The blackest of boozy pre-war comedies …

lar-button-finalPatrick Hamilton is one of those authors whom I’ve been meaning to read for years – when one of the blogs I follow (sorry can’t remember which one) reviewed his trilogy Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky last autumn and loved it, I was moved to check my shelves and found his 1941 novel Hangover Square on them. That book moved to my bedside pile, and so I’ve been able to combine my TBR reading with Long Awaited Reads Month (hosted by Iris and Ana).

Why, oh why did I wait so long to read this book?  I’ll say it up front – it’s my first 10/10 read for 2014 …

Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton

Starting in the dying days of 1938, George Harvey Bone, a tall and ungainly young man is spending Christmas with his aunt in Hunstanton hoping she’ll give him some money to keep him and his ‘friends’ going.

hangover squareGeorge is jobless, and lives in a backstreet hotel in Earls Court, an area of West London that was, (may still be) bedsit-land. He spends most of his time either asleep or in one boozer or another with his so-called friends Peter, Mickey and Netta.

It’s thinking of Netta that makes George’s brain go ‘click’ while he’s out walking in the Norfolk air that Christmas. The click puts him into a ‘dead mood’ which puts his body into automatic, and his brain into thinking bad thoughts for George is an undiagnosed schizophrenic …

This Netta business had been going on too long. When was he going to kill her? Soon – this year certainly. At once would be best – as soon as he got back to London – he was going back tomorrow, Boxing Day. But these things had to be planned: he had so many plans: too many. The thing was so incredibly, absurdly easy That was why it was so difficult to choose the right plan. You had only to hit her over the head when she was not looking. You had only to ask her to turn her back to you because you had a surprise for her, and then strike her down. You had only to invite her to a window, to ask her to look down at something, and then throw her out. You had only to put a scarf playfully round her neck, and fondle it admiringly, and then strangle her. You had only to surprise her in her bath, life up her legs and hold her head down. All so easy: all so silent.

He’s on the train home, before the shutter opens in his brain again, and “he wished to God he could remember what he had been doing and what he had been thinking.

What has Netta done to deserve all these bad thoughts?  She is the number one object of his affections but treats him badly, shamelessly milking him for drinks, dinner, subs for her rent, using poor lovelorn George.  The others take advantage too.

He could see through them, and, of course, he hated them. He even hated Netta too – he had known that for a long time. He hated Netta, perhaps, most of all. The fact that he was crazy about her physically, that he worshipped the ground she trod on and the air she breathes, that he could think of nithing else in the world all day long, had nothing to do with the underlying stream of scorn he bore towards her as a character. You might say he wasn’t really ‘in love’ with her: he was ‘in hate’ with her. It was the same thing – just looking at his obsession from the other side. He was netted in hate just as he was netted in love. Netta: Netta: Netta! … God – how he loved her!

He hated himself, too. He didn’t pretend to be any better. He hated himself for the life he led – the life in common with them. Drunken, lazy, impecunious, neurotic, arrogant, pub-crawling cheap lot of swine – that was what they all were. Including him and Netta.

Netta wants to be a film-star, and lets George take her to dinner in a posh London restaurant.  George is overjoyed at getting her to himself for even a short while, but once at the restaurant it is clear she picked it because Eddie Carstairs, a casting agent is often there, and her feminine wiles are all directed at him. Poor George is a meal-ticket again.

George becomes even more useful when he meets an old friend Johnnie from his school days. Johnnie is a true friend, but when Netta finds out he works at Carstairs’ company, George has another use again. When George is invited down to a company do at Brighton, Netta has to get in on the act…

You can sense right from the beginning, when George’s alter-ego has those murderous thoughts, that this novel is unlikely to have a happy ending. George does manage to have a few genuinely good moments, away from Netta, but he’s not strong enough to get up and go.  He does realise this, but with war in the air, and no jobs on the ground, he can’t dig himself out of the pit he’s fallen into. The constant drinking doesn’t help, and his ‘dead moods’ are getting worse.  Poor George.

This novel is subtitled ‘A story of darkest Earls Court’, and it certainly is that. Netta and co have a Hemingwayesque relationship with booze, and are flirting with Fascist attitudes too, but George has problems with Munich – he’s scared at the prospects of war.  It adds an undercurrent throughout the book which adds to the inevitability of what happens.

