Thursday, December 20, 2007

Book without end

(Warning: This post contains a long, boring book review, almost as long as the book being reviewed. Does, however, contain coarse language, sexual references and Lesbian scenes.)

"What do you read?" is one of the questions I always get asked when I'm being interviewed about my books.

I always plug my very good friends Peter Watt and David A. Rollins, because I do read their books and enjoy them very much, and because they're published by my very, very good friends Pan Macmillan. If I was a chick, I would say that I read books by my other very good friend (and one of a select, tiny group of people who can drink Mrs Blog under the table) Di Blacklock.

When it comes to international authors I always list Nelson De Mille (who may very well be the best thriller writer in the world), Bernard Cornwell (he of the Sharpe books), and Ken Follett.

Ken Follett also happens to be published by Macmillan and so it was with much fanfare that my Grace Kelly (when-alive and young) lookalike publisher, C, presented Mrs B and I with a signed copy of Kenny's new book, World Without End, for Mrs B's recent birthday.

I was stoked, Legion of Fans (mine, not Ken's in case any of you have found your way here. Ken has enough fans - millions of you, in fact - while I have only four, but I cherish you all, dearly). I have read every book Ken Follett has ever written - even the old ones that were re-published after he became famous.

World Without End - for those of you who have just been born or are suffering from alzheimers - is the long-awaited sequel to Pillars of the Earth.

Pillars of the Earth was an internatioanl besteller and I, along with millions of other people, read it. I loved it. I remember being engrossed in it, unable to put it down for the days and days it took me to read. It was a huge book and I am a slow reader, but that just made it more fun. It seemed like it would never end, and I didn't want it to.

But I can't remember a word of it.

I'm not saying this in a bad way. Sure, I know it was about this bunch of geezers who built a church, but that's it. That's all I can recall of it. It didn't change my life or force me to reconsider my values or beliefs, and it didn't move me to tears (few things do - not like, say, "Flaming Star", the only Elvis Pesley movie in which the King dies).

Now, there could be a few reasons why this is so. Perhaps I'm suffering alcohol-related brain damage or the early onset of old-timer's disease. Perhaps it doesn't matter that I can remember little of a book I read 10 or maybe 15 years ago - I can't remember.

What I did recall, something I think I'd forgotten, but which came back to me while reading Word Without End over the last week or so, was that Ken Follett is The Man.

It's writers like him that made me want to write. So blame him. What a gift it is to be able to create a whole world out of thin air. To breathe life into people who have never and will never exist, and have a reader - a real person - so engrossed in their day-to-day lives that they forget their own. I want to be able to write like that when I grown up.

I've hardly said a word to Mrs Blog this past week, and the experience of reading World Without End has left me feeling mildly depressed (oh, no... warning - this has finally become one of those self absorbed, wallowing-in-self-pity blogs!).

Why am I depressed? Firstly, because it's over.

To tell you the truth, apart from the onset of the Bubonic Plague, not a lot happens to the good citizens of Kingsbride, who make up the cast of this book. They're the descendents of the original characters in Pillars of the Earth. This tale is partly about the building of a bridge, as opposed to a cathedral, but, of course, the real guts of it are the daily lives, loves and struggles of the characters.

Central to the plot is the on-again, off-again romance of Caris (a small but perfeclty formed spunk rat who morphs from merchant's daughter to merchant to nun in the book), and Merthin, an apprentice chippie who becomes the greatest architect in medieval England. Will they or won't they get together iin the end? I won't spoil the ending, but, hey, it's a Ken Follett book.

There's a beastly Nobleman (Follett is a well known lefty and there's always an element of evil aristocracy subverting poor but honest peasants in his books); a peasant girl who's besotted with a farm boy who loves someone else; and an assortment off greedy, self-serving Monks who are all try one-up and up-one another over the years the story takes place.

Ken Follett's greatest achievement in the world of literature has been the popularisation of the Lesbian scene and the threesome in mainstream fiction (ie the kind you can buy sans brown paper bag).

