For popular science book fans …

WhatWonderfulWorldblogtour2A little bit of advance publicity. Marcus Chown writes for New Scientist, and has a new book coming out on October 3rd. It’s called What a Wonderful World: One Man’s Attempt to Explain the Big Stuff, and I’m delighted to be taking part in his blog tour.  You can see all the blogs taking part here – Chown Blog Tour poster.

Chown is one of my favourite science writers, and I did a Q&A post with him when his previous book We Need to Talk About Kelvin: What everyday things tell us about the universe was published. Click here to see the Q&A, and here for that book review.

I’m currently in the middle of his new book, and I’m enjoying it very much.  The review will follow in due course, and I hope you’ll join me on the tour on October 12th.


From Here to Eternity – first thoughts …

One of the books I’m currently reading is James Jones’s doorstop of a novel From Here to Eternity.  First published in 1951, it’s set in Hawaii, and follows the peacetime exploits of G company in the months immediately preceding Pearl Harbor and the USA’s entry into WWII in 1941.

here to eternityIt has just been republished with many excisions restored. The military language is also peppered with the vernacular, and many swear-words were cut – Jones apparently had to bargain hard to keep each one in, some cut scenes have also been restored.

The basic story follows two of the men in G Company. G is known for its boxing, and when career soldier Private Prewitt transfers in, they hoped he would become a new champion. Prewitt, however refuses to box and gets poorly treated by the NCOs as a result. The other strand follows Sergeant Milt Warden who has an affair with his Captain’s wife.

Milton Anthony Warden was thirty-four years old. In the eight months he had been topkicker of G Company he had wrapped that outfit around his waist and buttoned his shirt over it. At intervals he like to remind himself of this proud fact. He was a veritable demon for work; he liked to remind himself of that, too. He had also pulled this slovenly organization out of the pitfalls of lax administration. In fact, when he thought about it, and he often did, he had  never met a man who was as amazingly adept at anything he put his hand to as was Milton Anthony Warden.

I’ve now reached page 160 of over 950, and am finding it very dense, and slightly hard-going – yet Jones really understands the plight of the enlisted man, and that makes it fascinating. It’s incredibly detailed too – I’ve just read a scene where the guys are playing poker for dimes in the latrines – and that is around twenty pages of banter.The writing is driven by dialogue and observation rather than description. It rather reminds me of Elmore Leonard minus the humour, for it is really a relentless life for these guys – the endless fatigue duties for those who won’t box …

I am beginning to enjoy reading this book. I’m glad I’ve persevered past the difficult ‘I’ve read 50 pages, do I really want to read another 900?’ point.  I’m also glad that I’ve never seen the 1953 movie in full – just clips – usually of the scene where Burt Lancaster (Warden) rolls in the sea with Deborah Kerr.  This doesn’t actually happen in the book; I know that. But not having seen the film properly, my vision of what’s going to happen hasn’t been spoiled either.

logoI hadn’t been planning to write a blog post so early into the book, but was prompted to by an article in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph about Tim Rice’s latest co-venture with Geordie composer Stuart Brayson – a musical of From Here to Eternity, and based upon the book not the movie!

The musical promises to straddle the eras of swing and blues as exemplified by Tommy Dorsey and Elvis – so the music could be rather good, and Rice’s lyrics are always excellent.  It previews from Monday in the West End. I’m not rushing to book my tickets yet, but I shall definitely follow the reviews and see…

One last thing – the title of the novel comes from Kipling’s Gentlemen-Rankers, in Barrack-room Ballads

Gentlemen-rankers out on a spree,
Damned from here to eternity,
God ha’ mercy on such as we,
Ba! Yah! Bah!

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Source: Amazon Vine review copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
From Here to Eternity (Penguin Modern Classics) by James Jones – this edition published 5th Sept. Paperback 976 pages.
From Here To Eternity [DVD] (1953) starring Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr

“Echoed voices in the night she’s a restless spirit on an endless flight”

Babayagaby Toby Barlow


Toby Barlow’s debut, Sharp Teeth, which I capsule-reviewed back in the early days of this blog should have really appeared in my Top novels I’ve read by men post from a couple of days ago. His Sopranos-style story of gang warfare amongst the werewolves in LA, written in the form of a prose poem has stayed with me ever since I read it, however back then I only gave it 9/10 and it didn’t make the cut for that list.

