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Air Babylon by Imogen Edwards Jones

Ladies and gentleman, welcome on board this feature. My name is John and I will be your reporter during today’s review of the notorious book, AIR BABYLON. It will be quite a short, succinct piece and if the seat belt sign is turned on, please return to your seats and buckle up immediately.

air-babylon

Please note before we do take off, in one of my previous lives I was actually a long-haul flight attendant for a well-known Italian business. I travelled around the world for several years enjoying the environments of Cuba, Maldives, Dominican Republic, Mombasa, Calgary, Goa and Florida to name a few. A question I am often asked is that of my favourite destination. Undoubtedly Calgary, a great place for outdoor pursuits and a thriving culture scene. It was quite a lifestyle: staying in five-star hotels and having lots of time off in between. Reality did not just bite, when I had to do a proper occupation with conventional hours, as in so much that it gnawed off my leg.

So this book, AIR BABYLON by Imogen Edwards Jones and Anonymous. In a similar formula to Hotel Babylon, the stories all take place within a fictitious airline known as AIR BABYLON. The action is the life cycle of an airport’s day of operation and a flight. However, like air travel in general, there was a slight delay before the story actually took off. This piece of pulp fiction reminded me of terminology used in this industry I had forgotten, such as disco nap (a quick sleep before a night on the dance floor). It took me right back to what it was like working in the airport, an overpriced shopping centre with runways. I recalled the cast of characters regularly seen, semi-permanent resident tramps, drug addicts and petty thieves.

I could identify with lots of areas covered in the book. For example, some of the customer annoyances and desperately trying to have five minutes’ rest on an upturned silver stock box in the galley, uninterrupted by passengers demanding more booze or snacks. To the in-flight rituals: checking the seat pockets during turn around (when the plane prepares to come back from a short haul flight) to see what treasures are left behind. Things like duty free or books, the occasional oddity like dentures and – on one of my long-haul flights – a sex aid!

It also identified my particular hate, passengers standing up as soon as we landed, even though the fuselage was still in transit,

They’ve been cooped up for hours, fed and watered at someone else’s whim, and now, suddenly they are allowed free will. But it doesn’t make a blind bit of difference. If they are not held up by passport control, Baggage will get them in the end. They’ll all end up standing next to one another in the taxi queue at the other end no matter how speedily they exit the plane.

I will state now though that I am not one to kiss and tell, my personal tales of damage and glamour are filed away in my mind’s eye for my own pleasure and perhaps a few choice friends only. As I worked in the aviation industry, some of the sensationalist factoids quoted failed to impress. In general, I found the book was like a long-haul fight. It was too, too long and some of the anecdotes made me feel nauseous. I did wonder whether or not the book should be accompanied with a sick bag, as the emphasis was on the grosser elements involved in sharing space with strangers at 35,000 feet. A great deal too much focus on toilet habits!

Where the amount of scenarios encountered in a 24 hour time period in a hotel seemed just about credible, here in the air it is exceptionally unbelievable. With one calamity bungling into the next, this book makes the movie Snakes on a Plane seem plausible. A warning to the cautious, particularly those who feel extremely petrified about flying, a common phobia: THIS BOOK WOULD NOT PROVE APPROPRIATE TRAVEL READING.

I personally find the whole concept of air travel fine. I quite like floating up in the clouds, it is soothing. But I must say I do find the choice of terminology for an airport quite weird, I mean TERMINAL is not a good advertisement for safety. If you have never worked in aviation, this book will prove to be salacious camp fun, but if you have, perhaps some of the clichés will prove irritating. But then, I often think I was born in the wrong era, as I would have loved to have flown in the bygone golden days, when air travel was elite and the height of sophistication. One of my life ambitions is to travel on the Orient Express and also take the boat from Liverpool to New York City.

I remember flying with one debonair lady who was of an undisclosed age. She was couture sophistication, all leather gloves, starched epaulettes and rouge-red lipstick. She never broke a sweat or looked stressed, even after a 15 hour flight to Tel Aviv. Her perfume scented calmness and her smooth glide as she walked turned heads. Every time I saw this vixen of the skies, in comparison to the other new blood who had just begun their careers, it made me think of the musical song from the show CHICAGO, Nowadays and particular the line sung,

Whatever happened to class?

A similar sentiment entered my head when I reached the final destination, the end of this book.

Well, as we are shortly about to begin our descent to the end of this piece, may I inform you that I am going to tackle another in the Babylon series, FASHION BABYLON. We do hope you have enjoyed this literary flight. Thank you for flying ten minutes hate.

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Hitler is back – and going viral!

Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes

look who's back

In a world where absolutely ridiculous media nincompoops like Katie Hopkins can make a career out of being a sensationalist fascist and are lauded with too, too much media attention, it is hard not to imagine that the plot of the novel Look Who’s Back is anything but highly plausible.

When I have to come up with a solution to a particularly cumbersome problem, I often ask myself,

What would David Bowie do?
What would Kate Bush do?
What would Madonna do?

Rarely, do I think what would Adolf Hitler do? Yet this is exactly what Timur Vermes has done. The resulting piece of fiction is darkly humorous, subtly frightening and deeply disturbing.

It is summer 2011. Adolf Hitler wakes up on a patch of open ground, alive and well. He is recognised of course, but not as the original blueprint of sadism, instead as being a flawless impersonator, a method actor who refuses to break character. Soon Hitler in all his ‘fuhr-ocity’ goes viral on YouTube and the madman is given his own television show. Disturbingly, the more outrageous his sentiments, the more he is given media attention.

I know Shirley Bassey is not a philosopher but she was ever so right when she sang,

It’s just a little piece of history repeated.

The story abruptly commences with the fascist dictator re-awakening in Germany and immediately thrusts the Fuhrer into the modern jungle that is Berlin. He is outraged and disgusted that his beloved Fatherland is now being run by a female of the species.

The German Reich appeared to have given way to what was called a ‘Federal Republic,’ the leadership of which resided with a woman (‘Federal Chancellor’), although men had been entrusted with this position in the past.

The changes to contemporary society and Adolf’s take on them are laugh out loud amusing. Everything from Starbucks coffee to fashion,

He had brought me a clean pair of blue cotton trousers, which he called ‘genes’, and a clean red-checked cotton shirt.

To mobile phone ringtones,

Which sounded like a drunken clown playing the xylophone.

And of course there is the pint-sized psychopath’s musings on modern technology,

The time, the stock prices of the American dollar, the temperature of the remotest corners of the earth-oblivious to all this; the announcer carried on broadcasting news of world events. It was as if the information were being retrieved from a lunatic asylum. And as if these nonsensical antics were not enough, interruptions for advertisements, as frequent as they were abrupt, declared where the cheapest holiday could be obtained, a claim, a large number of shops made in the same way. No sane person would be capable of remembering the names of these outlets, but they all belonged to a group called www.

Lest we forget, in the past people used to smoke at work, they could puff away at their desks (I thank re-runs of Colombo for this history lesson) and also drink whisky in meetings. With this in mind, it is understandable why such modern civic practices like picking up domestic pets faeces (or doggy caramel as I call it), would look positively absurd;

Out of the corner of my eye, I spied a madwoman on the edge of the park who was gathering up what her dog had just deposited.

I think what is clever about this book is it has an almost fearless approach to a taboo subject. It is controversial, and quite timely, in that it really underlines the problems and vulgarity of fame. A society that sees plastic celebrity worshipped above all else. Who cares if you have a talent unless you look younger than you did when you were in the womb? A little bit (or a lot) of a fascist? That’s okay as long as you get the ratings, conquer the Twitter stream and grapple with the Facebook likes.

This piece of literature was first published in Germany, ‘Er ist wider da‘ and is now parading the shelves of book stores in the rest of Europe. A tale that will have the Fuhrer’s ghost haunting you long after you have read it.

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Reading with kids (3 to 8 years)

One of the advantages of being an uncle is that every time I purchase books for my nephew and niece, I get the pleasure of reading them first and then re-reading over and over when babysitting. You soon start to recognise the marks of a good quality piece of kids’ literature.

A positive moral or message, an imaginative narrative and a healthy dosage of kookiness, that’s the recipe for a successful kids’ book. Over the last few months I have begun to compile a list of favourites and the chosen titles are as follows:

5. DOG LOVES BOOKS by Louise Yates (3-6 years), Publisher: Cape.

dog loves books

A comical little tale about a dog who runs a book shop and finds that books are the key to other worlds.

4. CROC AND BIRD by Alexis Deacon (3-7 years), Publisher: Hutchinson.

croc and bird

Two eggs hatch side by side, a crocodile and a parrot. The creatures believe they must be brothers, a funny mismatch that celebrates diversity.

3. MR TIGER GOES WILD by Peter Brown (4-7 years), Publisher: Macmillan.

Mr tiger goes wild

A dapper tiger complete with a top hat and Edwardian dress embraces his inner feral animal and starts an alternatively natural trend.

2. ZERAFFA GIRAFFA by Dianne Hofmeyr, illustrated by Janne Ray (4-8 years), Publisher: Frances Lincoln.

ZERAFFA GIRAFFA

A beautifully illustrated true story about a giraffe sent from Egypt to a French King in the 1820s.

1. A CHILDREN’S TREASURY OF MILLIGAN by Spike Milligan (8-108 years), Publisher: Ebury

A Children's Treasury of Milligan

My four year-old nephew has a tendency to cantillate the Milligan poems at random. Limericks like:

There are holes in the sky where the rain gets in.
The holes are small, so rain is thin.

Or my particular favourite:

the pig
A very rash young lady pig
(They say she was a smasher)
Suddenly ran
Under a van-
Now she’s a gammon rasher.

Milligan’s’ scribblings are absolutely barking mad. Sentences of insanity highlighting an imaginative perspective of the world and all who sail in her.

I highly recommend these philosophical pieces of writing. They are guaranteed, I can assure you, to make any sadness in the heart rapidly dissipate.

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Conversations with Spirits by E O Higgins

Conversations with Spirits is one of those cracking reads that leave you sitting up into the small hours promising yourself ‘one more chapter then sleep’. On finishing it, you will want to buy copies for all your good friends, so that you can have long, spoiler-filled discussions of its merits. For they are many.

Trelawney Hart is a former child prodigy who spends his days trying to pickle his brain in cherry brandy in order to remove all traces of his lost wife. He seems an unlikely person for the creator of Sherlock Holmes to engage to investigate a spiritualist demonstration on the sands of Broadstairs in Kent, but Sir Arthur Conan Doyle does just that. The wrecked condition of Hart’s body makes it touch and go as to whether he will witness the denouement of his own story, as the reader is left to wonder if he will uncover some of what is going on before he coughs up a lung. Or two.

The tale is set in 1917, but the War hovers around like a London fog, influencing the characters without directly touching them. It is true that the massive loss of life did encourage a belief in spiritualists among the bereaved, as well as many ‘backroom shysters’ determined to prey on them for profit. And Trelawney is also haunted, the presence of his wife never far away:

It is far more painful to awake from a beautiful slumber and – in that brief period when the continuity of life is still lost to you – to reach across the bed for a hand that is not there.

So, have the years of drinking sufficiently dulled one of England’s most famous intellects to the point of being unable to unravel the facts? Will he be forced to admit that there are things in the world that logic alone can’t explain? Rest assured that even if Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is picking up the (considerable) tab for the adventures, Trelawney won’t be able to resist little digs at his benefactor. The Hound of the Baskervilles one is priceless.

Published by Unbound, which allows readers to pledge to support the work of writers whose ideas resonate with them, the one question on every reviewer’s mind seems to be ‘WHEN DO WE GET TO READ THE SEQUEL?’ And, should Trelawney end his days face down in a pint of brandy – as seems somewhat possible – there are at least two ‘supporting’ characters who deserve spin-off tales of their own: there is surely more going on with den mother Sibella and reluctant sidekick Billy Crouse than has been revealed thus far.

ten minutes hate was lucky enough to be able to ask this and a few other impertinent questions to Mr E O Higgins himself.

conversations with spirits shelf

10mh: Conversations with Spirits is so amazingly good (thank you!) that you must be living the dream of fat advances, literary acclaim and a five star, jet set lifestyle. Was publishing everything you thought it would be?

Well, I don’t live in a massive gold house just yet, sadly – but being involved with Unbound has been lovely. They’re all very funny and charming and encouraging, which is nice.
And the moment I saw my book in Waterstones for the first time is something I will never forget…

10mh: Trelawney Hart is quite a character. Is it difficult to switch off his distinctive voice when your writing is done for the day and do you have a good cherry brandy supplier?

Trelawney is a bit of an arsehole, really – so I try not to get too lost in the part. I also don’t have the servants to put up with my rudeness (see previous answer), so that’s something I need to work on.
I had actually never tasted cherry brandy (Trelawney’s tipple of choice) before my book launch – but now I have, I won’t be imbibing again any time soon. It’s filthy stuff.

10mh: Was it fun taking a bit of a pop at Arthur Conan Doyle or has there been any retribution from Sherlock Holmes fans?

Yes, I get occasional angry reviews because of this.
I am actually a very big Conan Doyle fan myself, so I like to think it’s more of a good-natured ribbing, really.
I recently did a talk at the Edinburgh Literary Festival and the crowd there were surprisingly hostile to both myself and Steven Galloway, the writer I was sharing the platform with.
It turned out to be filled with members of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Society – a spiritualist organisation.
I had earlier referred to the mediums I had met – whilst researching my book – as ‘shysters’. So, it was quite a tough crowd.

10mh: Word reaches us that your research into spiritualism now extends to hosting séances. What would Trelawney say?

He would be appalled, naturally; if he wasn’t too pissed to care.
I don’t ‘do’ séances though – I did a single séance for Unbound, to help publicise the book.
Derek Acorah’s job’s safe – turns out, lying to the bereaved isn’t really my thing.

10mh: And what’s next, for creator and protagonist?

My wife is expecting our first child in a month, so I mainly foresee an instance of extreme panic, following by a period of changing nappies and missing sleep…
But the follow-up to Conversations with Spirits is (slowly) coming together. The plot has moved away from spiritualism and onto black magic, so I expect I’ll be upsetting devil worshippers soon enough.

Congratulations! Excellent and very welcome news.

If you haven’t already, search out a copy of Conversations with Spirits. And you can follow E O Higgins on Twitter for updates on when and where the follow-up will appear.

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Do not disturb: Welcome to Hotel Babylon

CHECK IN:

Last weekend, staying in my friend’s cottage in Sale, I had the luxury of being able to read the book Hotel Babylon into the wee small hours. The next day the tell-tale marks of reading late had taken its toll on my face. I had bags under my eyes like a spaniel’s ears. But it was worth it.

hotel-babylon-1

The manager of an exclusive luxury hotel (known as Anonymous) exposes the goings on in the trade. Imogen Edwards-Jones sculpts a career’s worth of experience and anecdotes from Mr. A into one action-packed day, told through the eyes of a ‘receptionist’. Each of the 24 chapters narrates the events of a single hour, from 7 am Friday to 7 am Saturday.

THE STAY:

It is a 24 hour trawl through the decadence, depravity and downright debauchery of the hotel industry. After paying an astronomically large fee for a room, guests feel this gives them an immediate licence to be rude and obnoxious. The polite, respectable citizen can be transformed into an ignoramus who thinks they can act however they choose.

Something strange occurs to guests as soon as they check in, even if in real life they are perfectly well-mannered, decent people with proper balanced relationships, as soon as they spin through the revolving hotel doors the normal rules of behavior no longer seem to apply.

The reader is taken absolutely everywhere in the hotel, from the reception area to the back offices, the exclusive bar, restaurant, kitchens and of course the varied rooms from the ludicrously extravagant to the over-priced boxes. It is a candid observation of what really goes on behind the painted smiles of sycophantic members of staff.

Lavish drug parties, calculating call girls, nude guests, massive telephone porn bills and bathtubs filled with Evian, it’s all here. The residents’ swimming in a lake of liquor, mounds of cocaine and unadulterated raw sex. The reader is plunged into a double shift crammed with outrageous incidents, requests and scandals. And the cast of characters are memorable, dictator-like chefs, cleaners curling up to catch a sneaky 40 winks, vamps, tramps and dead bodies.

CHECK OUT:

I would remind anybody who is tempted to try the ‘white worm’ – commonly called cocaine – to really think about snorting unknown powder. The so-called glamour of this drug is highlighted with the rock band who end up with diarrhea and have to wipe their bottoms on curtains once the paper has run out.

grand-hotel-poster

If you would like to spend more time in the world of the hotelier, I would recommend seeing the fabulous vintage film Grand Hotel. Further reading could include Arnold Bennett’s The Grand Babylon Hotel published in 1902. This expose depicts what the staff and guests of a luxury establishment get up to.

Nothing much has really changed!

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From the Land of Green Ghosts by Pascal Khoo Thwe

Had I not read Emma Larkin’s wonderful Finding George Orwell in Burma in 2013, I wouldn’t have gone looking for further reading and found a list of the author’s recommended books about the country. That would have meant I missed out on Pascal Khoo Thwe’s remarkable, lyrical story of a life that begins in the jungles of Burma before – after a few dizzying turns – depositing him in Cambridge’s hallowed atmosphere.

fromthelandofgreenghosts

Despite making bold promises to myself after compiling last year’s reading list, it has taken me close to two months to finish reading this book. Partly a change in available time is to blame, but also because there were passages that defy speeding through, rewarding repeated consideration and a slower pace. Carl Honoré would love it.

That pace is set by the author’s beginnings in tribal lands where the seasons dominate and everything is in tune with the life of the natural world around it. Some nods to modernity have been made, along with the tribe’s enthusiastic conversion to Catholicism, but the older ways operate alongside the new without too much anguish. Surprisingly – although perhaps less so when you learn more of what followed – the days of the British are remembered fondly. Pascal Khoo Thwe’s grandmother was even brought to London to be displayed as one of the ‘giraffe necked women’ and returned from the visit having enjoyed the ‘moving stairs’ that they didn’t need to climb, but full of complaints about the cold.

‘The English are a very strange tribe,’ said Grandma Mu Tha. ‘They paid money just to look at us – they paid us for not working… They say “Hello,” “How are you” and “Goodbye” all the time to one another.’

It is an enjoyable existence, one where uncles are supermen, playing for the town’s football team is the highest honour and wasps are a delicacy. Apart from that last one, it isn’t too far from my own. The dead remain in close proximity to the living, as in other parts of Asia. Death is not something to fear, but more a move to the next stage of life. These words from a funeral which was a blend of Catholic and traditional rites,

Well done, my boy. Well done, Peter Yew, for you have made us proud. You have finished your hunting. Enjoy being with our ancestors for ever; enjoy the banquet with them. They await you, and we will join you when the time comes. Meanwhile tell our ancestors about us, tell them to help us, and to protect us from the evil powers. Ask them to make our land fertile, to bring good weather and rains for us, to make our women fertile. Go my son, go, back to our ancestors. May your journey be gentle and your soul as bright as the stars.

That was one of the particular passages of the book that I read more than once. What better words could be said at the end of a life cut short but one that was lived well.

These ways which have endured for so long are not immediately threatened by the changes in Burma’s power structures as the military dictatorship takes hold slowly. The author’s grandfather and then his father are allowed to retain some vestiges of their tribal authority and so it is perhaps not until he reaches university, in a Mandalay so far off that it feels like another land altogether, that he begins to be exposed to the sufferings of other parts of his country. As a student he is advised to play the game and not question too much:

Remember what your grandfather said about the earth’s being round at school and flat at home. He was a wise man and taught you what you need to know in Burma. It is the same in politics… They may be as ignorant as peasants – but they have the guns. Never, never argue with them.

But he finds it increasingly difficult to engage in the doublethink which is needed to thrive in Burma. Even the university’s buildings, dating from Colonial times, impress upon him that at one point this place of learning sought to encourage an opening of minds and curiosity about the world that his generation is being denied. He is not the only one and, in 1988, protests sweep the country, starting with students before pulling in monks and ordinary people. The disappearance of his girlfriend in sinister circumstances shocks him off the sidelines and in to a more outspoken role, before eventually – inevitably – he is forced to flee for the relative ‘safety’ of the Thai border and the rebel fighters attacking government troops there.

And here this tale might have ended, by stray bullet or landmine, were it not for a chance meeting a few years earlier in a Mandalay restaurant with a Cambridge academic and a scrawled note which somehow reaches him. This contact catapults Pascal Khoo Thwe around the world, away from family, friends and comrades, and into the same misty cold that his grandmother had found so hard to bear. It is a heck of a journey and the reader almost has to keep reminding herself that Thwe is only recounting his first couple of decades.

Learning English and studying for a literature degree are colossal feats in their own rights, becoming a writer who can tell such a captivating tale in so creative and descriptive a manner is another. Mosquitoes are like ‘flying grape-pips blushing with human blood,’ and when he heads into the mountainous jungle, scenes of ‘cool-season flowers, ranging from… varieties of orchid to small white and purple bush-flowers,’ are interrupted by burnt-out villages.

It was a countryside that the hand of war had several times touched.

From his tribal childhood, to gaining maturity during the uprisings before heading to Cambridge, Pascal Khoo Thwe has lived more than one life, none of which I had much experience of. It’s a testament to his faith in ‘freedom and love of life’ that he was able to survive and to record such events not in a flat recounting, but in a tale that lives and breathes with the vitality and character of its writer.

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A bloody canvas

Pierre Lemaitre was awarded the 2013 Crime Writers’ Association International Dagger for his first outing in crime fiction, Alex.

pierre lemaitre

The follow-up, Irene, sees Commandant Camille Verhoeven – his dwarf hero and main protagonist – married and about to become a father. His life is a long sought after one of ease. The story opens with a murder of unprecedented savagery. The author is unrelenting in his description of the macabre crime scene. This is not a spoiler alert but a warning to the squeamish amongst readers.

When they arrive at a crime scene, rookie officers unconsciously look around for death. Experienced officers look for life. But there was no life here; death had leached into every space, even the bewildered eyes of the living.

The French writer paints a picture and it is a gore-ridden massacre, not so much on a small detailed canvas, more of a bold brash bloody mural. The killer’s signature style is to pay homage to the classic crime novels. The gutter press, one suspects the French equivalent of The Daily Fail or The Scum, quickly label him the Novelist.

The tale soon becomes a personal duel between Verhoeven and the sick murderer. It is a credit to translator Frank Wynne for he transfers this piece of writing from the French into a succinct and exceptionally well written piece of crime fiction.

IRENE

What works about this gripping and intelligent story is the clever plot that weaves dark and comic scenes into a tapestry of realistic terror that surreptitiously wraps around the reader, attempting to choke. You share the sense of urgency with Camille and his team, to catch this serial psycho and stop him recreating tableaus from the pages of crime novels. It is an enthralling read and clearly written by a crime aficionado, as the author himself declares,

Since I owe almost everything I am to literature, it felt natural to begin by writing a novel which was a homage to crime fiction.

I recognised the first murder but could not think were from until informed it was from the cult classic, American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis.

AmericanPsychoBook

Le Maitre explains,

American Psycho was a tremendous shock to the reading public. Bret Easton Ellis raises so many moral questions with such intelligence, such skill. Though not considered a crime novel, this defining work deftly addresses readers’ ambiguity towards the very violence which is an essential, ‘pleasure’ of crime fiction. Yet many criticised the visceral brutality in American Psycho, as though the purpose of such fiction is to exercise our hyper-violent societies, but to remain within ‘reasonable limits’.

Simply, this is a pulp crime novel taken to another level. It does not leave a temporary fixture on the imagination, like some throwaway novels in this genre, so much as a dark imposing stain.

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