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.

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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.

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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!!!

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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.

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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.

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

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

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Riding the slipstream …

The Adjacent by Christopher Priest

The-Adjacent-Christopher-Priest-198x300 Today I shall direct you to another review I wrote for Shiny New Books:- The Adjacent by Christopher Priest, now out in paperback.

Priest is one of those authors who defies genre, yet routinely gets categorised as a science fiction author. True his books often have some SF elements in, and The Adjacent was short-listed for the Arthur C Clarke Award this year (losing out to Ann Leckie).  However, to me, he’s more a spec fiction writer – riding the slipstream rather than pure SF.

Those of you who have seen the film The Prestige will have encountered the mind of Priest, (although the film did remove one whole contemporary plot-strand which would have complicated things to much for the big screen), so you’ll realise that a level of the fantastic is a part of that story.

Priest is a great ideas man. This novel with its central echoing romance, goes from a bleak future back to WWI and through WWII before coming full circle. I really enjoyed it.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Adjacent by Christopher Priest (pub 2013, Gollancz, paperback 432 pages).

Thoughts on my header photo

I’ve been mostly writing reviews for Shiny New Books this week after finishing Frog Music, but wanted to write something on the blog for the weekend…

My eye caught my header photo which when taken a few years ago, I compiled a shelf of favourite reads over the years, mostly those getting a full five stars from me. I’ve read a lot of wonderful books since, but I still think the row above represents a fair selection of the wide range of novels that I like to read, so I’ll probably leave it for now. I haven’t reviewed all of them on this blog, but quite a few do feature, so I thought I’d revisit my old posts on books above. So from left to right and in alphabetical order of their authors too…

death of grassDouble Indemnity by James M Cain. 136 pages of classic noir with a crooked insurance agent, a femme fatale and a husband to murder.

The Death of Grass by John Christopher. The 1956 breakthrough novel from the creator of The Tripods.

Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey. It was reading one of the original cowboy novels from 1912 that cemented my love of literary westerns.

SpyMy Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time by Liz Jensen. Jensen is one of those authors who writes entirely different novels every time. This steampunky time travel love story is the funniest thing I’ve read by her so far. A real hoot.

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold by John Le Carre. Possibly my favourite spy novel ever. It feels so authentic, and Alec Leamas is Richard Burton.

peyton placeLet the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist. Simply the best vampire novel there is (and possibly the goriest too – you have been warned).

Peyton Place by Grace Metalious. This epic novel set the benchmark for every soap opera and small town drama that followed. Beautifully written.

True Grit by Charles Portis. Forget the film, read the book.

The Shipping News - 1st UK paperbackThe Shipping News by Annie Proulx. This novel is still up there in my top ten, love it to bits.

Here Lies Arthur by Philip Reeve. Written for teens, but a wonderful read for any age, Reeve’s novel puts a different ‘spin’ on Merlin and Arthurian legend.

Blood Red Snow White by Marcus Sedgwick. It’s hard to believe that this fictionalised biography of Arthur Ransome’s time in Russia was written for teens, it’s that good. Sedgwick is my favourite YA author without a doubt.

Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell. In just 193 pages, you get a slice of how hard life is for a poor family in the Ozark mountains when Ree has to go searching for her pa. The film is also wonderful.

It’s a shame that favourites like Flowers for Algernon and Ray Robinson’s wonderful debut Electricity were books I read just before I started blogging. Perhaps I should revisit them and review them now. It also reminds me that it’s ages since I read a Christopher Brookmyre book.

Having done this, it’s got me thinking of course!
I may just have to start searching out a new set of more recent great reads for my header photo now.
What do you think?

A new approach to the problem of werewolves …

Red Moon by Benjamin Percy

red moonInside this chunkster of a werewolf novel are at least two shorter novels trying to get out… Imagine a post 9/11 America into which a new threat has emerged to fuel a nation’s paranoia. It’s the age of the werewolf, or Lycans as Percy dubs them.

