They were soldiers…

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All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

Translated by Brian Murdoch

all-quiet-on-the-western-front This remarkable novel about young German soldiers in WWI was our book group’s read for August; I had pushed strongly for a WWI-related choice for the month of the 100th anniversary of the war’s start. Several of us had already read some of Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, but none had read this book. Indeed, despite having owned a copy for years, I don’t think I would ever have got around to reading it – now, I am so glad I did.

All Quiet (as I shall abbreviate it to) was published in 1929. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, they denounced and burned copies of it as being anti-German. Remarque went to Switzerland, and in 1938 the Nazis withdrew his German citizenship. In 1939, with help from Marlene Dietrich, he got a US visa just before war broke out in Europe again and, ending up in Hollywood a film was made of the novel just a few years after that.

Remarque was sixteen when WWI started and was called up two years later. He survived Passchendaele and was later wounded, spending the rest of the war in hospital, then serving there. It is fair to assume that All Quiet reflects many of his own experiences as a young soldier for it is remarkable in its honesty.

The novel starts with a band of young soldiers getting a belly full of food for a change. We soon read that they had been sent up the line with 150 men but less than 80 returned – so they got double rations. These young men are already hardened survivors.

It moves on to tell us how a group of young students, barely nineteen years old had signed up in a romantic fit of nationalism, urged on by their tutor:

We went down to the local recruiting office, still a class of twenty young men, and then we marched off en masse, full of ourselves, to get a shave at the barber’s – some of us for the first time – before we set on a parade-ground. We had no real plans for the future and only very few of us had thoughts of careers or jobs that were firm enough to be meaningful in practical terms. On the other hand, our heads were full of nebulous ideas which cast an idealized, almost romantic glow over life and even the war for us.

We all now know what happened, and how the lives of millions of young men were wasted in WWI. There are scenes of real horror in the novel: a memorable one is where Paul, the narrator, is hiding in a cemetery under bombardment, surrounded by flying bits of already dead bodies, an arm hangs from a tree. Then there are the scenes in the hospital, where the surgeons couldn’t cope and any serious wound or large dose of gas became a death sentence.

The irony of the book’s title (originally Im Western nichts neues – In the West, nothing is new) is renewed afresh with each bombardment and slaughter. There is one scene where the soldiers acknowledge that surely the French feel the same way about their country, and they wonder why are they doing this. The soldiers in All Quiet could have been from any of the nations involved – all their experiences were similar.

As you’d expect, the cameraderie that grows between the soldiers is touching, but at the front there has to be an element of self-preservation in order to survive. This may mean killing the opposition, or escaping being mown down oneself. As Paul says:

We set out as soldiers, and we might be grumbling or we might be cheerful – we reach the zone where the front line begins, and we have turned into human animals.

Yet amongst all the sturm und drang there are some moments of pure comedy – the soldiers pull their latrines round in a circle so they can play cards in the middle, and this which must have inspired Black Adder…

The recruit pulls a face. ‘Bread made out of turnips for breakfast, turnips for lunch and turnip cutlets with turnip salad in the evening.’

Baldrick!  And that neatly brings me to the one point that several of our book group made in our discussions – Since we (or some of us) had read Birdsong or The Regeneration Trilogy, and seen Black Adder Goes Forth, it felt as if this novel was just another war novel, even not quite as good – but of course it is the original that inspired all the others!

Personally, this was another Moby Dick book for me – i.e. a classic that I’m so glad I finally read and saw how it has inspired and been referenced in so many other places; All Quiet is much more readable than Moby though. As the first great anti-war novel it is a compulsive read – I thoroughly enjoyed it as did our book group – it also generated some excellent discussion. (10/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore on Amazon UK, please click below:
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. Pub 1929. Vintage paperback translated by Brian Murdoch, 224 pages.

DVD Review – The Coen Brothers do the 1960s folk music scene…

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Inside Llewyn Davis by the Coen Brothers

inside llewyn davis cover

I’ve been taking advantage of my daughter being on holiday with her Dad to catch up on TV and movies. I binge-watched Broadchurch (loved) and The Honorable Woman (good, but confusing and irritating), but finished my week by watching the Coen Brother’s latest movie from earlier this year on Blu-Ray.

