Consumer culture gone mad in a warped and very funny novel…

Get Me Out of Here by Henry Sutton

Scanning my TBR shelves for something different to read the other week, I alighted on this novel remembering that Kim had loved it! It was time to return to a novel by Henry Sutton. Many moons ago, pre-blog and in the early days of keeping my reading list spreadsheet, I made a note after reading Sutton’s first novel published in 1995 entitled Gorleston:

Gorleston

Having actually lived in Gorleston [-0n-Sea, adjacent to Gt Yarmouth in Norfolk] for a year I can completely understand this novel. It was lonely enough as a Londoner fresh from university in my first real job, but at least I could get away at weekends. For dear old retired Percy in this novel however, who leads a very humdrum existence, the chance to have some fun when he meets Queenie is totally irresistible! He has a whale of time, but Queenie moves on and he’s left alone again to discover some uncomfortable new truths about his dead wife. A touching novel full of wry observations about being old from a young first-time author.

Norfolk wasn’t me, but I really enjoyed Gorleston, so hoped I’d have a treat with his more recent novel Get Me Out of Here too.

Get me out of hereThe book starts in an opticians shop at Canary Wharf, East London’s business district, where Matt Freeman is trying to get a refund on his new pair of designer glasses, which he has deliberately mistreated because he doesn’t like them. He’s angling for a refund so he can go to another optician for a different pair he’s spotted. They call his bluff though, offering to replace the scratched lenses with stronger ones, it’ll take two weeks! Matt Freeman is, as they say, having a very bad day.

Right from the start we know that Freeman is a wannabe, he has some kind of unspecified financial start-up company about which he is very secretive, while accepting ‘investments’ from friends and family. All the time, he is living beyond his means in a flat with a bust boiler that isn’t actually in the most desirable location of the Barbican development in central London. Set in 2008, if you thought this novel was going to be about the credit crunch, you’d be mostly wrong but also a little right – for the only credit that will get crunched in this novel is Matt’s.

I’ve never read about a character so obsessed with brands and shopping! If starts on page one, and doesn’t let up for the whole novel… In fact, on the copyright page at the front, the publishers have inserted a paragraph to dissociate the author and themselves from Matt’s ‘highly subjective views about a variety of well-known brands and shops. These are purely a product of his imagination and state of mind.’

There’s a brilliant scene where he proves that an indestructible suitcase can be the opposite, which commenters over on Kim’s review likened to a John Cleese rant, so I won’t repeat that here. Another telling moment happens in Prada, where he goes to pick up a jacket he bought at half-price in the sale on which he’s had some alterations done. Needless to say it no longer fits and he can’t get his money back so he attacks the sales assistant.

I’d never hit a sales assistant before and I didn’t hit this man very hard. It was more of a slap with the back of my hand, which I sort of disguised as part of my desperate struggle to tear off the ruined piece of clothing as quickly as possible. He was too shocked, I think, to realise quite what had happened. But I couldn’t stand it when places such as Prada proved so unaccommodating. It was particularly shoddy behaviour, from an establishment that tried to project such a refined, stylish image.
‘Keep it,’ I shouted, letting the jacket fall to the floor. ‘But don’t expect to get my custom again.’ I couldn’t afford to waste £480, but I didn’t see why a trickle of Prada customers shouldn’t be made aware of how they treated their non-celebrity clients.

Underneath all the hilarious ranting and raving by Matt, the bad customer, is something all together more macabre as evidenced by that slap, for Matt is not just Mr Angry.

Shortly after the start of the novel we meet Matt’s current girlfriend, Bobbie. She shares a house in South London, and is addicted to reality TV – which is where the title of this novel comes from, as Ant and Dec are currently in the jungle on screen doing ‘I’m a celebrity…‘ in it. Bobbie is the latest in a long string of girlfriends, none of whom seem to last very long. With her TV addiction, she is on the way out.

It’s not clear what actually happens – with our unreliable narrator Matt telling his own story, he never actually admits to anything. We, naturally, fill in the gaps and with all the clues, can only assume the worst.

If I described this novel as a typically British response to Bret Easton Ellis’ infamous 1995 novel American Psycho, I wouldn’t be far off the mark, except that where AP is just nasty, Get Me Out of Here is very funny, a black comedy of the highest order with the pace of a thriller. It’s not often that you encounter a leading character that you love to hate so much but who keeps you riveted to the page – Matt Freeman is one of those. You’ll either love it or hate it – I’m the former.(9.5/10)

Sutton’s new novel My Criminal World features a struggling crime author, whose failing marriage and need for more gore in his writing begin to converge. Sounds irresistible, I’ve ordered a copy.

