Australia & New Zealand Literature Month

ANZ-LitMonth-200pixANZ Literature Month, hosted by Kim at Reading Matters is nearly over but I’ve finally managed to fit in a short novel by Tim Winton to take part reviewing, although I have enjoyed reading contributor’s reviews which are listed here.

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That Eye, The Sky by Tim Winton

that eye
This short novel was published in 1986, so early in Winton’s writing career – his third book. It’s a quirky little thing – not really a coming of age story, but it is definitely a tale about growing up and learning more about what to believe in for young Morton – known as Ort.

Eleven-year-old Ort is in his final term at junior school. In the autumn he’ll have to take the school bus to the city to join the seniors – something he’s not looking forward to.  He lives a way outside their little town – his hippy parents decided to forsake the city for the country when his Mum was pregnant with his older sister Tegwyn. His ancient Grammar also lives with them. His Dad works at the nearby garage for Mr Cherry, whose son Fat is Ort’s best friend. They’re looking forward to a summer swimming in the creek and doing nothing much at all.  Today starts off as a normal day …

‘Seeyaz.’ That’s Dad going. He revs the ute up. He’s in a hurry, going into town for Mr Cherry.
‘Wave him off, Ort,’ Mum says to me. She always reckons you should show people you love them when they go away because you might never see them again. They might die. The world might end. But Dad’s only going to town for an hour. It’s business for Mr Cherry. And there he goes, out the drive and onto the road.

It’s as well that they wave goodbye, for within a few pages, Ort’s Dad has had a bad car accident and is taken to hospital where he lies ‘crook’ in a coma. Neither Ort nor his Mum believe that he won’t come home – Ort himself was in a coma for a fortnight with meningitis as a babe.

Life continues for the Flack family, with added visits to the hospital, when Mr Cherry agrees to take them – although the relationship between the Flacks and the cherries will go sour when Mum finds out what the errand was. Meanwhile, Ort and Fat muck around in the creek and spy on a bum who’s sleeping under the bridge.

Sure enough, one day Sam wakes up. The hospital soon ship him home – he breathes – voicelessly through the tracheostomy hole in his windpipe. He sees, but doesn’t appear to look. He’s little more than a vegetable in appearance, although Ort is sure he hears and understands everything. He’s going to need a lot of looking after.

Help arrives – but not the kind they’d been expecting. Henry Warburton turns up on the doorstep – saying he’s a volunteer. Ort recognises him – but his Mum accepts the offer as she’s getting desperate. So Henry joins the Flack household, an enigmatic stranger, big, grubby and with a speech impediment – he seems to fight with himself a lot. Should they trust him?

Big things in life tend to happen in clusters – and that’s what happens in this novel. Everything coincides that summer and for Ort, that means a certain loss of innocence, yet also an opening of his mind to new things – not always for the better perhaps. Ort has to man up and act as the head of the household. For his Mum, it’s the realisation that their hippy dream only works with both her and Sam in it – and it knocks her for six, making her extremely fragile emotionally and open to suggestion.

Henry brings with him a definite sense of threat; its hard to put your finger on exactly what it is, but intermittently I was reminded of Reverend Harry Powell as played by Robert Mitchum in the film Night of the Hunter, but I don’t think Henry was inherently evil in that way. Certainly creepy though. Winton leaves much to our imagination…

Ort is a great child narrator though, on the cusp of becoming a teenager soon, but not until after that transition year when you start seniors. He’s a practical nature boy too, looking after his ‘chooks’, catching lizards and looking up at that sky…

The sky is the same colour as Mum and Dad’s eyes. When you look at it long enough, like I am now with my nose up in it, it looks exactly like an eye anyway. One big blue eye. Just looking down. At us.

I loved Ort’s voice narrating the story. The contrast between long and short sentences. Winton captures the beginnings of his adolescence perfectly, and his rebellious sister Tegwyn too – she is confused and isolated living out there. Naturally, you cross your fingers when reading a story like this, hoping for a happy outcome – but you’ll have to read it for yourself if you want to find that out.

Although this probably wasn’t the best Winton novel to start off with, it’s the only one I had to hand. If it represents a writer beginning to find his stride, I have high hopes for his later books, as I enjoyed this one. (8/10)

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Source: Own Copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
That Eye, the Sky by Tim Winton (pub 1986, Scribner paperback 160 pages.)