As a folk music fan brought up on Peter, Paul and Mary and being no stranger to Bob Dylan, I was bound to appreciate this film, and it’s one of the Coen’s finest, moving straight into my film faves.

Llewyn Davis is a folk singer struggling to make ends meet in New York. It’s winter and he’s homeless, moving from couch to couch between friends and relations around Greenwich Village. He doesn’t help himself, being a martyr to his own brand of earnest folk, and intolerant of others. He was part of a duo, they might have made it, but Mikey threw himself off the George Washington Bridge.

Llewyn davisThe film follows Llewyn over the course of a week in 1961, which starts off with him accidentally letting his hosts’ cat out and locking himself out in the process, so he is left to wander the streets with guitar and cat until he can return it.

Another night, another sofa, another evening in the folk club watching other people play, another girlfriend in trouble. Luckily Jean’s new (unknowing) man can rustle up a recording session to put a few dollars his way. Later in the week, Llewyn makes a pilgrimage to Chicago for a chance to impress a music mogul, and the failure of this trip will begin to show him how his dream will end…

I hadn’t heard of Oscar Isaac, whose wisecracks and moody outbursts as Llewyn keep getting him into trouble. He was brilliant as the brooding folk-singer and he played and sang all his character’s songs. Fans will probably recognise the hand of O Brother Where Art Thou? collaborator T Bone Burnett in the soundtrack, in this case aided by Marcus Mumford (I’ve ordered the CD).

inside-llewyn-davis-10If Oscar Isaac was brilliant, all the supporting cast were too – from Carey Mulligan as the embittered Jean and a beardy Justin Timberlake as her husband to an extended cameo from John Goodman as the elderly madman in a syrup (of figs = wig) being driven to Chicago.

However, just like the Fedora hats being a recurring motif in the Coen brothers’ earlier feature Miller’s Crossing, Inside Llewyn Davis also has its own idée fixe, which upstages the actors at every possible opportunity – the cats. After Llewyn’s initial problems with his friends’ cat, a ginger cat crops up all over the place.

The Coen brothers have heightened the feel of it being set during the winter, and so many of the locations being very dingy be they bedsits or the folk clubs by using a washed out palette of colours and always grey skies. When a bit of colour intrudes, it fair zings out of the screen. The whole film looks stunning in its dullness, if you know what I mean.

Comedy is never far from the Coen’s minds. There were some great laugh out loud set pieces – when Jim (Timberlake) is teaching Llewyn a pop song in the recording session for instance, but it was quietly funny in their ironic way all the way through, even though the story was full of Llewyn’s increasing despair.  I loved it. (10/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Inside Llewyn Davis [DVD] [2014], written & directed by the Coen Brothers.
Inside Llewyn Davis: Original Soundtrack Recording

Cover Art – The Vivisector by Patrick White

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My late Mum had several books by English-born Australian author Patrick White in her collection which I later inherited. All were ex-library copies, well-used, covered in stamps and flyleafs cut out, so once I decided I would never get around to reading them (they look challenging reads), out they went – but I saved the dustjacket of his 1970 novel The Vivisector to show you, particularly as it was the first edition.

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It’s a challenging cover, isn’t it – of course not having read the book, I don’t really understand it apart from its Australian landscape. It reminds me of Francis Bacon with those jagged-toothed gaping maws in the sky. It’s by renowned cover artist Tom Adams (whose website you can see here and shows his fascinating range of styles).

Death of Sergeant Kennedy at Stringybark Creek by Sidney NolanThe novel is about a painter, and is dedicated to great Australian artist Sidney Nolan, whom I must admit I don’t know. Looking him up, I find he is particularly famous for his series of paintings featuring Ned Kelly… pictured right is The Death of Sergeant Kennedy at Stringybark Creek. Adams says that his painting is inspired by Nolan.

