A “perfick” entertainment…

It’s not often that you can successfully combine a phrase and idea from a Shakespeare sonnet – number 18 as it happens. You know the one that begins:

“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:”

… with the sort of family that TV’s Del and Rodney Trotter from Only Fools and Horses would be proud to be descended from – and make a big-hearted comedic story that really works! Well, that’s what H.E.Bates did in his 1958 novel The Darling Buds of May.

The Shakespearean title refers to the Kent countryside at the start of the fruit-picking season, and there’s more Shakespearean resonance in the central family of the book who could be picked straight from the ‘rude mechanicals’ of A Midsummer Night’s Dream

The Larkins are a big family with a lust for life, and a flair for wheeling and dealing – they could be the Trotter’s country cousins, which brings me back to the TV. For you see, Del Trotter, Peckham wide-boy, was played by David Jason for over a decade from the early 1980s. In the 1990s he went on to play Pop Larkin in a TV adaptation of The Darling Buds, (which also featured a young Catherine Zeta Jones).

I didn’t watch the TV adaptation, I only caught little snatches of it. Call me a snob, but in those days I watched little TV on the commercial channels! I probably missed a gem, for when reading this book, it was David Jason, Pam Ferris, Catherine Z-J and Philip Franks I visualised as Bates’s main characters –  and I was delighted to find that they didn’t jar at all!  They were actually pretty close to the versions in the Beryl Cook painting on the cover of my paperback – which actually came after the TV series. But now on to the book itself…

‘Perfick wevver! You kids alright in the back there? Ma, hitch up a bit!’
Ma, in her salmon jumper, was almost two yards wide.
‘I said you kids alright in there?’
‘How do you think they can hear,’ Ma said, ‘with you revving up all the time?’
Pop laughed again and let the engine idle. The strong May sunlight, the first hot sun of the year, made the bonnet of the truck gleam like brilliant blue enamel. All down the road, winding through the valley, miles of pink apple orchards were in late bloom, showing petals like light confetti.

Scene set, we’re introduced to the Larkins, all tucking in to huge ice-creams and bowling their way home.  They have six children, five girls and a boy – all with idiosyncratic names.  They live in what could only be described as almost a rural idyll – a big cottage with bluebell wood, stream, chickens scratching in the yard – and a muddy scrapyard on the side.

Their eldest child, Mariette was named for Marie Antoinette, but Pop thought that was too long, so they shortened it.  Mariette thinks she’s pregnant, but her parents don’t seem too bothered about it, although it’s soon obvious they’d like to get her paired off as soon as possible. An opportunity soon presents itself with the arrival of the taxman!

Mr Charlton, a young and impressionable civil servant sent to get Pop to fill in his tax return, is instantly smitten by Mariette. Pop will do anything to avoid paying any tax, and he, Ma and Mariette turn on the charm offensive big-time, wooing Charley, and before he knows it, he’s virtually part of the family.

This central story is interwoven with many sketches from the Larkin’s lives – fruit picking, Pop doing a deal on an old Rolls Royce, Pop saving the local gymkhana by offering his field for it, more shenanigans with the neighbours, and, all through the book is Ma – loving her kitchen and producing huge mountains of food for everyone. Ma and Pop regard their brood with great pleasure, and their relationship is rock solid, earthy and loving …

A moment later she turned to reach from a cupboard a new tin of salt and Pop, watching her upstretched figure as it revealed portions of enormous calves, suddenly felt a startling twinge of excitement in his veins. He immediately grasped Ma by the bosom and started squeezing her. Ma pretended to protest, giggling at the same time, but Pop continued to fondle her with immense, experienced enthusiasm, until finally she turned, yielded the great continent of her body to him and let him kiss her full on her soft big mouth.

The Larkins are irresistible and irrepressible! It was lovely too to see Mr Charlton gradually lose his inhibitions and join the gang who were never going to take no for an answer.

In keeping with the book’s Shakespearean roots, the Larkins are all nature-lovers. They all know, however, that the chickens in the yard will end up on the table sooner or later, they’ll have had a good life though.

