books

Reviews of a couple of books

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I’ve had a couple of new reviews up in the last week or so. My review of The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan (as promised a few weeks ago) is now at Luna Station Quarterly. It’s a sort of fairy tale, certainly a beautifully imagined SF novel, and surprisingly for my Random Walk Through Speculative Fiction slot, pretty recent (out in paperback in the UK either this month or last).

The other review is The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick, another free book from The Bookbag. Nothing SF about this one, it’s about an old widower from York having a series of entertaining/poignant adventures.

Go read the reviews, then read the books. I’m enjoying the lifting of my self-imposed Trollope ban by reading The Prime Minister at the moment. I shan’t review it, but you can imagine the joy it’s bringing me.

Quick round-up

I hope regular visitors haven’t been pining too terribly, but in my defence I’ve had visitors, been ill, and lost track of the days during a week off work for Easter. I have been reading lots of books though, and there’s a couple of new reviews up at The Bookbag, both crime novels of a sort. Firstly, from a few weeks ago Hester and Harriet by Hilary Spiers, in which a couple of old women get caught up in sinister goings-on while trying to help a homeless young woman in a genteel village. Then there’s The Bursar’s Wife by EG Rodford, where a grumpy middle-aged private detective (who must be related to Ed Reardon) does surveillance work around Cambridge and stumbles into something sordid that ends up a bit close to home.

I’ve also read another one of the Peter Grant novels by Ben Aaronovitch, in which PC Grant continues to learn magic in a forgotten branch of the Metropolitan Police. Grant is such a likeable character and there’s such an obvious love for and depth of knowledge about London that they’re a delight to read. Essentially police procedurals but involving weird stuff that the everyday police don’t want to get involved in if they can at all help it.

My most recent read was The Gracekeepers by Glasgow-based author Kirsty Logan, which is fabulous and magnificent, and I shall be reviewing it forthwith. Huge thanks to my eagle-eyed dad for spotting a review of it in The Guardian a while ago and suggesting it should go on my To Read list.

Right, that’s about it for now. Did I mention I’m on the radio soon? As the schedule stands right now (though we’re still tweaking) I’ll be reading two stories – one from The Little Book of Northern Women, one you won’t have come across before – Andrea Hardaker will be reading two stories, and Rosalind York will be reading a story and a few poems. All interspersed with snippets of The Cure and The Kinks, The Fall and The Rolling Stones. Chapel FM, April 17th, 2.15pm (full schedule for the festival here). Be there or be awfully disappointed.

Hey, someone likes my blog

It seems that Brontë’s Page Turners has nominated me for the Real Neat Blog Award, which is nice as I’ve been enjoying her blog recently (pop across and read some of her book reviews, there’s enough crossover appeal that you should find something of interest).

This Real Neat Blog Award involves answering 7 questions, then asking 7 new questions which you nominate 7 other bloggers to answer. Now, as I’m relatively antisocial (which is why I spend my time reading books, writing books, writing about reading books, etc) I don’t know 7 bloggers and I’m not about to ask 7 strangers (or even 6 strangers and Van Demal) to answer a bunch of questions. Plus I haven’t really got time to think up 7 questions that sound interesting and original. Not when I’m supposed to be fine-tuning a radio programme (April 17th, Chapel FM Writing on Air Festival – be there or be unenlightened).

However, I will answer the questions I’ve been set, which are:

  1. How many books are on your TBR list?
  2. What is your greatest bibliophile skill?
  3. What is your finest bibliophile dream?
  4. What is your worst bibliophile nightmare?
  5. If you could thank one person for turning you on to the joys of reading, who would it be?
  6. If your partner is a fellow bibliophile, do you merge book collections i.e. get rid of duplicate copies of books you both have? Or is this too much to expect, even in a long-term relationship? Am I worrying about this too much?!!
  7. Paste and copy a picture of the most beautiful book you own.