Apparently White was being considered for the Nobel Prize for Literature, but this novel put the judges off. They didn’t like the big question in it of whether one could be a human being and artist at the same time. They did give him the prize three years later though. White claims that The Vivisector was not about Sidney Nolan, others say it is more likely autobiographical.

Should I have kept one of White’s novels to read? If so, which would you recommend? (I also recycled The Tree of Man (1955) and The Eye of the Storm (1973))

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Source: Inherited. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Vivisector (Penguin Classics)by Patrick White. O/P but S/H copies available.

The myth of Izanami and Izanagi

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The Goddess Chronicle by Natsuo Kirino

Translated by Rebecca Copeland

goddess My most recent reading of the Canongate Myths series (which now has its own page above) fits in nicely with Women In Translation Month, hosted by Biblibio.

I’ve yet to read one of Kirino’s other books, but she is hailed as a top crime author. After reading The Goddess Chronicle, I think I would enjoy them.

Kirino weaves her story around the Shinto creation myth of Izanagi and Izanami, the divine beings who gave birth to all the islands of Japan. Izanami died giving birth to the fire god, and went to the underworld. Izanagi went to retrieve her, but she couldn’t return as she’d eaten the food of the underworld. He had promised not to look at her, but did – seeing her as an undead hag. In revenge, she vowed to kill a thousand people a day; he retaliated saying that 1500 would be born every day (many of them his progeny).

Izanagi’s visit to the underworld reminds me strongly of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, and that of Persephone too – who having eaten Hades’ pomegranate seeds was forced to return each year, but these parallels are only a small part of the tale.

And so to Kirino’s story: Two girls live on the last island in the Japanese chain, a beautiful place shaped like a teardrop, but it is hard to survive in this land and the men spend most of their time at sea. Namima and Kamikuu are the best of friends, however, they are separated on Kamikuu’s sixth birthday when the older girl is sent to live with her grandmother, the island’s Oracle, to be trained to succeed her. Namima is told not to look at Kamikuu now, because she is ‘the impure one’, reinforcing the sense of difference she had always felt between the two of them. When the Oracle dies, Kamikuu becomes the new priestess, however there is a shock in store for Namima. Tradition dictates that she will have to become the new guardian of the dead, helping the spirits onto the afterlife. She is taken and locked into the cave area where the bodies are left to decay.

However, no-one knew that Namima was pregnant, by the one-armed son of the island’s second family. A big adventure begins for Namima with escape, giving birth and her own death. She ends up in the underworld where she becomes a servant to Izanami helping the goddess serve up her cold dish of daily revenge. Eventually she feels compelled to ask to be reincarnated and return to the real world to find out what happened to her own baby daughter … is this something she would be better off not knowing?

Although Namima lives in a matriarchal society, in which a family lineage that produces many girls is revered, it’s not a particularly nurturing one. Life is hard and only the top families are permitted to even have children and if, like the island’s second family, they keep producing boys, disgrace beckons. The role of the oracle seems sacrosanct, everything is geared towards making her life easy, happy and full of children; the life of the poor girl who has to take on the other lonely role is near forgotten. The moment at which it becomes clear to Namima that when Kamikuu dies she must perish too as did her predecessor (the great-aunt she never knew) is heart-rending.

Gods and Goddesses from many cultures are renowned for their capricious natures, and the long-lasting torments they inflict upon all who dare to challenge them. Izanami is so hardened by her daily task of choosing those to die, you can’t hope but wish that she and Izanagi would find a way to ease their quarrel. There is also a sense that Izanami and Namima’s work in looking after the dead in both the underworld and on the island is women’s work in this culture, they have a sense of pride in a job well done.

The Goddess Chronicle has every thing you’d want from a mythological fable: a plucky young heroine full of questions who will come to understand her place in the scheme of things as she comes of age, adventure in a beautiful yet cruel world at the end of the Earth, love and vengeance for both gods and humans. Namina’s tale is sad and dark, yet there is hope – and we need that. (9/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Goddess Chronicle (Canongate Myths) by Natsuo Kirino, pub Jan 2014 by Canongate, paperback 320 pages.

 

The first in an Italian trilogy…

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My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Translated by Ann Goldstein

my brilliant friendI came to reading this book, the first volume in Ferrante’s Neapolitan Trilogy, with more than a little trepidation. Firstly I have only heard good things about it, so I was hoping that it would live up to its reputation.

Secondly, my only previous experience of Ferrante’s work – her early novel, Troubling Love, which I read back in the early days of this blog, was not entirely a success, particularly as I was thrown by the first sentence: “My mother drowned on the night of May 23rd, my birthday, in the sea at a place called Spaccavento, a few miles from Minturno.” May 23rd was my wedding anniversary, and a new relative by marriage died of a heart attack on my wedding night. (I hasten to add that he was already in hospital, not at the wedding and it was his third heart attack, so while terribly sad, it was not sudden nor unexpected.) In fact, having read this book, I’m beginning to wonder if I have a psychic connection with Ferrante, because the major event which takes place at the end of My Brilliant Friend happens on my late mum’s birthday – it’s a happier date in both cases this time.

So, to the books … The Neapolitan Trilogy is the story of childhood friends, Elena and Lila. The first volume opens in the 1950s and follows the story of the girls up until Lila’s marriage while still a teenager. The second sees them mature into young women, and the third volume, which will be published in September, carries on their story.

The prologue to My Brilliant Friend is narrated by Elena, now in her mid-sixties. She is contacted by Lila’s son worried about his mother who appears to have done a disappearing act.

It’s been at least three decades since she told me that she wanted to disappear without leaving a trace, and I’m the only one who knows what she means. [...] she wanted to vanish; she wanted every one of her cells to disappear, nothing of her ever to be found. And since I know her well, or at least I think I know her, I take it for granted that she has found a way to disappear, to leave not so much as a hair anywhere in this world. [...]

I was really angry.
We’ll see who wins this time, I said to myself. I turned on the computer and began to write – all the details of our story, everything that still remained in my memory.

We can immediately sense a rivalry between the two women, and that Elena is not necessarily the top dog in their relationship. Let’s go back to the start in the 1950s – and here I can’t help but think of the song Where do you go to (my lovely)? by Peter Sarstedt from 1969, which towards the end includes the lyric…

I remember the back streets of Naples,
Two children begging in rags,
Both touched with a burning ambition,
To shake off their lowly born tags, they tried.

A rough and tough neighbourhood in Naples is the scene. Everyone fights; including the women who fight between themselves. ‘Life was like that, that’s all, we grew up with the duty to make it difficult for others before they made it difficult for us.’ Don Achille is feared by all, and the tentative friendship between Elena and Lila is cemented by a series of dares, the most scary of which is to sneak up the back stairs into Don Achille’s house and the little girls hold hands to go together.

Lila’s family run a shoe-repair business. Her older brother aspires to craft handmade shoes rather than only repair them. They are poorer than Elena’s family, her father is a porter at the city hall. Both girls start school and both are clever. The teachers are amazed that Lila has already taught herself to read and write, but Elena soon catches up and the girls study together. Both could get into the senior school, but Lila’s family can’t afford it. This is the first point at which the girls’ lives could split, but Lila has an urge to keep learning – and after she finishes her work in the shop, she continues to study with Elena.

Becoming teenagers, their lives outside school and work begin to take a different emphasis. The arrival of puberty and their periods, Elena before Lila for once, brings boys to the forefront. Getting a good match is the key to elevation in Neapolitan society, and while the girls will get to know most of the boys of most of the local families, their paths are still set by circumstance. Elena, doing well at school, can’t now marry someone uneducated, and Lila has always had her eyes set on the son of Don Achille.

Ferrante brings this story of working class Neapolitans to life with an incredible eye for detail. We really get to see what life is like for these families in 1950s Naples. One eye-opening aspect that would never have occurred to me was that they don’t speak Italian as their first language, using a Neapolitan dialect instead. It soon starts to become a barrier for Elena as some childhood friends who don’t go on to the senior school can’t speak Italian, let alone read Latin as she will. This is one reason why Lila continues to teach herself and study with Elena.

