My Purple Scented Novel by Ian McEwan: Book Review


81fA07zblAL.jpg

It might take you longer to read this post than it took me to read My Purple Scented Novel, by the king, back on fine form, Ian McEwan.

I began reading this little treasure at 11.30 last night and finished it before midnight.

34 pages long.

Short pages.

3,600 words short.

Most novels are at least 80,000 words long.

At a ‘words-per-penny’ rate (it cost me £1.99) My Purple Scented Novel weighs in at a miserly 18.1 words a penny.

So, if you spent a penny whilst reading My Purple Scented Novel you would only get as far as “You will have heard of my friend the once celebrated novelist Jocelyn Tarbet, but I suspect his memory…” before having to cessate your flow.

A penny spent luxuriating in your ‘average’ novel would probably allow you the luxury of a swiftly delivered poo AND a wipe.

But size, we all know, is nothing and this little McEwan gem, that crams in jealousy, revenge, conceit, criminality, schadenfreude, love, and many other glorious plot lines and devices into its dinky, seemingly disposable, being, is cherishable as only great McEwans can be.

It’s a writerly conceit (he has an inclination towards that) and therefore could be seen by many as vanity. (and it takes a fairly hefty swipe as ‘rival in writing’ Martin Amis.

I loved it.

It is crafted to within an inch of its microscopic life and for that reason, and the fact that it’s bloody clever and bloody funny, I’d recommend you shell out the exorbitant price (relatively speaking) that it demands.

 

Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan: Book Review


unnamed.jpg

I’m a lifelong McEwan fan, but he has been infuriating me in the last decade with his inconsistency.

I have previously reviewed and lamented Sweet Tooth and Solar – both stinkers, but sandwiched between them was The Children Act, a book of great beauty and provocation.

I’m glad to say that Machines Like Me finds McEwan right back at the top of his game and it’s clear to me that what is making him write his best work these days is moral ambiguity and his adeptness at turning that ambiguity into superb storytelling.  It’s at the heart of  what makes this book, and The Children Act, so great.

The moral conundrum here is truth.

Humanity allows us to decide the difference between ‘white lies’ and despicable self- serving perjury.  But can Artificial Intelligence be expected to compete?

This novel works on many levels.  It’s essentially a sci0fi book about Artificial Intelligence yet it’s set in the past.

A fake past.

1982 to be precise.

A 1982, in which Thatcher has just lost the Falklands War, Alan Turing is alive and kicking, Britain is contemplating a form of Brexit, the poll tax disputes are raging and many of today’s political challenges are being reframed as 1982’s.  Most notably the rise of an elderly Labour leader (Tony Benn) has swept to power on the back of an adoring youth.

It’s playful and brilliant.

McEwan plays with the value of things like money.  Everything seem so cheap: cheaper than the reality of 1982 prices. (The effect of a global recalibration of worth?  It’s unexplained.)

Into a 32 year old dropout’s life (Charlie) arrive, almost simultaneously, a stunningly beautiful but enigmatic 21 year old neighbour (Miranda) and a ‘robot’ of almost perfect physical attributes (Adam – one of 25 AI humanoids – 13 male, 12 female).

Charlie’s bought Adam thanks to an inheritance from his mother and the book explores the relationship between the three main protagonists, but throws in a secondary moral dilemma in the form of a four year old abused boy, Mark, who inveigles himself into their lives.

In Miranda’s past an event of monumental emotional significance has consumed her and the repercussions of this form a significant strand of the moral backbone of the story.

So we have fun (made up history) sci-fi (lite but fascinating in the form of a humanoid robot, whom it turns out is capable of great knowledge – Google, before Google existed- but also a form of moral judgement) relationships (tangled) and simply brilliant storytelling.

The science is interesting, the philosophy just light enough to engage dullards like me and the story so compelling as to turn pages lightning fast.

The whole premise throws up so many genuinely interesting questions that it’s like manna to McEwan who feasts on the riches that his great invention feeds him.

