Hardy & Me…

I’m madd not to have read more Hardy!

I’m just back from the cinema where I saw Far From the Madding Crowd. For anyone suffering from Poldark withdrawal, it has lots of galloping along clifftops and through fields, and scything! Seriously, it was a wonderful film, with a screenplay by David Nicholls. I’ve come away with a serious crush on this Gabriel Oak (Mattias Schoenaerts, a Belgian), I gasped when his sheep became lemmings, I felt so sorry for poor anguished Mr Boldwood (Michael Sheen) and hoped that Katniss Bathsheba wouldn’t marry Sgt Troy (Tom Sturridge). You see despite being in my mid 50s now (eek!) I’ve never seen the earlier film with Christie, Bates and Stamp – just odd clips, I never knew the whole story. I could hardly bear to look at the screen when she nearly let him get away at the end, and had tears of joy rolling down my cheeks seconds later.

– 

ffm

The thing is I love reading Thomas Hardy but I’ve only read two: Jude the Obscure for book club a couple of years ago and Tess of the D’Urbervilles back in autumn 2008. Should I read FFTMC now so soon after the film, or another of his novels – I have quite a few of my late mum’s copies on the shelves.

Which would you suggest I should read next?

Advertisements

A near-future techno thriller…

Deja Vu by Ian Hocking

deja vuThis novel is one of the first publications from a new indie publisher called Unsung Stories, specialising in ‘genre fiction that defies categorisation’. Déjà Vu is essentially near-future science fiction with a techno-thriller slant to it.

It is 2023. Saskia Brandt is a Berlin-based detective in the European FIB. Returning from a stressful holiday during which she became single again, she finds her receptionist has been murdered – and she has been implicated. Her boss Beckmann gives her twelve hours to prove her innocence.

Meanwhile in Oxford a university professor, David Proctor, is getting up – he dresses in ‘his usual loafers, chinos, shirt and blazer; clothes that Joyce, his girlfriend, called CGC, or Consultant Gynaecologist Chic.’ (that tickled me for some reason). David is instructing his prototype AI computer, Ego, when a call comes to tell him the other Ego units have been stolen. No sooner has he finished the call than he realises that a door is open somewhere, then he feels a weapon pressed into his back and Ego starts talking to him telling him it’s been hacked, and that he has return to Scotland when he gets a call from Colonel McWhirter about Onogoro, the virtual world he had created with his old colleague Bruce Shimoda. ‘Onogoro must fall,’ the voice tells him.

In Nevada, billionaire John Crane arrives in secret at Helix Base. He searches out Jennifer Proctor (David’s daughter) in her lab. Jennifer has been putting the finishing touches to the Déjà Vu project – enabling time travel – and her employer Crane needs her to send him back in time…

Even though they don’t know it, the fortunes of Saskia, David and Jennifer are already closely linked. David had previously been accused of trying to blow up the West Lothian centre, his wife Helen had been killed in the explosion – surely he couldn’t have done it?  Why do they want him to come back there? Saskia has a big personal shock in store for her once her twelve hours are up. Surely the key is going to be Jennifer’s project – is whatever will happen already pre-destined due to the impossible paradoxes otherwise of time travel? It’s telling that Saskia has a recurring dream of the three Fates of Greek myth: Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos who respectively spin, measure and snip the thread of life.

I’m not going to deliberate further on the plot of this novel as it is complicated with the layers of conspiracy and paradox. At its heart though is the simpler re-kindling of the relationship between father and daughter, wrenched apart when Helen died, together with Saskia’s search for her true self. To understand the present you need to understand the past and untangling the threads of what happens when is the key.

Published in print and e-book form by Unsung Stories last year, the technology in the book seemed too futuristic for less than ten years into the future – but doing some digging afterwards revealed that Hocking originally self-published this novel in around 2005 and has penned two more self-published Saskia Brandt novels since. So if it was originally written some more years ago, that definitely fits this vision of the near future better – although Apple are probably not so far off the Ego computer with its fledgling artificial intelligence – Ego could be the iPhone 25 or something! Much more futuristic is the implant chip in Saskia’s brain which controls and modulates her to some extent – does that make her a cyborg or bionic?

