True Grit by Charles Portis: Book Review

True Grit is a change of genre for me and I would not have chosen to read it myself – it’s my face-to-face book group book for this month. We met last night – the overall opinion was that it was OK, but rather disappointing, not living up to the quotes on the back of the book, or to the Introduction by Donna Tartt, who explained how much she and her family loved the book.

I used to like watching Westerns, but I don’t think I’ve read any since I was a child. My library had quite a lot of what I thought of as ‘cowboy’ books and after I’d read all the fairy tale books I moved on to those. I’ve watched the John Wayne film True Grit many years ago and remembered very little about it, other than an old and overweight Wayne wearing an eye patch helping a girl to trace her father’s murderer. And that is really the plot in a nutshell.

Mattie Ross, the girl in question, is a determined 14 year-old who in the 1870s leaves her mother and younger brother at home whilst she sets out after Tom Chaney, who had worked for her father and had killed him. Chaney had joined a band of outlaws – the Lucky Ned Pepper gang and gone into hiding in the Indian territory , which was under the jurisdiction of the US marshals. The sheriff tells her that one of the marshals, Rooster Cogburn is the ‘meanest’, a ‘pitiless man, double-tough, and fear don’t enter into his thinking. He loves to pull a cork.’ She hires him to get Tom Chaney.

In the book Cogburn is not quite like the John Wayne portrayal. He’s younger, in his late forties, but he is fat, one-eyed with walrus moustaches, unwashed and drunk most of the time. Most of our group had difficulty accepting that a 14 year old girl would behave as Mattie does or that Cogburn and LaBoeuf (a Texas Ranger who is also looking for Chaney) would take her along with them.

I liked the format of the story told from Mattie’s point of view as an adult remembering what had happened and the straight forward style. She is a very down-to-earth character who sees things as either right or wrong and backs up her opinions with Bible texts. The other characters are a bit like cardboard cutouts though and not too convincing. It’s a quick easy read but not one to stay in my mind for long – I finished it over a week ago and my memory of the detail is fading already. However, it has made me interested in watching John Wayne’s True Grit (it was on TV last week and we recorded it) and in seeing the new film, starring Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon,  Josh Brolin and Hailee Steinfield as Mattie.

Perfume:the Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind

Perfume by Patrick  Süskind, translated from the German by John E üWoods was first  published in 1985. It is an extraordinary novel, a Gothic work in the vein of Edgar Allen Poe, or Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Grey. It depicts the strange life of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille and is a book of smells. Grenouille, himself has no body smell, but an acute sense of smell. He can recognise and locate the source of smells from miles away. His absence of smell alienates him from other people and he in turn is disgusted by their odour. He is an outsider.

On the trail of an elusive but exquisite smell he tracks it down to a young girl and kills her to possess  her scent for himself.  This puts him in a state of ecstatic happiness and

… he felt he knew who he really was: nothing less than a genius. And that the meaning and goal and purpose of  his life had a higher destiny: nothing less than to revolutionise the odoriferous world. (page 46)

He knew he had to become a creator of scents, the greatest perfumer of all time.

From then on his life became even stranger, if that was possible. He learnt the various processes of making perfume, then withdrew from the world, living for seven years in total isolation in a cave. There he existed in a world with no human smells, whilst he lived in his mind recreating the exquisite scent of the young girl he had killed.

He had withdrawn solely for his own personal pleasure, only to be nearer to himself. No longer distracted by anything external, he basked in his own existence and found it splendid. He lay in his stony crypt like his own corpse, hardly breathing, his heart hardly beating – and yet he lived as intensively and dissolutely as ever a rake had lived in the world outside. (page 128)

I was fascinated by the descriptive language, by so many different smells, scents, perfumes, stenches and obnoxious odours. The descriptions of how perfume is made, when you know what he had in mind was chilling. He wants the delicious scent of the girl he killed, to peel it off her and make it his own. Quite simply this is a horror story, one that made me not want to read it and yet also want to read it to the bitter end. It’s a tale of obsession, the atmosphere Süskind evokes is tremendous, and the detail it contains adds to the realism. Maybe Grenouille is a modern Dracula.

