The case of the missing disk…

Acts of Omission by Terry Stiastny

stiastny Thrillers set in the world of modern British politics are not that common compared with those led by the spies who report to the politicians; Acts of Omission is mainly the former. It is the debut novel by a former BBC News reporter who worked in Berlin in the late 1990s and is based upon a true story. There are three main characters:

Mark Lucas, a former television producer, is now a charismatic young minister in the Foreign Office. His office has come into possession of a disk containing the names of British informants to the East German Stasi. The Germans are putting pressure on him to give it to them, but the British diplomatic service would rather not. Visiting Berlin, he is shown the jigsaw operation that is still ongoing to piece together the files that the Stasi shredded when they left.

‘Of course,’ said Ilse quickly. ‘There are people whose whole lives may have been affected by what’s in these sacks of paper. They have a right to know what happened to them, the same as everybody else. It’s not their fault that it’s their files that were destroyed. So it’s our duty to give them that truth back.’

Even if you find our your best friend had informed on you? Even if it compromises national security? These are the dilemmas behind it all, and Mark has to toe the government line in his reply, despite personally being for returning the disk.

The second character is Alex Rutherford. A civil servant – working for the intelligence services in an office based job. The morning after the night before, he wakes up hungover only to realise that his laptop is missing and inside it was the disk – the only copy! He thinks he left it in a taxi home, and sure enough the laptop is in their lost property office, but without the disk.

Thirdly, Anna Travers is a second string journalist on a national newspaper. She gets her big chance when the disk is delivered anonymously, of course, to her paper. Seconded onto the team working on the disk, she has to try and winkle out its secrets and some of them will be difficult to deal with once made public and the right connections made.

Acts of Omission particularly explores the relationships between the government and the press through their front-faces and more murky underbellies. Early on, Anna gets a new boyfriend who works in Downing Street advising the PM and so with her we get taken into Number Ten, the Lobby at Westminster as well as the newsroom. It’s a far cry from door-stepping with by-election candidates in northern towns where Anna starts the novel. Stiastny has obviously put her wealth of experience into making the framework of the novel very credible. Additionally all three leads are very plausible and likeable characters, although Mark is a bit naïve.

The plot twists and turns around the politics and the detective work on the disk. The bureaucracy involved is a little dry at times but authentic and Stiastny manages to keep the suspense going through that to create an enjoyable debut. There’s also room for more novels involving Anna too as her journalistic career begins to fly which would be fun. (8/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Acts of Omission by Terry Stiastny. Pub John Murray 2014, paperback May 2015, 336 pages.

Annabel’s Shelves: B is for …

Ballard, J.G. – The Drowned World

ballard drowned worldHaving just read one book set in a dystopian near-future London, when I finally came to choose my ‘B’ book for my Annabel’s Shelves project, I picked another. There was one author and particular title that just leapt out at me. It had to be Ballard – and it had to be The Drowned World – especially as my edition’s cover shows another view of the London skyline. The Drowned World was Ballard’s second novel, published in 1962 – the same year as Rachel Carson’s ground-breaking book about the effect of pesticides The Silent Spring. Ballard had been training as a doctor, but had given up a career path in medicine to become a writer. He had some success in publishing short stories in the late 1950s, before his first novel which was written while he was editor of a science journal.

Dr Robert Kerans is a biologist, part of a scientific survey team working on exploring the flora and fauna of the last cities of a mostly submerged world. The ice-caps have melted and the temperature is soaring driving those that survive ever-poleward as it keeps increasing.

As the sun rose over the lagoon, driving clouds of steam into the great golden pall, Kerans felt the terrible stench of the water-line, the sweet compacted smells of dead vegetation and rotting animal carcasses. Huge flies spin by, bouncing off the wire cage of the cutter, and giant bats raced across the heating water towards their eyries in the ruined buildings. Beautiful and serene from his balcony a few minutes earlier, Kerans realised that the lagoon was nothing more than a garbage-filled swamp.

Kerans lives alone in the air-conditioned luxury of a penthouse in the Ritz hotel. But Colonel Riggs has come to tell him that they’ll be moving out, heading north, in a few days time. Kerans and his colleague Dr Bodkin, need to pack up – and Riggs needs his help to persuade the reclusive Beatrice to come with them. Beatrice is the other last remaining Londoner in this lagoon.