From the opening chapters in which a Lycan manages to board a plane, transform and kill all the passengers bar one, there’s no doubting that they are far nastier than the teen-wolves of the Twilight Saga. These werewolves only need anger/fear to be able to transform, and they leave a trail of gruesomely mutilated corpses …

But not all of them. One of the central threads of this multi-layered novel is a central high-school romance between, Patrick, the teenager who survived the plane crash and becomes a celebrity, manages to fall for Claire, a Lycan, who is daughter of two former Lycan activists. This is complicated by Patrick’s father being in the Marines abroad guarding uranium mines which are under Lycan threat.

In another thread, the loudmouthed, beer-swilling, womanising, and fiercely anti-Lycan state Governor is being groomed to run for the presidency. He’s rather a puppet for his closest advisor who pulls his strings, but when something happens to him it becomes a whole new ball game.

Linking these two main stories are the Lycan, and anti-Lycan activists, and to a lesser extent, Neal, a doctor researching a vaccine for the Lobos virus, who was a friend of Patrick’s father.

Interestingly, Percy’s take on the werewolf genre is firmly grounded in the real world rather than the paranormal which does add a genuinely different feel to this novel.  Lycans are infected with a prion-based virus (like AIDS, CJD, Mad cow), caught through blood or sexual contact.  The threat of being infected rather than being devoured drives paranoia, as the Government takes steps to further and further restrict the lives of sufferers, ghettoising them. As the Lycans begin to take things into their own hands, the government quickly becomes militarised and we’re into dystopian territory.

Given that Patrick and Claire’s gritty romance is largely separate from the socio-political Governor’s tale, I felt the two could have been told in companion volumes, which would give more pace. Intertwining them kept slowing things down just as they were getting really interesting. I can see the value of having the two threads together, but it made for a long read at 530 dense pages.  Remembering who was who in the Lycan and anti-Lycan groups got a little complex towards the end also as the cast-list expanded.

I did like the author’s new approach of taking the paranormal out of lycanthropy though, and thus creating a grisly and gritty horror-thriller of speculative fiction. (7.5/10)

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Source: Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Red Moon by Benjamin Percy, pub Hodder & Stoughton, May 2013. Hardback.
 

Travelling Man

Lost Luggageby Jordi Punti, translated from the Catalan by Julie Wark.

lost luggage

This is the story of Gabriel Delacruz, orphan, international furniture remover and father to four sons. Four boys – born in four different countries to four different mothers; one German, one English, one French and one Spanish, and all christened the local equivalent of the name Christopher. They are not aware of each other’s existence, and none of them have seen their father for a couple of decades.

The ‘Four Christophers’ finally meet when the youngest, Cristòfol is contacted by the police when his father goes missing. He finds a piece of paper with the details of his brothers on.  The Christophers meet to learn each others stories, and also to research their father – they don’t believe he’s dead.

In fact, disappeared isn’t the correct verb, and if we’ve decided to find him, it’s to make sense of the word.  Give it a body. Only somebody who’s previously appeared can disappear and that’s not the case with our father. We haven’t seen him for more than thirty years and the sum of our memories presents us with only a blurry image of him. It’s not as if he was a timid man, or naturally reserved, but he always seemed to have an escape route. He wasn’t edgy, anxious or mistrustful either. Sigrun says she fell in love with both his presence and his absence. Mireille recalls that as soon as he arrived it was as if he was leaving again. The brevity of his visits helped, of course. …
This vanishing act can even be seen in the letters he used to send us. He wrote them from all over Europe, wherever he was moving furniture, telling us stories about the trip. Sometimes they were postcards, scribbled by the roadside. … In the letters he wrote us he sometimes enclosed photos of himself, alone or posing with his trucker friends. The words accompanying these images revealed real tenderness and longing, which made our mothers cry if they were feeling fragile, but they never went beyond two sides of a single sheet of paper. Just when it seemed he was getting into his stride, the writing would abruptly end. See you soon, kisses, and so on and so forth, his name, and that was that. As if he was afraid to give all of himself.

The brothers take their turns to tell their stories. How their mothers met Gabriel, their births, and those rare visits throughout their childhood.  Although they are very different, they all get on well, making up for lost time.  Their mothers were all independent women and despite the lack of a permanent father figure in their lives, they have made the most of things. They start meeting regularly to talk, and search out Gabriel’s friends and acquaintances to help fill in the gaps.

