September 5, 2012 § 5 Comments
Ashraf Farouk is a police lieutenant in Cairo. His job is to stop his countrymen fleecing the tourists, and he is good at it. He is also good at lining his own pockets.
Crime on his patch is a chaotic mix of ancient and modern: bogus moneychangers, rigged scales in the gold and silver shops, pickpockets and distraction thefts; but also drug dealing, pornography and the odd riot. Police equipment is state of the art – surveillance vans borrowed from the CIA (unfortunately not designed for the midday heat of Egypt); gas and rubber bullets for the riots. Farouk, though, prefers to crack heads with the unofficial teak truncheon he carries under his jacket.
Mark White’s stories are exotic and original, and he skirts cleverly round the comic opera clichés of the casbah while still giving a sense of a shambolic post-colonial world. Labyrinthine laws are supported by mind-numbing bureaucracy. Police are corrupt and accountable to no-one but themselves. Farouk presides over his squad like Gene Hunt over the Life on Mars CID crew.
These are not short stories in the literary sense. More like well-told smoking room yarns: linear, event-driven and generally with a small twist at the end to round them off. The style is unpretentious – smooth and literate, but lapsing occasionally into a jocular irony which I found mannered:
When the supply of criminals dried up Farouk betook himself to that staple of police work: the persecution of motorists. Any suspect vehicle that fell under his eye was subjected to a thorough inspection, and the clerks at the local courts despaired at the sudden influx of paperwork that resulted.
Not quite satisfying, perhaps, as individual stories. Taken together, though, they build a compelling picture of a bewildering city, modern in some respects, in others a place of timeless savagery. Farouk scuttles though it like a malicious imp of mischief, ugly, lazy, incompetently dishonest and very appealing. It might be fun to have a drink with him. But after shaking hands you would be wise to count your fingers.
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August 29, 2012 § Leave a comment
In Teri Terry’s dystopian take on the near future, nobody under 21 is allowed to carry a mobile phone.
There’s worse. (No phone? What could possibly be worse?). Troublesome teens are removed from their families and have chips implanted in their brains to re-boot their personalities. The young heroine Kyla is one of the slated, but as she struggles to get to grips with her new life it becomes clear that in her case the process has not been entirely successful.
The image of the mind as palimpsest, scraped clean and written on a second time, has a respectable history in science fiction, going back to We Can Remember It For You Wholesale. Ian Hocking’s Deja Vu, reviewed earlier, is built around a very similar idea. Terry handles the concept deftly, greatly helped by the fact that her heroine can recall nothing before emerging from hospital. The reader’s gradual introduction to new family, new friends and old enemies mirrors hers.
And unlike the world of The Hunger Games, Terry’s England is creepily familiar. There have been riots and food shortages and the country is in the grip of the sinister grey-suited Lorders, but 16-year-olds still have to go to school to face bullies and unsympathetic teachers, and in the evenings their mothers still ban them from seeing boys with dreamy eyes.
Terry writes well, simply and with an occasional touch of lyricism. The present tense, first person narrative, often so irritating, fits the theme perfectly. The story is pacy and engaging and at the end of each short chapter the reader is hooked into the next.
After a while, though, this becomes wearing. The chapters are a little too obviously tailored to short attention spans and each one seems to finish on an upward inflection, like those annoying people who turn every statement into a question. The final straw is the ending. There isn’t one. The narrative just builds to a climax, then stops. And of course there is a sequel. Only four pounds.
The reader is left with a feeling of disappointment – and not just because she/he wants to know what happens next. However well handled, this is a rather cynical piece of work. Terry knows exactly where the post-Barbie buttons are, and she pushes them in a businesslike manner: parents, siblings, boys and bullies; the sense of being a changeling, someone extraordinary, misplaced and misunderstood in a monochrome world. All first class raw material, but she might have taken the trouble to finish this volume before starting the next.
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June 25, 2012 § Leave a comment
Synopsis: Our hero embarks on an epic journey through an infinite chain of alternate earths, accompanied by an annoying computer. Then he comes back.
That’s it. There’s no story to speak of. Plenty of incident, but this is a Gulliver’s Travels voyage of wonder rather than a closely-plotted adventure. There are long static passages in which one of the characters (usually the computer) explains to the others what is going on. Fortunately for the authors nobody in the book ever figures out how the alternate earths work, so there is plenty of scope for marvels. Think Discworld magic with extra quantum.