They live in a close-knit community, full of feuds, the haves and the have-nots with a hierarchy of families. Every so often events will happen to shake things up a little – Lila will often be involved somewhere, yet as her wedding approaches, she begins to have occasional strange turns (are they symptoms of petit mal? I don’t know). It ends with Lila’s wedding – a mostly happy event, but for the cliff-hanger ending…

In making Elena her narrator writing from memory, Ferrante very cleverly builds the two girls’ characters, with Elena usually looking to Lila to take the lead, yet relishing those occasions when she came in first. We come to realise that Lila does need Elena as much as Elena needs Lila, yet there will be falling-outs aplenty along the way. As I found in Troubling Love, Ferrante is an author very concerned with the physiology of womanhood, there is a power in the coming of monthly blood, here it wasn’t overpowering – it just marked the transition.

Ferrante is famed for her elusiveness – yet in sharing her name with one of the characters, we do wonder how much the Elena on the page is based on Elena herself, or is there more of Lila in her?  We’ll probably never know, but I’m looking forward to getting stuck into the other volumes as soon as I can. (9/10)

I read this book for Women in Translation month. Finally, having mentioned it up the page, I shall leave you with Peter Sarstedt…

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Source: Publisher – thank you! To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. Published by Europa editions, 2012. Paperback original 336 pages.
The Story of a New Name – Volume 2
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay – Volume 3, pub Sept 11.

The world of espionage is a different place now…

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The Director by David Ignatius

Director

It’s a while since I’ve read a spy novel set inside the various American intelligence agencies, and they make the British MI5 and MI6 seem totally straight-forward in their organisation of roles and responsibilities in comparison.

This novel is set mainly in the CIA, an independent agency, which itself has many different branches. The Information Operations Center (IOC) in the Intelligence branch is the main one featuring in this novel. The IOC deals with cyber-intelligence and threats to US computer systems – but it also supports DNI activities.  The DNI is the Director of National Intelligence, reporting to the President.  The Director of the CIA reports to him.  The DNI also has his own independent agency to assist him – the ODNI (Office of the DNI).  To find out more about how all the elements of the US intelligence community fit together I advise a trip to Wikipedia here!

To be honest, Ignatius, a long-time journalist and novelist in this arena in the USA does gradually explain things as we go, and you don’t really need any fore-knowledge. You realise very soon that all the different agencies co-operate – or not, have covert – or not activities from each other, and that there are big power games to be played – or not between them.

The Director of the title is the new director of the CIA. A controversial appointment, for Graham Weber is a billionaire businessman, not a career politician or military man. The CIA has had a difficult time post-Wikileaks and after the Snowden scandal, it’s previous director left under a cloud. Weber has been appointed as an agent of change, to cleanse the agency.

He looked too healthy to be CIA director: He had that sandy blond hair, prominent chin and cheekbones and those ice-blue eyes. It was a boyish face, with strands of hair that flopped across the forehead, and cheeks that colored easily when he blushed or had too much to drink, but he didn’t do either very often. You might have taken him for a Scandinavian, maybe a Swede, who grew up in North Dakota: He had that solid, contained look of the northern plains that doesn’t give anything away. He was actually German-Irish, from the suburbs of Pittsburgh, originally. He had migrated from there into the borderless land of ambition and money and had lived mostly on airplanes. And now he worked in Langley, Virginia, though some of the corridor gossips predicted he wouldn’t last long.

Weber is not to get a chance to settle in gently though. Within days a warning note has appeared inside his desk, and then a young Swiss computer hacker walks into the consulate in Hamburg wanting to talk to Weber, saying that there is a mole in the CIA and that their systems are compromised, he has proof. Rudolf Biel refuses the safe house offered, promising to return in three days. (Of course he never does, and his body will be found later.)

