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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Would you do this on holiday?

Lazy Days by Erlend Loe

loe-lazy-daysTranslated by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw. With its irresistible cover I was always going to pick this book up to examine it. I read the blurb on the flyleaf and discovered that the author, new to me, was Norwegian, and that the book was likely to be quirky and probably funny, so that sold it to me.

It’s simply the story of what Bror and Nina Telemann did on their summer holiday, as told to us by Bror.

Bror is in his early forties. He’s stage director at the Norwegian National Theatre, but aims to become a celebrated playwright – soon. He hopes to get started on his magnum opus while on holiday. His wife Nina has booked a house for the family summer holiday in the Alps near Munich in the town that Google Translate calls Mixing Part Churches – Garmisch Partenkirchen to you and me, but Bror only uses the mangled translation. Bror and Nina bicker about her choice of destination…

Do you think Mixing Part Churches is the type of place people lock up their kids, or others’ kids, in the cellar for twenty-four years and rape them three thousand times?
That’s enough.
No, but do you think so?
Stop that now.
For Christ’s sake, no harm speculating.
Stop it.
You don’t think this is a hub for that sort of practice then?
No.
So, those things don’t happen here?
I don’t think so.
So, we just let the kids run about on their own?
I think so.
Good.

That is very representative of Bror and Nina’s conversations. They tend to be very one-sided, as reported by Bror, with him always winding up Nina; sometimes deliberately, other times unconsciously. He’s not happy with her choice of Germany – he considers Bavaria as ‘being the cradle of Nazism’, and doesn’t hesitate to rub it in.

Nina is left most days to go out with their three children and they have a lovely time visiting all the sights. Bror stays behind, supposedly writing – except that he doesn’t. He’s mostly having fantasies about Nigella Lawson, whom he thinks is ‘fascinatingly well-built. She has, for instance, got hips. And a bosum.’

All the above is in the first 21 pages. The book has only 211, so in its small hardback format can easily be read in one sitting. You can imagine, as so often happens on holiday, that tensions simmer and come to the boil explosively, behaviour on both sides of the relationship gets out of hand – can they sort themselves out in time to go home?

This turns out to be quite a dark little comedy – and I could see it working well as a stage adaptation. Bror starts off by being ironic and funny but, as his writer’s block and fantasies take over, Nina is increasingly dismissive of him. Bror’s obsessions take him over, and he gets less likeable by the page; the long-suffering Nina, feeling hard done by, retaliates and does herself no favours either.

To be honest, the whole Nigella thing started to get tedious, but given that the novel was published before the whole scandal, this does give it an added frisson initially but that soon pales. Bror in his mid-life crisis reveals himself to be bigoted, boring and still a big kid for most of the time.

What I did really like though was the author’s dead-pan style of writing, which comes through in the translation. Written in the present tense, Nina and Bror’s conversations in particular, forming much of the meat of this little novel, develop a real sense of anticipation in the reader trying to guess which direction they’ll go in, or what awful thing Bror will say next.

Based on Lazy Days which was fun, I would certainly read more of Loe’s work; a couple more of his novels have been translated. (7/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Lazy Days by Erlend Loe (2009, trans 2013) Pub by Head of Zeus, hardback 211 pages.

Book Group Report – Jean Teulé

The Suicide Shop by Jean Teulé

suicide-shopOur book group read for July into August was actually a re-read for me. We’d wanted something quick and light as due to our schedules we only had three weeks between meetings instead of our usual four or five. I had read Teulé’s 2007 novel, published in English translation by Sue Dyson in 2008 when it first came out pre-blog – but thanks to my spreadsheet that I was already keeping back then I can retrieve my capsule review:

This very French, dystopian fable reminded me very much of the stylish film Delicatessen (a hilarious post-apocalyptic French sort of Sweeney Todd), but lacking some of its virtuosity. That’s not to say that it is unimaginative … Some of the ways that the proprietors of The suicide shop devise to help their customers do away with themselves are really hilarious, but it lacks the film’s lightness of touch with its macabre material. In particular, the Alan Turing suicide kit is inspired, as is the Kiss of Death given to Marilyn as her coming of age birthday present.

