A Busman’s Holiday …

The Maintenance of Headwayby Magnus Mills

I’ve read and loved three of Mills’s previous novels – especially All Quiet on the Orient Express, (review here).  They’re deadpan, full of black humour, and expound upon the trials and tribulations of the ordinary working man.   He’s dealt with fence installers, odd jobbers, and White Van Man; in The Maintenance of Headway he tackles bus drivers.  Mills, of course, is famous for having been a bus driver for a while, so surely he could nail his former profession?

The answer is yes, but.  Yes, life in this bus garage feels horribly real. But, it’s rather boring.  There’s only so much you can say about a particular bus route and the bus drivers that travel it, which is probably why this book is a short one.  As for the subject of the title – the fabled rather totalitarian ideal of all buses running on time and at the appropriate gaps – time-keeping is rather a dry concern.  However, I don’t remember a single instance in this story about a driver actually running on time, they prefer to run early and never late if they can help it.

That’s not to say the book is without humour, and, like Blakey in the old 1970s TV comedy On the Buses, most of the laughs are at the bus inspectors’ expense, especially when the drivers are discussing them at tea-time….

‘What Breslin attempted this morning was a form of alchemy,’ he continued. ‘If he’d have left the buses to sort themselves out they’d most probably have been back in the desired sequence after a couple of hours. Instead he tried to dispel chaos at a stroke, and as usual nobody gained. The fact is it’s almost impossible to run a proper bus service in this city. The forces ranged against you are just too numerous. I know there are cities on the continent where buses are a byword for efficiency, and people wonder why it can’t happen here. But those places are bland and featureless. Mostly they’ve been bombed flat and rebuilt from scratch; the roads are spacious and the populations obedient, rational and unselfish. Buses sweep along keeping exactly to schedule, punctual at every point from start to finish. In this city it’s different. The streets are higgledy-piggledy and narrow; there are countless quares and circuses, zebra crossings and pelicans. Go east from the arch and you’ve got twenty-three sets of traffic lights in a row. All those shops, and all those pedestrians pouring into the road. Then there are the daily incidentals: street markets, burst water mains, leaking gas pipes, diesel spillages, resurfacing works, ad hoc refuse collections, broken-down vehicles, troops on horseback, guards being changed, protest marches, royal cavalcades and presidential motorcades. Shall I go on?’

Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy this book, just not as much as the others of his I’ve read. It all seemed too real, lacking the surreal bite and sense of danger present in The Restraint of Beasts or All Quiet on the Orient Express. Maybe it was a little too much of a busman’s holiday. (6.5/10)

I am looking forward to his new novel though, A cruel bird came to the next and looked in, which sounds like a return to the surreal and is also set in a fictional empire which suggests Gulliver meets Gormenghast to me – can’t wait!

* * * * *
I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
The Maintenance of Headway Bloomsbury pbk, 160 pages.
A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked in

Advertisements

Cold war secrets the spooks can’t hide …

The Trinity Six by Charles Cumming

We know about the Cambridge Five – Philby, Burgess, Maclean, Cairncross and Blunt. What if there had been a sixth man in this spy ring?  What if that sixth man wanted to tell his story? What if his story could cause shame not just to the Russians but the British government as well? These are the questions that Charles Cumming’s exciting spy thriller seeks to answer.

Respected academic Sam Gaddis is in debt, badly. The advance for a new book would do the trick – but what can Sam, an expert on the Cold War and Russian secret service, has no idea for a new angle though. Then his best friend, journalist Charlotte Berg invites him to co-write a book with her – she has a scoop in the offing, she’ll tell him more later. But before they can get together to start thinking about the book, Charlotte dies. Was it murder? (Of course it was, but Sam doesn’t know that at first).

Sam starts to investigate from Charlotte’s papers, and before he knows it, he’s drawn into a deep web of intrigue that put him in danger. As he pieces information together, the plot takes us from London to Winchester before heading off all around Europe.  Gaddis may be a expert historian, but he is an amateur spy.  He is lucky though, and without always knowing, he manages to stay one step ahead of those who want his investigation closed down.

This is a complex story of cross and double cross in which you have to keep your wits about you. The pace doesn’t let up either, and the action easily matches the detective work to give a good balance.  Modern spycraft is well to the fore which always makes for interesting reading and was reassuringly not as over the top as in Spooks, (which I do adore).  Cumming is being rated as a successor to Le Carré, and you know, they may just be right – and I don’t mind having to read more to see if I really agree.  (8.5/10)

See also Elaine thought of it at Random Jottings.

