Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson

High school kids Jude and Teddy spend their time in their small Vermont town hanging out, stealing and getting high. On New Year's Eve 1987, the pair pass out in the snow after a night of drugs, drink and parties. Teddy never wakes up.

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Shortly before his death Teddy lost his virginity to Eliza, who was visiting for the night from New York, where her mother is dating Jude's father. Eliza also gave Teddy cocaine, which may have been the key ingredient in the mixture of substances that killed him. All of this happens in the opening of Henderson's novel, which deals with the fall-out from Teddy's death.

Jude travels to New York to tell Teddy's brother, Johnny, the news. He moves in with his estranged father and gradually becomes involved in the 'straight edge' punk scene, which rejects stimulants of any kind. Meanwhile Johnny, who is exploring Buddhism, decides that the right thing to do would be to marry Eliza and raise his brother's child.

It is this chaotic situation that Henderson gradually brings to order. The punks form a kind of family, their own families having disintegrated at the hands of their hippy parents. Jude's father deals drugs and his mother makes a living blowing glass bongs. Johnny's mother skipped town shortly before Teddy's death, fearing that her lies about Teddy's father's identity were about to be exposed. Nobody in the book seems grown up but at least the children have an excuse.

Without parental guidance, all kinds of values take their place. Buddhism, straight edge punk ideals and the camaraderie of life in a touring band are all explored as potential codes for living. In the end, the kids will grow into their identities, regardless of what they choose.

Henderson has an eye for detail and creates an authentic mid-1980s New York that is grubby and crime ridden but also filled with an unusual sense of community. A key scene in the novel takes place at the Tompkins Square Park riot in August 1988, in which heavy-handed policing turned a rally into a battle.

She's equally able to draw the contrast between New York and sleepy Lintonberg, Vermont. The characters shuttle between the two - usually from one of Jude's parents to the other - seeking to escape one and find refuge in the other. The city represents hope for excitement but also danger; the small town means boredom but sometimes safety. Conversely, the city means anonymity, while the small town can be a place where mistakes are hard to live down.

These aren't pleasant characters - at least I didn't find them that way - and that can make this book a difficult read. Like real people, the cast of this book are rough-edged and can be inconsistent, selfish, confused and irrational. Spending a lot of time inside their heads can be an uncomfortable experience.

That's not a criticism. If anything, it's to Henderson's credit that she has resisted sentiment and stuck to the story. Ten Thousand Saints is a very good novel but not necessarily an enjoyable one.

Memoirs of a Master Forger by William Heaney

In many ways the back-story of this book is more interesting than the book itself. Memoirs of a Master Forger was not written by William Heaney but by Graham Joyce, the author of a string of fantasy novels over the last 20 years. When it was released, in 2008, the author's true identity was not made public.

Some time ago I stumbled across a blog post by Joyce in which he explained that the success of the novel had been somewhat galling. It had better reviews than Joyce's previous work and went into reprint in its second week - a feat that none of his other books had managed. Joyce wrote: "It confirms some rather worrying trends in publishing."

Would this book have been just as successful if it had been released under Joyce's name? He thinks it is unlikely. Without any preconceptions about the author, critics and booksellers had to take William Heaney's 'debut' at face value. A new Graham Joyce novel has critics digging through the old reviews and booksellers reaching for the previous sales data.

It is a fascinating experiment but I found the book itself to be unremarkable. William Heaney, the central character and supposed author, is a borderline alcoholic who works for a youth organisation and, in his spare time, sells forged books and donates the proceeds to charity. He also either sees demons or has a mental illness that leads him to believe that he does.

The demons have been around since a distressing incident at college, which is recounted in flashback. The donations to charity are, in some ways, an act of penance for what happened when he was younger. They are also partly driven by the fact that Heaney is, despite the criminal activity, a kind and decent person.

William's wife has left him and the separation has caused tension between him and his children. He falls into a relationship with a younger woman, Yasmin, though he feels uncomfortable at the age gap and her pursuit of him. For things to work out, William will have to confront his demons.

Do you see what Joyce has done there? He'll have to confront his demons. His demons. Yes, the metaphor is a little heavy-handed.

Joyce says that the book contains a critique of the publishing industry. There is a satire of British Council-supported poetry and, obviously, the novel is filled with fake books as well as - apparently - a demon that lives in a manuscript. It doesn't really amount to a critique, though.

The problem is that this is part thriller, part romance and part satire but doesn't fully convince as any of those things. The threads about demons and forgeries seem to be building towards a tense conclusion that never arrives. Instead, everything is tied up with very little trouble. So much for the thriller.