The novel is billed as a black comedy, and I suppose it is in a way. The laughs, however are never at George’s expense. When they come, it is Netta and her friends we laugh at, over their outrageously bad behaviour that makes them targets for our scorn.

Hamilton’s prose is beautiful, incendiary, moving, clinical, full of ennui – everything it needs to be to tell George’s story. I nearly cried for George, wishing he hadn’t spotted her across a crowded room that day.

I loved this book so much it’s going into my Desert Island Books booktrunk. I reluctantly put it down with fifty pages to go the other night, and waking up at about 3.30am for some reason,  rather than go back to sleep, I finished reading it. It may be sad, but it’s an absolute classic. (10/10)

* * * * *
Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Hangover Square: A Story of Darkest Earl’s Court by Patrick Hamilton (1941), foreword by J B Priestley, Penguin Modern Classics, 288 pages.

Mix Douglas Adams with Jewish Mysticism, Marco Polo, a dash of the X-Men and time travel for weird fun!

A Highly Unlikely Scenario : Or, a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World by Rachel Cantor

Rachel CantorIf I said that a wacky speculative fiction novel about a 21st century world governed by the philosophies adopted by fast food chains was actually great fun to read, you might begin to doubt my sanity.  I wasn’t sure about this book before I started reading it, but on the back cover is a quote from Jim Crace, an author I respect:

It’s as if Kurt Vonnegut and Italo Calvino collaborated to write a comic book SF adventure and persuaded Chagall to do the drawings. One of the freshest and most lively novels I have encountered for quite a while.

That sold it to me, and I’m glad I gave it a go, for it was a total hoot.

Leonard lives in his sister’s garage in which he has a totally white room where he works the night shift for Neetsa Pizza, the Pythagorean pizza chain, fielding customer complaints. Leonard is a natural listener, and this job suits him fine, for except for meeting his sister’s son Felix off the school bus, Leonard doesn’t go out.

One night Leonard gets a call from a guy called Marco, who tells him all about his exploits as a 13th century explorer. His sister, meanwhile theoretically works for the Scottish tapas chain Jack-o-Bites, but is more likely than not to be involved with her ‘Book club’ with whom she keeps disappearing on missions, leaving Leonard to look after Felix.  She’s totally unsympathetic to Leonard:

You sedate the postindustrial masses with your pre-Socratic gobbledegook, she said, running a pick through her red afro. Pythagorean pizza is the opiate of the middle classes!
Is not! Leonard said.
Is too! she replied. Pass me my tam.
Carol only pretended to be a Jacobite: in fact, she was a neo-Maoist. According to her, the revolution would originate with suburbanites such as herself. It had to, for who was more oppressed, who more in need of radicalization? She took issue with Neetsa Pizza’s rigid hierarchy, its notion that initiation was only for the lucky few – the oligarchy of it!
Pizza, she liked to exclaim, is nothing more than the ingredients that give it form.
No! Leonard would cry, shocked as ever by her materialism. There is such a thing as right proportion! Such a thing as beauty!
Leonard lacked his sister’s sense that the world was broken. He’d been a coddled younger child, while she had been forced by the death of their parents to care for him and their doddering grandfather. No surprise she found the world in need of overhaul. In Leonard’s view, bits of the world might be damaged, but never permanently so. It was his mission, through Listening, to heal some part of it. No need for reeducation, no need for armed struggle.

Leonard’s calls from Marco end, and someone called Isaac who sounds exactly like his dead Jewish grandfather calls, telling him that he passed the test with Marco and that he must give up his job, and go to the library where he’ll meet the grandmother of his grandchildren.

Leonard who is not used to being outside, eventually engages his inner rebellious streak, and does what Isaac says. Taking Felix with him (for Carol has not returned from her ‘Book club’) goes to the library where he meets Sally, a librarian and Baconian (after Roger Bacon), who shows them this ancient Jewish manuscript written in an unsolvable code, which it turns out Felix can read.