Getting Dublin’s Funny Bone Back Off the Black Dog

Brilliant by Roddy Doyle

brilliant

I don’t often read or review books intended for pre-teen children these days – I’m keeping up with my now teenaged daughter in YA reading. However, a book by Roddy Doyle for what they now call ‘middle-grade’ readers (why can’t we still say older children?), is a must, especially as I enjoyed his 2011 novel A Greyhound of a Girl for early teens so much, (my review here).

Now it’s going to be impossible to say much about this novel without using its title – for Brilliant is pretty brilliant!  Firstly, it gives us a child’s eye view of living with someone who’s depressed; then it takes the childrens’ very literal understanding of what the adults call the black dog, and runs with it. Doyle’s black dog becomes a scary phantasm of a real creature, and the children are determined to run it out of town. It all starts when Raymond and Gloria’s parents start mumbling downstairs about their Uncle Ben who is coming to live with them – his business has faltered and he’s not himself at the moment …

Mumbling was different. Chatting often changed into talking, and back to chatting. But mumbling was always mumbling. It was like a foreign language, heard through walls and floors. […] Raymond and Gloria didn’t like the mumbling. They didn’t understand it. But one thing about it was clear: mumbling was very serious. There was never any laughter mixed in with it.

Sneaking downstairs to listen, they overhear their parents and granny talking about the black dog of depression on Uncle Ben’s back, and then their granny says ‘That’s what’s after happening. The funny bone of the city is gone. There’s no one laughing any more.’ 

The children hatch a plan – to investigate all the black dogs in the neighbourhood and see which is causing the problem. Sneaking out, it’s soon evident that none of them are the culprits, and they bump into Ernie, who’s moonlighting as a vampire and joins them in their search. This is when the black cloud over the city morphs into something slightly more tangible yet charged with dread and chasing it will take them on a journey across the city in which they will need to confront their fears and employ good teamwork to rid Dublin of the black dog …

If this all sounds terribly dark for none-year-olds, don’t worry – for on the way they’ll get help from all the animals they encounter from rats to seagulls to beasts more exotic altogether. I’d love to discuss how they manage to achieve their quest, as Doyle uses a literary trope that’s cropped up in quite a few adult novels I’ve read – albeit in a roundabout way, but I don’t want to spoil the story entirely for you. Of course, the road back from depression, as an illness and economically, is a long, hard one, you can’t get rid of it so simply, but the second half of the book is obviously a fantasy adventure, so I have no beef with that. Given that it was written for children, as an adult read Brilliant is overdone, but an interesting addition to the growing collection of recent novels tackling mental health issues. (7.5/10)

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Source: Amazon Vine review copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
Brilliant by Roddy Doyle. Published May 2014 by MacMillan, hardback 256 pages.

Taking the plunge into the waters of popular thriller-dom…

The Nemesis Program by Scott Mariani

nemesis

Occasionally I read a mindless thriller, something a bit Dan Brown, just to remind myself that I’m not really the target audience for such stuff, although secretly I do enjoy them – a little!  My teenage reading diet was absolutely full of thrillers – Alistair MacLean, Desmond Bagley, Hammond Innes and later Colin Forbes, Frederick Forsyth et al – I loved them all, and many of these were well written taut books that got on with things with little padding. I was offered a copy of The Nemesis Program – the latest in a long series by British thriller writer Scott Mariani, and based upon one word in the blurb, thought ‘Why not.’

220px-TeslaOscillatorThat word was ‘Tesla‘. The Szerbian scientist Nikola Tesla was a genius – he pioneered AC electricity, but Edison pushed him out of the way with his inferior DC current. He let go of his ideas for radio telephony and Marconi leapt at it. No wonder he got disillusioned and turned his mind to more controversial ideas – like the Tesla Oscillator a steam-powered electricity generator which could be tuned to resonate and with which he allegedly caused earth tremors in his building in New York, having to smash the device to stop a potential disaster. The Mythbusters TV team have determined that although you can set up a decent amount of resonance with such a device, you can’t amplify it to make an earthquake. But hey! – it’s perfect for a schlocky thriller as the weapon of choice for a mad scientist.