 

  1. Assuming TBR means To Be Read, there are 12 books on the list, mainly SF reviews I’ve read in The Guardian or books I’ve spotted in the library and wasn’t in a position to read at the time. I also have at least a couple of dozen books on the small bookshelf that’s set aside for ‘I bought this in a charity shop and haven’t got round to it yet’ plus a small cupboard full of books borrowed off other people (mainly my dad at the moment), and nearly a dozen ebooks on my Kobo that I haven’t read yet.
  2. Ability to spot authors I’m interested in while scanning charity shop shelves at high speed.
  3. I’ve always quite fancied one of those galleried floor to ceiling bookshelves kind of libraries, with the wheeled ladders…
  4. Books are banned. Makes me shudder just thinking about it.
  5. Probably my dad, who has several floor to ceiling bookcases but no wheeled ladders.
  6. The only duplicates OneMonkey and I had were some physics textbooks and a few Terry Pratchett novels, some of which have been weeded out (I mean, we’ve only been sharing shelves for nearly 20 years).
  7. I have to retain an air of mystery. You’ll have to imagine it instead.

So there you have it, a minute insight into an apparently neat blog.

The Hourglass Factory by Lucy Ribchester

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Set mainly in November 1912 among the chaos of suffragette-besieged London, this debut novel is a rip-roaring rollercoaster of a romp through Edwardian society.

Frankie George (Francesca to her mother) is a trouser-wearing twenty-something reporter for the London Evening Gazette, relegated to the Ladies’ Page due to her gender (and, if we’re honest, her inexperience). With ageing ex-courtesan ‘Twinkle’ she writes week after week about fashion and high society when what she really wants is breaking news. Ebony Diamond is a suffragette who is also a trapeze artist, and when she goes missing shortly after Frankie tries to interview her, Frankie decides she could be on to something.

What follows is an adventure through hidden London, taking in the circus, Soho clubs, fetishists, suffragettes and sensationalist reporters. It’s done with a light touch despite featuring a couple of murders, and the outrageous character of Twinkle provides some highly amusing interludes.

Although the suffragettes feature heavily, I would say this novel is more about independence than about suffragettes specifically. Working women, trouser-wearing women, women who’ve left their husbands or want the vote, but in all cases don’t want the conventional life set down for them at birth. It makes for some odd alliances, and shows how it’s possible to be forward-thinking in one respect but utterly closed-minded in others.

Frankie was an endearingly flawed character, liable to go off half-cocked, untidy and disorganised, constantly broke and seemingly forever noticing how bad she smelt (sleeping in her only clean shirt yet again). The ‘Sapphic tendencies’ people kept accusing her of were never explicitly confirmed, but it added an extra dimension to the struggle for independence. She was generally optimistic and trying hard to help others and further her career.

That dilemma at the heart of her journalistic efforts was another good strand of the book. Just because it’s a good story doesn’t mean you should publish it, it could ruin lives. How far is she willing to go for her newspaper career?

Lucy Ribchester had obviously done plenty of historical research (and then played fast and loose with bits of it, as any good historic fiction writer needs to), but at times it did feel a bit like she’d thrown everything and the kitchen sink at the book. There were a couple of circumstances or sub-plots that I assumed would become relevant later, but never seemed to.

I wouldn’t be sure how to categorise this novel. Historical fiction yes, but with humour and a modern touch that made me (who has read a fair bit of steampunk) keep expecting it to take off on a flight of fancy. In a way that was supplied by the trapeze element, I certainly learnt more about circus performers than suffragettes from reading The Hourglass Factory. There was a murder investigation running through the book, but it wasn’t really a whodunnit. There is an element of thriller later on as facts come together and the race is on. In the end it’s about Frankie trying to get on with life on her own terms, and landing herself in varying amounts of trouble and friendship along the way.