When I read he’d written a new novel, I couldn’t wait for the UK publication and ordered a copy of the American hardback, and for the past few days I’ve been totally absorbed in reading Babayaga.

The Baba Yaga of Eastern European folklore were supernatural and ferocious women, said to live in a hut on chicken legs, typified as a sorceress/mid-wife/fortune-teller style character with a large pestle and mortar, who had a close relationship with nature and could be benevolent – or more often not.

The Babayagas of Barlow’s new novel are definitely sorceresses. The setting is Paris in 1959. The book starts with Zoya, a beautiful young woman of Russian extraction, who has realised that Leon, her lover of fifteen years, is starting to question why she’s not looking any older.  Time to get rid of him – she didn’t quite mean to impale him on a railing though.

Meanwhile, Will Van Wyck, an American working in the Parisian branch of an advertising agency, is despairing over the big ideas of his last remaining client, and wishing that he didn’t have to put together those company profiles for Mr Brandon who would appear to be linked to the CIA. Two years in Paris, and he still doesn’t really understand the city and its inhabitants, but neither does he want to go home to Detroit.

Zoya turns to Elga, an older woman, a more traditional wicked old witch (although she wasn’t always thus as we eventually find out). These two have been working their way around Europe for centuries, always moving on when trouble looms. Elga is fed up of Zoya’s misfortunes with men though, and when Zoya unwittingly puts Elga in the frame for Leon’s murder, the old crone starts to dream of vengeance.

As for Inspector Vidot, he gets the case – and following the trail Zoya leads to Elga nearly meets his own end, instead being transformed into a flea.  Hopping from host to host, he will continue to try to unravel this mystery in true Kafkaesque style.

Soon Will meets Zoya, and it is love at first sight, but Will also gets mixed up with Oliver, another American under Brandon’s umbrella. Oliver is Gatsby to Will’s Nick, and leads him a merry dance through Parisian high-living and lowlife contacts. At last together, Will and Zoya get to know each other a little better. She encourages him to talk about his work in advertising…

‘What do you think works?’
Even though Will had answered this in presentations to clients a hundred times before, it made him blush to answer the question now. ‘Seduction.’
‘You seduce them?’ Zoya thought about it for a second and then her eyes brightened. ‘Yes, I see, so this client of yours believes it is a kind of war, but you think you can win with love. Maybe you’re both right. People can be conquered, certainly, but your idea is more like those pretty women I hear they have put to work in the airplanes now.’
‘The stewardesses?’
‘Yes,’ Zoya said. ‘You see, it’s not enough of a miracle to be flying high up in the air, even all the way across the entire ocean, that magic isn’t enough, so they put someone pretty and seductive on the plane, now there’s a possibility of sex or romance, a temptation to lure you in. It’s right out of a folktale, a beautiful girl with a fool in a flying ship.’
‘Well, I don’t – it’s a little more simple than that.’ Will stammered, her mention of sex making his heart skip a beat. ‘You really only have to show them a bit of life they admire or desire, a story they want to be a part of, paint them a picture and then invite them into it.’
‘Ah, I understand.’ She smiled, almost to herself. ‘So it’s not love, it’s merely a spell. So, then what? Tell me, what happens after these victims of yours buy your product and the spell is broken? When they awaken to find their life is as empty and sad as it was before, only now a little poorer too?’

Isn’t advertising spin ‘magic’!

We’re all set up for a fantastic, in all sense of the word, multi-stranded adventure combining witches, spies, gangsters, murder, sorcery and romance. It is complicated, and in a few places, a little slow paced, but that’s a small price to pay for finding out how it all comes together.

Ruby-Tandoh-5Will is such a sweet character – an innocent abroad, and a little wet. This adventure arrives at the right time for him, but he is put into so many tricky situations, you can’t help but feel for him. Zoya can be rather irritating though – I was watching The Great British Bake Off  just before finishing the book the other night, and I couldn’t help identifying her with Ruby of the puppy dog eyes! But then as she’s survived all that time (Zoya that is), it’s not surprising that she’s a bit self-centred! Elga is a proper witch, ancient and so cunning, a formidable opponent to anyone who crosses her. I really loved Inspector Vidot though, who has to employ all his resources to stay alive and solve the case.

Although ostensibly set in 1959 at the height of the Cold War, this novel felt as if it was much earlier – the twenties, or even a little earlier. Artefacts and events to anchor the book to the late 1950s were few and far between – and indeed much of the Paris described would have been there already in previous decades.

