The Phil Thrill!………………………. Kolymsky Heights by Lionel Davidson

…………………………………… I bought this on the basis of two connected recommendations. Firstly the cover has a little sticker on it which reads “The best thriller I’ve ever read – Philip Pullman”. On the strength of those eight words (of which only the last two actually mattered) I picked this up from a display by the checkout in Waterstones. However before I could pay I changed my mind and turned to put it back – enter the Waterstones Sutton bookseller-cum-mind-reader who said “It really is as good as Philip Pullman says it is – it’s the best thriller I’ve ever read too”. So it stayed on the pile and I bought it on the advice of an author whose work I love but I’ve never met, and on the advice of a bookseller who I met for all of ten seconds!!!!

But of course the more influential comment in buying that book was Philip Pullman’s praise of it (sorry lovely folk in Waterstones in Sutton!). So when it comes to reviewing Kolymsky Heights, I thought that the only way to test that recommendation of a literary heavyweight was to see how it measures up to what other literary heavyweights say makes a great thriller.

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Ian-Fleming “Never say ‘no’ to adventures, always say ‘yes’, otherwise you’ll lead a very dull life”

Ian Fleming

 

Three men meet and spend an evening in drink-fuelled debate at a scientific conference in England. At the time it is innocuous and almost instantly forgettable to all three. But years later, one of them has become the head of a top secret Russian science laboratory in the Siberian mountains and what they have discovered there scares him to such an extent, he wants the West to know the secret too. His only way to contact the West is through a cryptic message to one of his companions from that fateful conference, an English academic, and from there the security services decipher the message and realise it asks for the third of the triumvirate to come to Siberia so that the secret can be passed on person to person. That third man is Johnny Porter, a multi-lingual, resourceful, Canadian who is offered the job of somehow getting to Siberia, then getting into the top secret lab and then somehow making his way out again. Porter is a man with a coloured past and as ex-special forces he has the skills to go with it – so of course he’s going to say ‘yes!’

lee_child_1921366c“The way to write a thriller is to ask a question at the beginning and answer it at the end” Lee Child

In a sense the plot of Kolymsky Heights is standard stuff – it’s based on a question – can Porter somehow reach Siberia, get into the top secret facility in the mountains and get back out again alive with the info – and again it’s standard fare in the sense that the book answers that question at the end. So given the relatively standard plot, there must surely be something more to this which would lead Phillip Pullman to such hyperbole?…….and there is!

The author Robert Harris“………..characters dominate………Everything has to flow from their personalities: otherwise it will not be emotionally engaging” Robert Harris

Firstly the characterisation is brilliant. There’s just enough fragility and uncertainty in Porter to make him utterly believable and perhaps the greatest trick which Lionel Davison pulls off in the main character is not giving Porter some James-Bond-like ability to physically overcome all before him – Porter is a man who conquers by out-thinking others, by out-manoeuvring them and by his dogged determination and perseverance. His feats of heroism and tougness are much more about endurance, patience and attention to detail than anything to do with biceps or a pistol! As a result, Porter is definitely an utterly believable and engaging main character.

Author Stephen King at a press event to unveil the Kindle 2“The trust of the innocent is the liar’s most useful tool” Stephen King

 

That strength of character is exemplified in the ways in which Porter quite literally uses people. He befriends, cajoles, and persuades – he has that ability to know just how to develop and retain relationships with the other characters in the novel so that he is forever ready to take advantage of our natural human instinct to trust. It adds further to the gritty realism but also an air of something very different to the story – yes Porter is in some ways an archetypal ‘hero’ but in other ways he’s much more subtle!

John Le carre“…it’s part of the spy’s profession to prey on the community to which he is attached” John Le Carre

Lionel Davidson’s hero does this par excellence – but it’s not physical or even intellectual prowess that Porter uses but more a sort of psychology which seems to be based on Davidson’s understanding of why a community might actually allow itself to be preyed upon in this way and then he invests Porter with the observation, patience and insight to exploit those ‘communities’, whatever and wherever they are. It’s quite brilliantly done.

Alfred_Hitchcock_Arches“There is no terror in the bang…………………

………….only in the anticipation of it!” Alfred Hitchcock

This is done with absolute mastery in Kolymsky Heights. It’s a thriller which gently moves almost footstep by footstep to the heart of the plot – the lead in to Porter actually getting to Siberia in itself is so carefully drawn, you are almost 170 pages in before he actually gets there! And yet it is worth waiting for because it’s been done with such care and such craft that every word adds to the tension and excitement in the novel – by the time it moves towards its climax I found myself quite literally gripping the page!

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“The best thriller I’ve ever read!” Philip Pullman

So, overall does Kolymsky Heights live up to that grand claim of Philip Pullman’s? Well, when you consider that it delivers the key ingredients of a thriller that are the combined criteria of John Le Carre, Robert Harris, Stephen King, Lee Child, Ian Fleming and no less than Alfred Hitchcock himself, then Philip Pullman’s grand claim is hardly a surprise. For me, great as Kolymsky Heights was I DIDN’T share Phillip Pullman’s view – that accolade still belongs to the thriller ‘Daddy’ by Loup Durand that I first read around 25 years ago! It’s not even second on my list because I think that would be Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy! But Kolymsky Heights is a brilliant story and it’s brilliantly told – so much so it would definitely be in my top five thrillers of all time – and that’s close enough in my book to say “Good choice Phil!”

Book Info

Lionel Davidson’s “Kolymsky Heights” was first published back in 1994. My edition was re-published for Waterstones in 2014 by Faber and Faber. I bought my copy, having been persuaded by Phillip P and a bookseller at Waterstones in Sutton! My edition came with a really interesting introduction from Philip Pullman though if I’m honest I didn’t read that till I finished the novel!

