Old heads on young shoulders, and yet …

Absolute Beginners by Colin MacInnes

absolute beginners

Narrated by an eighteen year old photographer, MacInnes’ novel captures the essence of what it was like to be a teenager in London in the late 1950s …

Mr Wiz continued, masticating his salmon sandwich for anyone to see, ‘It’s been a two-way twist, this teenage party. Exploitation of the kiddos by the conscripts, and exploitation of themselves by the crafty little absolute beginners. The net result? “Teenager” ‘s become a dirty word or, at any rate, a square one.’
I smiled at Mr W. ‘Well, take it easy, son,’ I said, ‘because a sixteen year old sperm like you has got a lot of teenage living still to do. As for me, eighteen summers, rising nineteen, I’ll very soon be out there among the oldies.

Ah – the arrogance of youth, to be considered old at twenty!

The novel follows our unnamed narrator through the summer of 1958, and we gradually meet all his friends like Mr Wiz above and neighbours, plus the love of his life Suzette.

Suze is a problem – she says loves him, but she also loves money and the trappings it can buy. She is tempted to marry an older homosexual chap to give him cover and her money. She dangles the narrator on her little finger yet carries on having flings.

The narrator has a small flat in a vibrant and Bohemian area of West London, which he finances through his photographic work – mostly selling pornographic pictures at this time, although he does have artistic ambitions. Downstairs lives Cool, a black man, whose white half-brother has just come to warn him of impending unrest…

‘…he gets round the area and knows the scene, and he says there’s trouble coming for the coloureds.’
I laughed out loud, but a bit nervously. ‘Oh Cool, you know, they’ve been saying that for years, and nothing’s happened. Well, haven’t they? I know in this country we treat the coloureds all like you-know-what, but we English are too lazy, son, to be violent. Anyway, you’re one of us, big boy, I mean home-grown, as much a native London kid as any of the millions, and much more so than hundreds of pure pink numbers from Ireland and abroad who’ve latched on to the Welfare thing, but don’t belong here like you do.’
My speech made no impression on Mr Cool. ‘I’m just telling you what Wilf says,’ he answered. ‘And all I know is, he likes coming here so little it must be something that makes him feel he ought to.’

As the summer heats up, so brews the tension. This is the era of Vespa scooters, Mods and Teds, rock’n’roll, and it will end in the Notting Hill race-riots.

If exploring youth culture and the social make-up of young London is the most serious theme of this novel, the lighter side is seeing what your average London teenager wears, and what they listen to.  The narrator is unusual for one who left school at fifteen in that he’s a reader.  He was lucky to have an inspirational teacher.

… he made me kinky about books: he managed to teach me – to this day, I don’t know how – that books were not just a thing like that – I mean, just books – but somebody else’s mind opened up for me to look into, and he taught me the habit, later on, of actually buying then! Yes – I mean real books, like the serious paperbacks, which must have been unknown among the kids up in the Harrow Road those days, who thought a book’s an SF or a Western, if they thought it’s anything.

Good chap!  But books aren’t his only love. Also very important, more important even, to most teenagers of the time (and now still?) is the music they listened to.  In the late 1950s, it wasn’t so unusual for teens to be into jazz…

…the great thing about the jazz world, and all the kids that enter into it, is that no one, not a soul, cares what your class is or what your race is, or what your income, so if you’re boy, or girl, or bent, or versatile, or what you are – so long as you dig the scene and can behave yourself, and have left all that crap behind you, too, when you come in the jazz club door.

absolute beginners penguin first edition

Contrasting against the non-stop activities of the teenagers is the different kind of relationship he has with his parents. He only really visits them in Pimlico where his mother runs a boarding house for unsavory types to use his old dark-room. There’s no love lost between the narrator and his mother, but he is determined to give his poor hen-pecked and ailing father a bit of fun this summer – they go off for a day cruising up the river.

Then it reaches September and the end of the summer. The tensions which had been simmering now begin to boil over. Our narrator turns nineteen, and it’s as if a switch is flipped in him – he does indeed have an old head on young shoulders.

Published in 1959, MacInnes (whom I discovered is Angela Thirkell’s son), was in his mid forties when he wrote it. His narrator uses a rich and complex vocabulary that seems older than his years – not quite Anthony Burgess’s Nadsat from A Clockwork Orange which would follow in 1962, more like the verbal flourishes that Russell Brand uses.  No-one is known by their real names either, it’s nicknames all the way – just like today’s teens.

What is scary is that in those days, the majority of teenagers were released from the shackles of school out into the big wide world at the age of fifteen.  I was scared stiff to leave school at eighteen twenty years later!  Through MacInnes’s eyes, these teenagers seem so worldly and happy-go-lucky as they dive into London life with real gusto.

absolute beginners film tie-in editionSome of you may recall the 1986 film adaptation starring Patsy Kensit as a rather toned down Suzette and theme tune by David Bowie. Bowie also acted in it, alongside Ray Davies as the father.