This short book was absolutely charming, full of good humour with some sparkling dialogue.  It’s a top class gentle comedy, and the good news is that Bates wrote five Larkins novels, so I’ve got four more to look forward to, as I fell in love with this cheeky family. (10/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
The Darling Buds of May by HE Bates. Penguin paperback 160 pages.
The Darling Buds of May

“Fashion! Turn to the left. Fashion! Turn to the right…”

Fashionby DK

When I was a young girl, my mother bought me a series of historical colouring books of fashion through the ages. I adored these books, and armed with my Caran d’Ache Swiss watercolour pencils, I spent hours devising colour schemes for the costumes.  I then designed my own versions of the outfits for numerous cut-out dolls.  These colouring books were my primary source, backed up with the newspaper colour supplements at the weekends.

I would have killed for a book like DK’s new one-stop fashion bible back then.  When I opened the rather large box this book came in, and saw the pink flocking on the cover and spine, I thought ‘Wow!’ before even opening it. Then I opened it and thought double-wow!

From what the fashion-conscious caveman wore right through to the latest catwalk designs, the whole history of the world of fashion and costume is here.

You expect quality from a DK reference book, and I was not disappointed.  Introduced by Caryn Franklin (whom I’ve always admired), the volume is chronologically presented, with summary timelines for each period, then features analysing the main trends in womenswear and menswear. The twentieth century rightly gets over half of the book, but it’s not all haute-couture. Working clothes, sporting apparel, the rise of blue-jeans are all included, alongside the Hollywood glamour and designer wares.

At the back is a reference section with an extensive glossary, and information on national costumes, plus double-page spreads on the evolution of accessories. It is fascinating to see how often fashion looks back to history to move itself forward.

While I have no interest (or the physique) in being a clothes-horse for any fashion myself – the history of costume is always interesting from afar. My twelve year old daughter and I are going to enjoy this book – it won’t move from the coffee table until at least the New Year and will get pawed/pored over frequently. I’d recommend it strongly too as a great present idea, (for those of you who have started Chr*****s shopping already).  10/10

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I received a review copy of this book courtesy of Amazon Vine. To explore further, please click below:
Fashionby DK, pub Sept 2012, Hardback 480 pages. RRP £30.
Caran D’ache Prismalo Aquarelle Colour Pencil – Assorted (Pack of 18)

London lives

NWby Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith’s fourth novel, about the intersecting lives of a group of North Londoners, was one of the big publishing events of the late summer. Many other bloggers managed to read and review it much nearer its publication date – see Just William’s LuckAsylum and Words of Mercury for some eloquent posts.

Although I really hail from the Surrey borders, growing up in and around Croydon and then university in London means I consider myself more of a south, or sarf if you will, Londoner. Smith’s book may be set geographically in Willesden to the NW of the city, but as a community, it shares many of its attributes with other similar neighbourhoods around the capital: ethnically diverse, large high-rise estates, but gentrifying in certain quarters.  One thing though, the inhabitants of NW don’t go south” if they can help it!

NW is really the stories of two childhood friends: Leah and Keisha (who changes her name to Natalie. In between their lives are shorter sections about Felix and Nathan, before a final short section that brings everything together at carnival weekend.

Leah’s story is first. She’s of Irish descent – a product of the Caldwell estate. She’s married to Michel, a French-African and they have a nice flat in one of the houses outside the estate, no children – yet.

Question: what happened to her classmates, those keen young graduates, most of them men? Bankers, lawyers. Meanwhile Leah, a state-school wild card, with no Latin, no Greek, no maths, no foreign language, did badly – by the standards of the day – and now sits on a replacement chair borrowed six years ago from the break room, just flooded with empathy. Right foot asleep. Computer screen frozen. IT nowhere to be seen. No air-conditioning. Adina going on and on, doing that thing to language that she does.

… What was the point of it all? Three years of useless study. Out of pocket, out of her depth. … Philosophy is learning how to die. Philosophy is listening to warbling posh boys, it is being more bored than you ever have been in your life, more bored than you thought it possible to be. … Out of her mouth: a two-syllable packing company Socrates, a three-syllable cleaning fluid Antigone. Never, never forgotten: the bastard in that first class, sniggering. I AM SO FULL OF EMPATHY, Leah writes, and doodles passionately around it. Great fiery arcs, long pointed shadows.

From the above quotes, you may surmise that Leah is rather unsatisfied with her life, yet she actually enjoys not being a high-flyer.