Apart from that niggling incongruity between the publishing year and the technology, what also irritated me were little bits of over-writing here and there: “The high ribwork of the orangery joined a sternum thirty feet about the floor.”  In its defence, the techno-thriller plot was quite fun, having a feel of the brilliant 1980s TV series Edge of Darkness to it in many ways (a political/nuclear thriller drama from the BBC). I did like the character of Saskia though and I hope she develops in her further adventures which are to be published too. (6/10)

* * * * *
Source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Deja Vu by Ian Hocking. Unsung Stories, 2014, paperback 328 pages.
Edge Of Darkness – The Complete Series [1985] [DVD]

Saturday Selection

Another busy week! Thank goodness I have nothing booked in for the next fortnight – even for half term, except for promising my daughter a London trip to Camden market.

amber furyMonday night was my Book Group – this month we read The Amber Fury (aka The Furies) by Natalie Haynes.

I read this book last year and reviewed it here and saw her talk about it at the Oxford Literary Festival – here. Everyone really enjoyed it. We thought the characters were well done, the setting felt real and all the Greek myths therein were used brilliantly.

*

Thursday night was down to London, where I met up with Jackie and Kim at Faber’s fiction showcase.

P1020304The star attraction was Kazuo Ishiguro, or Ish as he is known. No sooner had we got installed with drinks than Rachel from Faber brought him over to meet us – lovely man. He was slightly perplexed over blogging and the intercommunication between us all, but we were onto safer ground talking about book groups – he talked about his wife’s one. I will be reviewing The Buried Giant for Shiny New Books in April.

I also chatted with the handsome Welshman Owen Sheers about the Mabinogion retellings from Seren books which he contributed to. He has a new book out in June called I Saw a Man which sounds utterly gripping from the extract he read. He signed a copy of the proof for me – the first to ask – I am privileged. You’ll have to wait several months for my thoughts on the book though.

Also there were Andrew O’Hagan, who read brilliantly from his new novel The Illuminations which is currently R4’s Book at Bedtime, and KateHamer – debut novelist of a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood as a contemporary thriller The Girl in the Red Coat. Sarah Hall would have been there too to read from her new novel The Wolf Border, but couldn’t make it sadly.

*

Friday night was Mostly Bookbrains 6.  This year, the Wednesday evening Bookgroup from Mostly Books took over the mantle of compiling the questions, allowing me to be in a team with Simon and all his lovely friends. It was lovely to be on the other side for a change, and, dear reader – We won!!!

*

I’d like to finish by highlighting my two reviews in the Non-Fiction section of Shiny New Books’ new issue…

armchair nation
Armchair Nation by Joe Moran

Moran is becoming one of our foremost cultural historians of the twentieth century. His history of the googlebox in Britain goes right from its inception and promotion by Mr Selfridge himself through to The X-Factor via the new upstart ITV and Mary Whitehouse.

Absolutely fascinating, full of impeccable research from TV and news archives, Mass Observation and more.

Read my full review here.

*

where-im-reading-from-188x300Where I’m Reading From by Tim Parks

We all love books about books, and Tim Parks collection of essays (originally published in The New Yorker) is essentially one long opinion piece.

Divided into four sections covering the worlds of literature, reading, writing and translation, Parks, an English novelist, translator and university lecturer makes a lively companion.  I didn’t agree with all of his views (cf e-readers!) but found the essays entertaining and thought-provoking. I particularly enjoyed the section devoted to the world of translation, which gave me many new insights.

Read my full review here.

*

So that’s my week – how has yours been?

* * * * *

To explore some of the books mentioned above, click below (affiliate links – thank you):

Quick Reads – ideal for the train!

I’ve been terribly naughty and snuck in two novellas that got sent to me a couple of weeks ago, so not from my TBR piles.  But the TBR dare is a do it your own way challenge, and it’ll be back to books I already owned by the end of 2014 from hereon in – promise!

Galaxy Quick Reads is an expanding series of novellas written by best-selling authors and only cost a quid each. They are designed to encourage reluctant readers and so are all easy to read in terms of vocabulary and font-size but, that doesn’t mean that the stories suffer – they will engage any reader. For more information about the Quick Reads charity visit www.quickreads.org.uk.

