My first Penelope Fitzgerald read…

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At Freddie’s by Penelope Fitzgerald

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Penelope Fitzgerald is yet another of those lauded middle-brow female novelists from the second half of the twentieth century that I had not yet tackled.

I’ve long been a champion of Beryl Bainbridge and Muriel Spark; I’ve added Elizabeth Taylor, Margaret Forster, Edna O’Brien, Penelope Mortimer and not forgetting Barbara Pym to my tried and loved list, but Anita Brookner was not so much to my taste.

Where would Penelope Fitzgerald fall? Given the love for her books around the web, the odds were in her favour.

I wanted a short novel as a palate cleanser between the two horror parodies I’ve recently read, and chose At Freddie’s over The Bookshop and The Blue Flower off my shelf as it was the shortest – possibly a risky thing to do, going for the least well-known of the three…

It’s the 1960s. Freddie’s, in the heart of London’s theatreland, is the familiar name of the Temple Stage School, a theatrical agency masquerading as a school that supplies child actors to the West-End stage in shows from Shakespeare to Peter Pan.

Freddie, the proprietor, is one of those old ladies who knows everyone and won’t take no for an answer – when a theatre manager rings up to complain about a prank one of her charges at played at the theatre – he gets ‘Freddied':

I’m afraid you’ll have to speak a little more clearly, dear. It comes with training … you can’t have rung me up to complain about a joke, an actor’s joke, nothing like them to bring a little good luck, why do you think Mr O’Toole put ice in the dressing-room showers at the Vic? That was for his Hamlet, dear, to bring good luck for his Hamlet. I’m not sure how old O’Toole would be, Mattie will be twelve at the end of November, if you want to record his voice, by the way, you’d better do it at once, I can detect just a little roughening, just the kind of thing that frightens choir-masters, scares them out of the organ-lofts, you know. I expect the child thought it would be fun to see someone fall over … two of them detained in Casualties, which of them would that be, John Wilkinson and Ronald Tate, yes, they were both of them here, dear, I’ll send Miss Blewett round to see then if they’re laid up, she can take them a few sweets, they’re fond of those … I suppose they’d be getting on for thirty now … well, dear, I’ve enjoyed our chat within its limits, but you must get the casting director for me now, or wait, I’ll speak to the senior house manager first … tell him that Freddie wants a word with him.

The Temple School is decrepit, damp, cold, run on a shoe-string with a skeleton staff on Freddie’s reputation alone it seems. Not a lot of teaching goes on. Woven into this short novel are three stories:

Freddie is taking on new staff to teach the children their lessons – the law demands a certain amount of education alongside their stage careers – Miss Hannah Graves and Mr Pierce Carroll are employed cheaply. Hannah has a love for the theatre, although no desire to be an actress – she wants to absorb it. Carroll, meanwhile has no qualifications to teach at all but is a practical sort and Freddie likes the lugubrious man, who will fall for Hannah – but will his love be requited?

We also follow the careers and antics of two of her young charges – Mattie and Jonathan. Mattie is playing Prince Arthur in Shakespeare’s King John opposite a pernickety lead and an experienced older (and drunken) actor. Jonathan, a couple of years younger is Mattie’s friend and follower at Freddie’s – he’ll take over from Mattie in King John when his stint is over. Where Mattie is ebullient, Jonathan is thinking and quiet and only acts when he wants to – a method actor in the making.

The final strand is that of the school itself, its status – a rival school may be setting up, TV (an anathema to Freddie) needs child actors and as always there are financial worries.  Freddie is being courted by an investor, but is resisting, fearing a loss of control.

Things all come to a head around the first performances of King John:

Freddie herself did not go to the first night; she had not been out in the evening since the gala performance of Sleeping Beauty when Covent Garden was reopened after the war. On that occasion, it was remembered, she at looked round at the regal expanse of new Cecil Beaton crimson-striped wallpaper and asked whether there wasn’t a roll or two of it left over. Since then she had attended only matinées and previews.

The short note on the author at the front of my edition, said that Fitzgerald had worked in a theatrical school at one time, and she obviously put that experience into At Freddie’s. She declared that it would be her last autobiographical novel in the Guardian in 2000 Fitzgerald said that she “had finished writing about the things in my own life, which I wanted to write about.” She moved onto historical settings for subsequent novels.

First published in 1982, and set in 1963, At Freddie’s has a surprisingly Dickensian feel to it – the children have more than a hint of Fagin’s gang – with Mattie and Jonathan being the Artful Dodger and Oliver Twist respectively. The courtship of Miss Graves by Carroll could almost be that of Pip for Estella – it really doesn’t feel like the 1960s!