In the Key to Rebecca the plucky heroine turns the course of the war in North Africa by diverting a German spy (played, incidentally by David Soul of Starsky and Hutch fame in the minis series) by getting it on with him and his belly dancer girlfriend at the same time

Ken had quite a name for a while there, mid-career, as the king of naughty bits in fiction. The high point (or low point, depending on your point of view) was Lie Down With Lions, which was set in Afghanistan in the early 80s against the back drop of the Russian invasion. There was lots of inappropriate and graphic behaviour between the leading characters, but it was also such an in-depth, erudite, informative work on the history of Aghanistan and its people that it was still an incredibly popular book when I was serving in Afghanistan with the Australian Army in 2002. I can, in fact, recall my good friend Herr Doktor, telling me what an interesting read it was as he sauntered off to the Portaloo with a well-thumbed copy under his arm.

Mr F has, I'm afraid to say, either decided (or been told) to clean up his act as it were, and his more recent books have contained far less gratuitous and descriptive sex than his older ones. (Kenny, I can sympathise, mate. C is always telling me I have too many Lesbian scenes in my books, which is why none of them never make it to publication).

Having said that, there was a welcome return of the same-sex scene - chicks, of course - in 'Jackdaws', and I can reveal that World Without End does contain the odd Sister act in the nunnery.

However, not much happens to the characters, apart from the odd bit of rumpy pumpy and the loss of many of them to the plague, but it was just so pleasant being a part of their lives for the past week that I am now actually very sorry I had to leave.

Follett says of his own writing that he never wants a reader to have to read one of his sentences twice to understand it. I think that's quite lovely and it's why I like reading his books. He lays out the complicated nature of human life so simply and clearly - in his prose - that it's impossible not to understnd what's going on in these people's heads and to feel their pain and joy with them.

It's like a really good soap opera - if such a thing exists. Not a lot happens, but you still can't wait to find out what's going to happen next.

If I had to find a fault with World Without End it would be the length. Like this review, everything that needed to be said could have been said in about a third of the space it takes. At more than 1,100 pages it is about as long as three Tony Park books, which is probably why it took Ken so long to write it.

However, I don't really see it as a fault, as - and I know I'm repeating myself - I enjoyed getting lost it in. I'm goofing off (errr, I mean researching and writing) in Africa, so I have the time to laze about and reach more than a thousand pages of fiction, but I might not have been so enthralled if I was reading 10 pages a day on the 8.17am train from Chatswood to Sydney.

Caris and Merthin almost get together three or four times in the book. Ralph the wicked nobleman almost gets it in the neck three or four times, and the evil Monks almost get their comeuppance three or four times. The truth is, the book could have ended at pages 300 or 600 or 900 instead of 1100.

But, I didn't want it to.

But all good things, and even mediocre things, like this review, and the world, I suppose, must come to an end some time. And here we are.

Oh, and the second reason why I'm depressed?

I've still got about 100 pages of my current book to write and it's not easy - damn hard, at times, in fact - to invent a parrallel universe populated with characters who will so engage people that they can't live without them, and hope and wish they would go on for ever. Not easy at all.

Well done, Mr F.


ali g said...

Great review Mr Blog.
I read "Pillars Of the Earth" in March 1991 [ it was actually your copy which you loaned Bubu back then so you must have read it nearly 18 years ago by that reckoning]
Am presently about a third into "World Without End" but before starting bought a copy of "Pillars of the Earth" to re-read first as a prequel for as you, I couldn't remember anything about it's story line except for the building of the Cathedral and the fact that just loved it!
So on that basis adding the 2 books together, I am now up to page 1451 of 2199 so just 748 pages to go...wheww...and probably will also be depressed when finished not just for the leaving the characters behind but looking out over the home front domain at all the work left undone whilst busy reading. The grass is a foot high and at 5 acres of it around the dump and 2 foot high weeds awaiting my attention it's dampening of the spirit....
Maybe I'll put it off a bit longer and grab a copy of "Lay Down with Lions" first.
After Ken's mammoth efforts now awaiting the 1000 page Tony Park mega-book.. If you do, We'll have to sell the dump and buy a flat as no work at all would get done.
Ken's good but he's no Tony Park!

Java said...

Didn't know about him, might go and search for his books soon then.
Will be great to read your reads.

ali g said...

Uh oh..just got pinged by the apostrophe Nazi...