The Establishment by Owen Jones

Owen Jones is northern, a socialist, and he writes for The Guardian. I even agree with his viewpoint a fair amount of the time (both in this book and in his articles). I should have loved The Establishment, but unfortunately I didn’t – something about the way it’s put together got my back up and made me start picking his arguments apart. If it does that to a comrade (yes I am using that in a slightly tongue in cheek way), how far will it go towards persuading an adversary?

The premise of the book is that a small, influential band – the big players in the commercial world, the media, the City – bypass democracy by having a quiet word with our elected politicians so they can have things their own way, no matter what the people want. In essence there is (so the theory goes) a prevailing ‘establishment’ viewpoint and to rock the boat is to invite reprisal, from being missed off someone’s Christmas list to being hounded by an unsympathetic and less than straightforward media. In many ways reading The Establishment (subtitled ‘and how they get away with it’) was like having a concentrated dose of Private Eye (and will be familiar territory to Eye readers) but with added sensationalism that fell somewhere between That’s Life and Our Tune. For me (and maybe I’m hard-hearted) the laying-it-on-thick sentimentality of the section about one woman’s loss of a son at Hillsborough undermined the very real tragedy of that day for her and her family, as well as the important point Jones was making about the shocking behaviour of the police and media.

When it comes to the webs of power and the shadowy connections between politicians of all stripes, corporate interests and high-profile journalists there are things that should be pointed out more widely, there are definitely things to worry about, and there are things I think shouldn’t be allowed (Gordon Brown’s wife apparently being high up in a financial PR firm when he was PM and had recently been Chancellor, for instance). Some of it comes across here as a bit conspiracy theorist though: this MP was seen having dinner with a family friend who works for this big firm who would benefit from a change in the law! The scandal is not that this group of people who went to school or university together, or worked together in their first jobs, are still friends now that they’ve diversified into government, lobbying, the BBC etc (I’d be more worried if they claimed not to be) but that so many of the influential jobs in the Westminster-media bubble are filled by such a small pool of candidates from such similar backgrounds.

The book sometimes got a bit repetitive (maybe in some cases he was just trying to ram a point home) and while it’s clearly been a long time in the making, with copious research and a long programme of interviews with influential people, it felt like the end product had been thrown together in a hurry, with the same sentence appearing in two consecutive paragraphs or a sentence both beginning and ending with ‘in 1994’ for example.

Where the book is stronger is the ‘Conclusion: a democratic revolution’ chapter. This is where the author’s passion comes through in a coherent argument about why anti-establishment types need to present a proper alternative, not just rail against what’s there now. I wonder how different this (and several arguments earlier in the book) would have been if there was the slightest hint that Jeremy Corbyn might be about to become Labour leader.

In short, while I applaud the intention, this book just didn’t do it for me. I’m not saying don’t read it (I still learnt a few things from it), but I recommend that you read some Owen Jones articles from The Guardian, read some Private Eye, and if you want to know about vested interests and spin, read the marvellous novel The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey or, even better, A History of the Protestant Reformation by William Cobbett (which I’ve written about here).

Morrissey and Hynde: rock lives revealed

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Having not read a rock biography for years, so far this year I’ve read two: Chrissie Hynde’s Reckless and Morrissey’s Autobiography. I’ve admired Chrissie Hynde for many years and she was influencing my style by my late teens, whereas it took years for Morrissey to grow on me, and apart from an attempt to emulate his quiff at one point, I’m not sure he’s been a direct influence on me. It was interesting to pick up Reckless in the week that David Bowie died and find he’s one of the first people mentioned, and also interesting to note the crossover of adulation for Bowie and the New York Dolls (neither of whom I’ve ever been particularly enthused by) in both books. Hynde and Morrissey also make cameo appearances in each other’s memoirs. However, they’re really quite different affairs despite the pair of them being famous vegetarians whose bands began in the same country within a couple of years of each other.