To say that I ‘enjoyed’ it is not true, but it is a tremendous story and well written.

Publisher: Penguin (re-issue edition April 2010)
Paperback: 272 pages
ISBN-10: 0141041153
ISBN-13: 978-0141041155
Source: My own copy (an earlier edition)

Payment Deferred by Joyce Holms: Book Review

I like puzzles and that is one of the things I like about crime fiction – solving the puzzle. The problem for crime fiction authors must be judging it correctly – how to drop the clues into the narrative in a subtle way so that the reader doesn’t get the solution too easily. I like being able to work it out for myself – but not too soon. In Payment Deferred, Joyce Holms has managed it well.

Paperback: 288 pages
Publisher: Bywater Books (30 Aug 2007)
Language English
ISBN-10: 1932859314
ISBN-13: 978-1932859317
Source: Gift from the author

This is the first of Joyce Holms’s series of books featuring Tam Buchanan and Fizz Fitzpatrick. Tam is a lawyer who spends Monday mornings giving legal advice at a community centre in Edinburgh. Fizz is soon to be a mature student of Law and much against Tam’s better judgement talks her way into becoming his assistant. She looks like a teenager, but is actually 26, with a talent for getting people to talk to her.

Murray Kingston, an old friend of Tam’s, is released from prison having served three years convicted of molesting his daughter after his wife’s death. When he turns up at the community centre wanting Tam to clear his name and help him get his daughter back it is Fizz who persuades Tam to review the evidence. Murray believes he was set up.

I thought this was a well plotted book,which moves at a good pace, with a good sense of location (Edinburgh and Berwick) and convincing characters, particularly Fizz and Tam – the relationship between the two of them developed from lukewarm to exasperation. Having solved the case they part:

“See you around Buchanan,” she said coldly, as the doors slid shut between them.

Buchanan sagged back against the wall and closed his eyes. He felt utterly depleted.

“See you around, Fizz”, he whispered to the empty landing, and the words blew away like dry leaves into the silence.

But even as he said it, he knew with absolute certainty that he wouldn’t be shot of her so easily.

After a minute or two he started to laugh, and couldn’t stop.

Their partnership was not at an end, as there are eight more books in the series. I’ve already read the most recent – Missing Link.

Details of all Joyce’s books are on her website.

2011 Global Challenge

The Global Callenge run by Dorte, is divided into different levels:

The Easy Challenge

Read one novel from each of these continents in the course of 2011:

North America
South America (please include Central America where it is most convenient for you)

The Seventh Continent (here you can either choose Antarctica or your own ´seventh´ setting, eg the sea, the space, a supernatural/paranormal world, history, the future €“ you name it).

From your own continent: try to find a country, state or author that is new to you.

The Medium  Challenge is to read two novels from each of these continents in the course of 2011 and the Expert Challenge to read three.

To start off I’ve decided to go for the Easy Challenge and see how I get on and then move on to the other challenges if I can. My reason for aiming low is that I like to read as the fancy takes me. I don’t like to plan too far ahead with my reading as usually other books push their way to the top of my reading piles.

I’ll be trying to reduce my to-be-read lists as I’m sure they’ll fit into this challenge fairly well. Some of the titles I’m aiming to read are:

  • No Longer at Ease by Chinua Achebe – set in Africa
  • The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende – set in Chile
  • The Secret River by Kate Grenville – set in Australia
  • Bad Land by Jonathan Raban – set in the American West
  • The Highest Tide by Jim Lynch – set at sea (the ‘Seventh Continent’)
  • Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Marcia Marquez – set in South America
  • Sashenka by Simon Montefiore – set in Russia

But knowing the way my mind works I’ll probably be reading some other books, but whatever they are I’m sure they will be set in some of these countries.