Six new titles are being added to their list today:

  • Roddy Doyle – Dead Man Talking
  • Jojo Moyes – Paris for One
  • Sophie Hannah – Pictures Or It Didn’t Happen
  • Fanny Blake – Red for Revenge
  • Adèle Geras – Out of the Dark
  • James Bowen – Street Cat Bob

I got sent a couple (along with a welcome bar of chocolate) to try out:
IMG_20150130_154540 (1) (800x586)

I read these on the train last week – one on the way down to London, one on the way home and they fitted perfectly into that 50 minute slot.

Sophie Hannah’s novella Pictures or it Didn’t Happen tells the story of Chloe who is rescued by a complete stranger on a bike when she realises she’s left her daughter’s audition music in the car and they won’t have time to go back and get it. Tom Rigbey cycles into her life and seems to good to be true, but she still falls for him and they have a whirlwind romance – yet is he to be trusted? You expect complex plots and lots of drama from Sophie’s, and we get a good degree of drama built into the 123 pages with a neat twist.

Dead Man Talking by Roddy Doyle has a great pun in its title, and is the story of Pat and Joe, friends from childhood and now middle aged. However, they haven’t spoken for several years after they had a fight. Now Joe is dead. Pat and his wife go the wake held on the eve of the funeral and Joe, in his coffin in the front room, talks to Pat… Funny and a bit creepy, this novella was great fun.

So my first experiences with Good Reads were both good ones.

From Val McDermid and Ian Rankin to Jojo Moyes and Maeve Binchy, the list of Quick Reads has something for everyone including some non-fiction from John Simpson for example. I won’t hesitate to pick up other titles that interest me if I see them – at £1, they’re a bargain.

* * * * *
Source: Publisher – Thank you.

Pictures or it Didn’t Happen (Quick Reads 2015)by Sophie Hannah
Dead Man Talking (Quick Reads)by Roddy Doyle

Words On Rainy Days

WW Intriguing WordsI know you all enjoy a bit of wordplay?  I certainly do, and while reviewing my reference shelves I rediscovered a paperback that will definitely stay there rather than be consigned to the charity shop pile. It’s The Wordsworth Book of Intriguing Words, subtitled The Insomniac’s Dictionary, by Paul Hellweg and  originally published in 1986. It’s full of interesting lists of things such as collective nouns, animal adjectives, phobias, manias, words ending with -omancy, -icide, and all kinds of other groupings, and although being American in origin it is full of fascinating stuff.

Today, inspired by this book, I want to concentrate on one category of words – abbreviations, and in particular – acronyms. Last summer I posted about DITLOIDs – a number/word game in which you get a phrase like 1=DITLOID (One = Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich) to decipher. This time, I’m just going to chat about some of my favourite acronyms, new and old.

If last year you’d asked me what LOL stood for – I’d probably have said Little Old Lady, (remembered in particular from hospital drama ER, where they had lots of other acronyms too including GOMERGet Out of My Emergency Room for people coming with minor complaints). I never did use LOL for Lots Of Love as we discovered that PM David Cameron did to his chagrin. Laughing Out Loud is less fun though – and you can save yourself a character by doing a 😀 smiley.

The acronym du moment seems to be YOLOYou only live once.  Currently popularised from a 2010 song by Canadian rapper Drake called The motto. Apparently Zac Ephron has a YOLO tattoo too. However, it is way older than that, often being attributed to Mae West, but also in usage for around 100 years according to Wikipedia. I prefer to use Carpe Diem (RIP Robin Williams), to mean essentially the same thing.

My favourite zeitgeisty acronym though is MAMIL. You see them out all over the place these days. Last week a company called Fat Lad At the Back (FLAB – truly!) tried to get investment from Dragon’s Den on TV to expand their range of clothing for the larger MAMIL. Yes folks, a MAMIL is a Middle-Aged Man In Lycra™, usually seen from the rear balancing on two wheels channelling his internal Bradley Wiggins.