Most essentially in this novel, the magic works. The way the women make their spells is quite realistic and combines, like British magician and mentalist Derren Brown, “magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship”. Their magic, however, isn’t the stage kind, and there is a physical cost involved keeping it real, which is so important to help you suspend your disbelief.

One nice touch linking back to Sharp Teeth, was the inclusion of some prose poems between the chapters in the form of witches songs.

Ghosts, they say, stay for three simple reasons:
they love life too wholly to leave,
they love some other too deeply to part,
or they need to linger on for a bit,
to coax a distant knife
toward its fated throat.

This novel is funny and fun, always quirky, yet dark and romantic too. A perfect autumnal read – I loved it. (9.5/10)

I shall leave you with the source of the quote at the top of the post. It’s from Witchy Woman by The Eagles.

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Source: Own copy. to explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Babayaga by Toby Barlow, pub August 2013 by Farrar Straus Giroux (US), hardback 383 pages.
Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow, paperback

A tale of two Richards …

Lion Heart by Justin Cartwright

lion heart

Richard I was a king I know very little about. The sum total of my knowledge comprises little more than knowing that he went on the crusades to the Holy Land, his mother was Eleanor of Acquitaine, and the minstrel Blondel was supposedly involved in his release from imprisonment in an Austrian castle after the third Crusade, and that Tim Rice co-wrote a musical about him – the troubadour that is.

So I was looking forward to reading Justin Cartwright’s new novel.  Although I’d not read any of his other books, Cartwright has a good pedigree having previously been Booker shortlisted, and friends have recommended his previous book Other People’s Money to me.

Lion Heart is the tale of two Richards. First, the historical one – recounting Richard the Lionheart’s later days and his attempts to get the relic of ‘The True Cross’ to safety from the Holy Land. The second is set in the present, the story of Richard Cathar who is researching the former.

Cathar’s late father Alaric had been obsessed with Richard I and in particular his supposed meeting with Robin Hood, but he was never able to prove it.  His son saw him as a hippy who didn’t take it seriously enough.  There was little love lost between father and son, particularly when young Richard is packed off to boarding school – a nautical college …

At the end of my first term, my father asked me, with that old roué’s pointless smile on his threaded face, his fair flapping winningly over his brow and coursing in two wavelets back over his ears, how school had been. I said, ‘Oh, fucking marvellous, I have learned how to wash the inside of a lavatory with my head. Thank you, Pater. I’m sure it will come in handy when I join the Navy.’
He laughed: life is after all really just one cosmic joke.
‘That’s cool, man.’
I hit him, knocking him off his chair. From the floor he appraised me for a moment. I was only fourteen but had been doing a lot of rowing on the Thames, the college’s one and only area of excellence. He was against violence. He stood up, blood streaming from an eyebrow, and walked towards the door. He stopped.
‘I will write to the Commodore and tell him that all shore leave should be cancelled indefinitely. I won’t see you again until you write me an apology.’
‘I had shit in my mouth and hair.  Can you imagine what that was like? And then they rubbed my balls with Cherry Blossom shoe polish.’ (It was oxblood brown.) ‘You should be writing me an apology.’
I was sobbing, but my father was already on his way upstairs to rummage in his bathroom, whistling – I seem to remember – ‘Light my Fire’. He was probably stoned. …

Yet Richard ends up equally obsessed with Dick I – is it a compulsion to prove his father wrong?  Or, might he end up understanding him?

A discovery of some papers gets Richard to follow the paper trail to Jerusalem, a city he starts to fall in love with …

What the adhan speaks of in this mad, beautiful, violent, restless city is the human longing for certainty. And why wouldn’t you want certainty if you lived here? This is a place where horrors, all of them in the name of a higher authority, have been committed for thousands of years a place where countless people have died for their religion, where the walls have been built and destroyed and rebuilt constantly, where Armenian, Syrian and Orthodox priests sail blandly about – Quinqueremes of Nineveh – where observant Jews with side-locks wear their painful blank devotion on their pale faces, where creased Bedouin women in embroidered dresses and triangular jewellery sit patiently outside the Jaffa Gate to sell vegetables, where young Arab men, in strangely faded jeans and knock-off trainers, push trolleys of food stuffs, where in countless cafés men contemplate what might have been, their hair failing, there faces turning to yellowed ochre, as though the tea they drink endlessly is staining them from the inside. Or perhaps it’s the water-cooled smoke from their hookahs that is doing it, smoking them from the outside.

