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:

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The Way Inn by Will Wiles

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.

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The Accidental Universe by Alan Lightman

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.

NOOOOOO!

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.’
‘Why?’
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.

“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

A dystopian psychodrama that packs a punch…

I Have Waited, and You Have Come by Martine McDonagh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who is John Wayne? Who killed Susan? Does it matter?

Newton’s Swing by Chris Paling

Chris Paling has written nine novels, but it’s taken those nine to get some real recognition via being chosen as one of Fiction Uncovered’s 2011 crop of the best authors you haven’t read yet with his book Nimrod’s Shadow.

That book is in my TBR pile, but I discovered I already had an earlier one of his novels Newton’s Swing , which was published in 2000, so I decided to read that first.

Susan lies dead on her bed, shot in the side.  Her husband John, has dialled 911, but is shocked and confused, and is unsure what to do. Rewind a decade…

John Wayne is an Englishman, an ad-man working in New York who finds ‘the world is split between those that make a joke about my name, and those who don’t’.  Naturally, he prefers those who don’t.  He works for Angel, head of the agency, who is famed for his ‘parties’, where no-one goes by their own name. ‘That way even if the girls get hurt, reputations stay safe.’ John meets a beautiful art dealer, Susan, (whom Angel knows as Leona), and despite the instant hatred between John and her best friend Angela, they become a couple and have a son, Jordan.

John tells his story through his relationships with friends, colleagues and family. Flicking back and forward through the years, contrasting episodes from his life with Susan to the fall-out of her murder, and the re-building of the bond with his son, and eventually auditioning replacements for Susan.

John is racked with grief, guilt, self-doubt.  Eventually someone is jailed for Susan’s murder, but you never feel that they got the right man.  All the way through as we negotiate life’s quagmire with John,  there are moments when you think you know what happened, but then again …

Wayne is a complex character, an outsider who somehow manages to fit in, but not completely. ‘Susan’s world had a secret door to it. A few people had the key: Angela, a couple of other women, Jordan, perhaps another man. Not me.’  All of them have something to hide, yet it is obvious that he and Susan did have something, but they connected on another wavelength entirely.

Written in a taut and sparing style, I was drawn from the beginning into John’s world. Regardless of whether I trusted his memory or not, I wanted him to come out of his internalising of Susan’s death, and to really get to know his son.  There is some humour and light, but John’s story is serious, a little cold and aloof and an absolutely compelling read.  I’m going to have to read a lot more of Paling’s books if they’re this good. (9.5/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Newton’s Swing by Chris Paling. Vintage paperback, 240 pages.
Nimrod’s Shadow by Chris Paling.

Murder – the lawyer’s tale

The Child Who by Simon Lelic

After writing a spec fiction thriller for his second novel The Facility, review here, Lelic returns to give us a different take on familiary territory for his third. His stunning debut Rupture, review here, was a Whydunnit which explored how a teacher came to murder his pupils. The Child Who takes its inspiration from the tragic murder of Jamie Bulger, but frames its story through the eyes of a child murderer’s solicitor.

Leo Curtice is a jobbing solicitor based in Exeter, used to picking up all the drunk and disorderly cases at the weekends, and thinking there must be more to life than this. Then one day, he’s the duty solicitor when the call comes about a new case –  “I think you should take this,” he’s told, and he says yes. This is where Leo’s life changes forever.

Leo is introduced to Daniel.  Daniel is twelve, they say he murdered Felicity Forbes, his classmate. Her body was found in the river. Daniel has clammed up and Leo has to find a way to get him to communicate. The police have a witness and evidence.  Could diminished responsibility be a defence strategy?

This case should be the making of Leo’s career, but in defending a child murderer, Leo is unprepared for everything else that happens. In a kind of reverse Stockholm syndrome he finds himself bonding with Daniel, much to his wife and teenaged daughter Ellie’s utter disgust. They can’t understand why he’s putting the case before them, and he can’t see that it’s hurting their relationship. He hadn’t accounted either for the reaction of the public – everyone hates a child murderer, and they hate him for defending his client.  This hatred extends to Leo’s family, and it soon escalates out of control; his daughter gets bullied at school, he gets pelted with eggs going into court. He can’t let go of the case, but there’s a lot worse still to come…

In The Child Who, Lelic once more shows his abilities to get under the skin of his subject and by approaching it from a different angle finding a new way of telling a story. It may lack the freshness of Rupture with its unique reveal structure, but it doesn’t have his debut’s slightly clichéd lead character of a policewoman who has to try too hard.

Instead, in Leo we have a man who is jaded and on the edge of a mid-life crisis, a state of mind which, when offered this stimilus takes over until it is too late. Leo is fully formed, and we see almost everything through his lens, knowing no more than he does at any time. Because of this obsession, his wife and daughter become rather sidelined as characters at the start allowing Daniel to dominate, which allows Lelic to comment on how the system treats young offenders. Notably, the victim and her family scarcely feature at all.

Less of a legal drama, more a psycho-thriller, the moral dilemmas are disturbing which make this an uneasy yet compelling read, and confirm Lelic’s status as a literary star in the making. (8.5/10)

See what some others thought of The Child Who: Reader Dad, Farm Lane Books and David Hebblethwaite.

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My copy was supplied by the Amazon Vine programme.
To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
The Child Who by Simon Lelic, pub Mantle books, Jan 2012, hardback 320 pages.
Rupture, The Facilityalso by Simon Lelic, paperbacks.