Ben Hope is ex-SAS, now a theologian, and about to get married to his girlfriend Brooke, when an old flame, Roberta Ryder turns up at his door in a Cotswold village in a mad panic – someone is after her. Roberta, an American in Ottawa, had received a coded letter from a friend in Paris, but by the time she reached Claudine – she had been murdered. The police think it was the work of a serial killer they’re tabbing Le Bricoleur because he used DIY implements to murder his victims. Roberta, however, knows a little of what Claudine was working on – a modern version of Tesla’s Oscillator, and sure enough she thinks she was followed in Paris, but she managed to evade them (she thinks) and headed for Ben – he’d know what to do.

Ben, three days away from his wedding thinks it is all a bit mad, but takes Roberta off to have a talk much to Brooke’s disgust, and then guys with guns arrive and he realises it’s real. He is duty-bound to help a damsel in distress, so after seeing off the would-be attackers, he postpones the marriage – Brooke tells him it’s over, and he and Roberta return to Paris thanks to Hope’s sister’s airplane that just happens to have landed at a nearby airfield bringing her to the wedding.

Already that’s one convenience too far isn’t it? The action continues from Paris to Lapland to Indonesia using the plane, always with the baddies following behind. The body count is high – there’s more excess than in any James Bond novel, and without the humour – it’s non-stop action.  Hope, of course, always manages to escape by the skin of his teeth, as in the quote below, a high-speed car chase in which he’s just driven over the edge of a raised section of the Périphérique …

For just a second or two, it was like floating. Ben experienced a strange sensation of weightlessness that was somehow liberating and not unpleasant. […] Then reality cut back in with terrifying speed as the Mercedes dropped like a missile towards the road below and the traffic lumbering in and out of the Port de Sèvres. Ben caught a glimpse of a huge articulated truck coming the other way and he was utterly convinced they were going to plummet right into its path and be smashed and rolled and twisted into tiny pieces all across the tarmac. But then the bone-jolting impact as the taxi’s spinning wheels touched down on the truck’s roof told him that death wasn’t going to be quite so instant. […] An inch difference in its trajectory and the car and its occupants would have been mangled against a steel rubbish skip.

It’s always an inch that saves Ben Hope every time.

Some of the dialogue is so cheesy too. When Hope finally encounters the criminal mastermind behind the Nemesis Program, it’s shortly after he’s dispatched another of his men…

‘…You’ve cost the project a great deal of resources and robbed me of several of my most capable agents. Men not easily killed. Yet you dealt with them with almost embarrassing ease.’ His lips wrinkled into a smile.
‘You mean McGrath?’ Ben said. ‘I’m afraid he went all to pieces.’
‘So it would seem. And now it appears you’ve disposed of Mr Lund just as efficiently, albeit without as much mess.’ The old man shook his head. ‘I don’t know how I’ll replace him. It’s so hard to find personnel of calibre these days.’
‘Have you tried Scumbags R Us?’ Ben said. ‘I’m sure you’ll find what you’re looking for.’

It was going so well in a sub-Bond way until Ben’s last reply…

Roberta as his girl-Friday is tough but subservient as all Bond girls are, but Hope is made of strong stuff and doesn’t bed her (she’d have been willing though).  So this is a sexless thriller – rather an oddity in this day and age – even Jack Reacher finds a girl in every town.  Also, Hope comes across as a soldier through and through – he knows what to do in an emergency – he’s rarely a fish out of water which makes him predictable and more than a bit boring.

At 431 pages, it took too long to read – under 300 would have improved it and sustained the tension better – it felt too episodic in the transitions. The bits of explanatory techno-babble are obvious and jar too, for babble they are. The thing about Bond villains and their weapons of mass destruction is that they’re pure fantasy, and the story is told with wit which makes it fun.  Here we had a fantasy weapon, a villain who wasn’t involved enough until the later stages, and very little humour to leaven the gore.

These books are extremely popular though – this was actually Ben Hope’s tenth outing.  Would I read another?  Well – if I was on holiday and the airline had lost the bag with my books in and one of these was on the shelf – of course I would.  But that’s an unlikely scenario. Fans will devour this instalment, I’ll go and read something else. (5/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Nemesis Program (Ben Hope)by Scott Mariani – pub Avon, June 2014, paperback original, 431 pages.