Richard meets Noor – an Arab-Canadian journalist, and they fall madly in love. But just a few weeks later, Noor is kidnapped in Cairo when on assignment and Richard’s life is thrown into turmoil. All is not what it seems with Noor, and Richard ends up having to throw himself into his work whilst waiting for her situation to resolve – just being her boyfriend means he is very low down in the chain of communications.

The author alternates sections of pure history telling Richard I’s story as told by Richard, or is it Alaric?, with the present day one. I found these historical sections rather dry, long and over-factual – but then, they are presented as extracts from a history book. Thus, I did learn a bit about Richard’s great foe Saladin, and all the French castles they besieged on the way home, but this wasn’t the fashion I’d have naturally chosen to read about Richard Coeur de Lion.

By contrast, the present day narrative veered back and forth from Richard’s quest, via his romance, to a spy thriller. I love spy thrillers, but this wasn’t enough of one.  I also enjoy dual narrative novels with historical strands, but the historical part here was too boring, and the present day part was too bitty because of the spy business, although the relationship drama between Richard and Noor was quite gripping.

The result was that it didn’t feel as if it were clear which audience it was aiming at, and it didn’t grab me enough. This is a real shame as Cartwright’s writing is rather good – as in the Jerusalem quotation above. I ended up feeling that the author had tried too hard to distance his quest novel from Dan Brown territory (something he has Richard acknowledge in the text), and ended up by marginalising it.

Lion Heart for me was a missed opportunity for a big, intelligent quest novel with a medieval theme, or it could have been a missed opportunity for a big, intelligent spy novel, both with added romance. I would try reading Cartwright again though, as I’m sure this is quite different to his previous novels.  (6/10)

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Source: Review copy from Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:

blondelLion Heart by Justin Cartwright, pub by Bloomsbury. Sept 12 2013. Hardback, 352 pages.

Other People’s Money by Justin Cartwright (2011)

Blondel Original Cast Album

There was I, ready to cull some books …

… when I got totally distracted after only consigning one book to the charity shop pile by this little gem…

Pistache by Sebastian Faulks.

pistacheOriginating from the BBC Radio 4 literary quiz, The Right Stuff, each week contestants would do a little party piece at the end of the show as one writer attempting the style of another author, book or genre etc. – they were usually terribly comic, and always very clever.

Sebastian Faulks was one of the team captains, and he retooled his party pieces into this expanded collection of his pastiches, or pistaches. Once I’d started leafing through for some of my favourites, all thought of book culling went out of the window.

So we have Ernest Hemingway writing a Christmas round robin, Jane Austen in the 1830s – sorry 18-30 holiday, Richmal Crompton’s Just William grows up into an estate agent, and so on.  One clever one that grabbed me particularly was:

Dylan Thomas writes a cereal advert …

The force that through the green gut drives the food
Is each morning taken mortal fibre, tockticking,
Clockworking, regular in motion
Of day and wind and
Under milk good soaking of rough husk
Of hill-high rough-age in tough
Tock-ticking, regular,
From the farm in the blossoming hill through the mill
From bole to bowel to hwyl
Where gesture and psalm ring-
It is your thirtieth day to heaven
In all dark, all black,
All brown, all Bran.

We also have George Orwell confronting the real 1984 – ‘It was a bright cold day in April and the miners were striking. …’   and hilariously – Sherlock Holmes has a conversation with Motson  (John ‘Motty’ Motson, was a wonderfully verbose football commentator).

I chuckled my way through these, wishing there were more (there will be a second volume next year), and now I have to go and cook dinner – no more time for book-culling today!

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Pistache by Sebastian Faulks

Rule Britannia …

Expo 58 by Jonathan Coe

I’ve long been a fan of Jonathan Coe, enjoying all of the books of his that I’ve read so far, from the broad comedy of What a carve up, to the heartbreak of The Rain Before it Falls, via the 1970s revisited in The Rotter’s Club. I was lucky enough to hear him read extracts of his latest novel at the Penguin Bloggers Night earlier this year, and he was kind enough to sign my review copy.

expo 58I may have been predisposed to enjoy Expo 58 as a result, but frankly, what’s not to like? Coe has given us a glorious and light-hearted novel filled with romance, intrigue and 1950s optimism, but tinged with enough melancholy to make it a really enjoyable book to read. His lightness of touch and impeccable research bring the era and its characters vividly to life. Let me tell you a little about it…