Another good one, which isn’t in such wide usage is SUMO.  It can stand for loads of things, but its most succinct is as Shut Up, Move On – as popularised in a motivational book by Paul McGee. The premise of SUMO is good, but the contents of his book do sound a little contrived – ‘Fruity Thinking’, ‘Hippo-time’ anyone?

Does anyone still use POETS Day? In the earlier days of my career, we did quite a lot – Piss Off Early, Tomorrow’s Saturday – every Friday. No longer though!

The_Moon_Is_A_Harsh_Mistress_fI shall finish by going back to an old favourite, which I was reminded of from the Book of Intriguing Words. That is TANSTAAFLThere Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch! Yes, it’s very American and has been in use at least since the 1930s, but its sentiment is true. I chose it specially though as the phrase and acronym are central to the premise of one of the first SF novels I loved as a teenager – that’s Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress from 1966.

Which current acronyms do you love – or loathe?
Do you have a favourite acronym?
Do share!

* * * * *

To explore the books mentioned above on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Wordsworth Book of Intriguing Words by Paull Hellweg. O/P but S/H copies available.
S.U.M.O. (shut Up, Move On): The Straight Talking Guide to Creating and Enjoying a Brilliant Lifeby Paul McGee
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (S.F. MASTERWORKS) by Robert Heinlein

 

Books of the year … so far

As we’re just past halfway through the year, I thought I’d take a quick look back at my favourites so far – all books getting 10/10 from me…

tigermanI’ll start at the top – my book of the year, so far, is one I’ve recently reviewed for issue two of Shiny New Books. Tigerman was the first novel I’ve read by the amazing Nick Harkaway. I loved this book, and I became a complete fangirl (if you can say that of a 54-year-old woman – Ed) when I met him at a recent event (see here). Tigerman is an eco-thriller about an post-empire island paradise and features superheroes and romance in a style Graham Greene would have been proud of. And, I’ve got Nick’s first two novels still to read – Yay!

hangover squareBack in January, I experienced the beautiful prose of Patrick Hamilton for the first time when I read Hangover Square. This story of unrequited love in darkest Earls Court just before the war was simply stunning. Very dark though… See my review here.

Life-After-LifeI’d been put off reading Kate Atkinson by not liking her debut when I tried it many years ago. I’m so glad our book group chose Life after Life – for I loved it. It’s sheer cleverness won me over within pages and then I started to appreciate the writing. See my review here.

It’s back to Shiny New Books for two last favourites – well it is a book recommendations site after all:

bedsit disco queenBedsit Disco Queen is Tracey Thorn’s autobiography of her life in the world of pop and it is such fun and so brilliantly written all the way through (unlike a certain other popstar’s memoir!). You don’t need to be a fan of Everything But the Girl, the band which formed the major part of her musical career, but after reading this you’ll want to be one.

into the treesAnd lastly, Into the Trees by Robert Williams. Everything that forests stand for, both good and bad, is used to great effect in this understated contemporary novel about the effects a forest has on a family living in it. It deserves a wider readership – see my review here.

So that’s my top five so far out of over sixty books read. It’ll be interesting to see if they’re still in my books of the year by the end of December.  There’s some big names coming up for autumn – McEwan, Waters, Amis, and John Cleese’s memoir to mention just a few that I’ll be reading…

What has been your best read of the year so far? Do share …

* * * * *
To explore any of these titles further on Amazon, click on the author name below:
Harkaway, Hamilton, Atinson, Thorn, Williams.

 

An evening with Nick Harkaway

On a sunny Wednesday evening, I headed into town to the newly refurbished barn at the Crown & Thistle in Abingdon to hear author Nick Harkaway talk about his novels and more. (Beer and books make a nice mixture in the sunshine).

Nick is now the author of three novels and one non-fiction book. His latest, Tigerman, has recently been published and I will tell you up front that it is the best novel I’ve read this year (out of fifty read so far), and I shall be reviewing the book for Shiny New Books, issue 2, out at the beginning of July.

DSCF3460-001

Nick and me!

