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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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Naomi’s Room

We have all been there, so it’s not hard to conjure up the scenario. A bustling Saturday shopping afternoon, you try to manoeuvre yourself through the lagoon of people who bash past oblivious to anyone in their pathway. Basic manners and people skills: clearly two lessons that were eradicated from their upbringing. People who were not brought up, but rather brought down.

You clasp tight hold of the child’s hand by your side. But being an infant, this is no ordinary day, no day is ever ordinary when you are three or four. It’s a world of imaginative possibilities. An escalator is a runway to a sci-fi alien world, a conveyor belt to the land of robots. A discarded take away box is a trunk of treasure and then there are all the neon flashing distractions of window displays and other excitements.

You may lose your grip for a fraction of a second, look down and he or she is still there, look away and then back and the kid has vanished, gone! This is every adult who is responsible for a child’s absolute nightmare. Because adults know the darkness of the world we inhabit. In that fleeting moment, the amygdala does not just hijack the brain, it tortures it.

Generally a few seconds later the child re-appears, you catch sight of him or her and your heart returns back to its normal rhythm. You shout, an almost roar, out of sheer panic about wandering off and how it is naughty or some other disdainful reprimand. It doesn’t matter what you say, it’s just words, noise expressing your inner fear. And equilibrium is restored.

But what happens if the child does not re-appear?

This is precisely the dilemma that Jonathan Aycliffe throws at his reader in the beginning of the short tale of terror NAOMI’S ROOM. From the onset he establishes his tale in the land of comfortable academia. It’s domestic bliss with Charles, the main protagonist, aged 30, his wife Lucy, 26, and their daughter Naomi who is 4.

It’s a world of possibilities,

Your life seems so directed when you are thirty.

Charles is a published promising academic, with an acclaimed piece on Gawain and the Green Knight. The loving couple and their daughter live a charmed life and the action starts with the two prepping for Naomi’s first proper Christmas. Taking Naomi on a trip to London, on Christmas Eve, her mood is one of excitement.

Naomi’s sense of adventure was infectious.

This picturesque idyll is not so much shattered as completely decimated when Naomi goes missing.

Nothing bad happened to children on Christmas Eve.

Each chapter is crafted to keep you reading on with a suspenseful final paragraph. This tale is in the style of supernatural masters like M.R. James and Susan Hill. The sadistic style of writing that is unflinching in its descriptions, slashes the canvas of comfort and provides an engrossing narrative. It is horror writing at its best, suspenseful, chilling and occasionally gruesome.

I’d say you know it’s a captivating tale when you open the envelope it came in as you come home from a solid day of graft and decide to look at the first paragraph to realise you are 80 pages in and the last hour or two has gone by. It was only when I finished NAOMI’S ROOM that I actually looked at the cover in greater detail. Thankfully, I had not given it a glance as on reflection this could have put me off, a naff superimposed stock image of a spooky child clutching a doll over a staircase was about as sinister as athlete’s foot, but I guess that depends on the severity of the foot ailment!

naomis-room

If like me you choose to read this tale in a room of your own, I can guarantee that when you bed down in the evening, a light of sorts will have to be turned firmly on somewhere in sight of the naked eye. You will hope that the mind does not decide to work overtime and you will hope that Madam Sleep wrestles you quickly into unconsciousness.

It does amaze me the fixation that society seems to have with fictional horror and crime. The world is crammed with gruesome realities from IS to UKIP, yet we still have an innate fascination with atrocities from watching hangings in Elizabethan times to reading penny dreadful novels in Victorian days, the 1970’s slasher flicks to the bordering-on-snuff films of the SAW franchise.

Perhaps we are all just twisted souls?

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A year in books – 2014 – J. C. Greenway

Like my good pal, Mr Maguire, I have taken a more systematic approach to reading this year by making a reading plan. It wasn’t too exact, reckoning on two books a month and allowing for other discoveries by only planning for 10 months instead of 12. It sounds unbelievably dull, but as it paid off in an extra 15 books read this year, it might become a permanent feature! Access to free, out of copyright downloads means that I read more ebooks this year. They are just too convenient to avoid these days, however strong the preference for the turning of an actual page.

stack-of-booksWhile putting this plan down on paper, I decided that I wanted to read more from outside the ‘dead, white, European male’ perspective which so often makes up my reading. As this year started as the last ended, with a whole bunch of classy spy novels, this wasn’t altogether successful, but the effort will continue when planning next year’s books. I also want to read more works in translation, to disprove that theory that English-speaking readers won’t touch such books. Also this year I was lucky enough to get an offer of free downloads from the website Unbound, which introduced me to many new writers as well as a new way of publishing books.

Here is my list of books read in 2014, with links to reviews written along the way, as well as some further thoughts following. In chronological order, I read this year:

  1. Mike and Psmith, P. G. Wodehouse
  2. Psmith in the City, P. G. Wodehouse
  3. Crying Just Like Anybody: A Fiction Desk Anthology
  4. A Murder of Quality, John le Carré
  5. The Looking Glass War, John le Carré
  6. My Name Is Loco and I am a Racist, Baye McNeil
  7. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
  8. The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde
  9. Under Fire, Henri Barbusse
  10. Piggy Monk Square, Grace Jolliffe
  11. Down the Figure 7, Trevor Hoyle
  12. These Turbulent Times, Paul Tomkins
  13. I’m The One, Miha Mazzini (short story)
  14. A Game With Sharpened Knives, Neil Belton
  15. The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
  16. Burmese Days, George Orwell
  17. Jew Boy, Simon Blumenfeld
  18. The Interpreters, Ben Anderson
  19. A Man Without a Country, Kurt Vonnegut
  20. The Road Home, Rose Tremain
  21. Our Game, John le Carré
  22. The Summing Up, W. Somerset Maugham
  23. Keep the Aspidistra Flying, George Orwell
  24. The Lighthouse, Alison Moore
  25. The Wake, Paul Kingsnorth
  26. A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, Ben Macintyre
  27. Swimming Home, Deborah Levy
  28. Elephant Moon, John Sweeney
  29. Salt & Old Vines, Richard W. H. Bray
  30. F**k The Radio, We’ve Got Apple Juice, Miranda Ward
  31. Cause for Alarm, Eric Ambler
  32. The Honourable Schoolboy, John le Carré
  33. Wigs on the Green, Nancy Mitford
  34. The Sweetest Dream, Doris Lessing
  35. Coming Up For Air, George Orwell
  36. Conversations With Spirits, E. O. Higgins
  37. Empire of the Sun, J. G. Ballard
  38. Snows of Kilimanjaro, Ernest Hemingway