The Tuvache family who own the shop are all cartoon characters, all named for famous suicides which tell you all you need to know about them – there’s the father Mishima, the mother Lucrèce, son Vincent, daughter Marilyn, and the wayward youngest son. He’s named Alan after Turing, but does not display any of his namesake’s traits! Alan is the despair of his parents being all too happy, and happiness is catching in this sulphurous City of Lost Religion (presumably a take on Paris being the City of Light?). Usually in novels, it’s the other way around with everyone starting out happy before diving into the slough of despond – but this does allow a neat ending. A clever and funny, quick novel to read, but a little heavy-handed.

Yes, it’s literally about a shop where you can buy everything you need to kill yourself in whatever way you please. M. & Mme. Tuvache are only too happy to will help you decide how. There are some delightfully gruesome jokes here – but I will only share a bit of the Alan Turing one with you in case you want to read the book yourself:

‘The inventor committed suicide in an odd way. On the seventh of June 1954, he soaked an apple in a solution of cyanide and placed it on a small table. Next, he painted a picture of it, and then he ate the apple.’
‘He never did!’
‘It’s said that this is the reason why the apple Macintosh logo depicts an apple with a bit out of it. It’s Alan Turing’s apple.’
‘Well, well… at least I won’t die an idiot.’

(Wikipedia tells me that a half eaten apple was indeed found beside Turing’s bed, but it wasn’t tested for cyanide. His inquest wondered if he had accidentally inhaled cyanide fumes from gold electroplating which he did in his spare room.)

I really enjoyed the book all over again, but what did the others in the group think?  Well – no-one hated it outright. We were split over the plot, or perceived lack of it – some wanted more, others somewhat disagreed with as it is only 160-odd pages of big print – a short novel really and it does have a main storyline with other elements. I think all but me felt a little cheated by the final ending, but I won’t expound further. Everyone did at least like some of the jokes. Needless to say, we all found it very French! Given the amount of discussion though, it did make quite a good book group read. I particularly loved the shop’s slogan – ‘Vous avez râté votre vie, réussisez votre mort…’ translated as, ‘Has your life been a failure? Let’s make your death a success.’ (8.5/10)

By the way, I recommend the film Delicatessen from 1991 directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro – a post-apocalyptic character-based French comedy about the inhabitants of a building block. Full of grotesques and very quirky – very Terry Gilliamesque, but in French. The Suicide Shop has been made into a French animated film too, but I haven’t seen it and aren’t sure if it’s subtitled.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Suicide Shop by Jean Teulé, Gallic Books, paperback 169 pages.
Le Magasin des suicides (DVD) ~ Patrice Leconte
Delicatessen [DVD]

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

 

Always read the small print!

Terms & Conditionsby Robert Glancy

t&c

Frank has been in a car accident – it turns out it was a bad one, and he’s lost his memory*.  He can’t remember people, but can remember his job**.  He works for the family firm, chaired by his older brother Oscar♦.

As he begins to remember things, he realises that everyone has something to hide♦♦.  The only one who seems happy is his younger brother Malcolm♦♦♦.  What is Frank to do?

If you hate footnotes, you should probably not bother reading further – but you would be missing a treat – for most of the jokes in this black comedy about modern life and finding oneself are in the myriad footnotes at the bottom of nearly every page.  Although they are in small print, most are readable – although at one point, there is small print to the small print and I nearly had to resort to a magnifying glass (surely a deliberate move on the author’s part).

Frank’s piecing of his life back together is hilarious. As he begins to find things out and remember more it is also sad though – for it soon becomes clear that his relationship with his wife had not been a happy one for some time.  She was no longer the rebellious fun girl he had married, instead she was now a skinny and driven HR manager.

My alleged wife, like many of my visitors, seemed very nervous when she came to see me.
Why? Where they worried I wouldn’t recognise them? May they were hopeful they’d be that special person – the key – the one whose mere presence would miraculously unlock me? Or was it that people were nervous because I’d been a complete bastard?
Was Old Frank a real twat?
I discovered early on that no one would tell me what I had really been like. When I asked my wife, she offered only the vaguest sentences; words that could have described a billion other people: ‘You were, are … a nice chap and funny, really driven and…’
It was like that awful ‘Personal Section’ in curriculum vitaes – my CV personality. So I accepted that I was the only one who could really discover who I once was – I knew no one would ever tell me the unvarnished truth.*
_____________________________________
* No one would turn to me and say, You were such a c***-face, Frank. You hated life, detested your friends, and you were often found in parks furiously masturbating.

