like himself at the request of an administration. These ideas are as poignant today as they were  in 1933, when it was published and during WW1, in which it is set.

With so many wars being fought on the ground today, I have to imagine that many young soldiers struggle with the same issues. Remarque’s young character Paul Baumer could be a combatant in any army, anywhere on earth, right now.

This is a powerful, well written account of humanity. Certainly worth the read.

 

For lighter fare, check my portfolio of not so heartbreaking material at Hire John the Writer.

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