books

Reviewing The Last of the Bowmans

9781843442776

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.

Book reviewing

There’s a new review of an old book on my A Random Walk Through Speculative Fiction outpost at Luna Station Quarterly – I finally read The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin (I know, sometimes I don’t know where I’ve been or how I miss these things). Anyway I’ve read it now, and it was great (one for the PKD fans I think).

I’ll also be part of the blog tour for freshly-released novel The Last of the Bowmans by J Paul Henderson this Sunday, so drop by to read further thoughts on that. You might already have read my review of it at The Bookbag.

All that and preparing for Ilkley Writers to be on the radio, too! More of which anon, but suffice to say I’m excited (and yet cool and nonchalant, obviously).

Mr Mercedes by Stephen King

If you’ve dismissed Stephen King as ‘just a horror writer’ but you like a good thriller or a tense detective novel, swallow your preconceptions and give Mr Mercedes a go. There’s less gore than in many a contemporary crime novel, and not the slightest hint of the supernatural. I’ve been a Stephen King fan for nearly twenty-five years (though I do think he’s had a few sub-standard offerings over the years, everyone has off-days after all) and I think this is up there with his best.

Bill Hodges is a retired police detective, lonely and bored without the job that made up his entire adult life. Mr Mercedes is the one that got away, the last big case of Bill’s career. We as readers know his identity from the start (from the synopsis on the back cover, in fact) and we have to sit back and bite our nails as Bill Hodges is (unofficially) back on the case, hunting the guy down as he prepares to strike again. He’s not a policeman any more, he doesn’t even have a private detective licence, all he can do is use his brains and all those years of experience, and sail as close to the wind as he needs to.

As this was Stephen King, the characters felt like real people, the book itself was easy to read, and the cranking of tension was spot on. The only bit I didn’t buy was a particular character having an AC/DC ringtone (same one as OneMonkey’s, in fact) – he just didn’t strike me as a metaller and it’s never explained. I think we can agree that’s a minor point though.

What struck me as particularly interesting (especially as, like I said, I’ve been reading Stephen King novels for close to a quarter of a century) was the amazing cultural disconnect I felt while I read this novel. All the other books I read last year that were wholly or partly set in America (of which there weren’t many, actually – an interesting fact in itself) were set in a historical or alternative past – I can’t think when I last read contemporary American fiction. Mainly it was the little things, characters reaching for their ‘cell’ rather than their ‘mobile’, or some TV channel or brand of beer I assume is real (because I did recognise some others) but haven’t heard of. In what version of reality is chicken, gravy, biscuits and coleslaw an acceptable meal, let alone one you would buy as the default offering in a fast food restaurant? I’m fairly sure that ‘biscuits’ in this context doesn’t mean what it means in the UK, but I honestly can’t think of any plausible definition of biscuits that would make this make sense. Why on earth is getting someone cremated (not buried) a big deal, why would you mock up a coffin to look like metal (when they’re usually wood, hence the term ‘wooden overcoat’) and is it usual for families to put corpses on display at a funeral home, where they then hold the service (rather than at a church or crematorium)? Fascinating, but oddly more foreign-feeling than all the Scandinavian crime novels I read last year.

Changing reading habits

We’ve had all the lists of 2015 now, we’ve even had most of the What I’m Looking Forward To Reading In 2016, so I feel like I can chuck my reading stats post your way. Savour this, it’s been a year in the making.

About this time last year I made this graph:

2014chart

Why? Well, because I’m sad like that. Anyway, I noticed that I’d read more books published in the 19th century than in 2014 (and I’m pretty sure all the 2014 books were ones I read because of the Ilkley Literature Festival). I declared my intention to read more newly-published books in 2015 and challenged myself not to read any 19th century novels (incidentally, I’m not a fan of reading challenges in general, but this was mainly me testing my will-power, a shelf-full of Anthony Trollope being my equivalent of a big bowl of sweets). This was the result (and yes I went back and adjusted the 2014 y-axis to match):

2015chart

See the big gap marked 19th C? That’s me not having read any 19th century books at all (I never mentioned anything about the 18th century). And look at all the 2015 books I read! Some of that is the Ilkley Literature Festival again, and some of it is down to the wonderful Sue from The Bookbag who posts me paperbacks when I’ve got time to review them.

Right, now I’ve proved I can drag myself up to date, somebody pass me a Palliser novel quick.

Christmas reading

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This Christmas I said it with books to my parents, Big Brother, The Nephew, and one of the two friends I give presents to. As you can see from the left hand side of the picture, I got a few books myself (plus money for ebooks including Chrissie Hynde’s Reckless) and I’m looking forward to finding the time to read some of those in the next few weeks. The right hand side of the picture shows the book I’m reading at the moment, which I bought in autumn with last year’s Christmas money. Maybe I need to get quicker at working through the To Read pile.

I hope all of you had a good festive period, found the time to read, got some good book recommendations (or indeed some good books) from friends and family and are generally feeling rested. Here’s to 2016.

Traditional festive ramblings

Owl cake

Christmas cake dressed as an owl, made by my talented friend

Although the weather might be making you think otherwise, it is very nearly Christmas. Mince pie consumption is nearing its peak, books of the year lists are everywhere you turn, and it’s almost time for the Doctor Who special. For those of us lucky enough to have a reasonable chunk of holiday it’s the last chance to read all those books we promised ourselves this year and it’s also a great concentrated writing slot.

Consider past years, weigh it up according to how well you know me, then answer the following questions:

  • How many words will I actually have written by January 3rd?
  • How many mince pies will I have eaten when I should really have been getting down to some serious editing?
  • At what point on Christmas Day will Big Brother and I dissect the Doctor Who special?
  • How many books will be given as presents in my immediate family?
  • How many of those will be second-hand?

Season’s greetings to all, and I’ll get back to listening to this Hives album, make another cup of tea, grab a mince pie, and try and finish reading The Establishment by Owen Jones before I’m overcome by festive lethargy.

The Honours by Tim Clare

Another one of those books I read based on a recommendation, this one after my dad read a review of it in The Guardian and pronounced it ‘your sort of thing’. As usual, the time between writing down the title and author, and actually reading the thing was quite long enough to have forgotten any kind of conversation about the book’s contents, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had an idea it was probably fantasy or sci-fi, but it was shelved under general adult fiction at the local library, and though the prologue makes it pretty clear the book has fantastical elements, the first half of the novel ticks along as an engaging 1930s thriller, all spies and intrigue and gathering warclouds, and I was beginning to doubt my interpretation. However, it’s definitely dark fantasy (bordering on horror in places).

Set in 1935, the central character is 12 year old Delphine Venner, a tomboy with an obsessive interest in war and guns. Going to live on a country estate with her upper middle class parents, as part of an exclusive rest home cum improvement society, the bored and lonely little girl goes exploring, living out fantasies of Great War trenches, and suspecting every grown-up she encounters (apart from her dad) as being Up To No Good. The truth, however, is beyond even Delphine’s imagination.

As you might expect there are secret passages for Delphine to find, good places to hide, woodland to explore and large grounds for her to wander in and keep out of everyone’s way. I found her an engaging character to follow, and all the bad decisions and character flaws necessary for the plot to unfold seemed to flow naturally from her age and background. Once the fantasy plot kicks in it’s gripping, but prior to that you have to be willing to tag along as this girl imagines her way through long, lonely days, overhearing cryptic conversation snippets that neither she nor we can interpret (OneMonkey found it dragged on him after a while, too big a gap between meeting Delphine and her world, and anything genuinely exciting happening). I suspect there will be a big overlap of readers with John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things.