When the third part of a trilogy falls a little flat …

Something Nasty in the Woodshed by Kyril Bonfiglioli

mortdecai 3You may remember my enthusiasm for the reprints of the first two wickedly funny and totally non-PC Charlie Mortdecai books by Kyril Bonfiglioli last year; if you don’t, see my write-ups:

I loved them both; the second follows on directly from the first. Originally published in the 1970s, they sent everything up in a Raffles meets James Bond with a Jeeves and Wooster setting, through the adventures of aristo-art dealer Charlie Mortdecai, his manservant ‘thug’ Jock and Bond-girl type wife Johanna.

It’s such a shame then when the third volume in the original trilogy falls flat. (Bonfiglioli did leave another volume unfinished, now completed by Craig Brown, plus a novel of Charlie’s son’s adventures). That’s not to say that the third book wasn’t enjoyable – there were plenty of good jokes in it, but the action took two-thirds of the book to really get going – and in a 168 page novel, when it did happen, it was all quite rushed.  I’ll set the scene a little.

Charlie Mortdecai is sojourning on the island of Jersey, out of the way of those authorities on the British mainland that would otherwise be taking an interest in his affairs. He has rented a house and made friends with his two neighbours and their wives:

George’s Wife
is called Sonia, although her women-friends say that the name on her birth-certificate was probably Ruby… She is a slut and a bitch, every woman can tell this at a glance, so can most homosexuals. … Under a shellac-layer of cultivation and coffee-table books her manners and morals are those of a skilled whore who has succeeded in retiring early and now dedicates her craft to personal pleasure alone. She is very good at it indeed. I dare say.

Charlie, who as always narrates, takes the twenty pages of the first chapter to tell us about Jersey, his new friends, their wives, and the quaint system of policing on the island then. It is chapter two before anything happens, and when it does, it is rather nasty. Sonia is raped by a ‘beast’. The morning after, Charlie seems to be the last to know, Johanna tells him:

‘Course you know you won’t catch him, don’t you?’
I gaped.
‘Catch whom?’
‘The bloke who rogered Mrs Breakspear, of course. Silly bugger, he only had to say please, didn’t he?’

Oh dear… Soon Violet, wife of his other neighbour Sam, is similarly raped. Whereas Sonia takes it in her stride, so to speak, Violet is completely traumatised by the experience and is hospitalized. There are intimations of a satanic connection. Fearing that Johanna will be next – although Charlie knows she can look after herself – the three men and Jock set out to investigate and patrol the parish at night. They liaise with the local Centennier (volunteer Parish policeman) to find out about the local sex-maniacs. Charlie is telling Johanna about them:

‘And in St John’s,’ I ended, ‘there’s a well-respected man who does it with calves: what do you say to that?’
She rolled over onto all fours, her delightful bottom coquettishly raised.
‘Mooo?’ she asked hopefully.
‘Oh, very well.’

La Hougue Bie – Ancient passage grave under a mound which has a chapel built on top. As you can see, it was covered in scaffolding when I visited in 2013!

It then all gets very Bergerac meets Dennis Wheatley, and involves breaking into La Hougue Bie (right) and carrying out a Satanic mass in the de-consecrated half of the (still working) chapel on top which doesn’t end well. Afterwards, Charlie mopes around the house:

Nothing else of any note happened that day except the exquisite curry, throughout which I played records of Wagner: he goes beautifully with curry, the only use I’ve ever found for him.

Everything is eventually resolved, but it did leave a slightly nasty taste in the mouth this time. Lacking the cat and mouse antics of Charlie vs Inspector Martland of the first books, and with the violence being directed at seemingly unconnected people, it certainly wasn’t as much fun despite the jokes and that was a shame.

Those amongst you familiar with Stella Gibbons will recognise that the title comes from the pronouncements of the aged Ada Doom in Cold Comfort Farm.  This volume of the Mortdecai books was definitely the nastiest so far, but having all five on the shelves I am hoping that the comedy will pick up again in the fourth.   (7/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Don’t Point That Thing at me: The First Charlie Mortdecai Novel (Mortdecai Trilogy 1)
After you with the pistol: The Second Charlie Mortdecai Novel (Mortdecai Trilogy 2)
Something Nasty in the Woodshed: The Third Charlie Mortdecai Novel (Mortdecai Trilogy 3)
All by Kyril Bonfiglioli, Penguin paperbacks – around 200 pages.