* * * * *
My copy was supplied by Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
The Trinity Six by Charles Cumming. Harper pbk Sept 11, 416 pages.

War & Peace – without much peace, but with added Vampires…

It’s that time of year again when I like to pepper my reading with a bit of blood and gore and undead creatures.  I won’t be reading all vampires and zombies – the plan is to alternate roughly, so do come back later if the undead are not your thang!

My first book in the Transworld Book Group challenge however fits the bill perfectly to kick off Gaskella’s new … Duh-duh-daaah!…

Twelve (Danilov Quintet 1) by Jasper Kent.

I have read War and Peace, so I know a little bit about Napoleon v. General Kutozsov, the Battle of Borodino and Napoleon’s march on Moscow, and I’m sure we all know that Napoleon had to retreat and Tchaikovsky wrote the 1812 overture to commemorate it.

This military setting forms the backbone of this novel as we follow the exploits of Captain Alexei Ivanovich Danilov and his small band of officer comrades.  They work as a kind of elite force, spying on the French and using guerilla tactics to keep one step ahead. It’s hard work though – Alexei lost two fingers when he was captured in a previous campaign.

It’s not going well for the Russians, and Dmitry, nominally in charge of Alexei’s group, has taken matters into his own hands. He has engaged a band of mercenaries whom he met in the Balkans to help. He explains that they’re like the monks the Tsar once had as a bodyguard – the ‘Oprichniki’. The Balkans will act as a guerilla force to pick off a few French soldiers here and there and generally sow fear amongst them.  Dmitry explains …

‘They enjoy their work. Like any army, they live off the vanquished.’ None of us quite followed Dmitry’s meaning. ‘The spoils of war. Armies live off the gold and the food and whatever other plunder they take from the enemy.’
‘I’m not sure they’ll find enough gold with the French army to make their journey worthwhile,’ I said.
‘There are rewards other than gold,’ said Dmitry with an uncharacteristic lack of materialism. ‘They are experts at taking what the rest of us would ignore.’

They are a scary band of chaps, and they certainly go to work with relish – but then they would be, the Oprichniki are vampires.  It’s obvious from the start to us the reader what they are, but it takes Alexei some time to cotton on, and then he becomes a man with a rather different mission.

Meanwhile, in between bouts of spying on the French and haring around the place trying to catch up with his fellow officers, Alexei hangs around Moscow, where he acquires a mistress – a posh prostitute called Domnikiia. Alexei’s wife and young son remain in Petersburg – he feels little guilt though, and continued encounters with the Oprichniki give him no time to consider his position.

Then, of course, there’s a third element after the French and vampires to do battle with – the weather.  It’s winter, and a foodless, occupied Moscow is no place to hang out for humans – the vampires do OK though!

At the beginning of this book, I had wondered whether the military setting would overshadow the rest of the story, which was something I found slightly with The Officer’s Prey – a Napoleonic military detective story by Armand Cabasson I read a couple of years ago.  Twelve though, with its domestic sections in Moscow, came alive in a less soldierly fashion.

Although this book was rather long at 539 pages, and took a little while to get into, I did enjoy it.   It does have a high gore and violence count, but these vampires are the real thing – proper nasty blood-drinking, flesh-rending, sunshine hating, superhuman monsters from the borders of Europe and Asia.   Twelve in the first in a planned quintet of novels – would I read another?  Next vampire season certainly!  (7.5/10)

* * * * *
My copy was supplied by the publisher, Transworld – thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Twelve (Danilov Quintet 1)by Jasper Kent – paperback 539 pages
Thirteen Years Later (Danilov Quintet 2)
The Third Section (Danilov Quintet 3)
War and Peace (Vintage Classics) by Leo Tolstoy
The Officer’s Prey: The Napoleonic Murders by Armand Cabasson.

The name’s Bond, James Bond.

The Young Bond novels by Charlie Higson

Today, there’s a mega author event at Abingdon School’s Amey Theatre for over 600 local children – Charlie Higson, the author, actor and comedian (cough) is coming to talk to them, coinciding with the third installment of his zombie horror series, but more of that in another post…

Although I am a Bond fan, I’d not yet read any of Higson’s Young Bond series, despite having them all in my TBR.  It was time – but would I would I recognise him? Would the books live up to the Fleming legacy?

