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.

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What is an accident anyway?

Accidents Happen by Louise Millar

accidents-happen-978033054501301

I used to work for one of the world’s major chemical companies whose mantra was that there is no such thing as an accident. After too many ‘accidents’ making explosives in the 1800s, the company became intensely safety focused, and remains so today. They believe, and naturally it rubbed off on me (I ended up as a H&S manager for them) that all incidents have a root cause, and that finding and engineering or training it out etc. if possible is the way to go.

Thus I was naturally intrigued by the title of this novel. Having recently seen Louise speak, I knew I was expecting a tightly plotted psychothriller with some issues of trust and family values at its core, and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s one of those stories that crescendos gradually, dropping in little details and clues that will become clear later on in the final climaxes.

Kate and her young son Jack have arrived back from school. Kate is suspicious of everything and everyone – the tailgating driver on the way home, surely there was more in the casserole in the fridge?  She is constantly on edge, and Jack doesn’t know how to handle his mother. She’s in danger of losing it – and we soon find out that they have suffered a double dose of grief from which they’ve not yet recovered. First Kate’s parents died in a tragic car accident, then her husband Hugo was murdered, stabbed in a mugging gone wrong.  She’s all alone, and she feels that Hugo’s parents Helen and Richard think she’s incapable of looking after Jack properly, maybe Hugo’s sister Saskia who was always her ally feels that way too. For it all happened five years ago …

One of the things that Kate has started doing is to do sums… she researches the odds of things happening and calculates the statistics, so she can stop more bad things happening to her and Jack. Nagged by her in-laws, she finally goes to see a therapist and tells her about this:

‘OK, there was a lot of traffic tonight so I decided to cycle. But before I cycled, I did a sum. I worked out that because it’s May, my chances of having a bike accident are higher because it’s summer, and about 80% of accidents take place during daylight hours, but more than half of cycling fatalities happen at road junctions, so if I went off-road I could lower it drastically. So I did. And because I am thirty-five, I have more chance of having an accident than another woman in Oxfordshire in her twenties, but because I was wearing my helmet, I have – according to one American report I read, anyway – about an 85% chance of reducing my risk of head injury. Then when I was cycling I balanced my chances of having an accident with the fact that by doing half an hour of sustained cardio cycling, I can lower my risk of getting cancer. Of course, that meant I increased my chances of being sexually attacked by being alone on a quiet canal path, but as I have roughly a one in a thousand chance in Oxfordshire, I think it’s worth taking.’
She thought she saw Sylvia flinch.

She can’t bear it, so escapes from the therapist’s house and ends up in a cafe where she encounters Jago Martin, a visiting Oxford Professor. He just happens to have written a book about beating the odds. After meeting again, Kate is a bit besotted by Jago, and when he agrees to help her in her predicament she acquiesces with little thought. His methods are not conventional though, he wants to teach her to become a natural risk-taker…

There are many different facets to the drama of this novel – Kate’s relationship with her in-laws, with Saskia, and Saskia’s own relationship with her parents, poor Jack and his over-protective mother, the introduction of Jago, and not forgetting the weirdo student next door who always seems to be haning around.  Over all of them is the aura of Hugo, gone but never forgotten. Kate had always been prone to worrying, but Hugo with his big-hearted happy soul had made things all right, given her life the balance it now lacks.

Millar cleverly misdirects us; everyone has issues, no-one is straight-forward – it’s hard to get to grips with what is bound to happen – or is it more ‘accidents’? The suspense builds.

Imagine a Sophie Hannah novel without the police involved, and slightly more family oriented and you should get the measure of this book. I enjoyed it a lot. (8.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Accidents Happen by Louise Millar, 2013, Pan paperback 426 pages.

 

The Savages are back …

American Savage by Matt Whyman

savagesLast summer I had the pleasure of reading one of the funniest YA novels I’ve yet encountered in Matt Whyman’s The Savages – don’t you just love that cover?  Although it was written as a standalone novel, so many people wondered what happened to the family in it, that Matt has now written a sequel – American Savage.