Looking at my list, it seems that I didn’t do too well at #readwomen2014, with just seven women appearing. The inter-war period still seems to be my favourite, with 14 books either being written or set in the Twenties and Thirties. It is going to take a more concerted effort next year to break away from the old, dead, European men.

Some highlights this year were set very close to home, with Piggy Monk Square by Grace Jolliffe and Trevor Hoyle’s Down The Figure 7 offering two completely different perspectives on growing up in the North of England. Jew Boy by Simon Blumenfeld contrasted with and provoked thought as well as Orwell’s Keep The Aspidistra Flying.

Spy novels remain a pleasure, so it was engrossing to pick up Ben Macintyre’s tale of the real-life mole in our midst, Kim Philby. Miranda Ward’s book – part manifesto, part memoir – of making it or not in the music and other creative industries prompted much highlighting and scribbling in notebooks. Conversations With Spirits by E.O. Higgins was a triumph, taking on spiritualism and the creator of Sherlock Holmes, it should be read by all.

Despite its World War II setting, nods to Orwell and plucky heroine, I couldn’t warm to Elephant Moon by John Sweeney. It had all the right ingredients and should have been a cracking tale, but felt far too slow to me. Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse is undoubtably the work of a skilled writer, but I disliked her characters so much it was difficult to spend time with them.

When it comes to picking a best book of the year, there really is only one candidate. Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake was unlike anything else, written in an edited version of Old English and rewarding the dedicated reader with a finely woven and masterfully rendered story. Language and narrative both perfectly combined. The writer announced that this is planned to be the first of a trilogy, which is very happy news and something to look forward to placing on a future list.

So, how about you? How did you get on and which were your favourite reads of the year?

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A year in books – 2014 – John Maguire

Since I purchased myself a Reading Chair, my reading habits have become far more structured this year. It’s true I still read haphazardly in between appointments and on my daily commute on the buses of Liverpool. It takes 21 days for a new habit to be formed and now if I do not snatch a few moments in my chair daily, I feel like the day has not really been complete.

stack-of-booksI started the year with Patti Smith’s JUST KIDS, a first-hand observation of New York during the Bohemian seventies. It details her relationship with the controversial artist Robert Mapplethorpe. The poetry behind her descriptions of the creative process is intense, dark and beautiful.

BREAKFAST WITH LUCIEN by Geordie Grieg tries to get behind the skin of the cantankerous painter Lucien Freud. This book does not shed the artist in a great light. I would hate for a friend who I chose to have breakfast with regularly to narrate all the things we intimately discussed (allegedly) after I died. As Freud was an enigmatic private man I find this well, quite frankly, quite rude. The book was an addictive read and proof that you can appreciate the artist even if his or her life choices are somewhat questionable and contradictory to your own moral compass.

THE COLLECTED SHORT STORIES by Roald Dahl were delicious, macabre, tales of the everyday with a sadistic twist, a tapas board of terror. I wanted to re-read THE GREAT GATSBY before seeing the new-fangled 4D bluescreen adaptation.

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

I would say that this is the greatest book of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, perhaps second only to TENDER IS THE NIGHT. Sadly, it left me questioning how he would have developed if he had not drowned himself in hard liquor. How many great writers have been lost on the wild seas of intoxication?

I abandoned THIS SIDE OF PARADISE as I felt it was like being in a room with a married couple when they drank too much and argued at a party. LAST DAYS by Adam Neville is an enjoyable horror focusing on a lost cult from the seventies. I could not help drawing parallels with Scientology.

Back to the classics next with the episodic story of self-development DAVID COPPERFIELD and then onto NICHOLAS NICKELBY both by Charles Dickens, I think I found my favourite Dickensian character too (so far) in the eccentric Mr Dick. I struggled through BLEAK HOUSE, a great tale but I found the legal wranglings tedious.

THE APPRENTICE by Tess Gerritsen was a grizzly and graphic suspenseful horror. Nothing quite like feeling like you are actually attending an autopsy when reading whilst on the bus to work at 6:45am. Surgically accurate fiction, you feel every cut. (Pardon the ridiculous pun!)

BEAUTIFUL RUINS by Jess Walters will make you yearn to visit the slow country, Italy. A gorgeous tale of romance that reminded me of the great Sixties films by Fellini or the recent The Great Beauty by Paolo Sorrentino.

KEEPING THE DEAD by Tess Gerritsen took me back to the morgue. A guide on how to mummify a dead body is always a good thing to have in your mind’s library. Perhaps though, something to omit from a CV or job application? A masterclass in pulp horror. With & SONS by David Gilbert, you can taste the atmosphere of New York City. The narrative focuses on a writer and his complex relationships with his siblings. DON’T POINT THAT THING AT ME by Kyril Bonfiglioli was camp farcical fun James Bond meets a sexed up Jeeves and Wooster.