Those are the names I remember, but also in the film were James Fox, Mandy Rice-Davies, Steven Berkoff, Lionel Blair, and Edward Tudor-Pole, plus Alan ‘Fluff’ Freeman no less!

absolute beginners single david bowie

I remember seeing the film on the big screen and really enjoying it – but it was a big flop for the British film company that financed it. In particular, the critics didn’t like a 1950s film with a 1980s soundtrack – Sade and The Style Council contributed; authenticity was added by veteran jazzman Gil Evans, but that wasn’t enough.  I bought the 12″ single though…

I’m currently very drawn to British books set in this pre-Beatles era.  Absolute Beginners is the middle novel of a trilogy of standalone novels by MacInnes – together known as his London Trilogy.  The others are City of Spades and Mr Love and Justice and I would definitely like to read them. (8.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Absolute Beginners (Allison & Busby Classics), paperback, 350 pages.
City of Spades, Mr Love And Justice

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Ten Books that Represent Great Britain

A couple of days ago, Simon at Savidge Reads and Thomas at My Porch created a new meme (Yes Simon, I know you didn’t want to call it a meme, but it is one – a nice one!). The challenge is to pick ten books that sum up your own country geographically but authors from that country. Simon has also made his post WWII in its scope – so a state of the nation picture as well.

I couldn’t resist the challenge. I have also kept it current in scope, and all books I’ve written about on this blog. The one bit I couldn’t do, and apologies to the land of my mother’s birth, but I have had to make it a Great Britain list (i.e. England, Wales and Scotland) rather than UK, as I couldn’t find a book to include for Northern Ireland. So here goes (all the links are to my reviews):

Firstly London and the Home Counties:

balthazar jones1. Balthazar Jones and the Tower of London Zoo by Julia Stuart.

This novel represents heritage and London Transport. Heritage through the titular Balthazar Jones being a Beefeater at the Tower, put in charge of the Queen’s Royal Menagerie, and LT through his wife Hebe working in the Underground’s lost property office where all of human life can be found. It sounds as though it should be an historical novel, but it was a lovely surprise to find that it was modern.  Charming and touching in equal measure, with some lovely comic moments.

rivers of london2. Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch

This novel represents rivers and my birthplace. The first in a series of paranormal police procedurals, there is a rich vein of fun running through this book – which leads to the raiding of a vampires’ nest in Purley (my birthplace), but you’ll never look at Covent Garden or Bloomsbury in the same way after reading it either.  The great rivers being personified by modern day Gods and Goddesses adds a more serious mythological flow to the narrative.  Hugely imaginative, there are now four books in the series. (Note to self – get reading them!).

mr loverman3. Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo

This pick is all about diversity.  At its heart is Barrington Walker, a sharp-suited seventy-four year old who emigrated to Hackney from Antigua in the 1960s.  Barry has a big secret, since his childhood his friend Morris has been his lover.  Barry’s wife Carmel, thinks he’s a philandering womaniser, whereas Morris is urging him to finally do right by him.  Add two contrary daughters to the mix and you have a richly bittersweet and hilarious family drama. I loved every page of this book.

Moving northwards to the Midlands

200px-TheSecretDiaryOfAdrianMole4. The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13 3/4 by Sue Townsend

Adrian Mole is one of the funniest characters ever written. A product of working class folk in the Midlands, he is pompous in his unshakeable belief that he could be a great writer, but loveable too.  His eight volumes of diaries take him from his early teens through to forty, chronicling the decades from the 1980s into the noughties with superb wit.

Now moving north and east to Yorkshire …

gods own5. God’s Own Country by Ross Raisin

The North York Moors come to life in this story of a young man and his dog. Stuck working on the farm and virtually ignored by his parents, teenager Sam wanders the Moors. Then a family of incomers move into the area and he falls for their daughter. Rich in nature and landscape, and enhanced with a smattering of Yorkshire dialect, this novel was a fine debut and Raisin was picked as one of Granta’s latest Young British Writers under 40.

Going west …

mills all quiet6. All Quiet on the Orient Express by Magnus Mills

Set in the Lake District during off-season, Mills’s hilarious novel encapsulates the plight of the outsider trying to fit into a community, when a plucky tourist stays on after his holiday looking for work.  The book also highlights that it’s always a long way round lakes by road, especially by milk float. All of Mills’s novels are primarily about men and their work, and this one – his second – is still his best.

We now hop over the border into Scotland …

stonemouth7. Stonemouth by Iain Banks

I would have included Banks’s The Crow Road, but haven’t read it during the life of my blog – so Stonemouth represents his writing instead. A Scottish seaside town is the setting for the funeral of the grandfather of the Murston clan, one of Stonemouth’s two ruling families. Stewart Gilmour is returning under a truce for it five years after they ran him out of town. Will he survive the long weekend? Will he see Ellie again? Cracking dialogue, punchy action, and some beautiful writing make this a fabulous read.

hamish mcbeath 18. Death of a Gossip by M C Beaton

Completely opposite in style to Iain Banks’s characters is Hamish Macbeth – the canny police constable that would like an easy life on Scotland’s scenic west coast.  Beaton is the current queen of the cosy mystery and the combination of the beautiful location, fun characters, and Hamish’s laid-back style of investigation all combine to make murder seem almost nothing to worry about! Personally I much prefer Hamish to her other long series featuring Agatha Raisin. The first two in the series were fun – I have another 25 to go!