Thomas Foley is a mild-mannered civil servant working in the backrooms at the Central Office of Information (COI) producing leaflets promoting Britain abroad. Thomas is at first irritated when he is picked to be the COI’s eyes and ears at the Britannia Pub, at the heart of the British pavillion at Expo ’58 – the world fair to be held in Brussels.  The suits are still debating what should go into the British exhibit.  Sykes is proposing a history of the British water closet, and Gardner, the architect is supporting him…

…’Sykes has put his finger on it. We all do them Sir John. Even you! We all do number twos. We may not like to talk about them, we may not even like to think about them, but years ago, somebody did think about them, he thought about them long and hard – if you’ll pardon the expression – and the result was that we can now all do our number twos cleanly, and without embarrassment, and the whole nation – the whole world! – is a better place as a consequence. So why shouldn’t we celebrate that fact? Why shouldn’t we celebrate the fact that, besides conquering half of the globe, Britons have also fought a historic battle against their number twos, and emerged victorious?’
He sat down again. Sir John stared across the table at him coolly.
‘Have you quite finished, Gardner?’ Taking his silence as consent, he added: ‘Might I remind you that at the entrance to this pavilion, which you propose to deface with this obscene display, visitors will find a portrait of Her Majesty the Queen?’
Gardner leaned forward. ‘And might I remind you, Sir John, that even her Majesty 0 even her Majesty…’

This assignment will mean six months away for Thomas, away from his wife Sylvia and young baby Gill, and understandably he’s a little scared of telling her. He’s also not sure for himself either, but decides to wait until after a first visit to the site.

expo 58 star logo

From the moment he is met at the airport by one of the Expo hostesses, Anneke in her smart uniform, his mind begins to change. By the time he’s seen the Atomium, the gleaming construction representing the crystal structure of iron, at the Park’s entrance, let alone the Britannia Pub itself, which has been designed to emulate a yacht club rather than an olde worlde pub, he is won over.

The British pavilion will also highlight the country’s eminence in nuclear physics with a replica exhibit of the ZETA machine, which, it is hoped, will provide all of Britain’s future energy needs by harnessing nuclear fusion.  Due to the sensitive nature of this, the spooks pay Thomas a visit to get him to keep his eyes and ears open for them too.

Thomas finds himself torn between duty at home, and excitement in Belgium, and it’ll take the rest of the novel to all these things out.  The nearest parallel I can draw to this novel is Paul Torday’s Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (my review here), which also has an innocent abroad, needing that new experience to ultimately show the truth in his relationships back home.

Expo 58 provides a wonderful backdrop to Thomas’s self-exploration. The research that Coe has done made it seem totally real – for Expo 58 really happened, the Atomium exists, as did the ZETA machine… and the Britannia Pub.

Britannia Pub

I would have loved to have shown you the Atomium – which inspired Coe to write this novel, but I never took a photo when I passed through Brussels on business in the 1990s, and they’re rather funny about copyright of its image apparently.  It is a magnificent structure though, now restored – see the website here.

Although the Cold War was well under way, like the Festival of Britain before it, Expo 58 seems suffused with a spirit of optimism – although not everything turns out well. In Coe’s novel it is fun to see all the different nationalities having fun together in the name of international friendship, masking all the information gathering about each other and spying going on in the background – that also felt very true.

Thomas is such a gentleman. Stifled in his marriage at home, you hope that he will manage to let go a bit. Will he, won’t he be tempted by the sweet Anneke, who is a total opposite to his wife? This is one of the central more serious themes of the novel, and you can’t help but feel for him.  Thomas and Anneke are surrounded by more comic characters, from the two MI6 chaps who reminded me of Thompson and Thompson from Tintin, the larger than life Russian Chersky, and not forgetting the drunken bar manager Rossiter, who used to have a pub in Abingdon (where I live, Rossiter’s pub is fictional though).

This book was a blast to read, perfect in its evocation of the age and sense of place, chucklesome through and through yet able to bring you back down to earth when needed.  I loved it – a lot.  (9/10)

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Source: ARC from the publisher. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Expo 58 by Jonathan Coe, pub Sept 5th by Viking, Hardback 288 pages.

“If a loving yuh looking for yuh buck upon the right one”

Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo.

mr loverman

This novel has gone straight into my shortlist of books of the year – I loved every single page.  It is both hilariously funny yet compassionate and bittersweet, and eminently quotable.

