Review: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

I read Julian Barnes’ 2011 Booker Prize winner in part to escape the crime fiction reading ghetto I’ve happily trapped myself in over the past few months (with only a few Philip K Dick’s to break the mould; and his stuff melds crime into the mix anyway). As my three regular readers will now know, I love crime fiction, but it’s nice to step away from a constant diet of it every once in a while.

Tony Webster is an average retired gentleman with a pleasantly average life. He’s been happy to accept a quiet existence for a long time as a quiet marriage, family and eventual divorce can testify. He reminisces about school, his mates and their friendship with Adrian, a ridiculously intelligent young man who definitely isn’t destined for an average life.

They all go their separate ways to University but vow to keep in touch. Tony falls for another student Veronica who is haughty, opinionated, and somewhat more determined than him. They date for a while, which includes an awkward weekend with her family, of whom the mother seems to be the only one who shows any real warmth towards Tony. He also takes her to meet his friends. She takes a shine to Adrian, but not in any pronounced way. Though when Tony and Veronica’s differences inevitably split them up she ends up with Adrian, who in an old-fashioned gesture asks Tony to understand their intentions. Tony replies with two letters. The first he sends almost as a joke. A fine, whatever, type of letter, but second he sends when he is drunk. A go to hell letter, as it were. They lose contact with each other after that.

A few months later Adrian commits suicide and eventually Tony and the rest of his school friends drift apart. Tony marries and lives out his ordinary life. So when he receives a letter telling him that Veronica’s mother has left him a letter, £500, and Adrian’s diary in her will he is intrigued. He becomes even more intrigued when he realises that Veronica won’t hand over the diary. He slowly gets back in contact with her and finds that his memory of events all those years ago is not what it seemed.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this novel, as I’d never read any of Barnes’ previous work, but I’m damn glad I read it. In its own economical and laidback manner this beautiful short novel works as a kind of detective fiction. The only difference is that the narrator is looking into his own past, finding out things about his friend and himself that might be better left dimmed by the passage of time. The language is concise and clean and the narrative is beautifully weighted. There’s a point where you wonder when the narrator is going to get on with telling the story until you realise he’s been telling it all along, we’ve just been too slow to recognise it, kind of like the narrator himself; told at one point that, “You just don’t get it…” TSOAE is so good, in my humble opinion at least, that it’s knocked Roger Smith’s Capture off its perch as the finest novel I have read this year. Beautifully written, well plotted, and with real emotional weight, this is work of the highest quality. Highly recommended.

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Review: Hogdoggin’ by Anthony Neil Smith

The sequel to Yellow Medicine finds Billy Lafitte, former police officer, suspected traitor, and full-time bad guy, riding with a biker gang led by the brutal and savvy giant Steel God. Lafitte has worked his way up to second in command and has God’s respect. But when a call comes in about his ex-wife, Lafitte decides to turn his back on the gang and go and find out exactly why he’s been called back.

Meanwhile, his nemesis, Agent Rome, an FBI agent with a serious grudge against Lafitte, is still trying to pursue his man despite being warned off the case by his employers and his wife. But Rome doesn’t listen and decides to use Lafitte’s emotionally fragile ex-wife as bait to lure him in.

After an ill-fated trip back to Yellow Medicine, Lafitte decides to get back to his family by any means possible, but things go increasingly wrong. Leading to his capture and torture by some idiotic rednecks.

When he decides to call on Steel God for help everything gets really bloody, leading to a showdown, and serious carnage, at a hotel surrounded by the police, with Agent Rome in tow.

Smith’s sequel improves on Yellow Medicine in a number of ways. Firstly, in dispensing with Lafitte’s first person narration it broadens the scope of the story. Rome is no longer the one dimensional FBI guy he appeared to be in the first novel – his run-in with Lafitte at the end of the YM has affected him both professionally and personally and his reasons for pursuing the man seem more believable this time around. Other characters get the opportunity to breathe and Smith does a good job of bringing them to life. Also, the use of multiple character perspectives propels the tale at a faster clip than the first novel managed, especially during the final chapters, which are superbly paced, and Smith’s muscular, clipped prose helps bring it all together in fine style. Fans of noir and hardboiled fiction will find plenty to enjoy here, but it’s written in such a way that fans of more ‘mainstream’ thrillers will get a kick out of it, too. Recommended.

A literary vacation

On Sunday I go off to Spain for 13 days of sun. I have a house to myself, along with plenty of time, and although I’ll be doing my day job during the days, what I’ll be doing for the most part will be writing – lots and lots of writing.

I’ve set myself an adequate daily word count of 2,500 words a day (after which I’ll allow myself to call it a day and hit the local town for tapas and Spanish beer). I’m hoping that the 30,000 plus words that I’ll create will be enough to finish off The Glasgow Grin, which is already 11k in.

A few people have been wondering where the sequel to The Hunters is. Well, in all honesty, it has been delayed by issues I have had with my short story collection The Greatest Show in Town. I occasionally go through periods where if I look at something for too long I start to see nothing but flaws. This is what has happened with my short story collection. Stories that I liked when I first wrote them have been deconstructed and put back together and, in some cases, expunged from the collection altogether. I’m ‘just about there’ with TGSIT but I’m still fiddling, which means that ‘just about there’ is probably a synonym for ‘nowhere near being finished yet’!

My tendency to sometimes fiddle and fuss and fret had affected my writing rather badly in this case. It stressed me out to such a degree that I stopped writing for a while and concentrated on reading and reviewing on my blog. It then took a while to get back into the flow of things, and get my creative juices flowing again.

However I recently started and finished a first draft of a Stanton brothers’ novella, Bone Breakers. It is set before the events in The Hunters and is third person rather than first person. Once I’ve got the first draft of The Glasgow Grin out of the way, I will edit Bone Breakers and have it on sale before the end of the year. It doesn’t need much rewriting – considering that IMO it’s the tightest thing I’ve ever written, and is as lean as they come.

I figured it was only polite to let my three readers know that I’m still writing and haven’t forgotten about the fact that they might wish to see The Hunters’ sequel sometime in the near future!