Echoes of Le Carré with a sense of humour …

Slow Horses by Mick Herron

slowhorses200

The other night I was meant to be going to my local bookshop Mostly Books for an event with Mick Herron, winner of the 2013 CWA Gold Dagger for his novel Dead Lions. Instead I ended up in MIU with my daughter who managed to break the fifth metatarsal in her left foot when she fell over on a school trip – but that’s another story! I had to get the flavour of what I missed that evening in the bookshop’s write-up here – sounds like it was a good event.

Slow Horses and it’s sequel Dead Lions are British spy novels, but not set in the glam world of TV show Spooks. This branch of MI5, works in a world that is much shabbier and is usually terribly boring, for Slough House which in spook-speak becomes Slow Horse is a nondescript building in North London where disgraced agents get sent to work. River Cartwright is one of the slow horses.

The book starts with the event that got River his demotion. It wasn’t even a real emergency, it was his assessment exercise – but carried out in the real world at Kings Cross station & underground. It’s his job to find the suspected terrorist before the station is theoretically blown-up.  They find the target and take him down to find it’s just a member of the public. Before he knows it the whole station goes into a security alert.

He shouted into his button. ‘Spider? You idiot, you called the wrong colours!’
‘What the hell’s happening? There are crowds coming out of every-‘
‘White tee under a blue shirt. That’s what you said.’
‘No, I said blue tee under -‘
‘Fuck you, Spider.’ River yanked his earpiece out.

So River is sent to work with the slow horses. A bunch of secret service no-hopers. Over the course of the novel, we’ll get to know some of them and what they did to end up in this dead-end job. Others won’t survive – as mayhem ensues when the British nephew of a prominent Pakistani minister is kidnapped by some nationalist thugs who threaten to execute him in forty-eight hours.  Thanks to an errand that Jackson Lamb, the boss of Slough House, sends River on, he reckons he has an idea of how to start finding the young man – and get the slow horses reinstated.

It’s a tricky game though – the usual Moscow rules as they call them don’t apply.  ‘If Moscow Rules meant watch your back, then London Rules meant cover your arse.‘  It soon becomes clear that people are being played against each other, that various factions within MI5 are involved. Lamb, Cartwright and the team must play the game to come out winners.  It’s convoluted and dirty and people will get hurt.

The relationship between Lamb and Cartwright reminded me quite a lot of George Smiley and his sidekick Peter Gwillam from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Lamb is the one who holds all the cards close to his chest; Cartwright is the eager younger agent ready for action. However Lamb is no Smiley – he’s terribly fat – yet light on his feet. He is also always eating and has one additional weapon in his armoury – his farts! In comparison, River is nondescript – most of the other slow horses are more interesting than him, but as a young and fit man he is there for the action and to look handsome.

The author has come up with a truly labyrinthine plot with many layers of players and internal politics for them to unravel, let alone getting into the minds of the kidnappers. It’s certainly worthy of comparison to Le Carré, and all horribly plausible too! There’s plenty of tradecraft deployed throughout which gives that authentic feel (as if we’d really know how it’s done!), and I loved all the secret service slang. On top of all that though is a sense of humour – subtle at times, less so at others. One thing about the Slow Horses is that they’re not used to working together as a team these days, and old skills have to be brought back into play.

It’s good to know that surviving members of the team are back together in Dead Lions. and if it is half as good as Slow Horses it’ll be a great read.  Mick Herron is a great discovery, and I hope there’s plenty more in the pipeline. This pair of books is crying out to be televised too – fingers crossed, for there’s a series in the offing apparently. (9/10)

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Source: Own Copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Slow Horses by Mick Herron. Soho Press 2010 paperback 329 pages.
Dead Lions by Mick Herron. Soho Press 2013 paperback 347 pages.

 

Two *Five* Star Books for you …

One of the greatest pleasures of reading and blogging is to discover books that I adore, that few will have heard of, and then to bring them to a wider audience. Recently I read and reviewed two such novels for Shiny New Books. Below are tasters of my reviews with links to the full thing…

American Sycamore by Karen Fielding

american sycamore
It is lovely to be able to heartily recommend a début novel published by a smaller independent publisher – American Sycamore is exactly that and it deserves a wide readership.