Although it has a few poignant moments, it’s very much a broad comedy. I imagined Freddie herself as a rather wizened version of St Trinian’s Miss Fritton but with the chutzpah of Joey Tribbiani’s agent Estelle in Friends, (although Friends came later of course).  She’s an amazing character – totally eccentric and indomitable, Queen of her own little world, but with far-reaching tentacles of influence.  I was going to say apron-strings rather than tentacles, but Freddie doesn’t have a motherly bone in her body.

More than anything else though, this novel feels like a homage to Muriel Spark; the London setting, the backstage machinations, the characters and their dialogue – it’s all there. You could be mistaken for assuming you were reading one of Spark’s pithy black comedies like my favourite, The Ballad of Peckham Rye.

Giving us this double glimpse behind the scenes of life behind the scenes in the theatre with a delicious sting in the tail, Fitzgerald, like Spark takes no prisoners. I’m glad to be able to add P.Fitzgerald to the tried and loved list – whither next?  (8/10)

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Source: Own Copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:

At Freddie’sby Penelope Fitzgerald, paperback, 160 pages.

 

 

 

Poor but mostly happy …

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This Boy by Alan Johnson

this boyPoliticians’ memoirs are not the norm for me to read when I choose non-fiction. Alan Johnson may be a fine politician, (and many think that Labour would be in a much better place if he had stood to become leader) but this volume doesn’t cover his later career, just his childhood, and what a childhood it was.

The book starts by Johnson looking back at the only photograph of his parents on their wedding day – neither look entirely happy. His father in uniform with a hint of swagger, his mother smiling somewhat strainedly beside him, her arm linked around his, almost clinging but also restraining.

Johnson grew up in the slums of Notting Hill – you’d never recognise it now. The buildings were due for demolition and they had just a couple of rooms with a cooker on the landing and outside loo. It can’t have been what his mother Lily, a Liverpudlian, was expecting when she moved to London but she was determined to make it her home. Steve wouldn’t even contemplate moving anywhere else. Alan, who was born in 1950, and his older sister Linda were born into this deprivation and like all children who don’t know anything different did their best to get the most out of this life.

They hadn’t reckoned on their father Steve though. By the end of the first chapter, he’s already had an affair – pretending to be visiting his mother every Sunday morning, instead having it away with the wife of a friend. Linda uncovered some of what was happening and it all came out. Steve left Lily for Elsie – but, as Johnson tells us, ‘Unfortunately, he came back.’

Johnson is unsparing in his depiction of his father:

There are no surrogate fathers in this story. The lack of any meaningful relationship with Steve did not spur me to see an alternative father figure. In fact it had the opposite effect: it made me mistrustful of men in general and uncomfortable in their presence. I much preferred being with women. But if I had been inclined to fantasize about the ideal father, as Linda was (she idolized her teacher at Bevington, Mr Freeman, and often voiced her wish that he was our dad), Albert Cox [father of his best friend Tony] would have been my choice.

Steve was a charmer who got most of his money from playing the piano in pubs, or occasionally getting lucky on the horses. He drank and gambled most of it away, and it was difficult for Lily to get any housekeeping out of him even before he eventually left, when that became nigh-on impossible. Lily always had to work to put food on the table, and her health suffered. There were many spells in hospital and she died when Alan was 12. Linda was just turning sixteen, and having brought up Alan all those times her mother was ill, was able to persuade the Council that they could survive on their own. They finally got a flat to share south of the river with that indoor bathroom they’d always craved.

The post-war poverty was appalling, yet Johnson is rarely maudlin about it. Luckily he was bright and caught the reading bug at a young age, later getting to Grammar school. Amongst the few treasured family possessions were his guitar and Linda’s Dansette record player, bought when Lily had a small win on the football pools one week. Books, football and music were his passions, but unfulfilled at school, he left at 15, ending up as a postman at 18 via shelf-stacking at Tesco; a good guitarist by then, he was also in a couple of bands. That is where this memoir ends (the second volume, Please, Mr Postman is now out, chronicling his pre-parliament working years).

There were many good times in Johnson’s childhood, usually short-lived, which he recounts with wit and a candour that is present throughout. Only once or twice does he ever credit his father with any visible parenting – one time when his father actually played trains with him is fondly remembered, but little else.

Alan Linda, and Lily when she was well, just got on with life. The real heroine of this story is Linda, the big sister who always looked out for the family. She was a remarkable young woman and thoroughly deserves our praise.

