The return of everyone’s flying car

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again by Frank Cottrell Boyce

When Mr Tooting is made redundant, he decides he needs a project and, with son Jem’s help, they rebuild an ancient old camper van. Then the plan is to go globe-trotting in it. It needs new vintage sparkplugs though despite all their travails. Off they go to a special scrap yard, where they find a different rather large engine old instead.  Fitted successfully, they set off for France – Mum has always wanted to visit Paris however, it soon becomes clear that the new engine has a mind of its own. Before they know it they’re flying and they land on the top of the Eiffel Tower, causing a sensation – Ooh la la!

This is the first adventure on a whirlwind tour that will take in more sights and an encounter with a nasty Nanny and her charge, but one thing is for certain – the engine is in control for Chitty is searching for her missing parts.

This is a splendidly visual story for children from 8 or 9 upwards, made more so by great illustrations by Joe Berger accompanying the text.  There is no need to have read Ian Fleming’s original story (I haven’t), or to have seen the 1968 film scripted by Roald Dahl, (which differs significantly from the book). The members of the Tooting family are all recognisable types: The Dad who always has a plan; the calming Mum; the Goth but brainy teenager daughter; the gadget mad son; the perceptive but he’s too young to recognise it toddler.

In a nice touch of authenticity, Boyce has gone back to the origins of Fleming’s inspirations for Chitty – a series of aero-engined cars designed in the 1920s by Count Louis Zborowski.  The Tootings live in Zborowski Drive, and his name crops up all over the place as Chitty is rebuilt.

I must admit that as an adult, I preferred the build-up to their later troubles, but children will love it. (6.5/10)

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My copy was supplied by Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again by Frank Cottrell Boyce

Book Stats – Review of 2011

I told you about my Books of the Year a few weeks ago here, but another thing I like to do at the end of the year is compare my reading stats. Being an inveterate list-maker and cataloguer this always appeals to me, and actually I’ve had a different type of reading year in 2011 compared to the couple before.

Firstly, I read less books:  This year, at the time of writing, I’ve read 93 books, whereas in the previous years I topped the century with 106 and 114 in 2009.

I did read more pages though in 2012 – beating 2010’s 26k with a whopping total of over 29,000 pages read.  I’ll admit that 2100 of those were the first four books in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series (and I’ve still got around 2000 to go to complete it!). A further 1650 were the four Charlie Higson books for older kids that I devoured (and loved) in preparation for meeting and interviewing him back in September. This was the first year I’ve read more than two books by individual authors.

I’m going to talk about my TBR piles in another post, but there are a few other memos to self that I can note:

  • This year I read a lot more books by men – nearly 70% versus 55% last year – not a conscious decision – just the way it went.
  • I continued to try to read more books published before I was born (1960 in case you wondered), and the number is creeping up – 15  versus 13  and 9 in years before – here’s to reading even more ‘old’ books in 2012.
  • I read very little Non-fiction indeed in 2011, something I blogged about here.
  • I read a similar number of books in translation, 10 this year.
  • The lure of the shiny new title continues to do its work – again, around a third of the books I read were published this year.
  • In terms of genres, what I’d broadly describe as contemporary fiction dominated as usual, but I read a good sprinkling of crime, classics, modern classics, YA/children’s fiction and SF/dystopian/spec fiction, plus my first graphic novel.
  • … and finally…  Less vampires this year, but more zombies!  Ho, Ho, Ho.

I’d love to know how your reading year shaped up.

Spying is a dirty game …

The Envoy by Edward Wilson

A few weeks ago I got an e-mail from Edward Wilson inviting me to a signing he was doing in Ipswich.  I replied saying that Oxford was too far for me to come, but wished him well with his new book. I also told him that I had one of his titles on my shelves. He replied apologising saying he had thought I lived in Colchester – then the penny dropped – he’d mixed me up with Elaine at Random Jottings – who is also partial to spy thrillers.  I decided to read the book I already had anyway …

It’s the 1950s and the Cold War is at its height.  Kit Fournier is the CIA Chief of Station in London. He is a seasoned spy, having served in OSS in Vietnam, then as a diplomat in France, before moving to the dark side so to speak. Now his life is devoted to information and manipulation – sifting through it all to get to the truth and then filtering or doctoring it appropriately onwards towards his bosses and contacts – one of whom is his Russian KGB counterpart, Vasili. They chat at a diplomatic function …

‘Have you heard,’ said Vasili, ‘the one about my friend Boris?’
‘Boris hasn’t been feeling very well lately – and he’s been making some mistakes, so he’s called back to Dzerzhinsky Square to see the chief. The chief says, ‘How are you feeling, Boris?’ Boris says, ‘To be honest, I’m not feeling too good today.’ ‘Well Boris,’ says the chief, ‘would you like to hear the good news?’ ‘Yes,’ says Boris, ‘what’s the good news?’ ‘The good news, Boris, is that you feel better today than you will tomorrow.’