Meet sharp-suited seventy-four year old Barrington Jedidiah Walker, who emigrated from Antigua in the 1960s and has lived in Hackney ever since, with his wife Carmel and daughters.

…Still here, thanks be to God. Still spruced up and sharp-suited with a rather manly swagger. Still six foot something with no sign of shrinkage yet. Still working a certain je ne sais whatsit. I might have lost the hair on my head, but I still got a finely clipped moustache in the style of old Hollywood romancers. Folk used to tell me I looked like a young Sidney Poitier. Now they say I resemble a (slightly) older Denzel Washington. Who am I to argue? The facts is the facts. Some of us have it, some of us do not. Bring it on Barry, bring it on.

Barry is a self-made man of property and an auto-didact with a rather Brandian (Russell that is) love of language and Shakespeare. He missed out on a scholarship from Antigua to a British university, and went to work at Ford motors, Dagenham. He has taken evening classes ‘since 1971 to make up for it‘.  He doesn’t like being treated as uneducated…

Oh, boy, I catch so much fire when people talk down to me like I’m some back-a-bush dumb arse who don’t understand the ins and outs of the Queen’s English. Like I wasn’t educated at Antigua Grammar School, best one in the country. Like all my teachers didn’t come from te colonial mother ship. Like this here Little Englander can’t speak the Queen’s as well as any Big Englander over there, I mean here. And so what if me and my people choose to mash up the h-english linguish whenever we feel like it, drop our prepositions with our panties, poss in the pot of cirrect syntax and spelling, and mangle our grammar at random? Is this not our post-modern, post-colonial prerogative?

We’re getting a good picture of Barry, but, he has a huge secret.  His childhood friend, Morris, has been his lover for decades.  Unable to come out in Antigua or England during those decades when it was illegal, he and Morris had felt compelled to marry and have families, yet still managed to carry on their relationship on the side – but now, in the twenty-first century – Carmel who has long suspected that he’s a philandering womaniser is at her wits end, and Morris, now a widower, is putting pressure on Barry to do the right thing.

Barry doesn’t know what to do, and worries about Carmel.

She used to tell me I was the funniest man alive.
Now her heart is so cold you can snap off a frozen shard and cut a diamond with it.
When did I last make that woman laugh? What decade was that exactly? What century? What millennium?

His relationship with his older daughter Donna is rocky too.

Donna is a lazy cow. All of her life she’s been eating her mother’s meals but she never reciprocates. Eats Chinese and McCrap. My daughter is most definitely a second-generation bra-burner.

If Donna takes after her mother, things are different with his ten years younger daughter Maxine, who works in fashion.

…Maxine and her mother never really gelled. I was the buffer between them. Carmel still don’t get arty-fartiness, and the only culture that interests her is the one she decimates with bleach.

In between Barry telling us of the quandaries his life has landed him in, and speculating about how he might wriggle out of them without causing world war three, we hear Carmel’s side of the story starting back in 1960 when she became Mrs Barrington Walker.  Carmel is young, inexperienced. and loves Barry for his good behaviour…

one thing is obvious: Barry, a real gentleman, unlike some of the boys round these parts, who can’t keep their things in their pants and their hands away from girl’s privates

Little does she know.  I crossed my fingers, hoping that the author could manage to sort out this dysfunctional family by the end of the novel.

Carmel’s story is told in a different style to Barry’s wise-cracking.  More stream of consciousness – following her thoughts as they come into her head, single sentence paragraphs with little punctuation. The author also distinguishes between Barry and Carmel’s chapters in their headings. All of Barry’s are ‘The art of …’,  marriage, being normal, Sunday lunch. Carmel’s are all ‘Song of …’, sweetness, despair, prayer.

Evaristo has devised a memorable family in the Walkers. We can separately sympathise with all of their plights, but in Mr Barrington Jedidiah Walker she has created a magnificent patriarch whom you can’t help falling for.

Contemporary novels about older people are rare, (Anita Brookner, Pym’s Quartet in Autumn and last year’s The unlikely pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce excepted in my reading). This is the first that I have read about the Afro-Caribbean community, and the first that addresses these issues for older people, and that explodes many misguided cultural clichés.

I was lucky to hear Bernardine read extracts from her book at the Penguin Bloggers Night earlier this year, and I had marked it as one to look out fore. Now I’ve read Mr Loverman, it will definitely feature in my list of books of the year. I loved it, and I hope if you read it you’ll love it too. (10/10)

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Source: Publisher review copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo, pub Hamish Hamilton, Aug 2013, trade paperback 320 pages.