Alongside Gabriel’s unfolding story was that of his fellow orphan and colleague Bundo. Together since their days in the ophanage, their undying friendship was the most touching part of this story. Whereas Gabriel had a woman in each port so to speak, there was only ever one girl for Bundo but he had to share her, for Carolina was a prostitute in a roadhouse outside Lyon.

One of the naughty but interesting things that Gabriel and Bundo did together along with fellow removers was to always remove one random box from the contents of each move. They’d share out the contents, and Gabriel catalogued them – over 200 boxes in total over their career. One of those boxes had contained a ventriloquist’s dummy, which Gabriel passed on to his German son, Christof, who called it Christofini. The dummy kept butting into Christof’s part of the narrative, which did give a slightly surreal edge to things.

I particularly loved reading about Gabriel and Bundo and their exploits through the years, lovable rogues both, always up for a chance to make a bit on the side or a game of cards. The sons’ stories weren’t as exciting in comparison, and as I read on, I did hope that they’d make progress on finding Gabriel, for at 473 pages, this is rather a long book. I won’t let on what finally happens, for this was a charming story told with humour, and you may want to find it out for yourself.  Despite its length, Punti has created some memorable characters in this debut novel and I enjoyed the travels and travails of Gabriel, his friends and extended family a great deal. (8.5/10)

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I received a copy from the publisher – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Lost Luggage by Jordi Punti, pub 25th April by Short Books, Trade paperback, 473 pages.

Who killed the penguin?

Morgue Drawer Next Door by Jutta Profijt, translated from the German by Erik J Macki.

This unusual crime novel is narrated by Pascha – he used to be a car thief – the best young one in Cologne. Pascha has become a sort of detective, teaming up with Dr Martin Gänsewein, a forensic examiner for the city. They have a bit of a love-hate relationship, Martin is very good at his job, but is a little set in his ways; Pascha can be like an annoying dog, always nipping at his heels. Martin does believe in justice though, and Pascha’s heart is in the right place for an ex-car-thief.

They met in the morgue, when Martin was performing Pascha’s autopsy – yes, Pascha is a ghost! Martin is the only person he can communicate with, which drives him mad – but the two do work together well. The story of their meeting, in which they investigate Pascha’s own murder, is told in the first book of this series Morgue Drawer Four, which I’ve not read, (but would now like to).

In Morgue Drawer Next Door, the unlikely pairing have a new case to investigate. A convent in the posh area of Cologne, has a fire in which one sister perishes, and another is burned to a crisp, but hangs on in ICU. The run-down convent needs a lot of expensive restoration work done and the police are inclined to think that the fire was an accident. One person knows differently however – the nun who died, Sister Marlene. Marlene’s spirit lingers – she has a mission to accomplish before passing on.

When Pascha finds her, he takes her under his wing and vows to help. The only problem is that Martin is a) not supposed to be back at work yet after having been stabbed (in the previous novel), and b) would rather Pascha was not around so he can progress his fledgling romance with the lovely Birgit. Pascha becomes go-between, for Marlene can only communicate with him, and goaded on by the two ghosts, Martin grudgingly gets on the case.

Martin is gloriously grumpy and reluctant to get involved in another case – after all, he got stabbed the previous time. He also wants more downtime from Pascha being in his head. He’s not a policeman, he’s a pathologist, but knowing that the fire was no accident, he can’t leave it. He must find a way of getting the right information on how to solve the crime to the police without them condemning him as a crackpot who talks to ghosts! Luckily for Pascha, Martin’s new girlfriend Birgit is game for helping him out, and has no idea about the ghosts.

This brings me to Pascha and Marlene. Their interplay is so sweet and funny. You can imagine how a middle-aged nun would react to the testosterone-led mindset of a young man, yet there is no-one else for her to turn to to show her the ropes of being a ghost. Sister Marlene soon realises that, and the chalk and cheese pairing are soon whooshing all over the place and manipulating situations to find the proof they need.

Although this all sounds delightful and irreverent, which it is, there is a more serious side to the novel regarding the work of the convent. Amongst other things, they run a night shelter for the homeless, and none of their neighbours like it. The surrounding area has gone up in the world, and the new posh inhabitants don’t want bums on their doorstep, nor do the allotment owners nearby, or right-wing groups. The nuns are under pressure on all sides to shut up and ship out.

