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.

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!

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

 

Annabel Elsewhere … again …

This post refers to my last new fiction reviews for Shiny New Books’s debut issue.  If you haven’t done so already, do pop over to the website, (and sign-up for the newsletter).  Thank you, and feel free to leave comments there or here.

THE-MADNESS

The Madness by Alison Rattle

This is a cracking YA novel set during Victorian times about a doomed between the classes romance.  Loads of authentic period detail about the Victorian seaside (that’s Clevedon pier on the cover) and bathing couple with a well-written main character made it a fantastic read with echoes for me of Andersen’s Little Mermaid. (8.5/10)

and …

one-plus-one-186x300The One Plus One by Jojo Moyes

Commercial women’s fiction as they tend to call it these days rather than chick-lit, is something I rarely read, yet – when I pick a good ‘un, I can’t get enough of it. I devoured this novel in one sitting, staying up in bed until after 2am to finish it.  The complications of modern family life with extended and split families living on the poverty line made this totally compulsive. (8/10)

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Source: Publishers – Thank you!  To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Madness by Alison Rattle, Hot Key Books, March 2014, paperback original 208 pages.
The One Plus One by Jojo Moyes, pub Feb 2014, Penguin hardback, 528 pages.

Rule Britannia …

Expo 58 by Jonathan Coe

I’ve long been a fan of Jonathan Coe, enjoying all of the books of his that I’ve read so far, from the broad comedy of What a carve up, to the heartbreak of The Rain Before it Falls, via the 1970s revisited in The Rotter’s Club. I was lucky enough to hear him read extracts of his latest novel at the Penguin Bloggers Night earlier this year, and he was kind enough to sign my review copy.

expo 58I may have been predisposed to enjoy Expo 58 as a result, but frankly, what’s not to like? Coe has given us a glorious and light-hearted novel filled with romance, intrigue and 1950s optimism, but tinged with enough melancholy to make it a really enjoyable book to read. His lightness of touch and impeccable research bring the era and its characters vividly to life. Let me tell you a little about it…

Thomas Foley is a mild-mannered civil servant working in the backrooms at the Central Office of Information (COI) producing leaflets promoting Britain abroad. Thomas is at first irritated when he is picked to be the COI’s eyes and ears at the Britannia Pub, at the heart of the British pavillion at Expo ’58 – the world fair to be held in Brussels.  The suits are still debating what should go into the British exhibit.  Sykes is proposing a history of the British water closet, and Gardner, the architect is supporting him…

…’Sykes has put his finger on it. We all do them Sir John. Even you! We all do number twos. We may not like to talk about them, we may not even like to think about them, but years ago, somebody did think about them, he thought about them long and hard – if you’ll pardon the expression – and the result was that we can now all do our number twos cleanly, and without embarrassment, and the whole nation – the whole world! – is a better place as a consequence. So why shouldn’t we celebrate that fact? Why shouldn’t we celebrate the fact that, besides conquering half of the globe, Britons have also fought a historic battle against their number twos, and emerged victorious?’
He sat down again. Sir John stared across the table at him coolly.
‘Have you quite finished, Gardner?’ Taking his silence as consent, he added: ‘Might I remind you that at the entrance to this pavilion, which you propose to deface with this obscene display, visitors will find a portrait of Her Majesty the Queen?’
Gardner leaned forward. ‘And might I remind you, Sir John, that even her Majesty 0 even her Majesty…’

This assignment will mean six months away for Thomas, away from his wife Sylvia and young baby Gill, and understandably he’s a little scared of telling her. He’s also not sure for himself either, but decides to wait until after a first visit to the site.

expo 58 star logo

From the moment he is met at the airport by one of the Expo hostesses, Anneke in her smart uniform, his mind begins to change. By the time he’s seen the Atomium, the gleaming construction representing the crystal structure of iron, at the Park’s entrance, let alone the Britannia Pub itself, which has been designed to emulate a yacht club rather than an olde worlde pub, he is won over.

The British pavilion will also highlight the country’s eminence in nuclear physics with a replica exhibit of the ZETA machine, which, it is hoped, will provide all of Britain’s future energy needs by harnessing nuclear fusion.  Due to the sensitive nature of this, the spooks pay Thomas a visit to get him to keep his eyes and ears open for them too.

Thomas finds himself torn between duty at home, and excitement in Belgium, and it’ll take the rest of the novel to all these things out.  The nearest parallel I can draw to this novel is Paul Torday’s Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (my review here), which also has an innocent abroad, needing that new experience to ultimately show the truth in his relationships back home.