In trying to sort out the bigger picture, Frank realises that the devil is in the detail, although I’d argue that sometimes it works both ways. We suffer with him with each new discovery and each return of memories, and cross our fingers that he’ll find a way out. When he works out his plan, it’s bold and daring, but is revenge really worth it?

I could cope with the footnotes because they were often so funny, but I did find the chapter titles a little annoying. Each was ‘Terms and Conditions of …’.  As most chapters were just a couple of pages, in big type they took up a lot of space, and could have been abbreviated to T&C rather than unsubtly reminding us to read the small print.

I wasn’t sure whether I liked Frank or not, but I did like his wit. I certainly disliked his wife and Oscar intensely. The whole business with the small print was also a great idea, and was executed well, although it was surprising to read that the author was a historian and not a lawyer! However, all that was enough for me to really enjoy reading it, and I had a good laugh. (8/10)

________________________________________________________________

* He doesn’t remember his wife, but she’ll do nicely…
** He’s a top contract lawyer, specialising in the small print. The terms & conditions.
♦ He soon works out that Oscar is a shit!
♦♦ Including himself, and especially his wife.
♦♦♦ Who escaped to find himself in the Far East.

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Source: Publisher – thank you! To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Terms & Conditions by Robert Glancy, pub Feb 13 2014 by Bloomsbury, Hardback 272 pages.

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

The blackest of boozy pre-war comedies …

lar-button-finalPatrick Hamilton is one of those authors whom I’ve been meaning to read for years – when one of the blogs I follow (sorry can’t remember which one) reviewed his trilogy Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky last autumn and loved it, I was moved to check my shelves and found his 1941 novel Hangover Square on them. That book moved to my bedside pile, and so I’ve been able to combine my TBR reading with Long Awaited Reads Month (hosted by Iris and Ana).

Why, oh why did I wait so long to read this book?  I’ll say it up front – it’s my first 10/10 read for 2014 …

Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton

Starting in the dying days of 1938, George Harvey Bone, a tall and ungainly young man is spending Christmas with his aunt in Hunstanton hoping she’ll give him some money to keep him and his ‘friends’ going.

hangover squareGeorge is jobless, and lives in a backstreet hotel in Earls Court, an area of West London that was, (may still be) bedsit-land. He spends most of his time either asleep or in one boozer or another with his so-called friends Peter, Mickey and Netta.

It’s thinking of Netta that makes George’s brain go ‘click’ while he’s out walking in the Norfolk air that Christmas. The click puts him into a ‘dead mood’ which puts his body into automatic, and his brain into thinking bad thoughts for George is an undiagnosed schizophrenic …

This Netta business had been going on too long. When was he going to kill her? Soon – this year certainly. At once would be best – as soon as he got back to London – he was going back tomorrow, Boxing Day. But these things had to be planned: he had so many plans: too many. The thing was so incredibly, absurdly easy That was why it was so difficult to choose the right plan. You had only to hit her over the head when she was not looking. You had only to ask her to turn her back to you because you had a surprise for her, and then strike her down. You had only to invite her to a window, to ask her to look down at something, and then throw her out. You had only to put a scarf playfully round her neck, and fondle it admiringly, and then strangle her. You had only to surprise her in her bath, life up her legs and hold her head down. All so easy: all so silent.

He’s on the train home, before the shutter opens in his brain again, and “he wished to God he could remember what he had been doing and what he had been thinking.

What has Netta done to deserve all these bad thoughts?  She is the number one object of his affections but treats him badly, shamelessly milking him for drinks, dinner, subs for her rent, using poor lovelorn George.  The others take advantage too.

He could see through them, and, of course, he hated them. He even hated Netta too – he had known that for a long time. He hated Netta, perhaps, most of all. The fact that he was crazy about her physically, that he worshipped the ground she trod on and the air she breathes, that he could think of nithing else in the world all day long, had nothing to do with the underlying stream of scorn he bore towards her as a character. You might say he wasn’t really ‘in love’ with her: he was ‘in hate’ with her. It was the same thing – just looking at his obsession from the other side. He was netted in hate just as he was netted in love. Netta: Netta: Netta! … God – how he loved her!