The romance, too, is pretty simple. Two likeable people want to get together and there are no significant obstacles to that. Jolly good. And the satire just isn't sharp enough.

Nevertheless, Joyce writes very well and Heaney is an amusing, interesting character whose observations are often enjoyable.

The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil (Shane's book 41, 2011)

Well, I finished The Man Without Qualities, which is more than its author managed to do. Robert Musil died in 1942, aged 61, a mere 21 years after he began writing this mammoth book. The published edition runs to more than 650,000 words and it's thought that the finished work would have been twice as long. I suspect that Musil would never have finished, even if he had lived until 81, or 101, or 181. The book would just have gone on and on and on.

There isn't much of a story here. Ulrich, the 'man without qualities', is disconnected from life. Having spent time as a poet, a soldier and, more recently, a mathematician, he has come adrift. His father suggests that he take a job as secretary to a count, which leads to his involvement in a committee charged with organising a celebration to mark the Austrian emperor's 70th anniversary.

The book is considered a 20th century classic, a modernist landmark to rank alongside Proust's The Remembrance of Things Past and Joyce's Ulysses. If you read James's 26 Books review, you'll find that this is his favourite novel. I'm afraid I cannot find the appeal at all.

This is a novel of ideas, a book about nationalism, morality, crime, justice, family, art, intellectualism, commerce, philosophy, militarism, sexual deviance, pacifism, mental health, society, the media and love. Had Musil lived, he would probably have gone on to cover umbrellas, chagrin and sausages too, for all I know. It's a book about everything and that's pretty much my problem with it.

The Man Without Qualities is like a map of the world in 1:1 scale or a gigantic photograph in which everything is in focus. It feels like there is no discernment. A work of art is more about what you leave out than what you put in and Musil seems unable to leave anything out. By attempting to say everything, he ends up not saying anything.

For 700 pages or so the book meanders. The long deliberations of the committee, which is led by Ulrich's cousin, are satirised mercilessly. Having established that the committee is foolish and peopled by fools, Musil then goes on to repeat the point in various ways for hundreds and hundreds of pages. I found it hard to care. There is no emotion to connect to, just a series of abstract intellectual ideas that are ultimately meaningless.

After about 800 pages the book becomes more compelling. Ulrich's father dies and he travels back home to settle affairs. There he meets his sister, Agathe, from whom he has been estranged for some time. They find a deep connection that draws them together and, since they are siblings, also makes them uncomfortable. Suddenly Ulrich seems to have found the meaning that he was looking for but it is forbidden to him. He and his sister are two halves that can never be properly whole.

The pair alter their father's will so that Agathe's husband is disinherited. Her marriage had been an unhappy one and she planned to leave him anyway. Ulrich becomes consumed with the question of whether their action was justifiable.

It's here that Musil's obsessive attention to the tiniest detail of intellectual process finally finds a worthy target. There is emotional weight to this dilemma. What Ulrich and Agathe have done is illegal but is it also immoral? That question finds a parallel in their relationship.

This is compelling in a way that a satire about a committee can never be, at least for me. About three hundred of the final four hundred pages in this book could be edited into a wonderful novel.

And what of the rest? I've tried to understand what people see in this book but I remain puzzled. The blurb on the back of my copy says: "There is scarcely a page that does not provide new thoughts or offer new insights."

It's certainly true that there are plenty of insightful passages and thought-provoking sections here but they are diluted amid the pages of detailed examination of nothing of consequence. Worse, Musil devotes equal time and energy to expounding ideas that are just nonsense.

Here's Arnheim, a wealthy German industrialist who worms his way onto the committee, considering money:

"And the same is true of morality: if our acts were unrepeatable then there would be nothing to be expected of us, and a morality that could not tell people what was expected of them would be no fun at all. This quality of repetitiveness that inheres in the workings of the mind and morality inheres also, and to the highest degree, in money. Money positively consists of this quality. As long as it keeps its value, it carves up all the world's pleasures into those little blocks of purchasing power that can then be combined into whatever one pleases. Money is accordingly both moral and rational; and since we all know that the converse is not the case, i.e., not every moral and reasonable person has money, we may conclude that money is the original source of these qualities, or at least that money is the crowning reward of a moral and rational life."

That "no fun at all" is wonderfully placed and is indicative of the frequent brilliance of Musil's writing. However, the argument itself is obviously nonsense. Of course money isn't a moral and rational force, any more than trousers or bassoons are. We can see the flaw in Arnheim's argument immediately. He's a fool - and given that he's supposedly a respected author, Musil is implying that Arnheim's readers are fools too. But why spend so long unfolding a worthless argument?