When Lionel Davidson died in 2009, the Guardian’s obituary seems to me in retrospect to have been a fitting tribute to a man who was clearly a very fine writer. His books seem to have enjoyed a bit of a renaissance in the last 18 months and there have been recent reviews of his novels in the Independent, the Telegraph and the Guardian. However I’m always keen to promote reviews by fellow bloggers so you’ll find reviews of Kolymsky Heights as good as anything in the broadsheets at For Winter Nights and at Shiny New Books

Book Rating (for info on my book rating scale click here!)

ten

 

A Man Walked Into A Bar And Went “Aaaagh”………….Two Pints by Roddy Doyle

That post title is taken from my favourite drunken joke as a student (that would imply I had a favourite sober joke as student – I didn’t – I did virtually all my studying and philosophising and learning in pubs!). The joke went:

“A Man Walked Into A Bar……………………………….. 

He went “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaagh”

………………………It was an Iron Bar!”

No matter how often I heard it I was guaranteed to collapse into a paroxysm of giggling – even today it makes me giggle, not because I find the joke funny (oh…… go on then I admit it……30 years later I STILL LOVE that joke!), but because the memory of laughing till I ached in pubs is well…funny! (Trust me – you had to be there!)

IMG_1933Pubs have always seemed to me places where some of the ‘normal’ rules don’t apply – talk shite at work and you’ll get the oddest looks…… talk shite in a pub, and if it’s real high quality shite, before you know it complete strangers will join in and start talking shite too! There’s also a sanctuary of a kind in pubs – it’s a place where you will find everything from the crudest of thoughts said aloud quite simply, to the simplest of thoughts said aloud quite crudely! It’s not quite ‘anything goes’, for even in pubs there are limits, but broadly a pub is a place where allowances are made, bonds are formed and the world is put to rights – or probably more accurately the world has the piss taken out of it!

So as a pub lover, I was intrigued to see how Roddy Doyle’s books “Two Pints” and the unpredictably named follow up “Two More Pints” would come over to me, a man who is, in my own tiny mind at least, a connoisseur of the humble public house and a skilled exponent in the art of over-a-pint-philosophy while under the affluence of incohol!

And I loved them – in fact, and I say this sober, they are works of IMG_1934feckin genius! Both books involve simply two men who sit at the bar and talk – all you get is the dialogue between the two of them. You never get to know their names or the connection between them and yet it gives you a wonderful insight into the world we live in, how people think, the way we can ‘bounce off’ one another and the fact that if you give most of us a chance, no matter what the topic, we’ve probably got an opinion, or even better a theory about it!!!! The conversations link often to events that happened in Ireland and in the world and they are set out in date order between the 24th of May 2011 and the 25th of June 2014. On the way their conversations take in among others, the World Cup and the eating habits of Luis Suarez, Colonel Gaddafi, the Pope, tests for cancer, the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson from Man Utd, the banking crisis, chemical weapons, Seamus Heaney and the names that David Beckham gives his kids! Each and every one is hilarious, and for all the shite the two of them talk, you read it and find yourself often saying out loud “You’re right there lad!”. Here’s a small soupcon………..

 – See the Trogg died

– I saw tha’ yeah. Reg Presley

– With a name like tha’ he was never goin’ to be a plumber was he?

– It wasn’t his real name

– Was it not?

– No. His real one was Reg Ball.

– You were a bit of a fan, were yeh?

– I was, yeah. I was only a kid when Wild Thing’ came ou’

– It made your heart sing

– That’s the one. One of me brothers had the record an’ he left it behind when he got married, so it was always in the house

– Great song

– Brilliant song. Still.

– Could you get away with it now?

– Wha’?

– Callin’ a woman a wild thing

– I don’t see why not. I called my missus exactly tha’ this morning after the news.

– An’ she was grand with it?

– Fuckin’ delighted. I put me arms around her, I was a bit emotional, like. An’ I sang it to her.

– Nice

– In the kitchen

– An tell us – without invading your privacy. Did it develop into a bit of a Jack Nicholson, Jessica Lange moment? On the table.

– Not exactly no. But she put an extra dollop of jam into me porridge

– For fuck sake

– Blackcurrant.

– Nice.

And that is in a sense the genius of this book. It captures the way our talk in pubs shifts randomly from one topic to the next, it captures the certainty that alcohol gives to even the daftest of ideas and opinions, it captures the fact that every time somebody starts a conversation with you in a pub there’s that part of you at the back of your brain going “Is he taking the piss?” (because it’s a 50-50 chance he will be!), and it captures the fact that it is often genuinely hilarious! But the trick to getting pub talk right for me is to understand that most of the time, in the midst of all that verbal diarrhoea, there’s a warmth and a humanity, even between the most utterly inebriated of strangers, and above all to spot that, just every so often, there’s a genuine nugget where someone really does say something that’s worth listening to.

I read the first of these books in a pub to mark St. Patrick’s Day – and it was bloody hopeless – even though that book is only 80 odd pages I kept getting interrupted every 5 minutes by people asking “What’s the book about mate?”  and on answering I lost it to them for god knows how long before it came back to me! At the end of St Patrick’s Day I had intended to write a blog post on it while pissed – alas I only managed to achieve the latter part of that ambition! Which leaves me to be even more impressed with that Roddy Doyle as I like to think he wrote these books about the pub IN the pub! So not only can that man write, but he must be bloody awesome at holding his ale as well!

Book Info

“Two Pints” by Roddy Doyle and “Two More Pints” by Roddy Doyle were both published by Jonathan Cape. I WON both my copies in a giveaway on Cathy’s blog at 746Books Cathy had offered the books as part of Reading Ireland Month, the “Beggorathon”, which she hosted along with Niall at The Fluff Is Raging – it was a great way to find out more about Irish books, film and music and also gave me the excuse to lose myself in Seamus Heaney accompanied by the odd Arthur Guinness or six! So my thanks to Cathy for the books – they were great to read and as an added bonus they gave me excuses for being in a pub when I should have been elsewhere (you can never have too many of those sorts of excuses really!)