At this point, if you haven’t read the first one – you should click here to see what I’m talking about, and read no further below for now…

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AMERICAN_SAVAGE (2) The first novel started briefly at the end – with an exquisitely cooked feast from which the Savage family had to flee before flashing back to tell their story.

The sequel sees them safely escaped to America where they’ve settled into the quiet seaside town of Jupiter, Florida.  Titus is a property manager and has gone a little paunchy and Angelica is a fitness freak with an adoring Argentinian personal trainer. Ivan is being bullied at school by the jocks on the football team, big sister Sasha is now at university and doesn’t make an appearance this time, baby Katya is now a Disney princess at primary school. Titus’s centenarian father Oleg lives in a nearby old people’s home where he’s found love again at 103.  Lastly there is lodger Amanda, a vegan who recognises that the Savages’ predilection for a particular kind of meat represents the ultimate in local sourcing and makes this exception.  As before it starts with a feast, and Titus is regarding his table:

Right now, Angelica looked quietly satisfied that she had delivered another unforgettable spread. Titus lifted the spoon to his mouth. Sensing his shirt pull tight across his belly as he did so, the slightest hint of self-loathing soured the mouthful. There was no denying that he had put on a few pounds lately. Ever since the family had moved here, in fact, he found himself climbing onto the scales with a heavy heart, but what could he do about it? He had always taken pride in locally sourcing food for their feasts, and it was inevitable that the meat from these parts would carry a little extra fat. There also tended to be a lot more of it on the bone, and the Savages never left anything to waste.

If you’ve stayed with me, I assume you have twigged what’s different about the Savages. However abhorrent it may be, like Tony and his family in The Sopranos, there’s something strangely lovable about them. They don’t whack people to eat unnecessarily – they are chosen carefully, people who won’t be missed (a bit Dexter-ish don’t you think), then lovingly prepared and consumed at a feast. They eat normally the rest of the time, except for Amanda.

The trouble starts again when Amanda gets a job as a waitress at a sports bar, and refusing to dance for the patrons manages to get it closed down. Unfortunately the bar was owned by the Russian gangster and used for money laundering. The gangster is rumoured to be a cannibal, who ripped off a guy’s ear in prison and ate it raw. He makes threats to Titus and his family – they need a plan. The answer is to reopen as a vegan restaurant – something totally new in Jupiter, Florida, the land of rib-joints.  The only problem is that they make a success of it, and the Russian gets interested again… Set against the main story is Ivan’s battle with his tormentors. Ivan is at a tricky stage of adolescence and needs, in his mind, a way of getting even – how would a Savage do it?

Necessarily, in reading this book, we are in on the secret, and it loses its initial shock value.  However, Whyman again has huge fun with his characters.  The shock of Titus harvesting a victim gets replaced with a different kind of shock when he realises he’s no longer fit enough to do it in that way – the tables are turned, and more resourcefulness is needed.  Through this and other sequences, Whyman is able to have a discussion about food and healthier lifestyles – even eating less, but better quality meat – ha, ha!  By being quite matter of fact about the cannibalism, the book stays on the right side of goriness. There is plenty to laugh about, but the feasts are always treated with reverence.

This family is too much fun to leave to live happily ever after. I’d love to see them in Hollywood or the frozen north of Canada for another adventure or two, and also to read about how Titus met Angelica.  Please…

Why should teenagers have all the fun in reading about the Savages?  In the tradition of The Radleys by Matt Haig (see my review here), both of these novels ought to be crossover hits with adult readers too. I loved this sequel even more than the Savages’ first outing. (9.5/10)

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American Savage (Savages 2) by Matt Whyman. Published by Hot Key Books, June 2014. Paperback, 288 pages.
The Savages by Matt Whyman
The Radleys by Matt Haig

 

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).

How do you define an expert scientist?

Are We All Scientific Experts Now? by Harry Collins

are_we_all_scientific_experts_now_harry_collinsHarry Collins is a professor at Cardiff University, where he lectures on the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK), and his areas of research include: the Nature of Scientific Knowledge and knowledge in general; public Understanding of Science; and the Nature of Skills and Expertise, amongst other topics.  He is one of our foremost thinkers in this area apparently, and this provocative little book is intended to challenge a lot of thinking about the nature of ‘expertise.’