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My first encounter with Richard Brautigan …

It was last summer when Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings was participating in the Beats of Summer fortnight of reading from the Beat Generation, that I resolved to read a book by Richard Brautigan. As I am not a fan of On the Road or The Naked Lunch (bored by the former, weirded out by the latter), I thought I should branch out and try another Beats author before consigning them all to my bottom shelf. Viv Stanshall Richard_BrautiganOn Karen’s recommendation I chose Richard Brautigan (left), particularly because of his physical resemblance to Viv Stanshall (right). Then which book to read? A little research led me to Sombrero Fallout – (1976), not because it is one of his slightly less well-known books, but because the new Canongate edition has an introduction by Jarvis Cocker, and on the back is a quote from Auberon Waugh ‘Mr Brautigan writes five thousand time better than [Jack] Kerouac ever did‘. Viv, Auberon and Jarvis – good omens don’t you think? So, enough faffing around – to the book…

Sombrero Fallout by Richard Brautigan

sombrero falloutThis is a short novel with dual linked narratives. The first, the title one, concerns a short story that a celebrated author is having problems with.

It concerns a sombrero that falls out of the sky in front of the Mayor of a small town, his brother and an unemployed man – who will be the first to pick said headgear up? However, the author isn’t satisfied with his story so far, so he rips it up and throws it in the bin where it takes on an absurd life of its own.

The second strand concerns the author and his ex-girlfriend. He is mourning the end of his relationship with Yukiko, a beautiful Japanese woman with long dark hair. She had split from him after two years, because she needed more from life than giving of herself to this author. The narrative flits between the author, who is obsessing about everything, but mainly her, and Yukiko who is asleep beside her cat, dreaming.

I mentioned the author obsessing about things. At one point he realises he is hungry, but can’t have a hamburger because he had one the day before – but he really wants a hamburger, unless …

After he had exhausted all thoughts of eating hamburgers, his mind entertained the possibility of a tuna fish sandwich but that was not a good idea. He always tried very hard not to think about tuna fish sandwiches. For the last three years he  had been trying to keep thoughts of tuna fish sandwiches out of his mind. Whenever he thought about tuna fish sandwiches, he felt bad and now here he was thinking about a tuna fish sandwich again after he had tried so hard not to think about them. …
Often he would find himself unconsciously picking up a can of tuna in the supermarket before he realised what he had done. He would suddenly find himself halfway through reading the contents on the can before he knew what he was doing. Then he would look startled as if he had been caught reading a pornographic novel in church and quickly put the can back in the shelf and walk away from it, trying to forget that he had ever touched it. …
The reason for this was a fear of mercury. …
When they discovered a few years ago that there was more mercury in tuna fish than normal, he stopped eating it, because he was afraid that it would accumulate in his brain and affect his thinking which would lead to an effect on his writing.
He thought his writing would get strange and nobody would buy his books because they had been corrupted by mercury and he would go crazy if he ate tuna fish, so he stopped eating it.

The extracts above from a two and a half page chapter entitled ‘TUNA‘ show the typical iterative nature of Brautigan’s narrative in this novel.  Each thought gets repeated, expanded upon, repeated, expanded upon and so on. This reminded me of the idée fixe of the ‘wing-backed chair‘ in Thomas Bernhard’s Woodcutters, which I read last year.

This process happens in the sombrero story too, which becomes a tale of mass hysteria, very much in the vein of James Thurber’s The Day the Dam Broke, (see here) but far weirder and with guns!

The mention of Thurber reminds me that I haven’t told you that the author in this book is a humorist – but one totally without a sense of humour!  He is also attractive to women and good (enough) in bed. One wonders if Brautigan is having a laugh at himself in his portrayal of the author?

The role of providing a strain of sanity between the madness of the sombrero and the self-pitying of the author is Yukiko. She is calm, enigmatic, and strong. I liked her very much.

Boy, I chose an interesting book for my first read of 2014.  I didn’t find it particularly funny; although it has its moments, the whole sombrero strand got too out of hand for me – I far preferred the story of the author and Yukiko.

I certainly see something in Brautigan’s writing though that I like, and I bought two further novels by him on spec from Canongate’s pre-Christmas sale!.   Thank you Karen for encouraging me to read him, (Calvino soon, I promise).   (7.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Sombrero Fallout (Canons) by Richard Brautigan, Canonage 2012 edition, luxury paperback, 224 pages.