As Wilson writes, ‘The tightrope that Vasili walked didn’t have a safety net.’

Meanwhile Anglo-US relations are difficult, especially since Burgess and MacLean. The US Chief of Staff thinks that the British are trying to play above their position in the new world order in which they’re an empire no longer. It is rumoured that the British want an H-bomb of their own, and there is much covert activity in Suffolk at Orford Ness. Then there is a visiting Soviet warship that hides new technology under its waterline that the Brits want to see – they plan to send in a diver. The US would rather scupper this and damage GB-Russo relations and show them who’s in charge – this operation is Kit’s.

There is also a love interest.  Kit is desperately in love with his cousin Jennifer, who happens to be married to one of the scientists at Orford Ness. He should know better, but can’t help himself, he would do anything for her – not a good situation for a spy.  Kit is a conflicted and cynical man, in his personal life as well as at work.  His whole life is effectively a sham, the job is a love-hate relationship that is moving ever towards hate.

The next day Kit’s secretary passed on a strange message, Someone had rung from a phone box claiming to be Kit’s ‘spiritual adviser’ and recommending him to meet ‘at the customary place’ at ‘the customary time’. At half past three, Kit left the embassy and hailed a black taxi. He thought about telling the driver to take him straight to the rendevous point, but then he remembered what had happened the previous evening. He was weary of counter-surveillance games and all the other puerile spy games. But he had to continue playing them because he was trapped in a deadly adult playground from which there was no escape. Kit told the taxi driver to take him to Harrods. The store with its many entrances and exits was one of the best places in London to shake off a tail. And then from Harrods, a quick hop on the Underground to South Kensington.

The detailed descriptions of the spy’s tradecraft are one of this book’s real high points. Dead letter drops, coded messages, shaking tails, clandestine meetings – they all feel authentic.  Wilson, who was in the US special forces knows his stuff. Equally, the scenes set in Suffolk, where the author, a naturalised Brit lives, are evocative of this tranquil county.

Like Kit, the plot is richly complex, you’re never quite sure who’s exploiting whom. The first half lays out all the groundwork in a leisurely fashion, then in the second it unfolds with precise timing to a surprising denouement that appears to come out of left field, yet is totally consistent with what has gone before.  The world of spies portrayed is endlessly fascinating, and utterly devoid of good intention. No wonder Kit has been corrupted by it.

While I don’t think the writing in this novel is as good as Le Carré – the minor characters are rather one-dimensional on the whole, and some of the dialogue is a little stilted, the story however, is sophisticated and page-turning. I would definitely read more spy novels by this author.  (8/10)

Moviewatch – Arthur Christmas

“So what would you like to see?”, I asked my daughter. “What’s on?”, she replied.
I reeled off the list at the multiplex fully expecting her to pick ‘Alvin & the Chipmunks 3’, but secretly hoping that the one I really wanted to see might be acceptable. (My choice was Martin Scorsese’s ‘Hugo’ – which sounds as good as the book, which I reviewed here.)

She didn’t pick either of those, plumping for the latest creation from the wonderful Aardman stable – Arthur Christmas. A great compromise …

How can Father Christmas deliver everyone’s presents in one night?
What happens if you don’t have a chimney?

These are just two of the questions that every child asks and this fun film shows how it can be done.  The Christmas dynasty has been delivering the presents for hundreds of years.  The current Santa is getting old, and his oldest son Steve masterminds the operation, running things with ultra high-tech military precision from a huge control centre built under the North Pole. There’s no more need for a traditional sleigh, fairy dust and reindeer, instead the S1 spaceship (sled-shaped but straight out of Star Trek) warps around the world, with crack SWAT-like teams of elves delivering the majority of the the presents, leaving Santa as a figurehead who just makes a few symbolic deliveries.

It all goes like clockwork, until one child gets missed – Gasp! Horror!  Steve is unconcerned – his stats are wonderful. But for his younger brother Arthur, who is gawky and clumsy, and works in the letters department, this is unacceptable.  He vows to deliver the present, and together with Grandsanta and a stowaway elf called Bryony, they set out on Grandsanta’s mothballed sleigh for the character-building adventure of a … night-time to save the day.