Set between the wars, the first in the series, SilverFin, tells us a little about Bond’s parents – Swiss mother, Scottish father – a globe-trotting, adventure seeking pair who die in a mountain climbing accident, leaving young Bond in the care of his aunt Charmian.

A scene-setting prologue, like in the Bond films, shows a boy getting into trouble sneaking into a fenced and guarded estate in the Highlands to poach trout in the Silverfin lake.  We don’t know if it’s Bond…

Then it shifts to the eleven year old Bond’s arrival at Eton, into an environment that will be the making of him, yet one he’ll never be entirely comfortable in.  He soon gets into trouble with one of the school bullys, George Hellebore, an American whose father owns the Silverfin estate.

When the holidays come, Bond goes to Scotland to stay with his uncle Max, who is dying of cancer.  Max and James bond (sorry!) strongly, and Max will introduce him to fishing and fast cars. Ere long though James will feel compelled to investigate strange goings on at the nearby Hellebore estate, and put his life in jeopardy when he discovers what’s going on in the castle and lake – think eels and evil scientists here. It’s a gritty story – young Bond will be bashed about a lot and need every ounce of his stamina to escape the clutches of the evil megalomaniac villain Hellebore. Although owing much to boys own type adventures, people do get hurt and die – some in particularly gruesome circumstances.

From the start, I felt I was in sure hands, because chapter one starts off:

The smell and noise and confusion of a hallway full of schoolboys can be quite awful at twenty past seven in the morning.

Which directly echoes the first Bond novel, Casino Royale, which begins:

The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.

* * * * *

The second Young Bond novel, Blood Fever moves the action to the Med – Sardinia. Bond has another uncle who lives there, and plans to spend the summer with Victor after a school archaelogical trip on the island.

When Victor and James are invited to see the dirt-phobic, self-styled Count Ugo Carnifex’s new mountain complex, complete with funicular railway and aqueduct, Bond sees artworks which are strangely familiar, and it’s not long before he’s up to his neck in trouble with Sardinian bandits, secret societies and a Magyar pirate called Zoltan.  Having less background to get through, the adventure gets going at breakneck pace and the villain’s demise is done in true Bond style.  There’s also a girl in this one – called Amy Goodenough – what a great name!  But he’s too young yet for a proper love interest.

* * * * *

The adult Bond we all know was very recognisable in the youngster – a dislike of authority, happy to go it alone, resilient. He’s built very much like a young Sean Connery too with a lock of black hair that has a tendency to escape.  The unhardened young Bond is someone you’d love to be your friend, as you know he’d stick up for you – he won’t develop his hardened veneer for years yet.  Higson also echoes Fleming in the matters of sartorial elegance, we always know how Bond is dressed, and then there are the cars – they’re the business!

I really enjoyed both of these books – I felt they lived up to my expectations very well indeed. The plots had everything you’d expect from a Bond novel, minus the innuendo and women, and they made up for that with a double dose of enthusiasm.   (SilverFin 8.5/10, Blood Fever 9/10)

* * * * *

To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
SilverFin, Blood Fever by Charlie Higson
Casino Royale by Ian Fleming

My life in my books read – the 2011 version

An updated version of the popular meme in which you answer questions using only titles from books you have read this year has started doing the rounds.  With a whole set of new questions, I couldn’t resist!  Feel free to copy, and check out  Simon T’s, and Fleur Fisher’s goes at it too…

Here are my answers with a couple of small edits to the questions in brackets.  The links are to my reviews…

One time on holiday: Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada

Weekends at my house are: Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

My neighbour is: A Greyhound of a Girl by Roddy Doyle

My boss is: Lord of the Flies by William Golding

My superhero secret identity is: The Wizard of Oz by Frank L Baum

You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry because (of): Lasting Damage by Sophie Hannah

I’d win a gold medal in: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by William Torday

I’d pay good money for: The Novel in the Viola by Natasha Solomons

If I were Prime Minister I would (be): Pure by Andrew Miller

When I don’t have good books, I (read): Everything and nothing

Loud talkers at the cinema should be: The Waste Lands by Stephen King (Dark Tower #3)

Vamped out? Book Group Report

Two months ago, we were trying to choose a book to read in August, and no-one could come up with any suggestions that met any consensus. I suggested one of the books in the latest series of the Channel 4 TV Book Club that happens to be a vampire story and a jolly good summer read, everyone said OK then.