He starts by throwing a few quandaries at us – for instance: ‘The quantum theory is said to be the most accurate theory ever, and it has quite counter-commonsensical consequences, thought absurd by Einstein, that turn out to be true – such as the instant ‘communication’ that happens under quantum entanglement.‘ (had to get that in after Jim Al Khalili talked about it at a talk I went to a couple of weeks ago).

He talks about ‘Climategate’ – the chatty and informal email exchanges between researchers at UEA about climate change which, when leaked, were leapt upon by every climate change sceptic out there.  It’s not until later in the book, that he reveals how they were taken totally out of context.  He refers to the scandal of MMR vaccines and autism that has led to a resurgence in measles, and the fact that a high profile celeb in the US said it made her child autistic, and people believed her, not the experts. Similarly the South African government’s decision not to offer anti-retroviral drugs to pregnant women with HIV.

Having set out these challenges to science, he goes on to explain how his own field SSK developed – there have been three waves.  He says: ‘In the 1950s, with radar, penicillin, nylon and all the rest, it was impossible to doubt the pre-eminence of science as a way of making knowledge. In this kind of atmosphere the job of history, philosophy and sociology of science was clear: explain how the scientific miracle worked.’  In the 1960s, orthodoxy was challenged.  In the 1970s SSK as a discipline began to take hold, and Collins himself was at the forefront. Science and the humanities were not so different after all, and ‘by the middle of the 1980s, there was less and less special about science. For those influenced by these academics – and the influence became stronger after the arts and humanities discovered the literary critique of science – the bar had fallen to the ground and we could all be scientific experts.’

This leads to the major theme of the book – what defines an expert. Well, Collins has his theories, and can categorise types of experts into a whole range of types.  At the bottom all of us are experts by osmosis at living in our own surroundings – he uses the naivety of The Midnight Cowboy arriving in town from the country – this is a ‘ubiquitous expertise’. So too speaking your native language. From then on in, it gets a lot more complicated and dry, if not a little confusing. It certainly confused me about my place in the scientific scheme of things!

I have a degree in materials science and after university worked in the microelectronics materials division of a chemical company for years – becoming quite a technical expert in my little niche – which was about getting the best performance from the particular materials I worked with that the R&D guys developed. Then I broadened my horizons, am now working in a school as a lab technician – where I am an expert in home-made bubble mix and the best slime recipes for science club.  I retain, however, a passion for science – hence embracing the local science festival, and I take an interest in programmes, books, and magazines etc – but would never dream to claim any expertise other than a good basic understanding outside my particular field. I may have been a proper expert once, but am not now – I’m into popular science, but I don’t mind that at all.

Where I got a bit cross with Prof Collins was that he wants to elevate the role of scientist back to that of the boffin in the white coat; for science to regain its respect. It is, perhaps, an admirable aim – however real life is not like that.  We are criminally short of scientists and engineers in this country now. Making science seem too difficult is never going to encourage teenagers into it. We do need the top scientists Collins argues for desperately, but we also need lots more everyday ones to keep the engine running.

Surely, popularising science is a good thing?  Or is a little knowledge just too dangerous a thing, as the cases mentioned above would suggest?  See, I told you I was confused, and this short book raised more questions than it answered for me. (6/10)

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Source: Amazon Vine review copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
Are We All Scientific Experts Now? by Harry Collins, pub Feb 2014, Polity Press, 140pp incl notes and indexes, paperback.

After the war is over …

The Aftermath by Rhidian Brook

aftermathThe aftermath of war can be just as hard to get through as the war itself – for both ‘winners’ and ‘losers’.  Rhidian Brook’s novel gives us a portrait of the British zone in Hamburg after WWII, a city largely destroyed by Operation Gomorrah in 1943.

It is now 1946, and Colonel Lewis, is arriving with his family, to take charge of the British occupying forces.  His staff have found him a house, a large mansion on the banks of the river where an architect lives quietly with his daughter.  Herr Lubert and Freda are due to be billeted elsewhere, but in an unprecedented act of kindness, Lewis offers to let them share the house. The Luberts will move up to the attic servants quarters.