The novel is narrated throughout by Pascha, who maintains that he is writing a book, and there are frequent asides about his Editor. Initially, this was slightly irritating, but you can’t help warming to Pascha. There is a lovely bit where he tries to justify his having been a car-thief to Marlene – generating wealth in insurance, people buying new cars etc, and keeping the manufacturers in work.  Marlene too, although pious, is humane and does have a good sense of humour for a nun – something she had needed in her work one surmises.

If you enjoy crime novels with humour and a lot of heart, this may be one for you. Knowledge of the first volume is not necessary to enjoy this one, but I certainly want to read it now I’ve read the second. (8.5/10)

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I received my book to review from Amazon Vine.
To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:

Morgue Drawer Next Door by Jutta Profijt. Amazon Crossing paperback, Jul 2012, 256 pages.
Morgue Drawer Four – the first book in the series.

I was manipulated but didn’t mind, for it was done with kindness …

Wonder by R J Palacio

  • A ten year old boy starts at a new school in the fifth grade…
  • It’s a good prep school, he passed the exam with flying colours…
  • It’ll be the first time he’s been to school, ever…
  • He’s been home-schooled by his Mom…
  • Auggie (short for August) is clever, funny and loves Star Wars…
  • He doesn’t have many friends, but his sister Via, and Daisy the dog make up for that…
  • Why?  Because people stare, then look away quickly…
  • Auggie’s face takes some getting used to…
  • He was born with multiple facial problems including a cleft palate…
  • But underneath it he’s a normal boy, who just wants to be loved …
  • It’s going to be a hard year…

That is the essence of this book in a nutshell, which follows Auggie’s first year in school. I’m not going to say much more about the plot, as you can work out what will happen. This brave youngster is putting himself (and us) on a roller-coaster that will have huge ups and downs, many twists and turns before it pulls back in to the station for the summer recess.

Yes, we readers are manipulated. Yes, it’s a bit sentimental, designed to tug at your heart-strings. But, I couldn’t put the book down. I smiled when Auggie won battles, I got cross when he struggled, and at one point I did cry. I didn’t mind all this though, for it was done with kindness.

Written for children, this book illustrates the issues of living with deformity really well. We start off with Auggie telling his own story, but in later chapters the tale is handed over to his sister and his friends, interspersed with more of Auggie’s voice. We hear both sides, including what it’s like being the sister or friend of someone like Auggie.

There are many, many valuable points about bullying and friendship to be gleaned from Auggie and his classmates. Underlying it all though, as set out by their English teacher Mr Browne, in his ‘Precepts’ for life, is the quality of being kind. He tells them, “When given the choice between being right or being kind. Be Kind.

I hope this book achieves a wide readership among boys and girls. They’ll find that  Auggie is actually great company – he’s very self-deprecating and funny. The author captures the personalities of all the children brilliantly, as she does Auggie’s parents.

Speaking of parents, I also hope that enough of them read it too – there is one event later in the book that should be a lesson to all grown-ups about snobbishness and tolerance. It got me really cross!

It may have been predictable reading it as an adult, but I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. I laughed, I cried and I couldn’t put it down.  (8/10)

P.S.  The book is prefaced by a lyrics quote from Natalie Merchant’s song ‘Wonder‘ (from the album ‘Tigerlily‘).  You can see her performing the track live below.

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My copy was supplied courtesy of Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK (affiliate link), click below:
Wonder by R J Palacio. Pub Bodley Head, 1 March 2012. Hardback 320 pages.
Tigerlily by Natalie Merchant (CD)

Who is John Wayne? Who killed Susan? Does it matter?

Newton’s Swing by Chris Paling

Chris Paling has written nine novels, but it’s taken those nine to get some real recognition via being chosen as one of Fiction Uncovered’s 2011 crop of the best authors you haven’t read yet with his book Nimrod’s Shadow.

That book is in my TBR pile, but I discovered I already had an earlier one of his novels Newton’s Swing , which was published in 2000, so I decided to read that first.