Then down we go into Wales …

mab1

9. White Ravens by Owen Sheers

Representing farming and the food cycle, this short novel is a retelling of the story of Branwen, daughter of Llyr, from the second branch of the Mabinogion – a set of medieval Welsh stories of Celtic origin.  The beginning is set on a farm beset with foot and mouth. The farming brothers go out stealing lambs to supply fancy restaurants in London, and their sister Rhi has to drive the van one day. At the Tower of London (there again!) she meets an old man who tells her a story of raven chicks, and an act of revenge of savage butchery. Grim but gripping with Sheers’ powerful writing.

And finally we join the dots, with a 627 mile journey from Devon to Northumbria…

harold fry10. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

A road novel with a difference. Retired Harold Fry sets out to post a letter to an old friend who he’s discovered is dying of cancer, but decides he’ll deliver it himself. Only problem – he’s in Devon and Queenie is in Berwick-upon-Tweed up by the Scottish border.  On his journey, Harold meets some wonderful people, gets to appreciate nature along the way, and finds himself becoming a celebrity and being taken advantage of. We also learn about Harold’s life, how he and his wife Maureen have ended up in a rut; It’s a tear-jerking page-turner that just manages to stay the right side of sentimentality.

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So that’s my ten books touring around Great Britain.  Having limited myself to those I’ve written about on my blog and British authors, I wasn’t able to include East Anglia, or the great northern conurbations of Manchester and Liverpool.  I would have liked to include a university novel for Oxford and Cambridge too, but couldn’t squeeze one in. Likewise, Beryl Bainbridge and Muriel Spark with their northern and London novels which mostly weren’t quite contemporary enough.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my tour.  Feel free to have a go yourself and link back to Simon and Thomas.

The answers are in Africa in this novel …

The Coincidence Authority by J W Ironmonger

the-coincidence-authority

At first glance this novel may seem like a quirky romance between two unlikely would-be lovers, Azalea and Thomas, who having found each other, get mixed up in Azalea’s quest to analyse what she believes are coincidences that happened to her family, and many father figures.

Underneath this gentle and humorous exterior, however, is a mass of violence.  The frustrations of modern life in London give way to child soldiers toting guns in deepest Uganda as all the tragedies in Azalea’s childhood which are gradually unravelled and we hear about her childhood.

How Thomas, a university professor who specialises in analysing coincidences, and Azalea, who lectures at a different London college meet, could be construed as a coincidence in itself or is it just serendipitous that they are involved in a pile-up on an escalator in the Underground?  Soon after, they meet properly when she comes to him to ask about her own life’s events.

 ‘I’m getting used to the universe springing surprises.’
‘Would it help if I were to explain why coincidences happen? Why it is that we frail humans have to find patterns in nature?’
‘It might help.’

Azalea was adopted after she was found wandering in a fairground in Devon, aged 3. Her mother had disappeared, she was unable to tell the police where any of the three men who might have been her father were. Azalea is adopted by Luke and Rebecca Folley, and soon taken to Uganda – to a charitable mission and orphanage founded by Luke’s grandfather. There she has an idyllic childhood until the day that Joseph Kony (a very real guerilla leader who led the LRA – the Lord’s Resistance Army – in Uganda, and abducted children to become sex-slaves and child soldiers, and is still at large), came up the mission drive.

‘Are you familiar with the hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers marching off to war”? asked the soldier of Rebecca.
Rebecca shrank slightly. ‘It’s marching as to war.’
The mission bell began to ring.
As to war,’ she said, ‘not off to war. It has a completely differnt meaning.’
Dingdingdingdingdingdingding
‘It is a command for Christian Soldiers to fight,’ said the man, ‘to go off to war and fight.’
‘No, it isn’t,’ Rebecca said. ‘It’s a metaphor. The hymn is telling us that we must face up to evil – but not with violence.’
‘”With the cross of Jesus going on before”,’ said the soldier triumphantly. ‘”Onward into battle, see his banners go.'”
Dingdingdingdingdingdingding
The LRA man’s attention began to turn towards Luke and his urgent ringing of the bell.

Never argue with a man with a gun.  However, the conversation buys time for some of the children to escape.  Soon, Azalea’s adoptive mother is murdered, her father presumed too, Azalea is captured, but (obviously) escapes.

Back in the present day, Azalea and Thomas slip into a relationship that neither is quite ready to make solid. Azalea is still bound to explore all her coincidences, and Thomas feels beholden to explain them, to explain them away if necessary. This situation reminds me very much of the wonderful and hilarious comedy novel The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion, where a quest for fathers also gets in the way of romance. Ironmonger’s book is no comedy though, despite having moments of gentle humour.