The house is finely furnished, and is full of art, antiques and a grand piano. Before Lewis’ wife Rachael even steps through the door, she is intimidated by the situation her husband has foisted upon her …

‘But I don’t understand,’ Rachael said. ‘Are other families doing this?’
‘None of them has requisitioned a house like this. It’s not really the same.’
Rachael had no space for this. It did not matter how grandiose, how replete with rooms, how exquisite the art of the action of the piano; were it a palace with separate wings and outhouses, there still would be no room for a German in it.

Rachael’s attitude can be easily understood for the Lewis family lost a son in the war, her eldest Michael. She was there when the bomb hit the house, whereas Lewis was away with the Army of course. She has another son, Edmund, but she is still grieving and angry at the Germans and Lewis for not being there.  Her reunion with him after this time will be tough for both of them, and her enforced relationship with the Luberts will become interesting too.

Meanwhile Lewis has to deal with the severe lack of food and jobs for the remaining Germans, who are only allowed to resume their prior work once they have been certified as clean. Intelligence are determined to root out the slightest hint of collaboration or Nazi sympathies, something that goes against the grain of Lewis’ ideals. Lewis is a good man, and is unfailingly polite to his host-nation. He wants nothing more than to let the Germans get back to work, to reunite parted families, to get food to them, start the rebuilding, but bureaucracy is always getting in the way.

Alongside the adults’ stories, is that of a band of feral children, orphaned, living in the ruins close to the Lubert’s house. Ozi their leader, is an expert wheeler-dealer, getting the most for things scavenged.  Edmund spots them one day, and becomes their saviour – Lewis’ cigarettes are better than currency. They are the true forgotten in all of this, living on their wits in terrible conditions.

It turns out that the central premise of Brook’s novel – that of sharing a house with the former enemy – is something that actually happened.  His grandfather, who was in a similar position to Lewis, did just that – he must be proud of him. While all around are taking advantage of being in charge, Lewis and his small team of officers who understand his point of view, show restraint and compassion for their fellow man.

Lewis, Rachael and Herr Lubert are three fully realised characters and as I read, I wanted the best for all of them. That Lewis and Rachael would find themselves again, and that Herr Lubert would be able to begin again too – for as an architect, his skills would be needed to rebuild the city.

This was an emotionally involving novel that gave a rather different take on WWII and I enjoyed it a lot. (8/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Aftermathby Rhidian Brook. Pub 2013 by Viking Penguin, Hardback 336 pages. Sorry – no sign of the paperback yet.

50th Anniversary of the Assassination of JFK

The Assassination of JFK: Minute by Minute by Jonathan Mayo

jfkI was just three and a half when JFK was assassinated, so I remained blissfully unaware of the tragedy that had happened on 22nd November 1963.  They say it’s one of those events that everyone remembers where they were when they heard the news.

I’ve checked my late Mum’s diaries and she didn’t comment, (in fact hardly any events in world politics made it into them). I asked my father (who was 84 on Monday- Happy Birthday Dad!) what he was doing. – he remembers it as a badminton night, and is sure they’d have heard the news over tea before going out to play that evening.

So, fifty years later we are remembering Kennedy’s untimely death. Jonathan Mayo, who has already done a ‘Minute by Minute’ treatment for the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic, has done the same for JFK. It is going to be broadcast on BBC Radio 2 on the 22nd at 6pm.

The book takes the timeline from just before Kennedy’s arrival in Texas in the evening of the 21st of November and follows through chronologically until the evening after JFK’s funeral on the 25th.  Mayo tells the story of everyone who was involved in the story, however small their role. It is, Mayo says:

The story of what took place in Dallas is not just about President Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald; it’s also about the scores of people who were drawn into the developing drama. Some are famous, some obscure, but it affected them all, putting them in unexpected situations, and sometimes making them behave in unexpected ways. This book is full of stories that I hope will restore the impact of the assassination.