The Art of the Comb-over & American Hustle

American Hustle (15)

It is a brave film that spends its opening minutes with its overweight paunchy, balding superstar acting lead perfecting his comb-over.  Christian Bale put on 40 lbs to play Irving Rosenfeld, a small-time Bronx hustler who gets caught by the feds and offered immunity if he helps them in a big scam down in Atlantic City in the late 1970s.

american-hustle-poster-2Bale’s partner in crime is Sydney Prosser played by Amy Adams, who perfects a cut-glass accent as a British aristo with access to a good line of credit to haul in the marks on their get rich quick scheme. Amazingly Sydney falls for Irving – obviously not for his body, but his brain and ability to talk himself out of nearly anything.

The pair get trapped by agent DiMaso – Bradley Cooper in a poodle perm. Together the plan is to take on all the crooked politicians in Atlantic City, led by the likeable Robin-Hood of a Major (Jeremy Renner).

However the scheme gets out of hand when a) the Mafia get involved, and then later when b) Irving’s wife Rosalyn, (Jennifer Lawrence in blonde bombshell mode) can’t keep her mouth shut.

It gets good and twisty, and Irving has to work harder than he has ever done before to tread water and keep the sting alive. There is a magnificent uncredited cameo in the Mafia boss from Miami by … well I’m not going to spill the beans!

Adams and Lawrence are both magnificent – but Lawrence in the smaller part gets the amazing scene in which she is angrily cleaning her house in yellow gloves whilst singing along to Paul McCartney’s Live and Let Die.

If hairdos are the main recurring visual (hair-rollers also feature big-time), the soundtrack is to die for – from Steely Dan’s Dirty Work over the opening credits, to Elton John, ELO, David Bowie, plus Horse with no name, White Rabbit, Delilah and I feel love and plenty of jazz too, I was singing along all the way through (I went to the afternoon showing this afternoon which had about 30 people in the big screen).

At 138 minutes it is a little long, and a little self-reverent,  but I revelled in the sheer late 1970s-ness of it, the level of detail was phenomenal, as was the on-going homage to Marty Scorsese. I never thought I’d want a fat, balding guy with a comb-over to survive what I thought would be the inevitable ending either, but by the end of it I did, Bale made Irving almost loveable.

For fans of the late 1970s and Scorsese, American Hustle was fab, and will doubtless get Oscar nominations for its stars.  I really, really enjoyed it.

A novel of ‘The Troubles’

Harry’s Game by Gerald Seymour

troublesthrillesblogphoto

I was amazed to find that this thriller from 1975 was Gerald Seymour’s début novel. Because of its setting, it is the kind of book that my late mother would never have read, and we read a lot of thrillers betweeen us in our household back then. She was born and bred in Protestant Belfast, and left to work and live in England in the early 1950s before ‘The Troubles’ really flared up. She always distanced herself from it while I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s. She was also estranged from her father, we only ever went to visit once when I was little – they argued on the doorstep and that was that.

She would never talk about any of this then, and as a consequence I’ve ended up confused about Belfast and rather ignorant about this whole era of Irish history. Remembering very vaguely the TV serialisation from the 1980s when I picked a copy of this novel up at a book sale, I read it initially as a high-class thriller with two sides – Them and Us.

Harry's Game Derek Thompson

The novel starts with a murder. A British Cabinet Minister, a former Minister for Northern Ireland, is shot in broad daylight outside his home in an affluent part of London, by an IRA killer. (In the TV series, the murderer Billy Downs was played by none other than Casualty stalwart Derek Thompson, right.)

The Prime Minister personally orders the secret services to send in an undercover agent to infiltrate the IRA and take out the Minister’s killer. They choose Captain Harry Brown, a lapsed Catholic from Portadown and family man, but who had acquitted himself well undercover in Aden.  Brown knows what may happen if his cover is blown, but still accepts the job. He’s given three weeks intensive submersion training, a new surname McEvoy, and heads off to Belfast posing as a merchant-seaman returning home. He finds a room in a guest house run by Mrs Duncan…

Mrs Duncan had noticed he’d been away. And a long time at that, she was certain. Something grated on her ear, tuned to three decades of welcoming visitors and apportioning to them their birthplace to within a few miles. She was curious, now, because she couldn’t place what had happened to his accent. Like the sea he talked of, she was aware it came in waves – ebbed in its pitch. Pure Belfast for a few words, or a phrase, then falling off into something that was close to Ulster but softer, without the harshness. It was this that nagged as she dusted round the house and cleaned the downstairs hall, while above her Harry moved about in his own room. She thought about it a lot during the morning, and decided that what she couldn’t quite understand was the way he seemed to change his accent so slightly mid-sentence. If he was away on a boat so long then of course we would have lost the Belfast in his voice – that must have happened. But then in contradiction there were the times when he was pure Belfast. She soundlessly uttered the different words that emphasized her puzzlement to herself, uncomprehending.

