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Friday, June 20, 2008

My Holiday Reading

Before it becomes too much of a distant memory, I wanted to mention a couple of books I read on my recent Greek holiday.

The first of these was What Was Lost, a novel by Catherine O'Flynn. This is actually quite a short novel, but I highly recommend it. So far as the content is concerned, I can't really do better than quote the review by Jenny Colgan on the back cover:
"It's quite extraordinary. There's an amazing insight into the mind of a young girl, a very funny account of working in a high street record store, an entirely sympathetic hero in the form of a security guard, a cracking mystery, a brilliant sense of place in the form of a modern shopping centre, and a ghost story to boot. I adored every page of it and recommend it to everyone."
I agree with every word of that. I suppose it helped for me that it's set in Birmingham (England), a city I lived in for 20 years and am still close to now in Staffordshire. Even so, I thought it was a brilliant book, both funny (don't miss the description of a butcher's shop window on page 10, which had me chuckling for days after) and also poignant. If you're looking for something to pack for reading on the beach or beside the pool, I reckon it would be an excellent choice.

Here are my usual links to the book's pages on and As ever, if you are receiving this post by email, you will need to visit my blog to see these.

Unfortunately I didn't enjoy the other title I took with me as much. This was The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway. I've put links to this below, although the book isn't officially published yet.

This was actually my first free book I got as an Amazon Vine reviewer, and I had high hopes for it. As it turned out, I admired the quality of much of the writing, but thought that as a novel it was fatally flawed. I've copied my review below...
Well written, but lacks narrative drive

Good things first: The Gone-Away World is beautifully written. At times I was blown away by the almost musical quality of Nick Harkaway's writing. And the basic concept of the book - that most of the Earth has become uninhabitable after a nuclear disaster, save for a narrow band of land surrounding the mysterious Jorgmund Pipe - is unusual and intriguing.

On the minus side, though, I felt at times the author was so in love with his prose, the actual story almost became secondary. None of the characters really engaged me, although there are some nice cameos (notably the narrator's mentor, Master Wu). Neither do I share the author's fascination with martial arts and (believe it or not) Tupperware, though I can appreciate that others may find these aspects of the book quirky and amusing.

The Gone-Away World does include some quite funny (and caustic) observations about the nature of business, bureaucracy, international relations, and so on. They reminded me a little of the asides in Terry Pratchett's Discworld books, although they lacked Pratchett's warmth and sly humour.

The most serious problem with this book, in my view, is the lack of narrative drive - a compelling storyline, in other words. This is partly down to its structure. The opening chapter sets up an intriguing scenario, and I wanted to know what happened next. But then the story goes back in time to the narrator's childhood and on through his adolescence and early adulthood; and this rambling narrative takes up most of the rest of the book. I didn't find the 'coming of age' stuff particularly interesting, and completing the book - to find out how the action in the opening chapter was resolved - ultimately became a bit of an endurance test for me.

There are things to enjoy in this novel, but overall I was rather disappointed by it. Nick Harkaway is clearly a talented writer, but in my view he needs to take a few lessons from his father (spy novelist John Le Carre) on how to create a compelling plot, and try to reign back his obsession for style over substance. I'll await his second novel with interest, but I doubt if I'll be reading this particular one again.
As you'll see if you check out the link in particular, other Amazon Vine reviewers weren't exactly bowled over by this book either. At the time of writing it has an average rating of 3 stars out of 5, which I think is about right (it's what I gave it). I'm afraid that if the publishers had hoped to whip up anticipation by getting an avalanche of glowing reviews pre-publication, they'll be disappointed. Obviously, I can't recommend this book myself, though some reviewers have liked it.

Fingers crossed, I'll enjoy my next Amazon Vine selection a bit more!

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Blogger Catherine @ Sharp Words said...

Interesting reviews. What Was Lost is something that's been on my to-read list for quite a long time, and hopefully I'll get to it soon.

I had an ARC of The Gone-Away World too, but my opinions were quite different from yours. I really enjoyed it (both times I read it) for its twisted humour and quirky ideas. I agree that sometimes the author was a bit too much in love with his own prose, and that's something I really should have included in the review of it that I posted today - but I don't tend to take notes when I read for review even though I really should, and it's something I missed out when it came to writing my piece.
I did like the characters though, and I rather liked the use of the extended flashback too - although, ok, there were some details which could have been left out.
I agree with you that 'style over substance' is a good way of describing the book - but there was enough substance to leave me satisfied too.

11:32 PM  
Blogger Nick said...

Thanks, Catherine. I agree that there are good things about The Gone Away World, but the story simply didn't engage me. Possibly it suffered a bit in comparison with What Was Lost, which I had just read. IMO, What Was Lost has a great story, sympathetic characters, wonderful humorous touches, and more. And I felt there was a warmth about What Was Lost which I didn't find in The Gone Away World. Though they are two very different books, of course...

Anyway, I hope you enjoy What Was Lost as much as I did when you get round to reading it!

8:19 AM  

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