There is no room for conspiracy theories in this book which tells it as it happened.  This immediacy gives it the feel of a thriller.

I had no idea that there was no love lost between Kennedy and Johnson, and the Texas Governor Connolly, and that it had been considered dangerous for Kennedy to go to Dallas.

I was amazed to find that DJ John Peel had been in Dallas at the time, and was just feet from Oswald when Jack Ruby shot him, whereas Alastair Cooke had declined to go on the trip being fed up of Democratic politics, and had remained in New York.

Lyndon B Johnson being sworn in on Air Force One with Jackie still in her blood-stained outfit beside her. Photograph by official White House photographer, Army Capt. Cecil W. Stoughton

Lyndon B Johnson being sworn in on Air Force One with Jackie still in her blood-stained outfit beside him. Photograph by official White House photographer, Army Capt. Cecil W. Stoughton

I was saddened to hear that JFK’s back-brace for chronic back pain, held him in a position where the second bullet was able to hit his head.  We share Jackie’s pain as she steadfastly stays in her pink Chanel suit, even when they reach Andrews Air Force Base saying ‘No, let them see what they’ve done.‘ when it was suggested that she change her dress. I really felt for her, Robert, and her children.

As for Lee Harvey Oswald – well, he was obviously a wrongun’! Enough said.

There was so much I didn’t know about the events in this book. The only thing missing in this book were some more photographs.  Adding the famous ones like that above, the Jack Ruby one, Oswald posing with his gun, etc. would have given it just that little extra to make it an exceptional read.  The minute by minute format gave it real pace, and unlike those difficult novels (and a certain recent Autobiography), the fact that the events unwind in the present tense generated a real sense of suspense and anticipation.  No matter what you think of JFK, this book gives a fascinating insight into some truly sad days. (9/10)

See also DoveGreyReader for another excellent review of this book.

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Source: Publisher (thank you). To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Assassination of JFK: Minute by Minute by Jonathan Mayo, pub Nov 13 by Short Books. Hardback 288 pages.

Old heads on young shoulders, and yet …

Absolute Beginners by Colin MacInnes

absolute beginners

Narrated by an eighteen year old photographer, MacInnes’ novel captures the essence of what it was like to be a teenager in London in the late 1950s …

Mr Wiz continued, masticating his salmon sandwich for anyone to see, ‘It’s been a two-way twist, this teenage party. Exploitation of the kiddos by the conscripts, and exploitation of themselves by the crafty little absolute beginners. The net result? “Teenager” ‘s become a dirty word or, at any rate, a square one.’
I smiled at Mr W. ‘Well, take it easy, son,’ I said, ‘because a sixteen year old sperm like you has got a lot of teenage living still to do. As for me, eighteen summers, rising nineteen, I’ll very soon be out there among the oldies.

Ah – the arrogance of youth, to be considered old at twenty!

The novel follows our unnamed narrator through the summer of 1958, and we gradually meet all his friends like Mr Wiz above and neighbours, plus the love of his life Suzette.

Suze is a problem – she says loves him, but she also loves money and the trappings it can buy. She is tempted to marry an older homosexual chap to give him cover and her money. She dangles the narrator on her little finger yet carries on having flings.

The narrator has a small flat in a vibrant and Bohemian area of West London, which he finances through his photographic work – mostly selling pornographic pictures at this time, although he does have artistic ambitions. Downstairs lives Cool, a black man, whose white half-brother has just come to warn him of impending unrest…

‘…he gets round the area and knows the scene, and he says there’s trouble coming for the coloureds.’
I laughed out loud, but a bit nervously. ‘Oh Cool, you know, they’ve been saying that for years, and nothing’s happened. Well, haven’t they? I know in this country we treat the coloureds all like you-know-what, but we English are too lazy, son, to be violent. Anyway, you’re one of us, big boy, I mean home-grown, as much a native London kid as any of the millions, and much more so than hundreds of pure pink numbers from Ireland and abroad who’ve latched on to the Welfare thing, but don’t belong here like you do.’
My speech made no impression on Mr Cool. ‘I’m just telling you what Wilf says,’ he answered. ‘And all I know is, he likes coming here so little it must be something that makes him feel he ought to.’