It was a lovely film. It totally reinforced all the messages about Father Christmas, and that Christmas is for children, that technology isn’t everything and there’s a place for tradition.

It did get lost slightly (literally) in the middle, when Grandsanta took them to Africa with his old maps, but found its way again with ease, only for a silly UFO side-plot to get in the way during the last reel. These are minor quibbles though.

There were tons of in-jokes and references for grown-ups as you’d expect from Aardman, and the British cast of voices was top-notch.  The chameleon voiced James McAvoy was Arthur, Hugh Lawrie was a great Steve, the ever-wonderful Bill Nighy was a brilliant and crotchety Grandsanta, and then there’s Jim Broadbent – well I couldn’t pick anyone better to play Santa.

The whole looked great and the 3D had some good moments, and you left the cinema with a smile.  An ideal family Christmas movie. (7.5/10)

What is normal anyway?

Sherry Cracker Gets Normal by D J Connell

Sherry Cracker is not a normal girl – she’s a loner, loves tartan trousers, facts, and obsessively documents all the graffiti she sees around her town in her ‘OBSERVATIONS’ file. She works for Chinese businessman Mr Chin, in an office above the closed-down cinema, where they buy used gold from dentists. Sherry is an innocent, probably mildly autistic, and takes life very literally. She has lived alone in a bedsit since her mother abandoned her six months ago.

There are strange things going on in her town – not least all the strange graffiti. The Council elections are at the weekend, and the two candidates couldn’t be more different. Roger Bottle is a rabid expansionist and control-freak fan of CCTV, whereas his opponent Warren Crumpet is campaigning on an anti-corruption ticket.

On Friday afternoon, Mr Chin shuts up shop. He tells Sherry that she is abnormal, and gives her the weekend and £100 to get normal if she wants to keep her job on the Monday. Sherry is confused, but takes him very seriously, and sets off on a personal journey that will see her consult a variety of so-called experts that are anything but; meet, converse, get misunderstood and sometimes threatened by some of the town’s more unsavoury characters; and take her part in the election.

However, it is the two friends that she makes that will define her future.   Nigel is a  young runaway and mischief-maker.  His ghastly parents and half the town including Big Trish the WPC are out looking for the ‘Little Bastard’, but Sherry takes pity on him.  Then, in the park she meets Jocelyn de Foisgras, a gentleman alcoholic who wears make-up, perfume and a  fuchsia-coloured greatcoat, and has a  Chihuahua called Herb Alpert.  She goes with Jocelyn, who is suffering badly from withdrawal, to his house for a cup of tea…

Jocelyn lived on Des O’Connor Crescent in a house my mother would have described as palatial before criticising it as showy. …

Jocelyn’s pipes stopped rattling overhead as I arranged a selection of biscuits on a tray with the teapot and matching floral cups. I was carrying it into the parlour when he appeared through the other door. He had changed into rose-coloured satin pyjamas and a burgundy robe.  On his feet were burgundy slippers with a white faux-fur trim. He looked fresher and happier. His eyes were shining and his face had been washed and redusted with powder and blusher.

With the aid of her friends, Sherry has a weekend to remember – full of adventure, self-discovery, and peril too thanks to a robbery side-plot.  Normality, she finds, is not all it’s cracked up to be. You can’t help but warm to her.

Each of the characters, Sherry included, is a different stereotype – It does feel a bit like the author has made a list and shoe-horned them all in.  The star is of course Jocelyn – the ageing gay alcoholic dandy.  He is a true gentleman though and takes all of life’s knocks with elegance and dignity.  Mr Chin also fits the bill as a rotund Chinaman who speaks in philosophical Yoda-speak.   Artful Dodger Nigel, his chav parents, the burly WPC, assorted ‘therapists’ and psychics, etc etc etc – they’re all there too.  Seen through Sherry’s eyes, her town is a depressing place to be, no wonder everyone is crackers, and stuck in what feels like the 1970s.

Beneath this darkly comic suburban hinterland, there is hope though – could a happy ending be on the cards?  Although there were a good few chuckles, I didn’t consider this book to be a true comic novel – it was trying too hard. Despite being chock full of obvious stereotypes, (but often comic novels are…?), I was broadly entertained; (unlike Sam Jordison in the Guardian, who found the character types just too ‘toxic’!). (6.5/10)

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My copy was kindly supplied by the publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Sherry Cracker Gets Normal by D J Connell – Pub July 2011,  Blue Door (Harper Collins), Trade paperback, 284 pages.