However, they are interrupted by the police and have to flee, and eventually end up time travelling back to the 13th century where they have to pretend to be pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela and escape the Spanish Inquisition to get Felix back, who was taken off by Abulafia, another mystic whom they have to stop to save the world.

Once Leonard is hooked, the story becomes one massive adventure, with Leonard as the archetypal fish out of water, who has to overcome his neuroses and show hidden reserves of gumption to survive.  Initially Sally is stronger than he is, but these roles reverse once they time travel and Leonard starts to come into his own, finding his inner-hero and living up to his grandfather’s expectations.

The wackiness and wordplay reminded me strongly of Douglas Adams minus speech marks – the author doesn’t use any, but who says what is pretty clear so that didn’t matter. Some of the set pieces could have been Monty Python sketches. I also liked her weird vision of this 21st century via Brave New World crossed with the Summer of Love with its kaftans and afros.  The whole was great fun and I rather enjoyed it, despite (still) knowing absolutely nothing about Jewish mysticism! A diverting and humorous tale of pure escapism. (7/10)

* * * * *
Source: Publisher – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
A Highly Unlikely Scenario : Or, a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World by Rachel Cantor, pub 23rd Jan 2014 by Melville House UK,

True Grit’s inheritor…

The Road to Reckoning by Robert Lautner

Robert Lautner Road to Reckoning UK coverI’ve turned out to be a big fan of good westerns – this debut novel is one such book.

Young Tom Walker is twelve when this novel begins in 1837. His mother is lost to the pock, his father is a ‘quiet man in a noisy world‘ – a spectacles salesman, when he hears of an irresistible opportunity that could bring in enough money for a comfortable living. Escaping the depression and the disease-ridden boroughs of New York can only be a good thing.

His father agrees to become a salesman for Samuel Colt’s new handgun with a revolving chamber. They set off westwards from Colt’s factory in New Jersey a wooden model gun and twelve of the real thing, which can be sold to clinch an order, or for expenses on the road.

I, to this day, hold to only one truth: if a man chooses to carry a gun he will get shot. My father agreed to carry twelve.

It’s in a small town in Pennsylvania that Tom’s life changes forever, when they encounter Thomas Heywood in the back of the hardware store where Tom’s father was about to clinch a good order. Heywood, drunk, won’t take no for an answer when he confronts them. Tom and his father change hotels, and then leave town – but Heywood and his pals jump them, robbing them of the remaining pistols. Tom’s father is shot in the back in front of him, leaving Tom an orphan – but with a full order book.

Tom resolves to return to NJ to collect their commission, and it is on his way back that he meets Henry Stands, a retired US marshall. Stands is large, gruff, and although he is heading east, he has no wish to be saddled with an orphan, he’ll only take him so far. Tom persists, and eventually earns Stands’ grudging respect as they make their way east – a journey not without adventure.

There are many parallels between The Road to Reckoning and True Grit by Charles Portis (reviewed here), the former could be viewed as an east coast version of the latter. Although both Tom and Mattie are orphans, Mattie is single-mindedly hunting the murderer of her father; Tom just wants to go home to his aunt with his father’s last pay packet. Both eventually manage to awaken paternal instincts in their chosen protectors, but whereas Mattie sees Marshall Rooster Cogburn as the best man for the job, Stands is the only man around who can help Tom. Both books also have their narrators recounting their childhood from old age, adding the veneer of wisdom that comes with the years to the story.

The Road to Reckoning may owe a debt to Charles Portis, however it did feel very real – you don’t need to be in Texas or the canyons of the West to achieve that  – just leave the city and you’re a pioneer. This book is an assured debut, well-written and emotionally involving and I really enjoyed it. (9/10)

* * * * *
Source: Amazon Vine ARC. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Road to Reckoning by Robert Lautner, pub 30 Jan 2014 by The Borough Press (HarperCollins), 240 pages.
True Grit by Charles Portis

The 5th Mostly Bookbrains Literary Quiznight!

MOSTLY BOOKBRAINS – FRIDAY FEB 28th

Abingdon’s Literary Quiznight for charity is back for a fifth time this February I’ve run it together with my favourite indie bookshop Mostly Books all this time.