P.S. The quotation at the top is from ‘Mr Loverman’ by Shabba Ranks – a song Morris and Barry like, despite its lyrics!

What a nasty yet unputdownable novel! Book group report …

I didn’t mean to leave such a gap between posting – but that first week back at school is always a killer.  The kittens don’t help either, those attention-seeking little bundles of fluff!

Still, I have been reading and have more books read to write up, which is a good thing as I’ve just started reading a 950 page novel – From Here to Eternity by James Jones. It’s an army novel set in peacetime USA before WWII. I’ve only read 65 pages so far, and it’s a little hard going – lots of army terminology – but I hope it’ll click soon.

Meanwhile, on to our book group’s choice of book for September …

The Dinner by Herman Koch

the-dinner trade paperback

Two couples go out to dinner at a rather posh restaurant.  Brothers and their wives. One brother, Serge – a politician, a candidate to lead his party, the other – our narrator Paul, a teacher who was asked to leave his school.

They order, and their appetisers arrive:

‘The crayfish are dressed in a vinaigrette of tarragon and baby green onions,’ said the manager: he was at Serge’s plate now, pointing with his pinkie.  ‘And these are chanterelles from the Vosges.’ The pinkie vaulted over the crayfish to point out two brown toadstools, cut lengthwise; the ‘chanterelles’ look as though they had been uprooted only a few minutes ago: what was sticking to the bottom, I figured, could only be dirt.

It was a well-groomed hand, as I’d established while the manager was uncorking the bottle Chablis Serge had ordered. Despite my earlier suspicions, there was nothing for him to hide: neat cuticles without hangnails, the nail itself trimmed short, no rings – it looked freshly washed, no signs of anything chronic. For the hand of a stranger, though, I felt as though it was coming too close to our food; it hovered less than an inch above the crayfish, and the pinkie itself came even closer, almost brushing the chanterelles.

I wasn’t sure I would be able to sit still when that hand, with its pinkie, was floating over my own plate, but for the sake of a pleasant evening I knew it would be better to restrain myself.

Paul is seething underneath at the pretentious maître d’, and you can sense that he may have anger management problems.

the dinner paperback

Although they’ve come out to a public place to eat, the two couples have a very serious and private discussion to come. Their teenage sons will be the subject – they’ve done something – something bad…

This much you can get from the blurb. It is hard to discuss this book in details without spoilers but I can assure you that Koch whips up the tension and piles on the levels of ghastliness throughout the dinner.

There’s not a single character to like.  Serge is too self-important, Paul is angry and jealous. Serge’s wife Babette is a trophy wife, and Paul’s wife Claire is, underneath her smiling exterior, a steely, manipulative cow who will do anything for her son.

It’s fair to say that although most of us found The Dinner compelling reading, all of us found it very distasteful, and downright nasty in places.  It made an ideal book to discuss at book group through being an issue-based novel with nature vs nurture at its heart – there being a key scene in this regard in a bike shop. This was especially so, as some years ago we read We need to talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver; there were plenty of points of comparison and contrast between the two.

We also had a good chuckle about pretentious restaurants as represented by the lobster on the trade paperback cover, and that tables near the toilets always seem to feature in books about food.  We also remembered other books we’d read where food is important, like John Lanchester’s The Debt to Pleasure.

The Dinner is easy to read. It was a great book group choice – provided you can fully discuss it with spoilers, however it didn’t leave us wanting to read more by its author necessarily.  (7.5/10)

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Source: Giveaway from the publisher. To explore books mentioned further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Dinner by Herman Koch translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett – pub Aug 2012, Atlantic Books, paperback 320 pages.
We Need To Talk About Kevin (Serpent’s Tail Classics) by Lionel Shriver
The Debt To Pleasure by John Lanchester

Crimes & Casinos, Miami & Puerto Rico – R.I.P. Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard. Photo: Lisa Carpenter, The Guardian.

Elmore Leonard. Photo: Lisa Carpenter, The Guardian.

I was sad to hear of the death of Elmore Leonard a week and a half ago. He was 87, and had suffered a stroke earlier in the month.

