“I’ve been to paradise, but I’ve never been to me”

Love & Fallout by Kathryn Simmonds

love and fallout Tessa is one of those middle-aged women that do causes. She co-runs a (failing) green charity running workshops for schools and colleges and she’s always got a local campaign on the go – this time saving the playing field from development. She doesn’t take much time for herself (or her family arguably) and lives in jeans and baggy jumpers. Her long-suffering best friend Maggie and husband Pete have had enough of this and as the novel starts they have organised a surprise TV makeover for her. The doorbell chimes:

Smiling at me is a thin woman in her early forties who has the gloss and wing-mirror cheekbones of a former fashion model. Behind her is a camera crew. A camera crew. And there, waving, is Maggie. For a few stupified seconds I can’t work it out: in some bizarre co-incidence she’s stopped by at exactly the same moment as a TV crew.
‘Are you Tessa Perry?’ asks the thin woman.
Partly shielded by the door and ready to close it at any moment, I confirm my identity.
‘Excellent,’ she says, ‘because we’re here to…’ Then she raises her arms along with her voice and everyone cries in unison, ‘Make you Over!’
The penny teeters, bright and coppery at the edge of my comprehension then drops into a slot and rolls away. Maggie has brought these people here. Before I know what’s happening, they’re piling inside.

Tessa is horrified, but when Pete says they’ll mention the Heston Fields campaign she reluctantly submits to get the publicity for it. When, after they’ve finished filming she’s left fully dressed and made up, Pete wants to go out. Tessa says ‘Right, give me ten minutes, I’ll just get changed.’ Exactly the wrong thing to say to Pete who had wanted to show her off.

Cut back to 1982, and Tessa having finished school is working in a dead-end job in Stevenage and has recently split up with her boyfriend. She decides to go and visit the anti-cruise protestors at Greenham Common, and maybe stay at the camp for a while. Surprisingly, her mum and dad are broadly supportive, realising that it’ll give her the break from Stevenage that she needs, and after all, she’ll not stay for long …

Tessa finally gets to Greenham, and finds a diverse band of women, young and old, mothers, grandmothers, Europeans, all are here. Bumping into a young woman called Rori, she finds a group to camp with at the Amber gate. She soon realises that life is not a bed of roses – it’s cold and muddy, water has to be carted from the standpipe, latrine trenches dug and so on. There is little direct action other than being there to witness what the military are doing. As in any group there are tensions – Angela who is one of the key organisers doesn’t think Tessa belongs there – indeed, Tessa doesn’t really know herself at first, but she gamely mucks in and makes herself useful. The strong bond that Tessa forges with Rori will become tested to its absolute limit over the months to come – there will be betrayals…

Interspersed with the Greenham sections are those charting the increasing disintegration of Tessa’s home life after the programme. If she doesn’t get funding, her charity will fold; she and Pete are going to relationship counselling – but it’s not going well; her children are alienated, especially her daughter Pippa. It takes a visit from Angela, who had seen her on the television, to bring her life back into perspective, finally bringing closure to her Greenham days.

I actually worked in Stevenage for a whole seventeen years and lived there for fifteen, first arriving in 1983 just after Tessa goes to Greenham. I lived in a couple of different estates, before ending up in a nicer newbuild development, but, having moved down there after living in Cambridge (where Tessa later lives!), I can understand why she’d want to move away from the indentikit houses, and the town centre certainly wasn’t up to much back then.

Simmonds builds a strong picture of what it was like to be at Greenham, and includes the real life events such as ‘Embrace the Base’ when 30,000 women linked arms around the perimeter, and when Tessa gets imprisoned after climbing the walls and dancing on the silos. We’re shown what a hard life it was and how everyone had to muck in, but also how much cheer the women were able to generate from their sisterhood. Although Tessa doesn’t get on with Angela in the camp having allied herself firmly with Rori – she herself becomes an Angela type later organising her causes, especially once her children don’t need her parenting so much.

Tessa is fallible though, taking Pete and her family’s silent acquiescence as permission to take them for granted. Thank goodness for the jolt caused by the TV show and the memories it brings back to the surface. Ignoring relationship ruts is not a good thing, and we hope that Tessa and Pete can find some kind of path forward; Tessa needs more of a makeover than just a new outfit. I found this aspect of the novel a little uncomfortable to read. Whatever her faults though, because Tessa is inherently a good person with good intentions we are on her side throughout the story.

There is much to admire in this debut novel from one of my favourite indie publishers, Seren Books. Tessa’s story is told with humour as well as truth and sadness. Who knows, if I had met Tessa in a Stevenage pub, I might have been inspired to join her in her quest and that is the mark of an engaging novel. (8.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Love and Falloutby Kathryn Simmonds. Seren Books, June 2014, paperback original, 352 pages.

P.S. Quote at the top from ‘I’ve never been to me’ – by Ron Miller and Kenneth Hirsch, sung by Charlene – it reached No 1 in the UK in June 1982.

5 Characters in Search of a Theme Song

Love, Love Me Do by Mark Haysom

Love love me do

Looking at the title and cover of this book, I was expecting something light-hearted, a little bit sixties rock’n’roll, a bit Nick Hornby-ish if you will – and involving a caravan. Well the last bit was right, less so the others.

The title, that of the Beatles’ first hit single, is an anchor in time, and the book opens in 1963, Friday August the 2nd at 5.24am to be precise.

Young Baxter is dreading that later today he might have to go on a day-trip home to Brighton with his father. His mum, Christie, had said it’d be a good thing to have some time with his father, but Baxter doesn’t want to go – he wants to stay in the caravan, play in the grass and go and see Soldier in the woods.

A few hours later, Christie is again wondering why her husband Truman had sprung a surprise holiday on them – in a caravan on the edge of the Ashdown forest fifty miles inland from their home – and then abandoned them there without a car to go to work.

Not for the first time, Christie wondered whether she had ever truly loved him. …
And she had wanted him to love her. She was a little embarrassed to admit it, even now, even to herself; but more than being in love, what she had longed for then was the feeling of being loved by someone. …
But mostly what she felt now, she thought, as she knelt with her eyes still closed, trying to find just the right word for it, what she felt was that she had been overwhelmed by him. …
To begin with it had been excisitng to be with trumn, of course. To be wanted so much, to be pursued by a boy who was so tall and handsome; it was like nothing that had ever happened to her. …
…They had looked good together, people said. And, of course, there had been some defiance in it too. Because she had known her mother wouldn’t approve, it had made her all the more determined to go out with him in the first place.

It turns out that apart from be a charmer, Truman is a liar and a chancer, although Christie doesn’t know any of it. He’s a small-time con-man with an eye for the ladies and has a couple of mistresses on the go as well as Christie and their three children. He owes Mr Smith five grand – big money in those days. He had to do a disappearing act, hence the caravan, but he needs to go home – hence taking the boy with him for insurance. Mr Smith’s heavies can’t touch him with the boy…

What he doesn’t know is that Mr Smith has put Strachan on his trail. Strachan is a different class of heavy, older and looking to retire, well dressed – ‘You may not always be the best-looking man in the room,’ [his ma] she’d say to him, ‘but you can always be the man looking his best.’

The only character we’ve not really met yet is Soldier. He’s a tramp that lives in the woods, an ex-military man, obviously suffering from post traumatic stress even now although WWII ended 18 years ago. He talks to no-one, but Mrs. Chadney in the nearby farmhouse keeps an eye on him. 8-yr-old Baxter befriends him, and unbeknownst to Christie, Soldier is keeping an eye out for their safety too from the woods.

The story is told through the events of this single day, with lots of flashbacks to fill us in on the detail. We’ll find out about each of the five, their hopes and fears, their motivations, their searching for love – of whatever kind is on offer.

Christie, Baxter, Truman, Strachan and Soldier, each take turns in moving the story on through the day, each adding to the suspense. Will there be a showdown between Strachan and Truman at the end of the day? With the location setting, the build-up echoes Greene’s Brighton Rock a little – and we’ll get to find out a lot about Truman before the day is done.

This may be a debut novel, but Haysom is a newspaper man of long-standing and puts that to good use in an intriguing novel that is far more serious and far better than its cover would suggest. I really enjoyed it. (8.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Love, Love Me Do by Mark Haysom, pub July 2014 by Piatkus, paperback original, 448 pages.

A new bunch of Shiny New Book Reviews…

SNB logo tinyThe Inbetweeny issue 2a of Shiny New Books is available from today, with 22 new reviews and features, which includes nine, plus one joint article by me!!! Thus having contributed nearly half an issue (although I didn’t read as much as my lovely co-editors for the main Issue 2), I feel I deserve a bit of a plug, forgive me for being so indulgent.

A pair close to my heart are my review of Bethan Roberts’ fab new novel about a child abduction and Anglesey Mother Island and my accompanying short interview with her. You can also read my report of an evening with Bethan in Abingdon a few weeks ago here.

I’ve done my Director’s Cuts to several reviews from this blog of books now out in paperback: The Aftermath by Rhidian Brook (loving that tinted version of the cover for the paperback), Gossip by Beth Gutcheon and Reasons She Goes to the Woods by Deborah Kay Davies.

I’m going to do just one more plug now before saving the rest for another post…

bright_moon_003zA new to me paperback review is my one of A Bright Moon For Fools by Jasper Gibson.

A very black comedy, it has a comedy anti-hero you’ll grow to laugh with rather than laugh at and a psychopathic villain who is the nastiest I’ve read for a long time. Set in Venezuela, it is a brilliant debut novel and it has one of the best descriptive phrases I’ve read at the end of the first paragraph: ‘The sunset was coronary.’

Highly recommended if you like your comedy black and a bit un-PC, as I do.

“…good to get out of the rain.”

You all know how I love to use a good quote from a song lyric to introduce a review. There are just so many songs about rain though… but I have two oft-used favourites that always seem to yield an appropriate phrase for me – one is Hotel California by the Eagles; the other, as used here, is Horse with No Name by America.  Add in the blues chord glide from The Rain Song by Led Zeppelin (A-flat9 into G9) and we’re ready to go…

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The Rain by Virginia Bergin

rain

When a colleague at school told me that a friend of hers had written a YA novel and would be glad to get a review, I ummed and aahed a bit, said sure I’d take a look at it and gave her my email. When I discovered that it wasn’t self-published and that Virginia had been signed up to Macmillan for two books, also that it had a post-apocalyptic setting – of course I was going to read it.

Set in the near future, the Earth has been saved from an asteroid collision. They nuked it – problem solved and life goes on. It’s a summer evening, the air is thick with the smell of barbecues and Ruby Morris is at Zak’s house: ‘sitting in a hot tub in my underwear snogging Caspar McCloud.’

Suddenly, Zak’s parents arrive home early, the party’s over and all the drunk teenagers get dragged inside, out of the imminent rain and warned NOT to go outside. There’s something in the rain – there are warnings on the radio, they need to sober up – fast.  But Caspar wants his MP3, left out in the rain. He makes a dash for it and slips back in. No-one notices until he groans…

He looked at his fingertips, at the blood and bits of torn-up skin that coated them. There was blood running down; not tons of it, but trickles and smears . . . from his scalp, from his face . . . where there were sores, red marks, like burns, but bleeding . . . He looked like one of those gory Jesus pictures, minus the crown of thorns. Wherever the rain had touched him, wherever it had seeped through the towel, there was blood . . . even his shoulders, even his chest. Soaking through the kaftan. His naked feet looked like he’d walked a mile on broken glass.
Saskia flounced back into the room and screamed.
Sarah rushed over to Caspar – ‘Don’t touch him! Don’t touch him!’ said Barnaby – and she hesitated. […] ‘It might be contagious.’

The asteroid dust coming through the atmosphere had not only caused brilliant sunsets, but released a dormant, deadly bacterium that reanimated in the water vapour in the air.

So we are now firmly thrust into survival territory. People will find out the hard way what water is safe to drink and what isn’t – and thirst will become the major issue for everyone. We know that Ruby lives at least until the end of this book (yes, there will be a sequel), as she is our narrator, but will any of her friends? What of her family? Will they find enough clean water to survive? Will someone find a way to kill the bacterium? How contagious is it? Is it the end of the world? Has Ruby survived by luck or clear-thinking?

The story continues to follow the usual post-disaster tropes of fighting for survival, finding unusual comrades, searching for loved ones, trying to find a safe haven, and so on, but what makes The Rain different from other YA post-apocalypse novels is its narrator. Ruby is a delight. She is down-to-earth, yet quirky, fun – but sometimes very irritating. She’s also a bit naïve in the ways of the world – Caspar would have been her first real love, yet she is sassy and garrulous and finds it so hard to be separated from her phone. Touchingly, although the situation she’s in makes her need to swear about it, she can’t bring herself to do it in front of us as her mum wouldn’t have liked it – so the text has the occasional butterfly inserted instead of bad words, which is a novel way of getting around something that is often a problem for YA books.

As the publisher’s blurb suggests, The Rain is very much ‘Georgia Nicholson meets the Apocalypse’. (For anyone who doesn’t know – Georgia Nicholson is the narrator of Louise Rennison’s fab teen diary series which begins with Angus, thongs and full-frontal snogging – made into a film a couple of years ago.)

The mixture of a likeable heroine and a credible disaster leavened with lots of humour, a bit of gore but also inevitable sadness is a great combination. I devoured The Rain, enjoying it very much and I hope it does well for Virginia. Roll on volume two – The Storm! (9/10)

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Source: Publisher – thank you! To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Rain by Virginia Bergin. Published 17th July by Macmillan Children’s Books. Paperback 400 pages.
Angus, thongs and full-frontal snogging by Louise Rennison

We followed our men to Los Alamos …

The Wives of Los Alamos by TaraShea Nesbit

wives of los alamosThis is not a novel about the development of the atom bomb, but rather the development of the community surrounding the laboratory which produced the bomb. Most of the scientists who worked at Los Alamos were seconded to the military from all over the country in 1943 for the Manhattan Project under its director Robert Oppenheimer, who had chosen the location for the new top secret facility.

Many of these scientists were family men and TaraShea Nesbit’s novel tells the story through the eyes of their wives. The need for secrecy was such that the scientists’ families followed them to Santa Fe, and on to Los Alamos on the mesa – much easier to keep a lid on things with them all there. Their wives, and children if they already had them, were installed in a fenced compound of pre-fabs outside the ‘technical area’, and she tells how they established new lives for themselves during the later years of WWII.

Nesbit’s style is experimental. Each paragraph is a little vignette set within a collection of paragraphs on a theme. Each paragraph is written using ‘we’, the first person plural – but makes it clear that within the collective ‘we’ are the many different individuals that made up the community – they all have a voice, so both sides of the story are usually expressed within each paragraph…

We were round-faced, athletic, boisterous, austere, thin-boned, catlike, and awkward. When we challenged people’s political views we were described as stubborn or outspoken. Our fathers were academics – we knew the academic world. We married men just like our fathers, or nothing like them, or maybe only the best parts. As the wives of scientists in college towns we gave tea parties and gossiped, or we lived in the city and hosted cocktail hours. We served cigarettes on tin trays. We leaned in close to the other wives, pretending we were  good friends, cupping our hands and whispering into their ears. And, most importantly, we found out how to get our husbands tenure.

The themed collections of paragraphs built up to present the chronological story from arrival to departure. Many of the families had a hard time settling into the army way of doing things, not forgetting the weather – from snow and mud to blinding, never-ending sunshine. They also had to get used to not seeing as much of their husbands…

Many of us hated the women scientists. And the women scientists hated us, or they had better things to worry about. We tried to be their friends. We invited one of them to lunch but she was busy. We despised what she knew and how she laughed at our questions.

But there must have been something in the water, for soon the community was awash with babies.  The Army General complained. The Director said, ‘I’m not going to interfere in the lives of adults.’ There is a sense of settling down, the women build their friendships and routines; some become friends with the local Tewa women who are hired to be helps. Naturally too, some friendships and marriages will founder and not all will last the course. Not being able to quiz their husbands about their work, the women try to make their often mundane life sound exciting. They just do their best to get on with things as their husbands work towards the big one. You know how that ends – but it’s still shocking to read about it in the novel.

It may be experimental, but the style worked for me. It does require more concentration to absorb all the strands than a straight-forward narrative, and consequently it took longer to read than a conventional novel. What was truly fascinating was the way that the style celebrates the differences in the women, they are all individuals and they each have a story to tell in the book. Having said that the middle section, once the wives were well established in situ, was not as riveting as the beginning or the end, but I enjoyed this book a lot. It’s a brave author that debuts with such an unconventional first novel, but Nesbit shows great promise and I shall look out for her name in the future. (8.5/10)

For another review of this book see Susan’s at A Life in Books here.

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Source: Amazon Vine review copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
The Wives of Los Alamos by TaraShea Nesbit, pub April 2014 by Bloomsbury Circus, Hardback 240 pages.

P.S. Following Col’s comment below: here is a clip of Deacon Blue singing Looks Like Spencer Tracy Now from 2013. Thanks Col!

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)

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* 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.

Mix Douglas Adams with Jewish Mysticism, Marco Polo, a dash of the X-Men and time travel for weird fun!

A Highly Unlikely Scenario : Or, a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World by Rachel Cantor

Rachel CantorIf I said that a wacky speculative fiction novel about a 21st century world governed by the philosophies adopted by fast food chains was actually great fun to read, you might begin to doubt my sanity.  I wasn’t sure about this book before I started reading it, but on the back cover is a quote from Jim Crace, an author I respect:

It’s as if Kurt Vonnegut and Italo Calvino collaborated to write a comic book SF adventure and persuaded Chagall to do the drawings. One of the freshest and most lively novels I have encountered for quite a while.

That sold it to me, and I’m glad I gave it a go, for it was a total hoot.

Leonard lives in his sister’s garage in which he has a totally white room where he works the night shift for Neetsa Pizza, the Pythagorean pizza chain, fielding customer complaints. Leonard is a natural listener, and this job suits him fine, for except for meeting his sister’s son Felix off the school bus, Leonard doesn’t go out.

One night Leonard gets a call from a guy called Marco, who tells him all about his exploits as a 13th century explorer. His sister, meanwhile theoretically works for the Scottish tapas chain Jack-o-Bites, but is more likely than not to be involved with her ‘Book club’ with whom she keeps disappearing on missions, leaving Leonard to look after Felix.  She’s totally unsympathetic to Leonard:

You sedate the postindustrial masses with your pre-Socratic gobbledegook, she said, running a pick through her red afro. Pythagorean pizza is the opiate of the middle classes!
Is not! Leonard said.
Is too! she replied. Pass me my tam.
Carol only pretended to be a Jacobite: in fact, she was a neo-Maoist. According to her, the revolution would originate with suburbanites such as herself. It had to, for who was more oppressed, who more in need of radicalization? She took issue with Neetsa Pizza’s rigid hierarchy, its notion that initiation was only for the lucky few – the oligarchy of it!
Pizza, she liked to exclaim, is nothing more than the ingredients that give it form.
No! Leonard would cry, shocked as ever by her materialism. There is such a thing as right proportion! Such a thing as beauty!
Leonard lacked his sister’s sense that the world was broken. He’d been a coddled younger child, while she had been forced by the death of their parents to care for him and their doddering grandfather. No surprise she found the world in need of overhaul. In Leonard’s view, bits of the world might be damaged, but never permanently so. It was his mission, through Listening, to heal some part of it. No need for reeducation, no need for armed struggle.

Leonard’s calls from Marco end, and someone called Isaac who sounds exactly like his dead Jewish grandfather calls, telling him that he passed the test with Marco and that he must give up his job, and go to the library where he’ll meet the grandmother of his grandchildren.

Leonard who is not used to being outside, eventually engages his inner rebellious streak, and does what Isaac says. Taking Felix with him (for Carol has not returned from her ‘Book club’) goes to the library where he meets Sally, a librarian and Baconian (after Roger Bacon), who shows them this ancient Jewish manuscript written in an unsolvable code, which it turns out Felix can read.

However, they are interrupted by the police and have to flee, and eventually end up time travelling back to the 13th century where they have to pretend to be pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela and escape the Spanish Inquisition to get Felix back, who was taken off by Abulafia, another mystic whom they have to stop to save the world.

Once Leonard is hooked, the story becomes one massive adventure, with Leonard as the archetypal fish out of water, who has to overcome his neuroses and show hidden reserves of gumption to survive.  Initially Sally is stronger than he is, but these roles reverse once they time travel and Leonard starts to come into his own, finding his inner-hero and living up to his grandfather’s expectations.

The wackiness and wordplay reminded me strongly of Douglas Adams minus speech marks – the author doesn’t use any, but who says what is pretty clear so that didn’t matter. Some of the set pieces could have been Monty Python sketches. I also liked her weird vision of this 21st century via Brave New World crossed with the Summer of Love with its kaftans and afros.  The whole was great fun and I rather enjoyed it, despite (still) knowing absolutely nothing about Jewish mysticism! A diverting and humorous tale of pure escapism. (7/10)

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Source: Publisher – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
A Highly Unlikely Scenario : Or, a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World by Rachel Cantor, pub 23rd Jan 2014 by Melville House UK,

True Grit’s inheritor…

The Road to Reckoning by Robert Lautner

Robert Lautner Road to Reckoning UK coverI’ve turned out to be a big fan of good westerns – this debut novel is one such book.

Young Tom Walker is twelve when this novel begins in 1837. His mother is lost to the pock, his father is a ‘quiet man in a noisy world‘ – a spectacles salesman, when he hears of an irresistible opportunity that could bring in enough money for a comfortable living. Escaping the depression and the disease-ridden boroughs of New York can only be a good thing.

His father agrees to become a salesman for Samuel Colt’s new handgun with a revolving chamber. They set off westwards from Colt’s factory in New Jersey a wooden model gun and twelve of the real thing, which can be sold to clinch an order, or for expenses on the road.

I, to this day, hold to only one truth: if a man chooses to carry a gun he will get shot. My father agreed to carry twelve.

It’s in a small town in Pennsylvania that Tom’s life changes forever, when they encounter Thomas Heywood in the back of the hardware store where Tom’s father was about to clinch a good order. Heywood, drunk, won’t take no for an answer when he confronts them. Tom and his father change hotels, and then leave town – but Heywood and his pals jump them, robbing them of the remaining pistols. Tom’s father is shot in the back in front of him, leaving Tom an orphan – but with a full order book.

Tom resolves to return to NJ to collect their commission, and it is on his way back that he meets Henry Stands, a retired US marshall. Stands is large, gruff, and although he is heading east, he has no wish to be saddled with an orphan, he’ll only take him so far. Tom persists, and eventually earns Stands’ grudging respect as they make their way east – a journey not without adventure.

There are many parallels between The Road to Reckoning and True Grit by Charles Portis (reviewed here), the former could be viewed as an east coast version of the latter. Although both Tom and Mattie are orphans, Mattie is single-mindedly hunting the murderer of her father; Tom just wants to go home to his aunt with his father’s last pay packet. Both eventually manage to awaken paternal instincts in their chosen protectors, but whereas Mattie sees Marshall Rooster Cogburn as the best man for the job, Stands is the only man around who can help Tom. Both books also have their narrators recounting their childhood from old age, adding the veneer of wisdom that comes with the years to the story.

The Road to Reckoning may owe a debt to Charles Portis, however it did feel very real – you don’t need to be in Texas or the canyons of the West to achieve that  – just leave the city and you’re a pioneer. This book is an assured debut, well-written and emotionally involving and I really enjoyed it. (9/10)

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Source: Amazon Vine ARC. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Road to Reckoning by Robert Lautner, pub 30 Jan 2014 by The Borough Press (HarperCollins), 240 pages.
True Grit by Charles Portis

A novel of ‘The Troubles’

Harry’s Game by Gerald Seymour

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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.

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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]

A dreamlike novel of longing

Glaciers by Alexis M Smith

Glaciers Alexis M Smith I couldn’t resist the cover of this short novel the moment I spotted it, and felt it – you can’t see the embossing of figure, her bicycle and the title. There’s a sunny hopeful quality to the cover, and it matches the story perfectly. This debut novel is short with just 174 pages and text surrounded by plenty of white space, but it is perfectly formed for reading in one sitting as I did.

Glaciers is the story of Isabel, a young woman who works as a book repairer and restorer at a library in Portland Oregon. She lives alone with her cat, and dreams of travel to explore the great cities of Europe, and remembers her childhood in Alaska. Her story begins thus:

Isabel often thinks of Amsterdam, though she has never been there, and probably never will go.

As a child in a small town on Cook Inlet in Alaska, she saw volcanoes erupting, whales migrating, and icebergs looming at sea before she ever saw a skyscraper or what could properly be called architecture. She was nine years old, on a trip to her aunt’s with her mother and sister, the first time she visited a real metropolis: Seattle. She took it all in – the towering buildings and industrial warehouses, the train tracks and bridges, the sidewalk cafés and neighborhood shops, and the skyline along Highway 99, the way the city seemed to rise right up out of Eliot Bay, mirroring the Olympic Mountains across the sound. The breadth and the details overwhelmed her, but soon she loved the city in the same way she loved the landscape of the north. Old churches were grand and solemn, just like glaciers, and dilapidated houses filled her with the same sense of sadness as a stand of leafless winter trees.

She began collecting postcards of other cities: Paris, London, Prague, Budapest, Cairo, Barcelona. She borrowed books from the library and watched old movies, just to get a glimpse of these other places. She imagined visiting them, walking the streets, sleeping in creaky beds in hostels, learning a few words of every language.

Finding out Isabel’s story through those memories that surface alongside new thoughts as she goes about her daily life, we build up a picture of her over the events of just one day.

She thinks about her family, her sister Agnes, the break-up of her mother and father, and her aunt who inspired her love of vintage clothes and retro ephemera, and she dreams of those far-off cities viewed through old postcards and found photographs of unknown vacationers.

She muses about her friends, including Leo, who writes his name alongside the ‘gayest of passages‘ in library books when by accident she finds one of them in a book sent for repair as a page falls out.

She wonders whether Spoke, the former soldier who now fixes their computers, will notice her. Can she pluck up the courage to ask him to the party she’s going to this evening?

She wants a new vintage dress for the party. Will it be possible to find the perfect one during her lunch hour?

Reading this dreamy yet clear and delicate prose, I couldn’t help but be reminded of another short novel whose events are fixed in the thoughts of a young woman as she walks through Rome to go to a concert. Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by Friedrich Christian Delius (my review here) perfectly captured the butterfly nature of the woman’s train of thoughts, flitting from memories to visual stimuli to questioning the world she’s in, and other thoughts, travelling back and forth between them.

This is the case too in Glaciers, and it also shares many of the qualities of Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News, with its elements of living in northern climes, getting through loneliness, and the strong local community. There is a purity to it that really allows us to get to know and like Isabel, whose life is filled with longing.  Underlying the gentle nature of Isabel’s life and work though, is a serious point about losing people – through break-ups, to working far away, to death, and especially to war.  Smith has written a great blog post, with suggested reading on this topic and books that influenced the writing of this novel here.

This bittersweet little novel is a gem that will stay with me for a long time. (10/10)

See also Jane/Fleur Fisher’s review here

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Glaciers by Alexis M Smith, pub July 2013, Oneworld paperback, 174 pages.
Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by Friedrich Christian Delius
The Shipping News by Annie Proulx.