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)

* * * * *
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

Advertisements

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.

* * * * *

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)

* * * * *
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)

* * * * *

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.

Bookish bits and bobs

A whole host of bookish bits and pieces for you today. Thank you for all your great suggestions for my book quiz – much appreciated. do keep them coming.

First though, the winners of copies of Marcus Chown’s new book What a Wonderful World were: Col and Kaggsy. I’ll pass your addresses (which I have from previous giveaways) onto the publicist who will arrange copies to be sent to you. Well done.

* * * * *

autobiographymorrissey_lrgIs anyone planning to read Autobiography by Morrissey? I’ve got a copy, and am admitting to feeling daunted by it. The opening lines go like this:

My childhood is streets upon streets upon streets upon streets. Streets to define you and streets to confine you, with no sign of motorway, freeway or highway. Somewhere beyond hides the treat of the countryside, for hour-less days when rains and reins life, permitting us to be amongst people who live surrounded by space and are irked by our faces. Until then we live in forgotten Victorian knife-plunging Manchester, where everything lies wherever it was left over one hundred years ago.

I don’t know if I can survive a whole book (without many paragraphs either) of this poetic and long-winded way of saying ‘My childhood was lived amongst the rows of terraced houses that are the remnants of Victorian Manchester’ or words to that effect. OK – my paraphrase is not a great opening sentence like his, but I’m not sure at this stage whether I’ll take to it or not. I should nail my colours to the mast, and say although I appreciate some of the great singles, I’m not a fan or The Smiths or Morrissey, whom I’ve always regarded as a ‘pretentious – moi?’ kind of person. I will admit to some curiosity though …

* * * * *

I’m lucky in that Abingdon is a bookish town, even though it’s only ten miles from Oxford centre. We have independent bookshops, plus plenty of second-hand book sales. Just got back from one at Shippon Church Hall (Barrow Rd, close to Dalton Barracks – on until 4pm today).

001

I think I got a good haul for a fiver. A handful of modern classic fare, Vol 3 of the Cazalets series by Elizabeth Jane Howard – to complete my set, plus two SF titles to re-read from my late teens – I’m dying to see if they hold up to re-reading decades later. Christopher Priest has gone on to become a bit of a cult author (The Prestige etc.)

* * * * *

002

Had another little bookish pleasing yesterday. Inspired by something I read which I can’t tell you about yet, I got my copy of Nina Bawden’s The Birds on the Trees off the shelf, opened it up and found this.

Looking forward to reading it even more now.

* * * * *

And finally, I haven’t talked about our kittens for a while. Well – they’ve grown. They are now the same size as our previous super-petite Burmese cats were.  At just about six months, they are booked into the vets to be ‘done’ next week (and microchipped too).

They are fascinated by outdoors, but are scared stiff by all car type noises. We’ve been taking them out on leads, down our cul de sac towards the park (away from car noises), Harry is scared stiff – it’s tail between his legs and trembling most of the time from him. Ginny is definitely braver.  She has also killed played with until its legs fell off and chewed and spat out her first big house spider.

Here they are contemplating escape but not being brave enough, especially Harry with his tail between his legs. Aren’t they long …

Cats 001

Have a lovely weekend.

* * * * *

To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate links):
What a Wonderful World by Marcus Chown, Faber hardback, October 2013
Autobiography by Morrissey, Penguin Classics, October 2013, 457 pages
The Birds On The Trees (VMC) by Nina Bawden (1970)

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)

* * * * *
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)

* * * * *
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.

* * * * *

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.

How to add to your wishlists …

The Complete Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby

Hornby spree 1

One of the easiest ways of adding lots of books to your wishlists, (apart from the recommendations of other bloggers of course), is to read a book about books.  Even better if said book is a reading diary by an author you enjoy and respect.

Nick Hornby is definitely that, and (football aside) his writing always resonates with me.  We’re of the same generation, home-counties bred, live/lived in London, like a lot of the same music and stuff – so I crossed my fingers and hoped that I’d like a lot of what he read too.

The Complete Polysyllabic Spree is a collection of Hornby’s ‘Stuff I’ve been reading’ columns from 2003 to mid 2007 for The Believer, an American literary magazine founded by Dave Eggers of McSweeneys fame. Hornby is given one commandment by the editors for his columns: “Thou shalt not slag anyone off.” which does give Hornby a dilemma in how to write about books he didn’t enjoy… “My solution was to try to choose books I knew I would like.” but he adds “I’m not sure this idea is as blindingly obvious as it seems.”

polyphonic-spree3The Polysyllabic Spree by the way is the name he comes up with to refer to the Believer’s editorial staff – a literary pastiche of The Polyphonic Spree (right), a large pop group of the early noughties onwards who have a habit of wearing white choir robes and having ’60s hip sensibilities.  This becomes a rather sweet running joke from column to column throughout the book, and their numbers are never the same.

But on to the books themselves… At the front of each column, Hornby lists the books he has bought, and the books he has read. Each list is interesting, however he says in an aside, “When I’m arguing with St Peter at the Pearly Gates, I’m going to tell him to ignore the Books Read column, and focus on the Books Bought instead. ‘This is really who I am, I’ll tell him.”  Something I can identify with!

He reads a huge variety of books – including quite a lot of non-fiction, biographies, reportage etc.  I was very pleased to see we’re in tune about Bob Dylan’s 2004 memoir: “Chronicles ends up managing to inform without damaging the mystique, which is some feat.”  I couldn’t have put it better myself.

One book I haven’t read but should do, is Truman Capote’s groundbreaking In Cold Blood. This book, Hornby says, “is one of the most influential books of the last fifty years, and as far as I can tell, just about every work of novelistic non-fiction published since the 1960s owes it something or another. But the trouble with influential books is that if you have absorbed the influence without ever reading the original, then it can sometimes be hard to appreciate the magnitude of its achievement.”  This is so true. Although I enjoyed Zamyatkin’s 1924 dystopian novel We, it is rather overshadowed by Orwell’s 1984 which it directly influenced.

Another author I’m very keen to read is Patrick Hamilton.  Hornby develops a passion for his books – “He’s a sort of urban Hardy: everyone is doomed, right from the first page.”  Time I dug out Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky – I know I own a copy.

Hornby has also (almost) persuaded me to give a novel I’ve given up on in frustration after a few pages (twice) another go. That book is Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. “I had to reread passages from Gilead several times – beautiful, luminous passages about grace, and debt, and baptism – before I half-understood them, however: there are complicated and striking ideas on every single page.” He does acknowledge that he had to be in the right frame of mind to read it though – and read it over a period of several weeks.  I think I’m willing to give it another go thanks to Nick Hornby.

I really enjoyed this volume of Hornby’s thoughts in this volume, all the more so as in the majority of cases, he was reading the books discussed for pleasure. In the introduction he states: “Being paid to read a book and then write about it creates a dynamic which compromises the reviewer in all kinds of ways, very few of them helpful. So this column was going to be different. Yes, I would be paid for it, but I would be paid to write about what I would have done anyway, which was read the books I wanted to read. And if I felt that mood, morale, concentration levels, weather or family history had affected my relationship with a book, I could and would say so.”  He does go on to say it made him choose slightly differently, but I did that too once I started blogging, so I can understand it.

I thought he had some really interesting things to say, and his style is never to ram his opinions down our throats, but to elucidate with wit (and occasional references to Arsenal FC).  This is a friendly book about books, and I really enjoyed it.  (9/10)

* * * * *
Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please follow the links below:
The Complete Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby, 2006, Penguin paperback, 288 pages.
Chronicles: Volume One by Bob Dylan
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

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!