……….About 12 months ago I read a post on Annabel’s House of Books blog, entitled “Rewarding YA Books for Grown Ups…Let Me Persuade You”. It set out a number of YA books she recommended – but I’d already decided YA wasn’t for me. She did try to persuade me but I’m too smart for that. Now that I’ve read A Monster Calls, a book I’ve read such great things about time and time again, I realise looking back that the word I needed wasn’t “too smart” but “too pig-headed”. Because I thought A Monster Calls was every bit as good as everyone else says it is!
It tells the story of Conor, a twelve year old boy who wakes from a nightmare to find a monster at the window. And it wants something Conor can’t give it….the truth about what’s in that recurring nightmare of his. It visits Conor a number of times sharing truths through a series of stories it tells Conor, and every time the moral isn’t quite what you or Conor expect. In return all it asks is that when the time comes Conor will tell it the truth – it’s a truth it already knows but it wants to hear Conor say it.
Conor’s father and mother are separated, his father living with his new family in America and Conor desperately close to his critically sick mother. There;s a grief and loss at the heart of the book right from the start and it never goes away. It’s clear how it will end from the very beginning – Conor’s story is utterly heartbreaking and yet also incredibly heartening.
I’m a man of 52 and it’s been a bloody long time since I was in the shoes, body and mind of a teenager in any shape or form never one mind looking at life down the lens which Conor looks through. So I’ve no right to say how well Patrick Ness captures what it’s like to be a 12 year old boy – but if he’s as accurate in this as he is in his depiction of family tragedy and grief then I’d think he’ll come close to having got that 12 year old voice spot on. The book flows effortlessly. It’s hauntingly sad but never cliched or cloying and at times there’s just enough edge to the book to give it that ability to pull your emotions back and forward.
A Monster Calls has won award after award – in fact just about the only thing it didn’t win was the Mens 100m at the 2012 Olympics (though to be fair I was watching Usain Bolt and so I wouldn’t be surprised if A Monster calls finished second!). But when you read it you can see why – and I can see exactly what young adults would love about this – and in fairness to Annabel and that post of hers twelve months ago, there is so much for adults to love in this book too! This is the first time I’ve dipped my toe into the burgeoning waters of YA Fiction – it won’t be the last! Pig-Headed No More!!!!!
“A Monster Calls” by Patrick Ness, based on an idea by Siobhan Dowd was published by Walker Books. I made it my first investment in YA with my adult cash!
The book is illustrated by Jim Kay and they are simply wonderful. They have such power and yet there’s a subtlety to them and as a consequence they strike just the right balance for the monster between being menacing and being enticing. Jim Kay himself has a recently interesting site where you can read about he creates those illustrations in A Monster Calls. I was secretly delighted to read of his use of blown ink in his illustrations – it was a technique I used to teach to kids in my class who always loved doing it and were always impressed by their results! There isn’t any doubt for me that the illustrations are an integral and indispensable part of A Monster Calls – its a great story but the images make it even greater!
Patrick Ness himself has a website, and from it I gleaned that A Monster Calls is being made into a film with Sigourney Weaver and Liam Neeson as the Monster apparently. But that snippet of info aside, his site is also well worth a look over.
A Monster Calls is much heralded, critically acclaimed and has a pile of awards – too many to list – but take my word for it it’s won a shitload of prizes!
……..Here’s a few names…………Begbie, Rebus, The Gruffalo, Tam O’Shanter, Chris Guthrie, Richard Hannay, Sherlock Holmes, Precious Ramotswe, Peter Pan, Harry Potter, Jean Brodie and Dennis The Menace!!!!!!!!!
And what have they in common? Well of course they are all characters from Scottish Books and at the moment the Scottish Book Trust are running a poll to find out who is the most loved Scottish Book character of all time. The poll is being run as part of a wider programme of events on the run in to Book Week Scotland which runs from the 24th to the 30th November.
As I read through the list I realised yet again how rich, varied and fantastic Scottish literature is – it’s ever been thus and it seems to me to be as strong as ever. I found it really difficult to choose and even considered some not on the list. So here are my own famous, favourite five Scottish book characters…….
5. Art from “Young Art and Old Hector” by Neil Gunn
It’s often referred to as one of the best evocations of childhood ever written – and with good reason. It tells the wonderful story of 8 year old Art growing up and his relationship with Old Hector, a local legend, who knows the surrounding land like the back of his hand and is the finest bootlegger in the area. Art is curoius, mischievous, open and so full of life. The two are old and young in harmony – and it is told wonderfully well!
4. Long John Silver from Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island”
This is one of the books of my own childhood – I can remember reading passages from this on wild Scottish nights literally holding my breath. Discovering that Long John wasn’t all he seemed was in a sense one of my first steps in being educated about the duplicitous nature of adults!
3. Isis Whit from “Whit by Iain Banks
This story of a religious cult in Stirlingshire, which includes the wonderful delicacy of ‘haggis pakora’ brought to life ‘Whit’, my favourite character in the panoply of weird and wonderful characters that Iain Banks created. Isis, heir to the cult’s leadership, just had something very enticing, almost alluring about her and she literally leapt off the page at me!
2. John Rebus from The Rebus Stories by Ian Rankin
There’s a way to say “John” which sums up this fabulous character – it’s the tone used by his partner Siobhan – she says it in a way which smacks of despair, disapproval, criticism, rebuke, exasperation and an almost limitless well of affection. That’s what Rebus is and what Rebus does to you. For me the greatest fictional detective of the lot!
1. Chris Guthrie from “Sunset Song / Cloud Howe / Grey Granite – A Scots Quair” by Lewis Grassic Gibbon
If I had the choice of putting my arms round and saving someone in the world of fiction it would be Chris Guthrie (as portrayed above by Vivien Heilbron). I’d want to save and protect her from men who mistreat her, misunderstand her, disappoint her and aren’t worthy of her. Though I’d probably be no more use to her than any of the feckless men she’s lumbered with in the novels! Still, I love her so much I love her more than I love Tess of the D’Urbervilles……only just mind……but she does it for me every time!