Harry’s card is marked in one way or another right from the start. Later as the pressure mounts to find Billy Downs (whose name is unknown to the British), he finally gets a job; there’s also a girl, a dance and a gun. But I won’t spoil what happens.

What Seymour does is bring the Belfast back-streets to life, but more than that he shows the intelligence systems that both sides have for collating information on everyone. No-one enters this area without being noted and their movements logged by IRA spotters, and the Army alike. It all seemed completely real.

Seymour studied Modern History at university, becoming a journalist and then working for ITN where he covered many major politcal and military events, and I must assume, as I’ve been unable to confirm, that his experience reporting on The Troubles formed the basis of his research for this novel.

L_HarrysGame_ep2

The success of this novel though is driven by the characterisation of Harry. Already a hero, he is put into a near impossible situation, and Seymour makes you like him from the start. Added to that, my only clear memory of the TV series was the lovely Ray Lonnen (left) who played Harry, and he was Harry for me too whilst I read the book. Although he seemed perfect casting at the time, I note that Lonnen comes from Eastbourne, and I hope Mrs Duncan didn’t pick that up in his accent!

As Robert Harris acknowledges in his introduction to the latest edition of this novel, “… every so often the genre {thriller} throws up a novel of such remarkable quality, that the cycle is broken. Having finished it you don’t want to throw it out …”  I agree wholeheartedly with him, and the enduring popularity of this book has ensured that it has remained in print ever since.

Given its subject, this wasn’t an easy thriller to read, but it was a really great one. (9/10)

I shall leave you with Clannad singing The Theme from Harry’s Game onTop of the Pops back in the mid 1980s – this was their breakthrough into the international mainstream.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Harry’s Game by Gerald Seymour (1975), Hodder paperback.
Harry’s Game The Complete Series [1983] [DVD]

Britten centenary – my memories of Noyes Fludde …

brittenThis weekend marks the centenary of the birth of composer Benjamin Britten. Radio 3 is celebrating with ‘Britten 100’, a weekend of programmes. I thought I’d celebrate too with some personal memories from my younger years of listening to and performing some of his works…

In 1966, the Canadian conductor Arthur Davison, who had made his home near Croydon, started up a series of children’s concerts at the Fairfield Halls. These popular concerts were full of light classical music, held on Saturday mornings and my brother and I went each season.  I’m sure that Britten’s Young persons guide to the orchestra would have featured.

CCF11232013_00000First performed in 1957, Noyes Fludde by Britten is a setting of the Chester Miracle Play of the story of Noah’s Ark for principal singers, plus a children’s chorus and orchestra, supplemented by recorders, handbells, organ and trumpeters. The part of Noye (Noah) was written for English bass Owen Brannigan, and the Fairfield secured his services to sing Noye in their production in 1968.  The production involved all the local schools in Croydon, and was repeated regularly for many years.

CCF11232013_00002I was in it twice.  The first time in 1971 as part of the children’s chorus of animals and birds that trooped down through the audience, two by two, to take our places in the ark.  Dressed in brown tunics and tights, we all had headdresses made by the local art college. I was a cuckoo!

It must have been one of Brannigan’s last performances. Already in his sixties, he was in a car crash in 1972 and never fully recovered, dying in 1973.  It was great fun, and the hymn Eternal Father which is incorporated into the work has been one of my favourites ever since.

The second time was 1976, and this time I was playing violin in the orchestra which comprised members of Croydon Philharmonic supplemented with members of the Croydon Schools First Orchestra. It was a real community performance – with children and adults performing and playing side by side.  There were handbell ringers and trumpeters in the Royal Box, the massed recorders of Croydon Schools in the choir stalls, and presiding over it all was Arthur Davison.

arthur davison

For a busy conductor, he did a lot for children – conducting the Croydon Youth Philharmonic Orchestra (CYPO) in both its regular rehearsals and school holiday orchestral camp-type sessions. He was a larger than life character, in size and manner, and was a hard taskmaster – but when we played well he was appreciative. I ended up as principal second violin in CYPO, and was consequently always seated directly in front of him.  I can still recall him barking at me at one orchestra school, ‘I can’t see you,’ referring to my overlong and floppy fringe – which I got my mum to trim (that was brave!) back home. The next day, he grinned at me.

Bringing us back to Britten, one of the pieces we played during one season of the orchestral school, was Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes which I love. They were a joy to play, and remain a joy to listen to.  I shall leave you with a Youtube clip played by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra conducted by Paavo Järvi.

