Still more Shiny linkiness

I know, it’s getting a bit like Monty Python’s Gondolas around here… but I have to highlight my last two new reviews in Issue 2 of Shiny New Books for you, don’t I? Again, it’s one fiction, one non-fiction:


The Way Inn by Will Wiles


I really enjoyed Wiles’s first novel Care of Wooden Floors (which I reviewed here) – a quirky farce about flat-sitting for a minimalist with new flooring.

His second novel is equally quirky, but he has moved into much darker territory. The Way Inn satirises lookalike hotel chains, trade conferences and the business types that frequent them, and be warned, it will definitely mess with your head!

Needless to say, I really enjoyed this one. (9/10 and I bought my own copy.)

Read my full Shiny review here.

SNB logo tiny

The Accidental Universe by Alan Lightman

You may have heard of Lightman before from his quirky novels and stories. However, first and foremost he is a physicist and has published many books of essays.

This is his latest – a survey of the latest thinking on the origins of the universe. Each essay takes a different aspect and alongside the technical discussion (which is lucid and understandable to the non-scientist), he illustrates it with his own life experiences and how nature does it. Fascinating stuff (8/10, Source: publisher – thank you.)

Read my full Shiny review here

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To explore either of these books further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Way Inn by Will Wiles, pub Fourth Estate, June 2014, Hardback 352 pages.
The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew by Alan Lightman, pub Corsair, May 2014, Hardback 176 pages.

OK – you’re wanting to see the ‘Gondolas’, aren’t you. Here’s the full Python travelogue, narrated by John Cleese. It was originally shown as a short in the cinema before Life of Brian

There are no new plots – Greek tragedy had it all!

The Amber Fury by Natalie Haynes

Natalie Haynes may be familiar to some of you from her appearances on BBC2’s The Review Show – a TV programme of which I tend to disagree with a lot of the reviewers’ views – even Paul Morley’s at times, and don’t mention Kirsty Wark! However, I rarely disagree with Natalie Haynes. Haynes is a classisist who did stand-up for years before giving it up to write. Her only other adult book is The Ancient Guide to Modern Life – which looks at what the ancient Greeks and Romans did for us, and how it resonates today.  It’s easy to see how she used that in her first novel…

amber fury

The Amber Fury is set in a Pupil Referral Unit (PRU) for troubled kids whom the normal educational system is failing.  A new cover teacher arrives to do drama therapy. Alex took the job in Edinburgh to get away from her old life in London where she was an up and coming theatre director.  We know from the outset that she lost her fiancé, who was killed when he tried to stop a fight.

You might ask if she is the right kind of person to teach these kids given her personal circumstances, but her old friend Robert who runs the PRU has confidence in her.  Most of her classes seem to go fine, but there is one group of just five fifteen-year-olds that prove a challenge to engage. But engage them she does – with Greek tragedies – from Oedipus to Alcestis to the Oresteia.  These tales of meddling Gods, scandal, cruel fate, sacrifice and revenge strike a chord with her pupils.

The novel is mostly told in hindsight from Alex’s point of view and from the start we know she is talking to lawyers about something that happened.  In parallel with Alex’s narration, we have extracts from one of the pupil’s diaries, which puts some different faces on things.  The facts are meted out and the tension builds; we question whether Alex has done something awful, or is it her pupils?  Who’s hiding what?  The Greek Erinyes, aka the Furies, were, of course, the Goddesses of vengeance …

It’s an assured debut from an author who knows her stuff.  The way Alex gets her pupils involved in exploring the Greek tragedies is brilliant – I learned so much too. I knew, for instance from studying the siege of Troy from Virgil’s Aeneid for my Latin O-Level that Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to appease the Gods so he could set sail for Troy – but we never analysed it further – just polished our Latin translation; Aeschylus, author of the Oresteia was a Greek, so I’ve got the full story now…

Haynes also captures the feel of the dank greyness of the Scottish winter with all that granite around really well, making everything seem dull and allowing Alex to settle into a rather mechanical life outside the PRU – all the more unsettling as we find things out. Mired in her grief, Alex is somewhat an unreliable narrator, but not necessarily in terms of misdirecting us, rather in her naivety.