If you are interested in reading more about Book Week Scotland and in particular if you fancy voting for your own favourite Scottish Book Character you’ll find the poll here. And if you haven’t got a favourite character, use the link anyway and vote for Chris Guthrie on my behalf!!!!!!!!!
………That is part of the last paragraph of the last page of this beautifully written book by Charles Lambert – and yet there’s no risk of any spoiler in quoting it!!!
Because he is reading through his mother he has no guarantee that what was read yesterday and the day before that is what will be read today, although the story is always the same. The act of reading is an unfolding and there’s no knowing what might be newly held within each fold.
Cards on the table/page from the beginning – I absolutely fucking LOVED this book! (Apologies but sometimes we Glaswegians get a wee bit sweary when we’re excited about something!). I’ve read it the last three days on the way in and out of work on the Tube in the midst of a pretty manic time at work – and every time I picked this up I found something to make me think, or ponder (I like to ponder!), or smile, or remember, or laugh, or just feel better about the world. It was a joy to read – a delicate, spellbinding, gentle, joy to read!
Its structured into themes like “Travel or a Harp Embedded” and “Money or Brown Sauce Sandwiches”, and within each theme there are 10 parts and each part has a hundred and twenty words. At least it says there are one hundred and twenty on the book cover and even though I was a bit of a dickhead and actually counted the words in the first paragraph (and there were 120!), from that point on I took the publishers word for it! I thought I might try it for my review – then I realised that the difference would be Charles Lambert writes 120 of the most beautifully perfect and sublimely put together words, whereas I’d just write 120 words of shite! But his 120 are worth it every time!
The sections don’t flow chronologically and their only link is to the theme of the section. At the start my brain told me it wouldn’t work and I half expected it to be all artsy-fartsy, navel-gazing, crap – not a bit of it. It’s certainly a collection of fragments of a life, told through each theme and yet, for all that each paragraph is a fragment of memory, the book is never fragmented to read. Far from it. It really does hook you early on, wrap itself around you and then holds you in all the way to the very last word.
It’s gorgeously written but it’s also sharp and in places it confronted me in some ways. As I read it what impressed me was how observant it seemed – it had the feel of someone who’d been living their life and really looked at it as they lived it! And I guess that was the thing it did most for me – it made me think that I spend a lot of time looking but maybe all too often I don’t see much! It’s been a long time since I read a book which forced me to stop and look away from the words and reflect as much as this book did.
I loved its combination of the trivial and even mundane parts of life being mixed among the life-changing and powerful moments. You follow the author through fragments from his family life and childhood, his adolescence, his sexuality, his loves, and his musing on life as he reflects back at the point of the deaths of first his father and then his mother. But intermingled with those, you also get a glimpse of films he remembers, books he’s read, and his recollection of buying a name tag for his cat!
With A Zero At Its Heart is without doubt one of the very best books I’ve read so far this year. When I got to the end and read the acknowledgements I got a sense that a large part of it must be autobiographical – though I may have got that wrong. But to be honest, who cares!!!!! I loved the fact that, autobiographical or imagined, he wrote these beautiful passages down and I got the absolute joy and pleasure to spend three days reading them!
Charles Lambert’s “With A Zero At Its Heart” was published by The Friday Project for Harper Collins. My copy was a bloody good use of my own hard-earned cash!
I initially read a blog post about the book at Savidge Reads. As half the world reads his blog you have probably read it too – but in case you haven’t use the link to see what he thought of it.
If you are interested in reading a little more about Charles Lambert, he’s got his own WordPress site which you can find here. It’s a really interesting site – this review has taken me about six hours more than it should have done as I spent most of it on his site!!
There have always been places that cast an almost hypnotic spell over people. Their dazzle draws the less fortunate to their bright lights, like moths to a flame, in search of fame, success, wealth, and riches. Trite as it may sound, I came myself to London with a degree of simplistic ‘streets paved with gold’ in my thinking. But surely no city can ever before has glittered quite as gaudily, and in some ways quite as menacingly, as the Shanghai at the heart of Tash Aw’s Five Star Billionaire.
The story follows 5 Malaysians and the fortunes they seek to make, or to try keep, amidst the get-rich-quick-and-every-can-be-successful lure of Shanghai. Walter Chao is part motivational guru and part con man, author of a 21st self-help bible called the Five Star Billionaire, a step-by-step guide to making it big in China – or anywhere else for that matter. Phoebe is a by-day dreamer and by night call girl with dreams inspired and fed by Walters book. Gary is a manufactured Cowell-like pop star on the verge of moving to superstardom, compensating for the vacuous nature of his music with shit-hot marketing, Yinghui is an ex-rich girl, moving from archetypal airhead to sharp-suited businesswoman on the cusp of further commercial glories and Justin is the head of a family conglomerate putting his own morals on the back burner in favour of his extended family’s values – and that’s the problem, for Justins’ is a family which hasn’t GOT any family values, unless you count profit margins!
The stories of Justin, Yinghui, Gary and Phoebe are all unfurled and then finely stitched together by the almost invisible thread that is Walter Chao. It’s a turbulent ride flitting between the five to describe their contrasting and sometimes interconnected successes and failures and as they do the book plays wonderfully with your emotions as the reader, frequently setting you up to like or loathe one character one chapter and then flipping your sympathies or frustrations over in the next chapter. There are some pretty radical changes for some of the characters during the novel while others tend to sway and drift more. But it’s always powerful and absorbing.
Each of the characters is strong and so their stories are all engaging. They each have such different traits, back stories and futures, but they pulled me in and had me essentially rooting for them one way or another, even though you sense from early on that this might not be a “and every body lived happily ever after” book! The cleverest feat he pulls off with the characters is the way he slowly weaves connections into their lives. Given that Shanghai is a city of over 14 million people, it’s no mean feat to pull 5 seemingly disconnected characters together without making it all look rather trite or tenuous. But here it’s brilliantly done – and beautifully balanced with just enough connectivity to keep you on the side of the characters and making sure you never tip into thinking “nah…that would never happen!”
