My new Blog

13 Mar

My new blog can be found over at 

 

http://alexjcall.wordpress.com

 

It would be great to see you there!

Twists and Turns – Matthew Mitcham

13 Nov

I wave and look at the camera, because I want to connect with people unconditionally.

 

In August 2008, one Saturday morning, I came downstairs, wrapped up in my duvet, incredibly hungover and put the television on. Naturally, BBC1 came on first and I discovered boys in pants diving off platforms into water. It was the final of the Mens 10m Platform Diving in the Beijing Olympics.

I hadn’t seen any other moments of the 2008 Olympics, and I certainly didn’t know the rules of diving, short of ‘make sure you land in the water’, but being the pervert that I am, I decided to stick with it. Especially when the first diver I saw was incredibly attractive, just my type.

When he pulled himself out of the pool after his dive and grinned and waved at the camera, my gaydar pinged and I realised there was a (albeit slim) possibility that I might just be his type as well.

By the final round of diving, I’d studied enough on the internet to know how the scoring worked, and to know a little bit more about my new favourite diver – notably, that he was the only male out gay athlete in the Olympic village.

Twists and Turns tells the story of Matthew Mitcham, his childhood, his love of trampolining, his transition to diving and his goal to win gold at the London 2012 Olympics.

It also tells of his battles with depression, self-harm and drug abuse.

It’s not spoiling anything to reveal that Mitcham actually achieved his goal, four years early in Beijing, snatching victory from the Chinese with an incredible last dive. Even I, as a complete newcomer to the sport, knew from the moment that Mitcham hit the water, that he’d earned the top spot.

Fast forward four years, I’ve sort of kept up with Mitcham, but only really a little bit, by following him on Twitter. I honestly didn’t know much about him, but I was excited to see him dive again in London.

As a self-appointed honourary Australian when it comes to the sport of diving I was committing treason in the eyes of my friends by supporting Mitcham and not Tom Daley. I was gutted for Mitcham when he didn’t make it into the finals, missing out by one place.

But now, having read his autobiography, I can see what a huge achievement it was for him to even make it to London.

Twists and Turns is an incredibly honest and candid account of the struggles that he faced, both physical and emotional. Reading this book, and learning about him, made me change my mind set about him, and put me in mind of an internet meme that was doing the rounds just after the Olympics.

It showed the American gold medallist David Boudia looking quite stoic with the caption “USA celebrates Gold like it is Silver…” then Chinese Silver medallist Qui Bo crying: “China celebrates Silver like it is nothing…” – and lastly underneath is a picture of Tom Daley being carried into the pool by the rest of his teammates  “…but Britain celebrates Bronze like it is motherfucking Platinum!”

It’s quite uplifting, but I can’t help now thinking there should be a fourth picture of Matthew Mitcham standing on the Olympic rings (Google it: it’s a fab picture) with the caption ‘Mitcham Wins’.

I’m not a biography type of person, people who have read this blog before will know that, but I adored this book. It was a real insight into someone who I have admired, but it also taught me something new about him. It showed me worlds that I’d never before experienced, and taught me that while it’s important to work hard on your goals, it’s just as important to work hard on yourself.

Mitcham has readjusted his goals based on his experiences and will be competing in the 3m Springboard competition in the Glasgow Commonwealth Games in 2014. I will be there (in spirit only sadly, not quite lucky enough to get tickets), cheering him on and awarding my own points, but knowing full well that it’s not about him winning.

Because he’s already a winner.

Murder on the Orient Express – Agatha Christie

4 Nov

For someone who has claimed to have written a novel that is a modern day version of an Agatha Christie mystery, it’s probably a bit of a surprise that I haven’t ready any of Christie’s books – but hey, that’s how marketing in books works, it doesn’t have to be true, as long as it sounds good.

As it was my turn to pick the Torun Way Book Club book this month, and with very little in my ‘To Read’ pile for once, I decided to plump for one of her most famous books, starring her most famous detective.

Murder on the Orient Express finds Hercule Poirot travelling – as the title suggests – on the Orient Express on his way to London. The train pulls to a stop in the middle of a snow drift, unable to move on, and Poirot is awoken to be told there has been a murder. Everybody on board the carriage is a suspect.

So far, fairly standard for a murder mystery. Poirot proceeds to interview all of the travellers, one by one, investigates their luggage and then has some thinking time with his colleagues before gathering everyone together and revealing whodunit.

There’s not much more I can say about the plot without revealing just exactly who did do it, and while it may be nearly eighty years since the book was first published in 1934, but I had managed to go this long without finding out, and I don’t plan on spoiling it for anyone else.