Mostly BookbrainsDate: Friday Feb 28th
Venue: The Manor Preparatory School, Faringdon Road, Shippon, Abingdon, OX13 6LN
Time: 7.30 quiz start, doors open 7pm.

Tickets from: Mostly Books.  You can reserve by phone/email.

Cash bar and snacks, Bookswap table (bring and buy), ten rounds of questions including pictures, puzzles and possibly and audio round, interval competition, loads of bookish prizes, and for the winning team ownership of the Bookbrains Trophy for the year.

We always try to find a local charity to work with for the quiznight (they’ll run the bar), and are delighted that this year it is OASIS, Oxfordshire Autistic Society. All profits from the quiz will be donated to them.

A huge thank you to The Manor for letting us hire the hall for free, even though my daughter left the school nearly two years ago.

Thank you also to those of you who read this blog and helped out with some suggestions for new rounds last autumn when I had brainache even thinking about compiling another quiz.  Some of your ideas may feature…

So if you live near Abingdon (10 miles south of Oxford), and would like a fun book-based evening – do come, and help us raise money for this local charity.

A May to December romance with strings…

Hotel Iris by Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder

January in JapanOnly reading from my TBR, I searched my shelves for books so that I could join in with January in Japan hosted by Tony’s Reading List.  I could have chosen Murakami – but have had both good and bad experiences with him. It ended up being a choice between Out by Natsuo Kirino and Yoko Ogawa’s second novel – I chose Ogawa.

I read The Housekeeper and the Professor, review here, a couple of years ago. I was beguiled by that quirky yet serene novel, her debut. Hotel Iris has a similar air of aloofness in writing style, but the subject matter is in no way gentle like her debut …

Mari is a dutiful daughter, manning the desk at her family hotel, the Hotel Iris, situated in a Japanese seaside town. At seventeen, she is totally dominated by her mother who tells her she is beautiful, as every day she styles Mari’s hair into a traditional Japanese bun, held in place with camellia oil.

The book opens with a guest and the prostitute he’d brought back to the hotel causing a kerfuffle and being ejected. Mari is fascinated by the man’s voice. Later she sees him again and follows him. After a few days of stalking they strike up a conversation. He is a translator, and lives an ascetic life on the island off the coast.

The first shock is to find that he is a widower in his sixties, but that doesn’t seem to matter to Mari, she’s ready to fall in love.  The second shock is when she goes with him to the island, and the third is when he ties her up and subjects her to degrading acts which she submits to with increasing pleasure – but always managing to catch the ferry home before her mother wonders where she is.

Earlier that same day, I had been tied to a bed with iron rails that were ideal for securing my ankles and wrists. He had cut away my slip with a large pair of scissors. The blades had been sharpened to a fine edge, and the steel had a dark sheen. He snapped them open and closed in the air, as if to test the sharpness and savor the sound. Then he drew them straight up my body from my spread legs, and the slip fell away as if by magic.

The blades touched my abdomen. A cold shock ran through me, and my head began to spin. If he had pressed just a bit harder, the scissors might have pierced my soft belly. The skin would have peeled back, the far beneath laid bare. Blood would have dripped on the bedspread.

My head had been filled with premonitions of fear and pain. I wondered whether his wife had died like this. But as these premonitions became realities, pleasure also erupted violently in me. I knew now how I reacted at such a moment: my body grew moist and liquid.

I had read elsewhere that this book is rather unsettling, but I didn’t really expect it to be quite like the above. To see a young girl submit to this, however loving the administrator is, does not make for easy reading.

When the translator’s nephew, a mute (due to tongue cancer) young man a year or so older than Mari, arrives for a holiday this really does complicate things. As you might imagine, this leads to the final climax.

Although I was naturally concerned for Mari’s plight, I found it hard to warm to her, and I remained deeply suspicious of the translator all the way through, but on the other hand this tale could be described as a coming of age story for Mari – acting out her dark schoolgirl fantasies.  Still, once we see what he does to Mari, we have to wonder about his wife…

For such a dark and disturbing book, Ogawa’s prose, again translated by Stephen Snyder, is cool and always slightly aloof but it does reel you in.  This book was such a contrast to the happy serenity of The Housekeeper and the Professor.  I didn’t ‘enjoy’ reading Hotel Iris, but I was compelled to finish it though.  (6.5/10)

* * * * *
Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Hotel Iris by Yoko Ogawa, Vintage paperback, 176 pages.