As the summer heats up, so brews the tension. This is the era of Vespa scooters, Mods and Teds, rock’n’roll, and it will end in the Notting Hill race-riots.

If exploring youth culture and the social make-up of young London is the most serious theme of this novel, the lighter side is seeing what your average London teenager wears, and what they listen to.  The narrator is unusual for one who left school at fifteen in that he’s a reader.  He was lucky to have an inspirational teacher.

… he made me kinky about books: he managed to teach me – to this day, I don’t know how – that books were not just a thing like that – I mean, just books – but somebody else’s mind opened up for me to look into, and he taught me the habit, later on, of actually buying then! Yes – I mean real books, like the serious paperbacks, which must have been unknown among the kids up in the Harrow Road those days, who thought a book’s an SF or a Western, if they thought it’s anything.

Good chap!  But books aren’t his only love. Also very important, more important even, to most teenagers of the time (and now still?) is the music they listened to.  In the late 1950s, it wasn’t so unusual for teens to be into jazz…

…the great thing about the jazz world, and all the kids that enter into it, is that no one, not a soul, cares what your class is or what your race is, or what your income, so if you’re boy, or girl, or bent, or versatile, or what you are – so long as you dig the scene and can behave yourself, and have left all that crap behind you, too, when you come in the jazz club door.

absolute beginners penguin first edition

Contrasting against the non-stop activities of the teenagers is the different kind of relationship he has with his parents. He only really visits them in Pimlico where his mother runs a boarding house for unsavory types to use his old dark-room. There’s no love lost between the narrator and his mother, but he is determined to give his poor hen-pecked and ailing father a bit of fun this summer – they go off for a day cruising up the river.

Then it reaches September and the end of the summer. The tensions which had been simmering now begin to boil over. Our narrator turns nineteen, and it’s as if a switch is flipped in him – he does indeed have an old head on young shoulders.

Published in 1959, MacInnes (whom I discovered is Angela Thirkell’s son), was in his mid forties when he wrote it. His narrator uses a rich and complex vocabulary that seems older than his years – not quite Anthony Burgess’s Nadsat from A Clockwork Orange which would follow in 1962, more like the verbal flourishes that Russell Brand uses.  No-one is known by their real names either, it’s nicknames all the way – just like today’s teens.

What is scary is that in those days, the majority of teenagers were released from the shackles of school out into the big wide world at the age of fifteen.  I was scared stiff to leave school at eighteen twenty years later!  Through MacInnes’s eyes, these teenagers seem so worldly and happy-go-lucky as they dive into London life with real gusto.

absolute beginners film tie-in editionSome of you may recall the 1986 film adaptation starring Patsy Kensit as a rather toned down Suzette and theme tune by David Bowie. Bowie also acted in it, alongside Ray Davies as the father.

Those are the names I remember, but also in the film were James Fox, Mandy Rice-Davies, Steven Berkoff, Lionel Blair, and Edward Tudor-Pole, plus Alan ‘Fluff’ Freeman no less!

absolute beginners single david bowie

I remember seeing the film on the big screen and really enjoying it – but it was a big flop for the British film company that financed it. In particular, the critics didn’t like a 1950s film with a 1980s soundtrack – Sade and The Style Council contributed; authenticity was added by veteran jazzman Gil Evans, but that wasn’t enough.  I bought the 12″ single though…

I’m currently very drawn to British books set in this pre-Beatles era.  Absolute Beginners is the middle novel of a trilogy of standalone novels by MacInnes – together known as his London Trilogy.  The others are City of Spades and Mr Love and Justice and I would definitely like to read them. (8.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Absolute Beginners (Allison & Busby Classics), paperback, 350 pages.
City of Spades, Mr Love And Justice

‘I’m just a soul whose intentions are good. Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood’…

The Almost Lizard by James Higgerson

almost lizardI’m twenty-one years old today, and once I’ve finished this little introduction I’m going to kill myself. …

Not many can spend their final few weeks on this earth writing their autobiography, a to-the-minute summary of all that has occurred within their lifespan. But most of us leave this world not of our own volition. Most of us make the decision to hang on in there as if life is some precious gift that we must savour every moment of. Not me. I’ve run my course and the day I finish writing my life story – today – is the day I have chosen to die.