Weber immediately appoints James Morris, head of the IOC to fly to Germany and take charge of the investigation. Weber had met Morris once before, when Weber had addressed a hacker’s convention in Las Vegas about business and internet security.

‘I take it you’ve been here before,’ Weber said, joining the stream of the crowd entering the convention space.
‘I’ve been coming to DEF CON for ten years,’ said Morris, leaning toward Weber and speaking quietly. ‘It’s my favorite honeypot.’
‘You recruit here?’ asked Weber.
‘I’ve hired some of my best people off the floor.’ He pointed to an overweight, pimple-faced young man in baggy cargo shorts and sandals, and a Goth girl shrouded in black who was sucking on a lollypop. ‘These people may not look like much, but when they write code, it’s poetry.’

The IOC, now run by Morris, is not your typical government agency, and its employees are not your typical civil servants either. Hacking the hackers is their prime business, and with Morris involved with the DNI too, it’s difficult for Weber to get to grips with this dual role. There is a rivalry between the ODNI and the CIA, and Weber has yet to build a working relationship with Cyril Hoffman the DNI.

Weber is thrust into a race against time. There is a major hack in the offing – it may involve a mole in the CIA which is certainly a leaky sieve. Can the different agencies actually work together to prevent upsetting the new world order? Can they catch the mole? How long will Weber last in his new job?

I found it fascinating to find out about the amoral world of computer hacking, in which they do it primarily because they can. When other people get leverage on the hackers it turns even more sinister. Being a fan of Homeland (well, the first series in particular), and spy thrillers in general, The Director was an interesting read. I have no idea whether the technical details are accurate, but the plot was involving enough to keep me reading, despite the large amount of explanations needed. The characterisation was, I have to admit, totally stereotyped, although I did warm to Weber and found the oily DNI Hoffman great value.

Post Snowden and Wikileaks, Ignatius has written a timely thriller about the state of espionage today, that it is becoming more about cyber-attack and security than traditional trade-craft. The Director was enjoyable but not exceptional. (6.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Director by David Ignatius, pub Jun 2014 by Quercus, hardback 384 pages.
Homeland – Season 1-3 [DVD]starring Claire Danes, Damian Lewis, Mandy Patinkin.

 

Reprint reviews at Shiny…

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It has been lovely to contribute to the section of Shiny that Simon edits – Reprints in our August inbetweeny – and not just one article, but two!

BonfiglioliFirstly I’d like to highlight Don’t Point That Thing At Me by Kyril Bonfiglioli, the first in a series of cult classics from the 1970s reprinted this summer by Penguin – full review here.

The books feature Charlie Mortdecai – minor aristo, lover of wine, sex, art and having fun. Together with his manservant they have a sort of anti-Jeeves and Wooster relationship, and this book is very funny, very non-PC and is sort of Jeeves & Wooster crossed with Raffles and Lovejoy with a good dash of Ian Fleming thrown in. Loved it.

They’re making a film of one of the books out next year. The trailer is all over the internet. Please – read the books and ignore the film trailer – the film could be brilliant, but it will probably spoil the books for you!

aickmanNext – more cult classics reprinted from the 1960s onwards. I’d not heard of Robert Aickman and his ‘strange stories’ but loved the first two volumes of Faber reprints (with two more still to read).

See my review of them here. Aickman turned out to be a fascinating chap, so I compiled a Five Fascinating Facts article for the BookBuzz section too, see that here.

That’s my plugs for Shiny New Books done now.  I can promise you a book review or two very soon, meanwhile tomorrow evening I’m off to London for a Hesperus do to see Cilla and Rolf Borjlind, scriptwriters for the Swedish Wallander series and authors of a great thriller called Spring Tide.

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Source: Publishers – Thank you!

To explore titles mentioned further at Amazon UK, please click below:
Don’t point that thing at me: The First Charlie Mortdecai Novel (Mortdecai Trilogy 1) by Kyril Bonfiglioli, Penguin paperbacks.
Dark Entries and Cold Hand in Mine by Robert Aickman, Faber paperbacks.
Spring Tide by Cilla and Rolf Borjlind, Hesperus paperback, March 2014.