DOCTOR SLEEP by Stephen King is the sequel to one of his masterpieces, THE SHINING, and is equally as horrific. Wow, I am now grateful for having read some of King’s weaker books as this illustrates the man’s sheer genius. When asked in an interview where he gets his ideas from he said,

I have the heart of a child. I keep it in a drawer in my desk.

REVENGE by Martina Cole is a recipe for gangster revenge tragedy. Take a dose of Danny Dyer, add a few WAG-like women, a sprinkling of Ray Winstone and a few reated metaphors, like he was ‘strung up like a kipper’. An entertaining spectacle of a book. MAGGIE AND ME by Damian Barr, is a coming of age tale about a gay guy growing up when it was not deemed acceptable to be gay, running parallel with the political changes during the Thatcher years. JUBILEE by Shelley Harris took me to the hot summer of 1977, one street in Blighty and all the little hidden tales behind the closed doors of its residents.

THIS BODY OF DEATH by Elizabeth George was an epic crime thriller that cleverly entwined several plots into a climatic conclusion. It left me trying to solve its mystery right up until the explosive conclusion.

goldfinchTHE GOLDFINCH by Donna Tartt was my book of the year. My only regret is I will never have the experience of reading this book for the first time again. With stunning sentence structure and imagery throughout I encourage all to indulge in this literary treat.

THE LEMON GROVE by Helen Walsh, a titillating tale of a Mum’s sexual obsession with her daughter’s boyfriend, had some luscious descriptions of the Mediterranean landscape. Like a holiday one night stand, it was fun at the time, enjoyable but didn’t develop into anything more substantial.

DECEPTION by Philip Roth is an experimental stream of conscious, dialogue between a writer and his mistress through the years of their affair. This then began an addiction to the writer’s work. THE BREAST followed a Kafkaesque story of a man who literally turns into a giant breast. Anyone who thinks of Roth as a misogynist needs to read this story. It brings us face-to-face with the intrinsic strangeness of sex and subjectivity. The narrator of this fable is David Kapesh and I followed his future adventures in THE PROFESSOR OF DESIRE and then THE DYING ANIMAL. This piece sees Kapesh as a 60-year-old lecturer and cultural critic begin an affair with a 24-year-old student. An exploration of the human condition, the strange facets that make up an individual and the paradoxical emotions of love and desire.

I moved on to Roth’s other collection with narrator Nathan Zuckerman. THE GHOSTWRITER details the young writer meeting his literary hero E.I Lonoff. Again Roth takes the reader through this characters life story with ZUCKERMAN UNBOUND and THE ANATOMY LESSON, a tempestuous ride through relationships, fame and addiction. The thinner volume THE PRAGUE ORGY takes the reader along with Zuckerman’s adventures in Soviet Russia, a scabrous and gutsy observation of this country.

Okay, I made a Philip Roth patch to wear to wean me off this literary obsession and picked up A LIFE STRIPPED BARE by Leo Hickman, a non-fiction book which chronicles an experiment in how to live a more sustainable existence in our throwaway fast society. NOW AND YESTERDAY by Stephen Greco was an interesting story about a gay designer in his sixties looking for love in Eighties New York. The descriptions of his lifestyle and the interiors of New York were fabulous and decadent.

THE LITTLE BOOK OF TALENT by Daniel Coyle, short sharp tips on how to improve performance in your chosen field has equipped me with a few points on self-improvement. I slipped off the PHILIP ROTH wagon, as I wanted to read a book about the complex Israel-Palestine conflict. The COUNTERLIFE was a challenging and thought-provoking investigation into this chaotic mess.

SISTER MAYBE by Ann Tyler was recommended by my dear friend and fountain of wisdom Rita Tannett. As this lady has previously recommended the amazing BROOKLYN by Colm Toibin and many others in the past, this was priority. What a piece of writing – each chapter crafted to have maximum emotional impact. A tale of an American family and the undercurrent of troubles behind their perfect family set up.  It reminded me of the Roxy Music lyric,

in every dream home a heartache.

Prior to seeing the Andy Warhol exhibition at the Tate Liverpool, I read Viktor Bokris’ THE LIFE AND TIMES OF ANDY WARHOL. Bokris has written fantastic works on Blondie and Lou Reed. He is not frightened to ‘tell it how it is’ and focuses on Warhol’s love of art in the early years and his metamorphosis into a complex, cold, master puppeteer. I found this one of the most disturbing books to read, as for so many people that he came into contact with, although messed up to say the least, he seemed to add to their troubles. Not really one of those friends who you can describe as a life enhancer.

I re-visited one of my favourite poets William Blake, SONGS OF INNOCENCE AND EXPERIENCE. A volume of work that like a classic Kate Bush album needs to be digested in one sitting.

oh the places you'll goThe great thing about buying Xmas gifts for my nieces and nephews is I get to read the books before I give them away. THE LORAX and OH THE PLACES YOU WILL GO by Dr Seuss are like little nuggets of philosophy.

So be sure when you step,
Step with care and great tact.
And remember that life’s A Great Balancing Act.
And will you succeed?
Yes! You will, indeed!
(98 and ¾ percent guaranteed)
Kid, you’ll move mountains.

Tove Jansen’s MOOMIN BOOK OF WORDS is like a kindergarten class taught by Salvador Dali. THE CHARIOTEER by Mary Renault, an of its time novel about the love that dare not speak its name during the war. It was an articulate brave, novel that plays an important part in LGBT history. On Xmas Day I read possibly one of the best gifts I have ever received, a Ladybird classic, CHARLES DICKENS, a thirty page book that neatly sums up the master craftsman’s career.