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Source: Own copies.

To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link – thank you):
All by Henry Sutton:
Gorleston – O/P – S/H copies available.
Get Me Out of Here – Vintage pbk, 2011, 272 pages.
My Criminal World – Vintage pbk, 2014, 288 pages.

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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):

A Sunday selection …

It’s been quite a week!

  • SNB logo tinyShiny Issue 4 has been published. If you haven’t been to have a look yet, please pop over. More on that below.
  • I finally got my laptop back from the repair shop after a fortnight of having to rely on my old Pentium (much to my daughter’s disgruntlement, as it’s hers now). Using a slow laptop has been good for my FB games habit – something to maintain methinks!!!
  • I went to a workshop on Disaster Emergency Planning for Schools in London – which was excellent and included tabletop exercises on fires and minibus crashes. A grim subject, but having good procedures in place helps you to deal with these awful incidents so much better (although naturally one hopes they’ll never happen).
  • The workshop venue was just up the road from Waterstones Piccadilly, and yes I did succumb to a quick visit afterwards, purchasing a handful of novellas for future reading after the TBR dare finishes at the end of March.
  • tbr-dare-2014Talking of the TBR dare, the face of the dare has always been Dakota, James’ beloved Basset Hound. Sadly Dakota died earlier this week. We’ll miss her antics on James’ blog, and send big hugs.
  • I was at my school’s quiznight on Friday evening. Our staff table had a disastrous first half but picked up in the second to finish midway on the league table.
  • We did manage to get the few bookish questions right though, which is a small rehearsal for the 6th Mostly Bookbrains quiznight this coming Friday. For a change this year, I’ve not done the questions, and will be on my Shiny Co-editor Simon’s team. They won last time, so I hope I won’t drag them down!
  • And I read lots – so plenty of reviews to come….

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marianne dreamsLittle White HorseOne interesting thing came out of a comment that Helen left on my review of Elizabeth Goudge’s children’s classic The Little White Horse – click here. Helen said: “I do think that the rule ‘If you didn’t read it as a child, you won’t enjoy it as much as an adult’ is almost universally true but Diana Wynne Jones is, I am finding, an exception to this.”  I can’t comment on the Diana Wynne Jones bit really, only having read one of her books pre-blog, but tend to strongly agree with the first half of Helen’s comment.

I offer the review of my adult re-read of Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr as proving the point. I loved that book all over again. However, I am sure that there are other children’s classics that also break the rule – do let me know, I’d like to read some of them…

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Now for a couple of links to a pair of my Shiny pieces:

Chinaski by Frances Vick

 

chinaskiChinaski by Frances Vick is the story of a rock band that so nearly made it, but were halted in their tracks when charismatic lead singer Carl dies. This happens right at the the start of this gripping novel which spares no punches about the hard work required to make it in those pre-Youtube days. The story of the band and what happened next is told through the eyes of Carl’s friends and colleagues – the band member, the ex-girlfriend and their manager.

For those that enjoy books about rock ‘n’ roll, this is a must, especially with the Marshall amp on the front.

Read my review here.

frances vick (533x800)Incidentally, some of you may twig where the band Chinaski got their name from … I only discovered this when researching for my review – it’s after a recurring character in Charles Bukowski’s novels – another author to add to my to read lists.

This was Frances’ first novel and I also interviewed her for our Shiny New author slot, and she proved to be as fascinating as her book.

Read the interview here.

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That’s it for today. Enjoy your Sundays and I’ll see you with some proper book reviews very soon.

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Chinaski source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
Chinaski by Frances Vick, Cillian Press, 2014. Paperback original, 250 pages.
Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr, pbk.

Are there dark days coming? I don’t think so …

Apocalypse Next Tuesday by David Safier

apocalypse_next_tuesday_1A bestseller in Germany, Safier’s novel, translated by Hilary Parnfors, got me interested within a few words of the press release in which it told how Satan, who has come back to Earth as a dead ringer for George Clooney, is recruiting horsemen for the apocalypse next week.

Gorgeous, soon-to-be-married-and-thus-no-longer-available-for-us-me, George? Nooo! But you must admit that’s one hell of a hook for a contemporary comic novel about Armageddon, guaranteed to pique the interest of readers of both sexes.  You know how it’s going to go from the first paragraph, in which we meet Marie…

There’s no way that Jesus can have looked like that, I thought to myself as I sat in the parish office staring at the painting of the Last Supper. He was a Levantine Jew, wasn’t he? So why did he look like a Bee Gee in most of the pictures?