Her mother Pauline still lives on the estate, a volatile Irishwoman who knows everyone and never stops talking. Leah and Pauline are out and about and they bump into Nathan. He was at school with Leah, and Pauline introduces them again, and Leah remembers…

He smiles shyly at Leah. Aged ten he had a smile! Nathan Bogle: the very definition of desire for girls who had previously only felt that way about certain fragrant erasers.

The structure of this section is intermittently experimental – featuring occasional shaped passages of text – a tree-shaped page – about an apple tree; a mouth-shaped one about Leah’s boss Adina who talks too much. They’re novelties though, distracting from the real story which progresses through Leah’s thoughts and conversations. The dialogue is cracking though – particularly Leah and her mum talking at each other, quite typical mother and daughter verbal badinage.

In the second section, we follow one day in the life of Felix, a young man who is venturing into the West End to make a deal on a car. On the way home he calls in on a girlfriend intending to break it off although it doesn’t go as Felix plans. Although Annie is totally messed up, she has a spark which makes her interesting.

Onwards to Keisha. We get her whole life story told in chronological bitesize chunks. She and Leah are bonded by an ‘event’  – she saved Leah from drowning in the paddling pool when they were four.  As Keisha’s life moves forward, she works hard at school, changes her name to a less ethnic one – Natalie and ultimately becomes a highly successful lawyer, with a rich Italian husband and two children. She has it all, but it doesn’t make her happy.

In fact, the moments of happiness are few and far between in this novel. Everyone was skirting about their relationships, afraid of trying hard enough to make them last, and confused about the role of being a parent. I found it rather sad – and realistic.  What did make it come alive though, as I’ve already mentioned, was the dialogue. It was full of natural wit, funny and sharp when it needed to be, and, to quote Catherine Tate’s TV character Lauren, had a dose of ‘whatever’.

For me, NW didn’t need the different styles to the sections; the changing lead characters gave sufficient focus. This was the first novel by Smith that I have read – I enjoyed it, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. (8/10)

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My copy was kindly supplied by the publisher. Thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:

NWby Zadie Smith. Published by Hamish Hamilton, Aug 2012. Hardback 304 pages.

A souvenir of the Cultural Olympics

Alongside the sporting Olympics this summer was a Cultural Olympiad – with all kinds of arty events all over the country which included Nowhereisland – which was an art installation of a small island – dragged down by tug from Svalbard to the South West of England arriving in Weymouth for the sailing competitions.

During its travel in international waters it took the opportunity to become a new nation, and opened up an roving embassy where visitors could sign up to become citizens!

As I wasn’t going to get to see it,  I signed up online for a bit of fun.

At the beginning of September Nowhereisland was dismantled, and distributed to those of its 23,000 or so  citizens who wanted to own some of the island – for  free, (well just the P&P).  Wny not I thought …

My chunk arrived today and I am delighted with my unique Olympic souvenir. I love the ‘Now here is land’. Just fab!

A family drama with a Hollywood backdrop

Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures by Emma Straub

A novel set during the golden age of Hollywood has an instant allure, promising old-fashioned glamour and a look behind the scenes of the movies, plus possibly a whiff of scandal. That’s not what this novel is really about though, despite its title and monochrome cover …

Elsa Emerson’s family own a theatre in Wisconsin, and she grows up amongst the summer stock theatre crowd. Elsa is the youngest of three sisters and idolises Hildy her oldest sister who is beautiful and has potential as an actress.  When Elsa is still only eight, Hildy commits suicide after getting pregnant by the leading actor that summer who then abandons her.

When Elsa is old enough, it’s not a surprise when she falls for that season’s leading man, but ends up marrying him. They head for Hollywood where Gordon has high hopes, and Elsa is soon pregnant. Gordon does get a contract for small parts with a studio, but it is Elsa that will soon eclipse him when she is spotted at a party by a studio boss.

He nodded. ‘Here’s what you should do. Do you mind if I tell you?’ Irving didn’t wait for her to respond. ‘Have the baby. Take a few months, lose thirty pounds. Not so much that you lose the milkmaid look, though. It’s your trademark – Miss Wisconsin, all sweetness and light. And Elsa Pitts isn’t gonna cut it, is it?’ Irving looked at her hard. Elsa blushed. He stared for so long that Elsa began to sweat even more. She reflexively put her hands around her belly, as if to protect the child from whatever was to come. Then Irving snapped his fingers so loudly that it echoed through the room, over all the chatting and flirting. Elsa was surprised that such a sharp, loud noise could come out of such a small person. ‘Laura Lamont,’ he said. ‘You want it? It’s yours. Come see me when you’re ready.’