Perhaps the only character who didn’t pull me in to the same degree was Walter Chao, but if I’m honest that was because I thought he wasn’t quite dark enough. But even there, I suspect Tash Aw may well have structured Walter that way for a very particular reason. And that reason is the city of Shaghai itself because it is essentially the sixth character in the story, and it’s way more menacing and dangerous than Walter Chao could ever be!
Occassionally the setting for a book is so appealing I find myself thinking I’d like to visit. The Shanghai of Five Star Billionaire hasn’t exactly been drafted with future promotional use by the Chinese Tourist Board in mind! Here is a city which glows and hypnotises the poor and the lost and the desperate from afar. It’s the classic mirage. Up close this is a city which seems to be almost soulless and proud of it! You get a strong sense of a cold-hearted city, its skyscrapers blocking out the sun, creating an artificial and manufactured society to match its concrete and glass takeover of the sky. For its desperate scramble to push its buildings ever upwards is matched by the scramble of its inhabitants to do the same. Each of the five characters in Five Star Billionaire are deeply flawed in some way be it avarice, morality, obsession, cruelty, or whatever. Shanghai reflects all those weaknesses in a gaudy, neon glow and casts them in the cheapest, harshest light.
In some ways I get the feeling Shanghai might be a love it or loathe it city in real life. I certainly think that for anybody reading the book, the extent to which you love or loathe Five Star Billionaire might depend on how you feel about Shanghai much more than how you react to Walter, Phoebe, Justin, Gary and Yinghui. Personally I loved it – for all its soullessness and for all its stone-hearted feel – which in fairness probably says as much about me as it does about Shanghai!!!!!
This is a book of strong characters and an even stronger setting. While it’s not a gentle love story by any means there is a surprising degree of gentleness throughout the book. As I read it, I couldn’t bring myself to dislike any of the characters or the city for there’s something deeply moving, even in all the glitz, about what the human spirit will do to survive and prosper in the harshest of climates. As I read I felt a real personal connection to the characters. I frequently thought of my mum, who emigrated from Scotland to New York as a young woman in search of work and a better life, passing through Ellis Island and when I recall that I always think of the Emma Lazarus poem, written into the Statue of Liberty “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”.
So for that very personal connection, and for 14 million other reasons, I loved Five Star Billionaire!
“Five Star Billionaire” by Tash Aw was published by 4th Estate for Harper Collins. My copy was one of those bought with my own hard-earned cash!
It was nominated for the Booker Prize in 2013 but didn’t get beyond the longlisting – which surprises me somewhat but hey……what do I know!
If you are interested in reading a little more about Tash Aw, he has his own website, where you can read his synposis of Five Star Billionaire and a series of quotes in praise of the book from across the globe.
For pretty obvious reasons Scotland’s very much in the news at the moment. And it looks like the vote on independence is going to go down to the wire. With only 2 weeks to go, the Scottish Independence Referendum is likely to be even more in your face in the next few days! So this isn’t perhaps the best time to plug Scotland on my blog – but I hope you’ll read on because there’s nothing here in common with either Alex Salmond, the Yes Leader, or Alistair Darling, the No Leader. Well……………………..when I say ‘nothing’ in common that’s a tad misleading……………………………………no doubt if you’ve heard any politician talking you probably think they talk a fair amount of shite! And I admit I talk a fair amount of shite myself, so we have that in common! But apart from that no Alex or Ally politics shite – this is strictly ‘book shite’……so please…..keep going!
In November it will be Book Week Scotland and the Scottish Book Trust are getting their dibs in early with a series of guides on their website to help you read yourself into Scotland.
They’ve got a series of recommendation guides on topics such as compilations of the best Scottish books of all time as chosen by the great Scottish public ( it’s not a bad list except they put Irvine Welsh at number one – don’t be put off – there’s more to Scottish writing than that!), there’s a guide to books set in the posh part of Scotland,
Edinburgh, there’s of course the other side with a guide to the books of my home city of Glasgow, there’s the almost contradiction-in-terms Sexy Scottish Books list ( no me neither!), there’s a list of books about the amber nectar titled the Water of Life ( which it is really!), there’s a guide to modern contemporary Scottish poetry ( my thing), Scottish sci-fi ( not my thing), and Scottish graphic novels (just things). They’ve even got a Scottish Book Trust staff-chosen guide to the best of Iain Banks. Great though that is, it would have been perfect if they hadn’t talked shite and put the wonderful Espedair Street at number 12! 12!!!!! Twelve?????!!!!!!! Now that is talking shite!
Anyway if you’ve not read yourself Scottish before, I urge you not to hold the rhetoric of Alex Salmond, Alistair Darling and other independence or union johnnies against us, and instead give it a go – you’ll see a much better side of Scotland!!!!
Of course if you want to not just read yourself Scottish but actually BE Scottish ( and who wouldn’t), here is Wikihow’s handy guide with pictures, on how to speak with a Scottish accent!!!!! ( This is a much higher quality of shite than the stuff you hear from me, Alex Salmond or Ally D!)
And once you’ve mastered the accent, you could put it into use by reading this wonderful Glasgow poem Lament For A Lost Dinner Ticket by Margaret Hamilton. When I was teaching I did a lesson to kids in Essex with this – I used to say it was to understand dialect but really it was just an excuse for mass giggling!
Lament For A Lost Dinner Ticket
See ma mammy
See ma dinner ticket
Pokit an she pititny
See thon burnty
Up wherra firewiz
Ma mammy says
Am no tellynagain
A jist wen’y eatma
Pokacrisps furma dinner
The wummin sed Aver near
Wee wellies sticknoot.
They sed Wot heppind?
Na bedna hospital.
A sed A pititnma
Pokit an she pititny
They sed Ees thees chaild eb slootly
A sed MA BUMSAIR
And finally, if you’ve not found Wikihow’s guide to talking Scottish helpful, here’s a link to the poem read by a native of the country also known as God’s chosen people……
And finally finally, if having read it and listened to it you STILL have no idea what it’s about, here it is translated………..but be warned while it makes sense in English, it only really works in our language and doesn’t work in yours!!
You know my mother, you know my dinner ticket, I put it in my pocket and she put it in the washing machine.