The foetid jungle keeps encroaching, only the insects and reptiles can survive successfully in this world that is de-evolving back towards the Triassic. The coming of the iguanas to London combined with the super-equatorial climate brings insomnia and strange dreams. Riggs’s deputy Hardman goes mad under the pressure, running off southwards into the swamp on a raft – they search but don’t find him.

The question ‘how do you sleep?’ begins to assume a big significance, but Kerans and Bodkin feel strangely at home with this altered state, although Bodkin becomes rather obsessed by his childhood memories of pre-submerged London.

Apart from a few older men such as Bodkin there was no-one who remembered living in them – and even during Bodkin’s childhood the cities had been beleaguered citadels, hemmed in by enormous dykes and disintegrated by panic and despair, reluctant Venices to their marriage with the sea.

When it comes to it, they opt to remain with Beatrice, engineering to be left behind – but not for long. Soon Riggs and his crew are replaced by the white-suited Strangman – a latter-day pirate in a hydroplane with a bask (I looked it up) of crocodiles snapping at his heels. Strangman’s ship follows his arrival, it’s full of raided antiquities. Like a Bond-villain, he has Machavellian plans, and Kerans and Bodkin will have to work with him to work against him to survive.

The Drowned World is certainly a visionary novel. Stylistically, it is a real hybrid – reading like Graham Greene meets Conrad via Ian Fleming with the philosophical realisation of Richard Matheson’s The Incredible Shrinking Man as Kerans accepts his fate. Kerans is a leading man typical of any Graham Greene novel – clever but burned out at forty, yet fit enough to take action. I’ve not read Heart of Darkness, but it seems to me that Kerans could be Conrad’s Marlow and Strangman a pre-illness Kurtz, together with his henchmen? Never mind all the influences, it is an effective literary eco-thriller that manages to explore the human condition at the same time, and I loved it.

The extras in this edition of the novel include an interview and an article by Ballard about the ‘landscapes of childhood’ in his writing – he remembered crocodiles from Shanghai which also used to flood each spring and co-mingled those memories with his present at the time living in London.  Both features are very well-worth reading and it is interesting in the interview that Ballard describes his work as ‘speculative fantasy’ rather than science fiction.  Although Ballard describes the science behind his version of global warming plausibly, he never attributes it with any man-made origins, this was the early 1960s after all.  Ballard’s next novel, The Burning World, revised as The Drought in 1965, takes an opposite stance with water becoming precious due to industrial pollution.

The Drowned World was certainly my kind of ‘speculative fantasy’- I loved it. (9/10)

I must read more Ballard – I’ve only read a couple, (High Rise and Cocaine Nights) so I have plenty more to go – I know I’ll enjoy them.  I note that a movie of High-Rise is due out this summer starring Tom Hiddleston and Jeremy Irons – that’ll be interesting!

Now to my ‘C’ choice – as before I’ve photographed my shelves so those with eagle eyes can help me pick – or just suggest an author (or title) beginning with ‘C’ for me to explore. Thank you to everyone who has been suggesting so far, please know that even if I pick something else, I have thought about your ideas – I do intend to keep going through the alphabet with my TBR, so maybe next time around!

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From one dystopia to another …

The Ship by Antonia Honeywell

The shipI’m on a watery/eco-thriller/dystopian reading binge at the moment, set off by picking up this novel – I couldn’t resist the colourful cover with its silhouette of a broken London landscape and a nod to the film Titanic.

It’s the near-future; the world as we know it is broken. Five hundred specially selected people escape the hell of the dystopian society left on land to live on ‘The Ship’ and the alternative nightmare of being on an everlasting cruise.

Apart from having poor sea-legs, the idea of living aboard one of those huge cruise-liners fills me with utter dread – yet people already do! However, you can get off for an excursion … this isn’t the case for The Ship‘s 500.

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‘The World’ moored at Fowey, Cornwall, summer 2010. Gorgeous tiny town with a deep-water harbour that can fit this behemoth!

The story is narrated by Lalage ‘Lalla’ Paul*, who is just turning sixteen. She lives in an apartment in London with her mother and father, although he is often not there. They live entirely within the law of the military government, obeying all the rules imposed on them, but they manage to continue to live well by the standards of others. Lalla’s life is sheltered, totally unlike those of the tent-dwellers in Regent’s Park, or the gangs in the underground. Being outside in London is a dangerous place, the nearby British Museum – whose treasures are a shadow of their former glories, is their only cultural retreat. Lalla tells us about the beginning:

I was seven when the collapse hit Britain. Banks crashed, the power failed, flood defences gave way, and my father paced the flat, strangely elated in the face of my mother’s fear. I was right, he said, over and over again. Wasn’t I right? Weren’t we lucky that we owed nothing to anyone? That we relied on no one beyond our little trio? That we had stores, and bottled water? Oh, the government would regret not listening to him now. … and for months we did not leave the flat.

Lalla’s father, Michael, has been planning his big escape ever since. He bought a cruise-ship, he’s been stocking it with everything needed for at least a generation’s life aboard. He’s been recruiting 500 deserving people with essential skills to take with him and they are waiting in the Holding Centre for the word from him that they’re ready to depart. But’s what’s stopping them from going today? It’s Lalla’s mother who is not sure. When Michael comes home for Lalla’s birthday celebration, he and her mother bicker:

‘How much worse do you want things to get?’
‘If you loved me, you’d stop pushing.’
‘If you loved me, we’ve have gone already.’
‘I love you Michael. I just don’t think you’re right.’
I stood in the doorway, forgetting I wasn’t meant to be listening. … ‘I want to go,’ I said. ‘If the ship is real, I want to go on it.’

They bat Lalla back and forth between them in their argument, but the decision is made when, as her mother moves in front of the window, a sniper shoots her. The ship has a doctor and surgery – it’s time to go.

Poor Lalla, her mother will not survive and she begins her life onboard in a state of profound grief, while her father has 500 disciples to lead. Will Lalla be able to overcome her depression at the death of her mother, will she be able to assimilate into life on the ship, make friends, have a useful life, and, dare I say it – help make the next generation?

The Ship is really a two-hander – an on-going battle between Lalla and Michael. All the other characters, even Tom, a young man Lalla is attracted to, are just props and aren’t really developed more than peripherally. Lalla, however, is irritating, selfish and angry, yet loveable, in the way that only teenagers can be and, although Michael is nominally benevolent and peace-loving, we somehow have to suspect his motives. With Lalla as our narrator, we gain no real sense of his long-term plans.

The biblical imagery abounds – apart from the myriad of obvious references to the book of Genesis – you can pick any prophet and see Michael in him. There are are some neat parallels in the military government enacting the Nazareth Act for instance, and could the 500 have been 5000 to feed? I may be a non-believer, but do love a good bible-story, so I enjoyed spotting all these. The questions remain: Is Lalla the new Eve? Will life ever be bearable for her on board this ark?

The Ship was a hugely enjoyable novel, a scarily prescient vision of the kind of future we could have if it all goes wrong. After the riots of a couple of years ago, somehow, I can imagine Oxford Street burning for three weeks as happens here. The combination of coming of age story with a dystopia and this fascinating setting was a winner for me. Highly recommended. (8.5/10)

* I also couldn’t help wondering, especially as I’ve recently read The Bees (review here), if Lalla was named for The Bees author Laline Paull? She does contribute a cover quote…  (P.S. Antonia told me via twitter that ‘Lalla is named for the baby at end of The French Lieutenant’s Woman and St Paul, rescued from the waves’).

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below (affiliate link):
The Shipby Antonia Honeywell, pub W&N, Feb 2015. Hardback, 320 pages.

Annabel’s Shelves: A is for …

Arnott, Jake – The Long Firm

Thank you to everyone who suggested authors beginning with ‘A’ for the first read of my Annabel’s Shelves project. Atwood was a very popular suggestion, and I’m sorry to disappoint you but I have read four of her novels already so didn’t choose her this time. Initially, I want to concentrate on new to me authors so I can more fully explore my bookshelves. The author that leapt out at me was Jake Arnott who has written half a dozen well-thought of novels – all of which I have, so he fully deserved a go!  I’d bought the first two of his books after spotting signed paperbacks in Waterstones – this after seeing the BBC’s 2004 adaptation of The Long Firm which starred Mark Strong. The TV mini-series was jolly good – would the book match it?

arnottThe Long Firm is set in ’60s London, and Soho is moving towards its peak of sleaze being full of seedy clubs, porn shops, prozzies, rent-boys and low-lifes. The infamous Kray twins may rule in the East End, but Harry Starks is one of the kings of the roost in the West End and Harry is dangerous. We know that from the opening lines:

‘You know the song, don’t you? “There’s no business like show business”?’ Harry gets the Ethel Merman intonation just right as he heats up a poker in the gas burner.

Yes, we open with a torture scene! Harry has a predilection for this style of justice – not for nothing is he known as the ‘Torture Gang Boss’. Cross him and you’re likely to get taught a lesson you won’t forget. Terry survives, and we’re taken back to the day he met Harry, the day he was chosen as Harry’s next live-in boyfriend. Harry doesn’t flaunt it, but is openly homosexual (not ‘gay’ he insists). Having taken a shine to Terry and installed him in his flat, he kits him out:

I was spoiled rotten. I got to know about haute couture. And that wardrobe was an essential part of the way that Harry operated. Being so well dressed was the cutting edge of intimidation. A sort of decorative violence in itself.

Harry owns the Stardust Club in Soho. The walls are covered in photos of him with minor celebrities, showbiz pals, boxers – he idolises Judy Garland. He rakes in protection money and is always on the look-out for opportunities to expand, whilst being careful not to annoy the Krays too much!

It is after Terry has the audacity to walk out on Harry after one his moods (Harry is bipolar) that Terry’s fate is sealed. Fooled into thinking that all was straight between them, Terry is employed by Harry as foreman at his electrical goods warehouse – it appears legit, but it’s all a scam, ‘a long firm’. Rather than be a patsy, Terry does a deal on the side, which is why he ends up tied to a chair …

Terry’s story is the first of five that make up the novel. Five people who have been involved with Harry each tell their tale.

The second segment is told by Lord Thursby, a new peer who is unhappily married, a closet homosexual and on his uppers. He is introduced to Harry by Tom Driberg (a former MP who in real life was an acquaintance of the Krays).

‘Harry,’ he said, ‘let me introduce you to Lord Thursby.’

His joined-up eyebrows raised as one. I could see he was impressed. Probably took me for full-blooded aristocracy instead of just a kicked-upstairs life peer. There’s a strange sort of bond between the lower-class tearaway and the upper-class bounder. A shared hatred of the middle classes I suppose. He shoved out his hard, adorned with chunky rings and a big gold wristwatch.

Thursby lets himself get flattered into being a consultant on a scheme to build a new town in Nigeria – and naturally it all goes pear-shaped. Along the way, we learn all about demurrage – the cost associated with storing things, and that there are scammers the whole world over. Thursby’s segment is told as diary entries and is blackly comic in tone.

Jack the Hat, a speed-addicted drug-dealer and Ruby Ryder, tart with a heart and wannabe actress, take on the third and fourth parts of the story by which time the character of the West End is beginning to change with the arrival of LSD and hippies, the old-style gangster is not so fashionable any more. Loyalties change and one other constant of this story – Mooney, the bent vice copper becomes a real problem. When other mobsters have to turn Queens Evidence, Harry is soon implicated and ends up in jail. The last section is told by Lenny – a sociology professor who meets Harry in jail where Harry is getting all the education he can to keep his grey matter functioning at the highest level.

Each of the five tales has its own style and each of the five narrators has a clear voice making their experience of dealing with Harry a distinct and personal story – yet the portrait of him is remarkably consistent throughout. Each will see his different moods – mercurial, philanthropic, violent, loving, romantic, thinking, manic and depressed, and ever the boss to be crossed at your peril. Arnott gets the language of each narrator just right – even down to Jack the Hat always getting his grammar wrong saying ‘should of’ not should have!

It is a very violent world, full of sex, drugs … and Judy Garland, naturally Harry adores her. Real characters from the 1960s flit through the novel, other characters are fictional homages to figures such as Kenneth Williams. Together with all the period references, the 1960s is brought to life with tremendous seedy detail. This novel has it all – and I loved it. I’m glad to have read Arnott – he was the perfect start to my project. (10/10)

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Source: Annabel’s Shelves! To explore further on Amazon UK please click below (affiliate link):
The Long Firm by Jake Arnott. (1999) Sceptre paperback, 352 pages.
The Long Firm [DVD] [2004]

Now help me choose a ‘B’ book…

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I have two and a third shelves of authors beginning with B. Sorry, you probably can’t read them very clearly in the photo, but apart from Pat Barker, Nicola Barker and Christopher Brookmyre of whom I’ve read several, I’ve not read most of the others there. Suggestions welcome!

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.