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Engleby by Sebastian Faulks

Don't. Just don't.
The first bad thing I might say about Engleby is that for some reason, it put me in a foul mood; as if by some sort of literary osmosis I had absorbed Michael Engleby’s uniformly critical point of view and had turned it on the world and my unsuspecting wife particularly. She was not a happy bunny. The first good thing I might say is that this didn’t last long, especially as the next book I picked up was a Charles Portis novel which quickly dispelled the gloom.
Is this a triumph of the suspension of disbelief, of verisimilitude, of getting the reader to buy into the character? Or is it simply because the only point of view we get for 350 pages is that of “Toilet” Engleby himself? It’s hard not to warm to him even if you don’t like him or his fairly stiff opinions, and that must be a victory for Faulks. His protagonist protests that his memory is spotty – spotty enough that the major crisis in the novel is not really uncovered (officially – the twist was so obvious I guessed it from readingA the dust jacket, but more on back covers and dust jackets later) until some moments of lucidity in the last quarter of the book. What we’re told, by reviewers and the back cover (easy now, don’t get sidetracked yet) is that the reader can’t trust Engleby to tell it straight. And yet you can almost forgive him his lapses such is the prowess of Faulks’ narrative. His insight into class and education in the 50s, 60s and 70s is quite amusing, and the meander of his journalistic career, with cameos from Jeffrey Archer and Margaret Thatcher, is enlightening as well as droll.
But, and here is the big bum note from the old sacred cow slayer, I would never have read this book if I had the choice. I say that like I didn’t have a choice, as though it were life or death, but the truth is having read the Bond novel that Faulks chucked out a few years back, and having seen the types of flaccid liberals who bought his so-called historical novels, I had chalked Faulks off as another of the mainstream literary giants who would be studiously ignored by me from here on in. The fact I owned this (and a recurring theme it is if ever I heard one) is down to the hoarding instinct of the bookseller, hungrily grabbing any old tat that the publishers send you just in case it turns out to be a signed proof edition of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. My “special slip-sleeved edition” was just such a capture, and would have slowly gone fluffy and discoloured with mildew had it not been subject to random chance (I should stop letting my wife pick what I read by lottery). “And why is that?”I hear you ask (in my imagination). I’ll tell you why: the synopsis on the back cover is truly terrible. It makes it sound like a Cambridge coming of age novel, a Brideshead pastiche or another book by Jonathan Coe (after What a Carve Up! he lost me). What I may have preferred to see, and I understand that this isn’t pandering to the lowest common denominator, would be a five-point reference system, with two self- and external-references (i.e. “better than Charlotte Gray by a mile!” and “not as gory as American Psycho”) and three further recommendations about style, tone and themes – for example; monologue, blackly humorous and socio-pathology etc. That’s still quite a brief précis, but it’s one that may (I stress may) have got me interested even if it’s not entirely representative. Nonetheless, it would still be better than the tripe on the back of this edition. There’s one guy on there that quite clearly didn’t get past chapter 5 before vomiting up his review. There could even be a multi-level reference, with a lowest common denominator factored in – if you’ve got five GCSEs or less, read this bit etc. But I’m off on one again, so I’ll wind my neck back in and return to the point, which one of my chums reminded me was the book, not my special set of social and moral prejudices.
I liked it, and was surprised by it, but only because I was not expecting something intelligent and engaging. The fact that despite it being 350 pages long it’s a deceptively quick read is not necessarily a good thing, considering that I can read the entire Metro in two and a half minutes, but it does help to navigate the rather torpid diary entries. However, the concluding section, and I shan’t offer a spoiler for you, is reminiscent in nature of the last half hour of A.I., the overly long and curiously disappointing Kubrick / Spielberg collaboration. And have I mentioned the cover reviews?


How's about that then?

A Death In The Family: My Struggle Volume 1 by Karl Ove Knausgaard

I sit here, wearing my limited edition Knausgaard t-shirt, immensely grateful to the kind people at Vintage Books for their surprising gift of the first four novels (and aforementioned t-shirt) simply as a result of being able to post a comment on their YouTube Vlog. There may have been a hidden agenda, considering I'm a book blogger (What, interrobang, a book blogger, interrobang and so on...) but I prefer to believe they picked me at random. Because I'm ace. 
Nonetheless, I had no idea what to expect of these books. I did do a little reading, and found lots of very interesting articles about Karl Ove Knausgaard, including this entertaining one in the Wall Street Journal. But in all honesty, nothing prepared me for reading them, and I can see why they cause controversy and consternation wherever they are translated (which is pretty much everywhere).
First off, being intelligent and perspicacious readers as I trust you all to be, you will no doubt have spotted the whole Godwin&#…

A Bright Moon For Fools by Jasper Gibson

Ah, what would be a review penned by yours truly without some sort of grovelling apology at the outset? A better review no doubt, but that aside I can't help but continue the tiresome tradition with an apology. Sorry to my regular robotic readers (hi bots!) but I have been very neglectful of the blog of late, having been tied up with my pursuit of a broader spectrum of dilettantism; I've been taking part in a number of MOOCs offered by various HEIs on the FutureLearn platform. Worth checking out if you ask me.

(Subtle enough plug, you think?)
Anyway, the break afforded by a foray into further education has proved something of a test for Jasper Gibson and his fiction. In truth, it took me a little while to remember what exactly the novel was about, who was in it, and how I felt about the whole thing. Instant alarm bells. Of course, having had a break, I'd had a good crack at filling my head with a whole bunch of other things worth remembering, so maybe it all just got squeeze…

Open Door by Iosi Havilio

*Shame Klaxon*
I am ashamed to admit it but I know next to nothing about Borges. I know the names of his books. I know he crops up almost without fail when conversations include literature from South America. I know his words book-end so many novels that I have that habitual proving-my-bold-assertion-mind-blankness which means my brain knows it to be true and won't humour your scepticism with an example*. And I know it's likely the biggest single lacuna in my entire reading history**.
So you may imagine my lack of surprise, on finishing this novel and reading the afterword by Oscar Guardiola-Rivera, lecturer at Birkbeck College, London, and author of works on the history and politics of Latin America, that Borges pops up, within three lines of text. Three lines! He wastes no time does Oscar. Of course, my shame bristled and I was ready to adopt the usual casual hostility to something of which I was ignorant. But straight away, I understood what he was saying. I have often consid…

UnAmerican Activities by James Miller

I don't think I was asked to honour the old convention that a freebie necessitates an honest if gently favourable review (at least I can find no written proof). I will however, name-check the generous (and possibly over-optimistic) @TheWorkshyFop, editorial director of the independent British publisher, Dodo Ink, from whose proof boxes of new November lead titles this one arrived. Thank you, sir!
I recall James Miller, specifically Lost Boys, from the dim and distant past. It may have been a commission for Waterstones Books Quarterly, or perhaps I was doing a solid for the Little, Brown sales rep. Regardless, I remember nothing about the book except being underwhelmed. From reading old reviews, it seems it had the coat-tails of the contemporaneous zeitgeist in its teeth, but one slightly savage Guardian review* points out it was pretty badly done. This might explain why I remember very little, perhaps proving Auden's assertion that, "some books are undeservedly forgotten; …