Book Rating (for info on my book rating scale click here)

Nine

 

 

 

 

Even In The Warmest Glow, How Cold The Shadow …………….. The Illuminations by Andrew O’Hagan

………………………………….. The dicimagetionary gives six different meanings of the verb to illuminate: to supply with light; to make lucid or clear; to decorate with lights; to enlighten; to make illustrious; and to decorate with colours. It’s no exaggeration to say that Andrew O’Hagan’s latest novel The Illuminations is so cleverly plotted and so wonderfully well written, it does all six!

At the centre of the story are Anne Quirk, now an 82 year old woman with early stage dementia, living in an Ayrshire care home, and her grandson Luke, a 29 year old Army Captain, taking extended leave after an incident involving his platoon in Afghanistan. Together, they embark on a journey to Blackpool for Anne to make one last connection with her past and for Luke to make sense of his future.

For Anne, a successful female photographer of the 1950’s, the past is her lover Harry Blake, who she met in a series of love trysts in Blackpool and which left her with a distorted and inflated opinion of Harry the photographer, a romanticised memory of Harry the man, and a daughter, Alice, who she’s never quite come to terms with. Luke on the other hand has already gone in search of that figure from his past when he goes from completing his University degree in English Liternature to the army, in a sort of search to understand his soldier father, who was killed in action in Northern Ireland. Now he’s retreated to his grandmother, with whom he’s always been close, in the wake of an ambush in Helmand which leads to the death of both British soldiers and Afghan civilians.

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It’s a book of contrasts, each one in a sense giving light and shadow. There’s the more typical light and shade of war, of memories, of family relationships, and of the past and present. Then there are the slightly less typical contrasts of Scotland and Afghanistan and of the ordinariness of Anne’s reality in the care home with the almost mythological status she has among fellow residents and staff. Perhaps the strongest contrast of all is between art and the shade which everyday life can cast over it, for there’s a real tension between the artistic nature of both characters and their subsequent lives. Anne’s pioneering art captures the raw power and rather stark beauty of everyday life with her ‘kitchen-sink images’, yet the everyday life she led away from Harry and their Blackpool trysts is anything but powerful or beautiful in her memories. For Luke, he swaps the language of poetry and literature for the sharp, crude, patois of the British Army, and swaps the education into creativity and imagination which his grandmother gave him, for the rigidity and rule book life of a soldier.

Similarly, the bond between both the main characters, which shows such a depth of love and trust between Luke and his grandmother contrasts with the relationship they both have with Alice, whose recollection of her father Harry, as a man who probably wouldn’t remember their names, is very much at odds with her mothers glowing memories of him. And in same way that Alice is excluded from her mothers re-cast memory of the past, she’s also frozen out of her son Luke’s life, in part by his feelings about his father and in part by his relationship with his grandmother – it’s as if the family bond simply skips a generation.

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This is a wonderfully layered book, which has such strong characters and such a gritty realistic feel from start to finish. And as I said at the start it illuminates in every sense of the word: from the descriptions of the way Anne uses light in her photographs; to the lure of those Blackpool lights; the way Anne’s love for Luke cuts through the fog of her dementia at times to illuminate her moods; the light it shines on those themes of family, relationships and the shadows cast by people’s pasts; it enlightens the reader on the unique atmosphere and cameraderie among soldiers more than in any novel I’ve ever read; and Andrew O’Hagan does it all with a prose which draws colour from the darkest events and the starkest of settings – whether it’s a Helmand I know only from TV news footage or the damp, grey streets of seaside Ayrshire towns that I know from personal experience!

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I have to admit I’ve long been a fan of Andrew O’Hagan since I read his book ‘Our Fathers’ some time ago. He’s a writer who seems to make use of real events or people to create his fiction, but equally he’s not afraid to tackle difficult subjects either – and The Illuminations is no exception. Since finishing the book I’ve read that the character of Anne is in part based on Margaret Watkins a Scottish-Canadian photographer and the character of Harry Blake is linked to another well known photographer, Bert Hardy, who chronicled working class life in Glasgow. Even the battle in which Luke’s platoon are ambushed, at Kajaki Dam, really did take place with horrendous consequences for the Agfghani civilians. But of course it’s one thing to research the lives of others or events in war and quite another to blend it all together in a novel which is as powerful and engrossing as The Illuminations is. August Sander, the celebrated German photographer once said ‘In photography there is no shadow that cannot be illuminated’. And the writing of Andrew O’Hagan is exactly the same! This is a great book!

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Book Info

The Illuminations by Andrew O’Hagan was published by Faber and Faber in 2015. I bought my copy with my own hard earned cash.
If you are interested in reading what others thought of the book, there are several in the press but if you want a more personalised opinion, I would recommend the reviews at Fuelled By Fiction and an interview with the author at the Scottish Review of Books.
Margaret Watkins, on whom the main character was based, was a Canadian photographer who ultimately became well known for her photographs of life in Scotland (Some of which are above). Her work is currently being shown at The Hidden Lane Gallery in Glasgow, where she lived for most of her life
Lastly, I took the title of my review from a poem by the Japanese poet Kobyashi Issa.

Book Ratings ( for info my book rating scale click here)

Nine

 

The Book Most Likely To……………. Do Something Funny For Money!

…………… It’s Red Nose Day tonight, one of the most important and most inspirational fundraising events in the UK. It’s celebrating its 30th Year in 2015 and to date has raised over £1 BILLION!j

So to fit in with the fact that most of Britain’s been dancing, baking, sitting in baths of custard, doing sponsored skips, spells, jumps, etc etc etc here are the books I reckon are most likely to join in with Red Nose Day. So my suggestions for the books most likely to do something funny for money……………

Mr RedNosey by Roger Hargreaves ( I bet you saw that coming!)