But I can tell you whether I thought it was any good. It’s a really quick read, it’s mostly dialogue, so can be read in a matter of hours, which is a good thing since it does draw you in almost straight away.

Personally, I’d have liked a little bit more character development, we don’t really get to know any of the characters involved, but it may well be that is a good thing, else we might know too much about them for the mystery to really work.

It does fail in quite drawing the tense atmosphere that the passengers must have been experiencing, and that’s because the reader is stuck with Poirot, who is calmly and methodically investigating the crime.

The whole thing is incredibly streamlined, and I couldn’t help thinking as I read it that it’s almost perfectly written for television. But then I remembered that the book was written in the thirties, when television wasn’t around. This type of book WAS the equivalent of television – disposable, quick entertainment, so it’s easy to see why they were so popular. These were the equivalent of a Sunday evening in front of the television watching, say… an Agatha Christie mystery.

The book doesn’t quite stand the test of time, but it really is an enjoyable read. And no, I didn’t figure out who did it.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

21 Oct

Donna Tartt has a habit of writing one book every ten years. Her first book The Secret History was published in 1992 and her second novel The Little Friend arrived in 2002.  Her third novel The Goldfinch is published globally in English tomorrow (having been available in Dutch for a month) – an event the literary world has been waiting for with baited breath.

All except me that is. Both Tartt’s previous novels were published ‘before my time’ as they say, having been tempted back into reading upon leaving school in 2003 (strictly Roald Dahl and Harry Potter before then). I had, of course, heard of both The Secret History and The Little Friend but had never got round to reading them, so I was a little surprised about the buzz that appeared when proof copies of The Goldfinch started to appear.

One managed to fall into my lap (ouch – over 750 pages long!) and so I decided to give her a go, find out – as a Tartt-virgin (an oxymoron if ever I heard one) – if she was worth the buzz, and if The Goldfinch would make me travel back a decade or two and read her previous novels.

So – what’s it about, and is it any good?

Theo Decker loses his mother in a terrorist attack at a museum in New York, and on a whim, in the confusion, he takes a famous painting, the aforementioned Goldfinch and smuggles it home.

The novel charts Theo’s movements from the museum, to his friend’s home, and onwards to his father in Las Vegas where he meets Bruno, a fellow outcast at his new school.

Those two paragraphs don’t really give away much of the plot, but they DO sum up the first 234 pages of the novel – remember, this is a 771 page tome. I don’t want to do Tarrt or the book a disservice, because they are an incredibly nuanced and well-written 230 pages. But for fans of quick, turning plot points and salacious twists this, is perhaps not the novel for you.

I am constantly surprised when talking to people about The Goldfinch, how quickly I read the first third of the book, because it genuinely didn’t feel like it was that long. The writing is so absorbing, so rich that it pulls you in, into Theo’s mind, and it’s amazing how quickly you grow to be connected with Theo. You need to know what happens to him – and the painting – that you keep turning the page, and you nearly miss getting off the train at Swindon. In fact, when I realised I was at my stop, I briefly considering staying on till Cardiff, just so I could carry on reading!

Then we’re into learning about Boris and Theo’s friendship with him, which again feels like a quick five minute chapter, but in fact takes up much of the middle third of the book.

It’s not ruining anything to say that the love of Theo’s life is Pippa, a young girl who is in the explosion at the museum at the beginning of the novel – at least according to Theo, anyway. But to the reader, it is the fascinating relationship that the two adolescent boys have with each other and how they grow up together, becoming connected in a way, that many lovers are not. These two are soul mates, and it is this relationship which keeps the reader hooked throughout the last third of the book.

And it is within the last third of the book that the plot finally arrives and things step up a gear. Theo is now in his late twenties and earning a living by fraudulently passing furniture off as ‘important Americana’, but when he is rumbled by a client, he suddenly becomes very scared about the safety of the stolen Goldfinch.

Some critics might read this and start talking about the themes of the book, and what the painting actually represents to Theo, but I’m not that sort of critic. There are themes, there are probably some important ones in there, but there’s certainly nothing new in there, no great revelations that will change your life, and I’m not pretentious enough to pretend that the themes really matter (at least to me, they don’t).

Was I emotionally invested with the characters? Did I enjoy the writing? Was I on the verge of tears during the sad bits? Was I laughing and smiling at the happy bits. These are the questions that matter to me.

Ultimately – did I enjoy it?

It’s hard to say. I liked Theo. I LOVED Bruno. I didn’t cry. I laughed a little. And when I got to the end I was left with two thoughts:

  1. Not a lot really happened, considering the size of the book.
  2. There were a lot of Harry Potter references. Including one rather jarring one to do with Parseltongue.