There is little sign in this volume of the politician that Johnson would eventually become except perhaps in his tolerance of things. Notting Hill was an area that would change rapidly with the influx of immigrant workers in the 1950s, one of Johnson’s best friends was a black lad, but Johnson doesn’t stray away from telling just his own story.

Despite not being a political memoir in the true sense, This Boy won the Orwell Prize (for political writing) and the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize, both in 2014. The Ondaatje prize is given for a book that evokes the “spirit of a place” and post-war Notting Hill certainly leaps off the pages.

Johnson’s childhood was terribly poor and marred by tragedy – you can’t help but be deeply moved by his account yet, it is also funny and equally uplifting. Johnson tells it how it was but remains chipper throughout, and staunch in his belief in his wonderful sister Linda. He has done his best to hide the misery which must lie underneath this marvellous book.  I’m so glad I read it. (10/10)

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This Boy by Alan Johnson. Corgi books 2013, paperback, 304 pages.
Please, Mister Postman by Alan Johnson. Bantam 2014, hardback.

The Prisoner meets 1970s public information films – be very afraid…

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Discovering Scarfolk by Richard Littler

scarfolkI love reading creepy novels in autumn, and this year I’ve had the pleasure of not only reading the fabulous Horrorstör (see here), but also the even creepier Discovering Scarfolk by Richard Littler.

Anyone will be able to enjoy this book, but to really get the most out of it, you need to have an appreciation of when it is set  which is firmly in the 1970s – a few years after The Prisoner and at the height of paranoia about the threat of nuclear war.

Between programmes, TV was full of those fatuous public information films and patronising posters were on billboards everywhere.  We watched Dr Who from behind the sofa and cringed at a certain track-suited DJ (whom I had always reviled) on Top of The Pops.

As a child of the 1960s and teenager throughout the 1970s I was there! (Although a bit young for The Prisoner first time around.)  Discovering Scarfolk brought it all back!

A real Hamlyn Guide from the 1970s from my shelves

A real Hamlyn Guide from the 1970s from my shelves

Again, like Horrorstör, this book is impeccably well-designed. The cover is in the style of a book very much in the Hamlyn guide mould with the san serif Helvetica font. When I first saw the book, I had to do a double-take (again) not seeing beyond the cooling towers at first glance – then you see the eye’s pupil and read the sticker flash and it dawns that this will be an hilarious horror spoof.

Let me tell you about the text a little…

The Introduction is by Ben Motte, Editor of the International Journal of Cultural Taxidermy. He tells the reader that it contains:

 a selection of archival materials pertaining to Scarfolk, a town in North West England, which is just west of northern England, though its precise location is unknown.’

Motte had been sent a large parcel of said papers including a worn copy of a 1970s’ tourist guide to said town. The papers are well-thumbed and ‘accompanied by often nonsensical annotaions.’ of which he realised he knew the author – one Daniel Bush (‘a fellow student when we read Telepathic Journalism at St Cheggers Pop Christ College, London, in the late 1960s.’).

Scarfolk poster 1It seems that Daniel was trying to get out of Scarfolk with his two young sons, but they disappeared at a motorway service station. Daniel was overcome and later found himself back in the town with two boys who said they were his sons…

Motte pieces together Daniel’s tale from all the papers, and in doing so gives us a portrait of this unique town.

What raises Discovering Scarfolk above Horrorstör is not only that it’s an even bigger design job – there’s scarcely a page-turn without a familiar yet different graphic that makes you look twice. Each paragraph too yields nuggets of pure 1970s gold that I devoured as I carefully read this book – I didn’t want to miss any, often chuckling out loud.

As you can see from the scary (but not the scariest illustration by far) Scarfolk information poster above, immense attention to detail has been taken to make it appear as if it had come out of a parcel folded up. Book covers have scuffed corners, pages are foxed, typed reports are slightly fuzzy, colours are often faded; all subvert familiar images from the period.

An important note on the bottom of each Council poster etc. says:

For more information please reread this poster.

This one is real!

Compare it with the real thing!

I also loved how Littler, the author and designer, is also the mayor of Scarfolk. He has a truly warped sense of humour and I loved it.

Oh the joy of reading this book!  I don’t want to tell you any more about it, because it will just spoil the fun of discovering all this for yourselves!  You may want to visit the website, but I saved it until after I’d read the book.

I might be buying this for everyone for Christmas I loved it that much (folks, you have been warned!). (10/10).

I shall leave you with one more quotation – from the ‘Things to Do’ page:

Old Market Square
You can now take a tour of Scarfolk’s historical market square from the comfort of your own car. It is, or rather was, located where the Market View multi-storey car park now stands. The Market Square was originally situatioed approximately 22 feet below Level O between exits 0A and 0B and is commemorated with the sticker attached to the fire extinguisher by the disabled parking spaces.