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Biggles RedNose To War! By Captain W.E. Johns

imageI RedNose Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

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In The Light Of What We RedNose by Zia Rahman

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And Quiet RedNose The Don by Mikhail Sholokov

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Two RedNoses And A Vanful Of Smoke by Peter Benson

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When The Wind RedNose by Raymond Briggs

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The Beat RedNose On: The Complete Rebus by Ian Rankin

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RedNose Of The True Policeman by Roberto Bolano

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The Name Of The RedNose by Umberto Eco

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RedNose-ah’s Compass by Anne Tyler

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The RedSnose Child by Eowyn Ivey

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 If you’ve not already done it you can donate to Red Nose Day here – I hope that you will give whatever you can to help those who need it. And if you need to be convinced about people needing our help, watch this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where The Streets Have No Sane………………. Barcelona Shadows by Marc Pastor

………………………………………… Just occassionally you read a book that not only resonates with you as a story, but it resonates with the world around you. Reading Marc Pastors novel about a female serial killer butchering children from the most vulnerable and poorest streets of Barcelona in the early 1900’s would have been chilling in itself. The fact that it is based on the real life serial killer Enriqueta Marti, who procured poor children for use by rich paedophiles, before killing and dismembering them, gives it a whole new resonance when you think of the current scandals in the UK with ex-celebrities and ex-politicians alleged to have been engaging in the systematic abuse of young boys and young girls over many years. So as subjects go, this is certainly one of the more harroBarcelona Shadows by Marc Pastorwing and grisly books I’ve read in many years, but in spite of the horrors within the pages of this novel, it’s also a compelling read.

As the children of the poorjest families in the red light district of El Raval start to disappear, rumours grow on the streets of a monster who stalks the night and takes children away. The authorities, through a mix of apathy, trying to manage the city’s reputuation and self-interest from those who are paedophiles, are trying to quash these rumours rather than investigate (eerily resonant with today too!)

But two police inspectors, Corvo and Malsano, are spurred on by a sense of injustice and morals to investigate, helped by the fact that they are both bloody-minded enough to ignore orders from on high to do otherwise! They track the killer through some of the dingiest, poorest neighbourhoods and unravel a plot that leads up to some of the most powerful people in the city.

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At the heart of the book is the wonderful character of Moises Corvo. On the one hand he’s driven by his sense of right and wrong and his need to protect children from whoever it is who is kidnapping and then killing them and on the other he’s got a depth and breadth of experience of the city’s brothels that tells you he’s far from a ‘holier than thou’, morally-pure detective in his search for the killer. There’s such a contrast in him, a man who really no longer seems to give a shit about his life and yet driven to the point of almost obsessive determination to protect the innocent. An early phrase in the book sums him up perfectly!

Moises Corvo is a dog: no-one pisses on his territory. And if that means stinking up the whole neighbourhood with the cloying stench of urine, he has no problem with that …………Corvo is an old dog, grim-faced and filled with vices, but he isn’t ready to give over these streets to anyone.

The story is told in the third person and it’s never clear exactly who the narrator actually is for at times they slip into the first person and enter the story – but as I read it I took it to be Death – and reading other blogs suggest that was how others interpreted it too. It’s a clever way of telling the parts of the story that sit outside the narrative, such as the back story to Corvo and what happened to turn him into that ‘grim-faced dog’. The other half-character is Barcelona itself, its streets, attitudes, struggles, dark corners and a collection of some pretty weird characters who flit in and out of the story. These are what defintely qualify as ‘mean streets’ and the sense of menace and danger is palpable.

Barcelona Shadows is a well written novel, with a great character in Inspector Corvo. The plot is driven along at a pace and as the horrors mount and the twists in the plot unravel you are increasingly drawn in to the murky world it describes. For me, it was only those horrors that I had a difficulty with, though that wasn’t actually the book’s fault! I’m just a bit squeamish I guess! Nevertheless, as it’s based on a bloody gruesome true story and because of that resonance to the awful things we’re finding out today, I’d say Barcelona Shadows is a really good book but a pretty harrowing read – as I used to do with Dr Who you might want to read bits of this peering out from behind the sofa!

Book Info
Barcelona Shadows by Marc Pastor was translated by Mara Faye Lethem and was published by Pushkin Press in 2014. I bought it with my own cash, based on an excerpt I heard on a Guardian Books podcast
Though Marc Pastor tweets as @DoctorMoriarty, it looks to me like he tweets mostly in Catalan so doubt you’d find out much from that (unless your Catalan is fluent!!). He is a crime scene investigator in Barcelona and interestingly was interviewed by the online magazine “This Is Horror“, where among their questions, they describe his work as ‘horror writing’. Ordinarily that’s not for me but perhaps explains why I found this a little disturbing to say the least!
Horror genre or not, there are a few reviews of Barcelona Shadows that you might want to check out if you’re thinking of going on to read it, and I’d recommend those at Crime Review and at BooksBonesBuffy ( who’s also got a Marc Pastor interview on her site. )
Book Rating
This is my rating for Barcelona Shadows out of 10 ( and you can find info on my rating scale here)

eight

 

Problem Posed. Problem Pondered. Problem Past…..with Helpful Haruki The Housewives Delight

…………………………………………….. A couple of months back I read that Haruki Murakami was to become an agony uncle and that he would ‘answer questions of any kind’ on his website! Now I’ve no idea what an agony uncle is supposed to do or what skills they’re supposed to have-but having read and loved Murakami’s wonderful imaimageginative stories I think the answers he gives will be……… well……………….. surreal obviously!

The only problem with Haruki’s problem page was he only accepted problems for a month, then gave his answers! Here are some of the problems posed for Haruki while he was agony-uncling ( predictive text really didn’t like that word so I guess I’ve made it up!)