Expo 58 provides a wonderful backdrop to Thomas’s self-exploration. The research that Coe has done made it seem totally real – for Expo 58 really happened, the Atomium exists, as did the ZETA machine… and the Britannia Pub.

Britannia Pub

I would have loved to have shown you the Atomium – which inspired Coe to write this novel, but I never took a photo when I passed through Brussels on business in the 1990s, and they’re rather funny about copyright of its image apparently.  It is a magnificent structure though, now restored – see the website here.

Although the Cold War was well under way, like the Festival of Britain before it, Expo 58 seems suffused with a spirit of optimism – although not everything turns out well. In Coe’s novel it is fun to see all the different nationalities having fun together in the name of international friendship, masking all the information gathering about each other and spying going on in the background – that also felt very true.

Thomas is such a gentleman. Stifled in his marriage at home, you hope that he will manage to let go a bit. Will he, won’t he be tempted by the sweet Anneke, who is a total opposite to his wife? This is one of the central more serious themes of the novel, and you can’t help but feel for him.  Thomas and Anneke are surrounded by more comic characters, from the two MI6 chaps who reminded me of Thompson and Thompson from Tintin, the larger than life Russian Chersky, and not forgetting the drunken bar manager Rossiter, who used to have a pub in Abingdon (where I live, Rossiter’s pub is fictional though).

This book was a blast to read, perfect in its evocation of the age and sense of place, chucklesome through and through yet able to bring you back down to earth when needed.  I loved it – a lot.  (9/10)

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Source: ARC from the publisher. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Expo 58 by Jonathan Coe, pub Sept 5th by Viking, Hardback 288 pages.

A novel of love, war, betrayal and stiff upper lip

Some Day I’ll Find You by Richard Madeley

Richard Madeley slightly surprised everyone in 2008 when he published his successful memoir Fathers and Sons which explored male familial relationships through the mirror of his own. Despite journalistic roots, it was somewhat unexpected that one of the most successful daytime TV hosts and champion of the Richard & Judy Bookclub could write. Now, matching his wife Judy Finnegan, he has written his first novel – would it pass muster?

runway_1988b

Madeley hosting ‘Runway’ another 1988 quiz show.

I was intrigued to be offered a copy by his publisher – as many moons ago I met him when I was a contestant on the Granada TV quiz show Connections. That was back in 1988; he was on his way up, having made a name for himself on local shows, now breaking into national TV programmes. We had to rehearse our little introductions with him, and I remember having difficulty describing the branch of high-tech electronic materials I worked with in those days. He came up with a (so him) flippant response that neatly sidestepped the issue.  Recording loads of the shows each day – it was a daily tea-time quiz show – so there was no time to bond further, although Granada treated us contestants really well.  I got to stay overnight in the same Manchester hotel as many Coronation Street actors, and Jonathan Miller breakfasted at an adjacent table!  I lost my match on the buzzer on the final question but felt I acquitted myself reasonably, which was a relief as it seemed that all my UK customers had seen it and recognised me. But enough of all this reminiscing – what was his book like?

some day

Some Day I’ll Find You is a story of wartime romance and betrayal. The prologue starts in Nice a few years after the war, where Diana, sitting outside her favourite café, is stunned to hear a voice from her past as a taxi passes.

As it passed her, she saw the silhouette of a man sitting in the back. He was leaning forward and speaking, in English, to the driver.
‘No, not here. I told you – it’s much further up. Keep going all the way to the Hotel Negresco. And get a move on – I’m late enough as it is.’
Diana swayed and gripped the back of her chair. Impossible.
‘Stop!’ she called at last as the taxi reached the top of the square and began to turn on to the Promenade des Anglais. ‘Oh please, stop!’
But the Citroen entered the flow of traffic and disappeared down the long curving road that bordered the sparkling Mediterranean.
‘Madame!’ It was Armand, the patron, solicitous. ‘Do you have a problem?’
‘No, no …’ She sat down again. ‘Everything’s fine, really.’
But she was lying.
Everything was wrong.
Completely wrong.

Then we flashback to 1938 and war is not yet a certainty.  Diana Arnold is on holiday from studying at Girton, Cambridge.  Her brother John is at RAF officer training school, and has made friends with James Blackwell, an East-ender and chancer who shouldn’t really be there, but has wangled his way in. James is penniless, so when they get leave, John invites him to join the Arnold family at home in Kent.

The Arnolds are well off, Mr Arnold being a successful libel lawyer. Diana is a confident and beautiful young woman, and James immediately sees an opportunity to become set-up for life and he starts to woo her and her family.  We get a hint of how callous James is underneath when he drops the hairdresser he’d been seeing with no explanation.

The Arnolds fall for him, and he spins Diana sob-stories about his past, and she falls for him too and they get engaged.  War intervenes and the boys are called into action. James and Diana decide to get married as soon as they can, and test out their conjugal bliss.  Diana’s father is wary of their marriage, but her mother Gwen reminds him that they did exactly the same during WWI, and Oliver survived the trenches.  Two days of leave give them the window to get married, but after the ceremony with Diana still in her wedding dress, John and James are immediately recalled to take to the skies in their spitfires – neither will return. Diana is widowed, and left pregnant with their child.

She remarries to a rich, older man, who is happy to bring up her daughter, and they relocate to the Côte d’Azur, which is where her troubles begin again, when she hears that voice …

I must admit that I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. It was undemanding, but the plot had enough drama and the main characters were strong enough to keep me entertained.  Diana, a strong-willed Daddy’s girl, could be rather petulant, and you did wonder whether she’d be able to change James, well for a short while anyway, but she has reserves of stiff upper lip that take over from the wild romance. You hope that she will be the making of James, but that would be rather boring, and when his true character starts to show it adds to the drama considerably – we need him to be a cad and bounder.

Madeley’s text is unflashy, and flows smoothly. I couldn’t help but imagine him narrating the book in my head, as the writing did feel like him reading a book out loud, if you get what I mean.  He definitely has a voice in his writing; it will be interesting to see how his style develops in any future novels as it felt a little too like him in parts in this one.

This was an excellent, light holiday read, and with the twin settings of wartime Kent, and 1950s Nice, I can easily imagine a two-part drama on the tellybox. (7.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Some Day I’ll Find You by Richard Madeley, Simon & Schuster paperback (2013)
Fathers and Sonsby Richard Madeley

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.

“This land is your land, this land is my land…”

Fallen Land by Patrick Flanery

fallen landThe above quote from Woody Guthie seemed to fit the overarching theme of this novel perfectly.  It’s all about the illusion of The American Dream, its transitory nature – it certainly doesn’t last for any of the characters in habiting the land in Patrick Flanery’s accomplished second novel.

In a prologue set in 1919, we start off with the forebears of Louise, who inherit a large farm after a lynching. Later, Louise now a widow is forced to sell the land after her husband dies, just retaining her little house by the woods.

Paul Krovik, the purchaser and property developer, has a grand vision for the land – creating his own community with his dream home in pride of place. But, he’s a cheapskate – he uses unseasoned wood, he’s no architect either and his designs have flaws. He only gets 21 houses and his mansion built before the lawsuits come in. He’s bankrupted and the banks foreclose, allowing Nathaniel, Julia and their son Copley, to move down from Boston to the big house as they follow their own dreams.

There is tension right from the start, for after the story of how Louise’s family came by the land, we move to the present day as Louise visits Paul in prison.

‘I came Mr. Krovik. Here I am, just like you asked in your letter. So-.’  …

‘I really never imagined you’d come see me,’ he says.
‘No, I bet you didn’t. And to be frank, neither did I.’ …

‘I guess we used to neighbours, though, sort of. Didn’t we? Friends, even.’
‘No, I don’t think so,’ Louise says. ‘We weren’t really neighbours, and we certainly weren’t friends.

You can immediately sense that the nub of the novel will revolve around what happened to put him there, and this gives an edge of psychological drama to the whole book. To say more on this aspect would be to risk spoilers though.

Flanery gets each of these five characters to tell that story, taking it in turns as they take the lead voice in the action and each will have their own trajectory in the failures of their personal American Dreams. The strangest is these of Nathaniel, who newly promoted to the HQ of a multinational security company who doesn’t believe in privacy, is tasked with working out how to put prisoners in privatised jails to proper work generating income for the company. It soon becomes clear that he’s signed up to be one of the tentacles of a new Big Brother – a spookily prescient vision.

Nathaniel has no illusions about the nature of his company’s corporate campus development, or of the kind of work EKK is going in the city. It is promoting a vision of how, from the core of self-professed corporate personhood, a new conception of the body politic can radiate across and subsume the previously blighted urban landscape. Companies must, by their nature, attend to the image they project in the world, and by suggesting in it national headquarters, located dead in this country’s heartland, that it is not just an inward-looking corporation, but one focusing its gaze outward, seeing the world around it, attending to it, to the people who live within it, to the way its presence might be interpreted by those who look upon it, the company communicates the truth of its mission: involvement in all kinds of business, in potentially every kind of business.

The only character that we really warm to throughout is seven year old Copley – a quiet, but observant child, who has some odd mannerisms, we wonder if he is on the edge of the Asperger’s spectrum. His new school is run by Nathaniel’s company, where everything is observed and subject to rules. He doesn’t thrive, and his over-stressed parents don’t seem to believe a word he says, about school, and about the house. Copley’s voice stays rigidly to the clock, his paragraphs each prefixed with the time.

Alongside all these tensions is an underlying sense that Mother Nature is just waiting to reclaim her land too, for this land east of LA is prone to sink holes appearing. It adds another layer to this novel of the fear of failure, warped businesses and dysfunctional families. This is a slowburning story, building up over its 400 pages or so to a real climax. Flanery’s writing is lucid yet subtle, a real pleasure to read, definitely making him one to watch. (9/10)

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Source: Amazon Vine Review Copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Fallen Land by Patrick Flanery, pub May 2013, Atlantic Books, Hardback 432 pages

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

The Almost Lizard by James Higgerson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stirring things up on Martha’s Vineyard

Tigers in Red Weather by Liza Klaussmann

AD20120811934468-Tigers_In_Red_WCousins, Nick and Helena Derringer, grew up spending their summers at Tiger House on the Vineyard. Now WWII has ended, they’re grown up and married, Nick to Hughes, freshly returned from the navy and working in Florida, and newly-wed Helena to Avery, a Hollywood producer. Florida doesn’t suit Nick and Hughes, they stifle in the heat, and you wonder how long their relationship will last.  There are tense times and too many shrimp dinners…

Nick looked up from the shrimp. Hughes hadn’t switched the radio on, but he was fingering the silver knobs. He had elegant fingers with neat, square nails. Everything about his was like his hands, tailored and clean, the color of pine. Nick watched him gaze at the dials, run the tips of his fingers over the brown covering of the speaker. She wanted to eat him, he was so beautiful. She wanted to cry or melt or gnash her teeth. Instead, she peeled the skin off another shrimp.

Things are left unsaid between them, secrets are not shared, but a move north to Cambridge, and the decision to have a baby seems to settle them. There will always be an underlying tension between Nick and Hughes though.

Shoot forward to 1959, and their daughter Daisy takes up the story. We’re on Martha’s Vineyard now at Tiger House, which Nick had inherited.  It was ‘the summer they found the body‘.  Helena and her son Ed were visiting for the summer, Ed, who can be very strange at times (like his father), skives off tennis school, then appears saying he has something to show Daisy – it’s the body of a maid from one of the local families.  This event naturally sends a shock-wave through the entire community. Hughes makes arrangements to keep Ed otherwise occupied.

Helena will take up the story next, and it’s clear that the tension between her and Nick, that Nick doesn’t realise is there, is growing. The problems with her strange husband and strange son too, lead her to an increasing dependence on pills and booze, something Avery had got her started on.

Alternate cover

Stoic Hughes and weird Ed in turn will take up the story, which jumps from the mid forties to the 1950s, to the 1960s; Back and fro. However such is the skill of the author, that you’re never confused whom you’re listening to when.  In having the five main characters present the story in turn, we get inside their heads, and find out what they really think about each other.

Literary allusions abound, with lead characters being called Nick and Daisy and New England replacing Long Island, you are bound to think of The Great Gatsby.  The stifling start to Nick and Hughes’ relationship after the war recalls Yates’ Revolutionary Road.  The gin o’clock culture is pure Mad Men meets Hemingway, and to top it all, the author is related to another early chronicler of New England – Herman Melville!

This novel is not a heavy read however, combining the heady family drama with a central mystery that keeps on giving. It’s hard to believe that this was a debut novel – the writing is so accomplished, the characters are rounded and the plot is beautifully tense and controlled.  I was enthralled from the opening pages, and found this book near impossible to put down.  (10/10)

P.S. The title is from a 1915 poem (below) by Wallace Stevens about life made dull by a lack of imagination.

Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock

The houses are haunted
By white night-gowns.
None are green,
Or purple with green rings,
Or green with yellow rings,
Or yellow with blue rings.
None of them are strange,
With socks of lace
And beaded ceintures.
People are not going
To dream of baboons and periwinkles.
Only, here and there, an old sailor,
Drunk and asleep in his boots,
Catches Tigers
In red weather.

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I received a review copy from Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
Tigers in Red Weather by Liza Klaussmann