My mind has been wondering about other modern novels that employ Greek tragedy in their workings – and I couldn’t get past Donna Tartt’s debut The Secret History. In some respects, the PRU is an exclusive Club – you have to have done something to become a member, but that’s as far as it goes. Haynes’ novel is more of an anti-Secret History.

I am going to see Natalie Haynes at the Oxford Literary Festival later this month, and will be interested to hear her talk – I could even be brave and ask if The Amber Fury is in any way an opposite of Tartt’s novel if they do questions!

What I do know is that, although not perfect, I really enjoyed this book. I really hope she writes more, especially if they have lots of ancient Greek and Roman influences.  (9/10)

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Source: Review copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Amber Fury by Natalie Haynes, pub 3rd March by Corvus, hardback, 320pp.
The Ancient Guide to Modern Life by Natalie Haynes, paperback.

Book Group Report – A new SF classic?

The Explorer by James Smythe

the-explorer Our book group does read the occasional full-blown SF novel, or novels with some SF concepts in like Slaughterhouse-5 which we read last autumn.

I chose this book, selling it to the others as like the film Moon but even more messing with your head. It being a year since I read it, I re-read the novel and, if anything, enjoyed it even more second time around, so for me it was still a 10/10 book.

But what did our book group think?

NOTE: If you haven’t read the book – see my original review here, for it will get a little spoilery below…

Oh well…  No-one except me liked the book – but I don’t care! I still loved it, and I started reading the sequel, The Echo, when I got home from book group and am loving that too already. It made for quite a good discussion though.

I was challenged to say what I so loved about it. I replied that I had a strong visual sense of this small crew in a big ship all alone – rather like in one of my favourite SF films Dark Star – but with the sort of enforced cameraderie like the crew in Alien – all together before the chestbuster scene.  I relished the claustrophobic atmosphere of it, and didn’t foresee the twists.

One comment was that there wasn’t much to like about any of the crew, except for Arlen, who got killed off quickly like Claire Goose in the first episode of Spooks (remember that!). But you don’t have to like the characters when you read a book.

One of our group though did like the writing and thought it captured the sense of isolation and living at work really well, but she also found it depressing and not good for reading late at night. A couple of the group found it very creepy; well, it is more of a psychodrama that happens to be set in space than hard SF and wasn’t quite what some had expected, not SF enough?

The others didn’t like it for an assortment of reasons.  We wondered why the looped Cormac didn’t talk to the real one? Guilt over having caused Arlen’s death perhaps?  Guilt over his wife?  They also were confused by the design of the ship, and how the looped Cormac was squeezing here, and running through the voids in the hull there. There were more questions than answers.

One of the group really disliked the whole book, except for one sentence on p251 which completely summed up how she felt! :

I always said that the thing I was saddest about, when they had pretty much stopped printing books, was that I couldn’t tell how long was left until the end.

You can’t win ’em all. It was a brave book group choice but will go down as one of our few failures.

Next month we’re discussing Life after Life by Kate Atkinson – an author I’ve yet to gel with – but with this book’s Groundhog Day type premise – I’m looking forward to comparing and contrasting the time-looping with The Explorer!

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To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Explorer by James Smythe; 2013, Harper Voyager paperback – Buy at Amazon UK
The Echo by James Smythe; Jan 2014, Harper Voyager hardback – Buy at Amazon UK

Be of good cheer! (No, not that type of cheer)…

Dare Me by Megan Abbott

DARE-ME-PBBAn image of pony-tailed cheerleaders is arguably the ultimate cliché when we think of the most popular girls at High School in the USA.  Most teen films portray them as bitchy, and not big on brains. They are there to look like clean-living girls next door, to strike poses, but act like teen temptresses and get first pick of the jocks on the soccer team.

The Cheerleading squad in Megan Abbott’s novel Dare Me are not like that at all. They are fit and lean athletes who train hard every day. They live for cheer, boys are mostly an encumbrance.

Ages fourteen to eighteen, a girl needs something to kill all that time, that endless itchy waiting, every hour, every day for something – anything – to begin.
“There’s something dangerous about the boredom of teenage girls.”
Coach said that once, one fall afternoon long ago, sharp leaves whorling at our feet.
But she said it not like someone’s mom or a teacher or the principal or worst of all like a guidance counselor. She said it like she knew, and understood.