All the threads will finally get resolved, and there is a rather predictable ending – no coincidence there! I enjoyed reading it a lot, but did find Thomas rather wet, and the older Azalea is a tad irritating. The sections set in Azalea’s childhood are where it all comes alive – growing up happily at the mission, marred forever by violence.

By necessity perhaps, there is quite a lot of explanation in this novel – my geeky side enjoyed thinking about the statistics of coincidence, but please don’t worry – there are no equations or complex maths, just discussions about coin-flipping, lottery numbers, birthdays etc.  Yes, it slows things up a little, but the course of true love never did run smooth, as Shakespeare said.

Less necessary to the plot, but making the situation clear that this corner of Uganda, close to borders with Congo, Kenya and especially Sudan, is a haven for guerilla groups, was a lengthy description of the political situation and the evolution of the different warring factions.  Serious as this is, I’m sorry, I couldn’t help but think of the People’s Front of Judea crying ‘Splitters‘ at the Judean People’s Front and the Popular Front of Judea et al in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, when seeing how the factions named themselves.

Mimicking Thomas’s website in the book, you can also visit The Coincidence Authority.com, where you are invited to share your own coincidences. This is, of course, a marketing exercise, but contains some entertaining stories. For anyone interested in the subject, I’d recommend reading Paul Auster’s essays in The Red Notebook (my review here), for some eloquently described examples, and you may be interested in finding out more about influencing luck in Richard Wiseman’s The Luck Factor, (my review here).

This novel may not be perfect, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. (7.5/10)

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Source: Amazon Vine review copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Coincidence Authority by J W Ironmonger, pub Sept 2013 by Weidenfeld & Nicholson, hardback, 277 pages.
The Red Notebook by Paul Auster
The Luck Factor: The Scientific Study of the Lucky Mind by Richard Wiseman

Telling it from the monster’s side …

Sad Monsters: Growling on the Outside, Crying on the Insideby Frank Lesser.

Sad Monsters

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been having a chuckle dipping into this book of humorous short pieces, which are written from monsters’ points of view. Almost any monster you can think of puts in an appearance – let me give you a flavour of some of my favourites:

Questioning Godzilla’s Existence
March 8 – Wound up hitting snooze for six more months. Barely had enough energy to rampage to the bathroom, let alone through a city, but finally rolled out of bed and destroyed Tokyo. Again. Starting to wonder what’s the point? They’re just going to rebuild.
March 12 – Couldn’t sleep, so woke up early and went for a job through Osaka. Kept wondering what happens to people after I stomp on them. Do they have souls that live on, that I can also stomp on? Or is the human soul unstompable? Maybe I’m just going through a midlife thing Never had these worries during the Mesozoic era. When I was younger, each screaming villager felt like a triumph, like I was really doing something with my life. Now I just wish they’d shut up and accept it, or at least quit it with the anti-aircraft missiles. Those thing really irritate my eczema.

The rest of Godzilla’s diary is similarly existential. You can also find a whole series of personal ads, a bestiary of unsuccessful monsters, an interior design guide on how to keep your genie happy, and so on. Then there’s this one:

The Joy of Unicorns
Hey, preteen girls, put down the rock and roll music records and listen up! If you give up your virginity before you get married, you’ll miss out on something far better than sex: befriending a unicorn. …
However, one night of mind-blowing, soul-shattering ecstasy means you’ll never in your life enjoy this magical creature’s gentle nuzzling. (It feels like taking a bubble bath full of giggling puppies!) And unlike a sex-crazed boyfriend, a unicorn will never “use” you. …
So the next time your boyfriend tries to get you to “go all the way,” tell him you don’t want to “horse” around, because you’d rather get “horn-y” with your platonic unicorn. then be sure to tell your unicorn what you said. They love puns, and every time a unicorn laughs, an angel has tender sexual intercourse on her wedding night. And nine months later, a rainbow is born!

I always hated My Little Pony!  There are many more –  notes on the fridge from Dorian Grey’s flatmate, Igor’s résumé and a reference for a yeti who wants to get into fashion to highlight just a few.  My last favourite though is a sermon from a Mer-preacher, here’s a small snippet:

The world above the waves seems to offer so much: sunlight, dancing, food that isn’t sushi. But assimilating into human society is no fairy tale. I would tell you to ask the Little Mermaid, but you can’t, because as we learn in the Gospel of Hans Christian, when her love married someone else, the godless mer-whore disintegrated into sea foam.

Everyone will have their own favourites amongst these forty or so pieces depending on the appeal to the reader of the monsters lampooned – I’m not bothered about mummies or Bigfoot, but love fairy tale beasts, vampires and werewolves and their ilk. Some tales work better than others, but they’re clever, ingenious and full of good puns. My only criticism is that they’re mostly written in the same jocular tone, and if you read more than a few at a time, it can get get a little samey. This is often the case with humour collections though – I love the late Alan Coren’s columns, but again can only read a couple at a time, so distinctive was his voice.