Barbara Pym Reading Week

Pym Logo BlueI’ve never read Pym, but was more than happy to join in Barbara Pym Reading Week, hosted by Thomas at My Porch, to help celebrate the centenary of her birth. I consulted my shelves and found four Pyms waiting for me – given that the week was well under-way already, I chose the shortest …

Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym

BarbaraPym_QuartetInAutumn
This was one of Pym’s last books, published in 1977 a few years before she died; it was nominated for the Booker Prize. She was in her sixties, and the quartet of main characters are also in or nearing that age – I sincerely hope that her own life didn’t mirror those of Letty, Marcia, Edwin and Norman.

The quartet all work together in an office in London, what they actually do is never specified. They all live alone in the London suburbs. Edwin is the only one who ever married, but is now a widower. He and Marcia both have houses; Letty and Norman both rent rooms. They spend more time with each other at work than anyone else, yet it is fair to say that they never really get to know each other. The office day ends and they all go off to their homes.

We never learn much about Norman’s home life, and Edwin is largely content to be a church tourist, but do we gradually get to know Letty and Marcia’s situations.

Letty had had plans to retire to the country to share a cottage with her old friend Marjorie, but that is scuppered when Marjorie falls for her local vicar. To make matters worse, Letty’s landlord sell up to a Nigerian priest, and reluctantly, she feels she has to move as the African priest and his brethren are too loud. Edwin finds her a room through his church, and she moves north of the river to share a house with the aged Mrs Pope.

Marcia goes home to her inherited house with its hoard of milk bottles in the shed and plastic bags neatly folded and sorted in upstairs drawers.  Having had major surgery in the recent past, Janice from the local day centre is trying to keep an eye on her, but Marcia fends off her advances much to Janice’s frustration. The only person Marcia would like to get to know is her surgeon, whom she secretly idolises.

Letty and Marcia’s retirement arrives …

The organization where Letty and Marcia worked regarded it as a duty to provide some kind of a retirement party for them, when the time came for them to give up working. Their status as ageing unskilled women did not entitle them to an evening party, but it was felt that a lunchtime gathering, leading only to more than usual drowsiness in the afternoon, would be entirely appropriate. …

The deputy assistant director stepped into the middle of the room and began to speak.
‘The point about Miss Crowe and Miss Ivory, whom we are met together to honour today, is that nobody knows exactly, or has ever known exactly, what it is that they do,’ he declared boldly. ‘They have been – they are – the kind of people who work quietly and secretly doing good by stealth, as it were. …’

Both women are thus thrust into retirement limbo. One will drag herself up to realise that she still has a life to live, the other will turn inwards and dessicate – you can probably work out which will be which.  It doesn’t stop Norman from saying ‘I wonder what the girls are doing now.’

With this novel, Pym was veering from her lighter fare into what would become Anita Brookner territory in the 1980s. Her vision of ageing spinsters alone in bedsitterland or in hiding from the real world is so sad and horribly real. It is not quite as bleak as Brookner though, for underneath is a little bit of humour à la Muriel Spark, dark and ironic.

What Pym did so wonderfully was to capture the vicissitudes of ordinary life in the 1970s for her women: those days when not everyone had a telephone, surviving on tinned food from the supermarket, and in particular, what to do with oneself when you don’t have a family support network. The men end up taking that supporting role, and they do help to give an overall balance to the novel with Norman’s flip remarks giving light relief, and Edwin’s well-meaning concern bringing us back to ground.

Although this was not comfortable reading, I enjoyed it a lot – probably falling between the works of Brookner and the best of Spark. I have another ten of Pym’s novels to look forward to, and it’ll be interesting to contrast her earlier lighter titles with this grim slice of 70s single life – however remember, it doesn’t end poorly for everyone… (8.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym

The Women of Madison Avenue

Mad Women by Jane Maas

Mad Men still ranks amongst my favourite TV programmes ever. I love everything about it – the clothes, the campaigns, the decor, the lifestyle, the cast, (especially John Slattery as Roger Sterling).

But how true is the series?

I’ve already read one book by a guy who was there – Jerry Della Femina’s memoir (reviewed here), gave one man’s eye view – but his isn’t the only perspective available to help answer that question…

Mad-Women-cover-final

Jane Maas was there and saw it all. She was one of the pioneer ‘Mad Women’ of Madison Avenue. She started as a copywriter in 1964 at Ogilvy and Mather after several years working in TV production on Name That Tune, rising through the ranks to be a creative director and president of another New York agency along the way.