I adored this book.  One of McEwan’s best ever and leaves only Nutshell, out of his 17 novels, for me to read.  It’s a noughties write, so who knows.

 

 

Solar by Ian McEwan: Book Review.


8861483.jpg

This slipped under my radar, having read every one of his first 13 novels, novellas and short story collections.  I used to consider McEwan my favourite writer but that title has been lost after two out of three damp squibs.  This being one of them.

Solar was followed by the awful Sweet Tooth and it’s kind of a companion piece of sorts.  Although Solar is nominally about climate change, it’s really about a misogynistic old man’s sexual desires and, in that respect, riffs off the follow up which explores sexuality from the female side. Although Sweet Tooth is written in the first person (a terrible mistake as McEwan is a long way detached from a 20 something female’s perspective) this is written in the third person narrative, although I use the word narrative with reservations.  It doesn’t make it any better.

It’s just plain boring from start to finish, is the problem.  Long ponderous descriptive set pieces, deep dive examinations of a character’s character from the despicable anti=hero’s perspective – the deathly dull Nobel Prize winning philanderer Michael Beard.

McEwan creates a character that is so unremittingly unlikeable that it’s difficult to find any purchase in the proceedings.  I simply didn’t care about him one whit.

Writing about unsympathetic or unpleasant characters is by no means a forlorn task.  Jeckyl and Hyde, Frankenstein, Patrick Suskind’s Perfume; all feature monsters that are utterly compelling.

This just features a monster.

The cover blurb states that it is the winner of the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction.  I am incredulous at that as it is simply not funny.  Grotesque perhaps, but funny – no.

If McEwan hadn’t followed up sweet tooth with The Children Act I’d say his career was over, but The Children Act is a formidable piece of writing and storytelling that sits along his best.

This and Sweet Tooth, by contrast, feel self-indulgent, knocked off with particularly thin premises for their existence.  Thank God it’s over.

Avoid.

Ian McEwan. The Children Act. Review.


ChildrenAct_Vintage

I first picked up an Ian McEwan book in 1978 when i read his Somerset Maugham Prize-winning short stories, First love, Last Rights.  It was a bawdy collection of off kilter tales that I relished.  He followed it up with a similar second collection, In Between the Sheets.  I was now a fan, despite not being an avid reader of short stories.  But the 14 publications that followed these, I’ve read them all bar Solar, are full length, albeit some of his most successful, Amsterdam, On Chesil Beach and this latest outing, The Children Act, are really novellas.

He’s covered a lot of ground as you might expect in 36 years but almost always they have been intensely personal and deep psychological insights of how people have responded to what often seem like quite random acts.

His novel, Saturday, covers a hijacking in an upscale London apartment and plays out, in extreme tension, over the course of a single day. On Chesil Beach, if memory serves me correctly, takes place in a similarly condensed timeframe.

Six of his books have been Booker Prize nominated (although only Amsterdam, controversially, triumphed) and eight have been made into movies (Sweet Tooth is currently in development).

So it’s fair to say that McEwan comes to the writing of The Children Act with some positive credentials.

Nevertheless, I was blown away by this slight (200 page) novel that deals with the reaction of a 60 year old female family law judge and a case she presides over.  It regards the refusal to take a life saving blood transfusion by a 17 year old Jehova’s Witness boy on the grounds that his religion forbids it.

The case coincides with a particularly rocky patch in her long, loving but childless, marriage and it is this central irony that makes these two situations riff off each other in a way that has a profound impact on her life.

It is clear that our central character, judge Fiona May, is a good and extremely considerate, intelligent and thoughtful woman both personally and professionally and that’s what drives this story.  The book is all about ‘doing the right thing’ in all aspects of her life and relationships and is profoundly thought provoking and moving as a result.  To say more would only run the risk of spoilers so I will leave it at that.

McEwan crafts his novels with extreme diligence, yet never appears to overwork his writing; rarely more so than in this tremendous outing. The one exception being the below par Sweet Tooth.