Taken in small bites, I feel I’ve got to know all these Sad Monsters so much better. This book is great fun, and ideal seasonal fare for those who scare easily. (7.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Sad Monsters: Growling on the Outside, Crying on the Inside by Frank Lesser, pub Oct 2013 by Souvenir Press, paperback.

Introducing Bernie Rhodenbarr

Lawrence-Block-author-photo-croppedIt’s some years since I read one of Lawrence Block’s crime novels, and then I’ve only read the first twelve of his seventeen Matt Scudder books. In this series alcoholic ex-cop turned private investigator Scudder plies his trade around the shady joints of NYC. Scudder is a very likeable PI, but the books are quite dark.

Block has several other series, but apart from Scudder is mostly known for his ten novels featuring the gentleman burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr, who also lives and works in NYC. The Rhodenbarr books are much lighter fare than Scudder, and Bernie is very much a modern day Raffles (see my Raffles review here).

The first in the series is Burglars can’t be choosers.  Bernie can’t believe his luck when he is offered five grand to lift a blue leather box from a  desk in a posh apartment by a chap who won’t give his name but seems strangely familiar.

Rhodenbarr 1I rode to the fourth floor, poked around until I found the stairway, and walked down a flight. I almost always do this and I sometimes wonder why. I think someone must have done it in a movie once and I was evidently impressed, bit it’s really waste of time, especially when the elevator in question is self-service. The one thing it does is fix in your mind where the stairs are, should you later need them in a hurry, but you ought to be able to locate stairs without scampering up or down them.

On the third floor, I found my way to Apartment 311 at the front of the building. I stood for a moment, letting my ears do the walking, and then I gave the bell a thorough ring and waited thirty seconds before ringing it again.

And that, let me assure you, is not a waste of time. Public institutions throughout the fifty states provide food and clothing and shelter for lads who don’t ring the bell first. And it’s not enough just poking the silly thing. A couple of years back I rang the bell diligently enough at the Park Avenue co-op of a charming couple named Sandoval, poked the little button until my finger throbbed, and wound up going directly to jail without passing Go. The bell was out of order, the Sandovals were home scoffing toasted English muffins in the breakfast nook, and Bernard G. Rhodenbarr soon found himself in a little room with bars in the windows.

Applying his lock-picking skills, Bernie is soon through the door, but there’s no box. Then two policemen burst in. Bernie is old friends with one, and has come prepared with ‘walkaway money’. The other younger cop isn’t so sure but takes the bribe, and goes to the bathroom only to come out shouting there’s a body in the bedroom and it’s still warm, or words to that effect, before fainting. Bernie runs, thinking he’s been framed.

He ends up at an acquaintance’s apartment. Rod, an actor, is away on an acting job, and once in Bernie prepares to lie low for a bit. However he is awoken by someone knocking over the plant by his bedside. She introduces herself as Ruth, come to water Rod’s plants.  Ere long, Bernie has involved Ruth in his plans to clear his name, and the two also hit it off in the bedroom. The mystery turns out to be quite convoluted – I’d have never solved it. But Bernie sorts it all out in the end.

The crime isn’t the main thing in this novel however – it’s introducing Bernie. We get to know that he’s been in prison when younger, and that he doesn’t plan to go back. He does just enough jobs to finance his lifestyle, but is addicted to the thrill of the heist. I also have a feeling that he’ll have a different girl in every book.

Personally, I much prefer Scudder who is an essentially honest guy, but is more fallible with his own demons to fight too. Bernie is fundamentally dishonest – a slick thief who has a way with the ladies and is good at comic one-liners. He does have a redeeming feature though that I’ve yet to encounter … In the third book in the series, he takes over a bookshop, which he then keeps afloat with funds from his burglaries.  That will keep me reading!  (7/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Burglars Can’t be Choosers (Bernie Rhodenbarr Mystery) by Lawrence Block, 1977. Currently o/p but s/h copies available.

Gothic with a twist

Isabel’s Skin by Peter Benson

isabel's skinPeter Benson is one of those underrated British authors that never write the same book twice. Each novel is different. I’ve only read one of his before: that was Odo’s Hanging about the commissioning of the Bayeux Tapestry published in the mid 1990s. Lately he’s been best known for Two Cows and a Vanful of Smoke, a contemporary novel about lads and weed. With Isabel’s Skin, he’s doing something different again – a gothic tale set in Edwardian England.

The story is narrated by David Morris, a quiet man who describes himself thus:

I used to be a book valuer. I was employed by an auction house. I was trusted, respected and pleased. I lived in London in comfortable rooms, and I had money in the bank. I lived alone, and although I had friends and acquaintances, I was not close to any of them. I had brown hair and blue eyes. … My rooms were on the top floor of a house close by Highbury Fields. Beyond, to the north and west, spread the swelling slums of the city and their cloaks and dresses of smoke and filth. I did not know these places, and I tried to keep them at a distance. I confess my ignorance, though my ignorance was not bred of disinterest. I believed the ragged should live in the minds of the fortunate, but I was still – and thought I would always be – a top-floor man.