Beth Cassidy is the captain of the squad and her best friend Addy Hanlon is her lieutenant. Everyone wants to be like them, they are admired and feared in equal measure. When a new coach arrives – everything changes.

Coach French wants to take the team to the next level, to raise their game so they can compete in cheerleading competitions.  At first she appears to be the Mary Poppins of coaches ‘practically perfect in every way‘. She’s inspirational, she changes the way the squad works – without a captain. She invites the girls to her house to hang out – they all love her (except Beth).  Coach French really seems to take to Addy, effectively estranging her from Beth – and this, of course, will have consequences, for Beth wants the old order back.

Then someone dies. There is a connection to the coach, and thus the squad, the police begin an investigation. This happens as the girls are making the final push, training for the season’s finale and a performance in front of a talent spotter. The stakes grow ever higher and loyalties are tested to the limits…

The most striking aspect of this novel, apart from the psychothrilling triangle of Addy, Beth and Coach at its heart, is the sheer physicality of it. These girls are serious about cheer. They’re not conventional friends outside of the squad, they’re work colleagues – or soldiers even, assembled into a formidable team whose goal is to support and catch the ‘flyer’ at the top of the pyramid at the climax of their routine. This is something that most people don’t see. As Addy says:

That’s what people never understand: They see us hard little pretty things, brightly lacquered and sequin-studded, and they laugh, they mock, they arouse themselves. They miss everything.
You see, these glitters and sparkle dusts and magicks? It’s warpaint, it’s hair tooth, it’s blood sacrifice.

But it’s more than just training, the higher up the pyramid you are, the lighter you have to be. There are many scenes involving girls throwing up what they’ve just eaten, surviving on just protein shakes and grass juice shots, varying shades of bulimia and anorexia. One scene that stayed with me is not so horrific (perhaps), but very visual:

We get a fat-slicked chocolate-chip muffin, which we heat up in the rotating toaster machine. Standing next to it, the hear radiating off its coils, I imagine myself suffering eternal damnation for sins not yet clear.
But then the muffin pops out, tumbling into my hands. Together, we eat it in long, sticky bites that we do not swallow. No one else is there, so we can do it, and Beth fills tall cups with warm water to make it easier then spit it out after, into our napkins.
When we finish, I feel much better.


Coming back to that central triangle briefly… The novel is narrated by Addy – the sensible one, and it is Addy that is stuck in the middle of a tug-of-war between Beth and Coach. Beth and Coach compete for Addy’s attention, each confiding in her, yet never telling her the whole story to keep her wanting more. It’s psychological warfare – very creepy.

Dare Me is Abbott’s sixth novel. Her first four are all slices of classically styled 1950s noir with strong female leads – I would love to read these, and have heard good things about them. With her fifth novel The End of Everything, she moved into new territory – that of teenage sexual awakening – apparently Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides is a big influence (I really must read that too, the film was fab). I gather that Dare Me is going to be filmed, Natalie Portman has been linked for Coach.

The author has obviously done a lot of research into cheerleading, (you can read about that here). Although it was fascinating (in a horrible way) to read about how a normal cheerleading team become a great one, there was a bit much of the cheer which didn’t allow the psychodrama enough space to breathe. This also meant that the only two male characters of any note in the book were too mysterious, even by the end – and they are crucial to the plot. Abbott is clearly an author to watch, and although this book wasn’t quite a hit for me, it was well worth reading. (7.5/10)

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Source: Review copy from Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Dare Meby Megan Abbott, pub Picador (2012), paperback, 320 pages.
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

An experiment in greed

This is my second post for Simon’s tribute to his late Gran – Greene for Gran.

Last week I reviewed England Made Me, an early novel from 1935, which I hadn’t read before. This week, my second is Doctor Fischer of Geneva or the Bomb Party, one of his later books published in 1980, a re-read for me.

Doctor Fischer of Geneva or the Bomb Party

doctor fischer

This is a short novel, of only 143 pages in my Penguin edition, but it is one of Greene’s keenest satires – a portrait of greed, and how greed begets more greed.