30 is right around the corner for me, but there isn’t a single thing that I feel like I’ve accomplished. When I was young, I thought to be an ‘adult’ must be so wonderful, but my current reality is so far away from what I imagined. And when faced with that reality, I get very disheartened. What should I do?

Every time I read that problem I think I might have written it myself – then I remember that 30 is around a very different corner for me! Anyway, here’s another……..

My wife quite frequently belches right near the back of my head when she passes behind me. When I say to her, “Stop burping behind me all the time,” she says, “It’s not on purpose. It just comes out.” I don’t think I’m bringing it upon myself in any way. Is there something I can do to stop my wife’s belching? (Murakami’s answer to this one is quite brilliant-I’ve put it at the bottom of this post – just to force you on into reading the rest of my drivel!)

Initially, I was just entertained by it but then I had a thought……Haruki’s not the only one people write to – people write to me all the time with what I’d thought previously were rather………………………………… tangential comments!………………….. Now I realise they’re cries for help!!!!!!!! I felt shame, deep deep shame! Here I am getting comments asking for advice and help and I just ignore them!

I work in the public sector in the UK (well trodden euphemism for ex-teacher-now-civil-servant!). So I’m used to being in public service – and if someone as illustrious and genius-like as Haruki gives his time to help others, then so should an eejit like me!

So I’ve decided I will respond to those desperate souls out there who write to me everyday with their somewhat random queries, for as they don’t say but should “One man’s random is another man’s lifesaver!!!!!”

And since I’ve been inspired into doing my duty to those in need by Haruki, I’ve decided to herewith name this part of my blog “Helpful Haruki The Housewives Delight Problem Page! ( it’s also partly named after one of my favourite Joni Mitchell lyrics, even though Joni doesn’t do agony auntying herself!)

So first up is this plea for help from a desperate mother ( at least I think it’s a mother!) who has asked me

Dear Helpful Haruki

Today, I went to the beach with my kids. I found a sea shell and gave it to my 4 year old daughter and said “You can hear the ocean if you put this to your ear.”

She put the shell to her ear and screamed. There was a hermit crab inside and it pinched her ear. Now she says she never wants to go back! What shall I do?
Yours
Katstron.Clementhwyvirgilampt

Dear Katstron
First of all what a lovely name! As soon as I read it I thought you could have been a character in one of my novels!
I was sorry to hear what happened to little Katstron. The best way to get her back to the beach is to make it safer than anywhere else. So put hermit crabs in her hats, pillows, ear muffs, and everywhere else at home. Every time she gets bitten just say ‘We’d be safer at the beach darling baby Katstron – there’s only one hermit crab there!’ Eventually she’ll beg you to go to the beach!
Ever Yours
Helpful Haruki

I’ve got tons of these waiting but feel free to send more. So to paraphrase those truly legendary all-American problem solvers “If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can’t find the A Team …….. maybe you can hire Helpful Haruki!”

And finally, as promised ( even if you did scroll down to here rather than read this shite, here’s Mr Murakami’s wonderful answer to that poor gentlemen with the intermittently belching wife!

I hope you’ll pardon me for saying so, but I think belching is far better than farting. Perhaps you should think of it that way!!!!

“I Fear I Am Not In My Perfect Mind”………….. Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey

“Pray do not mock me

I am a very foolish fond old man

Fourscore and upward

Not an hour more or less

And to deal plainly

I fear I am not in my perfect mind

Methinks I should know you

And know this man”

King Lear Act 4 Scene 7

In his review of a recent London production of King Lear in The Independent, Boyd Tonkin wrote “If you can sit through a first-rate production of King Lear and come out even trying to make polite chat……then you may have grown a thicker skin than any human should.” And that equally applies to this book-if you can read “Elizabeth Is Missing” and come away without feeling desperate for the main character Maud and her immediate family, then you have an un-naturally deep epidermis in my view!

On one level Elizabeth Is Missing is a very clever and exceptionally imagewell told story of Maud, a woman in her eighties who is trying to solve two mysteries, both triggered by her finding a disused compact mirror.  – in the present she’s trying to unravel the clues and work out what happened to her friend Elizabeth and in her recollections of the past, she’s trying to work out what might have happened to her sister Sukey, who went missing when Maud was a teenager in the 1950’s.

The difficulty for Maud is that she has dementia which prevents her remembering why she’s entered a room 5 seconds after she gets there let alone let her remember the ‘clues’ she picks up in trying to work out what happened to her friend Elizabeth. She leaves herself notes in her bag and her pockets but they do little more than prompt her back to the same place – that she thinks something has happened to her friend Elizabeth but beyond that she can’t remember the context in which she wrote the note (although of course the reader can)

But the flip side of Maud’s almost complete loss of short term memory, is that her recollections of what happened when her married sister went missing after the war are sharp and clear. Through this part of the story we essentially follow Maud re-running in her head the circumstances of Sukey’s disappearance and the information that she, her mother and her father picked up in their search for her, including their varying suspicions of Sukey’s husband Frank, the family lodger Douglas and a woman who has gone mad and lives on the streets in the aftermath of being bombed from her home. Emma Healey’s writing in these flashbacks is very impressive, so richly detailed and yet with some beautiful descriptions, and it’s here that Maud’s memory is comprehensive and reliable.

Or is it?! For at the centre of the book Emma Healey has wonderfully drawn the character of Maud and placed her as the narrator of the book. It’s an exceptional plot device for it puts the reader into the same position as Maud, her family and everyone she meets – you’re at the mercy of her dementia and its impact on her memory in the same way the characters in the novel are – so even the reader can never quite be sure all is as it seems in Maud’s memories!

But for all the uncertainty and frustrations Maud brings you as a narrator, it’s a stunning portrayal of what it’s like to be 90 years old with no short term memory and yet enough understanding to instinctively know that you have no memory.

The depiction of what it might be like to suffer from dementia is really difficult to read in places and the experiences of Maud’s long suffering daughter Helen in caring for her would make you weep. It’s so well done that when Helen snaps and shows her frustrations you sympathise with her and forgive her because it makes you realise just what is really meant by someone who would “try the patience of a saint!”- even though Maud neither means to do it nor can she control it.

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One of the most striking things about the book is how the writing makes you react. The book is very funny in places, with a sort of understated, gentle sense of humour, and at times I laughed out loud, especially at some of Maud’s notes and the situations she gets into. And yet I also feel guilty in a way for that reaction because at the heart of the book is Maud’s dementia and it is simply an awful illness to contemplate. As Maud’s memory worsens rapidly some of the consequences are heartbreaking. (And if I’m honest they frightened me a bit, for if this is old age it’s not a pleasant prospect to look forward to)

Overall, while I enjoyed the story as a double mystery, what left the greatest impression was Emma Healey’s superb character study of what it feels like for Maud, and for those who love Maud, to live with the ravages of her dementia. It’s brilliantly done. So that’s why I’d suggest anybody reading this and not getting a gut wrenching-feeling might want to see that dermatologist and get their skin measured!

Book Info
Emma Healey’s “Elizabeth Is Missing” was published by Penguin Books. I bought my paperback copy.
The novel was apparently the subject of a publishing bidding war and I can see why! The book was shortlisted for the Costa debut novel prize for 2014. If you’re interested in finding out more about Emma Healey then you can find her website here, follow her on Twitter @ECHealey and there’s a short video about Elizabeth Is Missing made for its CostaBook Award.
As a much-lauded and best selling book there are a lot of reviews to choose from but if you’d like to do a bit more trying before you buy, then I’d recommend the reviews at BookerTalk and at Normal In London which are both great.
Book Rating
If you’d like to know more about my book rating scale for 2015 click here.

Nine

Are These The Sexiest Books Ever?

……………………If your idea of a sexy book is the gardening classic Fifty Sheds of Grey, or it’s Northern cousin Fifty Shades of Gravy, then this post will be a disappointment to you. But if you aren’t looking for the intricate details of what goes on in the Red Room, then perhaps you might read on and consider my nomination for the sexiest books ever!

Penguin Little Black ClassicsFor the sexy books I’m referring to are Penguin’s ‘Little Black Classics’ range! They’ve been produced to mark Penguin’s 80th anniversary and they are being marketed everywhere in London – and I’ve fallen heads over heels for them big time! There’s something very cool and irrestible in these sleek black covers – even the type face on the spines seems seductive!

As a man who lives with two fashionistas (one highly experienced and fully qualified and one a teenage apprentice!), I’m well acquainted with the ‘little black dress’ or LBD as it’s known to those of us who know our Marc Jacobs from our Marks and Sparks! ( I don’t really know my fashion arse from my elbow patch jacket, but I’ve had to learn these phrases off by heart so I can join in 90% of the discussions in our house!)

Anyway the Little Black Dress is sleek, chic, classy and essentially beautifully, understatedly sexy! The Urban Dictionary defines the Little Black Dress as:

The Little Black Dress: Most women have one in the recesses of their closet. This is the dress that is just a little too short. One that looks as if it was made for your body and your body only. One that makes you feel sexy the second you put it on. It has to be simple. All black, no buttons or ornamentation.

Now take that definition and have a look at the Little Black Classic – ladies and gentlemen I give you a book that is a little on the short side, clothed in black, a simple white typeface, and not a button or ornamentation in site……in short a sexy book cover that looks like it was made for this book and for this book only!

Or as it ought to be known...the beautiful "The Beautiful Cassandra"!
Or as it ought to be known…the beautiful “The Beautiful Cassandra”!

The other thing about the Little Black Dress is it looks good from every angle – herewith further evidence that the Little Black Classics are the sexiest books ever!

The LBC - just as good side on!
The LBC – just as good side on!

But as well as looking gorgeous and doing the mind-association with sexy dresses, the marketing for these books is brilliant. All over the Tube, there are posters with random quotes from one of the 80 books in the series. They are always intriguing and you just can’t help reading them. What’s really clever though is the random quote isn’t credited to the book it comes from by name – to draw you in further it simply lists its number in the series of 80 books.

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You read the quote which you then can’t get out of your head and so you then go online with the number, trying to find out the title of the book the quote came from (unless you’re a mega bibliophle and you recognise it at first sight!). I’m so intrigued by these posters I am actually starting to imagetake detours and different routes on my commutes on the look out for the posters!!!!!

And to top it all off, there’s even a very clever flywheel on the Penguin website, apparently inspired by the iPod, which takes the experience of online book shopping to a whole new level – you can click to find any and every one of the 80 books in the series! It’s genius – and all that marketing and a price tag of only 80p a book made these irresistable to me – so I’ve ordered the lot.

So the Little Black Classics is good for family harmony in one way because I now understand why the fashionistas in my family end up buying all these clothes! The down side of course is that instead of buying one book equivalent of the LIttle Black Dress, I’ve bought eighty! So, for quite some time now, on every occasion we get a parcel of clothes delivered to our house I WILL NOT be uttering my usual phrase of “What? Another Black Dress?!!!!!”

Sent from my iPhone

Return Of The Mac!………….Book Review of The Children Act by Ian McEwan

………………………………………Reading this was a bit like rediscovering an old shirt at the back of the wardrobe that I’d once loved, had stopped wearing as I’d put on weight and then eons later finding it AND finding it now fits again…..not only reuniting me with an ‘old campaigner’ (as all my single-man days clothes are known affectionately to me!) but at the same time also magically letting me know I’ve lost weight as well!The Children Act by Ian McEwan

Actually that might be straying too far into the realms of fantasy, but having been distinctly underwhelmed by Ian McEwan’s last two books Solar and Sweet Tooth, I didn’t have the highest of hopes for this book. But right from the first page I knew everything was going to be fine and while its not quite a return to the sheer wonderfulness of Atonement or Amsterdam, I still thoroughly enjoyed The Children Act.

Fiona Maye is a High Court judge in the Family Division and as the story begins she’s got two problems to come to terms with. At home her husband has announced that he plans to have one last fling and embark on an affair and at work she’s required to rule on a hugely complex case involving a young man with leukaemia who’s refusing treatment on the grounds of his religious beliefs….but as he’s just under the age of consent Fiona has to rule on what is in his best interests under the Children Act of 1989.

As the court case progresses Fiona becomes increasingly involved in the life of 17 year-old Adam as she tries to determine his competence to make the decision to refuse the treatment on offer and to ultimately determine whether or not he is making a decision based on his genuinely held beliefs or whether he’s actually taking a decision to meet the expectations of his parents beliefs. Meanwhile her husband Jack follows through on his decision to have the affair, leaving Fiona to decide whether to come to terms with the affair and continue their marriage or to decide that she won’t agree to Jack’s proposition that the marriage and the affair can, and should, co-exist.

The two parts of the narrative have enough in common and enough potential influence to sit alongside one another in the story and as you’d expect from such a great writer he handles it brilliantly. Both of the situations demand complex decisions from Fiona, balancing logic, interpretation and emotion, and I thought it was a great way to illustrate the complexity of family law and the fact that it has a subtlety beyond the usual definitive legal issues of guilty or innocent. Equally though Ian McEwan doesn’t overdo the linking up of the two parts of the narrative and so both develop and draw you in as a reader.

There’s a real attention to detail in the writing and so many little touches that lift this way above the majority of novels I read. Most of the time this just adds to the enjoyment of the book, whether it’s in the descriptions of Fiona and Jack’s home or in the debates between the circuit court judges on their tours of different parts of the country. Just occasionally though it slipped over for me into being either a bit too technical or into being a detail too many. In places the research into family law and particularly complex judgements runs the risk of seeming a bit ‘showy!’. In my work, the cases my staff manage will bring us into the realms of the law and the Family Court so for me, reading Fiona’s judgements or finding out about how precedents might be taken into account was irresistible – but I can see that for others this might get tedious and distracting.

The characters in the novel are mixed. I believed in the bohemian academic Jack, with his vanities and unintentional cruelties and found him strangely engaging – maybe I identified with him as a man who might also have ‘old campaigners’ at the back of his wardrobe! On the other hand, Adam, the 17-year-old with whom Fiona develops an obvious affinity and a mutual bond, was a lot less effective as a character. I thought when Ian McEwan let Adam move towards being a character who was on-the-surface calm and rational but underneath a maelstrom of emotions, he was much more real. But other parts of his character, like the viola-playing and the poetry that mesmerises the nurses who care for him, was just a bit too twee for me! But the strength of the book is the character of Fiona. There’s a cold, almost detached feel to her but underneath that logical brain she’s such a contrast. So I enjoyed his portrayal of the same character in two quite different contexts and the Fiona who emerges between the ordered, complex and intellectual world of the law is fundamentally different to the Fiona who emerges in the sad, unraveling world of her marriage, even though there are still huge consistencies in how she acts and reacts in both situations.

The Royal Courts of Justice - where decisions and made and where lawyers made a lot of money!
The Royal Courts of Justice – where decisions get made and where lawyers make money!!!!!!

Overall, I think you have to admire Ian McEwan’s willingness to take on such a potentially controversial subject as the conflicts between religious belief, religious freedom and the law, especially in the world of Family Law with its perennial focus on the debate about the ‘best interests of the child’, which is always a contentious one. Inevitably the story is slightly more weighted in places towards the respective arguments for each side of that debate as opposed to the narrative itself so just occasionally it can feel more like reading a legal discussion paper than a novel. But I found these sections fascinating so they certainly didn’t detract from the story for me. If you’re new to Ian McEwan I wouldn’t recommend you start here as he’s written better books than this. But he’s a wonderful writer and that’s very much on show here, so if you’re a McEwan fan like I am, and if like me you’d started to wonder about his books after the last two in particular then fear not – with The Children Act, one of the very best British authors is very much back where he belongs!

Book Info
The Children Act by Ian McEwan was published by Jonathan Cape. My copy was bought with my own hard-earned cash.
When literary giants like Ian McEwan publish a new novel, you’ve got half the world reviewing it. But if you want to read what others thought of it, I’d recommend you try Girl With Her Head In A Book or a Little Blog of Books – both are well worth a look and their blogs generally are great.
If you’re interested in getting a synopsis of The Children Act, the video below has Ian McEwan giving it an intro himself ( rather unsubtly surrounded by copies of the book!) – but if you ignore the brick-through-jewellery-shop window approach to marketing, it’s actually a short but really good introduction to the book.
Book Rating
Book Rating out of ten! ( You can find info on my book rating scale here)

Nine

These Boots Were Made For Walking…………….Book Review of Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper

……………………………In the days since I finished reading Emma Hooper’s debut novel ‘Etta and Otto and Russell and James’, I’ve been wondering how to describe because it seems to sit somewhere in between a fairytale and a reality trip! What makes it difficult to describe overall is that there are too many little flights of fancy in the story, such as a talking and country-music singing coyote called James, for it to be utterly grounded in reality and yet there aren’t enough flights of fancy for it to be described as a fantasy or magical realism novel either! Then I decided that it didn’t really matter where it sat between reality and fantasy – who cares – because it’s a charming, beautifully written, wonderful novel.

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Etta is an 83 year old woman living in Saskatchewan Canada, who wakes up one morning and decides to walk to the sea because she’s never seen the water. And living in Sasketchewan, there’s no quick route to the sea – but as with every journey there’s a short way to get there, going several hundred miles West or there’s a long way to get there, a journey of more than two thousand miles East! Etta’s husband Otto meanwhile, gets out of bed to find a note telling him Etta’s gone for a walk to see the water and he knows from the ‘tightening of the skin on his chest’ that his wife will go the long way. And he’s right.

From above Saskatchewan looks like a bloody long walk!
From above Saskatchewan looks like a bloody long walk!

Otto is left with a pile of recipe cards and his neighbour and life-long friend Russell for company. Etta has a note in her pocket reminding her who she is and where she’s from so that if she ever does make it to the ocean, she might be able to then find her way back home. And from there the novel follows Etta’s journey across Canada picking up first James the coyote, then mild celebrity as her trek hits the media, and then a collection of random objects which people ask her to take along for them on her journey to the sea. Meanwhile, Otto stays home, learns to cook, adopts a guinea pig and waits. And interspersed with the present-day octogenarian journeys of Etta, Otto and Russell, the novel also journeys back over their lives, from near neighbour Russell’s more-or-less adoption into the family of Otto and his 14 siblings, to Etta’s arrival in their lives as the barely-older-than-the-students village schoolteacher. On the way there’s the most beautiful love triangle between Etta, Otto and Russell and there’s Otto’s time as a soldier in the Second World War which is pivotal in the second half of the novel.

It’s a novel of many parts and most of them were brilliant. It’s impossible not to read without physically wincing, the grittily real description of Etta’s bleeding, ravaged feet after three days of walking. Equally it’s very easy to go along with the beautifully woven flight of fancy in the French woman Giselle who seems to be in every town Otto’s platoon are billeted in and who whispers to him that he’s a favourite of hers. In between, each of the characters life stories are utterly engaging and so full of emotion that they add a richness to the already wonderful characters Emma Hooper has drawn. I also thought that the continually shifting narrative between Etta’s walk, Otto’s waiting for her, Russell’s searching for her and then back into the stories of their lives was what kept the novel a riveting read for me. If it had just been the story of Etta’s walk I’d probably have given up earlier than Etta’s first pair of boots! Instead I was hooked by these characters all the way. And even though I’m not a lover of books with talking animals, even James the talking coyote worked brilliantly throughout – if you are going to have a talking, singing coyote in a novel then why not give him the great comic timing and subtle wit that Emma Hooper has given to James!

In a book that flirts with magical realism, there was always the chance that some of it would be too much for me. And in places it was. The reappearance of his sister Winnie in the midst of the chaos of war and her interchanging with the mysterious French woman Giselle was one stretch too far for me. Equally Russell as a character got a bit lost for me in the middle of the novel. His search for Etta made perfect sense but for me it happened too soon and after it he faded from the present day parts of the novel.

But these are minor quibbles. Overall I loved this story. There’s an easy charm to it all the way through, and the story of Etta and Otto and Russell’s intertwining lives was just one of those tales that draw you in as a reader and keep you engrossed to the extent you really do believe in these characters so much, you start talking about them as if they are real!!! (I know my family think Etta and Otto and Russell and James have moved into our house, so much have I talked about them!).

It’s also a raw and tender novel in places and in some ways those were the bits of it I loved the most – Otto’s homecoming after the war was one of those ‘read-it-with-the-book-held-high’ moments, so that my fellow commuters didn’t see me crying again!

What struck me most in this book was the way the word ‘OK’ is used to such fantastic effect so frequently. I don’t think I’ve read a book which uses it so often, but it’s wonderful in this novel because it captures the mood of these characters and their attitude to life perfectly – a sort of gentle, drawn out drawl of an “Okay!” – those accepting, straight, uncomplicated ‘Okay’s’ which signal a lack of fuss, a simple power in emotions and relationships and a constant willingness to accept people as they are. So to conclude and paraphrase……..

“What did you think of Etta and Otto and Russell and James?” asked Etta and Otto and Russell and James in unison.

“I absolutely loved it!!!!!” I replied.

“O-kay” they said.

Book Info

Etta and Otto and Russell and James is Emma Hooper’s debut novel. It was published by Fig Press in the UK and I bought my copy.

I first heard about this book in a Guardian list of books to look out for in 2015 and then heard a short interview with the author and Mariella Frostrup on the BBC Radio 4 Books and Authors podcast.

Emma Hooper is a Canadian musician and academic as well as an author. She plays viola and is Senior Lecturer in Commercial Music at Bath Spa Uni here in the UK. ( I’ve got most of my family in Canada so I’ve given them a bit of kudos by categorising the book as Canadian Fiction – but as she’s based in Bath and has worked with Peter ‘God-Like-Genius’ Gabriel, I’ve unilaterally decided to adopt Emma Hooper as one of us and so have categorised it as British fiction as well!!!!!)

If you are interested in finding out more about Emma Hooper you can find her website here and she’s on Twitter as @waitress4thbees . In addition there’s an interview she did with the Bookseller and there are other reviews of the book that I’d recommend at both the blog for Leeds Library Service, Leeds Reads, and at Claire Thinking.

Lastly if you like a bit of music with your reading the Bookshop Band have written a couple of songs inspired by Etta and Otto and Russell and James, one of which is below. And if you’ve never listened to the Bookshop Band before ….well you should!

Book Rating

Book Rating Out of Ten (You can find info on my book rating scale here)

ten

…………. READING FICTION. READING POETRY. READING ROY OF THE ROVERS. EATING SCOTTISH MEAT PIES, QUOTING LINES FROM GREGORYS GIRL AND WORSHIPPING A MAN CALLED CANTONA – ALL WASHED DOWN WITH A SPLASH OF WORCESTER SAUCE. I CAME. I SAW. I CONCURRED.

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