Set in the 1970s, it’s a coming of age story of two siblings, Alice and Billy Sycamore who grow up in a small town by the Susquehanna River in north-eastern USA. I know that coming of age novels aren’t to everyone’s taste, but this one is very special. The descriptions of character, landscape and the river which runs through it are amazing and the meandering story is told by a narrator you warm to instantly. (10/10)

Click here to read the full review.

Into the Trees by Robert Williams

into the trees

Imagine a house in the middle of the forest, somewhere you feel safe, at home; somewhere to hide away perhaps? What springs to mind? One such place I instantly thought of was the seven dwarves’ cottage in Snow White. Then I thought of the gingerbread cottage in Hansel and Gretel – except that wasn’t exactly a safe house until they’d disposed of the wicked witch.

I hasten to add that Into the Trees is no fairy-tale. It is a thoroughly contemporary novel, not even a reworking of a fairy-tale and yet, you can’t help thinking of them all the time when reading it. Forests in themselves are potent symbols of nature, spirits and earth-magic, remember the forest of Fangorn, home of the Ents, and Tom Bombadil in the Old Forest in Lord of the Rings for instance. Add a house in a clearing and you’re back in Grimm territory, or is it more like the Cullen’s modern glass sanctuary in the Twilight film? Whichever, you know that something bad happened when someone came knocking at the door looking for Snow White …

This novel isn’t a thriller – you encounter the key event in the prologue.  Instead it explores the effect of living in the forest before and after this event on a family.  Deep, complex and superb writing – dare one hope for a happy ending?  (10/10)

Click here to read the full review.

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Source: Both courtesy of the publishers – Thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK (affiliate link), please click below:

American Sycamore by Karen Fielding. Published February 2014 by Seren Books, paperback original 200 pages.

Into the Trees by Robert Williams. Published April 2014 by Faber & Faber, Hardback 352 pages.

Losing Touch With Authors

I’m sure you all experience this too. You discover an author that you really enjoy, and you plan to start reading all their books from the beginning, but you get waylaid, and stop after the first few.

This is the case with me and Laurie Graham. Pre-blog, I read her first four novels, published annually from 1996 and loved them all – they were funny, yet moving and deal with real life – The Dress Circle is about a Transvestite dad for instance. They reminded me of Sue Townsend – less overtly comic, but full of great observations.
Laurie Graham Books Read

Then I stopped as her writing took a slightly different tack with her next novel Future Homemakers of America and it didn’t fit with my reading likes at the time. I bought the book though, it’s still waiting there for me.

Since then, she’s written another handful of novels set in earlier decades of the 20th century, including ones based on the Windsors and Kennedys, a couple more written back in the present, and then turned further back in history with A Humble Companion.
Laurie Graham Books Unread

Every single one of those novels above are on my shelves. I always knew I’d start reading and, I’m sure, loving them again.

untitledI also see that she has a new novel coming out in October. The Liar’s Daughter continues her historical pattern, and is set in Portsmouth during the time of Nelson.

I can’t wait to get reacquainted with Laurie Graham’s books. I’ll happily read them all!  She’s a British author well worth exploring and you can read more about her on her own website here.

Which authors have you got waylaid from, but intend to revisit?  Do tell…

Adapt to Survive, Fail and Die

The Giraffe’s Neck by Judith Schalansky

giraffe

Frau Inge Lohmark is a teacher of biology to teenagers. She is defiantly old school, teaching from the front, chalk and talk – a bit of a dinosaur in the world of education some might say – at risk of dying out. A Darwin devotee, Frau Lohmark does have a real passion for her subject, but not so much her pupils…

Her colleagues simply didn’t understand that they were just damaging their own health by showing any interest in their pupils. After all, they were nothing but bloodsuckers who drained you of all your vital energy. Who fed on the teaching body, on its authority and its fear, doing harm to its responsibility. They constantly ambushed one. With nonsensical questions, meagre suggestions and distasteful familiarities. The purest vampirism.
[…]
It just wasn’t worth it, dragging the weak ones along with you. They were nothing but millstones that held the rest back. Born recidivists. Parasites on the healthy body of the class. Sooner or later the dimmer bulbs would be left behind anyway.