 

A new bunch of Shiny New Book Reviews…

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SNB logo tinyThe Inbetweeny issue 2a of Shiny New Books is available from today, with 22 new reviews and features, which includes nine, plus one joint article by me!!! Thus having contributed nearly half an issue (although I didn’t read as much as my lovely co-editors for the main Issue 2), I feel I deserve a bit of a plug, forgive me for being so indulgent.

A pair close to my heart are my review of Bethan Roberts’ fab new novel about a child abduction and Anglesey Mother Island and my accompanying short interview with her. You can also read my report of an evening with Bethan in Abingdon a few weeks ago here.

I’ve done my Director’s Cuts to several reviews from this blog of books now out in paperback: The Aftermath by Rhidian Brook (loving that tinted version of the cover for the paperback), Gossip by Beth Gutcheon and Reasons She Goes to the Woods by Deborah Kay Davies.

I’m going to do just one more plug now before saving the rest for another post…

bright_moon_003zA new to me paperback review is my one of A Bright Moon For Fools by Jasper Gibson.

A very black comedy, it has a comedy anti-hero you’ll grow to laugh with rather than laugh at and a psychopathic villain who is the nastiest I’ve read for a long time. Set in Venezuela, it is a brilliant debut novel and it has one of the best descriptive phrases I’ve read at the end of the first paragraph: ‘The sunset was coronary.’

Highly recommended if you like your comedy black and a bit un-PC, as I do.

Words On Rainy Days

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WW Intriguing WordsI know you all enjoy a bit of wordplay?  I certainly do, and while reviewing my reference shelves I rediscovered a paperback that will definitely stay there rather than be consigned to the charity shop pile. It’s The Wordsworth Book of Intriguing Words, subtitled The Insomniac’s Dictionary, by Paul Hellweg and  originally published in 1986. It’s full of interesting lists of things such as collective nouns, animal adjectives, phobias, manias, words ending with -omancy, -icide, and all kinds of other groupings, and although being American in origin it is full of fascinating stuff.

Today, inspired by this book, I want to concentrate on one category of words – abbreviations, and in particular – acronyms. Last summer I posted about DITLOIDs - a number/word game in which you get a phrase like 1=DITLOID (One = Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich) to decipher. This time, I’m just going to chat about some of my favourite acronyms, new and old.

If last year you’d asked me what LOL stood for – I’d probably have said Little Old Lady, (remembered in particular from hospital drama ER, where they had lots of other acronyms too including GOMERGet Out of My Emergency Room for people coming with minor complaints). I never did use LOL for Lots Of Love as we discovered that PM David Cameron did to his chagrin. Laughing Out Loud is less fun though – and you can save yourself a character by doing a :D smiley.

The acronym du moment seems to be YOLOYou only live once.  Currently popularised from a 2010 song by Canadian rapper Drake called The motto. Apparently Zac Ephron has a YOLO tattoo too. However, it is way older than that, often being attributed to Mae West, but also in usage for around 100 years according to Wikipedia. I prefer to use Carpe Diem (RIP Robin Williams), to mean essentially the same thing.

My favourite zeitgeisty acronym though is MAMIL. You see them out all over the place these days. Last week a company called Fat Lad At the Back (FLAB – truly!) tried to get investment from Dragon’s Den on TV to expand their range of clothing for the larger MAMIL. Yes folks, a MAMIL is a Middle-Aged Man In Lycra™, usually seen from the rear balancing on two wheels channelling his internal Bradley Wiggins.

Another good one, which isn’t in such wide usage is SUMO.  It can stand for loads of things, but its most succinct is as Shut Up, Move On – as popularised in a motivational book by Paul McGee. The premise of SUMO is good, but the contents of his book do sound a little contrived – ‘Fruity Thinking’, ‘Hippo-time’ anyone?

Does anyone still use POETS Day? In the earlier days of my career, we did quite a lot – Piss Off Early, Tomorrow’s Saturday – every Friday. No longer though!