My Day in Books

I found this meme which was started by Karen at Cornflower Books via Simon T at Stuck in a Book. Just complete the story with titles of books you have read this year. This was fun – so do feel free to have a go yourself…


I began the day with The Fatal Eggs

On my way to work I saw Snowdrops

and walked by Rivers of London

to avoid The Ministry of Pandaemonium,

but I made sure to stop at Jamrach’s Menagerie.

In the office, my boss said, “Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion?

and sent me to research Salmon fishing in the Yemen.

At lunch with Zazie in the Metro

I noticed The tiny wife

under The cabinet of curiosities

then went back to my desk, In the country of men.

Later, on the journey home, I bought Half of a yellow sun

because I have Carte blanche.

Then settling down for the evening, I picked up The rules of engagement

and studied The facility

before saying goodnight to God’s own country.

Cuddle up with a cosy mystery

Death of a Cad by M C Beaton.

Now that the weather is cold and frosty, what better type of book to huddle down with than a cosy mystery from M C Beaton. I did exactly this yesterday in between preparations for Christmas with the second in her Hamish Macbeth series set in the Highlands. Having loved the TV series some years ago, I read the first book last year (review here).

The fictional village of Lochdubh is obviously a hotbed of murder – the first book involved deadly goings-on during a fly-fishing course; the second, death over a bet about who gets the first grouse on the ‘Glorious Twelfth’ (of August, the first day of the grouse-shooting season).

So we are introduced to the Halburton-Smythes who are hosting a house party to celebrate the engagement of their daughter Priscilla to the successful playwright Henry Withering.  All the other Highland aristos and regimental cronies are queueing up to be invited, including Captain Peter Bartlett – who has an eye for the ladies and a reputation as a bit of a chancer and sponger to match.  He makes the bet with another guest, manages to upset half the room and ends up dead for his troubles.

Cue Hamish, who has long been a friend (and admirer) of Priscilla’s, to step in and solve the mystery with his expertise in shooting, big family contacts book, and calm way of investigating.

Naturally his DI tries to muscle in, but after his city ways upset the country gentry, Hamish is back on the case in a double act with the DCI, smoothing over the situation and teasing out the truth from all the obfuscation.

Hamish’s methods of policing work perfectly in the village. He acts mainly by deterrent with poachers and the like, rather than arresting them. For all of his laid-back approach he’s keenly observant and good at reading people, and shamelessly works by mutual back-scratching to get his killer.

These books are great fun, easy reads and well-plotted – plus they’re set in an irresistible location. (8.5/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Death of a Cad (Hamish Macbeth 2) by MC Beaton
Hamish Macbeth – TV series 1-3 (DVD) starring Robert Carlyle

I never knew policing in London could be this much fun! …

Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch
OK – Let me nail my colours to the mast… I was born and bred in Purley, Surrey, on the edge of London suburbia; yes, that Purley – ‘nudge, nudge, wink, wink, say no more’.  I later studied at Imperial College in Kensington, and I know there and London’s West End really well.

So, when a police procedural novel comes along that mentions tackling a nest of vampires in Purley, strange acts of violence in Covent Garden, and a Chief Inspector who is the last wizard in England, I was hooked before I had even read a page.  Luckily for me, it was a brilliant and hilarious, wonderfully inventive, and literally the most fun I’ve had reading all year.

Before I tell you a little bit more about the book, I’d like to dispel any preconceived ideas you have of this being a fantasy, it’s definitely a crime novel – a proper police procedural, but with a magical component.  There’s less overt spell-casting than in the Dresden Files books for instance, but there is loads of internal magic, auras, glamours, if you like, and the echoes or vestigium it leaves behind.

PC Peter Grant and WPC Lesley May are rookie police officers in London’s Metropolitan Police  One night, a rather gruesome murder happens in Covent Garden, and they get assigned the graveyard shift to guard the area once the body has been removed.  Lesley goes to get coffee, and Peter is left on his own – when he sees a ghost, who tells him some of what happened earlier that night.

This encounter is to change his life forever.  He and Lesley are waiting to hear their postings, and Grant was previously destined for the ‘Case progression unit’ – a boring deskjob, whereas Lesley strikes lucky, being assigned to the murder squad. However, after he goes back to find the ghost again, he meets Chief Inspector Nightingale who needs an apprentice, and Peter’s career path is now set.

Nightingale, a gentleman of indeterminate age, begins to teach Peter about magic – it will take ten years to become a full wizard.  In between learning how to make and control werefire, and better sense vestigium, they investigate this series of violent events, liaising with the Murder team run by DCI Seawoll, whom Lesley now works for.  Despite most of the Met not knowing that Nightingale’s department exists, Seawoll has a grudging respect, although he doesn’t allow it to get in his way.

One day, Nightingale let’s Grant drive his Jag, (yes!), and off they head into South London taking a route I know very well …

I took us across Lambeth Bridge. Weekday traffic in London is always bad, and we stop-started all the way past the Oval, through Brixton and on to Streatham. Further beyond, we were into the south London suburbs, hectares of Edwardian two-storey terraced housing interspersed with interchangeable high streets. Occasionally we passed irregular rectangles of green space, the remnants of ancient villages that had grown together like spots of mould on a Petri dish.
The A23 morphed into Purley Way, and we passed a pair of tall chimneys crowned with the IKEA logo. Next stop was Purley, famous place, Purley, know what I mean?

Then there’s the feud to sort out between Mother and Father Thames. Father Thames’s domain goes from the source to Teddington Lock where the river becomes tidal, then Mother Thames ‘owns’ the river to the sea.  They, and all the tributaries of the great river are personified as gods and godesses, feisty river spirits, but also like two gangs who rub each other up the wrong way. Nightingale sends the novice Grant in to mediate.

Between all the seriousness of the plot and the real policing that does get done,  there is a rich vein of comedy to be mined.  The institution of the police force with its foolish senior officers, love of silly acronyms, and departmental rivalries, plus Peter’s never-ending quest to get into Lesley’s pants are hilarious.

Nightingale is a wonderful character – typically Holmesian. Our narrator, Grant, is more of a character in waiting; although cast in the Watson role, he is but a mere callow youth and yet to come into his own. I also liked DCI Seawoll, who has to find methods of portraying phenomena caused by magic as non-magical to avoid scaring the public.

Obviously you don’t have to know London to like this book, but the details of the city really added something for me as I could vividly picture them, (including the location of that Purley vampires nest, which was the other side of the railway to where I lived – phew!).

Where the book really succeeds is in placing the real policing at the fore, and then having fun with it, creating another world that exists alongside our mundane non-magical one.  Loved it, and the sequel Moon over Soho is now out too – Yippee! (9/10)

For some other takes on this book, see Gav Reads and David H.

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I bought my book – to explore further at Amazon UK, click below:
Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch, Gollancz paperback, 432 pages.
Moon over Soho – Book 2 in the series, paperback out now.

Book Group Report – In search of dragons …

Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch

This story of young Jaffy Brown and his adventures, starting with an encounter with an escaped tiger, was another really good book group choice.  We all throroughly enjoyed this impeccably researched and ultimately rather gory tale of exploration and shipwreck in Victorian times.

The Guardian’s review of the book tells a little more about Jamrach himself – for he was based upon a real person; also some of his customers… the artist Rosetti bought a wombat from him for instance, which I do remember reading before somewhere.

After he meets the tiger, Jaffy goes to work for Mr Jamrach, an animal dealer, and learns the business starting with mucking out, under the watchful and sometimes bullying eye of Jamrach’s other apprentice Tim Linver. Tim will become like a surrogate older brother to Jaffy, and Jaffy will fall for his sister. We all loved this section of the book which brought the very Dickensian East End of London to life vividly. Although his animals were kept in, by our modern standards, cramped conditions, Jamrach came across as paternal to them and his lads, but was obviously a shrewd operator too.

All too soon this part of the story ended, as Tim, and then Jaffy, sign on as crew for a three year voyage which will search for dragons in the East Indies on a whaling ship.  Our book group’s Christmas read last year was Moby Dick, and Birch’s novel certainly rivals Melville’s in its adventure and tragedy on the high seas.  Indeed, both stories were inspired by the true story of the whaling ship, the Essex which was sunk by a sperm whale in 1820, and the ordeal of its survivors.

The crew of Birch’s Lysander come to life too, from gruff Dan to madman Skip and the slightly aloof captain, whose name escapes me (having lent the book out);  Jaffy and Tim soon slot into the crew.  When the going is good, life is very good for the sailors, but when things turn bad – well … you know what happens.

All of our group would have liked to know more about Jamrach himself, he is really only a titular presence.  We would have been fascinated to hear more about how he got into the business and where his animals came from (apart from the komodo ‘dragons’ that is).  That would have made a rather long book though.  Jaffy’s coming of age is not a conventional story, but has a fitting conclusion, although you can never take the sea out of a sailor … We’d recommend it as a book group read. (8.5/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch (60% off the paperback at time of writing!)
Moby Dick by Herman Melville