You’d think that Frau Lohmark would be a spinster, a tweedy and dessicated older woman with steely hair in a bun, so bitter is she. Actually we don’t find out much about her appearance at all, but we do discover that she is married to Wolfgang, who breeds ostriches for the tables of posh restaurants in Berlin. She has a daughter, Claudia, who escaped to the USA as soon as she could from the former East Germany; Frau Lohmark barely thinks of Claudia these days. She is used to staying put, she’ll last it out at the Gymnasium (German equivalent of our academies) won’t she?  She has to – her family is effectively dysfunctional – she can’t contemplate a life with Wolfgang and the ostriches…

20140515_184636_resizedAt intervals throughout the book are exquisite illustrations of flora and fauna from the tree of life including Frau Lohmark’s beloved jellyfish. Jellyfish, being very ancient, evolved from the earliest true animals (eumetazoa) in the Cambrian era by the way.

There are no credits anywhere for the drawings, but knowing that the author trained as an art historian, graphic designer and typographer and illustrated her previous book Atlas of Remote Islands, it’s fair to assume they are her work.

The whole text is something of a love story to evolution and genetics. Theories are applied to Frau Lohmark’s classroom – who are the ‘fittest’ pupils? Who will survive, and thrive on the rigours of the genetics course, stretching higher to reach the next levels of knowledge as the giraffe did for leaves?  I enjoyed these analogies very much. There was a nice one comparing the new intake of pupils each year and having to start again with deciduous trees loosing their leaves followed by new growth.

This novel will clearly not be to everyone’s taste, you need an appreciation of evolution and genetics to get the most from it.  There are many scientific terms used and Shaun Whiteside’s translation from the German is technically accurate and holds no prisoners.

The book is divided into three parts. ‘Ecosystems’, the first part in which we meet Frau Lohmark and discover her rather strong beliefs was fascinating.  The final part, ‘Evolution Theory’ was equally so, as we discover Frau Lohmark’s future and how it evolved, what makes her tick.  Unfortunately the middle, longest, section entitled ‘Genetic Processes’ rather took its time – like natural selection – and didn’t drive the story on very efficiently, and I did get slightly bored until it picked up again.

This is an structurally ambitious novel that doesn’t quite pull it off, but one that I appreciated and found fascinating in parts. (7.5/10)

See also Jackie’s review at Farm Lane Books

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Source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Giraffe’s Neck by Judith Schalansky. Pub March 2014 by Bloomsbury, 244 pages, hardback.

Alice Hoffman’s new novel …

Over at Shiny New Books, the book recommendations website I co-edit, we’ve added a selection of new reviews and articles to keep you going until our super-sized Issue 2 hits the web at the beginning of July. Today I’d like to plug a pair of pages I contributed about Alice Hoffman and her new novel…

The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman

The Museum of Extraordinary Things

New York City – 1911 – a period of great change seeing the beginnings of the trade union movement after a terrible fire at a garment workers factory in which many perished. The triangle factory fire actually happened, and the author has used that and another fire at Coney Island later that year as the anchors for her new novel. We all associate Coney Island with funfairs, and Dreamland was the biggest and best back then and its spectacles are proving to draw away the customers from Professor Sardie’s ‘Museum of Extraordinary Things’…

You can read my review of the book here,
alicehoffman
…and then you may like to visit this page where you will see a Q&A article with her. Once the questions had been sent to her publicist, the answers came back the next day – I was grateful for the opportunity and impressed with the speed and super answers.

I have reviewed a couple of Alice’s novels on this blog previously – you can see what I thought of

The Ice Queen here, and The Story Sisters here.

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Source: Publisher – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman. Pub April 2014 by Simon & Schuster, hardback 384 pages.

Drip-dry wash’n’wear?

Man-Made Fibre by Francine Stock

francine stock
Many of you may know journalist and TV/radio presenter Francine Stock from her time on Newsnight some years ago, and later on Radio 4’s arts programme Front Row and the Film Programme which she still presents. She has also written a couple of novels and a history of film. Man-Made Fibre is her second novel which was published back in 2002.

Here I have to declare an interest. For over seventeen years I worked for chemical giant Du Pont which is based in Wilmington, Delawre. Du Pont are pioneers in the field of man-made fibres thanks to their employee Wallace Carothers who is credited with discovering nylon back in 1935. I was in the electronic materials division, far removed from the fibres group, but the company’s mid-20th century history is so steeped in all the advances in making synthetic materials that I couldn’t pass by this title.

man-made fibreI wasn’t sure what to expect either, and was pleased to find that despite the cover, this novel is not at all fluffy. In fact it reminds me of nothing so much as the TV series Mad Men.  It’s set during the same years – the early 60s, has the same attention to detail and is a thoughtful exploration of the disintegration of a family. I couldn’t help but see Alan and Patsy as Don and Betty Draper (but English).