David is asked to go to rural Somerset to value the library of a recently deceased book collector. From the moment he gets off the train and finds a ride to get to the remote village of Ashbrittle, you know that we are in Gothic spine-chiller territory. It happens every time someone comes from the city to the country in this type of novel.

Abandoned by the carter, he’s warned by an urchin not to go to Ashbrittle, but finally reaches Belmont House, now closed up with just the housekeeper in residence. He discovers the library is full of rare books of great value, but must do his cataloguing in gloom – Lord Buff-Orpington never opened the window shutters.  This doesn’t bother David, for he is soon in reveries over the volumes in the collection. So we’ve added the house and house-keeper to the Gothic equation. Where’s the ghost, or prisoner in the attic?  Benson is not going to be that obvious.

It’s not until David goes out for a walk, (inexorably drawn in the wrong direction of course), that things happen.  He meets Professor Hunt who lives close by, and they have a civil conversation. Morris asks the Professor what he does.

‘I do not do, young man. I work. I create.’
‘My apologies. What do you create, Prefessor Hunt?’
‘I would not tell you, even if I could. But siffice to say it is a marvel.’ I thought he was going to continue, but he stopped suddenly, looked straight into my eyes and shool his head.
‘I see,’ I said.
‘No,’ he said, ‘you do not. How could you?’
‘I …’
‘How could you even begin to see?’
‘I didn’t mean to imply…’
‘I am sure you didn’t.’
‘… that I know…’
‘Of course you didn’t,’ he said and he turned, bowed politely, took a couple of steps back, and before I had the chance to ask him anything else, he signalled the end of the meeting with a raised hand and said ‘It was very interesting to meet you. It’s good to talk to someone with something to say. Too many of the people round here are idiots. Idiots and fools. You cannot talk to any of them…’ And then he was gone and I was left standing alone.

Morris finds the Professor has dropped his tiepin. Given the excuse to visit him, he sets out after dinner – and this is when he hears a woman screaming in the Professor’s house…

I’ll keep the suspense and won’t tell you any more of substance. You’ll have worked out for yourself already that the Professor is mad, and it goes without saying that Morris will feel compelled to rescue the screaming woman, and the chase will be on – will he fall in love too? …

Morris wasn’t looking for adventure, but when it found him, he rather relished it. If you swap mad professors for spies – you’d have a character in the mould of Buchan’s Richard Hannay (my review of The 39 Steps here), but slightly toned down. Morris’s adventure also causes him to review his relationship with his father, and his own lonely existence. His thoughts are introspective, but suited to the expanse of the landscape that Benson creates.

Isabel’s skin is a quietly affecting gothic tale, it contains all the elements you expect, but is put together in a slightly different way.  The prologue has Morris setting the scene of where he ends up before launching into the story of his adventure, beginning with the first passage quoted above.  It does take itself a tad seriously, but I rather enjoyed it. (8/10)

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Source: Publisher – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Isabel’s Skin by Peter Benson, pub Sept 2013, Alma books paperback, 250 pages.

What a Wonderful World – the Blog Tour stops here today…

What a Wonderful World jacketToday science writer Marcus Chown’s blog tour to promote his book What a Wonderful World: One Man’s Attempt to Explain the Big Stuff, stops here!

Marcus is the cosmology consultant of New Scientist magazine, and has published several successful popular science volumes which have delighted science enthusiasts on cosmology, quantum physics, and other physics concepts, (see my previous posts here and here).

Now Marcus is branching out from just physics. Read on to see a short quiz, and find out how you can win a copy. But first, let Marcus introduce the book to you …

Chown Marcus 2013 (c) Eleanor CrowWhat A Wonderful World is my attempt to explain everything – from finance to thermodynamics, sex to special relativity, human evolution to holography – in straight-forward, accessible, everyday language. My hope is that, if everything has passed you by in a high-speed blur, my book will quickly and painlessly bring you up to speed on how the world of the 21st century works. Of course, I haven’t really covered everything. Think of it as my attempt to explain everything… volume 1!

All this ‘big stuff’ is divided into five parts:  How we work, Putting matter to work, Earth works, Deep workings, and The Cosmic Connection. I’ve not quite finished reading the book, so my review will follow – but as non-biologist (I’m a materials scientist by trade), I can confirm that the first section did indeed bring me up to speed in many areas.

Meanwhile, Marcus has supplied me with a little quiz for you – you may find the answers surprising.  If you highlight the text at the bottom of the post, they will be revealed.

Q1: The microchips in every phone and pretty much every electronic device in the world were designed in:

a)   England
b)   USA
c)    South Korea

Q2: While reading this question your body will build how many cells?

a)   30 million
b)   30 thousand
c)   30

Q3: There was no improvement in the design of stone hand-axes for:

a)    14,000 years
b)   140,000 years
c)   1.4 million years

* * * GIVEAWAY TIME! * * *

If this has intrigued you, the publishers are kindly supplying three copies of Marcus’s book as a giveaway.  Sadly, this is open to UK addresses only. It will close at teatime on October 15th, when my newly teenaged daughter (can you explain where the time goes Marcus?!) will do her pulling the names out of the hat trick.