In compiling her memoir, she has spoken to many of her colleagues to build up her picture of working for and with the real Mad Men, giving a fascinating portrait of the advertising industry of the 1960s and beyond, and especially what it was like for women, although she didn’t have to start off as a secretary like Mad Men‘s Peggy Olson.

Jane Maas in her official first day photo at Wells Rich Greene, 1976

Jane Maas in her official first day photo at Wells Rich Greene, 1976

A petite redhead, Jane was married to architect Michael Maas in the late fifties, had kids and lived in central New York rather than towns outside like many of her colleagues.

She was also one of the first working Moms – ranking her ‘job first, husband second, and children third’ realising that her job and husband might go away, but that ‘the children would hang in’.  Jane was very lucky to have the services of her Mon-Fri live-in help Mabel though, but always felt guilty about not giving her children enough attention.

In chapter two, Jane gets straight to the subject of sex – apparently there was a lot of it about, although O&M was one of the more discrete agencies.  At other agencies, including Young and Rubicam, (the model for Mad Men), it was seemingly everywhere between employees outside the office…

The term ‘sexual harassment’ hadn’t been invented yet, or certainly wasn’t in our vocabularies. Most women then working in advertising were either secretaries or copywriters,  and 99 percent of us had male bosses.  The boss was in control of your salary, your raise, your career advancement … your life.  If he wanted to go to bed with you, you had to ask yourself what mattered more: your self-respect or your career.
A number of people confided recently that women were sometimes the ones doing the seducing. The best way to get promoted from secretary to copywriter was for your boss to make it happen. And the fastest way to make that happen was to make it with your boss.

Mad Men's Peggy OlsenUltimately what I am most fascinated by in Mad Men and books like this are the advertising campaigns themselves. For me, many of the best scenes are the ones where the creative folk are at work, and pitching to clients.

Maas tells us about the good and the bad campaigns, and the good and bad clients.  She tells howit was common for rooms full of men to discuss the ins and outs of feminine hygiene products without asking their women staff of their opinions, except as an afterthought.  She recounts how it was usual for women copywriters to be put on accounts for household products, the men kept all the cars, booze, fags, etc for themselves.

i-love-new-yorkMaas was one of the few that did break through the glass ceiling though.  She was not only one of the first women to wear trousers to work, she went on to be the director of the ad campaign that put New York back on the tourist map, I ♥ New York with its iconic logo designed by Milton Glazer in 1977.

She is also quite clear where she thinks Mad Men (and she is a fan) gets it slightly wrong.  In the hippest times of the 1960s, the agencies were colourful places – not the beige, class and chrome we see on TV.  Most of all though, she stresses that they worked hard, they played hard, and most important of all, they had terrific fun doing this job that they loved so much – Don Draper and his colleagues don’t have enough of the latter.

This book was less rambling and much more entertaining than Della Femina’s, and confirmed most of what I’d always suspected happened in a woman’s lot in those glory days on Madison Avenue.  I’ve always been fascinated by the world of advertising, it’s long been one of my fantasy jobs from way before Mad Men, so I liked it a lot.  If you love the series, you’ll probably enjoy this book too. (7.5/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
Mad Women Bantam paperback, 218 pages.
From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor: Front-line Dispatches from the Advertising War by Jerry Della Femina
Mad Men – Complete Season 1 [DVD]

A portrait of a family’s grief …

After Phoenix by Martine McDonagh

I really enjoyed Martine McDonagh’s debut novel I Have Waited and You Have Come, which was a dystopian psychodrama, so I was very happy to read her second novel – but it couldn’t be more different to her first.

After Phoenix

It’s Christmas, December 1973, and we meet the Jacobs family: lefty hippy parents JJ and Katherine, son Phoenix – just back from his first term at uni, and fifteen year old daughter Penny.   Phoenix is overjoyed at having persuaded his parents to get him a motorbike for Christmas.  Penny did well out of that too, getting the record player she was desperate for. Cut to New Year’s Eve – partytime at the Jacobs house.  Phoenix has a fumble with Penny’s best friend Jackie – she’ll not let Penny know who she did it with.

Cut to the New Year – January 1974. Phoenix is dead – his too big helmet slipped, he lost control of his motorbike and hit a van.

Katherine and JJ are catapulted into freefall in their grief. Katherine blames JJ for persuading her to let him have the bike. She can no longer talk to him.  JJ responds by giving her the space she appears to want – he retreats into his shed, his home office where he writes his newspaper columns, eventually moving in there completely.