The book in question was The Radleys by Matt Haig, which I previously reviewed here. In the pub last night, it got quite a mixed reception – but it was a good discussion!

Most of the group agreed that it was a great summer read.  Some, not knowing that it was also being marketed as a YA crossover title wondered whether it was particularly aimed at teens upwards rather than adults.

Some like me, had loved it, but there were a couple for whom it didn’t hit the mark of being original enough, being True Blood fans, they were vamped out by it. I argued that half the point was to have a comic particularly suburban British look at the entire vampire phenomenon.

We were agreed that there were some great scenes though, the whole vegetarian thing, the dinner party drinks, etc, but several found the ‘Abstainer’s Handbook’ which punctuates the chapters unfunny.  We felt that the darker softback cover (right) promised a different read to the paperback (above).  We also spent some time discussing whether the vampirism was a metaphor for drink, drugs, or a case of name your addiction.

The Radleys would make a good book choice, particularly for groups that haven’t read as many vampire novels as we have between us!

Next month:  Candide by Voltaire – you can’t say we don’t read a wide choice of titles!

* * * * *
To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
The Radleys by Matt Haig
Candide by Voltaire

A nanny state of affairs …

Everything and Nothing by Araminta Hall

I needed a quick read in between two chunky novels, and when this popped through the door the other day it was just the ticket. This debut novel has been picked up by Richard & Judy for their autumn list, and is billed as a Nanny chiller – shades of Sophie Hannah perhaps I thought?

It’s about a family trying to have it all but failing. Ruth & Christian have baggage – him from an affair that went very wrong, and not understanding his wife at all; her from not being able to totally forgive him, plus shedloads of guilt at being a working, i.e. bad in her books, mother – both are in the middle of deep mid-life crises. Their young kids are suffering too. Betty can’t sleep, and Hal won’t eat, and their parents just can’t work out what to do with them, so they get a Nanny.

Agatha comes ‘recommended’- she’s young, doesn’t mind doing some light housework and instantly gets on with both the children.  In fact she gets on so well with them, that Ruth and Christian could just let her do everything – except that does make them uneasy (phew!). Aggie also turns out to be an obsessive cleaner, the house has never looked so spick and span – she’s too perfect!

But of course she’s no Mary Poppins – Aggie has a dark side. We get little hints at the start, and as the story builds up, we find out the true and perhaps inevitable truth.  Parallel to this is the decay of Ruth and Christian’s ever more creaky marriage.  Christian’s old lover comes back on the scene, and he manages to get himself in big trouble again…

Although Aggie’s story is sad and tragic, this novel is ‘chiller-lite’. Ruth and Christian were particularly irritating and I found it hard to care about them at all, although I could sympathise with their children, especially Hal.  An assured debut, it was a quick and enjoyable read, but compared to the aforementioned Sophie Hannah, was rather predictable. I’d like to see her next novel develop some real twists if she goes the chiller route. (6.5/10)

* * * * *
My copy was sent by the publisher. Thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Everything and Nothing by Araminta Hall
Little Face by Sophie Hannah

A fabulous little modern fable…

The Tiny Wifeby Andrew Kaufman

This small but perfectly formed novella could be the wackiest thing you’ll read this year. A modern fairy tale about a bank robber that doesn’t steal money, but items of sentimental value from everyone held up.

He explains before he leaves, that those items give him 51% of everyone’s souls, and that will have ‘bizarre and strange consequences‘ in their lives, and they’ll have to learn to grow them back or die. Strange things do indeed begin to happen, and the victims meet to share their experiences, some of which are rather unsettling to say the least.

The story is recounted by the husband of Stacey, who had been in the bank.  She’d handed over her calculator on which she worked out everything – at first she thought she was just losing weight, but it soon becomes clear that Stacey is shrinking!  Will she work out how to stop it, and even reverse it, before she pops out of existence like the Incredible Shrinking Man did?

This story has a large amount of charm, which is augmented by wonderful illustrations in silhouette by Tony Percival. however it’s not all nice – parts of it are totally grim, (or should I say Grimm!).  The story is deceptively simple, yet packs the suitable moral punch that all good fairy tales need.  I will be definitely be searching out Kaufman’s previous short novel My friends are superheroes, after reading this great little book. (9/10)

My ARC came from publisher The Friday Project – thank you!