The evening started off with Nick in conversation with Mark from Mostly Books, and it was obvious to me right from the start that Nick is, as Jenny @ReadingtheEnd put later put it on twitter to me, “Sui generis that man!” – definitely one of a kind; intellectual, erudite and well-read, yet loving trashy movies, completely mad, yet intensely sane, and yes, happy! It was a pleasure to meet him and hear him speak – I am now a huge fan.

Nick and Mark started off by immediately digressing off-topic into the genesis of his book The Blind Giant: How to Survive in the Digital Age. It came out of some blog columns he wrote for The Bookseller on the challenge of e-books and the internet, and he pulled all the ideas together into a discussion about social agency as it relates to technology.

After riffing about the internet to which we returned later, Nick and Mark discussed the genre-busting nature of his three novels. They are all very different in style – The Gone-Away World is a bit SF&F – post-apocalyptic but with ninjas and pirates; Angelmaker has a clockwork repairer, a ninety-year-old former superspy and a doomsday machine; Tigerman is a post-colonial eco-thriller set in a dangerous paradise with superheroes. Harkaway said that “in the UK we are obsessed with taxonomy and putting things into pigeonholes.” He grew up reading wonderful books that defied pigeonholing, and after being a scriptwriter, which is a very enclosed type of writing – you have to have a beginning, a middle and an end – being free to write a novel made him go, “I can do anything!” and so he has done. He hinted that his fourth novel is “completely batshit!” – can’t wait!

There is a development in his writing through the three novels though. The first features two male friends of the same age, the second a Father and grown-up son, and in Tigerman we have a man who wants to become a parent to a lost boy.

tigermanHe told us about the Eureka moment in Thailand when he fired a handgun for the first time (at a target), and he thought about how Batman no longer carries a gun. This gave him the superhero aspect of Tigerman. He and his wife were planning to have children at the time, so parenthood came into the mix too. His wife runs a human rights charity and deals with torture and rendition; he had been thinking about the island of Diego Garcia (see Wikipedia here), a British-owned island in the central Indian Ocean where the US has a base and the CIA were rumoured to have landed rendition flights for refuelling – this gave him the island of Mancreu where the novel is based. Tigerman is his first novel to have a unity of place and time – the island circumscribes the whole thing and the action all takes place over a few weeks.

Nick read us an extract from the novel, a really funny passage which didn’t spoil the plot for those who hadn’t read the book. There is a lot of humour in this novel – and it was one of the passages I’d marked down to quote from later. When I read the novel, I saw echoes of Graham Greene, which I asked about, and Nick said he never thought about but is terribly flattered by the comparison whenever it gets mentioned.  The main character, Lester Ferris, is definitely a Greene type – he’s a British Army sergeant – left behind to represent British interests once the embassy staff have gone – Lester being a soldier is used to obeying orders, and is told not to look too closely at what is going on around the island, but living there does affect him – particularly when he meets and befriends a boy who could be the son he’s never had.

Harkaway also talked more about twitter – he is an enthusiast, but doesn’t let it distract him from writing – noises from his young children are more likely to do that.  He does read digital text, but isn’t “pleased by it.”  You just can’t beat the feel of a book – indeed when he signed my hardbacks of Tigerman and Angelmaker, he stroked the cover and end-papers of Angelmaker saying it was such a lovely design – it is.

If you ever get the chance to hear Nick talk, do go – he is a fascinating speaker and a lovely chap to boot.  Tigerman was a five star read for me – and I’ve got his previous two novels still to read – Yay!

* * * * *
Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Tigerman by Nick Harkaway – published May 2014 by William Heinemann, hardback, 384 pages.
The Blind Giant: How to Survive in the Digital Age by Nick Harkaway, paperback.

Not reading about The Beautiful Game!

Brazil 2014 – The World Cup starts today!

CPFCOh woe, woe and thrice woe on the telly front for the next month! I come from a family of fanatic Crystal Palace FC supporters who will all be glued to their TVs watching the World Cup. Admittedly, if England were to get into the knock-out stages, even I would probably watch bits of it – but only England, and only the later matches.

Similarly, I have no desire to read any novel where football – that is soccer, rather than an other national variant, is the main subject. Surprisingly, football novels of any note are not very thick on the ground so this list of books I’m not going to read isn’t very long. (Please note the titles do go through to my Amazon affiliate link just in case you are interested – I’ll earn pennies!). I will not be reading:

Red-or-DeadThe Damned Utd nor Red or Dead by David Peace.