Final book of the year was Michael Faber’s THE BOOK OF STRANGE NEW THINGS. He is the author of one of my favourite novels, THE CRIMSON PETAL AND THE WHITE. What I love about this writer is the way he can adapt to different genres, from Victorian prostitution to sci-fi with his excellent UNDER THE SKIN. Incidentally, the adaptation of Under the Skin was my film of the year. Seeing Scarlett Johansen’s alien drift through the street of modern Glasgow past Clare’s Accessories and later try to understand Tommy Cooper on the television was surreal.

His latest work is a re-visit to the sci-fi genre, a novel about a religious preacher travelling into deep space to bring God and the light to an alien tribe. A graphic exploration of the importance of faith and what we mean by the word, ‘home’.

farage HITLERI may send it directly to Bigot – sorry I mean Briton – of the Year. Nigel Farage.

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The Summing Up by W. Somerset Maugham

the summing upWe love to read writers when they write about writing. Whether it is George Orwell’s Why I Write, Stephen King On Writing, or Scarlett Thomas’s Monkeys with Typewriters, there is an enduring need to peep behind the curtain. These blends of memoir and ‘how to’ guide fascinate us either because we want to see how our favourite stories were created, or if we are trying to follow their path we are keen to see if the authors have pointed out any shortcuts. Therefore the thoughts of W. Somerset Maugham – prolific novelist, travel writer and playwright – cannot fail to be instructive.

He writes authoritatively about his own work, covering the process, his aims and its reception by readers and critics. He is also knowledgable about the classics as well as contemporaries such as Colette, but is unafraid to turn his wry glance towards those who favour literary pretensions and his own place in the history of literature. As a dramatist he is master of the concise yet withering put-down (a technique he apparently honed against school bullies):

There is no more merit in having read a thousand books than in having ploughed a thousand fields,

before turning his gaze to the wider world of philosophical and religious theory, so that the book moves from memoir and writing guide to consider the eternal topic of how best to live.

For all his apparent candour, Mr Maugham does gloss over one area: that of his own personal life. Although he talks of love and beauty it is in such general terms that the reader may be forgiven for thinking he died (in his 90s) as a confirmed bachelor. He is at times dismissive of love and his behaviour while under its influence. It is only by checking other sources that his firm adherence to his own words becomes clear:

I demanded freedom for myself and I was prepared to give freedom to others.

Yet the nature of this freedom is only briefly alluded to in a passage concerning his travel writing:

I am shy of making acquaintance with strangers, but I was fortunate enough to have on my journeys a companion who had such an inestimable social gift. He had an amiability of disposition that enabled him in a very short time to make friends with people in ships, clubs, bar-rooms, and hotels, so that through him I was able to get into easy contact with an immense number of persons whom otherwise I should have known only from a distance.

This is a very subtle and low-key tribute to the man who shared his life for 30 years – a relationship which survived and outlasted Maugham’s marriage. Yet, given the legal status of such relationships at the time he was writing, it is undoubtably a sensible one.

No doubt this gift for remaining just outside the spotlights also served Maugham well during his brief intelligence career. Operating in Switzerland and Russia, the man who wrote:

Some of us are so made that there is nothing else we can do… we write because we must

couldn’t resist turning his experiences into stories, crafting a series of adventures for a gentlemanly spy by the name of Ashenden. Ian Fleming, a friend and admirer of Maugham’s, seems to have been inspired by these tales. Enough that in Quantum of Solace – which lent its name if not its plot to the second Daniel Craig Bond film – Fleming has his agent share Ashenden’s disillusionment with the supposedly glamorous life of the fictional spy.

If there is a negative point to this book, it is that so many other interesting works are discussed so engagingly that my ‘to read’ list has seen a large number of new additions. Although he would live a good many years after its publication, there is an air of a man settling his accounts and looking back on a career that has given him much pleasure. The book is enjoyable and illuminating, a fitting testament to a wide-ranging man of letters.

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Hot Reads Part Deux!

I haven’t been away this year, but I have found John Maguire’s mantra of ‘Read, Reflect, Recharge’ to be a sound one, even if applied at home. I have tried to cram in as much quality reading time as possible, made easier as it has almost been too hot to move. Here are a few of the books that found their way into my hands this summer.

kurt vonnegut a man without a country

A Man Without A Country by Kurt Vonnegut

This could be the perfect holiday read as it is a very slender volume. Although that does mean you will read it quickly, there is so much of interest that you will find yourself leafing back through the pages. Part memoir, part ‘state of the world’ treatise, this is Mr Vonnegut at his finest.

I replied that what made being alive almost worthwhile for me, besides music, was all the saints I met, who could be anywhere. By saints I meant people who behaved decently in a strikingly indecent society.

road home

The Road Home by Rose Tremain

There was so much to enjoy in this tale of Lev’s journey from an undefined part of Eastern Europe via homelessness and a celebrity chef’s kitchen in London, to the asparagus fields of Lincolnshire and back again. He is also moving from heartbreak over his wife’s death and the subsequent parting from his small daughter, we hope to something better. The tale was absorbing and the writing beautiful at times.

