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]

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“…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

‘The sleep of reason brings forth monsters’

Dark Satanic Mills by Marcus & Julian Sedgwick, John Higgins, Marc Olivent

dark satanic mills

It’s a rare thing for me to read a graphic novel – in fact the only one I’ve read since starting this blog was The Crow by James O’Barr, (see here). When I finished reading that, I wasn’t so sure I wanted to read more of such dark fare in this style, figuring I’d read Posy Simmonds instead. Well, I never got around to that, and two years later I’ve just read another dark and very dystopian graphic novel.

It was the name of Marcus Sedgwick being attached that drew me to it – I will read anything he writes, the title promised strong visions inspired by William Blake, and there’s a motorbike.

Before getting into the story proper, the front cover folds out to reveal a series of panels containing the words of ‘Jerusalem’ by Blake, and the vision of England therein gets bleaker with each panel as the colour is faded out to end in a drawing of a bluebell in monochrome. England’s green and pleasant land indeed!

Now to the story – it starts with a motorbike courier trying to deliver a package through the gang-ridden, semi-derelict and overgrown streets of London. The rider stops to help a man that was being set upon and rescues him.  The rescued man, Thomas, happens to be involved with a bunch of atheists who are enemies of the True Church – the de facto fundamentalist rulers of this defunct England. The rider is revealed to be a girl – Christy, and she’s sympathetic to Thomas’s cause.

Christy and Thomas

Through rescuing Thomas, Christy misses the timed drop, losing her day’s wages – but is not so late that she doesn’t see a man being murdered – and she was seen. She flees to the house of an old friend, and finds their son is ill and being left to die as the True Church doesn’t believe in doctors, her friend’s husband has converted. Not welcome, Christy abducts the child to take him to hospital but he dies before she gets there – now framed for his murder, she needs to get out of London. Meeting up with Thomas again, they head north towards the seat of the anti-True Church movement’s home base. A cat and mouse game ensues as they try to evade the Soldiers of Truth who are on their tail…

The Anti-Sci Gang

It’s all very grim. The picture spreads are black and white echoing the fanatical beliefs of the True Church, there is no room for grey in their credo. In this semi-drowned world protected by giant mirrors in the sky, it is always twilight, always dark. It’s never made clear whether the catastrophe that has beset this England was environmental or, dare I say it an act of God, or man-made for that matter.

The text is full of biblical quotations; in particular from the last supper and Jesus on the cross, alongside the paean to Blake’s poem. The story is bookended by words from Francisco Goya too, (as used in my title for this post) – it is crammed full of references, some of which are discussed in the afterword by Marcus and Julian Sedgwick. The story with its race to leave London for a better life elsewhere reminded me too of John Christopher’s marvellous 1956 novel The Death of Grass, reviewed here.

breaking glassChristy in her black leathers could be Hazel O’Connor (left) in the 1980 film Breaking Glass, (loved that film). Personally, I find that women, drawn in this heavily shaded style used in graphic novels often look rather mannish and over-strong of jaw but, in my limited experience, they’re given little opportunity to display any femininity. In the well-lit hospital scene in particular, Christy does get to show some vulnerability – thumbs up to illustrators Higgins and Olivent for that bit.

Given that this novel is published by Walker Books, a children’s book publisher, and aimed at 12+, I did like that the Sedgwicks chose a heroine for the lead character and I hope that girls will read it.  There is much to enjoy in this world gone bad and much to think about from the text. My main complaint (and this is good) is that at around 160 pages, it was all over too fast – I wanted more!  (8/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Dark Satanic Mills by Marcus & Julian Sedgwick, John Higgins, Marc Olivent, officially pub 7th Nov by Walker Books, softback, but available now.
Breaking Glass [DVD] starring Hazel O’Connor, Phil Daniels.
The Death of Grass (Penguin Modern Classics) by John Christopher

The book that inspired 1984 and Brave New World

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, translated by Clarence Brown

we_yevgeni_zamyatinSo, I finally read the book that inspired Orwell’s 1984 (my brief write-up here).  Many other dystopian novels have similarities, including Huxley’s Brave New World (my review here) although Huxley said he was inspired by HG Wells, as was Zamyatin himself.

We wasn’t published in Russian in Russia until 1988, well over sixty years after it was written. Its first publication was in English in 1924 – it had been banned in Russia and had to be smuggled out to the West. Zamyatin was a marine engineer by training, and according to Wikipedia, he oversaw ice-breaker construction for the Imperial Russian Navy during WWI. Based in Newcastle in the UK, he saw large scale collective labour working in the Tyne shipyards.  He drew on these experiences, plus those of the Russian Revolutions in his writing.  In 1931, he appealed directly to Stalin to leave the country, and surprisingly was allowed to go, joining his wife in Paris where he worked with film director Jean Renoir, dying in poverty in 1937, aged 53.

The translation I read by American, Clarence Brown, was published in 1993 – the first English translation from Zamyatin’s original manuscript, rather than from an edited MS.  The other translation freely available in the UK is a 2007 one by Natasha Randall.  I’ve briefly compared the opening chapters (thanks to Amazon’s look inside feature), and think I prefer Brown’s – it’s slightly less modern, more of its time, post WWI, making my vision of the story itself more Fritz Lang than Ridley Scott.  But enough of this, let’s look at the book…

I, D-503, builder of the INTEGRAL, I am only one of the mathematicians of OneState. My pen, accustomed to figures, is powerless to create the music of assonance and rhyme. I shall attempt nothing more than to note down what I see, what I think – or, to be more exact, what we think (that’s right: we; and let this WE be the exact title of these records). But this, surely, will be a derivative of our life, of the mathematically perfect life of OneState, and if that is so, then won’t this be, of its own accord, whatever I may wish, an epic? It will; I believe and I know that it will.

In OneState, everyone has a number rather than a name – men are odd, prefixed by consonants, women even, prefixed by vowels. D-503 is 120 days away from what will be the biggest achievement of life – sending the first INTEGRAL ship into space.  His life is ruled by numbers. He believes fervently in the mathematics of happiness as determined by The Benefactor, and policed by the Guardians.

I’ll be completely honest with you: Even we haven’t yet solved the problem of happiness with 100 percent accuracy. Twice a day – from 16:00 to 17:00 and again from 21:00 to 22:00 – the single mighty organism breaks down into its individual cells. These are the Personal Hours, as established by the Table. During these hours you’ll see that some are in their rooms with the blinds modestly lowered; others are walking along the avenue in step with the brass beat of the March; still others, like me at this moment, will be at their desks. But I firmly believe – let them call me idealist and dreamer – but I firmly believe that, sooner or later, one day, we’ll find a place for even these hours in the general formula. One day all 846,400 seconds will be on the Table of Hours.

D-503 lives in his glass cube of a house, only lowering the blinds with permission when his assigned beloved O-90 brings her pink ticket round during Personal Hour,  and D-503 is genuinely fond of O, who is short and rounded, and looks forward to her visits.  Life goes on, unquestioningly, until …

One day during the March, D-503 and O are joined by a sharp faced woman I-330 who tells D to come and see her in Auditorium 112. D is perturbed but when an order arrives, he has to obey, and this is the beginning of the turning upside-down of his entire world.

Yes, I-330 is part of the revolution, and to his annoyance, D finds himself reassigned to her – and she teases him, plants the seeds of ferment in his brain, and he is hooked.  She shows him how it used to be, before the big green glass wall went up, via the ‘Ancient House’ – the only relic and museum, and there are no pink tickets needed there.

… it’s also clear that what I felt yesterday, that stupid “dissolving in the universe,” if you take it to its limits, is death. Because that’s exactly what death is – the fullest possible dissolving of myself into the universe. Hence, if we let L stand for love and D for death, then L=f(D), ie, love and death …
Yes, that’s it, that’s it. That’s why I’m afraid of I-330, why I fight against her, why I don’t want … But why do those two exist side by side in me: I don’t want and I want? That’s just what’s so horrible: What I want again is that blissful death of yesterday. What’s so horrible is that even now, when the logical function has been integrated, when it’s obvious that it contains, as a hidden component, death itself, I still want her, my lips, my arms, my chest, every millimeter of me wants her ….

D raves like a madman, recklessly driven by I-330: he lusts, he rants, he gets paranoid, does whatever she wants, yet still the logician in him misses order – he’s not good at entropy, and he misses O – he thought he was ‘happy before …  I won’t tell you how it develops, there are two possible endings – but which one?

I was really glad to have read this novel.  It is – was truly ground-breaking. Plotwise, those of us who’ve read the classic dystopias that came after We, the aforementioned 1984 and Brave New World in particular will not find anything new.  It’s a shame in a way, that it tends to get read after those, for they are both more instantly readable in comparison; D-503’s demented ravings during the second half of We are quite hard to follow at times, but they also make him human and a memorable character.

D-503 is a learned man, his diaries are full of references to ancient philosophers and the like, and late in the book when he is summoned before The Benefactor, the biblical take of their debate is quite fascinating.  Zamyatin’s vision is remarkably prescient – not only a satire of Stalin’s Russia, but with the glass wall and an informer on every corner it could be Berlin.

Most interesting for me were the discussions on the nature of happiness. Can it really be reduced to an equation?  Can you truly be happy in a world lacking imagination?

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, trans Clarence Brown (Penguin Classics 1993)
We: Introduction by Will Self by Yevgeny Zamyatin, trans Natasha Randall (Vintage 2003)

A new approach to the problem of werewolves …

Red Moon by Benjamin Percy

red moonInside this chunkster of a werewolf novel are at least two shorter novels trying to get out… Imagine a post 9/11 America into which a new threat has emerged to fuel a nation’s paranoia. It’s the age of the werewolf, or Lycans as Percy dubs them.

From the opening chapters in which a Lycan manages to board a plane, transform and kill all the passengers bar one, there’s no doubting that they are far nastier than the teen-wolves of the Twilight Saga. These werewolves only need anger/fear to be able to transform, and they leave a trail of gruesomely mutilated corpses …

But not all of them. One of the central threads of this multi-layered novel is a central high-school romance between, Patrick, the teenager who survived the plane crash and becomes a celebrity, manages to fall for Claire, a Lycan, who is daughter of two former Lycan activists. This is complicated by Patrick’s father being in the Marines abroad guarding uranium mines which are under Lycan threat.

In another thread, the loudmouthed, beer-swilling, womanising, and fiercely anti-Lycan state Governor is being groomed to run for the presidency. He’s rather a puppet for his closest advisor who pulls his strings, but when something happens to him it becomes a whole new ball game.

Linking these two main stories are the Lycan, and anti-Lycan activists, and to a lesser extent, Neal, a doctor researching a vaccine for the Lobos virus, who was a friend of Patrick’s father.

Interestingly, Percy’s take on the werewolf genre is firmly grounded in the real world rather than the paranormal which does add a genuinely different feel to this novel.  Lycans are infected with a prion-based virus (like AIDS, CJD, Mad cow), caught through blood or sexual contact.  The threat of being infected rather than being devoured drives paranoia, as the Government takes steps to further and further restrict the lives of sufferers, ghettoising them. As the Lycans begin to take things into their own hands, the government quickly becomes militarised and we’re into dystopian territory.

Given that Patrick and Claire’s gritty romance is largely separate from the socio-political Governor’s tale, I felt the two could have been told in companion volumes, which would give more pace. Intertwining them kept slowing things down just as they were getting really interesting. I can see the value of having the two threads together, but it made for a long read at 530 dense pages.  Remembering who was who in the Lycan and anti-Lycan groups got a little complex towards the end also as the cast-list expanded.

I did like the author’s new approach of taking the paranormal out of lycanthropy though, and thus creating a grisly and gritty horror-thriller of speculative fiction. (7.5/10)

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Source: Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Red Moon by Benjamin Percy, pub Hodder & Stoughton, May 2013. Hardback.
 

A dystopian psychodrama that packs a punch…

I Have Waited, and You Have Come by Martine McDonagh

Set in a near future where global warming has wreaked Mother Nature’s revenge on the Earth and made large parts of the globe uninhabitable due to rising water levels, Rachel lives alone in a old mill in the Yorkshire Dales. Jacob used to live with her but he left. Rachel still keeps his study as he left it though, as if he might walk through the door again one day.

Without Jacob, Rachel survives, taking no joy from life. Rachel grows vegetables, keeps chickens and takes more care of them than herself. She had wanted children, but Jacob said they wouldn’t survive being brought into this world and persuaded her it was a bad thing – she can’t help being broody though at her age. She used to be an artist, but that’s fallen by the wayside too.It’s an effort to do anything, and her nearest neighbours are a short trek away. She prefers to keep to herself, remaining hidden within the walled compound of the mill except for her visits to the market run by Noah…

I duck into my favourite doorway, which I use as a lookout to check the coast is clear before going down to the market. Today of all days it is important I have Noah to myself because what I am about to do is something I would once have considered rash.
An intense, yellow, off-kilter stare from the opposite doorway jolts me back into the present. I step forward, whooshing air through my front teeth, and stretch out a hand to attract the attention of the mange-ridden but still charismatic ginger cat. But he fancies himself as a sphinx too disgusted with humanity to even acknowledge my existence. I straighten up and disguise my intimidation by fumbling in my jacket pocket for the scrap of paper I put there; unfold it to check its eight-number inscription is still legible: 68.36.21.51. Rachel. I refold it and pin it to my palm with my fingernails.
Reassured now that Noah is alone, I step out into the precinct. Hel-lo. One syllable per footstep, I rehearse my grand entrance.

Noah is the only man Rachel knows, and she’s plucking up courage to ask him out. Meanwhile a new man is on the scene – Jez White.  He suddenly starts cropping up when she expected to see Noah. She begins to feel as if she is being watched, or is she getting paranoid?  She needs to find out more about Jez White.

This novel manages to combine the nightmare of a post environmental apocalypse with a psychological thriller and throws in a few overtones of Margaret Atwood’s classic The Handmaid’s Tale for good measure.  Rachel being an outsider and aloner, her refusal to want to belong to any of the remaining isolated communities, makes her tough yet fragile. You aren’t quite sure how reliable she is as the narrator, and the growing sense of unease as the story progresses adds to the tension.

She is a survivor though, and that thought inevitably led me back to a favourite TV series of mine from the 1970s – Terry Nation’s Survivors, (the original, not the more recent TV remake). In this series, a killer flu epidemic wiped out 95% of mankind, leaving the remainder to fight it out, keep the species going, and impose a new world order.

McDonagh’s novel is a fine example of the spec fiction genre, the changed world she has created seems eerily real. I enjoyed reading it very much. At the moment, it is her only novel, but I do hope she publishes more.  (8.5/10)

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My copy was sent by the publisher – thank you.
I Have Waited, and You Have Come by Martine McDonagh. Myriad Editions paperback 2012. Originally published 2006. 181 pages incl Author Q&A.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Survivors – Series 1-3 Box Set [DVD] [1975]

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me. Or can they?

The Flame Alphabetby Ben Marcus

Before Beryl Bainbridge Reading week, I posted about how I’d essentially bought this book on the basis of its cover alone which is rather stunning, and how it would be the first book I read after Beryl. Now, I’ve read it and the question is did it live up to its cover?

The book is narrated by Sam, and at the beginning he and his wife Claire are planning to slip away from their home, abandoning their daughter, for she is making them ill.  An epidemic has struck, and children’s speech has become toxic to adults.  Claire is suffering particularly badly and hides away in her room. Sam has distraction mechanisms, and at night when their daughter Esther is out or asleep, concocts potions in his kitchen, anything to help. Sam and Claire’s relationship is flagging under the constant barrage of lethal words from their daughter.

Claire appeared in the doorway, fully dressed, brushing the last of her hair.
“Why do you keep yelling my name?” she asked.
“I wanted you to see something,” I said. “This show I’m watching. On this guy who died.”
“Well you could have said that. I wish you wouldn’t yell my name. I really can’t stand it.”
I apologized to her.
“It’s fine,” she said, leaving the room. “But I can’t stand it. Please don’t do that any more.”
“I’m sorry,” I said again, feeling less sorry.
“And I said it’s fine,” she yelled from another room. “Stop apologizing.”
Sorry, I said to myself, wondering how many times in my marriage I’d said that, how many times I’d meant it, how many times Claire had actually believed it, and, most important, how many times the utterance had any impact whatsoever on our dispute. What a lovely chart one could draw of this word Sorry.

Sam and Claire are members of a secret Jewish sect of ‘forest Jews’.  They have secret synagogue for two in a hut in the forest, where radio transmissions are piped in through orange subterranean cables.  At first, it is only Jewish children who develop this lethal weapon.

One day, Sam meets a man, Murphy, a disciple of scientist LeBov, who seems to know too much. He tells Sam about a place up north, Forsythe, where they’re working on a cure, and Sam with his skills would be welcome to join them. Sam is hooked, and when, on the night they were planning to go, Claire disappears, he realises he has to go there.  As language begins to fail, what happens there will shock him to his core.

Don’t be fooled by the quotation above, for this book is no normal family drama, nor is it a dystopian thriller.  It’s boldly experimental, full of weird science, and the sub-plot about the forest Jews was totally baffling. The goings on at Forsythe were horrific and made me think of Nazi Joseph Mengele!

The underlying theme of the book, about language and what happens when we have poor communication, is sound. Many teenagers go through a phase of hurting their parents in real life anyway. Despite the novel’s intellectual credentials, the language issue seemed a bit repetitive and even heavy-handed at times.

There is little character development – we don’t find out much about Sam, Claire, or Esther’s back story. The mysterious Murphy is the most interesting character, and until the later parts he remains an enigma. We also know nothing about the origins of the disease, its spread, its pathology.  We live in Sam’s present, and only hear his voice telling the story, and we share in his obsessions.  The deliberate choice not to give this information did make it frustrating for me, (in the same way as I felt the about Arthur C Clarke Award winning The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers).

In summary, The Flame Alphabet is a hard book to describe and pin down.  I can’t say I enjoyed it, but once started, I felt compelled to read to the end to see if I could comprehend it. One for fans of experimental fiction. (6/10)

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I bought my copy.  To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Flame Alphabetby Ben Marcus, pub June 2012, Granta hardback, 289 pages.

Zombie mayhem to scare your pants off

The Enemy and The Dead by Charlie Higson

Last month I had the privilege of interviewing Charlie Higson for Gaskella – see my write-up
here.  He was in town for a big schools event, promoting the third volume in his series of horror books for teens.  So far, I’ve read the first two – The Enemy and The Dead.

His plan in writing them was to scare the pants off his son, who was ten at the time.  I don’t know about him, for I was scared and shocked a few times too, but in an adult, sort of knowing way. I was thoroughly revolted many more times, and found time to chuckle too. Let me set the scene …

A deadly virus has killed the majority of humans over 14 years old.  Those who do survive become zombies. The Enemy follows a group of children who had been holed up in a North London supermarket for some time after the outbreak of the virus. Hearing that another group of children has occupied Buckingham Palace and is successfully farming in the gardens, they set out to join them. The second novel The Dead, actually begins earlier in the virus’s timeline, following another group of children who start off at a school in Kent, and later end up at the Tower of London.

The groups of children quickly progress beyond the infighting one might expect in this dystopian Lord of the Flies type setting. Every time they have to venture out to scavenge for food, less of them come back – there’s no room to fight amongst themselves, they must join together in a common cause. Having said that though, each time one of the packs of children meets another pack, there has to be a squaring up and some posturing to sort out the natural order of things. However they all end up united against the enemy – the zombies!

Higson’s zombies are digustingly revolting. They are pus-ridden, covered with boils and blisters, necrotizing flesh, slobbering and slavering over their favourite food – children if they can get them. They tend to come out at night as strong sunlight can make them burst. But these zombies aren’t always just shuffling, they can shift if they want to. Some of them also still posess a glimmer of a brain – animal cunning if you will. There’s one zombie in particular – we meet him in the first book when he’s leading a group of them converging on the kids in the supermarket, but we find out more about who he is, or was, in the second. Through him find out a lot more about the zombification process of the disease.

If the gruesome horror in these books belong to the zombies and their never-ending quest for flesh to eat, the shocks often come from the way that Higson is not scared of killing off the children, especially those you least expected. There are no red shirts in these books – everyone is at risk!

The main characters are well-observed, and they’re not all boys either.  There is a group of bolshy girls in The Dead who are particularly good value, (I’m thinking Sapphire types in the TV Tracey Beaker here).  I particularly liked Ed, who starts off as weedy but has to find hidden reserves to get out of many very tricky situations.

A key moment for me came within the few chapters of The Enemy (p26).  Arran, in charge of the supermarket crew, is leading a scavenging party. They decide to go into the swimming pool to see if there are any vending machines left, only to find a zombie ambush…

When a mother came at Arran, long hair flying, he gripped her by the throat and squeezed. Her head thrashed from side to side, her scabby hands flapped at him. Her hair whipped out of her face so that for a moment he saw her clearly.
Her nose was half rotted away by disease. There were boils and sores covering every inch of skin. Her lips were pulled back from broken teeth showing black shrunken gums.
Everything about her was disgusting, inhuman, degraded – apart from her eyes. Her eyes were beautiful.
Arran looked into them and for a moment he saw a flash of intelligence.
He froze. Time seemed to stop. He had the sudden vivid notion that this was all a stupid dream. He had imagined the whole thing: the collapse of society, the fear and confusion, the months spent hiding out in Waitrose. It wasn’t possible after all. It wasn’t possible that the world had changed as much. So quickly. It wasn’t possible that he had become a savage. A killer.
The mother tried to speak, her lips formed in a ghastly pucker and a single syllable came out.
‘Mwuhh…’
Tears came into Arran’s eyes. He couldn’t do it any more.
He loosened his grip.
The mother wriggled free and sunk her teeth into his neck.

Wonderful stuff!  There is plenty of adventure in these books, but the shock and horror quotient makes them ideal for readers of around twelve – and upwards, for I really loved them too.  (9/10 for both)  There are currently seven books planned in the series – so bring on number 3 – The Fear!

I’d also recommend you watch Charlie’s trailers for the books – they’re great fun.

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I bought my copies.

To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Enemy and The Dead and The Fearby Charlie Higson

Gaskella meets … Charlie Higson

This afternoon it was my delight to accompany a party of boys from my school over to the Abingdon school theatre to hear author, actor and comedian Charlie Higson talk about his zombie horror series of books for older children and teenagers. After the event, I was also able to talk briefly to Charlie about his books in my first proper interview for this blog – so exciting!

Charlie started with a straw poll of the audience – zombies or vampires? Being mostly boys, zombies won. Boys it seems, tend to prefer zombie gore, rather than the romantic image of vampires.

Charlie went on tell us about a bit of the history of vampires and zombies in literature.  It all happened one summer back in 1816 at a house party on the shores of Lake Geneva.  It was the summer after Mount Tambora in Indonesia had erupted, and the whole world suffered weird climatic conditions as a result of the ash; so instead of swimming and larking about on the water, this group told stories and from them developed the types of vampires and undead creatures we all adore today.  But who were they?  None other than Byron, Shelley and Shelley’s teenaged girlfriend Mary, plus Byron’s doctor called Polidori, amongst others.  From this gathering would emerge Mary’s Frankenstein, and Polidori’s The Vampyre (expanded from a story fragment by Byron, who was was fascinated by the proto-vampire Strigoi of Balkan legend).  The first literary vampire was very much in the mould of the ‘mad, bad, and dangerous to know‘ Byron, and was later combined with the nasty Wallachian king Vlad the Impaler to become best of all vampires, Count Dracula by Stoker.

Then it was on to the zombies!  Charlie told us how he loves horror movies and stories, and that his favourite film is the classic Night of the Living Dead which invented the modern zombie.  After writing five Young Bond books (see previous post), Charlie was ready to write children’s books with his own characters, and decided to try and scare the pants off his readers.

In The Enemy series, he has created a dystopian world in which a disease has killed nearly everyone over the age of fourteen – those who don’t die have been turned into pus-ridden, drooling, children-eating zombies. The remaining children have mostly banded together in groups for safety, and have to find a way to survive, and create a new society.  Sure, there are some Lord of the Flies moments, (my review of that here), but at the heart of the book is the childrens’ quest to find somewhere safe to live, without flesh-eating necrotic zombies around every corner.

The audience of older children, mainly from years 7 & 8 (11+), asked loads of great questions, and all groaned in digust at the drooling zombie in the video trailer for the new book – who rather resembled someone in the room…  I’ll be reviewing the Enemy books more fully in a week or so.

Then, after the boys had gone, I got to sit down and talk with Charlie for a short while.  (Many thanks to Mark at Mostly Books for arranging this for me).

After telling him how much I was enjoying reading all of his books, we started by talking about the Young Bond.  I’d noticed the deliberate homage to Fleming in the first sentence of Silverfin, and asked him about it. He said that he’d put in a quite a few references to the Fleming novels, but didn’t try to capture his style, more the ‘spirit of Fleming’.  I wondered if he’d pictured a younger Sean Connery as his Bond. Charlie said that Fleming’s Bond was really a toff, so that he’d be more a mix of Connery/Brosnan perhaps.  I commented that like Fleming, we always know what Bond is wearing – Charlie replied that the Eton uniform had formed part of his way in to the character – he’d worried that readers wouldn’t believe Bond in starched collars and formal attire, but then he realised it was essentially like a ‘shrunken down tuxedo’ and that was it.

I was going to ask him why zombies in The Enemy series, and not aliens or any other creature, but his love for them was already clear from the talk.  Charlie told me that he wasn’t deeply into the supernatural – his zombies aren’t actually dead, they’re just diseased.  He’d also touched upon the fact that there was the possibility that ‘the thing that’s trying to kill you could be someone you love’there was a scene in the first book where one of the children thinks he recognises his mother, and I said that had creeped me out more than the pus and gore.  I applauded his decision to kill lots of characters, including some unexpected ones – I was thinking of one less than halfway into the first book that I was just growing to love. He said he really enjoyed doing that, but didn’t want killing the characters off to become too expected!

Having a daughter who’s not into adventure books at all (yet!?), I asked if he was finding that girls were reading them too?  It was reassuring to hear that he was as happy to scare girls as boys. He said he did write some strong female characters in them, and felt they did have a good readership amongst girls – at least he had the advantage that girls aren’t afraid to be seen with boyish covers, whereas most boys wouldn’t be seen dead with any books that were at all girly.

I finished by asking him about The Fast Show. You may have heard, but the crew, sans Mark Williams, are back together to film some sketches for the Fosters comedy site, (link below) – they’ll only be online at first though. They will involve all the old characters; I expressed my love for Bob Fleming (cough) who just cracks me up. Charlie said he was great, but it was getting more and more difficult to think of situations to put him into as all he does is cough!

I usually keep out of any photos at events, but this was such a nice experience, I couldn’t resist the souvenir shot like the fangirl I am!  I’d like to thank Charlie for taking the time to talk to me, especially after all the signing he had to do.  He was an absolute pleasure to talk to, and is a really fantastic writer. I’m looking forward to reading many more of his books (including his adult horror ones).


Websites to check out: Charlie Higson,  Young Bond,  The Enemy, Fosters
I bought my copies of the books. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
The Fear (The Enemy) by Charlie Higson
Dracula (Penguin Classics) by Bram Stoker
Frankenstein: The 1818 Text (Oxford World’s Classics) by Mary Shelley
The Vampyre and Other Tales of the Macabre (Oxford World’s Classics) by John Polidori
Night Of The Living Dead [Blu-ray] [1968] directed by George Romero.
The Fast Show : Ultimate Collection (7 Disc BBC Box Set) [DVD]

A renowned children’s author goes mainstream…

The True Tale of the Monster Billy Deanby David Almond

David Almond’s first novel, written for older children, was Skellig (1998). It parallels the stories of two children who find and help an ailing creature who may or may not be an angel, with that of the boy’s little brother who is ill in hospital. It won loads of prizes and has become a staple text of teacher training courses – I read it a few years ago when I was considering applying for a PGCE teaching course. It was a good story, and challenging too in its scope, but it’s true to say that although I enjoyed it a lot, I admired it rather than loved it. When I read that he had written his first novel for adults, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it, as I felt it could be equally challenging, which brings me to The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean.

First off, it immediately became clear that this novel was being marketed as a crossover book rather than a purely adult one – the YA cover is on the right. Content-wise there’s moderate swearing and sexual references, and some strong violence.

Secondly, it’s a novel written as a first person account by a teenager who has never learned to read or write as we do – his spelling is largely phonetic. I thought I’d find this irritating but I quickly got used to it and, with practice, Billy’s reading and writing improves over the course of the story. There were a few inconsistencies in the spellings, particularly near the beginning where the phonetic talk is densest but I could ignore that.

The setting is a bombed out village in an unspecified war-torn country, similar to England’s north-east and Scottish borders. The time is now-ish – maybe a few years into the future. Those who remain in the village of Blinkbonny try to carry on life as normal. Veronica Dean is a home hairdresser, much loved by all her clients, but she has a big secret. She has a son – Billy. Billy has been brought up in isolation by her, living only in the back room. The only other people who know of his existence are Mrs Malone who helped to bring him into the world – and his father, who comes to visit now and then. Billy is a good little boy, waiting patiently at home for years while his mother works and looking forward to those visits from his father.

But now he’s a teenager, and it’s time for him emerge from hiding. Mrs Malone has plans for him, for she believes he’s the ‘anjel childe’ as Billy puts it, that he has a gift. Told by Billy, we find out his truths: the story of his childhood, his begetting, why he was hidden, and who his father really is. Once he is introduced to the real world outside his room, we also find out what he makes of it, and it of him. I must admit, it did bug me why Billy’s mother had appeared to teach him nothing during his hidden years in his room – what did the poor boy do all that time? It was amazing that Billy grew up to be such a compliant boy, coming to terms with his eventual freedom rather than running at the first chance, however he will show that he has metal underneath.

Comparisons abound in this novel: Billy is unknowingly imprisoned for his childhood like the boy in Emma O’Donoghue’s Room, however his mother is not incarcerated, she is at least partially free. Billy’s language and coming of age story did bring Russell Hoban’s brilliant Riddley Walker to mind – but that was set millennia ahead, and the language had (d)evolved to reflect the loss of understanding of technology, whereas Billy is just technically illiterate.

The author’s decision to use the phonetic spelling may be off-putting to some readers and maybe wasn’t strictly necessary – Billy could have dictated his story rather than write it down. This also slowed down the action and it didn’t always feel that there was enough to it for me. Although Billy is no angel, they obviously fascinate Almond, and religion – for good or bad – underpinned this novel all the way through which did give a spiritual dimension that was interesting. Ultimately  this novel was another case of an intriguing read, but a book which I didn’t love. (6.5/10)

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My copy was kindly sent by Penguin – thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean – pub 1st September by Penguin Viking/Puffin, Hardback, 256pp,
Skellig