The Damned Utd about Brian Clough’s 44 days as manager of Leeds Utd is legendary. I should add that I have seen (and enjoyed) the film (DVD, 2009), but that was about Michael Sheen’s amazing performance more than anything else.

Red or Dead is a novelisation of Liverpool FC’s long association with manager Bill Shankly, who famously said:

Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.


puffin footballGoalkeepers are Different
 nor The Rise of Gerry Logan by Brian Glanville.

Glanville is perhaps the UK’s greatest writer about football including these novels.  I was amazed to find that the Gerry Logan book from 1965 is republished by Faber Finds and Franz Beckenbauer has declared it to be ‘the best book on football ever written’!  Apparently the character of Logan is based broadly on Danny Blanchflower.

Goalkeepers are different is a children’s novel, and I expect my brother probably read it as a child, along with Glanville’s The Puffin Book of Football, which I remember seeing on his shelves.

The Arsenal Stadium Mysteryarsenal by Leonard R Gribble

This crime novel from the 1930s was adapted into a film (1939, DVD). It was perhaps the first feature football film and many Arsenal players from the 1938-9 season were included in the cast.  During a charity match between Arsenal and amateur side the Trojans, the Trojans’ key striker mysteriously collapses in full view of the capacity crowd – it transpires he was poisoned.  The film in particular appears to have been much loved.

venables 2venables 1They Used to Play on Grass by Terry Venables and Gordon Williams – or is it Gordon Williams and Terry Venables as on the original (right). They’ve switched the author’s order on later editions… I wonder why?!

Venables and Richards were also responsible for the crime detective Hazell – penning a trio of novels which were developed into a TV series in the 1970s starring Nicholas Ball – does anyone remember that?

footballfactoryThe Football Factory by John King.

This debut novel about a disaffected Chelsea fan who becomes a hooligan may be ground-breaking in a way, but when you look it up on Amazon, you’ll also find lots of memoirs by real-life yobs about their hooliganism inspired by it – not novels and not good.

fever-pitch* * * * *

My last inclusion on this short survey of football novels is not a novel, it’s a memoir and I couldn’t miss it out. If I ever do read a soccer book – this will be the one – and primarily for Nick Hornby’s writing.

The book is, of course, Fever Pitch  by Nick Hornby, and if I did read it, I would be sure to get it’s latest livery incarnated in the Penguin Modern Classics catalogue.

And so in the immortal words of Kenneth Wolstenholme as Geoff Hurst scored England’s fourth goal in the 1966 World Cup final:

They think it’s all over, … it is now!

 

Hitch’s last essays …

Mortality by Christopher Hitchens

Hitch-MortalityI’m a long-term fan of Vanity Fair magazine for it’s in depth articles, photo portfolios and reportage, (OK, I don’t read the bits about obscure US politicians). One of the highlights most months though was to read the latest essay by British writer Christopher Hitchens.

A sublime essayist and journalist, a forthright and vocal atheist always happy to debate on difficult subjects – his pieces were always worth reading, whether you agreed with him or not.  I say were – because he died in 2011 from oesophageal cancer, more than likely brought on by his heavy drinking and smoking.  He collapsed in 2010 on the book tour to publicise his memoir Hitch 22, and was found to have cancer which had metastised, spread and thus was terminal. As he said: ‘…the thing about Stage Four is that there is no such thing as Stage Five.’

His last book, published posthumously, Mortality, is a collection of the essays he wrote during that last year for Vanity Fair around the subject of his cancer and dying. It is prefaced by his friend and editor of VF Graydon Carter with an afterword by his widow Carol Blue. I remember devouring them each month, and it is entirely fitting that they be collected into this short book.