Here, meat IS murder …

Season to Taste or How to Eat Your Husband by Natalie Young

season to tasteThis is the strangest premise for a novel that I’ve read in a while, and I do enjoy a high quirk factor in a book. Season to Taste is the tale of a marriage gone wrong, and it starts off with a murder…

One day Lizzie Prain snaps and murders her husband of thirty years with a spade. She then dismembers the body and freezes it. Her plan is to eat the evidence and then disappear off to a new life in Scotland.

Lizzie takes the project of eating Jacob terribly seriously.  She prepares each joint in as gourmet a fashion as she can manage, with plenty of herbs and spices to make it all seem more palatable.  Preparation of the meat is difficult though …

It wasn’t helpful to look at the severed end where the bone emerged with flesh attached and shiny bits of cartilage. So she covered it up with the tea towel and focused on the knuckle area and fingers. She cleaned the nails with a nailbrush, rinsing in the sink; and then she brushed the skin with an oil brush to give it a good crisp. She rubbed all over the hand with olive oil and salt and then twisted the pepper grinder; and she laid his hand on a non-stick roasting tray, carefully straightening the fingers out.

Yes, I’ll say it so you don’t have to – did she serve it ‘with fava beans and a nice chianti‘?  There is no need for the author to refer to Hannibal Lecter, I’m sure she is happy for us to have a little joke with ourselves though.

Yesterday I was discussing this book in my favourite local bookshop, when my friend Julia who works there produced menu cards for some of the recipes, which the publisher had sent out. They had a spare set to give me – so here is that hand recipe …

CCF01172014_00001

In the beginning, we are fascinated in a truly macabre way by Lizzie’s gourmet recipes to make her husband’s remains palatable, and the care with which she treats it.  A couple of weeks later, Lizzie’s protein-rich diet is beginning to wear on her, and what was almost a last act of love is becoming a little more desperate. The recipes are mouthwatering in their awfulness though!

In between the recipes come Lizzie’s lists to help keep herself strong and get through the project. After those we get to hear about her and Jacob. It wasn’t exactly a love match, but they did seem to sort of care for each other in a claustrophobic, self-centred way.  Frankly, I found them both totally unlikeable, like the two main characters in Gone Girl, review here; I had to read on to find out whether she gets away with it.

This novel is destined to become a talking point with all who encounter it – talking with horror, with disbelief, even at times with sympathy, (well just a bit) – the author cleverly plays with all our emotions.  When it does start to go a bit wrong as Lizzie’s overconfidence leads to too much fraternisation with the neighbours, I initially rubbed my hands with glee.  My only criticism of this book is that I would have liked a stronger ending, but that would risk being rather formulaic, and that is something this quirky novel definitely is not!  (8/10)

Can you stomach this kind of novel?
Or does the very idea of it just make you squirm?

* * * * *
Source: Review copy from Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Season to Taste or How to Eat Your Husband by Natalie Young, published 16th Jan 2014 by Tinder Press. Hardback, 288 pages.

A charming adventure inside fairy tales …

goodbye yellow brick roadMost of you will know Ian Beck’s work without even realising it. He is an illustrator of renown and amongst many other things designed the cover of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road by Elton John.

In the early 1980s, he started to write and illustrate picture books for young children, and later moved into writing children’s novels. I read and loved his book for older children, Pastworld (reviewed here), which featured London reinvented as a Dickensian theme park.

I’d bought a copy of Tom Trueheart, his first children’s novel, back when it was published. My daughter had enjoyed many of his picture books, yet somehow it stayed on the shelf until I rediscovered it the other day …

The Secret History of Tom TrueheartBoy Adventurer by Ian Beck

Hardback

I do love it when authors find an original way of using old fairy tales and that’s just what Ian Beck has done in this charming novel for children.

Tom Trueheart is nearly twelve. He comes from a celebrated family of adventurers – he has six brothers all called Jack (or variations thereon).

They are all employed by the Story Bureau who devise adventures and send the Jacks off to play the roles in ‘The Land of Stories’ and finish the tales. When it’s over the Jacks tell the Bureau what happened and they write it up into the story books that everyone reads.