You know the shell of a burned out house, up where the fire was, my mother said ” I will not tell you again. Don’t play there” / I was just about to eat a bag of crisps for my dinner / And a large wall collapsed
A woman said “I almost collapsed. Just her head and her small wellingtons sticking out”
They asked “What happened?” / There I was on my stomach / On a bed in the hospital / And I said “I put it in my pocket and she put it into the washing machine”
They asked “Is this child absolutely non-verbal?” / I replied that “My bottom is sore” / And I went to sleep”
In some ways, delivering an original and memorable novel set around World War One isn’t the easiest thing to pull off at the moment! The commemorative events, books, documentaries and dramas don’t just put the war to the forefront of public perceptions they are also generally all so well done that it raises our expectations. And then there’s the fact that so many previous books set around 1914-18 were so powerful and moving they’ve become modern classics. So it means that Anna Hope’s novel about 3 women coming to terms with their respective personal losses during the war has a lot to live up to.
The story is set in 1920, with the country still haunted by the death and loss of the past. Britain needs a way to both mark that passing but also signal that life moves on. Persuaded by the British government, King George agrees to the body of one of the unknown dead being returned from France and ceremonially reburied in Westminster Abbey. And as the novel follows the corpse from its selection, through its journey from France to its final internment at the Abbey, the novel seems to mirror that in the way it looks at the ruined lives of the three women. It lays out their past and the loss which affects them before it journeys forward to place their stories in post-war 1920 and the cusp of a new decade.
The three women are very much the heart of the novel and they are strong enough as characters to carry much of the novel. Ada has lost her son during the war and her grief is detaching her from her husband, her neighbours and in some ways detaching her from her sanity. Evelyn’s lover has also been killed during the war leaving her adrift and detached from her upper class family and seeing a future as a lonely spinster. And 19 year-old Hettie still has one foot in adolescence as she ekes out a living as a dancer for hire at the Hammersmith Palais and goes home to a mother widowed by Spanish flu and a brother trapped inside himself by shell shock. Their lives are both unravelled and yet also increasingly woven together. There’s an everyday ordinariness to their lives, a tragic almost dream-like pathos to the way they move through life and in their different ways they seem to be sleepwalking into a new decade mainly because they can’t wake up from the nightmares of the previous one. But in each woman’s case there’s just enough to lift their characters beyond the misery and helplessness of their situations. There’s an engaging spikiness to Evelyn, a youthful hope in Hetties immersion in the world of illicit underground London jazz clubs and a determined depth to Ada’s love for both her son and her husband.
But for all that the three characters, and their stories, were warm and engaging, there were other bits of the narrative that didn’t work for me. The book was structured to move back and forth between chapters about the everyday life of one of the three women and the different stages of the “journey” of the unknown soldier. While the historical background to the ‘unknown soldier’ is fascinating, this part of narrative had nothing like the power or pull of the women’s lives and it suffered as a result. Where their stories had depth, this felt lacking in substance and therefore it gave the book more of a disjointed feel than it really deserved. Similarly the attempt to weave together the different lives of the three women was rather inconsistent – at times I almost felt as if Anna Hope had temporarily forgotten this within the story, and to be honest she could have dropped it altogether for me for the links were a bit tenuous at best and added little to the overall stories of Ada, Hettie and Evelyn.
So did ‘Wake’ live up to both the current range of super dramas and documentaries around at the moment to commemorate the start of the Great War and did it stand up in the company of those classics set in the same period………………..?
While the story of the three women is really well told, the book as a whole didn’t quite reach those heady heights, although I admit that in comparing it to books like ‘Birdsong’, or ‘All Quiet On The Western Front’ or the ‘Regeneration’ trilogy I’d been putting into pretty exalted company. Overall, even though Wake falls just short of being a truly great novel I still thought it was a very enjoyable, brilliantly characterised book and in this time of commemorating the Great War, well worth a read.
“Wake” by Anna Hope was published by Doubleday. It was bought for me by my family, inspired yet again by Simon Mayo’s Book Club on BBC Radio Two!
If you are interested in reading a little more about Anna Hope and the background to writing ‘Wake’ she took part in a blog tour and you can read it here at For Winter Nights. The book has been reviewed on several other blogs and you can see reviews of it at The Book Smugglers and at Book Snob
Book Rating Out of 10 (you can find info on my Rating Scale here)
…………… Tom Rob Smith’s thriller is in a sense a modern and adult-centred version of Brecht’s classic ‘chalk circle’. This time, Daniel a 29 year old man is put into the circle between his mother and father – on one side his father claims his mother has started to suffer delusions while on the other his mother claims his father is lying to cover up his tracks at the centre of a criminal plot involving kidnap and murder. In this case, the push and pull is driven by the clever and incredibly powerful question – in a war between your parents who would you trust most? Who would you believe?
The main narrative follows Daniel a 29 year old man living in London with his partner Mark. His life is relatively sheltered – Mark essentially protects Daniel practically, emotionally and financially. He’s taken over that role from Daniel’s parents, who have fairly recently emigrated to Sweden, the land of Daniel’s mother Tilde’s birth and childhood. In Daniel’s world everything is calm, ordered and even until walking home one day with his groceries he gets a call on his mobile and his father tells him his mother is ill, suffering from some form of mental illness and illusions. Daniel recovers just enough to
get himself ready to fly to Sweden the next day but before he can board the flight he gets another call from Sweden, this time from his mother. She tells him there’s nothing wrong with her and alleges instead that his father Chris has engineered her supposed breakdown to cover up his role as part of a group who are kidnapping, sexually abusing, and then killing young teenage girls.
Daniel waits for his mother in London and from that point on the story is told in the form of Tilde unfolding her story to Daniel, complete with her bag of evidence to support her allegations, mixed in with Daniels reflections not only on what he hears, but on his family story, his parents relationships with him and with one another, and his own life.
It was less like normal speech, more like words unleashed. Sentences dammed up in my mum’s mind came tumbling out, fast but never uncontrolled. She was right: she didn’t sound like herself – her voice was elevated, as strange as it was impressive. At times she sounded judicial, at other times intimate. ………It was a performance more than a conversation……….”