The story starts in suburbia. Alan and Patsy have three children and a nice house in a cul-de-sac which Patsy is transforming into her vision of a modern home…

And it was all beginning to come together. Through the serving hatch the eye could catch the golden tones of the living area-cum-dining-room-cum-study, altogether more convivial with the new wallpaper, diagonals again, the Scandinavian influence still effective. Open-plan but divided. Efficient yet decorative. With the duty to entertain that Alan’s job would increasing involve […] there would be fresh chances to express their style. Patsy and Alan – the Hopkinses at home.

Patsy’s vision of being the perfect hostess is thrown into stasis with one phone-call. Alan is a scientist working on developing new fibres for NextGen, a small British company newly absorbed into the Lavenirre group based in Delaware (surely a ringer for Du Pont!). Alan’s potential new product has attracted the attention of the head office and he is summonsed to the USA. But once there, they decide to keep him and Patsy and the family will have to transfer with him.

Over in Delaware, Alan is unaware of the angst and upheaval this is causing to Patsy. He’s thrown himself into the American lifestyle – looked after by his company mentor Ray, a fibres marketing man – who is used to playing hard at the weekends…

Ray applies the same efficiency to work. He wants to look after Alan so that Alan can deliver for the firm – and for himself, of course. This division of the corporation is very exciting – has been for fifteen years or so, thanks to Dr Carothers and nylon. You people did wonderful stuff with Terylene, but with Dacron – well, you have to admit, Alan, we had the edge. And frankly, the ball is in our court now. We’re the only ones who have the muscle to deplot these new polyesters.

So Lavenirre is definitely based on Du Pont! Terylene and Dacron are both tradenames for PET – polyester terephthalate – commonly called polyester. ICI discovered polyester in 1941 and Terylene was their name for it, Dacron Du Pont’s version. No prizes for guessing which persists today – in fact ICI’s polyester business was subsumed into Du Pont’s in 1997.

The company is endlessly helpful in helping Patsy with all the business of moving. Alan’s boss, the slimy Fred Rookin, takes a personal interest – but it is his chauffeur Jon that does the legwork and catches Patsy’s imagination.

Patsy is always so together, slightly aloof and looked up to by her friends. The only people she lets go with slightly are her neighbours, Evie and Donald, an older couple who are honorary aunt and uncle to her children. Evie and Donald, childless, adore the kids, they also enjoy their life knowing that Donald who is older and more infirm won’t necessarily have much left.  Occasionally Evie will  take over the narrative to give an outsider’s view of the Hopkins household.

Change is always difficult – to manage it well, all involved have to embrace it, and Patsy doesn’t – at least not in the way that Alan hopes for.  There are no easy answers in dealing with these family dilemmas and Stock doesn’t try to give any. As in Mad Men, you sense that there are to be no truly happy endings to this thoughtful and well-observed novel. (8.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Man-made Fibre by Francine Stock, pub 2002. Out of print but s/h copies available.

My Independent Bookshop

Yesterday I opened Annabel’s House of Books at the home of a new initiative from Penguin Random House in association with Hive called My Independent Bookshop.

Hive logoYou all know Penguin, but you may not be familiar with Hive. It is a UK online book retailer that links to independent bookshops. Each indie bookshop registering with them gets a storefront for their recommendations and they get a percentage from any orders.

My Independent Bookshop takes it one step further… Anyone can open up their own shopfront and link to an independent bookshop who’ll get the benefits of any sales generated, and the owner will get rewards too.  Hive are able to offer decent discounts, so hope to compete a little with that other giant e-tailer…

The only downside I can see is that you can only have a dozen books on your shelves at any time – so sales may be slow – however, anything that generates a little extra income for indie bookshops is probably a good thing.

Below is what my shopfront looks like. I’m supporting Abingdon’s other indie bookshop The Bookstore through this initiative … do pop over and if you like what you see, why not buy a book.  I’ll be ‘changing stock’ frequently, so do come back.

Capture My Indie Bookshop