Reckless is more what you’d expect from a rock biography. Drugs, squalid London squats, trouble with drummers, more drugs (I was actually shocked at the amount and variety, I guess she never struck me as the type). It’s written in a straightforward style that reflects how Chrissie Hynde’s frank persona comes across. We get lots of detail (sometimes maybe a bit more than we’d like) about the wild adventurous life she had even before she was in The Pretenders. She seems to be one of those people who’s on the fringes of history, her friend’s boyfriend was one of the four students shot at the Kent State University anti-war demo in 1970 (which Chrissie Hynde was also at, being a student there at the time), she seemed to meet quite a few big name rockers in Cleveland as a teenager, and she was in a band with 3 members of The Damned just before they left her to become The Damned (I’m not saying these are all comparable events, just trying to highlight the variety). You get a good flavour of the sixties and seventies alternative scene through the pages of Reckless.

Morrissey, on the other hand, though he definitely has trouble with drummers, doesn’t fit any of the other cliches. I picture him in hotel rooms bemoaning the substandard tea and paltry pair of shrink-wrapped custard creams. Not a rock star in the wild sense, and yet when you think about the headlines (tabloid as well as music press), the recognition, the adulation, the size of venues he’s played, it’s clear that he really is in every other sense.

At one point one of his neighbours (and, apparently, friends) was Alan Bennett, and once I’d read that I keep reading the odd line (e.g. no chance of a Rich Tea biscuit so don’t bother asking, when he visits Julie Burchill) in an Alan Bennett voice. I’m left with an urge to write a play in which Alan Bennett and Morrissey sit at a kitchen table with a pot of tea for an hour, playing the characters we think they are in real life.

Meanwhile, the shy, gawky boy is suddenly greying and avuncular and doesn’t know how that happened, and looking back on his life he catalogues the friends and relatives who died too young, from the uncle not much older than the teenage Morrissey to Kirsty MacColl twenty-five years later, and beyond. It is essentially a sad book full of loneliness, but laced with dry wit and flashes of the lyricism he’s always been admired for (by those who admire him). I can’t help but contrast Chrissie Hynde’s middle class upbringing and wasted stint at university with Morrissey’s Manchester-Irish family in and out of each other’s terraced houses, his depressing secondary modern and his stint on the dole. I know which one comes out of these memoirs seeming the more articulate and intelligent.

My dad, despite being the reason I got into both The Pretenders and The Smiths (we didn’t have many cassettes in the car during the 80s and I eventually grew to love most of them. Just not Roxy Music) groaned when I said I was reading Morrissey’s book. “But,” I said, “if you like Morrissey’s lyrics (which most Smiths/Morrissey fans do), and you have a sort of indulgent affection for him and the clangers he seems to drop in interviews (which again, I would say most Smiths/Morrissey fans do) I don’t see how you could help but love it. Unless it’s just that I’m still a pretentious fifteen-year-old at heart.” “Mmm,” said my dad. And really, there’s no answer to that.

Reviewing The Last of the Bowmans

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For today’s stop on the blog tour for The Last of the Bowmans by J Paul Henderson I’m not going to write a review. You’ve already read a few of those I’m sure, and anyway I wrote one for The Bookbag about a month ago (go read it now if you like, I’ll wait). Instead, I thought I’d tell you why I wrote the review in the first place.

Reviewing books for The Bookbag is always a thrill because I get to pick from their list of available books, some of which haven’t even been published yet (the exclusivity!), then I get a book dropping through the letterbox, which perks up the day no end. The fiction list usually includes debut authors, authors who’ve been around a while but haven’t crossed my radar, and authors I’m familiar with. New and emerging authors often sway me, they probably benefit more from a review than a bigger name with an established fanbase, and I might turn up something unexpected. J Paul Henderson wasn’t a name I’d come across before, having completely missed his debut novel Last Bus to Coffeeville despite both Leeds and Bradford libraries having copies in stock. The last few books I’d reviewed had been crime or fairly intense sci-fi so I was looking for something lighter, though not necessarily out and out comedy. I looked at the details of What a Way to Go by Julia Forster (hmm, maybe) then The Last of the Bowmans (his brother’s doing what and his Uncle Frank WHAT? Visited by his dead father?!). It certainly sounded different and it was the little details in the synopsis that grabbed me and made me take notice. His father wasn’t just dead he was in a bamboo coffin, of all things; his brother’s not just a stalker but stalking a woman with no feet. Intriguing. Could go either way, I thought, depends how he’s likely to come at it – what else do we know about this author? He’s from Bradford – done deal.