Marie, a single, overweight thirty-something has gone to discuss her forthcoming nuptials to Sven with the Reverend Gabriel. Gabriel is challenging her desire to get married in church because he thinks she doesn’t believe enough. ‘You were already doubting God during confirmation class twenty years ago,’ he quipped.

20140715_132241_resizedMarie definitely believes in the free will approach to the Almighty, unlike her atheist sister, Kata who is a cartoonist and draws a regular strip chronicling their sibling life. Kata’s cute philosophical cartoons crop up throughout the novel, whenever there is a big question to be asked.

When Marie has a crisis of faith and jilts Sven at the altar, she retreats home to her father’s house, where her Dad’s new even-younger-than-Marie, Belarusian bride Svetlana is in place. Everyone else is happy except her, and she hates Svetlana. She moaned: ‘I was now officially a M.O.N.S.T.E.R. (i.e. Majorly Old with No Spouse, Tots, Energy or Resources).’  As if to confirm this, the roof falls in on her, literally.

However, her life will change with the arrival of a thirty-something carpenter come to make the repairs called Joshua. ‘The carpenter’s gentle, dark brown eyes seemed very serious, as if they’d already seen a thing or two.’ Yup, you’ve guessed it. It’s the Messiah, returned to Earth to thwart Satan and reclaim Earth for God. Joshua hand’t reckoned on arriving in a little town in Germany though, let alone meeting a third rather outspoken and tomboyish Mary in his life.

What follows is one of those When Harry Met Sally type of romances, with added Satan doing nasty things in the background.  Joshua has a lot of wising-up to do to exist in the 21st century – being nice isn’t good enough. Marie finds herself falling for this old soul, and their one step forward, two steps back relationship is rather charming.  I’ll refer you to the Book of Revelations for an idea of how it all might end …

I did enjoy this book a lot, but I don’t think it was entirely successful as a comedy. Although I’m a non-believer, I did like the way it didn’t make fun of Jesus or God, just the situations they were in, but there wasn’t enough of Satan. He could have been more like Bulgakov’s devil, whipping up the townspeople more, creating more obstacles for Marie and Joshua to overcome. Instead he was mostly absent in the middle of the book, and just left them to get on with it.

The novel is set in a small town in Germany and, like the Asterix books, all the German idioms and references have been translated into the appropriate English ones. Sometimes this jarred a little; Marie would comment for instance, ‘There seemed to be more sex and crime in this book [the bible] than on Channel 5.’  There were many pop music references but I suspect that many, if not most of them, also appear in the German.

I found this novel chucklesome rather than laugh out loud, (unlike the wonderful Rev Diaries) but it would make a diverting summer holiday read. (7/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Apocalypse Next Tuesday by David Safier, pub May 2014 by Hesperus Press, paperback 272 pages.

Today’s post is brought to you by the letter…

Simon T of Stuck in a Book has started off a new meme… he will assign those wanting to take part a random letter, and you then choose your favourite things beginning with that letter in these categories:

                • Favourite Book
                • Favourite Author
                • Favourite Song
                • Favourite Film
                • Favourite object.

… and I got a

D

So here we go – it’s harder than it seems … (all links refer back to my original reviews)

Favourite Book:

After perusing my indexes, I had four on the shortlist – three of them were Dirty Snow by Georges Simenon, Double Indemnity by James M Cain and The Double Shadow by Sally Gardner, but the fourth and my ultimate choice is:
donovan's brain
Donovan’s Brian by Curt Siodmak

A Science fiction classic from 1942. See my review here. A teenage favourite, it was even better on re-reading a few years ago.

 

Favourite Author: 

Jill Dawson

I’ve read three of her novels and they’ve not disappointed. I reviewed her latest one, The Tell-Tale Heart for Shiny New Books here, and her previous novel Lucky Bunny here.

The Tell Tale Heart - UK hardback cover

Favourite Song:

 

Dance the Night Away by The Mavericks

A happy song that you can actually dance to. This was the easiest category for me.


Favourite Film:

This one’s more difficult but sticking with films I have actually seen and being a 007 fan I’ll pick…

Diamonds are ForeverDiamonds Are Forever

It was the first Bond film I saw in the cinema as a kid, with my grandma and grandpa one holiday.

And finally, a Favourite Object:

Such a broad topic – but I went with something that makes me smile …

8873350-daisies-background

If you’d like to have a go, pop over to Simon’s post (link back at the top) and wait for your letter.