The basic plots are thought up by the Story Deviser at the Bureau – Brother Ormestone, who is to present his latest ideas at their meeting:

‘If I may, Master,’ said Brother Ormestone, ‘I have been completely redrafting the ideas for the story which we discussed at our last meeting. “The Adventure of the Fair Princess Snow White and the Seventeen Dwarfs”.  During the second half of the story, by allowing the young Snow White to escape the hunter and his knife, she can then be found in the woods and sheltered by the seventeen dwarfs. Or she could even find them in her panic to escape. We will use the north-eastern area, the deep woods in the mountains, if our Brother Treasurer could supply a nicely turned-out bright cottage, able to house eighteen, well hidden away, for them all to live in.’

‘The cottage will not be a problem, there are several we can dress ready,’ said the treasurer, a severe bearded figure in grey, who sat at the other end of the table. ‘The seventeen dwarfs, now that is your problem: I can supply a maximum of seven for any story.’

‘Seven,’ said Brother Ormestone in his most chilling voice. ‘Seven. Dear me, dear me no. I have worked long and hard on this story and it definitely involves seventeen dwarfs of varied and, I am afraid, somewhat twisted character.’ He emphasized the word ‘twisted’ in such a way that it caused the Master’s skin to crawl, …

… ‘In any case, Ormestone, we have heard enought for now. You have, as usual lately, gone too far in the planning of these stories,’ said the Master shaking his head. ‘There is nothing left for the adventurers to actually do. Your story plans have got longer and longer. It is almost as if you are tying to get rid of the adventurers’ role altogether. You know the rules as well as the rest of us. We suggest the beginning of things only. We set things up for the adventurers, and they carry out the adventure. It is not up to us to wrap it all up for them and tie a ribbon round it with our name on it.’

Thus embarrassed again, Ormestone in his jealousy of the adventurers hatches a dastardly plan to have his vengeance on the Trueheart family.

Over the next days, one by one, the brothers Jack get sent off on new adventures, one to be Prince Charming, one a frog prince, another to rescue the sleeping princess and so on – you get the picture.  They all swear to be home in time for Tom’s twelfth birthday, the age at which he can become an apprentice adventurer – but one by one they don’t return.

Tom has to celebrate his birthday with just his mother. The next day a letter arrives for him by sprite-mail with an adventure.  As the last adventurer left, it will be Tom’s job to find his brothers and get all the tales finished.  He bravely sets off, accompanied by a talking crow called Jollity (a sprite in disguise who is to keep an eye on him).

Young Tom will have the adventure of a lifetime.

I was captivated by this story.  It touches upon all those fairy tales we know so well, but which are held in hiatus by their missing princes. Tom passes through each of the tales in turn and stops them from collapsing in on themselves, keeping them alive for the return of his brothers.

This is done with surprising subtlety and gives each of the classic tales in their basic form some added depth, as we see how the cast are actors playing parts. (At some subterranean level, I wondered whether Beck’s ‘Land of stories’ is a satire on Disneyland?’ – theme parks seem to be a fixation of Beck’s!)

Ideal for those children who aren’t quite ready for the small print of Harry Potter, they will love spotting the familiar tales, and thrill along with young Tom as he finds himself in peril from the evil machinations of Brother Ormestone. The book is also full of Beck’s lovely silhouette illustrations as on the hardback’s cover which make it a pleasure to read.

Beck has since written two more volumes of Tom Trueheart’s adventures, and I must say I’d love to read them. (9/10)

* * * * *
Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Tom Trueheart by Ian Beck, (2007) OUP Oxford, paperback 320 pages.

Growing Old Disgracefully …

The Little Old Woman Who Broke All The Rules by Catharine Ingelman-Sundberg

the-little-old-lady-who-broke-all-the-rules-978144725061601Let’s get it out of the way. If you enjoyed The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson as I did, (my review here), I’m certain that you will enjoy this novel.

This is primarily because the two books have the same translator, Rod Bradbury, and the English editions thus share the same writing style.

It is a shame however that the (different) publisher went for a lookalike cover for The LoL, as I shall call it, because that did make me think it was going to be a total cash-in on the 100 YOM’s success, and frankly I was almost put off by it. The LoL, despite initial similarities however, is different enough that I really enjoyed reading it.

The LoL is the story of five old folk, led by 79 year old Martha, who are being shabily treated by the penny-pinching staff of their residential home.  Being kept lightly sedated, virtual prisoners, fed plasticky meals and with coffee and biscuit rations ever decreasing, Martha decides to led a rebellion. To do that they need money. Martha thinks they could hold up a bank initially, but research shows that’s a non-starter.

The next day, while the guests, or the ‘clients’, as they were now called, at Diamond House were drinking their morning coffee in the lounge, Martha thought about what she should do. In her childhood home in Österlen, down in the south of Sweden, people didn’t just sit and wait for somebody else to take action. … The murmur of voices rose and fell all around her as she surveyed the rather shabby lounge. The smell was decidedly reminiscent of the Salvation Army and the furniture seemed to have come straight from the recycling depot. The old grey 1940s building, with its asbestos fibre cement cladding, was like a combination of an old school and a dentist’s waiting room. Surely this wasn’t where she was meant to finish her days, with a mug of weak instant coffee to go with a plastic meal? No, damn it, it certainly was not! Martha breathed deeply, pushed her coffee mug aside and leaned forward to talk to her group of friends.
‘You lot. Come with me,’ she said and gave a sign to her friends to follow her to her room. ‘I have something to talk to you about.’

Martha tells them her plans – and they’re all in!  The first thing is to escape the home though. This achieved, they hole up in a couple of suites in the Grand Hotel (just like the cons in the BBC’s Hustle), where they plan to rob the rich clientele. Having worked out that this won’t generate enough dosh, instead they hatch a clever plan to ransom a valuable painting or two from the city’s art museum. Everything is planned to the last detail; Derren Brown, who used a gang of OAPs to steal a painting in his TV special before Christmas this year would be proud of this lot.

They realise that they may end up in prison, they’ve seen on the telly that in prison they wouldn’t be treated any worse than in their home, and at their age … The caper proves to be so much fun, even when things don’t go totally according to plan, that they get a taste for it and decide to grow old disgracefully.

The LOL is gentler than The 100 YOM. There are no hilarious and ingeniously gory deaths, for instance.  It is also told all the in present, there are no flashbacks to earlier in the gang’s lives – they are rebooting their lives in the here and now.

There is plenty to chortle about, especially in all the character traits of the quintet. Martha, the bossy one, is the natural leader, Brains (real name Oscar) is the – er- brains of the outfit, and inventor.  Rake, a former seaman, is stylish and very much a lady’s man. Then there are her two lady friends, Anna-Greta who is very thin, very tall and very old and Christina, the youngest, who was used to high standards and needs to be persuaded they’re doing the right thing.  Add to them, the sadist Nurse Barbara, an assortment of other criminals, and the bungling police inspector, natch, and our rich cast is near complete.

The central caper was well thought out and great fun. The lasting memories of this novel though will be of five people who had been made geriatric before their time, rediscovering their joie de vivre, alongside a cautionary tale for those with relatives in a home to monitor the home’s performance as well as their loved ones’ well-being. (8/10)

* * * * *
Source: Review copy from Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Little Old Lady Who Broke All the Rules by Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg. Pub 2 Jan 2014 by Pan Books, paperback 438 pages.
The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson, Quercus paperback.

Look what I won! …

Before Christmas I entered a competition run by The Omnivore online magazine to win an entire set of the Costa Book Prize 2013 shortlisted books – and heavens to Betsy, I got an email the other day saying I’d won. Today a big box of all the books arrived.  THANK YOU!

As the individual category winners were announced last week, I’ve laid out the books with the categories going horizontally, and the winners on the left.  Ginny helped – she was drawn to Evie Wyld’s book – it’s the ‘birds’ in the title, I think.

P1010972 (2)

I already own (but have not read yet) copies of four of these, (Atkinson, Wyld, O’Farrell, and Olivia Laing in the top non-fiction line), Atkinson will be our book group read in March, so I have a spare copy to lend out.

I had considered buying myself a copy of Goth Girl by Chris Riddell as I’m a huge fan – you’re never too old for children’s books.  I’ve been recommended the book by Nathan Filer which won the debut novel category too.  I also hope that owning Clive James’ new translation of Dante may introduce me to that cornerstone of poetry.

As yet, I have no view as to which book I’d like to win the overall prize which will be announced on Jan 28th.  Given that I am only reading from my TBR for the TBR Triple Dog Dare I should only read the Atkinson, but I may have an extended look at the others – just a look!

Who do you think will win the Costa Book Prize 2013?

Wendy takes the lead …

Wendy & Peter Pan by Ella Hickson, RSC at the RST, Stratford

70115-wendy--peter-pan-programme-2013-extra-1What a treat!  Juliet and I went to the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-upon-Avon on Saturday night to see their new family production Wendy & Peter Pan.  Yes, you read it right – Wendy comes first in Ella Hickson’s re-telling of J M Barrie’s original story, which was originally titled Peter and Wendy.

Although keeping much of Barrie’s original story in tact, Hickson has changed the emphasis, giving Wendy the lead over Peter. She has also added in a new plot driver for Wendy and her family in the device of a third brother who dies at the beginning of the play, echoing Barrie’s own life. It is Wendy’s belief that he has become a Lost Boy that fuels her quest in Neverland. Wendy’s parent too, in their grief, go on a separate quest to find their way through the emotions that threaten their marriage, and the two stories intersect throughout the play with resonance.

Wendy and Peter Pan: Fiona Button as Wendy and Guy Henry as HookNo sooner has Wendy arrived in Neverland than it seems that all the females there are out to get her.  Tink tells Lost Boy Tootles to shoot her out of the sky, Tiger Lily is a warrior princess who nearly shoots Wendy too, luckily the Mermaids are off-stage in this production.  In the end the girls realise that being part of Team Wendy is the way to go.

At first Wendy agrees to be Mother to the Lost Boys, but when it becomes clear that Peter doesn’t realise that it is not really just a game, she leaves them and gets captured by the pirates.  Guy Henry, who many will recognise as Dr Hansen from BBC TV series Holby, was a rather world-weary Captain Hook, aware that his slightly Jack Sparrow-ish looks were fading, waiting for the tick of the crocodile come to take him away – he wishes he had Peter’s time again. His rag-tag bunch of pirates were suitably shambolic, led by a lovelorn Smee.

As befits the girl being groomed to be mother, Fiona Button as Wendy (actually 27) was wise beyond her thirteen years, but often has to fight against herself to get her words out, to make the boys understand – which they do for just a second or two having the attention span of gnats, you could sense Wendy’s frustration.

As for the boys, well they were straight out of boys own adventures, where everything is about fun. The minute it stops being fun, they do something different. They were very entertaining, and fulfilled all the stereotypes needed, the geeky one, the swotty one, the working-class Welsh one… Wendy’s brothers John and Michael too – bombastic and in touch his feminine side.  And this bring me to Peter…

Peter Pan Shadows

As you can see from the photo, Peter had not just one shadow, but a team of six, who helped him to fly. It sounds bizarre, but they were for the most part totally unintrusive, and manipulated Peter, and any others who needed to be ferried in air or water with great dexterity, and were in charge of the wires from the ceiling during other scenes. Sam Swann was a stocky Peter, bristling with boyish bravado, his hair bedecked with a little red quiff that made me think of a young Morrissey(!).

tinkA lot of laughs though come from Tink, the little fairy with a larger than life personality. She initially appears as a light, but underneath that is a roly-poly Essex girl trying (and succeeding) to get out! Charlotte Mills was a revelation, and Tink quickly became my daughter’s favourite character.

Everything about this production, like Matilda which we saw at the RSC too (review here), was classy and the way they used the space was wonderful; special mentions go to the balletic crocodile, and Captain Hook’s rather wonderful ship.  It was a proper play with just enough panto in it to get the laughs, no dog and completely un-Disneyfied, but full of heart too.

I laughed, I jumped, I gasped, I very nearly cried too, I cheered, I booed, I clapped – We loved it!  It’s on at Stratford until Easter – Go if you can – it’s rather special.