Quick footsteps on the stairs. Not Penny’s. Now on the landing. A faint rap at the door, the wrong door, and a timid: ‘Katherine?’ She heard him open their bedroom door and go in. A few moments later he crossed the landing again and she heard him open and close the door to Phoenix’s room. He knocked at the bathroom door.
‘Go away. Leave me alone.’
‘I thought you might like a hot-water bottle. I’ve put it in the bed.’
‘Please leave me alone.’
‘Katherine, talk to me.’ He was loud-whispering.
‘No. I can’t talk to you any more. You killed my son.’
‘Katherine, please let me in. I don’t want Penny to hear this.’
‘She’s not stupid. You heard what she said as well as I did. She knows you killed him.’
‘Penny doesn’t know any such thing, and that wasn’t what she meant, you know that. Kathy, I can see how you’ve come to think the way you do, but you know it’s not true, I know you do. You’re grieving. We all are.’
‘Don’t tell me what I know. Go away. I want my son back.’ Katherine’s words wavered as they forced their way up through the constricted pipe of her throat.
After one last desperate, despondent ‘Kathy,’ JJ shuffled his feet and after a bit went downstairs.

It’s left to Penny to carry on as normal and look after things, as her parents’ relationship gets worse and worse.  Then one day Katherine snaps. She realises she needs help and signs herself in to the local psychiatric hospital – it’s the beginning of the long road to recovery.

This book is raw.  Between Katherine’s breakdown and JJ’s compassionate yet silent disbelief at what happened, this novel needs the life goes on attitude of teenager Penny to give some breathing space.  That’s not to say that Penny doesn’t feel grieve for her stupid brother Phoenix too.  Each of the Jacobs family members has to find a way to deal with it separately before they can begin to come together again.  JJ the hermit, throws himself into his work; Katherine gradually restores her sanity; and Penny gets fed up with Jackie, and makes new friends.

My bike - a Honda CB250RSOn an aside, in the early 1980s and in my twenties, I had a motorbike for around five years, (right – a Honda CB250RS).  I was proud of being a biker-chick, and I did spend out on good equipment – helmet, gloves, boots, and my beloved scarlet leather jacket,  kit which would help to minimise injury – but I still had my fair share of hairy experiences.

I was lucky. I rode from Gt Yarmouth to Harlow, Essex (around 110 miles) every weekend to see the boyfriend – and back.  I came off it on the A11 at Thetford; I skidded on a patch of oil, and was lucky to not get hit by a car, just dislocated my shoulder, but ended up in Bury St Edmunds A&E.  I also got blown off by the shock-wave of a lorry going past on a windy day on the Acle straight between Norwich and Gt Yarmouth. Too scared to get back on that time, I pushed the bike the couple of miles into town.  

I never told my parents about the bike until after I’d sold it.  So, I can understand Phoenix’s desire for the bike. It was a cheap and affordable option for independent transport in those days. I can also understand Katherine’s reaction and grief.  I’m very glad that my daughter will want to learn to drive a car.

With each chapter titled after a pop hit of the day, the period details in After Phoenix were spot on – I remember it well.  The regime in the hospital too was horribly as expected, (in the Guides, we used to go up to our local psychiatric hospital to sing to the patients at Christmas).

Despite beginning with a tragedy, this book is never entirely without hope though and is a powerful portrait of grief and how time heals. Powerful stuff.

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I received a review copy from the publisher – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
After Phoenixby Martine McDonagh. Pub Jan 2013 by Ten to Ten Publishing, paperback 220 pages.

Sci-Fi Sound Effects

BBC Sci-Fi Sound Effects (Vintage Beeb)

Having built up a few reviews on Amazon, a couple of years ago I was lucky enough to be invited to be a reviewer for Amazon Vine. I get to pick items from lists they send out of all sorts of things. Usually I stick to books, but just occasionally I branch out and pick something different …

Sci-fi sound effectsI couldn’t resist this CD, which features sound effects from four classic SF programmes from the BBC: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (radio version), 1980 vintage Doctor Who, Blake’s Seven and the radio series Earthsearch.

Sound effects recordings are strange things. In its 45 minutes duration, this CD has 81 tracks, some a couple of minutes long, some just a few seconds. From alien soundscapes to various techy noises, and of course the Tardis from Doctor Who, it was easy to have a little nostalgia trip listening to this CD, and if I’m honest, I won’t listen to it in full again.