The story which unfolds forces Daniel into making a choice – is his mother Tilde, who he has known all his life so far to be sensible, practical and resolute, now suffering from paranoid delusions? Or is his father Chris, a man who he knows as gentle, quiet, and easy-going, part of a gang of men engaged in the systematic sexual abuse of young women and a man prepared ultimately to cover up and lie about his part in a conspiracy to murder? Whatever he chooses, with his mother trying to pull him one way and his father trying to pull him another, Daniel knows there will be no going back and nothing will ever be the same again.
If I hadn’t been afraid before I was afraid now. On some level I must have been hoping that a simple resolution could be found in this room, between the two of us, without involving doctors or detectives – a quiet end, a soft landing and a gentle return to our lives as they had been. However my mum’s energies were so agitated that she was either very ill or something truly terrible had taken place in Sweden to provoke them.
This is a story made up in some ways of a lot of smaller stories which are all brilliantly combined. At times those stories within stories are used to provide context and understanding such as the story of Tilde and Chris’ business or Tilde’s childhood in Sweden. At other times they seem to spiral off at a tangent before they are spun back into the narrative. The characterisation is strong in Tilde and Daniel, though for me the character of Chris didn’t come through quite as well. But in some respects it didn’t have to because the core bond in the family is son to mother and as the book progresses it’s clear that will either tighten further or unravel completely.
The most effective part of the book is the way Tom Rob Smith delicately balances your reactions as a reader – there are times when you think that Tilde’s story is the wild imaginings of a woman whose mind has spiralled out of control but there are just as many times when you think she’s completely sane and believe her story as it unfolds. And that’s the real joy in reading this for at the same time as you read about Daniel’s thoughts and reactions to Tilde’s story and you wonder who he will choose to believe, you can’t help but do the same for yourself. And I can pay it no higher compliment than to say that right to the end, I was in a compete quandary about whether or not I’d choose to believe Chris or Tilde!
‘The Farm’ is a cracking read. At the time of Tom Rob Smith’s first novel ‘Child 44′, he essentially elevated thriller fiction to a new level with his Booker nomination. His books since then have been good but not quite at the heady heights of that debut novel. But for me, ‘The Farm’ is absolutely as good as ‘Child 44′. It’s a brilliantly plotted, taut, tense thriller that really does hook you in to the last page but makes you think throughout. Will it get a Booker nomination? Well I doubt it, especially with the extension of the prize bringing it within the scope of American authors. But if it does make the long-list next week, I’d be delighted to see it there and would judge it as an accolade that ‘The Farm’ richly deserves!
“The Farm” by Tom Rob Smith was published by Simon and Schuster. It’s probably a book I’ll treasure for a long time because it was bought for me by my daughter – no special occasion – just because she thought I’d like it (and she was right!!)
I had been looking forward to reading the ‘The Farm’ mainly on the strength of how much I enjoyed Tom Rob Smith’s first book ‘Child 44′. However I was further tempted by a review of it I read at Savidge Reads.
Then while walking the dog afew weeks ago, I listened to a Guardian Podcast about crime fiction which includes a section on Tob Rob Smith
Book Rating Out of 10 (you can find info on my Rating Scale here)
I am a fan of Troy Story. In Troy Story One, Homer’s The Iliad, I first fell for the magic of the all-powerful Achilles and his friendship with Patroclus which begat the most destructive revenge over Hector and the Trojans, neatly shrouded by THAT face which did so much for ship building! For Troy Story 2, it was the beautiful, haunting and wonderful Song of Achilles by Madeleine Miller which I read last year. I didn’t think I did love stories. But the love between Achillies and Patroculus in this book was a joy to set my old alpha-male heart aglow! And now Troy Story 3 is here in the text of this new play, The Last Days of Troy by the poet Simon Armitage, again giving a different approach to the same story of Achilles, Patroclus, Agamemnon, Helen, Paris, Hector and that wooden horse.
The Last Days Of Troy essentially takes the 15 000 or so lines of The Iliad and it’s 100’s of characters and condenses it into an 8 Act Play of about a dozen key players. In purely mathematical terms that’s a challenge in itself but Armitage carries it off with a style that borders on panache at times and with a dialogue that crackles and fizzes throughout. It opens with a modern day Zeus and Hera reduced to playing the role of metallic-painted statue impersonations of their god-like selves replete with cardboard sign proclaiming ‘Zeus’ and a tin cup to collect tourist coins! They use the model soldier and Greek God souvenir trinkets they sell to play out the initial movements of the war and to act as a link between the modern-day site of what’s believed to have been Troy and the action of the myths. It’s a very clever and effective approach.
But it’s when Simon Armitage’s play goes back to the war itself, to the Greek-Trojan rivalries and to the in-fighting on either side of the war, that the dialogue is at its best. The enmity and loathing between Achilles and Agamemnon drips off the page. On listening to the scheming string-pulling Odysseus making an offer of a daughter of Agamenon in marriage as part of resolving his quarrel with Achilles, his response is pretty…..er……………em…………….unequivocal!
“As for marrying into his family……..I wouldn’t mix my blood with his if his daughters were the last three cunts on earth. I’d fuck a dead animal first. Tell him that. Word for word.”
The mutual hatred between Achilles and Agamemnon is much more at the core of this version of the story than the love between Achilles and Patroclus is in ‘Song Of Achilles’. Even so…..on the death of his friend at the hands of Hector, Achilles vengeance is a fearful,all-conquering (except for that bloody heel!) and terrifying unleashing of a killing machine.
ACHILLES: Gifts or no gifts, all I want is Hector dead, and every Trojan that stands between his throat and this blade AGAMEMNON: It’s what we all want. We want the same thing! ACHILLES: And anyone who loves Hector – family or friend- to be broken and beaten, one at a time, so pain and torture are passed along to the last man, woman or child. Stripped out – right to the root.
There is so much to like and love in this as a play, that I’d love to see it. It ran at the Royal Exchange in Manchester ( the purpose for which it was partly written) with the model and actress Lily Cole as that face!!!! The dynamic between the lovers, Paris and Helen, Hector and Andromache is much more integral to the play than in either of the books I read and I thought it was much stronger for that. There’s a kind of inverted Macbeth and Lady Macbeth feel to some of the exchanges. In fact the strength of the women, and the barely concealed contempt and mistrust between Helen and Andromache, means that the role of the women in this tragedy is much more centre stage and again I think that’s a real strength of this telling of the story.
I wouldn’t think there will be too many people who’ll read this or watch the play who don’t know the story of Troy. But it’s still fresh and engaging and littered with brilliant one-liners that in some ways work even better BECAUSE it’s a play. They are short, pithy, sharp and they hit home brilliantly. And sometimes, it’s hard hitting for what’s not said…………!
Agamemnon is studying maps of the campaign. Odysseus enters. AGAMEMNON: Say something positive or say nothing at all. Odysseus doesn’t respond. AGAMEMNON:Speak! ODYSSEUS: Worse than yesterday. Disease…….fever………….
Above all, even though this is a play, it’s a great read as a book because it’s a great story, with such incredibly powerful characters and it’s brilliantly told. I have to confess I think Simon Armitage is a genius having loved his previous works like Gawain, and The Morte d’Arthur. Even allowing for that, as with the film franchise, Simon Armitage’s play has much to live up to in this re-telling of such a classic and timeless story. I can’t praise it more than to say Troy Story 3 is every bit as great as it’s illustrious predecessors. Or as someone much more erudite than me might have said, this will help ensure the story of Achilles and Troy goes……
“To infinity and beyond!”
Simon Armitage’s The Last Days Of Troy was published by Faber and Faber. I bought my copy with my own hard-earned dosh.
There don’t seem to be many other blog reviews of the Last Days of Troy as a book around but I did find this review that I liked of the performance of it as play at Gerryco23.
The play ran at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester during May and June of this year. I missed it. Drat! It also ran during June at The Globe in London. I missed it. Double drat!!!!!
Book Rating Out of 10 (you can find info on my Rating Scale here)
………..I was born several weeks premature. As a result I was apparently pretty sick, jaundiced and just generally I had a miserable start to life. My mother reckons it was a telling moment – having been early for that very first thing in life, it was such an awful experience for me, my subconscious decided never to take the risk of being early for anything ever again!!! And I’ve stuck to that. 50 years on I’ve been late for virtually everything in my life and continue to be late! I’m perennially late for meetings at work. I’m late for family and friend’s birthdays. I’m late for journeys. I’m late for appointments. If I could, I’d find a way to be late at being late – and I’d be late in finding it!!!! And, apart from perhaps trying to get a little bit of sympathy with the ‘very-sick-as-baby’ line, I need to write all of this to justify why I’m SO SO SO late in getting round to reading The Cuckoo Calling by Robert Galbraith, I’m the very last person in the world to actually read it!!!! And as a result this is a pointless review because I’m about to recommend a cracking book when in reality there’s nobody left on the planet who hasn’t read and reviewed it before me!!!!!
Fortuitously though, being used to being late helps here. In being constantly late, I get frequent abuse, especially from family and colleagues!!! So I’ve developed a thick skin. And that thick skin means I don’t care that I’m writing this review for absolutely no-one – I’m going to write it anyway because I don’t want to deprive myself of the chance to say in capital letters – THIS IS A GREAT STORY!
I know you know all this but I’m going to remind you anyway that the story follows a private detective, Cormoran Strike, a typical, hard-nosed, down-at heel private investigator who would grace any 1940’s Raymond Chandler or Dashiel Hammet novel. Except Cormoran is a modern-day equivalent, an ex-Army investigator, invalided out on losing a leg in Afghanistan. Down to his last few pence, sleeping in his office chair, and only getting calls and letters from creditors, he gets hired to investigate the already coroner-confirmed death by suicide of a famous model, Lula Landry. Her distraught half-brother, John, won’t accept she killed herself so he hires Strike to prove not only that she didn’t commit suicide but also to find out who killed her.
It’s just classic ‘gum shoe’ from start to finish. Strike is clever but flawed as every good detective should be! He’s observant, sharp, honest, and personable, but he leaves in his wake the detritus of near-bankruptcy, a doomed engagement and a childhood as the unwanted offspring of a 70’s rock star father and a drug-addled rootless, groupie mother! He’s a man who invokes respect, love, fear and loathing in equal measure – not that he really notices most of the time! But there’s an underlying softer side to Strike too, which comes through for example in his determination to defend the weak and in his growing admiration for his young, recently-hired temporary assistant Robin. There’s something almost chivalrous in his approach to her. In the hero stakes he’s part Phillip Marlowe and part Sir Gawain from the Knights Of The Round Table!
In addition to the characterisation of Strike, the other characters are all strong, believable and well drawn. The plot is great. It’s a brilliant did-anyone-do-it-and-if-anyone-did-do-it-whodunit?!!!!! It’s well paced, intriguing and with a really good ending. Along with reading it, I listened to the audio-book version narrated magnificently by Robert Glenister. He gets every aspect of Cormoran Strike spot on and so it adds a texture and richness to what is already a really good detective story.
Robert Galbraith is clearly a writer of some talent. Given that this is his debut novel it’s spectacular for a very first book. In fact as you read it, you can’t help thinking that this is so good, it’s difficult to comprehend he’s never written a book before!!!!!! Bizarre and ridiculous as it sounds, if I didn’t know better, I’d say this was the work of an authorial superstar……..a sort of ‘if Charles Dickens or JK Rowling wrote crime fiction’…….but of course that’s ridiculous because Charles isn’t with us any more and JK only does wizards!!!!!! And anyway I don’t want to start any rumours. Mind you, if it were true and it was someone like JK I’d have been the first on the planet to spot it and finally be early for once – or perhaps to be more accurate, twice!!!!!!!!!!
The Cuckoo Calling was written by Robert Galbraith, whoever he is!. It was published by Sphere Books. The audio book is narrated by Robert Glenister and was produced by Hachette Audio.
I bought the book with my own hard earned dosh and bought the audio-book from iTunes.
I listened to the audio-book as part of an audio-book challenge and you can find out more about that here.
Book Rating Out of 10 (you can find info on my Rating Scale here)
………………..In the last 4 weeks there have been only two kinds of people in the world – there are either pigs in doo-dah or there are Les Miserables! Because of course we either been loving every second of or dreading every second of…. the World Cup. I read a really good “early goal” post about the World Cup blues on Annabel Reads. And I have sympathy for Annabel and other people who perhaps haven’t come to appreciate why God put us on planet Earth with “The Beautiful Game”. But I’ve not got that much sympathy because, of course I’m one of those pigs!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
The papers are talking about possibly the best World Cup ever………….. Brazil have suddenly something in common with Scotland fans – they know how it feels to be really, really, really, bad! Then, in addition to Germany scoring 2 679 345 goals in only 2.4 seconds of the first half of their game against Brazil (now that I think of it perhaps Brazil were, for at least 45 minutes, actually WORSE than Scotland!)…………….we had James Rodriguez from Colombia and Tim Cahill from Australia scoring such breathtaking goals they got me out of my chair leaping around in a manner last seen when David Narey thundered Scotland in front against Brazil in Spain 1982! (when Scotland bossed the supposed best-team in the world for almost………………………………..90 seconds! Softening them up for Germany to batter them 32 years later really!). Even the misunderstanding between Luis Suarez and FIFA can’t spoil it. Though I admit to being baffled – I mean Suarez has accidentally lost his balance, fallen over and sunk his teeth into a big Italian’s shoulder purely to save himself falling over – how could FIFA or anyone else think he’d bitten the guy deliberately?
But of course the World Cup isn’t without its down side – time I’d previously have used to read books on the Tube is spent reading reports on matches. Time I’d previously have spent at home reading books is spent watching matches, listening to pundits talk about matches I’ve just watched, listening to pundits talking about matches I’m just about to watch, and listening to pundits talking about what the other pundits talked about! Time I’d previously have spent listening to audio-books and book podcasts is spent on listening to matches or listening to people talking about watching matches. In short I’ve got World Cup Fever bad!
So, with only two games left to go before it ends, I wanted to celebrate the joyous high that this World Cup has been for me, and of course to begin my programme of acclimatisation for the fact that I’ll be coming down from my World Cup high imminently, (you’ve got to plan ahead for these things!). So I thought I’d write about books again. Okay, they might be football books – but they’re still books (sort of). So here’s my World Cup Guide to some of the football books I’ve read over the years and as part of this helpful guide I’ve grouped them under some well-known football terms (of course if you’ve no idea what the terms mean then you’ll have no idea what they’re about – but I have to be up front here, that’s your fault for not taking an interest in God’s Chosen Game rather than mine!!)
“HE’S GOT GREAT FEET FOR A BIG MAN”
Niall Quinn – The Autobiography
This is a really well written account of the life and times of the big Irish centre forward but of course what really made it a riveting read was the Big Man’s account of the famous row between Ireland’s best player Roy Keane and Ireland’s then manager Mick McCarthy at the 2002 World Cup. Quinn describes Keane delivering to McCarthy “the most articulate, the most surgical slaughtering I’ve ever heard. Mick McCarthy is dismantled from A to Z – his personality, his play, his style, his tactics, his contribution. On it goes”. (I will stop at this point as it is starting to sound depressingly like my appraisal at work for last year!)
Equally impressive is the fact that Quinn describes how he fronts up with support for McCarthy afterwards and has the balls to tell Roy Keane to his face. Mind you when Keane’s book came out later his account suggested that Quinn might have been a bit overly lavish with his recollection of his own bravery and chutzpah! Still, it can’t have been easy either way as Roy Keane would be first equal as the one man in football I wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of – and I’d put him first equal in the “might not live to tell the tale stakes” with none other than Mick McCarthy! This is truly the ultimate definition of between a rock and a hard place! So for this – and lots of other stuff, Niall Quinn has good feet for a big man!
“HE’S GOT A GREAT ENGINE – A BOX TO BOX MIDFIELDER”
Keane – My Autobiography
Keane – one of the best mid fielders I’ve ever seen and an awesome leader on the park! This tells the other side of the McCarthy story as you’d expect – but it’s much more than that. Yes of course it tells of the usual rise of the great player but this book is straight down the middle – Keane is pretty uncompromising with just about anything and anyone in this book (well except for himself perhaps in places). His side of the McCarthy row is less detailed on the specific wording of the slaughtering he hands out to McCarthy and more about what led up to it and why. And as he did on the pitch, he doesn’t hold back. And it’s not just McCarthy who gets the treatment. Take for example his perspective, softened, reflected on and so mellowed over time, on his infamous tackle on Alf Inge-Haaland (see below!!!!!)
“I’d waited long enough. I f****** hit him hard. The ball was there (I think). Take that you ****! And don’t ever stand over me sneering about fake injuries.”
Moral of the story – Roy’s not a man you want to cross in a hurry. But he was a bloody wonderful footballer and like him or loathe him (and I’m in the like camp), he’s a mesmerising personality – and the book does him justice!
“THE BOY’S GOT A SWEET LEFT FOOT!”
David Ginola – Le Magnifique – The Autobiography
I guess when you see that a footballer gives his autobiography the sub-title ‘le magnifique’ you should know what to expect! Unless they are a master of irony, it’s highly likely to be a one-dimensional “look at me, look at me, look at me!” sort of story – and that’s exactly what the Ginola book is!
David Ginola was a great footballer but not the best footballer ever. He may however have been the best-looking footballer ever! But even that doesn’t justify this self-indulgent nonsense of a book! While he does give a bit of a kicking to Alan Shearer and Kenny Dalglish (and as a Man Utd fan it’s always welcoming to see someone get stuck into those two!), on the whole this is essentially a story about what an amazing guy David Ginola is and how he saved the modern world. There’s a bit of a generalisation that football biographies are dull and vain – while that’s not always true, in this case it sadly is absolutely an example of vanity and banality on a monumental scale!! If the football biography was ever on trial for crimes against literature, this book would be a star witness for the prosecution! Here’s David giving his modest, self-effacing and open-minded assessment of his time at Tottenham (though admittedly the pathetic parenthesis are all my own work!)
I was the lifebelt of the club (Impressive use of metaphor there David!), keeping it afloat during the times that it was in deep water (see what he did there – kept the disaster at sea analogy going! – perhaps the audio-book is sung by Celine Dion in Titanic-diva mode?!); I entertained the fans during the relegation struggle (could be me Dave but I think ‘entertain’ and ‘relegation struggle’ might just be a contradiction in terms…..?), then I gave them more and helped the team win a trophy (lovely bit of false modesty to finish cos what David really means is I won it single-handed and this is all the thanks I got!)
Unless you fancy him – and even I can admit he’s beautiful to look at – avoid! Even if you do fancy him – make it easy for yourself – just look at the pictures!
“THE BOY’S GOT A SWEET RIGHT FOOT!”
Garrincha – The Triumph And Tragedy Of Brazil’s Forgotten Footballing Hero by Ruy Castro
A confession. I don’t think I’ve ever actually heard anybody talk about a sweet RIGHT foot – it’s always left. But I’m pretending it’s a well-worn football phrase to give me an excuse to include Ruy Castro’s brilliant biography of Garrincha. It’s the classic rags-to-riches (and sadly back to rags again) story of a boy who rose from the poverty of rural Brazil to dominate the 1958 World Cup Final in Sweden. The book looks at his talent, his place in the emerging great Brazilian teams of the 50’s and 60’s and his almost larger-than-life world away from football. Garrincha was really the first of those footballers who are talented genius on the park but tortured soul off the park. The book is certainly a tribute to Garrincha’s talent and humanity, but Castro doesn’t shy away from Garrincha’s faults and excesses either. And if the football biography was ever put on trial for those crimes against literature that I mentioned above………………….. this book would be the star witness for the defence!
“YES BUT CAN HE DO IT ON A COLD WET WEDNESDAY NIGHT IN STOKE?”
Left Foot Forward – A Year In The Life Of A Journeyman Footballer by Garry Nelson
Left Foot In The Grave – A View From The Bottom Of The Football League by Garry Nelson
I have included this cliché for three reasons – firstly if you have ever been to Stoke on a wet, cold Wednesday night – and I have – you’ll know that it isn’t the easiest place to do ‘it’ – whether ‘it’ is playing football or as in my case trying to cheer my family up on the first night of a three night mid-week “break” to Alton Towers, staying in Stoke (and to put that in context we gave up the other two nights and left the next day!). Secondly it gives me a chance to write about Garry Nelson, ex-Charlton footballer and how I am convinced he once lived in the same block of flats as me in Essex – that’s as close as I get to rubbing shoulders with the great and the good. And thirdly, it allows me to write about his two football books, which in my humble opinion are among the most entertaining and enjoyable football books I’ve ever read!
Left Foot Forward charts his career of course but in particular it’s a warts and all look at professional football, when you don’t quite hit the heady heights of stardom and the Premier League. This is also crucially a wonderful look behind the scenes – and in indeed behind the eyes of professional football. It peers into the fears and worries of players, whether it’s injury, dressing room politics, form or whether the manager “fancies” them or not! In Nelson’s case it’s also got the additional perspective of a man approaching 34, in what will probably be the last season of his professional career reflecting not only on what was and what might have been but what might lie ahead in the decidedly dodgy future of most ex-pros. It’s open, honest and frequently very witty.
Sunday 13 November
The thirteenth. Maybe bad news for Charlton that today’s game is being televised. There’s a TV jinx on us. In our last eleven ‘live’ appearances we’ve not recorded a single win. The last time we won under the glassy-eyed stare of a live TV camera may well have been the 1947 FA Cup Final! My own most memorable contribution to a televised game was earning my one and only sending-off. It was for extending to an official a free and frank appraisal of his competence – all from entertaining the civilised desire to indicate how he might best further his career! But salt is still rubbed in my wound nearly every week because Yellow Pages feature the incident in one of their commercials! Thankfully my comments of a somewhat technical nature have been over-dubbed!
The follow-up book is just as good. In Left Foot In The Grave Nelson describes the next part of his career when he leaves Charlton for the job of player coach to Torquay United, a club who frequently bounce around the lower echelons of the football league, and occasionally out of the Football League altogether! I’ve read many football manager books in my time – Sir Alex is of course the pinnacle for me but this description of the trials, tribulations, madness and moments of relief (though they are few and far between at Torquay!) at the less-glamorous end of the football management business is a fabulous read for anybody interested in the game.
So there you have my list of 5 bloody good and one bloody awful football biographies. Or to put that another way – the Garry Nelson books are the Man Utd and Man Utd Reserves of the Football Biography World, the Garrincha book would be Barcelona (best on continental Europe), the Roy Keane book would be Greenock Morton (easily the best team in….well…….Greenock!), the Niall Quinn book would be Everton (easily the best team in Liverpool) and of course the Ginola book would be on the absolute rock bottom of the heap – where you’ll always find my beloved family’s Liverpool F.C. for me!
And as they are the favoured team of my family, and as the women in my life take their football, and their support for the Liverpool team very, very, very, seriously, I’m now leaving to go into hiding in a remote South American monastery wearing a balaclava and a face-lift!
And finally here’s Roy letting Mr Haaland know he’s not forgotten he once called him a rude name (please watch from the safety of behind your sofa!)
When I write a post like this I tend to assume pretty much anyone who might be inclined to read my blog won’t be inclined to read about football biographies – so it’s that odd feeling of writing it for yourself! It’s kind of nice – worrying, but nice!
All the books mentioned were bought with my own money – mind you a few might have been presents but you get the idea!
The Autobiography by Niall Quinn was published by Headline Books in 2002
Left Foot Forward by Garry Nelson was published by Headline Books in 1995
Left Foot In The Grave by Garry Nelson was published by Collins Willow in 1997
Garrincha, The Triumph and Tragedy of Brazil’s Forgotten Footballing Hero was published by Yellow Jersey Press in 2004
Le Magnifique by David Ginola was published by Collins Willow in 2000
The Autobiography by Roy Keane was published by Michael Joseph/Penguin Books in 2002
…………. 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.