Absolutely and unequivocally recommended.

A master at work and an assured masterpiece is the result.

Recent reading. Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan.


Unknown

“Not Mr McEwan’s Finest Book.” was the Economist’s summation of this odd book and I thoroughly agree.  Described also as a “Russian Doll” of a novel because of its stories within stories.  Most of them distracting or just plain poor.

For me it’s just badly written with an incredible central character, Serena Frome, written in the first person by McEwan.

The sex scenes (and there are several) are embarrassing, the musings on life stilted, and the overall flow of it just plain bad.

It’s a Cold war thriller set around the 1970’s offices of MI5 and MI6 and concerns the travails of the aforementioned Serena as she appears to shag her way through most of the Western World’s (mostly) straight spies.

I adore Ian McEwan but this is just guff.  Sorry.

Massive plot twist or otherwise.  Avoid.

Books of the year


It was a slow year for me. I can’t have read more than a dozen books in all, but very few duffers came my way, indeed I think the Mrs may have out-read me and will no doubt post her own best-of by close of play today.

However many of the best books I read were recommended by Ian Dommett, so he goes to the top of my critics list.

In no particular order my favourite reads of the year were.

The Handmaids Tale by Margaret Atwood.

handmaids-tale1.jpg

In truth this probably wins by a nose. The fact that it was written in 1985 is a strength as it shows off her perceptiveness even better than if one read it at the time of its release. Is it her best book? Hard to say as she is such a brilliant writer, but it certainly sits alongside Oryx and Crake, The Robber Bride, Alias Grace and he Blind Assassin. All magnificent.

You’ll find my full review here if you are interested.

Then We came to The End by Joshua Ferris

thenwe-came-to-the-end.jpg

I predict this will be a monster in paperback. It’s been on many year end lists this year and so should get the reviews it deserves when it comes out in PB in 2008. I think it’s slated for a movie too, although the mystery that is implicit in its writing will probably be diluted on screen. I reviewed it here.

The Damned Utd byDavid Peace

damned-utd.jpg

My all time favourite sports book. It’s a novel but reads like a Biography od Brian Clough in his 43 days as manager of Leeds Utd. Not a happy experience. It is frightening how out of control Cloughie was. So good was it that I asked for, and recieved, “provided you don’t Kiss me, 20 Years with Brian Clough” for my Christmas. I’m really looking forward to that. Anyway I reviewed David Peace here. Highly recommended.

An Occurance at Owl Creek by Ambrose Bierce

owl-creek.jpg

It’s just a short story but it’s packed with drama and a brilliant twist.  Read more here.

 The Virgin Suicides by Jeffery Eugenides

virgicides.jpg

I was blown away by this.  Far superior (aren’t they all) to the movie; it gets right under your skin in a very odd way.  But he’s a very odd writer.  My mother read this and his other masterpiece, Middlesex, on my recommendation and loved both of them.  More here.

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

god-delusion.jpg

This is an interesting but overwritten and ultimately pompous diatribe against the existence of God.  Nevertheless, until he starts getting overly political about it all it is a very interesting essay and worthy of reading for anyone who has any interest in the existence of god(s).  Read more here.

 Auchwitz by Laurence Rees

auchwitz1.jpg

I was gripped by this book and I also liked the BBC Drama later in the year that depicted the liberation of Auchwitz.  Not by the same writer.

It’s a detailed account of the concept behind Auchwitz and throws the net of Nazi guilt far wider than Hitler.  Well written and absorbing it is, despite its gruesome content, a compelling read. 

 On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

chesil_beach.jpg

Great, but not his greatest.  I wrote an overly glowing review of this on completion, but, in hindsight, it’s a bit style over content.  Still beats most of the muck that gets published though.

Agent Zig Zag by Ben Macintyre

zig-zag.jpg

If this was a novel it would be rejected on grounds of ludicracy.  It is in fact, the true life account of an English Double agent who crossed sides more often than Michael Stewart.  It’s real boys own stuff and a splendid read.  What ho!