Just comment below, and if you’d like to share any quirky scientific fact, name your favourite scientist, or make any science-based observation, you’re welcome, but don’t feel obliged to!

It just remains for me to thank Marcus, and wish him all the best with the new book.

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The ‘What a Wonderful World Blog Tour‘ continues, visiting these sites:

13th October – Keris Stainton
14th October – Teen Librarian
15th October – Penguin Galaxy
16th October – Open Democracy

Quiz Answers – highlight to reveal: Q1: a) England Q2: a) 30 million Q3: c) 1.4 million years.

What a cast!

A vintage theatrical diversion for you today… Sorting through a pile of assorted clippings, programmes etc of my late mum’s I found this theatre programme … and my first thought was ‘What a cast!’  You can see for yourself …

CCF08102013_00000 (1024x760)

The Way of the World is one of the very best Restoration comedies, first performed in 1700. The action is centred around two lovers, Mirabell and Millamant, who need the permission of Lady Wishfort to marry to get a full dowry. Lady Wishfort, however, would prefer her nephew Sir Wilfull to marry Mirabell.

Gielgud not only starred in and directed this production, but assembled an all-star cast: Eric Porter, Paul Schofield, Peter Sallis (Cracking cheese, Gromit), two young female stars in Pamela Brown and Eileen Herlie, Margaret Rutherford, and at the bottom – Catweazle himself Geoffrey Bayldon.

I was able to find a review of this production from The Spectator archive of theatre reviews from Feb 27th, 1953, selected quotes follow:

THE more faultless a play, perhaps, the more difficult a job there is for the producer. The Way of the World is a very nearly perfect comedy; against the original felicities of Congreve John Gielgud’s presentation—the latest period-piece at the Hammersmith Lyric, a kind of salty hors d’oeuvre before the tremendous meal of Otway- shows flaws which have caused it to be roughly handled. But, if these cannot be ignored, they are far less important than the style, judgement, and elegance of the whole; …
There are, certainly, some odd quirks of casting. Pamela Brown is a very queer Millamant, whom the effort of outrageous affectation seems to leave perpetually out of breath. … Margaret Rutherford, rolling and heaving her way, like the White Queen feeling an improbable access of desire, through the predicaments of Lady Wishfort, is even further from her ordinary territory, but she conquers the ground for herself. She is stupendously out of place and time, but she is stupendous; it does not really matter how Lady Wishfort is funny so long as she is as funny as that.
Beside this rollicking performance Mr. Gielgud’s Mirabell is hardly noticeable, retiring with admirable stage-manners to his proper place. This remains, however, the unobtrusive centre of the comedy, and Mr. Gielgud does not forget it ; around his debonair, cultivated, and elegant figure—such legs must have been the envy of all the beaux in St. James’s—the entire heartless, good-humoured, polite machinery revolves. … the most polished talk in the world spoken for the most part with spirit and intelligence—it would be possible to ask more, but it might be thought, rather greedy.’ C. S.

I love the critic’s description of Margaret Rutherford – stupendous!

Brown, Gielgud and Rutherford in Way of the World, Lyric Theatre 1953, photo by Zoe Dominic from Plays and Players magazine.

Brown, Gielgud and Rutherford in Way of the World, Lyric Theatre 1953, photo by Zoe Dominic from Plays and Players magazine.

Caryl Brahms, writing for Plays and Players magazine in 1953, was also not a fan of Pamela Brown, describing her voice as “part turtle-dove’s roo-coo, part nutmeg grater” and bemoans the fact that “Miss Brown seems only to have up her sleeve Miss Brown – her ace of aces. But what a self Miss Brown has! … The Gods forfend that we should have Miss Brown act a character instead of her fascinating self…

I’m overjoyed that I’ve been able to refer to “Plays and Players”: 1953-68 v. 1: Thirty Years of British Theatre (link to Amazon UK) to provide the photo and more information. I picked this volume up at a book sale, and it has sat there on the shelf for ages.  I have few of my mum’s theatre programmes left now, but I do have a diary of all the plays, ballets and operas she went to see from 1950 onwards – this could inspire more posts!

 

Life by the tracks …

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

train dreamsI couldn’t bring myself to spend £12.99 on the hardback of this novella, but now it is out in paperback I snapped it up as I’d heard great things about it – and wilderness novels always seem to appeal to me.

Train Dreams tells the life story of Robert Grainier, who as a child arrives in Idaho on the train in the 1880s to live with his uncle having lost his parents – we never learn how. Robert becomes a hard worker, on the railroads and in the forests in the northern tip of the state close to the Canadian border. He marries relatively late, in his thirties, and after his wife and child are presumed dead in forest fire, lives on his own for the rest of his days into his eighties.

