Consumer culture gone mad in a warped and very funny novel…

Get Me Out of Here by Henry Sutton

Scanning my TBR shelves for something different to read the other week, I alighted on this novel remembering that Kim had loved it! It was time to return to a novel by Henry Sutton. Many moons ago, pre-blog and in the early days of keeping my reading list spreadsheet, I made a note after reading Sutton’s first novel published in 1995 entitled Gorleston:

Gorleston

Having actually lived in Gorleston [-0n-Sea, adjacent to Gt Yarmouth in Norfolk] for a year I can completely understand this novel. It was lonely enough as a Londoner fresh from university in my first real job, but at least I could get away at weekends. For dear old retired Percy in this novel however, who leads a very humdrum existence, the chance to have some fun when he meets Queenie is totally irresistible! He has a whale of time, but Queenie moves on and he’s left alone again to discover some uncomfortable new truths about his dead wife. A touching novel full of wry observations about being old from a young first-time author.

Norfolk wasn’t me, but I really enjoyed Gorleston, so hoped I’d have a treat with his more recent novel Get Me Out of Here too.

Get me out of hereThe book starts in an opticians shop at Canary Wharf, East London’s business district, where Matt Freeman is trying to get a refund on his new pair of designer glasses, which he has deliberately mistreated because he doesn’t like them. He’s angling for a refund so he can go to another optician for a different pair he’s spotted. They call his bluff though, offering to replace the scratched lenses with stronger ones, it’ll take two weeks! Matt Freeman is, as they say, having a very bad day.

Right from the start we know that Freeman is a wannabe, he has some kind of unspecified financial start-up company about which he is very secretive, while accepting ‘investments’ from friends and family. All the time, he is living beyond his means in a flat with a bust boiler that isn’t actually in the most desirable location of the Barbican development in central London. Set in 2008, if you thought this novel was going to be about the credit crunch, you’d be mostly wrong but also a little right – for the only credit that will get crunched in this novel is Matt’s.

I’ve never read about a character so obsessed with brands and shopping! If starts on page one, and doesn’t let up for the whole novel… In fact, on the copyright page at the front, the publishers have inserted a paragraph to dissociate the author and themselves from Matt’s ‘highly subjective views about a variety of well-known brands and shops. These are purely a product of his imagination and state of mind.’

There’s a brilliant scene where he proves that an indestructible suitcase can be the opposite, which commenters over on Kim’s review likened to a John Cleese rant, so I won’t repeat that here. Another telling moment happens in Prada, where he goes to pick up a jacket he bought at half-price in the sale on which he’s had some alterations done. Needless to say it no longer fits and he can’t get his money back so he attacks the sales assistant.

I’d never hit a sales assistant before and I didn’t hit this man very hard. It was more of a slap with the back of my hand, which I sort of disguised as part of my desperate struggle to tear off the ruined piece of clothing as quickly as possible. He was too shocked, I think, to realise quite what had happened. But I couldn’t stand it when places such as Prada proved so unaccommodating. It was particularly shoddy behaviour, from an establishment that tried to project such a refined, stylish image.
‘Keep it,’ I shouted, letting the jacket fall to the floor. ‘But don’t expect to get my custom again.’ I couldn’t afford to waste £480, but I didn’t see why a trickle of Prada customers shouldn’t be made aware of how they treated their non-celebrity clients.

Underneath all the hilarious ranting and raving by Matt, the bad customer, is something all together more macabre as evidenced by that slap, for Matt is not just Mr Angry.

Shortly after the start of the novel we meet Matt’s current girlfriend, Bobbie. She shares a house in South London, and is addicted to reality TV – which is where the title of this novel comes from, as Ant and Dec are currently in the jungle on screen doing ‘I’m a celebrity…‘ in it. Bobbie is the latest in a long string of girlfriends, none of whom seem to last very long. With her TV addiction, she is on the way out.

It’s not clear what actually happens – with our unreliable narrator Matt telling his own story, he never actually admits to anything. We, naturally, fill in the gaps and with all the clues, can only assume the worst.

If I described this novel as a typically British response to Bret Easton Ellis’ infamous 1995 novel American Psycho, I wouldn’t be far off the mark, except that where AP is just nasty, Get Me Out of Here is very funny, a black comedy of the highest order with the pace of a thriller. It’s not often that you encounter a leading character that you love to hate so much but who keeps you riveted to the page – Matt Freeman is one of those. You’ll either love it or hate it – I’m the former.(9.5/10)

Sutton’s new novel My Criminal World features a struggling crime author, whose failing marriage and need for more gore in his writing begin to converge. Sounds irresistible, I’ve ordered a copy.

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Source: Own copies.

To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link – thank you):
All by Henry Sutton:
Gorleston – O/P – S/H copies available.
Get Me Out of Here – Vintage pbk, 2011, 272 pages.
My Criminal World – Vintage pbk, 2014, 288 pages.

Saturday Selection

Another busy week! Thank goodness I have nothing booked in for the next fortnight – even for half term, except for promising my daughter a London trip to Camden market.

amber furyMonday night was my Book Group – this month we read The Amber Fury (aka The Furies) by Natalie Haynes.

I read this book last year and reviewed it here and saw her talk about it at the Oxford Literary Festival – here. Everyone really enjoyed it. We thought the characters were well done, the setting felt real and all the Greek myths therein were used brilliantly.

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Thursday night was down to London, where I met up with Jackie and Kim at Faber’s fiction showcase.

P1020304The star attraction was Kazuo Ishiguro, or Ish as he is known. No sooner had we got installed with drinks than Rachel from Faber brought him over to meet us – lovely man. He was slightly perplexed over blogging and the intercommunication between us all, but we were onto safer ground talking about book groups – he talked about his wife’s one. I will be reviewing The Buried Giant for Shiny New Books in April.

I also chatted with the handsome Welshman Owen Sheers about the Mabinogion retellings from Seren books which he contributed to. He has a new book out in June called I Saw a Man which sounds utterly gripping from the extract he read. He signed a copy of the proof for me – the first to ask – I am privileged. You’ll have to wait several months for my thoughts on the book though.

Also there were Andrew O’Hagan, who read brilliantly from his new novel The Illuminations which is currently R4’s Book at Bedtime, and KateHamer – debut novelist of a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood as a contemporary thriller The Girl in the Red Coat. Sarah Hall would have been there too to read from her new novel The Wolf Border, but couldn’t make it sadly.

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Friday night was Mostly Bookbrains 6.  This year, the Wednesday evening Bookgroup from Mostly Books took over the mantle of compiling the questions, allowing me to be in a team with Simon and all his lovely friends. It was lovely to be on the other side for a change, and, dear reader – We won!!!

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I’d like to finish by highlighting my two reviews in the Non-Fiction section of Shiny New Books’ new issue…

armchair nation
Armchair Nation by Joe Moran

Moran is becoming one of our foremost cultural historians of the twentieth century. His history of the googlebox in Britain goes right from its inception and promotion by Mr Selfridge himself through to The X-Factor via the new upstart ITV and Mary Whitehouse.

Absolutely fascinating, full of impeccable research from TV and news archives, Mass Observation and more.

Read my full review here.

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where-im-reading-from-188x300Where I’m Reading From by Tim Parks

We all love books about books, and Tim Parks collection of essays (originally published in The New Yorker) is essentially one long opinion piece.

Divided into four sections covering the worlds of literature, reading, writing and translation, Parks, an English novelist, translator and university lecturer makes a lively companion.  I didn’t agree with all of his views (cf e-readers!) but found the essays entertaining and thought-provoking. I particularly enjoyed the section devoted to the world of translation, which gave me many new insights.

Read my full review here.

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So that’s my week – how has yours been?

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To explore some of the books mentioned above, click below (affiliate links – thank you):

A Dance to the Music of Time 1: A Question of Upbringing

Dancing Powell

A Question of Upbringing 

Looking out of his window at some workmen around a brazier, Nicholas Jenkins is reminded of the four seasons on Poussin’s celebrated painting (detail above), and the passing of time in his life.

The image of Time brought thoughts of mortality: of human beings, facing outward like the Seasons, moving had in hand in intricate measure: stepping slowly, methodically, sometimes a trifle awkwardly, in evolutions that take recognisable shape: or breaking into seemingly meaningless gyrations, while partners disappear only to reappear again, once more giving pattern to the spectacle: unable to control the melody, unable, perhaps, to control the stesp of the dance. Classical associations made me think, too, or days at school, where so many forces, hiterto unfamiliar, had become in due course uncompromisingly clear.

Powell 1Immediately we are introduced to one of the key characters in the series – Kenneth Widmerpool, going for a run on a foggy winter’s day. Widmerpool is a bit of an enigma, he ‘himself had proved indigestible to the community.’ Outsider he may be, but even later in this first volume, we will come to see his strength of character, and sense that he will endure.

Our narrator Jenkins, now enters the school boarding house and we meet his slightly older roommates – Stringham and Templer. On first glance, Stringham seems a good sort and Templer more mischievous, but after Jenkins’s Uncle Giles comes to visit and nearly gets them expelled by lighting a cigarette, it is Stringham that plays a particularly evil practical joke on housemaster Le Bas after noticing his resemblance to a wanted criminal. Stringham gets away with it too.

It is the boys’ last year at school; Stringham leaves early to stay in Kenya for a while. Jenkins spends some time with Templer’s family in London, falling madly in love with his sister Jean and experiencing the Templer brand of practical joke on a poor chap residing with them called Sunny Farebrother. Then in the summer he goes off to an educational establishment in France where he falls in love with someone else – and encounters Widmerpool again before going up to university where he begins to see how the old boys network really works when he is adopted by one of the professors, (think Slughorn ‘collecting’ Harry Potter for an analogy).

These four sections of school, London, France and university form the four long chapters of the novel – its own seasons if you will.

We find out very little about Jenkins himself – he doesn’t give much away, just observes and absorbs rather than doing much himself. Is he just a hanger on? I guess we’ll see, but he certainly seemed like that in this first volume. In a way he reminded me of Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited, another accepted outsider narrator.

Stringham and Templer and their well-heeled families were straight out of the bright young things of the 1920s. Uncle Giles however, who crops up several times, is a sort of failed Army officer who’s slightly on his uppers and needing a new opportunity in life – I hope we’ll hear more of him. The one character I long for more of though is Widmerpool – he is so intriguing, and seems bound to make something of himself despite what others may think.

Powell’s language is rich and dense and took some getting used to. I’m glad he started us off with Jenkins’s schooldays, as the scenario is familiar enough to give one time to get into the habit of reading his typically long sentences, which meant I was able to cope with this 70 word one by page 149!

The curious thing was that, although quite aware that a sentiment of attraction towards Suzette was merely part of an instinct that had occasioned Peter’s ‘unfortunate incident’ – towards which I was conscious of no sense of disapproval – my absorption in the emotional disturbance caused by Jean and Suzette seemed hardly at all connected with the taking of what had been, even in Templer’s case, a fairly violent decision.

So to summarise, volume one is really a scene-setting introduction – enjoyable in its way, but promising many more riches to come. I shall definitely proceed onto number two – A Buyer’s Market. (8/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
A Question Of Upbringing (Dance to the Music of Time 01) by Anthony Powell, Arrow paperback 240 pages. Other editions available.

My Books of the Year 2014 – Part Two – The Blog edit

Yesterday I shared my best reads of 2014 as reviewed for Shiny New Books. Today, I turn my attention to titles reviewed here. The links will return you to my full reviews:

Best Retro-Subversive Laugh-Out-Loud Book

scarfolkDiscovering Scarfolk by Richard Littler

So nearly my book of the year, Discovering Scarfolk is just hilarious! Stuck firmly in the 1970s world of public information films and Cold War paranoia, every page of this little book which is designed from front to back yields gems of parody and references in its tale of a missing man who got stuck in the unique town of Scarfolk.

There is also an comic twist to each illustration too, which ironically does make you look again to see if you missed anything…

For more information please reread this poster.

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Best Illustrations

sleeper spindle 1The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell

sleeper spindle 2Gaiman’s reworked fairy tale is fabulous on its own, but with Chris Riddell’s illustrations it reaches a new height.

Inked in black and white with gold highlights, Riddell’s characteristic strong-browed young women, cheerful groteseques and skull-like gargoyles are simply gorgeous.

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Horrorstor_final_300dpiBest Cover Art

Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix

And whilst we’re on the subject of illustration, I must mention the best cover concept of the year – in this horror spoof of the IKEA catalogue.

The graphic design extends to the inside of the novel too with lots of attention to detail, but the story itself, although entertaining, is standard horror fare.

Best in Translation

my brilliant friendMy Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (trans. Ann Goldstein)

Like many this year, I too have caught ‘Ferrante Fever’. The first in a sequence of four novels by the elusive Italian author captures growing up in backstreet Naples in the 1950s perfectly for two young girls. Volumes two and three are now available, with the fourth to come. I’m so looking forward to catching up with Elena and Lila’s lives.

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Best Medical Drama

Dirty WorkDirty Work by Gabriel Weston

The second book by Weston, a surgeon herself,  is a novel that looks at one of the toughest things that obs & gynae surgeons may ever have to do – provide abortions.  It was not an easy book given its subject matter, but it was completely compelling to read and gives a profound insight into this difficult area.

 

Best Sequel

echoThe Echo by James Smythe

My book group will disagree with this choice for they hated the first book (The Explorer) in this planned quartet. However, I loved the utter claustrophobia of outer space in these books, and The Echo takes the central premise of the first book and keeps twisting it further with great effect. Roll on the third volume I say.

 

Best Book-Group Choice?

all-quiet-on-the-western-frontAll Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maris Remarque

Arguably, we read some great books this year including Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, but the added poignancy of reading this novel of WWI during the centenary month of August was very fitting and moving too. Our discussions were wide-ranging and everyone enjoyed the book, proving you don’t always need a voice of dissent to have a good book group meeting.

Best YA Shocker

BunkerThe Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks

I am glad to have read the controversial Carnegie Medal winner to see for myself what it was all about. I can honestly say it is the bleakest novel I have ever read and it is for younger teens and upwards. If it had been written for adults, we wouldn’t find it so shocking at all, but despite its subject, I wouldn’t stop any child from reading it – I would encourage discussion afterwards though!

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… And Finally, My ‘Blog’ Book of the Year

hangover squareHangover Square
by Patrick Hamilton

I read this back in January it is still, frankly, the best book I’ve read all year.

Set in 1938 pre-war Earls Court in London, this is the story of George Harvey Bone and his unrequited love for the teasing Netta. This tragic novel is billed as a black comedy, and I suppose it is in a way. The laughs, however are never at George’s expense. When they come, it is Netta and her friends we laugh at, over their outrageously bad behaviour that makes them targets for our scorn. I nearly cried for George, wishing he hadn’t spotted her across a crowded room that day.

Hamilton’s prose is beautiful, incendiary, moving, clinical, full of ennui – everything it needs to be to tell George’s story. I shall be reading more Hamilton in 2015.

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So that’s it for my Books of the Year.
Have you read any of these from yesterday or today?
Do share yours too.

A post Cold-War spy drama

A Spy’s Life by Henry Porter

porter spy Many moons ago I read Henry Porter’s first novel Rememberance Day (2000) which was a fast-moving spy thriller and I enjoyed it very much indeed. Finally, years later, I’ve read his second – another standalone spy-thriller about an ex-spy who finds out that you can never truly leave your former life behind.

British ex-spook Robert Harland now works at the United Nations in New York. Returning from a trip to DC in a plane full of colleagues including Alan Griswald whom he’d known for years – when the plane inexplicably crashes into the Hudson as it was coming in to land. Harland is the only survivor. Later, he talks to the crash investigators, then has another call from his old boss …

Vigo! What the hell did he want? He hadn’t seen Vigo for at least a decade. On the day he left MI6 for good in 1990, Vigo had come to him and offered a limp hand of regret together with the assurance that their masters would take Harland back if he found he could not make a go of it on the outside. They both knew this was impossible.

Convinced by Vigo’s interest it wasn’t an accident, Harland pledges to Griswald’s widow that he’ll find out what happened, and it soon appears that Griswald was onto something and that there could be a connection to some coded messages which are being broadcast on hijacked radio frequencies – but you need both parts of the code. When Harland is contacted by Tomas Rath, a young man, who claims to be his son and turns out to be involved too – Harland is completely drawn in – raking up his past as a spy in Europe, his doomed affair with Eastern European agent Eva, his capture and torture –  and it seems that everyone now wants to get him again – dead or alive…

This is a solid, all-action spy thriller – full of twists and turns, and you’re never sure who’s on whose side for a large part of it. Harland leaps back into his former life with abandon, playing all those who want him off against each other until it becomes clear what they want and all the time – the body count increases…

Harland, although obviously a superman physically, is likeable underneath his slightly gruff exterior which tries not to let anyone get close to him again.  His confusion when faced with the possibility of being a father shows a vulnerable side which, let’s face it, we need in our heroes for them to be believable. Walter Vigo, the British top spook is suitably oleaginous, but the character I liked best was Robert’s sister Harriet – who is immensely practical, capable and clever too – she would have made a great agent herself. When Tomas comes to see them in London, she takes Bobby to task after Tomas goes…

“Well, I think you had better get used to him calling you something else. Bobby, he couldn’t be anyone else’s child. He’s a dead ringer for you when you were that age – all gangly and intense. There’s no question about it. He’s yours.”

There was one scene which reminded me very much of George Smiley’s encounter with Karla in Le Carré’s Smiley’s People, although reversed. Harland is younger, fitter and more action-oriented than Le Carré’s leads though, so any similarities are fleeting.

Going from New York to London and Eastern Europe and incorporating the war-crimes and their remnants from the Bosnian War, Porter has found a great post-Cold War setting for his story. It may be 470 pages long, but they raced by and I enjoyed this novel very much. (8.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
A Spy’s Life by Henry Porter – W&N paperback, 480 pages.

My first Penelope Fitzgerald read…

At Freddie’s by Penelope Fitzgerald

at freddies

Penelope Fitzgerald is yet another of those lauded middle-brow female novelists from the second half of the twentieth century that I had not yet tackled.

I’ve long been a champion of Beryl Bainbridge and Muriel Spark; I’ve added Elizabeth Taylor, Margaret Forster, Edna O’Brien, Penelope Mortimer and not forgetting Barbara Pym to my tried and loved list, but Anita Brookner was not so much to my taste.

Where would Penelope Fitzgerald fall? Given the love for her books around the web, the odds were in her favour.

I wanted a short novel as a palate cleanser between the two horror parodies I’ve recently read, and chose At Freddie’s over The Bookshop and The Blue Flower off my shelf as it was the shortest – possibly a risky thing to do, going for the least well-known of the three…

It’s the 1960s. Freddie’s, in the heart of London’s theatreland, is the familiar name of the Temple Stage School, a theatrical agency masquerading as a school that supplies child actors to the West-End stage in shows from Shakespeare to Peter Pan.

Freddie, the proprietor, is one of those old ladies who knows everyone and won’t take no for an answer – when a theatre manager rings up to complain about a prank one of her charges at played at the theatre – he gets ‘Freddied':

I’m afraid you’ll have to speak a little more clearly, dear. It comes with training … you can’t have rung me up to complain about a joke, an actor’s joke, nothing like them to bring a little good luck, why do you think Mr O’Toole put ice in the dressing-room showers at the Vic? That was for his Hamlet, dear, to bring good luck for his Hamlet. I’m not sure how old O’Toole would be, Mattie will be twelve at the end of November, if you want to record his voice, by the way, you’d better do it at once, I can detect just a little roughening, just the kind of thing that frightens choir-masters, scares them out of the organ-lofts, you know. I expect the child thought it would be fun to see someone fall over … two of them detained in Casualties, which of them would that be, John Wilkinson and Ronald Tate, yes, they were both of them here, dear, I’ll send Miss Blewett round to see then if they’re laid up, she can take them a few sweets, they’re fond of those … I suppose they’d be getting on for thirty now … well, dear, I’ve enjoyed our chat within its limits, but you must get the casting director for me now, or wait, I’ll speak to the senior house manager first … tell him that Freddie wants a word with him.

The Temple School is decrepit, damp, cold, run on a shoe-string with a skeleton staff on Freddie’s reputation alone it seems. Not a lot of teaching goes on. Woven into this short novel are three stories:

Freddie is taking on new staff to teach the children their lessons – the law demands a certain amount of education alongside their stage careers – Miss Hannah Graves and Mr Pierce Carroll are employed cheaply. Hannah has a love for the theatre, although no desire to be an actress – she wants to absorb it. Carroll, meanwhile has no qualifications to teach at all but is a practical sort and Freddie likes the lugubrious man, who will fall for Hannah – but will his love be requited?

We also follow the careers and antics of two of her young charges – Mattie and Jonathan. Mattie is playing Prince Arthur in Shakespeare’s King John opposite a pernickety lead and an experienced older (and drunken) actor. Jonathan, a couple of years younger is Mattie’s friend and follower at Freddie’s – he’ll take over from Mattie in King John when his stint is over. Where Mattie is ebullient, Jonathan is thinking and quiet and only acts when he wants to – a method actor in the making.

The final strand is that of the school itself, its status – a rival school may be setting up, TV (an anathema to Freddie) needs child actors and as always there are financial worries.  Freddie is being courted by an investor, but is resisting, fearing a loss of control.

Things all come to a head around the first performances of King John:

Freddie herself did not go to the first night; she had not been out in the evening since the gala performance of Sleeping Beauty when Covent Garden was reopened after the war. On that occasion, it was remembered, she at looked round at the regal expanse of new Cecil Beaton crimson-striped wallpaper and asked whether there wasn’t a roll or two of it left over. Since then she had attended only matinées and previews.

The short note on the author at the front of my edition, said that Fitzgerald had worked in a theatrical school at one time, and she obviously put that experience into At Freddie’s. She declared that it would be her last autobiographical novel in the Guardian in 2000 Fitzgerald said that she “had finished writing about the things in my own life, which I wanted to write about.” She moved onto historical settings for subsequent novels.

First published in 1982, and set in 1963, At Freddie’s has a surprisingly Dickensian feel to it – the children have more than a hint of Fagin’s gang – with Mattie and Jonathan being the Artful Dodger and Oliver Twist respectively. The courtship of Miss Graves by Carroll could almost be that of Pip for Estella – it really doesn’t feel like the 1960s!

Although it has a few poignant moments, it’s very much a broad comedy. I imagined Freddie herself as a rather wizened version of St Trinian’s Miss Fritton but with the chutzpah of Joey Tribbiani’s agent Estelle in Friends, (although Friends came later of course).  She’s an amazing character – totally eccentric and indomitable, Queen of her own little world, but with far-reaching tentacles of influence.  I was going to say apron-strings rather than tentacles, but Freddie doesn’t have a motherly bone in her body.

More than anything else though, this novel feels like a homage to Muriel Spark; the London setting, the backstage machinations, the characters and their dialogue – it’s all there. You could be mistaken for assuming you were reading one of Spark’s pithy black comedies like my favourite, The Ballad of Peckham Rye.

Giving us this double glimpse behind the scenes of life behind the scenes in the theatre with a delicious sting in the tail, Fitzgerald, like Spark takes no prisoners. I’m glad to be able to add P.Fitzgerald to the tried and loved list – whither next?  (8/10)

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Source: Own Copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:

At Freddie’sby Penelope Fitzgerald, paperback, 160 pages.

 

 

 

Poor but mostly happy …

This Boy by Alan Johnson

this boyPoliticians’ memoirs are not the norm for me to read when I choose non-fiction. Alan Johnson may be a fine politician, (and many think that Labour would be in a much better place if he had stood to become leader) but this volume doesn’t cover his later career, just his childhood, and what a childhood it was.

The book starts by Johnson looking back at the only photograph of his parents on their wedding day – neither look entirely happy. His father in uniform with a hint of swagger, his mother smiling somewhat strainedly beside him, her arm linked around his, almost clinging but also restraining.

Johnson grew up in the slums of Notting Hill – you’d never recognise it now. The buildings were due for demolition and they had just a couple of rooms with a cooker on the landing and outside loo. It can’t have been what his mother Lily, a Liverpudlian, was expecting when she moved to London but she was determined to make it her home. Steve wouldn’t even contemplate moving anywhere else. Alan, who was born in 1950, and his older sister Linda were born into this deprivation and like all children who don’t know anything different did their best to get the most out of this life.

They hadn’t reckoned on their father Steve though. By the end of the first chapter, he’s already had an affair – pretending to be visiting his mother every Sunday morning, instead having it away with the wife of a friend. Linda uncovered some of what was happening and it all came out. Steve left Lily for Elsie – but, as Johnson tells us, ‘Unfortunately, he came back.’

Johnson is unsparing in his depiction of his father:

There are no surrogate fathers in this story. The lack of any meaningful relationship with Steve did not spur me to see an alternative father figure. In fact it had the opposite effect: it made me mistrustful of men in general and uncomfortable in their presence. I much preferred being with women. But if I had been inclined to fantasize about the ideal father, as Linda was (she idolized her teacher at Bevington, Mr Freeman, and often voiced her wish that he was our dad), Albert Cox [father of his best friend Tony] would have been my choice.

Steve was a charmer who got most of his money from playing the piano in pubs, or occasionally getting lucky on the horses. He drank and gambled most of it away, and it was difficult for Lily to get any housekeeping out of him even before he eventually left, when that became nigh-on impossible. Lily always had to work to put food on the table, and her health suffered. There were many spells in hospital and she died when Alan was 12. Linda was just turning sixteen, and having brought up Alan all those times her mother was ill, was able to persuade the Council that they could survive on their own. They finally got a flat to share south of the river with that indoor bathroom they’d always craved.

The post-war poverty was appalling, yet Johnson is rarely maudlin about it. Luckily he was bright and caught the reading bug at a young age, later getting to Grammar school. Amongst the few treasured family possessions were his guitar and Linda’s Dansette record player, bought when Lily had a small win on the football pools one week. Books, football and music were his passions, but unfulfilled at school, he left at 15, ending up as a postman at 18 via shelf-stacking at Tesco; a good guitarist by then, he was also in a couple of bands. That is where this memoir ends (the second volume, Please, Mr Postman is now out, chronicling his pre-parliament working years).

There were many good times in Johnson’s childhood, usually short-lived, which he recounts with wit and a candour that is present throughout. Only once or twice does he ever credit his father with any visible parenting – one time when his father actually played trains with him is fondly remembered, but little else.

Alan Linda, and Lily when she was well, just got on with life. The real heroine of this story is Linda, the big sister who always looked out for the family. She was a remarkable young woman and thoroughly deserves our praise.

There is little sign in this volume of the politician that Johnson would eventually become except perhaps in his tolerance of things. Notting Hill was an area that would change rapidly with the influx of immigrant workers in the 1950s, one of Johnson’s best friends was a black lad, but Johnson doesn’t stray away from telling just his own story.

Despite not being a political memoir in the true sense, This Boy won the Orwell Prize (for political writing) and the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize, both in 2014. The Ondaatje prize is given for a book that evokes the “spirit of a place” and post-war Notting Hill certainly leaps off the pages.

Johnson’s childhood was terribly poor and marred by tragedy – you can’t help but be deeply moved by his account yet, it is also funny and equally uplifting. Johnson tells it how it was but remains chipper throughout, and staunch in his belief in his wonderful sister Linda. He has done his best to hide the misery which must lie underneath this marvellous book.  I’m so glad I read it. (10/10)

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This Boy by Alan Johnson. Corgi books 2013, paperback, 304 pages.
Please, Mister Postman by Alan Johnson. Bantam 2014, hardback.

I get inside the Groucho Club (briefly)!

Just under a month ago, I blogged about the crowd-funding publisher Unbound and how much I was enjoying pledging my pennies towards getting books published – being a ‘Book Angel’ definitely appeals to me.  (Incidentally, I’ve just done Spotlight on Publishing article with Unbound which will be in the new edition of Shiny New Books on Monday).

Reports have got back to me that several books have received pledges as a result of that post – so thank you! In fact one author (John-Paul Flintoff) wrote me an e-mail to say thank you to the reader(s) who pledged towards his book – so if you’re reading this, you’re doubly appreciated. (The discount code ‘Newcomer’ is still valid by the way.)

Meanwhile, a few days ago, I received my deluxe hardback edition of the first book I had pledged to – Lists of Note by Shaun Usher.  It is gorgeously produced, fascinating, will make a wonderful Christmas/Birthday present for anyone.

Anyway, I only pledged enough money to receive the deluxe hardback, but thanks to my Shiny credentials and that blogpost – I was invited to the launch party of Lists of Note … at The Groucho Club no less!  That private members club hotspot of exclusive luvviedom in the heart of London’s Theatreland in the Soho.  So off I trotted on Thursday evening …

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The launch party was held in one of the upstairs private rooms, and it soon got very packed – mostly publishing people from Unbound (and Canongate who will produce the mass-market editions of the book).  I mean even Jamie Byng was there! (Canongate Head Honcho and very charismatic). I did feel very much out of my depth, being one of the few non-publishing folk there, but did have a  have a short but lovely chat with the author of Lists of Note – Shaun Usher – and he autographed my copy in such a lovely way ….

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I’ve got my own list! (And yes, my name is printed in the back as a pledger.)

This was the poshest book launch I’ve been to, and to be honest, introvert that I am, I found it very difficult to schmooze with all the publishing folk who know each other (and not me), but it was ‘quite interesting’ (the Unbound co-founders have links to the TV prog QI); I was content to be a watcher.

But I shall continue to be a book angel as funds and whim permit!

 

 

 

Echoes of Le Carré with a sense of humour …

Slow Horses by Mick Herron

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The other night I was meant to be going to my local bookshop Mostly Books for an event with Mick Herron, winner of the 2013 CWA Gold Dagger for his novel Dead Lions. Instead I ended up in MIU with my daughter who managed to break the fifth metatarsal in her left foot when she fell over on a school trip – but that’s another story! I had to get the flavour of what I missed that evening in the bookshop’s write-up here – sounds like it was a good event.

Slow Horses and it’s sequel Dead Lions are British spy novels, but not set in the glam world of TV show Spooks. This branch of MI5, works in a world that is much shabbier and is usually terribly boring, for Slough House which in spook-speak becomes Slow Horse is a nondescript building in North London where disgraced agents get sent to work. River Cartwright is one of the slow horses.

The book starts with the event that got River his demotion. It wasn’t even a real emergency, it was his assessment exercise – but carried out in the real world at Kings Cross station & underground. It’s his job to find the suspected terrorist before the station is theoretically blown-up.  They find the target and take him down to find it’s just a member of the public. Before he knows it the whole station goes into a security alert.

He shouted into his button. ‘Spider? You idiot, you called the wrong colours!’
‘What the hell’s happening? There are crowds coming out of every-‘
‘White tee under a blue shirt. That’s what you said.’
‘No, I said blue tee under -‘
‘Fuck you, Spider.’ River yanked his earpiece out.

So River is sent to work with the slow horses. A bunch of secret service no-hopers. Over the course of the novel, we’ll get to know some of them and what they did to end up in this dead-end job. Others won’t survive – as mayhem ensues when the British nephew of a prominent Pakistani minister is kidnapped by some nationalist thugs who threaten to execute him in forty-eight hours.  Thanks to an errand that Jackson Lamb, the boss of Slough House, sends River on, he reckons he has an idea of how to start finding the young man – and get the slow horses reinstated.

It’s a tricky game though – the usual Moscow rules as they call them don’t apply.  ‘If Moscow Rules meant watch your back, then London Rules meant cover your arse.‘  It soon becomes clear that people are being played against each other, that various factions within MI5 are involved. Lamb, Cartwright and the team must play the game to come out winners.  It’s convoluted and dirty and people will get hurt.

The relationship between Lamb and Cartwright reminded me quite a lot of George Smiley and his sidekick Peter Gwillam from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Lamb is the one who holds all the cards close to his chest; Cartwright is the eager younger agent ready for action. However Lamb is no Smiley – he’s terribly fat – yet light on his feet. He is also always eating and has one additional weapon in his armoury – his farts! In comparison, River is nondescript – most of the other slow horses are more interesting than him, but as a young and fit man he is there for the action and to look handsome.

The author has come up with a truly labyrinthine plot with many layers of players and internal politics for them to unravel, let alone getting into the minds of the kidnappers. It’s certainly worthy of comparison to Le Carré, and all horribly plausible too! There’s plenty of tradecraft deployed throughout which gives that authentic feel (as if we’d really know how it’s done!), and I loved all the secret service slang. On top of all that though is a sense of humour – subtle at times, less so at others. One thing about the Slow Horses is that they’re not used to working together as a team these days, and old skills have to be brought back into play.

It’s good to know that surviving members of the team are back together in Dead Lions. and if it is half as good as Slow Horses it’ll be a great read.  Mick Herron is a great discovery, and I hope there’s plenty more in the pipeline. This pair of books is crying out to be televised too – fingers crossed, for there’s a series in the offing apparently. (9/10)

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Source: Own Copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Slow Horses by Mick Herron. Soho Press 2010 paperback 329 pages.
Dead Lions by Mick Herron. Soho Press 2013 paperback 347 pages.

 

The Divine Rev. Adam Smallbone …

The Rev. Diaries by The Reverend Adam Smallbone, (by Jon Canter)

rev diariesNow into its third short series on BBC2, the sitcom Rev continues to delight. It is simply hilarious, and absolutely hits the spot every time without being sacrilegious or blasphemous.  What is so lovely about it is that doesn’t make fun of faith per se; its targets are the people and organisations who practice it.

For those who are not so familiar, Rev. is about a young Anglican country vicar who transfers to a church in the tough, multi-cultural inner city in Hackney, East London, and the trials and ordeals he faces as a priest in an old church with a dwindling congregation and a management and money-oriented Anglican hierarchy. Added to which, he and his long-suffering wife (the brilliant Olivia Coleman) are trying for a baby, and their relationship is always under pressure from the needs of his parishoners. Is it any wonder that the Reverend Smallbone is always on the brink of a crisis of faith – although his talks with to God usually bring him around, (good psychiatry on God’s part that – make them talk it out). He has some regulars though – from Colin the drunk and smoking partner, to Mick the crack-head, from Adoha the adoring widow, to Ellie the headmistress of the local C of E school, plus curate Nigel. Archdeacon Robert can always be relied upon to turn up at inopportune moments too.

Rev was created by Tom Hollander (who plays Adam) and James Wood and is directed by Peter Cattaneo (The Full Monty).  Now, inspired by the first two series, Jon Canter who is one of the show’s writers has written Adam’s diaries with Hollander’s cooperation. Canter has written scripts for many a comedian – he writes for The News Quiz on Radio 4 for instance, and he has authored a fine comic novel too – A Short Gentleman  (see Kimbofo’s review here) thus he has a good comedy pedigree.  Books inspired by or based on TV programmes can often fall flat, but I thoroughly enjoyed The Rev. Diaries.

The episodes from the first two series form the backbone of a year of Adam’s diaries. Adam arrives at St. Saviours at the beginning of Advent – a rather busy time for a new vicar – and he soon meets Colin…

Colin’s a serious drinker who tends to think of my home as a pub, The Reverend Adam. He doesn’t really have a home of his own, so I don’t want to judge him. The church itself is sort of his home, which is as it should be, that’s our purpose. Rev Roy, my mentor, used to call the drinkers who came to his church ‘alcoholys’. They were people in need of booze and God, and a priest was there to minister to human need. Alcoholys were trouble but a priest didn’t flinch. ‘Jesus loved trouble,’ he told me.
People in need. That’s always the problem. There’s the lost and the lonely and the sick and the dying and the homeless and the unlucky. But there’s me too. And Alex. We have needs as well.

You can imagine Adam finally getting a moment’s peace at the end of a long day and having a chat with God as he writes his diary can’t you, expressing all his hopes and fears and getting things off his chest.

Along the way he has to cope with parents who’ll do anything to get their kids into Ellie’s school, the opening of a lap-dancing club, and accidentally pinning to the ground the mugger who had stolen Adoha’s handbag amongst many other escapades.

Already being a huge fan of the TV series, I relished reliving it through the pages of this book.  Being a TV tie-in, it probably helps if you’ve seen the programme, but the main cast characters are all pictured on the back if you need an idea.   Adam is a wonderful character; for the most part his faith is unswerving and his love for his parishoners is paramount, but he smokes, he swears, he watches The Wire – he is a modern man underneath the bumbling vicar and that is why I adore him.

This book probably would stand up on its own, but why not watch the TV series too – it’s subtle and clever, wonderfully acted by everyone and there have been some great guest stars – Ralph Fiennes, Richard E Grant to drop just a few names.  The book, however, captures both the comedy and the heartache of Adam, perfectly developing his character further, and I’d heartily recommend it. (9.5/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you! To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
The Rev Diaries by Jon Canter, pub March 2014 by Penguin Michael Joseph, hardback 320 pages.
Rev – Series 1-2 Box Set [DVD]