However, this is let down by the clichés of some of the characters Lev meets – the Irish landlord who’s a drunk with a heart of gold, a terribly represented gay couple – along with the situations that he easily swerves which must surely sink the precarious finances of most economic migrants. I was also stunned by a glossed-over incident between Lev and his estranged girlfriend. It is left ambiguous as to whether it is rape, but it is horribly uncomfortable to read. Despite this, Lev retains his status as a character we are meant to root for. While I wouldn’t regret taking this with me, I would probably leave it behind in the hotel.

our game

Our Game by John le Carré

It is always a dangerous endeavour to begin reading John le Carré before bed as ‘just one more chapter’ soon turns into 1:00 a.m. But it is the holidays, so why not stay up late reading? Twists and turns abound as the Soviet Empire unravels and with it the relationship of two Cold War warriors. There are also some choice views on the futures of ‘The Office’ and the KGB, which le Carré must have been aiming at any critics preparing to cast him as a dinosaur in this new era. Recent events have made this story seem even more prescient, as the author once more leaves the rest of the airport bookshop looking pale by comparison.

under fire

Under Fire by Henri Barbusse

The anniversary of World War I prompted me to pick up this account of a French soldier’s experience of the trenches. Published in 1916, it had the distinction of being one of the first war books and the only one to appear while the conflict remained unresolved. Barbusse was a student of literature before he signed up and it shows in the wildly abstract opening and a scene where his scribbling of notes during a lull attracts the attention of his fellows.

Beset by the constant horrors of attacks, shelling and deaths, the French perspective adds extra weight as many of the men are fighting close to home. A search by the author and a friend of the ruins of the friend’s former village is particularly poignant. There is no better way to mark this dark anniversary than with the words of those who fought and who recognised its futility even as they did.

Don’t forget to tell us about your favourite holiday reads in the comments below!

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Hot Reads!

As the holiday season looms, I find a simple mantra helps me focus on what I am going to do during my two weeks away: Read, Reflect, Recharge. My suitcase is packed for a trip to Rome and now all I need to do is choose the books to read while I am there. Here are four titles that may keep you entertained wherever you are spending your vacation.

& sons

& Sons by David Gilbert

An autopsy of rivalry and emotional pride between a father and son, as well as the son’s relationships with his siblings. You can taste the atmosphere of New York City, the poisons and fluidity of the electric jungle. Gilbert’s tale has been marinated in Philip Roth and Paul Auster, but this is no copycat of the greats. Gilbert’s version of New York City is contemporary and insightful. The American novel continues to evolve!

Dr. Sleep

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

Imagine an ice-cube being placed at the top of your back and melting down, a chill right along your spine, that is the overall effect that King has managed to achieve with this crafted tale of horror. This impressive sequel to The Shining ties up lots of loose ends left in the iconic classic.

I fell out of love with Stephen King’s writing at the end of my teenage years. I felt the excellent writing that had petrified me (The Dark Half, Carrie, Salem’s Lot and Misery) had become somewhat diluted, with throwaway novels like The Tommyknockers. Unbeknown to me, King was battling with his own demons, the white worm of cocaine and alcohol addiction.

I was suitably impressed with his pure honesty in the book/biography, On Writing. I was unsure about this sequel, but a testimonial by acclaimed writer Margaret Atwood on the cover prompted me to buy the book. I was not let down. His writing in this story is punchy, superbly edited and so terrifying that the only safe place to read it is on a beach or a sun lounger. Don’t have daymares!

revenge

Revenge by Martina Cole

A symphony of violent gangland shenanigans. I was keen to read this author as her books are bestsellers, but then again McDonald’s is also extremely popular. I did enjoy the book, but I think like McDonald’s, it is best enjoyed every now and then. An ideal easy read with a good pace. There is a lot of repetition of metaphors, but it is a great peep into criminal activity. Although I am so glad I am not a gangster…

Maggie-and-Me-

Maggie and Me by Damian Barr

This is the biography of a gay boy growing up in Scotland in the 1980s. Barr had a tempestuous childhood, which he details in this memoir with a dry sardonic wit.

Anyone in their mid-thirties will instantaneously feel nostalgic throughout, remembering the references to popular culture. (He-man, Dynasty, Artex wall decoration) It also chronicles what life was like in the industrial areas of Britain enduring the changes wrought by Thatcherism. This book was so entertaining and emotionally charged that I read it in one sitting!

Tell us about your favourite beach-side reads in the comments below. And do be careful not to get sunscreen on the pages!

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That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick by Ellin Stein

If they say the best books are like a conversation with the author, then ‘That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick – The National Lampoon and the Comedy Insurgents Who Captured the Mainstream’ by (disclosure: friend of ten minutes hate) Ellin Stein goes one better. A conversation where the author allows you to eavesdrop on some of the funniest men and women America produced in the at times quite dour latter half of the last century.

That's Not Funny That's Sick Ellin Stein

How the Lampooners went from Harvard grads to kings and queens of Hollywood via a steady conquering of print, radio, stand-up comedy, improv theatre, TV and movies, wielding an influence far beyond the things they actually created themselves, is a heck of a tale. Crafted by Ellin Stein and including one-on-one interviews conducted over many years, it is fair to say it crackles off the page, with all the intrigue and derring-do, deal-making and double-crossing you would expect from such a talented gang.

While it seems safe to say that The National Lampoon’s reputation for counter-culture activity was perhaps over-stated – mostly by themselves – the book doesn’t shy away from calling them out on it, quoting one contributing editor’s view that,

It was a commercial venture from the start, and subversion was the product being sold.

The parallels with the music industry are clear and Stein’s narrative is adept at placing the magazine in the context of the politics and culture as the idealistic late ’60s becomes the cynical ’70s and block-busting ’80s. I was reminded of Philip Seymour Hoffman, as Lester Bangs in Almost Famous, lamenting of the money men:

…they will ruin rock ‘n’ roll and strangle everything we love about it.