Of course, memoirs about dying and cancer have been done before. Notably, I still can’t forget John Diamond’s page-long columns in the back of the Saturday Times magazine in which he wrote of his life once diagnosed with throat cancer. These columns became the basis of his memoir C: Because cowards get cancer too. He died in 2001: Diamond’s wife was Nigella Lawson, and I really felt for her, having already lost her mother and one sister to cancer. In fact, in Hitch’s unfinished notes in the final chapter he mentions Diamond:

Like many other readers, I used to quietly urge him on from week to week. But after a year and more … well, a certain narrative expectation inevitably built up. Hey, miracle cure!  Hey I was just having you on! No, neither of those could work as endings. Diamond had to die; and he duly, correctly (in narrative terms) did. Though – how can I put this? A stern literary critic might complain that his story lacked compactness toward the end…

But back to Hitch himself. Having the benefit of being able to write full essays for VF, he is able to expound at length, essentially taking a different related topic each time as well as updating us on the progress of his illness and treatment.

Perhaps the most fascinating essay is the second in which he deals with religion, and how he had both people praying for him and condemning him to hell!  For an atheist polemicist, he has many friends among the world’s many religions, and is more likeable than Dawkins for it. However, some would still hope to persuade him to have a deathbed conversion …

I sympathize afresh with the mighty Voltaire, who, when badgered on his deathbed and urged to renounce the devil, murmured that this was no time to be making enemies.

A different secular problem also occurs to me: What if I pulled through and the pious faction contentedly claimed that their prayers had been answered? That would somehow be irritating.

In another chapter, he writes about his voice – his vocal cords going decidedly croaky – and as a man who earns his living by voice as well as pen, he hated the idea of having to communicate by writing, even if his writing is his voice on paper.  He thanks (also now the late) Simon Hoggart who …

…about thirty-five years ago informed me that an article of mine was well argued but dull, and advised me briskly to write ‘more like the way you talk.’ At the time, I was near speechless at the charge of being boring and never thanked him properly, but in time I appreciated that my fear of self-indulgence and the personal pronoun was its own form of indulgence.

Another interesting essay is based upon Nietzsche’s pronouncement: Was mich nicht umbringt macht mich starker – Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger. Hitchens discusses why it doesn’t really work, although you may think it does until you get terminal and he illustrates the essay with quotations from Kingsley Amis, Betjeman and Bob Dylan.

These essays and additional material were a joy to revisit. Well-argued, supported by apposite quotes, each encapsulates its subject brilliantly. His interest in  the human condition too shines through the writing – it always has done. You could argue that this is not his best work, but perhaps it is is his most meaningful. Hitchens for all his bravado comes across as so full of life, even as the end approached and he shows great courage. His voice – spoken and on the page is a great loss, but luckily, he wrote lots of books, including his memoir Hitch 22, his anti-theist treatise God is not great: how religion poisons everything, and a great collection of other essays from 2011, Arguably. Now I don’t have him to read in VF any more, I shall start on these. (9/10)

* * * * *
Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
Mortality by Christopher Hitchens. Atlantic, 2012 paperback 128 pages.
Hitch 22: A Memoir by Christopher Hitchens. Atlantic, 2010 paperback 448 pages.

 

This novel is buzzing!

The Hive by Gill Hornby

hiveIt must have been quite daunting for Gill Hornby to publish her first novel – for she is the sister of the more famous Nick, and wife of best-selling author Robert Harris.  Now The Hive is out in paperback, she must be getting fed up of these facts being mentioned, as its a best-seller of her very own.

In The Hive, Hornby takes on female cliques of a particular kind – Mums of primary school aged children and the PTA (Parent-Teacher Association) which fundraises for their schools. It’s a satire, but it’s also oh-so-close-to-the-truth!

I’ve done my stints on the PTA: at my daughter’s old school I was variously Secretary, Treasurer, Quizmaster, Fireworks supremo, Form Rep – you name it, I did it and I loved it, and I can honestly say that as a committee, we always got on brilliantly and worked as a team, managing to raise lots of money and have fun, (well, mostly!). The hardest part of doing anything was getting helpers on the night for things – even for just half an hour – putting out tables, chairs, clearing up, directing parking etc. (and selling tickets for anything to the teachers!) Now she’s at senior school, and fundraising is limited to a couple of annual events, so I’m having a rest from being on that kind of committee. Been there, done that…

