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Review of ‘Stonemouth’ by Iain Banks

July 30, 2012 Leave a comment

‘Stonemouth’ by Iain Banks

Published by Little, Brown 2012

Reviewed by C P Howe

Acknowledgement: The review copy of ‘Stonemouth’ was provided by Booksellers NZ and is posted on their blog here.

Iain Banks, who also writes science fiction under the name Iain M Banks, has written twenty-five novels in as many years and shows no sign of slowing down. There’s something about authors with such a volume of work to their names that I find unsettling. How difficult would it be to remember all your books in sufficient detail to avoid repetition? Do writers like Banks have their work indexed and searchable so they can double check, for example, that Phelpsie or Wee Malkie, minor characters in Stonemouth, haven’t appeared before?

In truth, you don’t need to be a die-hard Iain Banks fan to know that these characters, or people like them, have appeared before and will undoubtedly appear again. While Stuart Gilmour, the protagonist and narrator, has some depth the rest are largely stereotypes verging on caricatures: the patriarchs of the town’s two crime rings with their loyal but dim sons and beautiful but independent daughters (one of whom Gilmour, of course, falls in love with); the bisexual best friend who is a heavy drinker and drug taker; the son of a wealthy estate owner whom they all befriend to get access to what is effectively a giant playground; the old man who takes Gilmour under his wing in an odd kind of friendship who turns out to be his future girlfriend’s grandfather. And so on.

Gilmour, and his friends and enemies, are the mix of smart/thick, druggy/clean, friendly/violent people you’d expect to meet in a town like Stonemouth which – just like any other provincial, semi-industrial town in slow decline in Britain – has everything from sink estates to hunting estates, but I didn’t see enough of them to feel I was involved in their lives. Even though Gilmour relates the story I never felt sufficiently drawn in to care about, or really believe, his motivations and feelings.

While Banks is a more than competent writer, Stonemouth doesn’t have the breadth or depth of imagination of some of his other work. While he includes his trademark moments of sickening violence set within everyday surroundings, it is in the end a very straightforward story, and one which did not entirely convince me.

Banks also makes a bold effort to write for the digital age, but it doesn’t quite come off. I don’t really believe Gilmour would speculate about whether he’d have time to change his Facebook profile to ‘dead’ while falling into the river Stoun; it seems gratuitous and as if Banks is trying to persuade us he’s up with the times. The digital references go on throughout the book – in fact the plot point on which the whole book turns, revealed late in the narrative, depends on one specific aspect of the digital world – but mostly they don’t feel at all natural. It may be that only a ‘digital native’ – at best, someone born no earlier than 1990 – will be able to truly write about this stuff in an uncontrived way. There is certainly a theory going around that the current upsurge in historical fiction – that is, anything set in the 1970s or before – is a result of mainstream, established authors not being able to include the digital world in their narratives in a convincing way. So they simply resort to setting their stories in a time when such things didn’t exist.

I also had a problem with the voice. Gilmour is a bright, articulate young man who left Stonemouth five years ago for reasons that form the centrepiece of the book, but as a first person narrator he doesn’t quite ring true. Often we get one or two paragraphs of pure description of his surroundings, almost as if Banks is filling up his word count. Are we meant to believe Gilmour has simply stopped what he is doing and is telling us what he can see, because he feels like it? There’s an uncomfortable mix of Scottish colloquialisms and standard English. Gilmour’s narration is straight – most of the time – even though he’s from Stonemouth, and I could live with that, but it was the variation in the written dialogue that caused me problems. I wasn’t convinced that Gilmour, Ellie and others would speak in perfect English, while often the people around them are speaking with strong accents.

Set over five days and told by Gilmour in the present tense, albeit with substantial past tense flashbacks, Stonemouth redeems itself by revealing gradually the events of five years ago, and by building to an admirable if predictable climax. Despite its shortcomings, it is definitely a page turner.

The book doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t trick you, and it probably won’t surprise you; it just lets Gilmour tell you his story. Those more familiar with Scotland will see some subtleties in the commentary – nothing has changed since Gilmour left five years before, despite growing political independence and the promises that went with it – but most readers will simply recognise the social and economic variety and inequity that goes with the slow decline of any provincial town or city in Britain, the United States or indeed any developed country. Couple that with a straightforward tale of love, violence, betrayal and family honour, and you have a familiar and universal story that resonates all the way from Romeo and Juliet to The Sopranos.

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Review of ‘The Big Music’ by Kirsty Gunn

July 18, 2012 2 comments

The Big Music: selected papers’ by Kirsty Gunn

Published by Faber & Faber, 2012, RRP $39.99

Reviewed by C P Howe

Acknowledgement: The review copy of The Big Music was provided by Booksellers NZ. They have posted this review here

Read a profile of Kirsty Gunn here.

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The Big Music: selected papers is UK-based New Zealander Kirsty Gunn’s latest novel. In her introduction she tells us that the book is a selection from some ‘papers that were presented to me,’ and that she has ‘arranged’ them. The papers as they appear in the novel are written as a third person narrative. So they must have been written by someone trying to tell a story. But who?

There are also copious footnotes and we are, it appears, supposed to believe that it is Gunn who has written them, as well as compiling the 100 pages of appendices. But, like Ian McEwan’s early inclusion of exclamation marks to signal that the narrative in Atonement was not his, but his fictional author Briony’s, the footnotes in The Big Music include many uses of ‘etc.’ – surely something Gunn would not do in her own writing – and it is soon very clear that what we have in front of us is an elaborate fictional construction.

It takes great courage and confidence to attempt such an approach, and create not one but two fictional writers – one who has written the ‘papers,’ and a fictional Gunn who has arranged them, written the footnotes and compiled the appendices – with such a consistent and convincing representation of their respective flaws. Kirsty Gunn clearly has both in spades.

But that’s not all. The ordering of the ‘papers’ follows the structure of piobaireachd (pronouned pee-broh, a specialised form of bagpipe music in four movements, akin to a symphony) because that’s what Gunn – the fictional Gunn – believes the author of the ‘papers’ was aiming for. And throughout, the footnotes tell you exactly what is going on. At times during my reading of the book I thought this was overdone, but I should have trusted her; it is one of the many layers that emerge and is, like everything in fiction, there for a good reason.

Convincing detail – particularity, as Damien Wilkins calls it – is a critical factor in good fiction. Present fiction as fact, with the kind of realistic detail that Gunn includes in The Big Music, or Bruce Chatwin described in Songlines, and people will believe you’re telling the truth. That’s why Songlines can still be found in travel sections of bookshops, and why readers will soon start searching Google Earth for The Grey House featured in The Big Music. Throughout the book, Gunn layers detail upon detail – including family trees, radio interviews and the history of a piping school – so effectively that I had to keep reminding myself that it was fiction.

This may all sound daunting and, to start with, it was. Footnotes and appendices? In a novel? Is it possible to make up so much detail about people and places? Sometimes though, as a reader, you just have to go with it and trust the author. Don’t be tempted to go to Google or Wikipedia. It doesn’t matter if its true or not. In this case, the sheer beauty of the writing makes such a leap of faith very easy. Set in the far north of Scotland, the people, the life and the landscapes jump off the page and surround you. Couple this with a multi-generational sweep across a family history, a deep understanding of what music is, really, and bagpipe music especially – so much more than the notes themselves – and the social, cultural and political context of the Scottish highlands, and you have a true masterpiece.

And yet, even then, there’s more to it. Deep within the narrative there are rewards of a different kind; visceral, heart-wrenching moments of emotion. On at least one occasion I simply had to stop reading and put the book aside. The pattern of the narrative contributes to this. What starts, in each ‘paper,’ as straightforward – but still beautiful – prose evolves in carefully chosen places into something much more. It is here that Gunn’s true commitment to consistently representing the way her imagined writer struggles to get the story down on paper comes through most strongly.

Kirsty Gunn makes all of this – the layering, the structure, the emotion – seem completely effortless, which is the mark of a great writer. She has the most outstanding technical mastery of her craft, together with the skills of a poet for rhythm and cadence and language. More than anything, though, I cared deeply for the characters she’s created and that, surely, is the ultimate test for a novel.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough and, finally, while I’ve nothing against e-books, the physical beauty of the hardback version of The Big Music  – with its maps and floor plans, musical manuscripts and handwritten notes – is completely in keeping with the prose that Kirsty Gunn has put on its pages. Buy your copy now; you won’t regret it.

Review of ‘Velocity’ by Ajaz Ahmed and Stefan Olander

July 18, 2012 4 comments

‘Velocity: The Seven New Laws For A World Gone Digital’ by Ajaz Ahmed and Stefan Olander

Published by Vermilion, 2012

Reviewed by C P Howe

The review copy of Velocity was provided by Random House

On page 91 of Velocity, the authors refer to Thinking Fast, and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. It is an incongrous moment, because the two books couldn’t be more different. Kahneman’s is a detailed and specific account of the way we think and make decisions, heavily referenced and grounded in peer-reviewed science. Velocity, on the other hand, lightly skips through an endless stream of non-referenced general comments, supposedly spoken in conversation between the two authors. Ajaz Ahmed and Stefan Olander may well be successful businessmen, but Daniel Kahneman they most certainly are not.

Structured into seven chapters, one each for ‘the seven new laws for a world gone digital,’ the book consists of alternating statements from the authors, with the occasional interjection of a conversation with someone else. Some people find this inspiring – I know, I’ve read other reviews of the book – but I found it dull and uninteresting not because of the way it is written, but because of the content itself. For example, take this exchange on page 28:

Ajaz: The leaders’s clear mandate is to increase revenues, develop new products and markets, drive profitability and create a sustainable business for the benefit of customers, employees, management, shareholders and the community.

Really? You don’t say. Or this, on the same page:

Stefan: There can be painful lessons when experimenting. However, understanding why something didn’t work, reflecting on it and not repeating the errors – that’s progress.

Gosh – I’d never have thought it.

As I worked my through the book, I thought about who it is targeted at. Clearly it is not for CEOs or managers. If they don’t already know the general business principles repeated ad nauseum on every page, then they don’t know how to do their job. Instead, perhaps Velocity is for people who wish they were like Ajaz and Olander – working in a creative agency, or for a big global company like Nike. Perhaps they are truly inspired by what these two high achievers have to say. Perhaps they can translate the generalities that fill these pages into specific actions that will improve their businesses.

Velocity’s 237 pages are largely devoid of the convincing detail necessary to engage and convince the reader in any narrative. I found myself wondering on every page what exactly these two people were talking about and, if I was feeling particularly ungenerous, whether they even knew themselves.

To be fair, every now and then real stories emerge. Malcolm Gladwell and Daniel Kahneman are name checked. There are anecdotes about Steve Jobs, which is almost mandatory for a book of this type.  The most specific passages are concerned with products the authors have themselves been involved with, and this is another major weakness. Whereas Jonah Lehrer, in Imagine, demonstrates an high level of awareness and knowledge about the world he’s writing about, Ahmed and Olander rarely go outside their own experiences in more than a general or cursory way. When they do, it is to relate anecdotes about Amazon or Google that are well-worn and known to all, and often they admit that they don’t even know where those stories came from, or if they’re real.

There are some positives. Occasionally the obtrusive editing of the supposed dialogue between the two authors falls away and we get snippets of real conversation where suddenly the narrative comes to life. For example, on p55 they talk about a great example of crowdfunding and, on page 200, Olander in particular gets excited about managing creativity and productivity at Nike. These glimpses of the real people behind the clumsy dialogue goes some way towards redeeming the book, but nowhere near enough for me to recommend it.

I was particularly antagonised by the authors’ arrogance. The subtitle is not ‘Seven laws…’ but ‘The Seven laws…,’ as if they are the only ones. The main title caused me similar problems. Velocity is defined as the speed and direction of an object. Ahmed and Olander say that they will define – although they never actually do this – what they call a new business environment, and label it Velocity. Confused? Precisely. They have created irritating chapter headings, summary one paragraph descriptions of the chapters, very short one-liners for each chapter and, not content with that, proceed to pull out further one-liners in the middle of chapters and give them whole pages to themselves. Then, at the end of each chapter, they summarise it over two pages. This is taking the ‘tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you’ve told them,’ rule of communications to the extreme. My final gripe with the structure is their reference to four principles of ‘Velocity’ in the introduction, and their failure to refer to them again for the rest of the book.

Now, it may well be that to survive and thrive in ‘a world gone digital’ you need to think like Ahmed and Olander. Set some principles and don’t refer to them again. Decide on new ‘laws’ and don’t acknowledge there might be other ideas out there. Summarise what you’ve said in snappy, faux-pop reference ways again and again. Use your strength of character and charisma to broadcast general statements about leadership, business and management. Personally, I don’t believe it. I do believe that Ahmed and Olander are successful in the digital world, and I wish they had taken the time to really write about it, rather than – presumably – have someone record and transcribe their general and contrived dialogue.

In conclusion, I wasn’t impressed with Velocity. True, I’d just come from reading Daniel Kahneman and Jonah Lehrer, and have just started with Terry Leahy, so Ahmed and Olander were up against the best. But nevertheless, Velocity could have been a much better book. Breaking out of the endless dialogue to hear in detail how the ‘laws’ they propose relate directly to their own experience would have been a start. Expanding their horizons to research two or three specific examples from other businesses for each law would have been better still. Revisiting the four principles and relating them to each of their seven laws would have been interesting, and including a chapter or two on what they don’t know and what doesn’t work would have provided some much-needed balance.

I’m sure Ahmed and Olander know that Velocity isn’t their best work. My job here, as a reviewer, is to make sure you know that as well.

Categories: Business
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