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.

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.

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 little Saki goes a long way …

Reginald by Saki

SakiCompleteShortStories

Nearly two years ago now, we chose to read some Saki short stories as summer Book Group reading. In the event, everyone managed to pick different editions with anthologised different Saki stories, and due to holidays etc our discussions were rather truncated.

Tidying up the books around my bedside table this morning, I came across the book I purchased for that month – the Saki Complete Short Stories. My bookmark was at page 40 out of 563 – that’s as far as I got at the time, but it does mark the end of the first group of stories, known simply as ‘Reginald.’

Hector_Hugh_Munro_aka_Saki,_by_E_O_Hoppe,_1913

Saki, doesn’t he look sad (right), wrote his stories at the turn of the century, wittily satirizing Edwardian society. Many of them are very short and few run to more than a handful of pages. According to Wikipedia his pen-name may have come from either that of a cup-bearer in the Rubaiyat of Oman Khayyam, or a particular type of small monkey – both of which are referenced in his works. Hugh Hector Munro, his full name, died in France during WWI, killed by a German sniper’s bullet.

The one thing I found when reading his stories, was that a little Saki goes a long way. Each short story is so full of pithy and witty one-liners, reading more than a couple at a time feels like overdoing it, you can only take so much wit. I realised this again, dipping back into the book this morning. I also left loads of tabs stuck on the pages to mark particular witticisms.

I hope to keep reading on, a couple of stories at a time when the whim takes me, for they are wonderfully arch, and Reginald comes out with some shocking things that made me guffaw out loud. Though I haven’t even got past all the Reginald stories yet to his other man about town Clovis, yet alone the Beasts and Super-beasts set, I thoroughly enjoyed them. I shall now leave you with a selection of quotations from Reginald, but do share your thoughts on Saki too…

Reginald on the [Royal] Academy

“To die before being painted by Sargent is to go to heaven prematurely.”

“To have reached thirty,” said Reginald, “is to have failed in life.”

Reginald’s Choir Treat

“Never,” wrote Reginald to his most darling friend, “be a pioneer. It’s the Early Christian that gets the fattest lion.”

Reginald’s Drama

Reginald closed his eyes with the elaborate weariness of one who has rather nice eyelashes and thinks it useless to conceal the fact.

“… and, anyhow, I’m not responsible for the audience having a happy ending. The play would be quite sufficient strain on one’s energies. I should get a bishop to say it was immoral and beautiful – no dramatist has thought of that before, and every one would come to condemn the bishop, and they would stay on out of nervousness. After all, it requires a great deal of moral courage to leave in a marked manner in the middle of the second act when your carriage isn’t ordered until twelve.”

Reginald’s Christmas Revel

They say (said Reginald) that there’s nothing sadder than victory except defeat. If you’ve ever stayed with dull people during what is alleged to be the festive season, you can probably revise that saying.

Of course there were other people there. There was a Major Somebody who had shot things in Lapland, or somewhere of that sort; I forget what they were, but it wasn’t for want of reminding. We had them cold with every meal almost, and he was continually giving us details of what they measured from tip to tip, as though he thought we were going to make them warm under-things for the winter. I used to listen to him with a rapt attention that I thought rather suited me, and then one day I quite modestly gave the dimensions of an okapi I had shot in the Lincolnshire fensl The Major turned a beautiful Tyrian scarlet (I remember thinking at the time that I should like my bathroom hung in that colour), and I think that at that moment he almost found it in his heart to dislike me.

Reginald’s Rubaiyat

The other day (confided Reginald), when I was killing time in the bathroom and making bad resolutions for the New Year, it occurred to me that I would like to be a poet. […] and then I got to work on a Hymn to the New Year, which struck me as having possibilities. […] Quite the best verse in it went something like this:

“Have you heard the groan of a gravelled grouse,
Or the snarl of a snaffled snail
(Husband or mother, like me, or spouse),
Have you lain a-creep in the darkened house
Where the wounded wombats wail?”

Enough!  I can’t take any more!

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Complete Short Storiesby Saki (Penguin Modern Classics)
The Complete Saki: 144 Collected Novels and Short Stories – for Kindle – just £0.99!

John Buchan meets Umberto Eco via Dan Brown

The Pendragon Legend by Antal Szerb, translated by Len Rix

P1010976 OK – so I put Dan Brown into the title of this post to grab your attention!