It’s the start of a new year at St Ambrose, a C of E primary school. New year, new headmaster too; Mr Orchard has plans. Meanwhile, in the playground Bea is making an announcement…

‘I have been asked…’ she paused, ‘by the new head …’ the words ruffled through the gathering crowd, ‘to pick a team.’ She was on tiptoes, but there really was no need. Beatrice Stuart was the tallest of them all by far.
Rachel, sinking back against the sun-trap wall of the pre-fab classroom, looked on and smiled. Here we go again, she thought. New year, new project. What was Bea going to rope her in for now? She watched as the keenos swarmed to the tree and clustered around. Their display of communal enthusiasm left her with little choice but to stay put, right there, keep her distance. She could sit this one out, surely. She was bound to hear all about it from Bea later. She would wait here. They would be walking out together in a minute. They always did.

Except that Bea doesn’t ask Rachel. She walks off without her, and Rachel realises that not only has she not seen Bea during the summer holidays, that she hasn’t seen her since Rachel’s husband Chris walked off leaving her for a younger model.

When Bea’s fundraising committee meets, they find a willing volunteer in Heather to be the secretary and she takes copious minutes. Bea makes herself chairperson and doesn’t even let the Headmaster get a word in edgeways about what he’d like them to fundraise for. Separate from the Parents Association (PASTA) They are to call themselves COSTA – the Committee of St Ambrose, and will host a lunch ladder, gourmet gamble raffle and a car-boot sale. It’s not long before Bea’s feathers are ruffled though for in a subsequent meeting newbie Deborah, who likes to be called Bubba, offers to host a ball in her garden…

Rachel finds herself partly happy, partly annoyed about her exclusion. Although Rachel walks to school with Heather and their daughters, Heather worships Bea and isn’t her best source of information, but she can rely on Georgie to update her. You can imagine the oneupmanship that’s going to ensue: Bea doesn’t want the ball to be a success, Heather’s tendency to micro-manage gets ever more irritating, events become invitation only, the headmaster is single, and in thus in need of a good woman … and so it goes on.

The novel is mostly seen from Rachel’s point of view and I could sympathise with her having to get to grips with being newly single again. My favourite character, however, was Georgie. She’s given up work to be a full-time mum and is happiest with a baby at her hip. She lives in domestic squalor on a farm and is totally in love with her husband and he with her. Their kitchen is perennially untidy and muddy, but she can whip up a healthy meal in minutes with home-grown produce. Georgie is very straight-talking, and always diving out for a fag break as an excuse to avoid boredom.

It’s not all fun and games though. As with any group of families thrust together by circumstances, there will be friendships made and broken, issues to deal with like bullying between their kids, and occasionally tragedy and illness. Although the story is a broad comedy for the most part, Hornby does bring suitable gravitas to the serious bits, before diving back in to make fun of some of the others’ reactions to them.

The dialogue can be hilarious. She captures that tendency of a clique of women who all carry on their own conversations at the same time, while not really listening to anything anyone else is saying well. All the stereotypes of mum are present and correct and their fawning over Bea is almost sickening – vying to take their turns to collect Bea’s children when Bea announces that she now has a ‘job’.  Rachel is a bit weak, but I can understand her stasis having been through it myself.

The bee analogy works well for this group. The queen bee and her faithful workers, who will eventually decide that the queen is past it and cultivate a new leader. Hornby works the bee theory in rather too obviously though a) by making Rachel’s mother a beekeeper, and b) you’ll also either like or loathe the character names – Bea, Heather, Clover, Melissa and of course Mr Orchard… I was of the like persuasion in this case.

I’m a big fan of Nick Hornby’s novels – which tend to look at life mostly from a male perspective.  His sister has given us the female one – it’s overdone, but the premise is great and I enjoyed reading it for the most part. Newly out in paperback, this is an undemanding summer read. (6.5/10)

I’d just like to finish by saying that all schools need volunteers to help in many ways from running events and fundraising to helping out on school trips. I found it a rewarding experience, and you don’t need to get as involved as I did – any help is always appreciated – and real life at the school gates is, in my experience, much nicer than this.

* * * * *
Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
The Hiveby Gill Hornby. Pub 2013. Abacus paperback 384 pages.