Every single character has these obsessive, laborious thought processes. In Ulrich's case, the ideas are most often interesting and illuminating, though by no means always. Other characters are almost always talking - or thinking - nonsense. At great length. It becomes tiresome very quickly.

There is no shortage of critics far more learned and well-read than me who will tell you that this book is a masterpiece. If you are curious then you should probably make up your own mind. I can't recommend it.

A Most Wanted Man by John Le Carre (Shane's book 37, 2011)

The only Le Carre books I had read, before this one, were his classics from the 60s and 70s: The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and the Smiley Trilogy. This is a more recent work, which deals with the espionage world as it today, with the Cold War a distant memory and terrorism the new threat. [amtap book:isbn=0340977086]

When Issa Karpov, a young Chechen with links to Islamist terrorists, arrives in Hamburg, he immediately draws the interest of the intelligence services. The Germans are keen to erase memories their failure to detect the Hamburg-based group that plotted the September 11 attacks on the US. They want better intelligence sources to help spot future plots.

The British, meanwhile, are interested because of Karpov's father, who was a Russian officer. Lurking in the background are the Americans, who want to use extraordinary rendition to remove Karpov to their own facilities to find out what he knows.

These forces largely play out in the background as Le Carre focuses his attention on Tommy Brue, who runs a British family bank in Hamburg, and Annabel Richter, the human rights lawyer who represents Karpov.

Karpov's father was a customer of Brue's bank and Richter hopes that the money the bank owe's to Issa can be used to keep him out of the hands of the intelligence services and give him legal status in Germany.

Le Carre's central trio, Brue, Richter and Karpov, are all well drawn. Brue, cuckolded, estranged from his daughter and laden with guilt over the customers his father brought to the bank, sees Issa as a chance for redemption. Richter seeks to make amends for a previous case in which she believes that she failed.

Issa, meanwhile, is harder to read. Angry and vulnerable, determined to be a devout Muslim but unsure what that means. He ricochets between those who seek to help him and those who would harm him.

The supporting cast are a little more cliched, particularly Gunther Bachmann, the German intelligence man who leads the operation to find Karpov. He's a tough, charming workaholic who doesn't respect authority or play by the book. The kind of character you've seen in dozens of spy novels, in other words.

Le Carre moves the pieces of his plot into place slowly, before the whole thing snaps shut abruptly. The ending is so abrupt, in fact, that it feels a little unsatisfying. A chapter expounding on the conclusion would have been welcome but it would also, perhaps, have undermined Le Carre's point. It's hard to say more without giving away the ending but the way that Le Carre closes the book puts the reader in a similar position to the characters.

Like a lot of Le Carre's work, this is a very moral book. Once again, he shows how individuals can be helpless victims in the face of an espionage complex that ruthlessly pursues its larger objectives.

This isn't in the same class as the other Le Carre novels that I've read but it is an engaging book that tells a powerful story.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V Higgins (Shane's book 35, 2011)

"Hey Foss," the prosecutor said, taking Clark by the arm, "of course it changes. Don't take it so hard. Some of us die, the rest of us get older, new guys come along, old guys disappear. It changes everyday."

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The Friends of Eddie Coyle is another classic of the hardboiled crime genre but while The Hunter is the equivalent of the Hollywood action thriller, this is the precursor to something more realistic, such as The Wire. The characters here, whether crooks, cops or lawyers, are just doing their jobs as best they can.

In his introduction Dennis Lehane - a novelist and one of the writers for The Wire - describes the book as "the game-changing crime novel of the last 50 years". He notes that the book is almost all dialogue and praises Higgins' ear for real speech.

The plot concerns Eddie Coyle, a smalltime crook in Boston, who is facing jail time for his part in a robbery. In an attempt to avoid prison, Coyle begins feeding information to the police. He doesn't think he's giving them anything important but, unknown to him, someone else is feeding better information and Coyle could end up taking the blame.

It's fairly clear early on how the book is going to end but that isn't the point. What makes this book so good is Higgins's evocation of character and place. He wrote this while working as an attorney in Boston and his knowledge of the system comes through in the tangible authenticity of the dialogue and the setting.

Higgins does so much of his storytelling through speech that the story takes on a hazy, vague quality at times. It adds to the unsettling feel of scenes such as the bank robberies carried out by the gang that Coyle is supplying with weapons. The cold precision of the robbers and the business-like capitulation of the bank staff is brilliantly rendered.

As with The Hunter, it's clear to see how influential this book has been. However, while that book has been so thoroughly imitated that it feels like an imitation itself, there is a quality in The Friends of Eddie Coyle that is very hard to imitate. Indeed, Lehane's introduction says that even Higgins could not manage to imitate this book with any success.

It still feels fresh and it's a thoroughly engaging read.