Am I tempted to go back and read her other books? Initially, no I wasn’t. But when I looked them up on the internet to get the correct names and dates for them, I discovered that The Secret History is centered around a murder mystery, and my curiosity was raised.

And that’s when I realised what the problem with The Goldfinch was. During the first half of the book, when we’re getting to know Theo and subsequently Boris, it doesn’t matter that there’s no plot. The writing is good enough without it – but when Tartt ramps up the story and introduces a plot… it falls flat.

The characters don’t need a big external plot in a book like this. But if you were going to give them a big gun-toting plot – you’d give them a bigger one than the one they get.

The last hundred pages or so after the ‘action sequence’ feels like the first half of the book again, and it made me realise that Chapters 10 and 11 – all two hundred pages of them – drag in a way that the other 500 didn’t.

To sum up – I enjoyed it, I’m glad I read it, and I think if anyone is put off by the size, then don’t worry, because it doesn’t feel like it’s that long a book. But I can only give it 6.5 out of 10 (6 feels too stingy, 7 feels too generous) – it doesn’t deserve the buzz it’s getting.

The Goldfinch is out tomorrow – Tuesday 22nd October

Magnificent Joe by James Wheatley

9 Aug

Sometimes, it takes just one line to make a book memorable. I was reading this book on the train when I found that line and laughed out loud, almost feeling the need to explain what I was laughing out loud, but fearing the language may offend.

The line – complete with expletives is as below:

Geoff pounds his fist onto the tabletop, so hard that the American’s drink slops over the edge of the glass. ‘I’m from fucking County Durham, son, and you’re a cunt.’

I can’t pinpoint exactly why this made me laugh, perhaps the ridiculousness of the situation that Geoff was in at the time – a situation that I’ll not reveal in case anyone wants to read the book.

Although, having said that, there’s not really a lot to spoil, the ending of the book is all rather disappointingly revealed within the prologue and the book is more about how the characters got to the end point, rather than building up to it.

The reason I say it’s disappointing is because, there’s no sense of mystery, no anticipation of what’s going to happen next. It’s not a spoiler to say that the Magnificent Joe of the title is killed, although to be fair, we don’t know who by at the beginning.

Because of that, it’s really difficult to invest in him as a character. The book could have been much more powerful if the death hadn’t been revealed and Joe had been developed a bit more.

As it is, ‘mentalist’ Joe is a bit of an annoyance to the main character, Jim. And while Jim does seem to care somewhat about him, he’s presented more of an obligation than anything else.

The whole book as a result falls a bit flat, never really hitting the potential emotional resonance it could have. Because we know what’s going to happen, it’s really difficult to care.

One thing that does work is the relationship between the men, Jim, Geoff, Barry and Mac. Theirs is the sort of friendship that evolves between heterosexual men who have grown up together in a small village.

They are friendships of convenience, easily broken by small differences. All four men, felt really real to me. As a frequent visitor of a small village pub, I see men like this all the time. They act like best friends, but their only real connection is drinking in the same pub for x number of years. None of them really know each other, none of them really care about each other.

Which is ironic, really, because that’s how I ended up feeling about this book.

Still: ‘I’m from fucking County Durham, son, and you’re a cunt.’

Magnificent Joe is available now in Trade Paperback

The Engagements by J Courtney Sullivan

7 Aug

The Engagements shows us four snapshots of American life throughout the 20th century and into the 21st.

In 1972 we meet Evelyn, happily married to Gerald, patiently awaiting the arrival of her son, who has left his wife for another woman.

Christmas 1987 sees the introduction of James, married to Sheila, he has to work on Christmas Eve and will miss the beginning of Christmas Day with his family.

2003 finds Frenchwoman Delphine trashing the home of PJ, her American fiancé  while in 2012 Kate is preparing for the wedding of her cousin Jeff to his partner Toby.

Plot-wise, the four sections aren’t really connected, at least not at first, but they all tell very different tales of love. They’re all an enjoyable read, and the characters are so well written that it doesn’t hugely matter that there’s not an awful lot going on.  

There’s a nice moment later on when you realise how the characters are connected – the same diamond engagement ring has managed to weave itself through all their lives. One of the characters in the 2012 period takes a moment to look at the ring and wonders what it’s story is, what history did the ring take?

It reminds us that everyone and everything has a story beyond just their present existence, it’s like looking at your entry on a family tree and realising that your story is just one small part of your entire family’s history, that there are hundreds of stories that helped us to get to where we are today. Hundreds of stories that are lost in the mists of time now that there’s no one around to remember them.