Alfred Jones is an English widower in his fifties. He lost one of his hands during the Blitz, his wife died in childbirth years before. He now works as a translator in Vevey, Switzerland for a chocolate company – echoing that oft-misquoted line from The Third Man:

You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

Note – no ‘chocolate’.  However, Vevey, near the eastern end of Lake Geneva is where the HQ of Nestlé is (I always associate them with Dairy Crunch chocolate bars, but in reality they are a huge food company, Nescafe etc.).  But back to the book…

One day, Jones bumps into a young lady in a café, and they strike up an immediate friendship which very soon deepens into love.  Anna-Luise is the daughter of Swiss toothpaste magnate Doctor Fischer (of Geneva), her mother disappeared, presumed dead.  Alfred and Anna-Luise decide to live together and will marry, but Alfred is keen to get her father’s approval.

‘I’d better go and see him.’
He might set the police looking for you.’
‘They wouldn’t look very hard,’ she said. ‘I’m above the age of consent. We haven’t committed a crime.’
But all the same I wasn’t sure that I had not committed one – a man with only one hand, who was well past fifty, who wrote letters all day about chocolates and who had induced a girl who wasn’t yet twenty-one to live with him: not a legal crime of course, but a crime in the eyes of the father. ‘If you really want to go,’ she said, ‘go, but be careful. Please be careful.’
‘Is he so dangerous?’
‘He’s hell,’ she said.

The first of many references to Fischer as the devil or Satan.  Fischer eventually meets Jones, but doesn’t bother to come to their wedding.

Fischer’s so-called friends meanwhile are called the ‘Toads’ by Anna-Luise, a term that Jones adopts enthusiastically.  They’re all rich in their own right, an alcoholic film actor, a retired general, an international lawyer, a tax adviser and an American widow.  Fischer is infamous for his secret parties which the Toads all go to, soon enough an invitation arrives for Jones – Anna-Luise is distinctly not invited. Jones isn’t sure what to do. ‘The approaching menace of Doctor Fischer’s party had come between us by that time and it filled out silences.‘  They come to an agreement that Alfred should try one party, and that he needn’t stay.

Jones arrives to find the Toads already there…

‘I always insist,’ Doctor Fischer said, ‘at my little parties that everybody enjoys himself.’
‘They are a riot,’ Mrs Montgomery said, ‘a riot.’

They go on to tell Jones about the prizes.

All we have to do is just put up with his little whims,’ Mrs Montgomery explained, ‘and then he distributes the prizes. There was one evening – can you believe it? – he served up live lobsters with bowls of boiling water. We had to catch and cook our own. One lobster nipped the General’s finger.’
‘I bear the scar still,’ Divisionnaire Kreuger complained.

The Toads continue to discuss the prizes, and Fischer reminds them that if they contradict him, they will lose their prizes. Then it is time for dinner to start, and I won’t spoil the fun by describing what happens except that Jones refuses to take part saying ‘I have something of more value than your present waiting for me at home.‘  Eventually Fischer tells Jones what his parties are all about.

… I want to discover, Jones, if the greed of our rich friends has any limit. If there’s a “Thus and no further.” If a day will come when they’ll refuse to earn their presents. Their greed certainly isn’t limited by pride. You can see that for yourself tonight. Mr Kips, like Herr Krupp, would have sat down happily to eat with Hitler in expectation of favours, whatever was placed before him. …

We’re not even halfway through the book, and Fischer’s mind-games with his so-called friends know no bounds, nor his callous disregard for his daughter.  Soon tragedy intervenes, and again Fischer is noted by his absence. When an invitation arrives for Jones to attend his final party the ‘bomb party’ of the novels subtitle, he feels he has nothing to lose…

This is Greene at his funny-grotesque best, but of course underlying the near-gallows humour is a story full of sadness. He comments on the human condition through the nasty deadly sin of avarice, contrasting the haves with the have nots. Fischer has truly become a monster, seeing himself as God playing dice, whereas to everyone else he’s more the devil – ultimately trying to tempt Jones as Jesus in the desert. It is full of the most delicious dialogue, but do remember this is a tragicomedy.

The one odd thing that struck me was that it didn’t feel as if it was set in the 1980s, more like the 1950s say. It’s only the occasional references of modern accoutrements like dishwashers, the pill and credit cards that remind you when it was written, and somehow they seem like anachronisms, when they’re not!