More Pratchett than Baxter, full of the dry absurdities one looks forward to – the machine that allows nearly everyone to travel between worlds is powered by a potato; the computer is the reincarnation of a Tibetan car mechanic named Lobsang. Characters combine eccentricity and common sense in about the same proportion as the Ankh-Morpork City Watch – Sister Agnes is a nun who rides a Harley and has a poster of Meat Loaf on her wall next to the Sacred Heart. Hermione Dawes is the British Prime Minister’s secretary. She also owns every single track ever cut by Bob Dylan.
Some of the ideas are a little derivative. The AI, which controls everything down to the drinks machine, is a touch Ian M Banks. The alternate earth theme has a respectable history, although Pratchett and Baxter give it a new twist. The steam-punk airship in which the adventurers travel could have come from The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
There are elves and trolls, of a sort, but the book has more in common with the Johnny Maxwell trilogy than the Discworld. This is not simply because most of the characters are contemporary and human. As occasionally happens in Pratchettt’s books, he seems uncertain about the age group he is pitching to. Characters first encountered aged 10 never quite grow up even though some of them grow older.
Pratchett and Baxter fans will enjoy this, though perhaps not to the extent of shelling out for the hardback. The authors clearly had a great time, so that’s all right.
September 4, 2011 § 1 Comment
We are lectured daily about this, that or the other freedom. Freedom of speech, freedom of assembly. Freedom to consume ridiculously-priced coffees with silly names. Sometimes historical fiction provides a reminder that our liberties are only words, and that they can be whisked away in a moment at the whim of the powerful.
A Kingdom’s Cost is set at the beginning of the 14th Century, during the long-drawn-out wars of Scottish independence. It follows the exploits of the squire James Douglas. Homeless and landless at the beginning of the novel, his father dead at the hands of Edward Longshanks, he makes his way back from hiding in France to throw in his lot with Robert the Bruce. By the end of the story he has become a battle-hardened veteran, Black Douglas to his English enemies, brutal and ruthless in the service of his king.
J.R. Tomlin shows us a harder time, one in which winter brings starvation and wounds turn bad. No freedoms here, only obligations, to one’s family and to one’s lord. Her picture is of a society clinging to the landscape. Violence and cruelty are routine. She does not shy away from bloodshed – men and horses are remorselessly gutted and we learn more than we really want to know about the reality of hanging, drawing and quartering.
The landscapes themselves, meanwhile, are beautifully drawn. As in John Buchan’s adventures, the action seems to grow out of the Scottish settings. Mountains and glens, furze and heather provide a counterpoint to the dangers the hero faces, emphasising them and at the same time putting them in their place.
Tomlin’s characters are romanticised and perhaps a little self-consciously “historical”, but this does not matter because she has real flair for dramatic story-telling. The narrative plunges on in a series of episodes reflecting the progress – or lack of it – in the Bruce’s campaign. There is a vivid evocation of personal experience – sweat and the smell of horse shit, the weight of chain mail, a herald shouting to the assembled army with nobody able to hear his words.
One judgement which every writer of historical fiction has to make concerns the language. How authentic need it be to provide a flavour of the time? Tomlin has opted for a scattering of antique expressions, apparently intended to give a patina to the story. Not a wise choice. Most of them are out of place historically, serving to highlight the romanticised aspect of the book rather than its authenticity.
She seems particularly fond of the word “mayhap”, which occurs over and over again, sometimes in dialogue where it might pass muster but more often in narrative passages. The first time I came across this, the effect was like a poke in the eye. A sadder pedant than I am might have looked up “mayhap” and found that the earliest recorded usage (OED) was in 1536 – more than two hundred years later. An even sadder case might have started looking up other expressions Tomlin uses and found “merlon” (1704), good-brother (1513), “retiral” (1611), “gallowglass” (1515), “garron” (16th Century). The truth is that the Scottish wars took place a full generation before Chaucer was born. Even in the south spoken English would have been barely recognisable to us; in Scotland they would probably have used Norman French or Mediaeval Gaelic (Robert the Bruce’s ancestors were Norman).
In my Kindle edition I also found a number of proofing and formatting errors which even a casual check should have picked up. Typographical errors included the usual missing spaces between words, “fair” instead of “fare”, “censor” instead of “censer”, “your” instead of “you’re” and so on. More serious were the sudden changes of font which appeared in half a dozen paragraphs throughout the book. Things like this are very disappointing in an otherwise well-crafted work. Disappointing too was the failure to provide either a cover or a table of contents – the latter would have been particularly welcome as there were several appendices and a list of characters which I would have liked to refer to while reading.
Tomlin shares with the authors of Kidnapped and The 39 Steps an ability to draw a vivid story out of the landscape. Sad that she does not pay as much attention to the detail.
August 20, 2011 § 2 Comments
Father of Emily – Kristofer Oliver
Paperback £9.13 ($15.00) ISBN 9781463660253
Kindle £2.93 ($3.99)
To see your country and your countrymen as they really are, you have to leave them behind. That was Kipling’s view, at any rate. In this moving novel Kristofer Oliver takes the advice of the master story-teller.
Ben is an ex-pat living in Paris, having fled there at the end of a traumatic relationship. Several years on the new, if rather rootless life he has built for himself is turned upside down by the arrival of Emily, 14-year-old daughter of his former partner. The narrative traces the growth of their relationship, not-really father with not-quite daughter, and gradually unravels the mystery surrounding Emily’s unconventional mother Clara.
Oliver comes from the north of England, but he has lived in France “amongst smelly cheese and fresh coffee” since 2003. Eight years is enough for some of it to rub off. This is not a travel guide. The Eiffel Tower and Montmartre make brief appearances, but his default view is from pavement level: cafés and shops, traffic and the Metro. Locations are blocked in with a sense of familiarity, just enough to give freshness and lift.
The same goes for the writing. I would guess that Oliver has been in France for long enough to start thinking in the language. Once or twice there are hints of a Gallic turn of phrase: meeting Emily’s grandmother after a long absence, Ben thinks There are some many years Elizabeth and I have to catch up on… Sometimes this gives the prose a slightly bumpy quality; generally, though, the effect is to strip it down to essentials. The first person voice is clear and direct:
I can’t remember the time from when I first plucked up the courage to ask her out for a drink, to the time when I understood her when she was brushing her teeth in the morning. We fell into a partnership instead of a relationship. We were coupled from the start. I remember a day when we both came home separately from the rental shop with the same video.
Like the locations, the characters are fresh and convincing, particularly the trio at the centre of the story. Emily is a delightful mix of teenage savvy, edging towards adulthood, and childlike innocence. Her mother Clara, seen in flashback, has a convincing rawness, someone not built to stand up to the blunt instrument of everyday life. Even minor characters are “there” on the page. Ben’s latest girlfriend Sarah, leaving as Emily arrives, takes advantage of a difficult phone call to scoot round their flat and pack a few extra items:
Sarah picks up the iPod she bought me for my last birthday, mouths ‘mine now’ and places it in her pocket.
The two important relationships in the novel – between Ben and Emily and between Ben and Clara – are both rich and satisfyingly ambiguous. There is none of that irritating sense you get from some books that the narrator knows the whole story from the beginning, but is perversely keeping the reader in the dark. Ben discovers Emily, but through her he also rediscovers Clara.
Father of Emily has the contemporary charm and honesty of One Day. Like Nicholls, Oliver has an intimate grip on the minutiae of modern life – the wine and the chocolate, the bedclothes and the luggage. His characters’ dilemmas are not philosophically profound, but we recognise every detail of their bafflement faced with love and tragedy. The difference is that they live in Paris.
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July 30, 2011 § 1 Comment
The Cornerstone – Nick Spalding
Pub. Racket Publishing
Paperback £10.13 ($13.99) ISBN 9781461198215
Kindle £0.49 ($2.99)
Books are weird, have you noticed? That’s what makes booksellers a bit odd.
Fortunately Max has only read three in his entire life, not counting the Haynes Austin Montego Workshop Manual. Then the bored teenage hero of Nick Spalding’s engaging fantasy takes shelter from the rain in his local library, where he discovers that some books are doorways into other worlds. No, this is not a metaphor.
I would put money on Spalding being a Terry Pratchett fan. He scoops up several key ideas from Discworld metaphysics – the multiverse, the trouser legs of time, the essential strangeness of libraries – and puts them to good use. But he successfully avoids any suggestion that he is copying the Master. Spalding’s Chapter Lands are a long way from Ankh-Morpork. There are no dwarves or trolls, and while there is a slight air of mediaevalism about them, the furniture comes from Ikea.
The Cornerstone has more in common with Pratchett’s series for younger readers (Johnny and the Bomb, Johnny and the Dead, Only You can Save the World). Spalding is interested in the same surreal collision of fantasy with the down-to-earth demands of life in a modern provincial town. What is likely to happen when the showdown between the leather-clad, demon-possessed warrior and the librarian-guardian of Earth takes place in your mum’s back garden? The answer involves rotary clothes lines.
A thoroughly enjoyable book. Not long – I read it at a sitting, but that speaks for itself.
Quibbles? Very few, and all trivial.
I did think that the age given for Max (17) was about three years too old, both for the character and for the readers who are likely to enjoy this book most. Do 17-year-olds blush when they kiss the damsel in distress? Not any more, I suspect. As far as I remember, Pratchett wisely avoids mentioning exactly how old Johnny is – along with Max he occupies a no-man’s-land: old enough for insight, young enough to be bossed around.
If Spalding writes a sequel – as I hope he will – he might be a little more severe in cutting the colloquialism of the narrative style. The opening sentence is a good example:
It was, for all intents and purposes, the perfect day to visit the library.
You can see the tone he is aiming at, but for all intents and purposes is a bit of flannel which adds nothing. This sort of thing can easily become an irritating habit.
And please, please do something about the greengrocer’s apostrophe’s.
July 28, 2011 § Leave a comment
Coconut Badger – Mark MacNicol
Pub: Two Fit Poles
Paperback £7.99 ($39.99) ISBN 9780956795809
Kindle £1.99 ($2.99)
In the 1950s the only thing you needed to shock your readers was a kitchen sink. Sixty years on it takes something more extreme.
Mark MacNicol’s troubling novel is set in the run down housing projects of Glasgow. His protagonist straddles two worlds. One foot is planted awkwardly in the estate where he was brought up – semi-derelict and rotten with alcohol, drugs and violence. The other is in the city’s financial district where he works – also twisted by lust, greed and ambition. When the book opens Tam is a loser in both, tongue-tied and terrified. Then he is taken up by Pat, an old man with a fearsome reputation, veteran of the city’s sectarian gang wars.
MacNicol slips easily from one milieu to the other, partly through the skilled use of dialogue, switching from smooth, middle-class chat-up lines to Clydeside patois without missing a beat.
Characters on both sides of the divide have an urgent life, but it is the people of the estates that really jump off the page:
“Yoos ignorin me, a said whit’s goan oan here?”
…Pat had a small man’s frame but somehow carried the menacing demeanour of a giant. He also sported a year-round tan, which was unusual as he never went on holiday. On closer inspection, his ravaged capillaries could be attributed to the whisky. His bald head was smooth and had the shine of a snooker ball. Sagging bags under his eyes and prominent laughter lines gave his face a look of surplus skin: Tam had never seen so many lines on a human face.
MacNicol also has the knack of sneaking up on the reader with fearsome images:
Pat reached down, picking one up as if he were a child holding a hamster. He stared at it almost lovingly for several seconds and then split the handle in two. Tam realised with horror that what he had thought were harmless fountain pens were in fact two open razors.
Tam gets his first lessons carving a pig’s head perched on one of the rides in a children’s playground.
This is a powerfully written book, but not for the squeamish. The reader is hustled along through a world that is mostly unpleasant, fascinated by what may be on the next page but at the same time dreading it.
And in fact, while MacNicol is clearly energised by the sordid and the bloody and his energy vibrates powerfully through the book, the more I read, the more I found myself wondering what the point was. He seemed to be saying that brutality was somehow more valid than other experience. Can that really be true?
In one sense all fiction is an act of thoughtless cruelty. Does anyone really care about Mrs Rochester, mad in the attic? But even if the good guys don’t win, we need them to be… well, good. They have to have stature. Or is that too Victorian? At least we have to care about them. Tam earns no respect, either as a wimp soiling his trousers or as the apprentice hard man.
Sixty years ago social realism had a purpose. Post-war Britain was still riddled with class. There were still taboos to be broken and the voices of the regions were full of energy. It isn’t clear what boundaries MacNicol is pushing back. Poverty and social division have not gone away but violence, brutality and ignorance are not the new kitchen sink. They are not in any sense more authentic than gentler subjects. They are simply… violent, brutal and ignorant.