Open 9am to 9pm,
Good parking facilities.

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Source: I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Discovering Scarfolkby Richard Littler. Pub October 2014 by Ebury publishing. Hardback, 192 pages.

For more information please reread this blog post.

The Wonderful World of Ephemera

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ephemeraA few years ago, I used to have a regular series of posts on ephemera – I even made a little button for it (right).  Select ‘ephemera’ in the category search box on the right hand sidebar – and these posts will all come up, alongside a few more recent ones.

I was mostly finding all these fascinating bits of paper etc. amongst my late Mum’s papers; she was an inveterate clipper of newspapers and magazines. The wonderful thing is that I’m still finding interesting things that she kept or noted. The stream of posts may have dwindled to a trickle these days, but it’s not dried up. Every time I pick up one of her old books in particular, I’m likely to find a cutting, or a post-it note, or marginalia she left behind. They give me a warm glow now whenever I encounter one, and this week, I found not one but two items which I must share with you:

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Firstly a clipping of the Russian ballerina Galina Ulanova. My Mum was a huge ballet fan and used to queue overnight to get tickets, Ulanova who danced for the Bolshoi ballet was one of her favourites. This clipping is one of several – all from different years about Ulanova (another is her obituary from The Times in 1998).  This more whimsical one was from the Express and by looking at the articles on the back I can date it from May 1958.

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The hilarious thing about this clipping is that a joky label has been stuck on it comparing the photo to the ballet L’Apres-midi d’un Faune made famous by Nijinsky. I recognise the hand-writing too. Norm! I hope you’re reading this! (Norm is a partial anagram of my Dad’s name, and is how he typically comments on my blog).

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Last week when I went to the book sale in the neighbouring village, I snaffled an anthology of Nancy Mitford novels in new Penguin Mod Classics livery. Good I thought, I can dispose of the tatty old copies I’d inherited.

Then, when I opened up this 1947 Reprint Society edition of The Pursuit of Love I found this note in my Mum’s handwriting underneath the dedication…

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Can I now bear to part with the book? Well, having documented it, actually yes – I need the shelf-space. It does remind me that I haven’t actually read The Pursuit of Love (although I have read Love in a Cold Climate), and having glimpsed at the first page and giggled at the first lines – I should just get on with it before disposing of this old book. So I’m off to do some reading – I hope this quote makes you giggle too…

There is a photograph in existence of Aunt Sadie and her six children sitting round the tea-table at Alconleigh. The table is situated, as it was, is now, and ever shall be, in the hall, in front of a huge open fire of logs. Over the chimney-piece plainly visible in the photograph, hangs an entrenching tool, with which, in 1915, Uncle Matthew had whacked to death eight Germans one by one as they crawled out of a dug-out. It is still covered with blood and hairs, an object of fascination to us as children.

More Shiny linkiness …

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It’s been a couple of weeks since Issue 3 of Shiny New Books went live, so I thought I’d highlight the other fiction reviews I wrote for it to you – I hope you’ll click through to read the whole pieces…

At the moment, we’re busy putting together our Christmas special which will be out at the beginning of December – It’s beginning to feel a bit like Christmas – I’ve started my Christmas shopping (late for me actually).

But back to those books…

Man At The Helm by Nina Stibbe

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I reviewed Nina’s wonderful diaries from her time as a nanny here last year, and couldn’t wait to read her first novel.

Man at the Helm is set in the 1970s, a band of children set out to find their newly single mother a new man with hilarious consequences. A real nostalgia trip and very funny too.

Read my Shiny review in full here.

P.S. Ideal Christmas present material!

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The Children Act by Ian McEwan

children act
I saw McEwan talk at the Oxford Literary Festival about this book before it was published, and again couldn’t wait to read it.

While some reviews have been a bit lukewarm, while I acknowledge it’s not his best, I really enjoyed it and that was because of its main protagonist. The judge Fiona Mays is brilliantly written, intelligent, caring and wise, yet she is fallible in her own life.

Read my Shiny review in full here.

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The Confabulist by Steven Galloway

theconfabulistI’ve yet to read Galloway’s critically acclaimed novel The Cellist of Sarajevo, but the premise of The Confabulist was truly right up my street.

I love novels about magicians, and this one features none other than Houdini himself, however it’s Houdini as seen through the eyes of another man who is slowly losing his memory and believes that he was responsible for Houdini’s death – twice!

An elegant and very enjoyable novel about illusions and memory.

Read my Shiny review in full here.

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The Disappearance Boy by Neil Bartlett

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As if one novel about magicians wasn’t enough, along comes another – but it’s a very different story.

It’s 1953 and Teddy Brookes is a stage magician in end of the pier variety shows. However he can’t make the lady vanish without the help of a disappearance boy – never seen, but a key part of the illusion.

Enter young Reggie, an orphan, slightly crippled from childhood polio, but dextrous and nimble.  Reggie, Sandra – Teddy’s assistant and Mr Brookes make a fascinating trio and in the build-up to Teddy’s Coronation Show special act – it fair crackles between the three of them – what will happen? Told in Barlett’s typical slowburn style this novel is full of suspense and I loved it.

Read my Shiny review in full here.

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Source: Review copies – Thank you to all the publishers.
To explore further on Amazon UK (affiliate link), please click below:
Man at the Helm by Nina Stibbe. Pub Aug 2014 by Viking, hardback, 320 pages.
The Children Act by Ian McEwan. Pub Sep 2014 by Jonathan Cape, hardback 224 pages.
The Confabulist by Steven Galloway. Pub Aug 2014 by Atlantic. Trade paperback, 320 pages.
The Disappearance Boy by Neil Bartlett. Pub July 2014 by Bloomsbury Circus, hardback, 288 pages.

A clever parody or a triumph of style over substance?

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Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix

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A couple of weeks ago, I got inordinately excited when this book I’d ordered arrived.

For all its faults, IKEA is the booklover’s friend. Affordable shelving, in practical and/or posher versions, is what the bibliomane needs (I’m speaking as a 10x Billy owner here – I can construct those boys at speed!). I’m an IKEA fan – but only if I pick the right time, i.e. when the least number of people are likely to be there – say opening time on a Tuesday term-time morning. I can happily spend the morning browsing and filling my trolley to the brim with crocks, lamps, picture frames, throws, cushions, wine glasses and all the things those clever marketers put in my way in the circuitous you-must-see-everything route to the checkout.

The front cover of Horrorstör is stunning!  At first you don’t notice the faces in the pictures, or register that the title has the word ‘Horror’ in it – you just giggle at the umlaut and you want to get inside the book and see more of the IKEA parody. Horrorstör, like the giant it is parodying, is a clever piece of design – there are floormaps, furniture descriptions, order forms, and more. Each chapter is named after (complete with umlauts as needed), and preceded by an illustration, of a particular piece of furniture. My favourite was the Hügga office chair – available in Night Leather.

The novel starts well:

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It was dawn, and the zombies were stumbling through the parking lot, streaming towards the massive beige box at the far end. Later they’d be resurrected by megadoses of Starbucks, but for now they were the barely living dead. Their causes of death differed: hangovers, nightmares, strung out from epic online gaming sessions, circadian rhythms broken by late-night TV, children who couldn’t stop crying, neighbours partying until 4 a.m., broken hearts, unpaid bills, roads not taken, sick dogs, deployed daughters, ailing parents, midnight ice cream binges.
But every morning, five days a week (seven during the holidays), they dragged themselves here, to the one thing in their lives that never changed, the one thing they could count on come rain, or shine, or dead pets, or divorce: work.

And that’s just the employees. They work for Orsk – an IKEA-copycat furniture superstore, at the Cuyahoga, Ohio branch. There’s Amy, who’s too clever to be just a floor saleswoman but is stuck in a rut, Basil the deputy manager – a real jobsworth, Ruth-Anne a gentle soul who always thinks well of people, Trinity – a Goth who believes in the supernatural and her boyfriend Matt who doesn’t.

As the story opens, the staff have arrived to find that furniture has been moved and soiled – a Brooka sofa to be exact, not the first item to be vandalised in the past days. Basil, who knows that a management inspection is imminent, persuades (with the lure of double time) Amy and Ruth-Anne to stay in the store with him overnight to seek out the perpetrator and get rid of them – he suspects a tramp has got in somewhere. Trinity and Matt say it’s ghosts – the Orsk site has history apparently. Trinity has visions of moving on from Orsk to hosting her own TV show about haunting, and she and Matt sneak back into the store after work with detectors to look for the spectres.

That’s all I can tell you about the plot, suffice to say that – surprise! It’s not a tramp that’s trashing the store. It all gets nastier and nastier in the early hours of the morning. Will any of them get out alive?

As a ghost story, once we find out about what happened back in history, the plot was entirely predictable. We’ve all read that kind of horror story before, but I did really enjoy it. The author has taken a classic haunted house trope and relocated it in a commercial world where management-speak rules and work is the treadmill you get on every day. That extends to the customers too – as Matt explains: ‘Orsk is all about scripted disorientation. The store wants you to surrender to a programmed shopping experience.’

There are some genuinely creepy moments – this will make you shudder with recognition…

She took one last glance around the room and noticed that the sign on the wall had changed. Its message used to be “The hard work makes Orsk your family, and the hard work is free.” But the running water had worn away many of the letters. Now it simply read: “Work makes you free.”

There are other moments that will make you squirm with laughter and disgust – the thought that lazy parents will change an infant’s nappy on a display sofa and stuff it down the back rather than retrace their steps the half-mile to the toilets is the ickiest thing in the whole book! (sad but probably true too…)

So – was this book a clever parody or a triumph of style over substance? My answer is both! Every aspect of the design of this book is well done inside and out – even the sizing – no prizes for guessing whose catalogue it matches. The line drawings, fonts, all the little details are so well done and the design team get their credits on the inside back French flap. The substance of the plot may not be terribly original – a debt to Stephen King is in order, plus a nod to Mark Z Danielewski’s ground-breaking House of Leaves (I must re-read that!), but the sheer comedy in the spoofing of management goobledegook and rigid work practices is spot on and raises the text above an average ghost story.

Hendrix cleverly makes Orsk a cut-price IKEA, putting them on a pedestal in a ‘We’re not worthy’ way. While IKEA can’t officially approve of this book, I bet they love it as much, or even more, than I did. (9/10)

P.S. An ideal Christmas present for Billy bookcase fans…

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Horrorstorby Grady Hendrix. Pub October 2014 by Quirk Books. Softback, 256 pages.
House Of Leavesby Mark Z Danielewski

“This ain’t no upwardly mobile freeway … This is the road to hell”

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The A26 by Pascal Garnier

the-a26 Quite a few bloggers (notably Stu and recently Guy) have already discovered and loved the novels of Pascal Garnier, the French author of some decidedly bleak, black comedies of the purest noir! Having acquired a couple of them, I picked his short novel The A26 to begin my own exploration.

Set in the 1990s, this is the story of an ageing pair – brother and sister – Bernard and Yolande. Bernard works for SNCF, the French railways, and has terminal cancer. He has now finished work:

As for his boss and his colleagues, he knew he wouldn’t be seeing them again. It was no sadder than casting off an old pair of slippers. In taking leave, he had married death – that was why life had so often made him suffer. Now he would say ‘yes’ to everything, good and bad, sunshine and grey skies alike; this November afternoon it was the latter.

It’s that decision to say ‘yes’ to everything that is driving Bernard now – and for his remaining days, in doing that he will get his own back on the cards that life had dealt him. Bernard never married, he lost his love to another long ago when he had to look after Yolande.

Yolande never leaves the house. They live in gloom, for in the entire house there is only one opening on the outside world – ‘a hole made specially’ in the shutter. Yolande has never been the same since she was dragged from the house in 1945 to have her head shaved, accused of a liaison with a German. She’s a hoarder, never throwing anything away, obsessively cooking or watching the world through her pinhole…

Yolande could have been anywhere from twenty to seventy. She had the blurry texture and outlines of an old photograph. As if she were covered in a fine dust. Inside this wreck of an old woman there was a young girl.

The whole area has been blighted by the building of a new motorway, the A26, driving a swathe of mud and concrete through the land; life isn’t the same and when Bernard’s thoughts turn murderous, it provides the ideal place to dispose of things… (one is reminded of the Vogon Constructor Fleet’s mission to drive an intergalactic highway through Earth in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).

What Bernard does may be very nasty, but Garnier elicits some pathos in us for him, in the same way that John Wayne as the terminally ill gunslinger in the film The Shootist seeks to regain his dignity in death.

The A26 is just 100 pages long and we learn all we need to from Bernard and Yolande, of their lives and loves all lost. There’s no wastage in this slim volume. It’s a very black story indeed but with touches of comedy that always surprise you and a plot that keeps you guessing until the end. Translator Melanie Florence has done a splendid job to maintain the French feel.

The A26 connects Calais and Troyes to the southwest of Paris.  It is known as L’Autoroute des Anglais and I’m glad Garnier’s books have made it over the channel to us thanks to Gallic Books –  I’ve yet to read a volume from them that hasn’t delivered.  Deliciously dark, funny and complex, I’m going to have to read a lot more by Pascal Garnier. (9/10)

P.S. Title quote from ‘The Road to Hell’ by Chris Rea.

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The A26by Pascal Garnier, trans Melanie Florence. Gallic Books 2013. Paperback, 100 pages.

Looking for ‘Chap Last’

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Thinkless by Sophie McCook

Thinkless_CarouselIt’s not often that I respond to a direct request from an author to review their book, but Sophie McCook wrote me a lovely note and she and her book sounded worth investigating. Thinkless comes from small publisher Limehouse Books in London, and Sophie who is based in Scotland has written for radio, TV and a wide range of other media and productions.

Actually once I saw the book’s cover on the Limehouse website, I was won over already. What you can’t see clearly in the small version to your left is, that amongst the tousled curls of the girl are words – see the detail below:

Thinkless_MainBook2 Capricious, Fickle, Undependable, Lovelorn, Naive and Mercenary are just some of these words – and they are all used to describe the main character – not usually all at once – but certainly in multiples! Miriam Short is in a real tangle (sorry!) – we’d better meet her …

I’m of no fixed salary, abode or career. I live in the moment, which I hear is very spiritual. The trouble is, the moments keep happening. I’m one long moment.
My ex-boyfriend maintains a holding pattern around my brain. Who knows when this obsession will end? Let’s call him Chap 1. All communication between us stopped. …
This black hole in my head is gradually growing. It’s sucking in the horizon and all the time, the city heat increases. I stuff Kleenex down my bra to stop the sweat river. I don’t have a fan. I have to get out of here.

Miriam is her father’s middle child. In her late twenties, she has an older sister and a younger brother – both by different mothers. Her father is currently with ‘Wife-to-be-Number-Four’. Having recently split up with her boyfriend, she’s reliant on her successful little brother to help her out by loaning her his flat while he’s off on business for she’s jobless and broke. It’s high summer though, London is sweltering, and the break-up with Chap 1 still hurts too much. When she sees an advert for a house/cat-sitter for three months, she sees a chance to escape.

So Miriam ends up in a hamlet called Toft Monks in Norfolk, cat-sitting for Marjory, who lives with her cats and many dogs in a tiny cottage full of blue things and dog-hair near Toft Hall, the local Manor. Luckily Marjory takes the dogs with her and leaves strict instructions about the Good Cats and the Bad Cat which can never be in the house at the same time.

To cut a long story short, it’s not long before Miriam meets the inhabitants of Toft Hall. There are two brothers: Kit, who’ll charm a woman into bed in moments it seems and Wym, who looks after the Hall and farm.  Then there’s Lord Hebbindon, known as Prop, their ageing father who is more than a little touched it seems and hates his wife the Marchese … As Kit is now Chap 2 (sic), Miriam asks him about their father…

‘But why is Prop Prop?’
‘Oh his name deserves a blue plaque. When he was seven, Prop and his father went hill-walking in North Wales with Lloyd George. Young Prop was the right height for the former Prime Minister to lean his elbow on, and he was leant on all the way up the mountain. From then on, he was a Prop.’
Aww.
I lie in his arms and shuffle through my brain index card and find this situation amazing. If sex were top-trumps, I feel I’ve scored well.
‘So in general, is it better being rich or being a Lord?’
Kit jumps on me.
‘You mercenary little cow!’

Miriam may project a laddette-ish attitude, but is she a gold-digger?  She would have you believe it’s much more complicated but, as the lost middle-child of a very dysfunctional family herself all she really needs is direction and to find that Chap Last – her true love.

Of course, this is a rom-com and things will get far more complicated before they can begin to detangle (to continue the hair analogies!), especially once Miriam’s sister turns up on the scene. Eventually we’ll get to see all the main characters for who they really are – there’s not so much of a difference between them and us in this novel as you may think. Of course we hope that all’s well that ends well too but we can have a chuckle along the way!

I thoroughly enjoyed Thinkless - it’s a comedy blend akin to Jilly Cooper meets The Archers with added London sassiness. Being a South Londoner myself and having survived living in Norfolk for two years at the start of my working career, I could strongly identify with Miriam’s fish out of water situation. Living there didn’t suit me – but maybe in this novel Miriam is ready?  Great fun. (7.5/10)

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Source: Author – Thank you and good luck with the book!
To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:

Thinkless by Sophie McCook. Pub Sept 2014 by Limehouse Books, trade paperback, 288 pages.

A Weekend Miscellany…

Traghetto by Juliet Gaskell, aged 6

Traghetto. © Juliet Gaskell, 2006

Apparently it is #ArchiveDay today.  I don’t know who has designated it such – but twitter is alive with tweets to good folks’ archives – so I shall highlight my three most viewed posts since starting this blog – and an odd collection they make too:

  1. ‘Fashion! Turn to the Left. Fashion! Turn to the Right.’which comes top of the list with nearly 6,000 pageviews. In it I look at the gorgeous DK book Fashion – Ultimate book of costume and style; from 2012.
  2. Book v Movie – Salmon Fishing in the Yemen with 3,700 views. Does what it says in the title really; from 2012.
  3. 5 Brilliant Books Set in Venice. This post from 2010 is notable for featuring a drawing by my daughter saved from when she was 6. (She’s now 14!!!)

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Next: Another new book I’m really excited about reading and must make time for – Discovering Scarfolk by Richard Littler.
coverwww-scarfolk-blogspot-com
It’s a spoof 1970s tourist guide – decidedly Midwych Cuckoos meets the nuclear war leaflet Protect and Survive in one of those old Hamlyn books (see my old post here) style. My copy arrived a couple of days ago and it looks scarily well done.

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And finally – look what I got this morning at the Shippon Church book sale (open until 4pm today, on the Barrow Road between the end of Abingdon and Dalton Barracks).

A good haul for £15 don’t you think…

P1020197 (600x800)

784 pages – Was it worth taking the time to read…

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The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The_goldfinch_by_donna_tart

It’s very likely that had our bookgroup not picked this novel, that The Goldfinch would have stayed on my shelves, unread, (beside Wolf Hall and The Luminaries), for much longer.

I had to read it (well, I could have cribbed notes but didn’t), but I’m so glad I took the time to read its 784 pages in hardback, the weight of which is almost enough to give you a wrist injury propping up the book. (Shame about how they plastered the paperback cover with plaudits by the way.) So much has been written about the book that I won’t dwell on the plot, just jot some thoughts down…

Tartt is a descriptive writer – she tells you everything about a scene – she wants you to see her vision, not to have your own about what you’re reading. This leads to some very long sections – for instance: the bit where Theo is back in New York and bumps into Platt Barbour who tells him all about his father’s death; this took acres of print – much like some of the scenes in James Jones’ From Here to Eternity (which is even longer at 900+ pages) where one poker game in the latrines took over twenty pages of small type.

While Tartt’s descriptive writing is lovely and you could, if you wanted to, relish every word, it is at the expense of pace and the novel always takes a long time to get anywhere. I know a lot of you did love her long-windedness but I longed for an editor to help produce the five hundred page literary thriller that lurks underneath all those extra words. It almost feels like heresy to say it, but I felt the same way about The Secret History when I read it twenty years ago. Don’t get me wrong, I did I really enjoy reading The Goldfinch, but the middle does sag a bit plotwise and could have been tauter.

There were, however, two things about The Goldfinch that I adored – the first is Hobie.

He was six foot four or six five, at least: haggard, noble-jawed, heavy, something about him suggesting the antique photos of Irish poets and pugilists that hung in the midtown pub where my father liked to drink. His hair was mostly gray, and needed cutting, and his skin an unhealthy white, with such deep purple shadows around his eyes that it was almost as if his nose had been broken. Over his clothes, a rich paisley robe with satin lapels fell almost to his ankles and flowed massively around him, like something a leading man might wear in a 1930s movie: worn, but still impressive.

I won’t begrudge Tartt her description of Hobie for first impressions do matter! (Note she uses ‘gray’ rather than grey – very poetic.) I immediately identified Hobie as a gentle giant Ron Perlman type but with some of the growl of Tom Waits – and an ideal surrogate father for Theo. Hobie was a real gent and I loved him.

The second is Boris – an out and out scoundrel, but his heart is in the right place when he befriends Theo. They met at school in Las Vegas:

The dark-haired boy scowled and sank deeper into his seat. He reminded me of the homeless-looking kids who stood around passing cigarettes back and forth on St. Mark’s Place, comparing scars, begging for change – same torn-up clothes and scrawny white arms; same black leather bracelets tangled at the wrists. Their multi-layered complexity was a sign I couldn’t read, though the general import was clear enough: different tribe, forget about it, I’m way too cool for you, don’t even try to talk to me. Such was my mistaken first impression of the only friend I made when I was in Vegas, and – as it turned out – one of the great friends of my life.

Although nothing in this novel is ordinary, these two characters lift the narrative immensely. Theo is very much a blank canvas and these two paint his life and help him to unchain himself from the goldfinch’s perch he would otherwise end up on. (Sorry! Couldn’t resist that last sentence.)

No-one in our book group hated the novel although some, like me, wished it could have been shorter. We had extensive discussions – somewhat unusual in a book that everyone liked, but not surprising for a novel of this quality, there was universal agreement that Hobie and Boris were utterly brilliant characters.

In answer to my question at the top – was it worth taking the time to read? Emphatically, Yes! (9/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, pub Oct 2013 by Little Brown. Abacus paperback 880 pages.

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