Susan lies dead on her bed, shot in the side.  Her husband John, has dialled 911, but is shocked and confused, and is unsure what to do. Rewind a decade…

John Wayne is an Englishman, an ad-man working in New York who finds ‘the world is split between those that make a joke about my name, and those who don’t’.  Naturally, he prefers those who don’t.  He works for Angel, head of the agency, who is famed for his ‘parties’, where no-one goes by their own name. ‘That way even if the girls get hurt, reputations stay safe.’ John meets a beautiful art dealer, Susan, (whom Angel knows as Leona), and despite the instant hatred between John and her best friend Angela, they become a couple and have a son, Jordan.

John tells his story through his relationships with friends, colleagues and family. Flicking back and forward through the years, contrasting episodes from his life with Susan to the fall-out of her murder, and the re-building of the bond with his son, and eventually auditioning replacements for Susan.

John is racked with grief, guilt, self-doubt.  Eventually someone is jailed for Susan’s murder, but you never feel that they got the right man.  All the way through as we negotiate life’s quagmire with John,  there are moments when you think you know what happened, but then again …

Wayne is a complex character, an outsider who somehow manages to fit in, but not completely. ‘Susan’s world had a secret door to it. A few people had the key: Angela, a couple of other women, Jordan, perhaps another man. Not me.’  All of them have something to hide, yet it is obvious that he and Susan did have something, but they connected on another wavelength entirely.

Written in a taut and sparing style, I was drawn from the beginning into John’s world. Regardless of whether I trusted his memory or not, I wanted him to come out of his internalising of Susan’s death, and to really get to know his son.  There is some humour and light, but John’s story is serious, a little cold and aloof and an absolutely compelling read.  I’m going to have to read a lot more of Paling’s books if they’re this good. (9.5/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Newton’s Swing by Chris Paling. Vintage paperback, 240 pages.
Nimrod’s Shadow by Chris Paling.

He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!

Had to write a short post on the BBC4 drama Holy Flying Circus which aired this week, it was a mostly marvellous 90 minutes of real Pythonesque homage. It followed the life of the Pythons around the time that Life of Brian was released in the cinema (1979), the TV ‘debate’ between Cleese and Palin v Muggeridge and a bishop that made TV history for its time, and the battle to get the film off the screen.

Life of Brian is forever etched in my mind in rose-tinted memories…

I was a student at Imperial College in South Kensington in 1979. Wandering into the Union Bar one lunchtime, there were tickets being waved around to go and see a free screening of a new film.  I went with my then boyfriend.

The screening was in the basement cinema of one of the film distributors in Soho. There were beanbags all over the floor for the student audience to sit on, and a row of comfy armchairs further back.

So we all slobbed around in the beanbags, and waited for the film to start. Within seconds we sat up to attention, then fell about laughing for the next hour and a half or so.  The film we saw was the uncut and not quite finished version of Life of Brian – it was hilarious – scandalously funny. All Python fans to start off with, we couldn’t believe our luck, especially when we glanced behind and saw that the row of armchairs were now occupied by the entire Python team (Cleese excepted).  Palin documents the screening in the first volume of his diaries – making me almost feel that I’m in there!

There were a few changes in the final film.  The title animation hadn’t been added – instead the titles read ‘A title’, ‘Another Title’ Another F***ing title’ – echoing the short film about Gondolas that had accompanied Holy Grail.  This got us off to a good start.  A couple of scenes were cut; the soundtrack hadn’t been finished, but it was so fresh and funny.  What a great evening!

Now of course, with some maturity behind me,  I can see the serious points beyond the comedy about freedom of speech and individuality. This was the key theme of the TV drama too.   Holy Flying Circus was very cleverly done, using all of the Python’s tricks, surreal tricks and full of references to the film itself, but in an updated sort of way that if the Pythons were still together they would do themselves, including animations and fantasy sequences.

The best scenes by far were between Michael Palin and his wife, who was played by Terry Jones, played by actor Rufus Jones.  Slightly uncomfortable, but bloody brilliant!

Not all of the jokes worked – much like the original Python shows, but it was very engaging, chucklesome and wonderfully nostalgic.  I’m sure they’ll show it again (and again, and again) if you missed it.

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To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:

Monty Python’s Life of Brian – The Immaculate Edition [Blu-ray] [2007][Region Free]

Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years 1969-1979 by Michael Palin