Irving makes good on his promise, Elsa becomes Laura, and within a few years she’s a star – with two children already. Gordon can’t cope with this or being a father, and falls by the wayside, leaving Irving to become Laura’s husband number two. They have a near perfect relationship, which is cemented by Laura winning an Oscar, and finally providing Irving with a son.

By then we’re not quite halfway through the novel, and already Laura’s best years are behind her, which was a shame, for I’d enjoyed it a lot up until then. The second half is taken up with family matters, Irving’s poor health, Laura’s descent into addiction to pills, and an attempt at a comeback.

Elsa/Laura remains a girl from Wisconsin throughout really, and this holds the narrative back from really getting under the skin of the Hollywood studio system, which is what I’d hoped for more of. Straub doesn’t overglamorise the life of being a contract actor, fading star, or come to think of it, a major player.

This book is really about family though, not Hollywood. Wisconsin and LA really are physically so far apart, there’s little possibility of going home for the holidays. Elsa’s relationships with her parents are very different too – Elsa was very close to her father, and he has followed her career from afar; her mother though can’t forgive her for taking Hildy’s place, and this shows when her parents come to the Academy Awards and meet their grandchildren and Irving for the first time…

… Laura felt wretched next to her mother, because it should have been Hildy here in Hollywood, and she – still Elsa, always Elsa – should have been at home, back in Door County, her entire world only as wide as the peninsula. It was all wrong; Laura knew that. She was a body double, and her mother was the only one who saw it.

Many of the characters appeared to be inspired by real life actors and actresses – Laura’s best friend Ginger was a shoe-in for Lucille Ball for instance.  I also gather that Laura herself has many parallels in her life with the actress Jennifer Jones, (thanks Red Rock Bookworm on Amazon).

A competent début and easy to read – I enjoyed this book. I did, however, wish that the first half had been longer, and the second shorter – a bit more Hollywood glamour and a bit less of real life butting in.  (7.5/10)

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I received my review copy courtesy of Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures by Emma Straub, pub Oct 11th, 2012 by Picador, hardback, 256 pages.

Strange places for books

I think about the over-large extent of my TBR piles all the time. Blog-friend Simon Savidge has been doing that too recently. In his recent post on his TBR he asked “Where is the strangest place that you have ever left piles of books?” Rather than comment, I went to take a photo of my travel shelf …

… yes, it is in the smallest room in the house. Well, it was just the right sized shelf, and, before you ask, I’m definitely not a toilet book reader!

Where travel books are concerned though, if I’m going somewhere, one book is not enough, two is OK, but three is definitely best, and if one can be a Michelin Green Guide all the better.  I haven’t been abroad at all since 2008, and some of the guidebooks I brought over from my late Mum’s are calling to me. I’ve never driven on the other side of the road though, I was always driven before, so a citybreak or two for my daughter and I could be the best way to get back into foreign holidays…  but I won’t sit and peruse the books in the loo!

It’s good to share …

The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip by George Saunders

This is a charming tale for children of all ages – a wonderfully quirky novella, that has been matched by equally bizarre illustrations and produced as a singleton in a neat slim volume.

Three families live in a hamlet called Frip. They all keep goats and live off the profits from selling the milk. However in the sea nearby, there are creatures called gappers, who come out of the water each night and attach themselves to the goats, squealing with pleasure. The noise drives the goats mad, and their milk production dries up, and no milk means no living for the villagers of Frip. So each day the children of the families remove the gappers and throw them back into the sea. It’s hard work for them all.

One day, one of the less stupid gappers worked out that one of the houses was closer to the sea than the others, there was no need to attach themselves to the goats that were further away. The family they chose was that of a young girl called Capable, who lived with her Dad, having lost her mother not long ago. Capable is overwhelmed by the extra work as she has to look after her still-grieving father, so she asks her neighbours for help …

You’ve guessed it. This is a story about neighbourliness and being a good Samaritan. Capable’s neighbours are a selfish lot, and she works out a way to turn her situation around and engineers a happy ending.

The story is whimsical, sweet and a little bit mad in its concept – just the thing for me – a sideways look at an otherwise simple tale. I adored the illustrations which are folksy yet mad too; they match the tale perfectly, yet are not the stuff of a traditional children’s book.