He hated himself, too. He didn’t pretend to be any better. He hated himself for the life he led – the life in common with them. Drunken, lazy, impecunious, neurotic, arrogant, pub-crawling cheap lot of swine – that was what they all were. Including him and Netta.

Netta wants to be a film-star, and lets George take her to dinner in a posh London restaurant.  George is overjoyed at getting her to himself for even a short while, but once at the restaurant it is clear she picked it because Eddie Carstairs, a casting agent is often there, and her feminine wiles are all directed at him. Poor George is a meal-ticket again.

George becomes even more useful when he meets an old friend Johnnie from his school days. Johnnie is a true friend, but when Netta finds out he works at Carstairs’ company, George has another use again. When George is invited down to a company do at Brighton, Netta has to get in on the act…

You can sense right from the beginning, when George’s alter-ego has those murderous thoughts, that this novel is unlikely to have a happy ending. George does manage to have a few genuinely good moments, away from Netta, but he’s not strong enough to get up and go.  He does realise this, but with war in the air, and no jobs on the ground, he can’t dig himself out of the pit he’s fallen into. The constant drinking doesn’t help, and his ‘dead moods’ are getting worse.  Poor George.

This novel is subtitled ‘A story of darkest Earls Court’, and it certainly is that. Netta and co have a Hemingwayesque relationship with booze, and are flirting with Fascist attitudes too, but George has problems with Munich – he’s scared at the prospects of war.  It adds an undercurrent throughout the book which adds to the inevitability of what happens.

The novel is billed as a black comedy, and I suppose it is in a way. The laughs, however are never at George’s expense. When they come, it is Netta and her friends we laugh at, over their outrageously bad behaviour that makes them targets for our scorn.

Hamilton’s prose is beautiful, incendiary, moving, clinical, full of ennui – everything it needs to be to tell George’s story. I nearly cried for George, wishing he hadn’t spotted her across a crowded room that day.

I loved this book so much it’s going into my Desert Island Books booktrunk. I reluctantly put it down with fifty pages to go the other night, and waking up at about 3.30am for some reason,  rather than go back to sleep, I finished reading it. It may be sad, but it’s an absolute classic. (10/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Hangover Square: A Story of Darkest Earl’s Court by Patrick Hamilton (1941), foreword by J B Priestley, Penguin Modern Classics, 288 pages.

Come dine on – oops – with me…

The Savages by Matt Whyman

savagesNot since I read the wonderful book, The Radleys by Matt Haig, (reviewed here), have I found a YA novel such fun.  Just look at the cover – you know it’s going to be hilarious.  You can sense that the Savages are a close family – like The Munsters or The Addams Family perhaps, and the strapline tells you they probably have a huge secret… 

The story begins at the end of a family dinner, cooked to perfection by mother, Angelica. After her younger brother Ivan has left, fifteen year old Sasha seizes the opportunity to tell her parents about her new boyfriend Jack – who is a vegetarian.

Events then flash forward:

Before the story broke, Sasha was all set to turn sixteen with only her exams standing in the way of the best summer of her life. Then the truth emerged. Overnight, as if a spell had been cast from above, she and her family became monsters.
…Besides, with every last scrap of evidence out in the open, from phone records to witness statements and even the grisly report from the drainage experts, it only takes a little imagination to get under the skin of the Savage family, and come close to the truth about what really happened.

What follows, to fill in what happened, is an hilarious black comedy involving using their house as the location for a commercial shoot, a bulimic super-model, a journalist turned investigator who is digging into Titus’s business affairs, and boyfriend Jack of course, alongside plans for more gourmet dinners.

The Munsters 1964-6

The Munsters 1964-6

To all external appearances, the Savages appear totally normal – unlike the Munsters who (mostly) appear monsters, but are totally benign.  The Savages’ family secret has its basis in true history, explained by grandpa Oleg. This helps to humanise them,  which is necessary, because we do find ourselves wanting to like this strange family.

Whereas in The Radleys, the teenagers don’t know their family are vampires, apart from the baby, the Savages are fully aware of their family secret. When Jack challenges Sasha to go veggie for a month, teenager that she is, that is her chance to rebel against her family traditions. Little does she know that (natch) Jack’s intentions are not entirely honorable, and also that this relationship could also signal the beginning of the end…

Having the time-honoured themes of a portrait of family life and teenagers growing up at its core, allows Whyman to have great, gory fun with the Savages. There are laughs aplenty, and some imaginative set-pieces, yet there was enough depth to satisfy this adult reader. I loved it – and I’ve managed to fudge around the Savage’s secret too! (9/10)

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Source: Review copy – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Savages by Matt Whyman – Hot Key books, pub June 2013, paperback 288 pages (12+)
The Radleys by Matt Haig.

Muriel Spark Reading Week – The Girls of Slender Means

 It’s Muriel Spark Reading Week, hosted by Simon and Harriet. Do visit their blogs to see a plethora of reviews and links to what we’ve all been reading.

I’ve not read a Spark novel since 2008 when I really enjoyed The Ballad Of Peckham Rye.  I chose another of her 1960s novels for MSRW…

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The Girls Of Slender Means(1963)

Set mainly between VE and VJ days in 1945 at the end of WWII, TGoSM follows the lives and loves of a group of young women who live in a hostel in Kensington called the ‘May of Teck Club’ after Queen Mary, the wife of George V. The story flits back and forth to before and after something big happens (which I am not going to give away, unlike some of the alternative book covers out there!). Let’s meet the main girls…

There’s Jane – a publisher’s assistant who puts great store by her ‘brain-work’ not being as thin or attractive as the others. Her boss sets her to work on potential authors to find out their weaknesses, so he can exploit them in their contracts.

Joanna is a rector’s daughter, who has moved to London to avoid her propensity for falling for curates. She gives elocution lessons in the Club, and the air is often full of her declaiming poems as she teaches.

Selina, is beautiful and, well, slender; qualities which give her many ardent admirers, whom she happily strings along and sleeps with,  with ne’er a thought about morals going through her pretty head. Indeed Selina is so slender that she is one of the few girls who can fit through the tiny window in the attic washroom to sneak out onto the roof – a secret place for assignations.

The other inhabitants of the Club are also real characters. From the three ladies in their 50s who’ve lived there forever, despite it be a Club for young ladies under thirty. There’s the warden who ‘drove a car as she would have driven a man had she possessed one.’ And there’s Dorothy …

Dorothy could emit, at any hour of the day or night, a waterfall of débutante chatter, which rightly gave the impression that on any occasion between talking, eating and sleeping, she did not think, except in terms of these phrase-ripples of hers: ‘Filthy lunch.’ ‘The most gorgeous wedding.’ ‘He actually raped her, she was amazed.’ ‘Ghastly film.’ ‘I’m desperately well, thanks, how are you?’ …
… It was some months before she was to put her hed around Jane’s door and announce, ‘Filthy luck. I’m preggers. Come to the wedding.’

I love the Sparkian bon-mot, ‘phrase ripples’.

The Club is very lively. The girls have lots of visitors in to dine, and get taken out all the time, hiring a designer dress one of the other residents in return for ration coupons, although the haggling can get a bit petty:

You can’t wear it to the Milroy. It’s been twice to the Milroy… it’s been to Quaglino’s, Selina wore it to Quags, it’s getting known all over London.

I haven’t mentioned any of the men yet. There are boyfriends, suitors and colleagues, but only one is important to the story. Nicholas Farringdon, a self-styled anarchist intellectual and poet, is trying to get published. Jane is working on him, and brings him to the Club where he falls for Selina.

The above is all told as flash-back. At the beginning of the book, Jane, who is now a journalist, is ringing round to tell everyone that Nicholas is dead, murdered in Haiti. No-one understands quite what he was doing there, as they all remember him rather differently from before ‘it’ happened. This foreshadowing brings a very dark edge to this comedy about frivolous young women trying to escape the privations enforced on them by the war.

It’s not a long novel, 142 pages in my edition. Although full of descriptive passages and dialogue, Spark is sparing in what she tells us, meting out the story in small sections, flashing back between Jane’s later conversations. There are many interjections of poetry from Joanna which punctuate the Club’s activities, all of which keep you on your toes to concentrate on where you are and with whom at any one time. I must say, I didn’t really warm to any of the characters other than Jane who does have some gumption; Spark satirises all the silly girls perfectly. Joanna, the curate’s daughter, retains an air of mystique, mainly being present as a soundtrack of poetry in the background. Having stayed in a YWCA hostel myself when I started my first job, I could understand the goings-on in the club perfectly, (’twas ever thus!).

I enjoyed but couldn’t quite love this book with its sombre undertones, unlike The Ballad of Peckham Rye which I adored and found more wickedly funny. I realise I still haven’t read her most famous book that comes between these two yet either – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – something to rectify, especially as I have a Folio edition.  (7.5/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:

The Girls Of Slender Means by Muriel Spark. Penguin paperback.
The Ballad of Peckham Rye
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Cosy Weirdness in Whitby

Never the Brideand Something Borrowed by Paul Magrs

Just before I started this blog, I read a book that gave me a sustained bout of chuckling all the way through. On the face of it, Never the Bride was a cosy mystery set in Whitby, with two old ladies doing the sleuthing… But underneath it’s a rather different animal.

B&B owner Brenda and her friend Effie seek a quiet life  in Whitby, but when weird things start happening, they can’t resist investigating. What ensues is a wonderfully Gothic black comedy featuring mysterious makeovers, aliens on the run, the Christmas Hotel where it is always Noel, and the even more mysterious Mr Alucard, not to mention our heroine Brenda – who is not what she seems.

This book was an absolute delight from page one, a gently hilarious and quirky tale full of weird and wacky adventures for the not quite OAPs Brenda and Effie. The nods to Frankenstein, Dracula, The War of the Worlds and other classic novels of that ilk fit perfectly with the otherworldlyness of Whitby – which is obviously a hotbed for paranormal activity!   I gave it 10/10.

So why did it take me so long to read the next book in the series Something Borrowed?  After all, there are now three further titles in the series. When I read start reading a series and really love the first book, I’m always slightly afraid that the second novel won’t live up to the first.

It was like meeting old friends, I needn’t have worried. Of course this time I knew Brenda’s secret…

Above all I felt that I was fitting in at last. I was happily inconspicuous. A little tall, perhaps. I am a heavy-set woman, with undistinguished features. My hands are rather large. I tend to keep them out of the way, and try nto to gesticulate when I speak. My accent is difficult to pin down, for I have lived in many different towns and counties. I slather my face in thick make-up, so that it always has a slightly unnatural hue to it. Not out of vanity, you understand. I look more like someone covering something up than I do someone deliberately flaunting herself. I hear people wonder: burns? Scars?

It’s not long before trouble finds Brenda and Effie though. Someone is writing poison pen letters, and then Jessie the Zombie Womanzee is causing problems. Enter on the scene the ghost-hunting Professor Henry Cleavis, who causes Brenda to re-live a previous life. Dare she let herself love him after all these years?

It’s not necessary to have read the first book to enjoy this one. Magrs cunningly integrates most of the necessary back-story without seeming repetitive to familiar readers; you’d be missing a treat if you didn’t read Never the Bride though. The first book was more episodic in nature, involving Brenda and Effie in a series of adventures. The arc of the second again involves several plots, but rather than being sequential, they’re woven together into a whole which makes for a more satisfying story overall.

The most important thing is how you can’t help but really care for Brenda and Effie.  They’re chalk and cheese, but make a wonderful partnership.  Big, lumpen, Brenda has a heart of gold, and is kind and gentle, whereas Effie is nosy and petite and can be quite sharp with it, but the two women have forged a strong bond of sisterhood.

These novels transcend categorisation – They’re hilarious; they’re an affectionate spoof on all things paranormal and Gothic horror, yet with a small town cosy crime sensibility featuring two of the most lovable amateur sleuths you’ll ever find. Overall, these books have such a sense of fun, that I definitely won’t wait so long before I read the next one, and Magrs gives some hints of what is to come too.  (9.5/10)

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I bought my copies. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Never the Brideand Something Borrowed by Paul Magrs.