In case you haven’t read a review or even a synopsis yet, here’s what the novel’s about: Greg Bowman’s been in America for a few years, staying in touch with his dad Lyle and Lyle’s barmy brother Frank, but not with his own brother Billy. Never the most reliable member of the Bowman family, nevertheless Greg makes it home for Lyle’s funeral and sticks around to help sort out his affairs and do up the house, in no way using it as an excuse not to return to his girlfriend in Texas (honest). It’s while Greg is sitting down to dinner at his dad’s house after a day of planning and inventories that the ghost of Lyle appears to him and asks him to take over some unfinished business – sorting out Frank and Billy. Henpecked Billy has become a stalker, and Uncle Frank the Planet Rock listening Wild West aficionado is planning, aged nearly eighty, to rob a bank. Greg reluctantly starts unpicking family secrets and finds a startling one of his dad’s that he’s not sure what to do with.

Comedy’s never an easy thing to pull off in a novel, and comedy drama (I think) is even harder, but The Last of the Bowmans cracks it. I once described A Touch of Daniel by Peter Tinniswood as ‘understated deadpan surrealist dark northern humour at its best’, and The Last of the Bowmans definitely follows in its footsteps with its odd characters and surreal situations interleaved with the humdrum. It’s the mundane details that make it, they ground the whole thing so that it’s that much easier to accept a ghost in a ballgown having a chat with his son, for instance. I’m not saying it’s flawless (neither was A Touch of Daniel, few books are) but it found its groove early on and powered along at a fair clip. In my (biased) opinion, northern writers tend to handle comedy drama better than most because it chimes with a certain northern approach to life, a general attitude that doesn’t take the world too seriously. The tragicomic prologue of The Last of the Bowmans where eighty-three-year-old Lyle dies in the pursuit of a chocolate bar sets the mood nicely, and you can’t beat a good funeral scene in a book like this. Particularly if you’ve got a cantankerous old bachelor like Uncle Frank there to wind up the vicar and assorted attendant old women. The book is dedicated ‘For the Uncle Franks of this world’ and I have to say Frank was probably my favourite character, I like an eccentric that goes his own way and his love of Planet Rock helped.

As well as the obvious family themes (commonalities among differences, misunderstandings and different viewpoints or versions of past events) there’s the idea of the returning wanderer with Greg. Through his eyes we see what’s changed (and what, perhaps surprisingly, hasn’t) in the seven years of his absence. The distance, both from the place and the people he left behind, has given him a different perspective on his family and – partly because he’s cleaned up his act, partly because of his mission from Lyle – he’s attuned to things he would once have missed. Having left West Yorkshire and family myself for a similar amount of time to Greg, I remember that dual feeling of coming home and being a stranger and I think that helped draw me in. There are extra resonances for me in that Billy lives in an unnamed small town in the Wharfe Valley that could well be heavily based on the bit of Wharfedale I can see from my study window, and one of my sisters (like Billy) was forced into a change of direction fifteen years ago when the mills closed and her niche job didn’t exist any more.

Whatever your background, if you enjoy a good black comedy The Last of the Bowmans will make you laugh even as it makes you think about how much you really know your nearest and dearest. And if you do happen to be from West Yorkshire, so much the better.

The Last of the Bowmans was released by No Exit Press on January 21st and you can get it in print, for Kindle, or as an epub (see the No Exit Press website for details). My proof copy came via The Bookbag (thank you!), so I could review it for them over there.