This was my introduction to George Saunders. This children’s novella may have been a US bestseller but he is best known as an exponent of the short form for adults. His second collection ‘Pastoralia‘ probably being his best known work due to the cave-girl on the cover. A piece by Saunders in the Guardian back in 2005 when Gappers was published, (which I found via John Self and thence ordered some Saunders books), gives some clues on what to expect when I venture into reading his other stories, for I’m definitely intrigued by this writer. (8/10)

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I bought this book. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:

The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip by George Saunders, pub Bloomsbury 2000, 96 pages.
Pastoralia by George Saunders.

Serendipity makes this a timely read from And Other Stories…

Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt

I started reading this book around ten days ago, and was shocked and amused in equal measure – but I paused around a third of the way through to give in to the hype and read JK Rowling’s latest (see previous post here) – and  by the time I picked the book up again, a major sex scandal had broken, involving the now tattered reputation of a dead man who had been thought an unlikely hero, and rippling across the world of entertainment as more sexual harassment was revealed.

Sexual harassment is at the heart of this innovative satire, so it’s been a timely read.   However, it’s the means to an end, not the primary target in this novel.  Let me explain…

It’s back in the 1990s, and Joe is a salesman who has lost his mojo. He knows he can be the best, but only if he has the right product to sell in the right place. ‘He had hit rock bottom,’ and is reduced to living in a trailer alone with his masturbatory fantasies, when he’s not philosophising to himself about the art of selling.

…What he was thinking, as he watched the sea and the birds, was Look how strong the impulse is! Because you can sell people just about anything if you can convince them it will give them a better chance to get sex. You can sell people just about anything if you can convince them its a substitute for sex. The only thing you can’t sell is the actual thing itself. That is, obviously people sell it, but you can’t sell it without shame.
… if you could give people a way to get it out of their system they would be a whole lot more productive. They’d be happier about themselves. Because there had to be a whole lot of guys like himself, guys who didn’t want to be spending the amount of time they were spending thinking about sex, guys who given the chance would rather get it out of their system and concentrate their energies on achieving their goals.

Joe comes up with the idea for forward-thinking companies (that are full of hot-blooded, testosterone-fuelled heterosexual salesmen) to outsource their sexual harassment policies. He will recruit special employees, each ‘a woman in a thousand’ who will be paid a lot extra for anonymously providing services when required, via a specially equipped bathroom cubicle which will present her naked bottom half to the selected male.  They are the ‘lightning rods’.

It’s outrageous!  It’s totally hair-brained!  You won’t be surprised though to hear that Joe finds a company brave dumb enough to try it out. It takes off, but things are never going to be simple, they’re only going to get more and more complicated.  How will Joe cope? Will it work? What sort of woman would want to be take part?

Corporate practices, management programmes, and outsourcing are what this novel is really about.  Nearing the end of the novel, you’ll almost believe it could really happen. You certainly sense the proprietorial pride in Joe, that despite his cod-philosophising whilst watching the birds, he has found an essential truth, (in the immortal words of M.Jagger & K.Richard, which seemed to fit):

“You can’t always get what you want 
But if you try sometimes you just might find 
You just might find, You get what you need” 

What makes this novel rather special is the language, as has been identified by the other reviews I’ve read too (see below).  Although it’s full of sex of a sort, it’s never prurient, the descriptions are deliberately non-sexy, dead-pan, typically in business speak. Having been through some management schemes in my former life working for a multi-national company, I could recognise some of the types involved in delivering the programmes, and it made me laugh, and be thankful that I don’t work there any more (apart from missing the salary that is).

What I found most interesting though, was the fact that the novel, which despite having a focus on oversexed straight men, was not a male fantasy, but a female satire, written by a woman.  The most powerful characters in the novel were the lightning rods who had their finger on the pulse of Joe’s scheme, and manipulated it and him for their own benefit. There are no easy answers to the questions that the story raises, and the author doesn’t attempt to provide them, she just helps us imagine what if …

This novel was very clever and extremely funny. I loved it. (10/10)

See also reviews by John Self, Alex in Leeds, and Follow the Thread.

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I was sent this book to review by the publisher – Thank you!
To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:

Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt. Pub in the UK Oct 2012 by And Other Stories, posh paperback, 297 pages.

Which side of the fence are you on?

The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling

Everyone who encounters this book will have a point of view about it.

The author is a global phenomenon through the Harry Potter series: she’s worked her way up to being a multimillionaire from being a single mum, and does a lot for charity. Now she’s taken a risk, and moved on from Harry and his chums, to publish her first adult novel – for a different publisher too, (shame about the cover).

Opinion is polarised – on one hand, the knives are out, and on the other there are those who think she’s done a brave thing and are raving positively about the book.  So where does my own opinion sit?

I hope you won’t be disappointed, but I’m going to sit firmly on the fence.  You see, I really enjoyed parts of it, but I do recognise that it is far from perfect.

Before I go into detail, a little scene-setting… Pagford is a sleepy little West Country town that is thrown into turmoil when Barry Fairbrother, leader of one faction on the Parish Council drops dead at the Golf Club.  His demise causes a ‘Casual Vacancy’ on the Council, and its leader, Howard Mollison, sees his opportunity to take control and get rid of the Fields, the local council estate that stands in Pagford parish, but ought to belong to Yarvil, the neighbouring large town.

You see, Barry was a local boy done good – born and bred on the wrong side of town in the Fields, he devoted his life to helping local people, especially the Weedons, and particularly Krystal and her junkie single mother who is incapable of looking after her little brother (by a different father of course). He got Krystal into the posh Pagford school, where she stands out like a sore thumb being a chav, but becomes a key member of the girls rowing squad.

The town is full of dysfunctional families, each fitting an archetype that will be familiar to anyone who watches any soap opera, (or listens in the case of The Archers – I’m listening to the weekly omnibus as I write this). Apart from the Weedons, there are the Mollisons – the local bigwigs, shop owners at the centre of things in town; the Walls – Colin is deputy head at school, Tessa is school Councillor, their son Fats can’t wait to be shot of his father; the Jawindas – a professional Sikh family – Parminder is a GP, Vikram is a heart surgeon, and they live in the old vicarage, and their ugly duckling daughter Sukhvinder who has very low self esteem. There’s also the Prices, whose son Arf will set a rolling stone in motion that threatens to overwhelm the town; and finally, the Bawdens, moved from London – a social worker mother and her confident daughter – are the main families from a large cast of lesser characters.

Barry Fairbrother was dead. Snuffed out. Cut down. No event of national importance, no war, no stock-market collapse, no terrorist attack, could have sparked in Shirley (Mollison) the awe, the avid interest and feverish speculation that currently consumed her.
She had hated Barry Fairbrother. Shirley and her husband, usually as one in all their friendships and enmities, had been a little out of step in this. Howard  had sometimes  confessed himself entertained by the bearded little man who opposed him so relentlessly across the scratched tables of Pagford Church Hall; but Shirley made no distinction between the political and the personal. Barry had opposed Howard in the central quest of his life, and this made Barry Fairbrother her bitter enemy.

So we have the set up for a soap opera of class war between the richer and poorer of the Parish, and oneupmanship between the families jockeying for position in the town.  I liked the premise of the plot, and was hoping for a comedy with a biting edge.

You know the story is ultimately going to be a train wreck, but it took so long to build up a full head of steam.  It was around page three hundred before things really started happening, which left two hundred for the main events.  The novel is so character-driven, that the plot tended to get squeezed out.

We could have lost a third of the novel and got a funny and fast paced story, rather than a bloated character study in which everything is over-described and listy – viz the sentence in the quote above: ‘No event of national importance, no war, no stock-market collapse, no terrorist attack, could have sparked in Shirley the awe, the avid interest and feverish speculation that currently consumed her’.  Much has been made of Rowling’s robust modern language, but you don’t really notice it until the ‘c’ word appears – and you take a short sharp intake of breath, and carry on.

Almost all of the characters are unsympathetic too, the events bringing out the nasty side in virtually all of them, (mostly Slytherins then?).  All the little England stereotypes you can think of, except a male gay couple now I come to think of it, are present.

The other things that are all present (if the book hadn’t been 500 pages, I’d have said shoe-horned), are all the issues – obesity, self-harm, OCD, single mothers, rehab, spots, social workers, sex and drugs … there’s little room left for rock’n’roll.

If you think of it as a debut novel, there is often a tendency for authors to put all their initial good ideas into one book, and that’s what I feel Rowling has done here.  It was too long, too descriptive, and too full of everything. It attempted to be light-hearted, but wasn’t funny enough which meant I didn’t care about the characters, it tried too hard to be everything to everyone.

All the above sounds as if I didn’t enjoy the book, but that’s not true. It was an interesting read, seeing a writer in transition. Here’s to the next one. (6/10)

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I bought this book. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling. Pub 27th Sept by Little, Brown. Hardback, 512 pages.

Which path should one take? A novel choice…

Luminous Airplanes by Paul La Farge

I had just come home from a festival in Nevada, the theme of which was Contact with Other Worlds, when my mother, or, I should say, one of my mothers, called to tell me that my grandfather had died.

Thus begins Luminous Airplanes, a quirky novel right from the outset, particularly so for the book is backed up by a website which continues its branching narrative – billed as a ‘Hyperromance’ – giving you an additional experience a bit like a those ‘Choose your own adventure’ books. However, the novel works on its own perfectly well without the website, so we’ll concentrate there.

It’s the 1990s, and the unnamed  narrator works in computers in San Francisco after dropping out of a History course at Stanford. He has a happy life in California, currently single but still friends with his ex-girlfriend Alice. When he hears that his grandfather has died and that he’s missed the funeral, he considers not going back to his hometown, but he knows that his mothers won’t do the home clearing – they’ll just arrange for it all to be chucked, so he gets in his car, (which used to belong for Norman Mailer), and sets off across the country to Thebes…

It was for my sake that my mothers ran away from Thebes. They didn’t want to have their child in a little town in the Catskills where things happened so slowly that people were still speaking French six generations after the first settlers arrived. By Thebes standards, my mothers were more like weather than like people: they changed fast, and they moved on. They took me to New York, where they were going to be famous artists, only they had no idea about money and knew how to do nothing, nothing.

Yes, it does say ‘mothers’ above.  He was brought up by twin sisters Marie Celeste and Celeste Marie: Marie being his birth mother. Still a teenager, Marie fell for her father’s lawyer: Richard Ente was a handsome fifty year old who ran from town when the romance was uncovered. Understandably, our narrator is obsessed with finding out about his absent and deceased father.

Back in Thebes, he is reunited with his neighbours, the Regenzeits, a Turkish family. Siblings Kerem and  Yesim run the Snowbird Ski Resort on the edge of town, which had been developed by their father Joe, and was the subject of the lawsuit for which his grandfather had employed Ente. Yesim was his childhood sweetheart, could he re-kindle something?

So our narrator jumps from a path of an easy life back into one of uncertainty and  with many questions needing to be answered – branches to be explored if you will. Some of them are paths that have been gone down before, but time has changed them. What happened the first time will affect what happens now, and like the labyrinth in the early computer game he was addicted to as a teenager, how will he know exactly where he is?

This quirky tale of dysfunctional families is told with a wry voice, that is always taking us off in different directions, flashing back in time non-linearly – sometimes to childhood, at other times to teenage or college years or the recent past, before returning to the now of the novel.  Along the way we hear about his history thesis on a Christian cult that believed the world was going to end, his favourite book about the history of flight, amongst other digressions, but gradually as he gets to grips with his grandfather’s things, the answers to some of his questions begin to reveal themselves, and he is able to realise his place in the world.

It’s a strange sort of coming of age story when the narrator is almost a thirty-something – but there is a definite sense of this, perhaps better expressed as reaching an emotional maturity.  It’s all done with a light touch, even when things get really serious, it’s witty but not hilarious.

As quirky novels about dysfunctional families go, the best I’ve read in a long time was The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson (reviewed here).  Luminous Airplanes adds a small town mentality to the mix and was a great read but lacked the Fang’s madness.  The narrator, who let’s face it, is a bit of a slacker, was too content to let things happen to him – although I did warm to him when he couldn’t get into Murakami’s Norwegian Wood; a book I’ve failed with too. I also loved being reminded of that old computer game Adventure aka Colossal Cave, which I used to play at lunchtimes back in the mid 1980s – “You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike”.

I enjoyed this book a lot and had fun pootling around the website for a while too. One for fans of quirky family novels. (7.5/10)

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I was sent this book by the publisher. Thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK, please click through below:
Luminous Airplanes by Paul La Farge. Pub Aug 2012 by 4th Estate, Trade Paperback 256 pages.
The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson