Mum’s The Word!………….Book Review of Restless by William Boyd

……..Female spy novels are a bit like London buses at the moment – I don’t read a book with a female spy protagonist for years and then two come along in quick succession! On the back of reading Jenny Rooney’s excellent ‘Red Joan’ I picked up a second-hand bookshop copy of William Boyd’s ‘Restless’, telling the story of Sally Gilmartin, an ageing middle-class woman living quietly in middle England in 1976, who suddenly hands her daughter Ruth a folder of pages titled ‘The Story of Eva Delectorskaya’. When a puzzled Ruth asks who Eva Delectorskaya is, Sally simply responds “Me…….I am Eva Delectorskaya”.

10restlessHaving kept her ‘secret life’ just that for so long, there is of course a reason for Sally’s sudden decision to share her past with her daughter thirty years later – it’s a past that has come back to threaten her and she needs her daughters help. Through a combination of chapters telling the 1976 story from Ruth’s perspective, and a series of chapters in the third person telling Eva’s 1940′s story, William Boyd sets out a really cracking plot of a beautiful Russian emigre who is recruited by British intelligence in 1939 in Paris immediately after her brother Kolia’s funeral. She is ‘run’ by spymaster Lucas Romer, who becomes more than just a handler to Eva. He becomes teacher, mentor, confidante and lover. Eva moves to New York as part of the British Security Co-ordination, a massive World War Two counter-espionage progamme designed to spy on pro-Nazi movements in America while at the same time driving a propoganda campaign focused on levering the Americans into joining the Second World War. Eventually betrayed, Eva has to rely on her training to first escape with her life and then to reinvent herself.

There’s no real spoiler in that plot summary for this is a story with so much going on there’s no chance of doing more than skimming it in a review, though perhaps the fact that it’s got so so much going on might be the weakness in it too. But at it’s core it’s a really, really good spy thriller and as long as you don’t go looking for more than that you won’t be disappointed. I loved the intricacies of the art of spying in the book almost as much as I loved the action and the almost inevitable twists and turns in the story. At times I was enjoying the sheer thrill of the action so much I found some of it a little distracting and unnecessary – Ruth has a history with radical politics, there’s a casual affair with an Iranian student-cum-logder, there’s a minor link between Ruth and Baader-Meinhof terrorists and then there’s that love affair between Eva and Lucas – all these things are chucked into the pot but they seemed a bit superfluous to me – they don’t really add much to the story and I didn’t get any sense of the ‘feelings’ attached – in essence for me what’s in the book stands or falls by the extent to which it contributes to the action – or to put that another way as an example the affair between Eva and Lucas doesn’t feel very real or very important but in the grand scheme of the plot it doesn’t really matter!

Now that's what I call wearing a hat at a jaunty angle! It could only happen in a spy film! (Hayley Atwell and Rufus Sewell in BBC Film of Restless)
Now that’s what I call wearing a hat at a jaunty angle! It could only happen in a spy film! (Hayley Atwell and Rufus Sewell in BBC Film of Restless)

There’s nothing surprising in the book, nothing pretentious and nothing forced – it’s just a spy thriller. At times it can make it seem a wee bit formulaic, a bit predictable and all low-brow James-Bond-esque stuff. I can see why that might annoy some readers – but for me, as a man who loves James Bond, a man who could get lost in a Le Carre and not look up between page one and the end, well it was pretty much not only what I expected but if I’m honest what I had hoped to find. Here is a short sample, as Lucas Romer does some final preparations before Eva becomes Eve Dalton, British spy….

‘What’re these for? I thought I was Eve Dalton?’

He explained. Everyone who worked for him, who was in his unit, was given three identities. It was a perk, a bonus – to be used as the recipient saw fit. Think of them as a couple of extra parachutes, he said, a couple of getaway cars parked nearby if you ever felt the need to use them one day. They can be very handy, he said, and it saves a lot of time of you have them already.

Eva put her two new passports in her handbag and for the first time felt a little creep of fear climb up her spine. Following-games in Edinburgh were one thing; clearly whatever Romer’s unit did was potentially dangerous. She clipped her handbag shut. ‘Are you allowed to tell me a bit more about this unit of yours?’

‘Oh, yes. A bit. It’s called AAS’ he said. ‘Almost an embarassing acronym, I know, but it stands for Actuarial and Accountancy Services’

‘Very boring’

‘Exactly!’

It reads like a classic British 1950′s era spy movie – and for me that gives it a really authentic air. That coupled with the detail and research into the activities of British Intelligence during World War Two in the US make for a fascinating, almost film-noir feel to the book in places. William Boyd’s books are a fairly recent discovery for me and up to now I’ve really enjoyed them, as much for the literary feel of the writing as the stories in themselves……this was different….with Restless there was something missing in the literary sense……but to me it didn’t ultimately matter. As a straightforward, take it at face value spy story, it’s a great plot and for that reason alone, ‘Restless’ is well worth a read.

Book Info

‘Restless’ by William Boyd was published by Bloomsbury. I bought this with my own hard-earned dosh for the princely sum of £1.99 in my local Oxfam Bookshop!

As it’s been out since around 2006, there are as you’d guess a plethora of reviews out there on the book. But in the book blog world, if you want to read a bit more about ‘Restless’, then I’d recommend you have a look at Late Nights With Good Books and The Book Heap. It was a much praised novel when it was released, not only shortlisted for the Costa Prize in 2006, but also shortlisted for the Richard and Judy British Book Award no less in 2007!

‘Restless’ was also turned into that BBC series that I mentioned above – not sure when it was shown in the UK but I can’t believe we missed it in our house as it stars Rufus Sewell, who’s pretty popular with the women chez moi!

Book Rating Out of 10 (you can find info on my Rating Scale here)

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The Restoration Man!………..Merivel A Man Of His Time by Rose Tremain

………..There’s a great Guinness ad line “Good things come to those who wait!’. And though it’s true that a beautiful pint of Guiness is worth the wait for it to be poured, settled and then finished – it’s not half as worth waiting for as the return of Rose Tremain’s wonderful fictional creation Robert Merivel. It’s been a 25 year wait for me to finally read this sequel to Tremain’s great 1989 novel “Restoration” but Merivel’s return is as engaging, and as loveable as his beginning.

merivel-picRobert Merivel is a 17th century physician at the court of Charles II – he’s part-dandy, part-jester and part fall-guy for the moods, whims and of course sexual appetite of King Charles in that first brilliant novel. This follow up sees him greyer, older and maybe, even for Merivel, dare I say just a little bit wiser? But only a little – for the love of drink, an excuse to drink more, and the inclination to revel in sex and the female form at even the slightest opportunity is still there in abundance in Merivel – this is a man with a lot of vices and he’s still not afraid to use them!.

The story picks Merivel’s life up many years after he has left Charles’ inner sanctum for the seemingly quieter and certainly less debauched surroundings of his Norfolk estate. His sham marriage to Charles mistress is a thing of distant memory though his regret that the marriage failed is neither distant nor forgotten. He seems to be moving towards his old age with a slightly gentler and slightly less frenetic lifestyle – and in some respects he’s moving to older age with a degree of thanks that he’s actually survived this long! He’s slightly more financially secure than before and his daughter, on the verge of moving from a girl to a woman, is the apple of his eye. He’s got much to be contented with, but if Merivel is anything, he’s a man of defects – and he wears them on his tailored, ruffled sleeve! There’s a fragility to that financial security for example for it’s still dependent on the grace and favour of Charles, he’s less than easy about his daughter’s future, and he’s still a man in search of something – he’s just never quite sure what.

With the kings blessing, he heads for the court of Louis XIV at Versailles where he hopes to find favour and fulfilment with the Sun King. Being Merivel what he actually finds is a new mistress and so he embarks of this wonderfully gaudy, almost comic romp through France and back to England. It’s just as terrifically entertaining a charge through his confused morality and his sexual proclivities as the first book was. But this time there’s also a sense of sadness and pathos – there’s a growing sense of decay and things coming to an end for Merivel and alongside him a similar feeling of the beginning of the end for Merivel’s most trusted manservant Will, for his lovers old and new, for Charles and even for England as a society. It’s a novel which captures a man at the heart of a monumental change – and it’s as much a change to what’s going on inside him as it is a change to what’s going on around him.

As ever Rose Tremain’s writing ranges brilliantly. At times it is almost farcically light and funny, such as Merivel conquering the heart and hemline of Madame de Flamanville at Versailles, who brings with her a publicly-suppressed but privately insatiable gay husband in charge of Louis’ Swiss Guards!!!!! At other times it is the dark and brooding detail of Merivel performing emergency surgery to remove a cancerous tumour from a woman’s breast. But whatever she describes, she does it with such style and a terrific eye for detail and mood.

This woman writes a pretty damn good sex scene!
This woman writes a pretty damn good sex scene!

The sequel also gives Merivel much more depth to his emotions – the man who can’t resist the chance for quick and easy sex is still there – he just doesn’t come to terms with it quite as easily as he once did. That’s perhaps what makes Merivel so irresistible as a

This man took part in more than his fair share of sex scenes!
This man took part in more than his fair share of sex scenes!

character – he’s deeply flawed but he knows it – and he’s not without his redeeming features either. Merivel isn’t just a man of his time but in many ways is a man of any time and his struggles and worries, his problem in coming to terms with death, decay and what he sees of his life as he looks back would be as true of my generation in the 21st century as they are of Merivel and his generation in the 17th century – though fortunately the exception is that with my generation of ageing men in our 50′s in 2014, we don’t fornicate quite as openly on public transport as Merivel does!!!!!!!!!!! – at least it doesn’t happen on the Tube trains and buses I use!

At times as I read Merivel, I was reminded of the lyrics to Man Of Our Times by Genesis on the Duke album -

I’m one of many, I speak for the rest but I don’t understand / Tonight, tonight, oh tonight, tonight / He brings another day, another night, another fight / Well there’s another day done and there’s another gone by / He’s a man of our times, a man of our times / Tonight, tonight, oh he’s burning bright / He’s a man of our times, he’s a man of our times / And in the beating of your heart there is another beating heart

And that’s what makes Rose Tremain’s writing in Merivel so great – in the beating of his heart is a sense that if you’d be born in a different time and place it might just have been the beating of your own heart! And it would have been a blast!

Book Info

“Merivel – A Man of His Time” by Rose Tremain was published by Chatto and Windus Books. I bought it with my own dose – and it’s worth every penny!

The first Merivel book, ‘Restoration’ was published back in 1989. It was nominated back then for the Booker Prize, but it lost out to Kazuo Ishiguro’s wonderful ‘The Remains Of The Day’.

If you’re interested Rose Tremain did an interview with the Telegraph back in 2012 about Merivel and writing the sequel to Restoration. It’s a book that’s been widely review – you won’t find anything  reviewed on my blog that was done before, and done better elsewhere (except possibly my review of the excruciatingly bad biography by David Ginola the footballer perhaps!). If you’re interested in reading what others thought of Merivel, you should try the reviews at Lady Fanciful and at Little Reader Library though be aware I chose them because I liked them and they broadly share my view that Merivel is really good!!!!!

Book Rating Out of 10 (you can find info on my Rating Scale here)

Nine

What’s That Coming Over The Hill? Is It…………A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

……….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!

IMG_1687It 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.

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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!!!!!

Book Info

“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!

If you are interested in what other bloggers had to say about A Monster Calls you couldn’t do better than read Claire at Word by Word, and Queen Ella Bee Reads.

Book Rating Out of 10 (you can find info on my Rating Scale here)

Nine

What’s In A Name?………..

……..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

51PRAj6ahEL._SL500_AA300_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!

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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!

whit

2. John Rebus from The Rebus Stories by Ian Rankin

Rebus-Splash-Screen._V401108337_SX385_SY342_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

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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!!!!!!!!!

 

There’s No Knowing What Might Be Newly Held…………..With A Zero At Its Heart by Charles Lambert

………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.

IMG_1685Cards 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.

Aforementioned Brown Sauce Sandwich - now that's what I call a memory!
Aforementioned Brown Sauce Sandwich – now that’s what I call a memory!

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!

Book Info

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!! 

If you are more interested in what fellow readers might have thought of it try reviews at Black Heart Magazine,  and at Writers Little Helper.

Book Rating Out of 10 (you can find info on my Rating Scale here)

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A Chinese Hope Burn!……………………………Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw

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.

Five Star Billionaire by Tash AwThe 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!

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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!

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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!

 

Book Info

“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.

If you are more interested in what fellow readers might have thought of it (and there’s more varied opinion here) try reviews at 52 Books or Bust, at Booker Talk, and at Kevin from Canada.

Book Rating Out of 10 (you can find info on my Rating Scale here)

Nine

Read Yourself Scottish……………..

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!

Book Week Scotalnd

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,

The poster boy of the Sexy Scotland Book List!
The poster boy of the Sexy Scotland Book List!

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!)

Coming Next Week Wikihow's Guide to Talking Shite Like a Politician - With Pictures!
Coming Next Week Wikihow’s Guide to Talking Shite Like a Politician – With Pictures!

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
A pititnma
Pokit an she pititny
Washnmachine.

See thon burnty
Up wherra firewiz
Ma mammy says
Am no tellynagain
No’y playnit.
A jist wen’y eatma
Pokacrisps furma dinner
Nabigwoffldoon.

The wummin sed Aver near
Clapsd
Jistur heednur
Wee wellies sticknoot.

They sed Wot heppind?
Nme’nma belly
Na bedna hospital.
A sed A pititnma
Pokit an she pititny
Washnmachine.

They sed Ees thees chaild eb slootly
Non verbal?
A sed MA BUMSAIR
Nwen’y sleep.

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”

lament For A Lost Dinner Ticket

 

 

Buried Among The Kings……………Wake by Anna Hope

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.

Wake by Anna Hope

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.

UnknownWestminsterAbbeyBut 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.

Book Info

“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)

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A Grown Up Caucasian Chalk Circle……….The Farm by Tom Rob Smith

…………… 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?

Chalk Circle

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

photo (72) 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!

 Book Info

“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)

ten

 

Troy Story 3 – No Troy Gets Left Behind!……….The Last Days Of Troy by Simon Armitage

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.

 

photo (75)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.

Troy 4

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!”

Book Info

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)

Nine

 

…………. 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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