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.

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.

The stages of a widow’s grief

The Widow’s Tale by Mick Jackson

widows tale

A recently widowed woman in her early sixties flees her London home and well-meaning but irritating friends. She rents a cottage in a North Norfolk village, telling no-one where she’s gone.

There, she gradually works her grief out – all the classic stages of denial, anger, what ifs, depression and finally acceptance. She makes a classic unreliable narrator at first, but as she begins to explore her surroundings and understand her feelings, we gradually learn that there were cracks in her marriage and what caused them.

The writing was surprisingly funny – she’s quite capable of laughing at herself whilst in the troughs of despond. However her moods can go from witty to maudlin within the space of a paragraph or two, just as in real life.

Losing one’s husband is most definitely a bummer. But let’s look on the bright side. I’ve actually lost a little weight. Oh, there’s loss of all sorts going on around here. Mind you, I wasn’t particularly chunky to begin with. An unfortunately, after a certain age, when you lose a few pounds you don’t look younger. Just pinched and scrawny. And those mad, staring eyes don’t help. …

These days it doesn’t take much to get me going –  a lost cat/dog poster, sellotaped to a lamppost – daytime telly – about four bars of Rachmaninov – pretty much anything.

As an exploration of the stages of grief, she goes through it all from the extremes of emotional paralysis to becoming dangerously obsessed by little things. What does become clear though, that despite their relationship being far from perfect i the end, she did love her husband.  One day she makes the mistake of glancing at the Lonely Heart ads in the newspaper…

I’ve witnessed Ginny and other single women discussing prospective partners and it’s pretty discouraging. Within seconds the conversation turns into a pretty crude assessment as to what proportion of the man’s hair and teeth remain. The implication being that, unless you make a supreme effort, or Lady Luck happens to be smiling down on you, you’re likely to end up with something resembling a cadaver.

The funny thing is, if it’d been the other way around and I’d gone first I’m sure John would’ve got remarried in a flash. If anyone would have had him. And, strangely I think someone would. John was one of those men who never quite understood women – he just new that he needed one about the place. It wasn’t even that he was incapable of doing the cooking and the cleaning. No doubt in my absence he would’ve had a bit of a shock and probably appreciated me a little more. But within a couple of months he would have got to grips with most things. And the things he couldn’t be bothered doing he would’ve paid someone else to do. Female company for him was simply an anchor. A point to fix his compass by.

The unnamed widow narrates her story through diary entries. She tells us not just what she does each day, but all the memories and thoughts that came to her mind as she tries to get on with life.  The tone is conversational throughout as you’ll have spotted from the quotations above.  My only niggle is that she is meant to be in her early sixties, and she felt a decade or so younger to me most of the way through – more mid-life crisis territory, and this was not helped by the youthful figure on the book’s cover. This was minor though. The novel is short enough to read in a few hours and  I really enjoyed it. (8/10)
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Source: Publisher via Librarything rather a long time ago – thank you! To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Widow’s Tale by Mick Jackson, pub 2009, Faber & Faber paperback, 256 pages.

‘A Duty-Dance with Death’ – ‘So it goes’

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

vonnegut This was our book group’s choice for discussion in November. Whilst it’s fair to say that whilst nobody loved it, and some didn’t get on with it at all, it did provoke some good discussion. I quite enjoyed it, and would certainly read more by Vonnegut. My only previous experience with him was having read Breakfast of Champions as an older teen – and having to make sure my parents didn’t see the diagrams, (if you’ve read it, you’ll know what I mean!).

vonnegut 2

S-5 is commonly seen as Vonnegut’s most influential novel, as it builds in autobiographical elements of Vonnegut’s own experience of the firebombing of Dresden as a PoW, escaping death by hiding in the cellar of ‘Slaughterhouse-5’. Other themes are time travel, alien abduction and living an otherwise normal life!  Vonnegut sets it all out on the book’s title page after the title and sub-title The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death:

A fourth-generation German-American now living in easy circumstances on Cape Cod (and smoking too much), who, as an American infantry scout hors de combat, as a prisoner of war,
witnessed the fire-bombing of Dresden, Germany, “the Florence of the Elbe,” a long time ago, and survived to tell the tale.
This is a novel somewhat in the telegraphic schizophrenic manner of tales of the planet Tralfamadore,
where the flying saucers come from.
Peace.

Before we get to the story of the man in question, the introductory chapter introduces the narrator – clearly a metafictional version of Vonnegut himself, explaining his writing of the book:

Over the years, people I’ve met have often asked me what I’m working on, and I’ve usually replied that the main thing was a book about Dresden.
I said that to Harrison Starr, the movie-maker, one time, and he raised his eyebrows and inquired, ‘Is it an anti-war book?’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I guess.’
‘You know what I say to people when I hear they’re writing anti-war books?’
‘No. What do you sau, Harrison Starr?’
‘I say, “Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?”
What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers. I believe that too.

And, even if wars didn’t keep coming like glaciers, there would still be plain old death.

Then the narrator tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, who as a young soldier and prisoner of war in Dresden, returns to a normal and rather dull life in America. He becomes an optometrist, marries, and lives into his old age and senility. However Billy is convinced that he’s become a time traveller, slipping up and down his timeline as a result of being abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore where he was kept in a zoo, and gained their ability to see in 4D – so he could be in all times at once.

This means that the novel goes back and forth with Billy. But is he travelling in time? Or is it just memories coming to the fore of a brain with dementia, or schizophrenia? We discussed these elements at length in our book group – it was obvious that Billy thought he was time-slipping, that he really was abducted by aliens – some were happy to accept that. Others including me, took a rational view.

Given that the novel was published in 1969, and it being most of the group’s first experience of him, we wondered how much the time-travel and alien themes were linked to any trippiness of the time…

Something the narrator does throughout the novel, which we all thought worked really well, was that every time someone dies (which is a lot), the paragraph ends with the phrase ‘So it goes’. This becomes a real mantra and emphasises the inevitability of death – one way or another.

One fact that surprised us was that more people died in the bombing of Dresden than were killed in Hiroshima. For us subsequent generations who didn’t live through WWII,  the nuclear carnage is seen as the greater tragedy. The bombing destroyed over 90% of the city of Dresden.

Dresden 1945. Photographer G Beyer. German Bundesarchiv

Dresden 1945. Photographer G Beyer. German Bundesarchiv

As if Vonnegut’s anti-war messages about the damage that can be wreaked by conventional weapons weren’t enough, he makes his selection of the novel’s subtitle perfectly clear too. Billy the teenaged PoW is introduced to some English officers in the prison camp:

And he said, ‘You know, we’ve had to imagine the war here, and we have imagined that it was being fought by aging men like ourselves. We had forgotten that wars were fought by babies. When I saw those freshly shaved faces, it was a shock. ‘ “My God, my God-” I said to myself, “It’s the Children’s Crusade.” ‘

Despite the novel being written in short sections, jumping back and forth through time, snapping from one theme to another, sometimes serious, sometimes funny, sometimes even beautiful, Vonnegut’s writing is always interesting: ‘Four inches of snow blanketed the ground. The Americans had no choice but to leave trails in the snow as unambiguous as diagrams in a book on ballroom dancing – step, slide, rest – step slide rest.’

This was a surprisingly moving book to read, and a good book group choice. (8.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Slaughterhouse 5, or The Children’s Crusade – A Duty-dance with Death, Vintage paperback, 192 pages.

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

The Almost Lizard by James Higgerson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

One man’s version of love and betrayal…

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

Subtitled “A Tale of Passion”, Ford’s 1915 novel has one of those first lines that tend to come up in quizzes: “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” We picked it for our book group to discuss in November, after several of us having loved the recent BBC adaptation of Ford’s later set of novels Parade’s End.

The Good Solider is a tale of two couples, The Ashburnhams, Edward and Leonora, and John Dowell and his wife Florence. The story is told by John, looking back over a period of years in which the couples spent too much time together, resulting in a disintegration of both of their marriages which accelerates once the Ashburnham’s ward, Nancy, joins the party.

John and Florence are American, and John, a Philadelphian, tells us a little of his wife: “Florence was a Hurlbird of Stamford, Connecticut, where as you know, they are old-fashioned than even the inhabitants of Cranford, England, could have been.”  The Dowells are ‘leisured Americans’, ex-Pats, spending some months in the South of France, and some at a German spa town each year – for Florence’s heart.

It is at Nauheim that they meet the Ashburnhams, and Florence immediately adopts them as they represent the epitome of everything she aspires to, having an English country manor, and Edward is an Army captain, on sick leave from India. Florence is always keen to show be the tour guide, showing off her research and knowledge – ‘intellectual slumming’, her husband calls it, but of course she is cultivating Edward from the outset.

It becomes clear quite quickly that there is no love lost between Leonora and Edward. He is a hopeless romantic and spendthrift, she tries to keep in him check, but there is little if any intimacy between them.  John and Florence too, have an outwardly sexless union.  John is gullible, fearful for the state of her heart; she is just playing him along. It’s all very claustrophobic and frankly rather nasty.  There’s nothing to like about any of the quartet, although oddly, John never loses his respect for Edward, the ‘Good Soldier’ of the title.

I did find this a hard book to get into, it wasn’t until around page one hundred, nearly half way through, when it clicked and things started to get interesting, so I’m glad I persevered.  This initial hard-going is due to the narrator John’s meanderings, digressions, and repetitions. John takes several months to recount his tale, and he keeps remembering things, and then realising that what he’d said before was slightly different to his new reality, so we have a new version of what happened – the chronology is not straightforward to unravel. He’s a classic unreliable narrator, but he doesn’t seek to deceive, only remember.

Along with the iterating and evolving story which goes round and round, Ford has a habit of re-using words and phrases – in consecutive sentences. It irritated me at first, but then I realised it was the way John was talking, pausing and repeating himself slightly differently again for emphasis. Mostly this is odd words, but in the following quote he does it repeatedly, and I rather liked that:

… I stood upon the carefully swept steps of the Englischer Hof, looking at the carefully arranged trees in tubs upon the carefully arranged gravel whilst carefully arranged people walked past in carefully calculated gaiety, at the carefully calculated hour, the tall trees of the public gardens, going up to the right; the reddish stone of the baths – or were they white half-timber chalets? Upon my word I have forgotten, I was was there so often. That will give you the measure of how much I was in the landscape.

The book was universally enjoyed by our book group and we debated for ages over the characters – whether any of them had any merit whatsoever, and decided that Edward came out top by a small margin despite being a serial philanderer – he was a decent sort underneath.

We all felt that this was a book that would benefit from re-reading – indeed I’d like to very much.  Even on a first read, as a book group choice, it gives loads to discuss so I’d highly recommend it. (8/10)

See also what Hayley of Desperate Reader thought of this book.

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion (Oxford World’s Classics), other cheaper editions available.
Parade’s End, again other cheaper editions available.
Parade’s End [DVD], BBC 2012 starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Rebecca Hall.

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]

Home, sweet home, or not as the case may be…

Wall Of Daysby Alastair Bruce

A man stands on a rocky outcrop, watching the sea-green water. He is called Bran. He survives alone on a small island just big enough to sustain him where he has lived for ten years ever since he was banished from his homeland. Life on his rain-soaked island is hard, but there are fish, tubers, roots and the occasional gull to eat; there is peat for the fire, and a cave to live in. The resources are decreasing, but are enough, he calculates, to see his time out.

At the end of each day I make a small mark with a stone on the wall of the cave. The seventh line I draw crosses the previous six. At the end of fifty-two of these plus one extra mark or two extra every fourth year I start a new row. Last night I reached the end of the tenth. Tonight I will start another. Every year with the last of the marks I remember being told why we measure time this way – with one or two eatra days in a year – but every year I realise I have forgotten the reason. I imagine it is something to do with the moon, the moon I have not seen for a decade. So much of what I do, of what we used to do, is for reasons that I cannot remember, that I dare say no one can remember.

Marks on a wall. The second time in my life I have made marks on a wall. They mean more than days. I do not forget that.

Bran had been Marshall of the settlement that bore his name.  He had a lover, Tora, whom he misses still; he wonders what has happened to her, and whether Abel, his deputy, is still in charge. Bran was banished by his community, set adrift on a raft, exiled.  Return, they said, would mean execution. But one day, something happens. Bran feels compelled to return to his settlement to warn them that they’re in danger, and he cuts down some of his precious few remaining trees to build another raft …

We’re never told where this world is, but we know that something happened, both in the far past where most of mankind has been wiped out, and in the recent past where Bran appears to be answerable to some unforgivable acts as leader. The remaining people have reverted back to a life that is rather like that of a frontier town in a Western or a medieval town – there is no technology, even ancient left here.

Ten years as a hermit have naturally taken their toll on Bran, and it is fair to say that he is not the most reliable narrator, but he does have a sense of duty as former Marshall to his former people.  He understands why they think he betrayed them, he acknowledges the guilt, but he was only doing it for their own good. He is desperate to find out what has happened in his absence and still holds a torch for Tora. Once he returns though his efforts to warn them of the dangers he thinks will come and his search for answers are totally frustrating, he cannot find an audience.

This novel is strangely beautiful in its way, but like an iceberg, what lies beneath the understated prose in this drowned world, is a complex web of emotions – guilt and betrayal, love and loss, the power of memories. Even though we know that Bran has probably done bad things, we sympathise with him as he tries to atone for them, and we hope he’ll find a way to get through and maybe even find his true love again. This assured debut has hidden depths, and manages to be a thoughtful yet compelling read. (8/10)

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I chose this book for review from Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Wall Of Days by Alastair Bruce, pub Clerkenwell Press, Aug 2011, 237 pages, trade paperback.