Yup, we know how this book is meant to end from the first page.  This whole novel is in the form of ‘possibly the longest suicide ever committed to paper.’  The book is not about how it ends for Danny Lizar, but how it got to this point…

As in most memoirs, Daniel starts by telling us about his parents. His mother, Jacqui, was the favoured older half of a pair of identical twins, born either side of midnight August 31st, meaning they were forced into different years at school by an unbending system and never bonded the way most twins do. His father, Malcolm, was brought up in a Blackpool B&B where he learned the trade as a youngster and charmed the guests. They met when Malcolm, who had been dating twin Anne, unwittingly slept with Jacqui, and realised she was the real love of his life, further alienating Anne of course.

So the stage is set-up for family life chez Lizar, (Daniel never explains where his father got his surname from). As a child, Daniel has a fairly normal life, although his father works away during the week as a restaurant manager, and he doesn’t find out about bad Auntie Anne for years.  He does have a best friend though in Alex, and their parents also become best of friends too.

The seeds that will grow up to shape Daniel’s life are sown when he becomes addicted to watching soap operas on the TV with his mum, while his dad is working.  He cautiously tries some of the things he sees on screen  – he changes the story he was meant to read to a younger class to a deliberately nasty and provocative one he composed, and is secretly pleased by the reaction from the kids and their parents.  He seeds rumours to rid himself of friends he doesn’t want – this deals with the Dominic problem, but he upsets Alex to in the process – but not for long.

Daniel starts to get obsessed, and out on his paper-round, he replay scenes in his head, writing himself into the script.  Before long he has developed his own soap concept ‘The Almost Lizard’, and it stars him as ‘Danny’ – and his family and friends, he imagines the storyline, framing and filming it in his head.

But then, Daniel takes it to the next step. He makes his life into the soap, and begins to use anyone who can move the storyline along in real life.  He manipulates  them all – as Danny. He uses rumour, being disruptive in class, cultivating the wrong type of friends, saying things for effect – anything to get the scene in the can.

He saves being normal Daniel for home where he studiously makes sure he keeps up with his homework so his parents and the school aren’t too concerned with his behaviour.

However, Daniel is well aware of the power of the cliffhanger ending to soap episodes, and how they save major ones for Christmas.  The Lizars and Alex’s family, the Proctors always spend Christmas together, and Danny engineers a spectacular climax that took weeks in the planning and that will blow the two families apart.

Being Danny has become an addiction for Daniel. His real and fantasy personalities are becoming integrated into one. He tries to disengage from his soap, but when the sniff of a good new storyline comes along, he knows he shouldn’t do it, but he can’t resist, even if he has to play the victim sometimes – as a lead character, he has to keep his popularity up after all.  There is almost nothing that Daniel/Danny won’t do to get the shot.

It continues right up into college and one eventful holiday with friends to Majorca before something happens and real life catches up with Daniel – making him a character in someone else’s storyline…

Higgerson just about pulls it off with his creation of Daniel, whose voice tells his story with the requisite drama, leavened by humour – it’s not all darkness.  He manages to keep just enough of the normal, likeable teenager that Daniel can be in his narration to make us care about what’s going to happen.  All the time we’re waiting to see whether Daniel is able to snap out of being Danny, to stop being on the road to becoming a fully-fledged sociopath.

Knowing from the start of the book that Daniel intends to die at the end of it, we can read his story as a confession, finally atoning for all the wrong-doings, the manipulation, the hurtful deeds and words, all done to the people he cares for the most. This allows us to have some sympathy with him as he realises the repercussions of all that he has done.

Call me cynical, but you can also read this confession in another way – with Danny, not Daniel as its author. The arch-manipulator, an unreliable narrator making us, his audience – for we should never forget that he needs one, part of his story too. That thought gives me the creeps slightly!