* * * * *

If you like modern fairy tales, I can also wholly recommend The Girl with Glass Feet by Ali Shaw, and Tokyo, cancelled by Rana Dasgupta.  Links below:

To explore further on Amazon, click below:
The Tiny Wife by Andrew Kaufman. Pub Sep 1, as a gift hardback, 80 pages.
All My Friends are Superheroes by Andrew Kaufman
The Girl with Glass Feet by Ali Shaw
Tokyo Cancelled by Rana Dasgupta.
Incredible Shrinking Man [DVD]

Class wars in the suburbs – just ‘champion’ …

The Champion by Tim Binding

Tim Binding is one of those authors of whom I’ve been aware for a while, and I’ve even got a couple of his books in my TBR piles, but never read any of them.  The publicity blurb for his latest published earlier this year, said ‘The Champion pulsates with black humour and wit, and will find appeal amongst fans of Jonathan Coe.‘ Well, I am one of those, so I hoped for a great read – and I wasn’t disappointed.

The Champion is a tale of class war, greed and ambition, and what happens when small town life gets disturbed.

The main characters are two men, and a girl.  Charles Pemberton is the product of a posh middle class family. His father is a local bigwig, they have a big house, and Charles went to the top school. His parents always hoped he’d marry someone like Sophie Marchand, but Charles is rather quiet and a bit introverted, and Sophie is a bit of a live wire.  Still they can hope. One day a new pupil arrives.

We knew he’d make it, and when he did, we drank to our own success as much as his. He’d done it all in our names, and though we understood he would be leaving, as leave he must, we bathed in the certain knowledge that he’d be carrying something of ourselves with him, just as there would be a trace of himself left behind. Like the scene of any crime.

Clark Rossiter is known as ‘Large’, his family aren’t old money, he’s a working class boy with big ambition and a huge personality.  He builds a crew around him, and Charlie is roped in on the outside. Naturally Sophie gravitates to Large, and Charles is left watching. School ends. Large goes off to work in the City. Charles starts to study law, but realises it’s not for him, and he becomes a chartered accountant, much to his father’s disgust, and settles down for a quiet single life.

Some time later, Large returns.  He’s made his money in the City. He has plans to revolutionise the Care Home industry, and he’s going to start it in the town of his alma mater, and Charles is to be his accountant.  Large, or Clark as he now wishes to be known, has everyone eating from the palm of his hand, his magnetic personality charms them all, but underneath he’s ruthless, and greedy, and wants to get one-up on the middle classes, including all his former friends.  Charles, initially gets sucked in by all his bravado, but he realises that sooner or later, Large will fall – and he is not going to be treated like a faithful dog any more.

I know I shouldn’t have, but I couldn’t help liking the larger than life Clark either. He was such an elemental force of life in this novel and breathed life into the town. I couldn’t help but picture him as Philip Seymour Hoffman in full charm mode by the way.  However, as Sophie was to find, a little of such a personality goes a long way, and he was rather overpowering on full-time exposure. Charles, meanwhile is so repressed, that even while I could feel a lot of sympathy for his mother, who had many trials to overcome in this story, that didn’t transfer to her son.  He was set up as the boring, introverted accountant, whose veneer finally cracks and he gets his own back.  The roles of hero and villain got flipped between Clark and Charles and you wondered who would come out on top in the end.

Large rather reminded me of Dougal Douglas in Muriel Spark’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye, in which a young man arrives in a slightly posh bit of South London, stirs things up rather devilishly bringing this staid bit of town to life, and then disappears.  A similar black comedy, but Binding’s style is more expansive than Spark’s sparseness.  The Champion is not without sad moments and tragedy which widen the dramatic depth. The entire story is recounted by Charles, who looks back wistfully on this period of his life – one senses that he wouldn’t have missed it for the world, but is rather relieved that it’s over.

If you like contemporary English black comedies, this could be a novel for you. I really enjoyed it and want to read more Tim Binding. (9/10)

* * * * *
I got my copy through the Amazon Vine programme.  To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
The Champion by Tim Binding
The Terrible Privacy Of Maxwell Sim by Jonathan Coe
The Ballad of Peckham Rye (Penguin Modern Classics) by Muriel Spark