As the novel opens, Grainier is working on a railroad bridge across a gorge, and lends a hand to colleagues who are planning to throw a supposedly thieving Chinaman off the bridge. The Chinaman escaped, but Grainier feels cursed by having taken part in the shameful exploit…

Walking home in the falling dark, Grainier almost met the Chinaman everywhere. Chinaman in the road. Chinaman in the woods. Chinaman walking softly, dangling his hands on arms like ropes. Chinaman dancing up out of the creek like a spider…

Now Grainier stood by the table in the single-room cabin and worried. The Chinaman, he was sure, had cursed them powerfully while they dragged him along, and any bad thing might come of it. Though astonished now at the frenzy of the afternoon, baffled by the violence, and how it had carried him away like a seed in a wind, young Grainier still wished they’d gone head and killed that Chinaman before he’d cursed them.

He feels the Chinaman’s curse is responsible for the presumed death of his wife and daughter when a terrible forest fire burns everything in the whole valley where their homestead was built. He will eventually return there and rebuild the cabin, living a near hermit life with just his dog for company for half of each year, working the other months. Once his ageing joints are no longer any good for logging work, he becomes a haulier for hire with horses and wagon. He makes enough to get by, but it is a hard life.

I’m not generally comfortable with short stories, which often feel as if they’re over before they’ve started for me. However, I am happy with the novella / short novel form which has enough length to tell a good story, but in keeping it short makes every sentence count.

This is the case with Train Dreams. Johnson manages to compress eighty years into not many more pages, but also to encompass all that was important in Grainier’s life within that constraint, always with the railroad somewhere in the distance or in his dreams. We appreciate Grainier’s sheer hard work and pioneer spirit, we’re sad with him for the loss of his wife and child, and feel his loneliness when he returns to his backwoods cabin where he is left to commune with nature.

Grainier’s life in the cabin brings to mind another book rich with the pioneer spirit – Eowyn Ivey’s wonderful novel The Snow Child. There is more than that point of similarity, but I won’t expound for fear of spoiling, suffice to say that magic plays no part in Grainier’s life, except in his dreams and grief.

What is amazing about this short novel is that, despite its condensed nature, like Doctor Who’s TARDIS, it is bigger on the inside. Every sentence does indeed count. Its beginning featuring the episode with the Chinaman may not initially endear you to Grainier, but his strength of character will get you as you read on.  This was my first experience of reading Denis Johnson, I’m sure it won’t be my last. (9/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore on Amazon UK, please click below:
Train Dreams by Denis Johnson – Granta paperback, 116 pages. First published 2002 – Buy

From drifter to hitman …

King of the Ants by Charlie Higson

Higson King of the Ants

Comedian and author Charlie Higson has lately been very successful in scaring the pants off older children with his rather wonderful zombie novels, and giving a sense of thrilling adventure in his Young Bond series. You may not be aware that before all that, he wrote four gritty adult thrillers of which King of the Ants, published in 1992 was the first.

It starts off by being a story about men and their work. Sean Crawley is a bit of a drifter, going from job to job as a labourer or decorator, and then spending all of his wages in the pub. He was recently dumped by his girlfriend too, so is feeling still feeling sorry for himself.

One day he meets ‘Duke’ Wayne, self-styled cowboy builder on a job, and chatting at the pub Sean says how he’d love to be a private detective. Duke knows a man who might need a bit of help in that way- so a change in career direction occurs.  Sean meets Derek Mathews, an even bigger cowboy builder, who hires Sean to stalk a chap who works for the council who is knows that something is going on with a whole lot of building contracts.

Sean may be a drifter but he’s a little bit of a perfectionist, and he takes this new comparatively well-paid employment very seriously.  Despite not driving a car, he manages to follow Eric Gatley, and overhears a conversation between Gatley and a journalist.  He reports back via Duke, and this is when this tale of small-time hoodlums in the building trade starts to get nasty.

Sean, buoyed by his success, and full of the false confidence that a skinful of booze gives, agrees to take it to the next stage. Given only a small down-payment he murders Gatley and takes the incriminating file, confident that he won’t get caught.  However the balance of his fee doesn’t get paid, and naturally, the police turn their attention towards Mathews, and Sean has to make himself scarce.

What follows is a cat and mouse game between Sean and Mathews and his henchmen. The violence is downright nasty – sickening in places, as Sean metamorphoses from an aimless drifter into a cold-blooded killer.

Higson’s style starts off like a cross between Magnus Mills and Christopher Brookmyre – full of blokey banter about men and their jobs. There are a few touches of humour but not as much as in either Mills or Brookmyre. It seems to be more about Sean’s descent into evil, the turning of an ordinary working class bloke who gets into the wrong company, into a complete amoral anti-hero. Worse still, I felt compelled to carry on reading to see what would happen next to Sean – who may have been named after 007 himself, Sean Connery, but proves to have few ethics, (‘It’s a county near Thuthex, ithn’t it?‘).  I did also feel a little cheated by the final ending – but I won’t spoil that here.

Higson writes well, but this is very dark, very gritty, very violent and … you could almost imagine it happening for real.  I love his children’s books, but I’m not sure whether I could stomach his other adult books unless they are funnier.  (7/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
King of the Antsby Charlie Higson, 1992. Abacus paperback 304 pages