The_Moon_Is_A_Harsh_Mistress_fI shall finish by going back to an old favourite, which I was reminded of from the Book of Intriguing Words. That is TANSTAAFLThere Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch! Yes, it’s very American and has been in use at least since the 1930s, but its sentiment is true. I chose it specially though as the phrase and acronym are central to the premise of one of the first SF novels I loved as a teenager – that’s Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress from 1966.

Which current acronyms do you love – or loathe?
Do you have a favourite acronym?
Do share!

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To explore the books mentioned above on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Wordsworth Book of Intriguing Words by Paull Hellweg. O/P but S/H copies available.
S.U.M.O. (shut Up, Move On): The Straight Talking Guide to Creating and Enjoying a Brilliant Lifeby Paul McGee
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (S.F. MASTERWORKS) by Robert Heinlein

 

Would you do this on holiday?

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Lazy Days by Erlend Loe

loe-lazy-daysTranslated by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw. With its irresistible cover I was always going to pick this book up to examine it. I read the blurb on the flyleaf and discovered that the author, new to me, was Norwegian, and that the book was likely to be quirky and probably funny, so that sold it to me.

It’s simply the story of what Bror and Nina Telemann did on their summer holiday, as told to us by Bror.

Bror is in his early forties. He’s stage director at the Norwegian National Theatre, but aims to become a celebrated playwright – soon. He hopes to get started on his magnum opus while on holiday. His wife Nina has booked a house for the family summer holiday in the Alps near Munich in the town that Google Translate calls Mixing Part Churches – Garmisch Partenkirchen to you and me, but Bror only uses the mangled translation. Bror and Nina bicker about her choice of destination…

Do you think Mixing Part Churches is the type of place people lock up their kids, or others’ kids, in the cellar for twenty-four years and rape them three thousand times?
That’s enough.
No, but do you think so?
Stop that now.
For Christ’s sake, no harm speculating.
Stop it.
You don’t think this is a hub for that sort of practice then?
No.
So, those things don’t happen here?
I don’t think so.
So, we just let the kids run about on their own?
I think so.
Good.

That is very representative of Bror and Nina’s conversations. They tend to be very one-sided, as reported by Bror, with him always winding up Nina; sometimes deliberately, other times unconsciously. He’s not happy with her choice of Germany – he considers Bavaria as ‘being the cradle of Nazism’, and doesn’t hesitate to rub it in.

Nina is left most days to go out with their three children and they have a lovely time visiting all the sights. Bror stays behind, supposedly writing – except that he doesn’t. He’s mostly having fantasies about Nigella Lawson, whom he thinks is ‘fascinatingly well-built. She has, for instance, got hips. And a bosum.’

All the above is in the first 21 pages. The book has only 211, so in its small hardback format can easily be read in one sitting. You can imagine, as so often happens on holiday, that tensions simmer and come to the boil explosively, behaviour on both sides of the relationship gets out of hand – can they sort themselves out in time to go home?

This turns out to be quite a dark little comedy – and I could see it working well as a stage adaptation. Bror starts off by being ironic and funny but, as his writer’s block and fantasies take over, Nina is increasingly dismissive of him. Bror’s obsessions take him over, and he gets less likeable by the page; the long-suffering Nina, feeling hard done by, retaliates and does herself no favours either.

To be honest, the whole Nigella thing started to get tedious, but given that the novel was published before the whole scandal, this does give it an added frisson initially but that soon pales. Bror in his mid-life crisis reveals himself to be bigoted, boring and still a big kid for most of the time.

What I did really like though was the author’s dead-pan style of writing, which comes through in the translation. Written in the present tense, Nina and Bror’s conversations in particular, forming much of the meat of this little novel, develop a real sense of anticipation in the reader trying to guess which direction they’ll go in, or what awful thing Bror will say next.

Based on Lazy Days which was fun, I would certainly read more of Loe’s work; a couple more of his novels have been translated. (7/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Lazy Days by Erlend Loe (2009, trans 2013) Pub by Head of Zeus, hardback 211 pages.

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