It is a shame that the Doctor Who effects by Dick Mills are only from series 18 (the end of the Tom Baker era), which apart from an encounter with the Master, only had the Marshmen to cope with monster-wise, else we could have had more interesting noises – there are no Daleks here sadly. (There are dedicated Doctor Who sound effects CDs available too it turns out).

blakes7gang3It was Elizabeth Parker’s effects for Terry Nation’s Blake’s 7 that I enjoyed the most.  Although it was a cheesy space opera with rickety cardboard sets, it lasted for four series from 1978-81 and for me it was must-watch TV. Political renegade Blake may have been a goodie, but the baddies in power were badder, especially Jacqueline Pearce as the dictator Servalan (centre left).  This brings me to the sound effects…

Towards the end of the first series, our crew of galactic freedom fighters acquired Orac – a perspex box with flashing lights that masqueraded as a super computer and had the irritating personality of a real smart Alec.  The good thing about Orac was that you could switch him on and off, two wonderful little sound effects – both on this CD.  I particularly liked the Orac Off one!  If you’d like to experience Orac for yourselves, watch this clip (they turn him off about 3 minutes in)…

This CD was previously available on vinyl, this is its first outing on CD. Although I won’t sit and listen to it as a while again I shall keep it for you never know when an alarm klaxon, laser blaster, alien soundscape, or indeed Orac off sound effect might come in useful!

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I received a review copy from Amazon Vine – to explore further please click below:
BBC Sci-Fi Sound Effects (Vintage Beeb) – BBC records, 2012.
Doctor Who Sound Effects (Vintage Beeb)
Blake’s 7 – Complete Collection [16 DVD]

A Beryl Bibliography – part one

Thank you for the wonderful response to my decision to host a Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week in June.

Some of you aren’t so familiar with her books, so I thought I’d post a bibliography and give an idea of the subject for each of them, in time for you to find copies of those that interest you in time to join in.  I’m posting it in two parts.

I normally include my affiliate links at the bottom of a post but on this occasion, please forgive me – click on the book title and it’ll take you to the most readily copies available on Amazon UK.  (It’s taken me three and a half years of blogging to accumulate £25 in commissions, so it isn’t a big money-spinner!)

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 Harriet Said (1972).  Two  schoolgirls are on holiday in a Northern resort. One becomes interested in an unhappily married, middle-aged man. She and her friend Harriet begin a plot to humiliate him. But their fantasy merges into reality, with shocking and unexpected results.

The Dressmaker(1973) Titled The Secret Glass in the USA, Beryl’s second novel gained her, her first Booker shortlist nomination.  Set in wartime Liverpool, Rita falls in love with Ira, a GI. Her aunts Nellie and Margo aren’t convinced though. Billed as darkly comic.

The Bottle Factory Outing (1974) Won the Guardian fiction prize and achieved a second Booker shortlisting, this novel is an train-wreck waiting to happen. Brenda and Freda work for an Italian wine importer and are organising a works outing.  Complex, very black comedy, superb.

Sweet William(1975)  Ann throws over her fiancé Gerald for William – a serial womaniser. Can’t live with him, can’t live without him – what is she to do?
A Quiet Life(1976)  A post-war family drama set in the 1950s – Everyone in Alan’s family has something to hide, they’re all hanging on in quiet desperation, to quote Pink Floyd.

Injury Time(1977)  Edward is throwing a dinner party with his mistress, Binny.  However, some awkward guests arrive and Edward isn’t home yet …  a painful comedy.

Young Adolf(1978) A young Adolf Hitler turns up to stay with his brother in Liverpool.  Artist Adolf is a slacker who gets into trouble easily though – how will he turn out?  Sounds like Beryl is at her wickedest in this novel of high farce!

Another Part of the Wood(1968, revised 1979)  Her second novel, but revised and republished in 1979.  Joseph takes his mistress, son and some friends to stay in a cabin in deepest Wales for the weekend.  It won’t work, will it?!

Winter Garden(1980) Douglas takes a mistress, Nina, but soon he’s not able to cope with being an adulterer.  Telling his wife needs a break, she packs him off fishing in the Highlands, but instead he goes to Moscow with Nina.  Uh-Oh! Things will go wrong…

A Weekend with Claude(1967, revised 1981) Another early novel revised and republished. A weekend in the country goes very wrong and ends up with someone being shot.  (Until my copy ordered arrives, I don’t know much more about this one).

Watson’s Apology(1984) The first of Beryl’s historical novels, this book recounts the story of a clergyman who, in 1851, bludgeoned his wife to death.  Based on a real case, she presents a portrait of how this terrible crime might have come to happen.

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So there we have it. Part one of Beryl’s books – Maybe one of these titles will pique your interest. In part two early next week,  I’ll survey her later novels, short story collections and non-fiction books.