It is not always clear if the right subjects were being lampooned, with certain editors claiming that anything and anyone was a legitimate target and still others stating their attempts to work from a ‘base of integrity’. That base was still so firmly rooted in the white, male, college frat-dwelling mindset that the guys had a hard time wrapping their heads around the fact that non-male, non-white, non-Ivy League types could also produce humour. (In case you wondered where present-day Hollywood gets it from…)

In the UK, writers tend to work alone and the teams that are locked in a room until the hilarity is honed are largely unknown to us. Perhaps this adds to the Lampoon mythology and brings it closer to the legendary sporting teams we love to laud. It is clear that what Stein calls the Lampoon’s ‘gym of the intellect’ fostered a competitiveness that spurred some individuals into levels of fame that can be difficult for such sensitive types to contend with. The push and pull between the mercurial types and the ones who have to manage their ‘output’ is painfully and truthfully detailed.

There are some books where the epilogues are to be skipped or glanced at, but not here. As the roll of honour lists, there is not an element of the media that remains untouched by an NL alumni. Not all have remained in comedy, with everything from serious drama to children’s cookery books making use of their talents. Given their starting point in satire it is perhaps strange that so much of mainstream American cultural life wouldn’t exist without them – although perhaps it takes more to erase that Ivy League destiny than growing one’s hair long and lighting a joint…

A fascinating snapshot of the era and a kick up the bum, or ass as our American cousins would say, for creative readers from what must be one of the most prolific groupings of writers and performers ever gathered. They would probably make faces at any use of the word ‘inspirational’, but tough. It is both an inspiration and a real pleasure to listen in on their tales.

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House of Small Shadows by Adam Nevill

I always find reading horror on a sun-soaked beach throws the average tourist. The reality is that I find it is the safest place to indulge in scare tales, as the night terrors can play havoc with my mind. In the small hours a Moroccan lampshade can turn into a dark, cloaked figure ready to drag me off into hell. But at least, I think, I’ve got a lot of friends there.

If looking for a touch of horror on your travels this summer, I would suggest packing a copy of an Adam Nevill or downloading one onto your technological reading device of choice.

House of Small Shadows

Being branded by a credible UK newspaper (that is definitely not The S*n or The Daily Bigotry Mail) as the British Stephen King could intimidate or worry some writers.  Yet Adam Nevill continues to illustrate his literary craftsmanship, particularly with his horror offering. Nevill’s work has everything that makes a story of the supernatural: a dilapidated Victorian house, eccentric inhabitants, noises in the night, a psychologically vulnerable mixed-up protagonist. The Wicker Man meets The League of Gentleman.

Narrator Catherine has left her corporate job in a popular television production company. High-profile bullying saw her fired and forced to leave London to start a new career in a new town. Landing an assignment with huge potential, she is tasked to catalogue the late M H Mason’s eccentric collection of antique dolls and puppets. Mason’s elderly niece invites her to stay at the Red House – both workshop and home of the dead man. It is here that Catherine sees for herself the darkness behind Mason’s unique ‘Art’.

A disturbed imaginative investigation that taps into the innate human fear of puppets. If anyone can say that they can look Mr. Punch up close in the eye and not be freaked out, they are either a liar or a little missing of a few strings themselves.

Mr-Punch

The Red House, like that other infamous horror house Amityville, features as a prominent character in the story. The first description hints at the atmosphere that is flowing through its foundations:

All of the lines of the building pointed to the heavens. Two steep gables and the arch of every window beseeched the sky, as though the great house was a small cathedral indignant at its exile in rural Herefordshire. And despite over a century of rustication among uncultivated fields, the colour of its Accrington brick remained an angry red.

With this tale Neville gives the reader small tasters of the narrative. At the beginning of the book each chapter is miniscule. As the tale unfolds, the chapters become bigger, bursting with syntax and disturbing imagery that totally immerses the reader into the horror on the page.

I suggest reading a tale from this bastion of dark fantasy this summer. Besides you may not be the only person by the pool reading dark materials, I did notice someone dabbling in the Satanic pages of a Katie Price biography and that does indeed fill me with terror, by day or by night.

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From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming

If you have just joined us, the mortal bath and ten minutes hate are respectively re-reading and discovering Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels in chronological order (sort of).

from russia with love coronet book cover

Famous opening lines of novels often get bandied about in lists, but it wasn’t until I read From Russia With Love for the first time that I saw one that seems to have been overlooked among all the truths being universally acknowledged and weighing up of best and worst of times.

The naked man who lay splayed out on his face beside the swimming pool might have been dead.

Having thus garnered your attention, Ian Fleming doesn’t let it wander too far for the next 200 or so pages.  We soon learn that the body might have been, but sadly isn’t, for this formidable not-dead unclothed man is the distinctly non-Russian-sounding Donovan Grant, Chief Executioner of SMERSH, ‘the Soviet organ of vengeance: of interrogation, torture and death’. A few, more detailed, yet taut chapters and we are apprised of the formidable team which that organisation has set against our man Bond. Chess master Kronsteen, the wolf-like cunning of Rosa Klebb and Grant himself, an animalistic turncoat driven to slaughter by the full moon. Not only to kill him, but to tear down his reputation and that of his Service. The trap will be sprung in Istanbul (Fleming having visited the city in 1955 on assignment for The Sunday Times). Bait is in the form of a defecting spy, the young-Greta Garbo-esque Tatiana Romanova and, almost as an afterthought, a Soviet cryptography machine.

The Bond of this book – who doesn’t even appear until Chapter 11 – is a long way from the lithe instrument of Casino Royale. Admitting that he lacks sharpness after a summer cooped up in London, when back in the saddle he misses signs, disregards warnings, misjudges character and places friends, as well as himself, in harm’s way unnecessarily. The intricacy and eccentricity of SMERSH’s plot has been designed by Kronsteen to catch M’s attention, tempt James into danger and leave his body and reputation destroyed, but there is a sense throughout of Fleming poking fun at his creation. He doesn’t hesitate to use Bond’s own proclivities against him, not just the beautiful girl, but the need to ‘be a sport’, ‘see the game through’ and gamble recklessly. Without the protection of Istanbul’s station head and all-round force of nature, Darko Kerim, one suspects that England’s finest wouldn’t have made it out of the airport alive.