There is a fifth element to The Engagements which I’ve not yet mentioned, and that’s the story of Mary Frances Gerety.

Gerety’s story spans forty years beginning one night when she comes up with the tagline for De Beers advertising campaign – A Diamond is Forever.

It was only at the end of the book that I discovered that this is a fictionalised account of the real life Gerety, the woman behind an advertising campaign that made every woman in America believe that a diamond engagement ring is the most traditional and most desirable part of the wedding process.

While the rest of the book is about one ring telling the story of all the people involved in its life, Gerety’s is about one person telling the story of all diamond engagement rings.

We may not know the story behind every individual diamond engagement ring, but we do know the story behind them all. That is Gerety’s story, and after getting to know the fictionalised account of her, I’m pleased that we know it.

It’s a fascinating, absorbing read, but one that does require an attention span. There is plenty of plot here, but it’s not a linear one, and it’s not full of twists that a thriller or a mystery, or even a love story might be. It’s quite a literary book, which is bookselling short hand for you need to love reading to enjoy this book.

The first three sections present love and marriage – and diamond rings – as they are for the characters, while Kate’s section in 2012, through Kate, really raises the questions of what these old traditions mean, where each little thing came from, and why do we all feel the need to live our lives in the same way?

I did struggle to talk about this book at first, but I realise as I wrote this blog update, just how much it did make me think, specifically about a subject I’d never really paid much thought to before. That’s the mark of a good book, making you look at something you’d never considered before, and then discovering that you actually have very strong views on the subject matter by the end of the book.

The Engagements is out now in Hardback

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock – by Matthew Quick

28 Jul

Funnily enough, this tale from the writer behind the Oscar nominated The Silver Linings Playbook concentrates on teenager Leonard Peacock. It’s spoiling nothing to say that in the first chapter Peacock is setting out to murder someone and then kill himself.

It’s a familiar story that we see in the news as happening a lot in America, where a student heads into his high school with a gun, but it’s not one that I’ve seen explored in fiction before, and certainly not from the point of view of the perpetrator.

Before he commits the act, however, he wants to give some presents for some of the important people in his life. They range from his absentee mother to his favourite school teacher.

Through his interactions with these people – both on the day of his planned murder-suicide and through Leonard’s recollections of previous meetings – we start to learn more about who Leonard is and why he’s going to do what he wants to do.

We don’t learn the reason behind his sinister plan until much later on in the book, however Quick has written the book in such a way that we feel a certain sympathy for Leonard right from the beginning. It’s achieved by revealing straight away – prior to the revelation of his plan – the poor relationship Peacock has with his mother, as well as the characterisation of Leonard himself.

Leonard Peacock is a funny, intelligent person, with no apparent reason to want to commit this act, and that’s what draws the reader in, wanting to know just why he’s going to do what he’s planning to do.

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock is a Young Adult novel, which is a phrase I’ve always had a hard trouble defining. There are two things for me which I think define what a Young Adult novel is.

The first is that the main protagonist is invariably a young adult themselves. The second sign that you’re reading a Young Adult novel is that it’s incredibly easy to read, but I can’t pinpoint why. The content of these books is by far anything but an easy read (we’re talking about murder and suicide plus some heavy stuff in this book), but the structure and the language is so simple that the ideas and the sentences flow.

Sometimes the problem with so-called adult books is that they use a lot of complicated, run-on sentences that don’t really go anywhere. Young Adult books have to capture their audience from the off, so can’t afford to ramble on.

On reflection as I write this, I think there is a third difference, and that is books like Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock and The Fault in Our Stars focus on the plot, but in doing so raise a lot of questions which makes the reader think, adding an extra dimension to the book which causes it to stay with you, long after you’ve put the book down. They do this without always giving you the answers, or at least all of the answers.

Adult books seem to pick one question, raise it at the very beginning, and then spend four hundred pages exploring the one answer that the author wants to explore.

Sometimes that’s why adult books are harder to read, they force the reader to go down one route, they can close the mind to other perspectives, and if the route is not one that the reader would naturally go down, it becomes frustrating.

This is why I disagree with the term Young Adult – I don’t agree that it should be a genre of it’s own, as the only definition which involves age is when talking about the age of the lead character.

Why should adults be restricted to adult point of views? Why should an adult be embarrassed to read a book that has a younger person as the lead character? The answer is they shouldn’t be.

And you shouldn’t be embarrassed to read Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock just because of where it’s located in the book shop. This has the potential to be one of the biggest books of the year – it’s that good – but sadly, I think many people will pass it over for something adult, something that is pitched as a worthier read.

Those people will be missing out.

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock is released in Hardback and eBook on 15th August 2013.