At 460 pages, this book is long – although it does have two lives, Daniel and Danny to chronicle. It was in the best soap tradition, thoroughly page-turning and full of big moments and cliff-hangers.  Some actors in soaps end up typecast and mistaken for their characters in real life when their personalities are quite different; we the audience tend to encourage this in our celebrity-obsessed times. Daniel is sort of the reverse of this.

An interesting and thought-provoking debut from a promising young author. (8/10)

P.S. The quotation at the top is from the song ‘Don’t let me be misunderstood’ which was written in 1964 for Nina Simone.  I was previously only aware of the hit version by The Animals from 1965.

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Source: Publisher – Thank you.  To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Almost Lizardby James Higgerson, Legend Press paperback, March 2013, 460 pages

Is That All There Is? …

All That Is by James Salter

all-that-is

I must admit that until I looked him up on Wikipedia I had no idea that James Salter was 87 and still going strong, or that he was such a lion of American literature.  He published his first novel in his thirties after a career in the USAF.  I was vaguely aware that he was well thought of, but that’s as far as it went!  All That Is is his latest novel, and it’s the story of the life and loves of one man…

Philip Bowman returns from the war, having served in the Navy off Okinawa, and slips into the world of publishing as a book editor in a small firm in New York.  He meets a beautiful blonde girl, Vivian, from a well-off family in Virginia. They wed…

Bowman was happy or felt he was, she was his, a beautiful woman or girl.  He saw life ahead in regular terms, with someone who would be beside him.  In the presence of her family and friends he realized that he knew only one side of her, a side that attracted him but that was not her entire or essential self. Behind her as he looked was her unyielding father and not far away from him her sister and brother-in-law. They were all complete strangers. Across the room, smiling and alcoholic, was her mother, Caroline.  Vivian caught his eye and perhaps this thoughts and smiled at him, it seemed understandingly. The unsettled feeling disappeared.  Her smile was living, sincere.  We’ll leave soon, it said.  That night though, having driven to the Hay-Adams Hotel in Washington, wearied by the events of the day and unaccustomed to being a wedded couple, they simply went to sleep.

That chaste extract above doesn’t accurately reflect their initial relationship, however, but ultimately this marriage won’t last.

Bowman has an affair whilst abroad on a trip in Europe with Enid, an Englishwoman. Theirs is a lusty union, continued on subsequent trips. Vivian eventually calls it a day with Philip without ever knowing about this infidelity, their relationship has just run its course.  But, it soon becomes clear that Enid is not never going to marry him and they let things peter out. Then he meets a woman in a taxi queue at the airport whom, he thinks, might be the one…

Christine, is separated from her Greek husband, and has a sixteen year old daughter. They are terribly in lust with each other, and soon move in together after Christine finds a perfect little house by the ocean.  Phil keeps his apartment in New York though.  This set-up is set-up to fail, but I won’t explain how.

Although this novel is all about Philip’s search for love, it’s no romance.  Phil reminds me slightly of Mad Men‘s Don Draper – he works hard, and plays hard when given the chance.  It’s a surprisingly lusty book – all the encounters are written from Philip’s point of view, they’re manly but not overly graphic!

But there’s far more to Philip’s life than the sex. There’s life in the publishing industry, less about the mechanics – more about the personalities, including his boss who described his firm as ‘a literary house … but only by necessity.’  It’s at the publishers that Philip meets Neil Eddins the other Editor, who becomes his best friend. There are families too – Philip’s mother Beatrice in particular is a presence and somewhat steadying influence on him.  The decades flow by.  Bowman lives, works and loves, he suffers and comes through whatever life throws at him, and in between we revisit those we encounter before – older and wiser.

Salter’s writing style is not showy, but the language is precise, sentences tend to be short.  He doesn’t signpost dialogue with he said, she said for the most part either, leaving you to work out who’s saying what.

I didn’t warm to Bowman much, although I could sympathise when things didn’t go his way. Although I did like the style, it all felt a bit remote and almost ordinary.  All that is ended up leaving me with a feeling of is that all there is? (7/10)

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I received a review copy from Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
All That Is by James Salter, pub 23rd May 2013 by Picador, Hardback 290 pages.