He was one of my favourite crime writers. I liked him particularly for his ability to make me laugh and of course for his distinct style which he worked out to help him remain invisible in his novels. This he encapsulated in his ten rules of writing:

Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing
1. Never open a book with weather.
2. Avoid prologues.
3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.
5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.
If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

* Excerpted from the New York Times article, “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle”

Leonard’s writing is very action driven, he really isn’t big on description, and yes, he doesn’t use adverbs to modify dialogue, they’re rare in the rest of the text too. Yet, from the characters dialogue and what they’re doing, the reader can intuit what they need.  But you need to concentrate! (note to self – use less exclamation marks, rule 5).

I realised that I hadn’t read one of his books for absolutely ages. Glitz, published in 1985, was his break-out crime novel.  He had started writing westerns in the 1950s including Hombre which was made into a film with Paul Newman in the 1960s, before changing direction into crime-writing.

Glitz by Elmore Leonard


One of the things that Leonard is brilliant at is opening lines…

The night Vincent was shot he saw it coming.

We’re straight into meeting Vincent Mora, an off-duty cop in Miami, who gets shot by a mugger on his way home from getting the groceries. He takes a slug through his side and ends up in intensive care, but not before firing back at his attacker. Vincent decides to convalesce in Puerto Rico, which is also where Teddy Magyk is, fresh out of prison. Enjoying himself, Vincent meets a girl, Iris. She’s been offered a job at a casino up in Atlantic City as a ‘hostess’. Iris also has the misfortune to be spotted by Teddy, and tells him about her new job.

Meanwhile once a cop, always a cop, and Vincent is helping the local police to keep busy – there are two bodies – a taxi driver and a little old lady.  Vincent has spotted Teddy watching him and Iris, and vaguely recognises him from somewhere – turns out Vincent put Teddy away seven years ago.  They can’t prove he did the murders yet, but deport him back to the mainland anyway.

Teddy promptly hotfoots it to Atlantic City, and then sends a ‘message’ that will get Vincent to follow too.  Vincent immerses himself in the business of Spade’s Boardwalk Casino where Iris was working and entertaining a gentleman from Bogotá. This unbeknowst to Nancy Donovan, wife of Tommy who owns the casino with Jackie Garbo – she is one sharp businesswoman…

‘A player brings in a lot of cash, hon, we have to look at it impartially, only as money, nothing else. In other words we have to keep our eye on the player’s line of credit. Guy bets heavy, offers us a shot at him, we have to concentrate on taking about twenty percent of his dough if we expect to make a profit.’ Tommy frowned. ‘I explained all this once before, didn’t I?’
Wrong wrong wrong. Jackie held onto the arms of his chair. She was going to kill him.
‘Mr Osvaldo Benavides, from Bogotá,’ Nancy said, ‘deposited a million nine, in cash, and left with our check for almost a million eight.’
Jackie watched Tommy twist in the chair again, the schmuck finally realizing what was happening to him. He took a moment and said, ‘That’s not twenty percent but, see, it averages out.’
‘Once a month,’ Nancy said, ‘you fly Mr. Benavides here in the company plane-‘
‘Just from Miami,’ Tommy said.
Jackie closed his eyes.
‘He draws up markers for up to two million in cash, loses five to ten percent, never more than that in the last seven months,’ Nancy said, ‘and goes home with a clean check for the balance. Mr.Benavides is laundering his money in our casino. Since you’re aware of it, both of you, I have to believe you approve.’
Tommy said, ‘Honey, Jesus Christ …’
Nancy waited, ‘Yes?’
‘Hon, this is a tricky, complicated business.’
Nancy waited again, Jackie watching her. Broad was a f**king shark. Gets her teeth in you and never lets go – and though, Wait a minute. She’s in the boat too, isn’t she?

glitz current uk

Again Vincent ends up informally helping the local police, particularly by stirring things up between the local hoods – ‘Wonderful things can happen,’ Vincent said, ‘when you plant seeds of distrust in a garden of assholes.’

All this time though, Vincent is unwittingly playing a cat and mouse game with Teddy, and Vincent is the mouse…

Glitz has everything that we’ve come to expect from an Elmore Leonard novel – the quick-fire repartee and cracking gags, guns and money, dumb hoodlums and sassy women, and always a couple of characters you can feel for.

Plotwise, this probably wasn’t my favourite so far of those I’ve read (I have a soft spot for Maximum Bob), but it was complicated and entertaining in equal measure. I’ll be reading lots more, including Hombre to see what his westerns are like.  (8.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
GlitzHombreMaximum BobElmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing – all by Elmore Leonard