Re-reading this short novel has confirmed it in my mind as one of my favourite Greenes.  (9/10)

Doctor Fischer (1984, BBC)

The novel was adapted for a TV movie by the BBC in 1984 which starred James Mason (above) in his last ever performance as Fischer, with Alan Bates and Greta Scacchi as Jones and Anna-Luise. Sadly, it’s not available on DVD, and it’s years since I’ve seen it on the telly, here’s hoping that they’ll show it again some day.

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Source: Own copy. To explore on Amazon UK, please click below:
Dr Fischer Of Genevaby Graham Greene, Vintage paperback.

Bought it on Wednesday, read it by Friday, blogged on Saturday

Alex by Pierre Lemaitre, translated by Frank Wynne

alex-pbk Alex is one of those thrillers that has been quietly gathering a word of mouth momentum since its publication earlier this year. Now the paperback is out, it is going to go stratospheric as Gone Girl did, (my review of that here).

A French teacher friend has been recommending Alex to our book group ever since we chose a Fred Vargas novel (see here) for last month’s read. The paperback was officially published on August 1st, but a day before that, I bought a copy (from my local indie bookshop). Prompted by a tease from Simon S about a forthcoming blog post about a thriller he’d read that was his new ‘thriller of the year’, (his review here), I had to read it too. I started on Thursday night, resuming when I woke up on Friday. Basically, I didn’t do anything except have breakfast until I’d finished it.

The story starts with Alex.  An ugly duckling as a teenager, she has blossomed into a beautiful young woman, but she is shy and insecure.  If she puts on a wig though, she can pretend to be more confident than she actually is…

For example, it had never occurred to her that she could wear a red wig. It had been a revelation. She couldn’t believe how different she looked. Wigs seemed so superficial and yet the moment she first put one on, she felt her whole life had changed.

One night she dresses up and treats herself to a dinner for one at a local restaurant, but as she walks home she is abducted, beaten and bundled into an anonymous white van.  Her captor will take her to an abandoned warehouse and suspend her from the ceiling in a wooden cage, naked, injured, filthy, waiting to die.

Luckily, her kidnapping was witnessed by a passer-by, for otherwise no-one would have known. No-one reports her as missing, she is an enigma. But with a kidnapping time is of the essence, and reluctantly Commandant Camille Verhœven has to accept the case. Camille has been easing back into work after personal tragedy in which his pregnant wife was kidnapped and died – he hasn’t handled such a case since, but is forced to as his colleague is unavailable.

It’s a race against time, but aided by his team, Camille’s investigative powers will develop leads from the smallest scraps of information. Will he be able to save Alex? Will the pressure from the Juge d’instruction (French equivalent of a District Attorney) get to him?

I can’t tell you any more plot developments beyond those above from the first couple of chapters.  Suffice it to say, things get very nasty indeed. I chose to leave it to go to sleep at exactly the wrong spot (p76) leading to vivid dreams ‘Oh rats!’ as Indiana Jones would say, which gives you a clue about what is happening).

alex - trade paperback coverIn order to find Alex, Verhœven will have to identify her and understand her – and her own story is as jaw-dropping as any I’ve ever read. The twists and turns as Alex’s past is gradually revealed through Camille’s investigations are many, and they’re so ingenious.  I did gasp ‘Oh my God!’ out loud at one critical point that made me cringe at the brutal nature of what I was reading.  You have been warned.  I’m also rather glad I didn’t have the original trade paperback cover (right), as that is rather offputting don’t you think!

If Alex is an enigma, Camille is a larger than life character, if not in stature.  At just under five feet tall, he has had to use the full force of his personality all his life to gain respect.  He has no family – their unborn child died with his wife, he has no siblings, and at the start of the novel his remaining parent, his mother, leaving him to sort our the remains of her life. He lives alone with his cat, and his boss Le Guen has sensed it is time to thrust him back into the front-line of work.

I really like Camille’s straight-forward calling a spade a spade approach. It may win him no friends, but gets to the point. Here, he’s describing someone…

This Maciak was so socially integrated he became an alcoholic. He drinks like a Pole, which makes him a good Frenchman. The kind that wants to preserve the French national heritage. So he goes to work in a bistro. He washes dishes, waits tables, he’s promoted to head waiter – we’re witnessing a miracle of upward mobility through the downward application of alcohol.

I particularly like that last sentence. I really engaged with Camille Verhœven, and am delighted to find that he will feature again in Lemaitre’s work.  His team are also strong characters, in particular, Armand – who is a classic scrounger whose wallet would be full of moths; Armand provides the moments of light relief.

If you enjoyed Gone Girl and have the stomach for strong stuff, this brilliantly plotted, pacey thriller could be for you. I loved it!  (10/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Alex by Pierre Lemaitre, Maclehose press, Feb 2013, paperback 354 pages.

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

Fallen Land by Patrick Flanery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still shocking after all these years …

The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

Distractions! I had hoped to read or re-read more Banks books by now. But better late than never, I have returned to the beginning and re-read The Wasp Factory again, and updated my BanksRead page.

Published in 1984, I read it for the first time in 1985 when the paperback first came out. I read it again back then too, and I still have my original paperback.  The monochrome cover with its squared symbols and numerals, and the embossed title and author name really stood out then, and does now.

wasp factory orig papaerback

Banks has always been brilliant at beginnings,  and the first lines of his first novel are cracking.

I had been making the rounds of the Sacrifice Poles the day we heard my brother had escaped. I already knew something was going to happen; the Factory told me.

Right from the off, you know you’re in for something different with Frank, a rather feral teenager who lives on an island with his abandoned father. Frank is rather fond of catching the local wildlife, and killing it to display on his totemic poles. Animals are not the only things Frank kills though…

Two years after I killed Blyth I murdered my young brother Paul, for quite different and more fundamental reasons than I’d disposed of Blyth, and then a year after that I did for my young cousin Esmerelda, more or less on a whim. That’s my score to date. Three. I haven’t killed anybody for years, and don’t intend to ever again. It was just a stage I was going through.

For those that haven’t read this book, I’m not giving things away with the above quote. It’s part of the back cover blurb of my original copy and comes at the end of chapter two. However, by then Frank has told us quite a lot about his family history, how he became a murderer, and we know about his ‘accident’. His certified brother Eric is at large, and on his way home, which is a cause for concern for everyone except Frank, who although he loves his brother thinks he may rather cramp his style. He finds solace in a boozer in town with his only friend, Jamie, a dwarf, but I can tell you no more about the plot.

wasp factory newWhen I first read this novel, I was stunned; it made an instant fan of me.  It was so dark and twisted, yet had a strong vein of black humour running through it. Between Frank’s cruel experiments, Eric’s deranged rantings on the phone, and the father’s secretive behaviour, it’s clear that what is left of this family have real problems.

Banks’ prose still has the power to shock, even knowing what was to come.  This is definitely still not a book for the squeamish.  I could pick up on more clues in his Gothic coming of age story this time.  I also saw parallels between Frank and the horrorshow of Alex in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange – both vicious adolescents growing up; and also with Merricat in Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle – another flawed young person who uses her own version of sacrifice poles to warn off intruders onto the family estate.

It feels as if Banks arrived on the scene as a fully fledged author with The Wasp Factory.  He’s taken it from there with each subsequent novel, always experimenting, always having a strong vision, and keeping that sense of humour underneath.  Still 10/10.

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I bought my copy decades ago. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks – Abacus paperback, 256 pages.
A Clockwork Orange (Penguin Essentials) by Anthony Burgess
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Nick loves Amy, Amy loves Nick, don’t they?

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

gone-girl This book is our book group choice for discussion this month – I would normally wait until after we’ve met to put down some thoughts about our reading, but after devouring this novel in two sittings, (I started at bedtime last night, and finished it when I woke up this morning – which did mean I got up rather late!), I feel compelled to give some instant reactions.

Ever since this book was published, it’s been making news but, for each glowing review I’ve seen, there’s been a ‘meh’ one.  I think that you can guess which camp I fall into …

Nick and Amy are a seemingly golden couple, recently moved back to Carthage, Missouri from NYC, so Nick can care for his ailing parents.  Everything changes on their fifth wedding anniversary, when Nick comes home to find Amy missing.  No body is found, and Nick is naturally the obvious suspect. He is adamant that he didn’t do it, but can’t explain many oddities or provide a full alibi that would take him out of the investigation.  So what has happened to Amy?

To say any more would be to say too much, however, it wouldn’t be spoiling things to tell you that the novel twists and turns so much that you’ll change your allegiance chapter by chapter. I gasped at some of the reveals, and then felt pleased with myself for making links – some of which would be dashed later, every little thing seeming to have its place in the narrative.

The chapters cleverly alternate between Nick and Amy’s versions. At first, Nick’s are current; Amy’s are historical from her diary entries since they first met. It becomes clear very fast that all is not right between them…

Nick – The day of:
When she spied me lurking there in grubby boxers, my hair in full Heat Miser spike, she leaned against the kitchen counter and said, ‘Well, hello, handsome.’
Bile and dread inched up my throat. I thought to myself. Okay, go. (page 8)

The plot of this novel reminded me very much of the convoluted plots of British psychodrama queen Sophie Hannah. If you like one, you’ll do well with the other. Neither Hannah’s books, nor Gone Girl stop to take breath, the action is relentless and most of what happens is usually nasty, not nice!

I’m convinced that the best way to read thrillers is total immersion, to devour them in as few sittings as possible, letting the action flow around you and not over-analysing what happens in the pages until after you’ve finished.  For me, a good roller-coaster of a plot always benefits from this approach. In this way, even the ridiculous elements of something like The Da Vinci Code can be overlooked so that you can enjoy the ride. There, I’ve said it! (I read it in one sitting on holiday years ago, and it was fun at the time.)

Gone Girl is much, much cleverer than that.  Although the plot drives the narrative, the two main characters are so well conceived, that Flynn is able to add many extra layers to the story. It will be interesting to see if any of our Book Group have the same experience, and if I still feel the same about the book in a week’s time …

How was it for you?
How do you read thrillers?

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, Phoenix paperback, 463 pages.

To infinity …

The Explorerby James Smythe

the-explorerThis brilliant novel’s beginning happens near the end of the story…

Cormac Easton is the only remaining living astronaut on the spaceship Ishiguro. Cormac is not even a proper astronaut – he’s a journalist; his part in the team is to observe and document the voyage, to blog and film and send the footage back home.

Their mission was to go into deep space, the deepest manned mission ever; then they would turn around and arrive back home heroes. That was the plan, so they thought, but it starts going horribly wrong.

  ‘They died one by one, falling off like there was a checklist. First to go was Arlen.’ …

‘Second to die was Wanda. We called her the Dogsbody…’

‘Guy was third. He was German, and that wasn’t his real name.’

‘Quinn was next to die; and with him, it became almost funny, …’

‘Emmy died – I use that word, but, really, maybe it’s not that bad, maybe there’s something can be done, I don’t know – only hours after Quinn.’ …

‘All that I’ve got up here is tranquillity now, I suppose.’

… and those lines are all picked out from the first chapter.

As Cormac contemplates his lonely predicament, we learn how the team was selected and how all their different personalities meshed and irritated in equal measure.  We find out how the multinational mission came about through corporate sponsorship – it’s the only way to get a ‘proper space programme again‘.  Everything was branded,  they will eat McBars.

We also discover how much Cormac misses his wife Elena, they had parted on bad terms but he still loves only her. He spends his days grieving for his lost relationships, lulled into passivity and unable to do anything.

We wonder what really happened, and what’s going to happen. We will find out – but I’m not going to tell you!

Although this is a science fiction novel, it’s not about the science, it’s character driven, and that turns it into a first-rate psychothriller. Despite the infinity of space, the atmosphere in the ship is intensely claustrophobic right from the start. Initially we’re in dark about what happened as much as Cormac is, and as we only hear his voice, we have to question him too. It was totally gripping, in the same way that the film Moon was.

As with most works of speculative fiction, you do need to embrace the fantasy elements of the setting. I’m no astrophysicist, but I don’t think all the scientific details worked; however, I didn’t let it bother me for this is a profoundly human story and I loved it.  (10/10)5 stars



For some other reviews see: Book Smugglers (spoilers); Dog Ear Discs (no spoilers)

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I received a review copy via Amazon Vine. To explore on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Explorer by James Smythe, pub by Harper Voyager, Jan 2013, Hardback 266 pages.
Moon [DVD] [2009] starring Sam Rockwell, dir Duncan Jones.