Readers drawn towards the softer side of Bond, especially as displayed in previous jaunt Diamonds Are Forever, may feel warmed by the renowned international playboy beginning this follow-up mooning over ex-paramour Tiffany Case:

He missed her badly and his mind still sheered away from the thought of her.

But our protagonist is still operating in less enlightened times. M’s horror at the silliness of women who fall in love with a man’s picture gives way to chuckles over Bond’s Turkish wingman’s chaining of a naked girl to his kitchen table, before Tatiana demands that James beat her if she gets too fat for lovemaking post-defection. What fans of the film may recall as a titillating brawl between two Gypsy women is here much more brutal, although the participants do manage to rip the other’s clothes off at an early stage of the proceedings.

That said, Mr Bond is not quite the unrepentant caveman. There is a definite prominence accorded to the women that hold the fragile Bond together. From housekeeper May as adept with a boiled egg as she is at seeing off Communist agents, to the eternally chaste yet ‘most darling’ Lil Ponsonby, as well as Tatiana herself, who doesn’t let her all-conquering beauty hold her back from offering a warning about the assumed name of the man Bond takes for a fellow agent. The shame is his for how easily it is dismissed. And for all his air of ‘hey, sometimes these decorative non-men can be quite useful’, Fleming can’t take much joy in the slyness of Rosa Klebb. Scheming her way to Head of the Operations Department of the famed, feared, SMERSH and succeeding – where many men have tried and failed – in landing a poisoned blow on Bond, she lets the side down badly in one crucial area:

…the bulge of uniform that rested on the table-top looked like a badly packed sandbag, and in general her figure, with its big pear-shaped hips, could only be likened to a ‘cello.

Growing weary of his secret agent, Fleming had left the ending ambiguous enough for this to be the final Bond if he chose. Perhaps it would have been too much for him to have his man killed off by a hottie.

Despite the certainty of all involved with Her Majesty’s Secret Service that the operation is a trap, its nature and intended denouement remains obscured. Were it not for the executioner’s need, later to become a Bond film cliché, to spill the entire detail of the plot before making use of a weapon, our hero would have died at Grant’s hand none the wiser.

Old man, the story’s got everything. Orient Express. Beautiful Russian spy murdered in Simplon tunnel. Filthy pictures. Secret cipher machine. Handsome British spy with career ruined murders her and commits suicide… what a poke in the eye for the famous Intelligence Service! Their best man, the famous James Bond. What a shambles… What’s the public going to think? And the Government? And the Americans? Talk about security! No more atom secrets from the Yanks.

In the established narrative of post-War spy fiction, Ian Fleming is the hack, writing pulpy genre fiction that doesn’t stint on the girls, guns and gadgets and which pits our brave goodies against clearly distinguishable baddies. Set against him is the literary gent John le Carré, eschewing the clichés of the genre for subtly drawn commentary via characters that dwell in the grey areas. And while Donovan Grant’s crowing at Bond is what the mortal bath calls ‘typically Flemingian showing-off’, with it the author demonstrates that he knows exactly what Bond is and what he and his organisation’s place will be as the cynicism of the Cold War obliterates the idealism of World War II. From Russia With Love is a tight thriller, with no reduction in pace from earlier books. If you were to read just one Bond, I would advise that this be it. John F. Kennedy would no doubt agree. Not least because, for all the perceived glamour of Bond, there is far more overlap with the grey world of the George Smileys than that established narrative would allow for.

*

For a moment he thought nostalgically and unreasonably of the excitement and turmoil of the hot war, compared with his own underground skirmishings since the war had turned cold.

From Russia With Love (1957)

Connie Sachs:     It was a good time back then.
George Smiley:     It was a war, Connie.
Connie Sachs:    A war we could be proud of.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
(from the screenplay filmed in 2012, based on the 1974 book)

It may seem perverse that, when for so many it was impossible to enjoy much of World War II, for a certain type and class of Englishman or woman those six years could be looked back on as a kind of peak.

verywellalone1

The famous David Low cartoon captioned, ‘Very Well, Alone!’, Churchill photographed wielding a Tommy gun, evenings dancing at The Ritz or Savoy as the bombs fell and sirens wailed. When compared to the Weltschmertz of the Cold War and the lost Empire, for some, the War years were an epoch to be quietly mourned.

churchill-met-tommy-gun

Fleming would later say of his wartime intelligence work that:

I could not have had a more interesting time.

Via Bond, he at least notes the unreasonableness of such nostalgia.

At the heart of From Russia With Love is a sleight-of-hand trick, but not the one perpetrated on Bond by SMERSH in revenge for his antics at Royale. It is the one created by Ian Fleming to show an outgunned and under-resourced Mi6 continuing to punch its weight on the world stage. On the page the chaps of the Service will vanquish the foe, when in reality that organisation was chasing its tail as The Cambridge Five affair unfolded. Typical establishment-pillar types, they had sold out their country and its allies to the Soviets, not for money, but due to unseemly ideological convictions. In contrast to the intellectuals and homosexuals (both equally suspicious characteristics to many English people of the time) of the Cambridge Five’s set, fiction gives us the serially heterosexual man-of-action, Bond, and the regularly cuckolded, anonymous Smiley.

Smiley is often called ‘the anti-Bond’, maybe because the coffee in his world is disgusting and the cigarettes are hand-rolled from a tin. Perhaps because le Carré made oft-quoted comments disparaging 007 as an ‘international gangster’ and ‘neo-fascistic’. While this may have been as a result of goading from Malcolm Muggeridge, on closer reading this opposite stance becomes nothing more than lazy sloganeering from reviewers seeking to manufacture a conflict. Neither Bond nor Smiley would be out-of-place in the other’s world, but it is doubtful that Bond would feel entirely at home in the scholarly Circus corridors, where:

…the inspired amateurism of a handful of highly qualified, under-paid men had given way to the efficiency, bureaucracy and intrigue of a large Government department.

Call for the Dead (1961)

Instead Bond would be a ‘headhunter’ in le Carré’s vernacular, kept far away from M or Control and the real policy decisions. A bagman, tasked with the gritty, unacknowledgeable jobs. Ricki Tarr of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, flirting with danger and trying to get away with the girl, is perhaps closer to Bond than the toad-like George. The hand dealt to Alec Leamas of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold provides a portend of Bond’s reduced future options. By his own admission, Bond is out of step with the ‘retired officers of the Indian Army’ that make up his colleagues, unsuited to the deft parry of the Cold War, lamenting the policy shift from stick to

carrots for all… At home and abroad. We don’t show teeth any more – only gums.

Condemnation from literary taste makers began before Fleming’s death and focussed on a perceived sadism, the enjoyment of violence for its own sake. Yet after a fight at close quarters Bond takes time to lament that there has been

too much blood splashing about

and later muses that he

had never killed in cold blood, and he hadn’t liked watching, and helping, someone else do it.

Blunt instrument he may be, but Bond is not without his own moral compass, however far off true north many of us would consider that it points. And though he is supposed to favour gentler methods, Smiley doesn’t prepare for an operation without thinking that he

had a gun somewhere, and for a moment he thought of looking for it. Then, somehow, it seemed pointless. Besides, he reflected grimly, there’d be the most frightful row if he used it.

(Call for the Dead)

Bereft of signature weaponry, Smiley has to utilise the cold currents of the River Thames to off an enemy, who was once a friend. Where the lines were once clearly marked, now no one can be sure where the loyalties of colleagues – or lovers, or spouses – really lie. Darko tells Bond that there is only one way to tell if Tatiana is being duplicitous but even after sleeping with her James remains unsure. Questioning constantly, yet Bond is happy to hand over his loaded gun to someone who talks the talk of the Service, despite his horror at that fellow’s use of ‘old man’ and Windsor knot. In a world of fictional Grants and real-life Philbys and MacLeans, where blending into the background is the key to survival, Bond is perilously visible. The inch-thick file at SMERSH, complete with photographs, would soon see him – like Smiley – pulled out of the field and desk-bound.

And after so many years, in contemplating this latest mission, even loyal servants are not without the occasional wobble:

…what would that youth think of him, the secret agent, the older James Bond? Would he recognise himself beneath the surface of this man who was tarnished with years of treachery and ruthlessness and fear…? What would he think of the dashing secret agent who was off across the world in a new and most romantic role – to pimp for England?

It’s a far cry from the days of The Great Game, as Smiley would probably agree:

Trained to Empire, trained to rule the waves… He saw with painful clarity an ambitious man born to the big canvas, brought up to rule, divide and conquer, whose visions and vanities were all fixed… upon the world’s game; for whom the reality was a poor island with scarcely a voice that would carry across the water.

(Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy)

Perhaps we get the secret agents we deserve. Bond of the books providing a tonic in the post-War bleakness, while by the time of the films London was beginning to swing again, although that was more a case of clever PR than fact of life outside of a select few post codes. It is fun to note that Bond and Smiley are both Chelsea-dwellers, back before SW4 was a fashionable address. Instead it was a sort of proto-Hackney, with reasonable rents and leafy squares amid the half-cleared bomb sites. Home is only somewhere to lay one’s hat, when the pull of foreign shores is a constant itch:

…while he ate, [Bond] gazed down at the cool mirror of the Lake of Geneva. As the pine forests began to climb towards the snow patches between the beautifully scoured teeth of the Alps, he remembered early skiing holidays.

Soon the lights of the French coast came in sight. As he watched, he began to sense vicariously the static life beneath him; the rank smell of Gauloises Bleues, garlic and good food, the raised voices in the bistro.

(Call for the Dead)

For both Fleming and le Carré, life is elsewhere, a decade and change before the Pistols will decry the ‘no future in England’s dreaming’, the narcolepsy is already pulling down the eyelids. The reality of that solo stance against Nazism: only possible due to the financial muscle of the Americans and with total victory unable to hold the Empire together, was a bitter pill forced down by the British Establishment through successive crises of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Facing life as a junior partner of the CIA, in a more subservient position than when they chummily helped him out at Royale, one might surmise that Bond would prefer a quick death at the hands – or foot – of Rosa Klebb while Smiley would choose to end his days in a dusty German library.

Bond’s reading en route to Istanbul is The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler, who himself knew something of the power of the spy novel:

Thrillers are respectable now. Back in the beginning, people weren’t quite that sure about them, but they really say more about the way people think and governments behave than many of the conventional novels. A hundred years from now, if they last, these books may offer some clues to what was going on in our world.

It is interesting to wonder what we would feel about Bond if From Russia With Love had been the last one in the series, as Fleming considered. By the time the Berlin Wall went up Fleming – like M, Control, Smiley and Bond himself – was a relic and from here, Bond’s villains and escapades move further away from the uncomfortable truths of the Cold War. Both writers know that our secret agent fantasies are ludicrous, less casinos and models than drab suburbs and shop girls. So one gives them to us anyway, amplified, while the other downplays them, revealing major themes through everyday banalities. Rather than setting them in opposition, each depiction of the secret warriors should be seen to compliment the other, as essential records of SIS’s journey from Enigma via double agents to NSA intercepts.

James Bond will return… as our review series reaches Dr No… SOON!

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