While I totally agree with the rest of the world that the Da Vinci Code is not great literature, there is no denying that however silly the whole thing is, it is a rollicking fun adventure. I will nail my colours to the mast and say that, back in the day when I read it on holiday in the sunshine on the stoop of a New England clap-board cottage on Cape Cod – I enjoyed it a lot.

The reason I mention it, is that Antal Szerb’s 1934 novel, The Pendragon Legend, does share that definite sense of fun, and also has a plot that goes at breakneck speed involving manuscripts and ancient rituals etc.

János Bátky is a Hungarian scholar in London who is on the search for a new project. When he is introduced to the Earl of Gwynedd at a salon, he finds a fellow scholar with a large library of rare manuscripts in the family mansion in Wales and an invitation to visit follows. Tagging along is Maloney, an Irishman, whom Bátky met in the British Library, who turns out to be a friend of the Earl’s nephew Osborne.

‘Doctor, you’re a hoot. We certainly hit the jackpot when we met. But this Osborne … I’d be so happy if Pat could seduce him. These English aren’t human. Now we Irish … back home in Connemara, at his age I’d already had three sorts of venereal disease. But tell me, dear Doctor, now that we’re such good friends, what’s the real reason for your visit to Llanvygan?’
‘The Earl of Gwynedd invited me to pursue my studies in his library.’
‘Studies? But you’re already a doctor! Or is there some exam even higher than that? You’re an amazingly clever man.’
‘It’s not for an exam … just for the pleasure of it. Some things really interest me.’
‘Which you’re going to study there.’
‘Exactly.’
‘And what exactly are you going to study?’
‘Most probably the history of the Rosicrucians, with particular reference to Robert Fludd.’
‘Who are these Rosicrucians?’
‘Rosicrucians? Hm. Have you ever heard of the Freemasons?’
‘Yes. People who meet in secret … and I’ve no idea what they get up to.’
‘That’s it. The Rosicrucians were different from the Freemasons in that they met in even greater secrecy, and people knew even less about what they did.’

Bátky is beginning to feel as if Maloney is interrogating him – a feeling that won’t lessen over the days to come, as he gets an anonymous message telling him not to go.

So our scene is set for action to transfer from London to Wales.  Llanvygan, the new ancestral home of the Earls of Gwynedd, since they abandoned the nearby Pendragon Castle is a typical country house, creaking and groaning at night. Its staff have to patrol the corridors to protect the Earl – for it transpires that someone is trying to kill him.

The plot gets ever more complicated as Bátky, Osborne, and the Earl’s niece Cynthia, get involved in a old feuds between the Pendragons and the Roscoes over a legacy, plus the Rosicrucians mystic alchemy and ultimately black magic.  Add secret passages, ghostly figures and scared villagers into the mix and there’s almost too much adventure!

Bátky rather reminded me of John Buchan’s hero Richard Hannay from The 39 Steps (which I reviewed here). He’s a little less dashing, but by virtue of being European, like Hannay returning from Africa, he’s an outsider in London.  Combine Hannay with the learning of Umberto Eco’s William of Baskerville from The Name of the Rose and you’re just about there.  Of course, Szerb may well have been familiar with Buchan’s book which was published in 1915.

This book has been on my shelves for a year or two, and I’d been putting off reading it, expecting Szerb to be another serious European author.  How wrong I was!  It was a joy to find that a rich vein of comedy runs through the entire novel, and I laughed a lot.  The swaggering Maloney was hilarious; Bátky’s statuesque German friend Lene trying to seduce the effeminate Osborne had me chortling away, and the whole bonkers plot was a running joke in itself.

However, the primary theme is that of a philosophic adventure, and adventure requires characters to be placed in danger.  That they are – it’s amazing that some of them come out alive. Yes, some, for there are deaths along the way too.  You mess with the ancestors of the Rosicrucians at your peril, as Eco fans will know.

Len Rix’s new translation for the Pushkin Press is sparkling.  Bátky of course is a delight – a European that knows English better than the English themselves. He has translated three other Szerb novels, of which I own two and won’t put off reading them now I’ve made his acquaintance. I loved it (9/10).

I read this book for Pushkin Press Fortnight, hosted by Stu of Winston’s Dad.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Pendragon Legend by Antal Szerb, translated by Len Rix, published by Pushkin Press (2006), paperback 236 pages.
Also mentioned:
– The Complete Richard Hannay Stories: The Thirty-Nine Steps, Greenmantle, Mr Standfast, The Three Hostages, The Island of Sheep (Wordsworth Classics) by John Buchan
– The Name Of The Rose (Vintage Classics) by Umberto Eco.
– The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown