Kitchen sink

Jul 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

Coconut BadgerCoconut 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.

Coconut Badger Amazon (UK) Amazon (US)

Post-apocalyptic stress

Jun 30, 2011 § Leave a comment

The Last Man on Earth ClubThe Last Man on Earth Club – Paul R. Hardy
Kindle £1.99 ($2.99)

Inter-stellar travel is a bust. The stars are just too far away. How much easier to slip sideways and visit other Earths, infinitely duplicated through a chain of alternate universes.

This is the premise behind Paul Hardy’s highly original novel The Last Man on Earth Club. Exploration teams fan out from the world they call The Hub to visit its doppelgängers. All too often they find disaster: war, genocide and natural cataclysm. The Hub becomes a magnet for refugees and survivors. Among them are six unique individuals, the last members of their respective races. They are gathered together to undergo therapy.

One of the things that makes this book so readable is its clinical approach. It begins as a collection of documents: reports from contact teams and transcripts of individual and group therapy sessions in which the six – all in their different ways severely damaged – introduce themselves and their home worlds. Gradually these merge into a first person account by the therapist (herself a refugee from an Earth that sounds uncomfortably like our own). There are plenty of dramatic twists and revelations, but the measured tone of her voice holds all the threads together.

Hardy has obviously researched his subject (in a note at the end of the book he recommends several works on post-traumatic stress disorder and “post-disaster psychological aftercare”) but he carries his studies lightly and there is no sense of undigested theory. On the contrary, the characters are marvellously strong and varied, as are the layers of guilt they conceal.

He has put together a cocktail of sf scenarios which genre fans will love: nuclear devastation, environmental collapse, AI wars, genetic manipulation, plagues of zombies, the lot. All are dramatised in detail through the survivors’ eyes and all except one are gripping and convincing. The lapse is a ludicrous Marvel Comics world of incompetent superheroes which the author himself doesn’t seem to take quite seriously. A pity – on several occasions it threatens to throw the book off course.

This is not a feelgood story. It has uncomfortable echoes in recent history: the Nazi holocaust; the treatment of native peoples in Australia and elsewhere; earthquakes and tsunamis in Japan. The survivors don’t like one another much. They don’t like themselves. By the end of the book they still have a long way to travel, but we feel they have taken the first steps along the road.

The Last Man on Earth Club Amazon (UK) Amazon (US)

You might also like:
Exiles Deja Vu

Eighty is the new thirty

Jun 16, 2011 § 2 Comments

Coffin DodgersCOFFIN DODGERS – Gary Marshall
Kindle £1.99 ($2.99)

There has been a catastrophic collapse in the birth rate and an ageing population is taking it badly.

Sound familiar? If so, don’t jump to conclusions. Gary Marshall’s entertaining dystopian thriller is no Children of Men. His senior citizens are not just old. They’re old and rich. The few children still being born are doomed to waste their youth pandering to the whims of a generation of geriatric baby boomers – not as care assistants but as barmen, croupiers and aromatherapists. Eighty is the new thirty.

This is Simon Pegg territory – Shaun of the Dead meets Hot Fuzz. The three twenty-something protagonists, Matt, Amy and Dave, work in a vast casino complex and spend their free time bitching and dreaming up juvenile practical jokes to play on their elders. A bowling green has Old Farts written across it in weed-killer; flagpoles marking the holes at a golf course are coated in anti-climb paint.

Then young people start dying is freak accidents – and always two at a time.

Marshall has chosen a difficult narrative mode for his story – first person, present tense and lots of wisecracks. With a less capable writer this would be a disaster – beginners sometimes try it because it looks accessible, but too often it exposes their lack of control over language and plot. Marshall is completely in control. The writing is neat and slick and each element of the story clicks effortlessly into place. The jokes – not laugh out loud gags, but good for a steady grin – are rooted in daily life: supermarkets, car parks, beer and the familiar hassles of singleton existence. Even the most bizarre-sounding incidents turn out to be based on reality. Dave takes a date to a restaurant where diners eat in the dark, served by blind waiters. Yes, there is one. Google “blind waiters”.

The chatty tone could easily come to feel relentless, but Marshall varies the pace of the writing very effectively. There is a faint shadow of desperation behind the characters’ good humour and beneath the banter the relationship between Matt and Amy is tender and sometimes moving. The grumpy policeman the trio try to enlist on their side is splendidly down-to-earth and the climax of the story is fast-paced and gripping.

He also resists the urge to over-explain. The novel is set in the near future. Most things are recognisable, but we learn in passing that newspapers are published on tablet computers – the characters tap to read the headlines. The internal combustion engine is a thing of the past, but we pick this up through casual references to batteries. This is very refreshing: Marshall trusts his readers to keep up, a tolerance too many sf writers need to learn.

An enjoyable first novel. But I hope that with the next one he will try something completely different. It’s easy to get into a groove with this kind of book and it would be a shame to see that happen to such a capable writer.

Coffin Dodgers Amazon (UK) Amazon (US)

Out of joint

Jun 10, 2011 § Leave a comment

Bone & CaneBone & Cane – David Belbin
Tindal Street Press
Paperback £4.99 ($29.25) ISBN 9781906994266
Kindle £1.00 ($1.65)

David Belbin’s novel has been in the top ten at for several weeks. It introduces an “unusual and dynamic crime partnership”, according to regional fiction specialists Tindal Street Press (a pretty dynamic bunch themselves – three Booker nominations since 2003).

Sarah Bone is young, female and a Labour MP, still in opposition in early 1997. She has made a name for herself as a campaigner for penal reform. The book opens at a party to celebrate the release of a man wrongly convicted for the brutal double murder of a policeman and his wife. He is a splendidly obnoxious character and almost at once Sarah begins to wonder whether he might be guilty after all. Meanwhile her former lover Nick Cane is also free on parole after serving five years for drug dealing – and he is asking himself who tipped off the law.

Belbin’s plot ranges from the wine bars of Westminster to the mini cab offices and sink estates of Nottingham. You get the feeling that he’s more at home in Nottingham, but fortunately Parliament is dissolved early on and MPs retire to their constituencies for the general election. He does a good job of ramping up the tension in the run to the polls. The outcome is history (a Tory rout and 418 seats for Labour) but there are dirty tricks and dark secrets on all sides and genuine doubt about whether Sarah Bone will come out on top. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown play cameo roles on the telephone.

So far, so gripping. But with the election over the novel collapses into soap opera. Rather too many characters drink, dope and jump into bed – and nothing much comes of any of it. I spent a chapter or two waiting for the plot U-turn, but once the ballot papers have been counted the twin threads of the story – election and murder mystery – unravel before the reader’s eyes.

I had problems with Sarah Bone. Well-drawn and sympathetic as a heroine… but as a MP? President of the student union, yes; backbencher with a future, no. She pulls off a couple of coups, but in private she seems too impulsive and too much at the mercy of her own feelings. We know that politicians are human, and God knows they get caught with their trousers down often enough, but my honourable friend the member for Nottingham West, smoking a spliff on the balcony of her flat alongside her ex-con lover? Never heard of telephoto lenses? My fingers were clenched on my Kindle, waiting for the paparazzi to leap out from behind a neighbour’s dustbin.

The other half of the title, Nick Cane, doesn’t do much to hold things together. Ex-Labour activist, ex-teacher, ex-cannabis farmer and ex-con, he spends too much of our time with him being self-indulgent and inconsequential. In the end it’s hard to care what happens to him.

There is a serious theme at the back of this book. Life moves on: people change, make new commitments, discover new limitations, become bigger or smaller than they were. Usually we don’t notice because we are moving on too, but five years in the limbo of a cell can make the alteration in friends and loved ones seem dramatic. Belbin, I suspect, finds the vision of a life out of joint which ends the book more interesting than the crime story that begins it, and the two never quite blend together.

Bone & Cane Amazon (UK) Amazon (US)

You might also like:
Sum Net Gain

Don’t mention the A-word

Jun 3, 2011 § 2 Comments

But Can You Drink the WaterBut Can You Drink the Water? – Jan Hurst-Nicholson
Just4Kix Books
Kindle £0.70 ($0.99)

Jan Hurst-Nicholson emigrated from England to South Africa in 1972. Her novel is set 16 years later in 1988, but you get the feeling she knows what she’s talking about.

The book follows the fortunes of Frank and Mavis Turner and their 15-year-old son Gerry from the moment the wheels of the 747 hit the runway at Louis Botha airport. They are a working class family from Liverpool, Scousers to the core. Frank has signed a five-year contract to work in Durban, dragging his reluctant wife and resentful, Mohican-topped offspring with him.

Hurst-Nicholson has a lot of fun with these innocents abroad, doubly baffled by a strange country with its alien climate, food, customs and wildlife, and by their sudden promotion to the bourgeoisie. They survive first encounters with sunburn, geckos, brinjal, litchi and naartjie and discover that, yes, you can drink the water.

Many of the jokes are at their expense, know-it-all know-nothings, but there are wider targets too. The author has a wicked eye for absurdity in the culture they have left behind. Mavis is impressed that their new home has an en-suite bathroom, but the thing that strikes her first is the toilet paper:

“And decent loo paper too,” she noted, accustomed to the cheap, wood chipped Bronco sheets her mother insisted on because her dad wound them into spills for his pipe.

Very amusing – at first. After a while, though, the digs begin to seem a bit relentless. This is partly because the pitch of the writing varies very little, but partly also because there is really only one gag: the Turners are ignorant and badly educated, conditioned to their cold, wet, council house terraced lives in Liverpool and totally at sea in the wider world. When they have begun to settle in and Gerry has acquired a crew cut and a tan, Mavis’s parents come out for a three month stay and the same jokes are wheeled out again. The parents go home, and her sister and brother-in-law visit… Hurst-Nicholson has some touching insights into the rootlessness of the recent emigrant – ill at ease in the old country and the new, homesick for both – but the surrounding humour is repetitive and rather cruel.

I was a little confused by the period. The Turners arrive in 1988 but the references to Bronco and Green Shield Stamps, outside toilets and slipper baths suggest that the Britain they have left behind belongs to a slightly earlier date. And I find it hard to believe that they could really be that stupid. OK, I’m a whinging Pom myself, but in 1988 we were already a nation of TV watchers, with the spurious sophistication that implies. Surely nobody would land in South Africa expecting jungle drums?

And of course in 1988 other things were going on.

PW Botha’s challenge to fellow Afrikaners to “adapt or die” was ten years in the past when this story begins, and some petty apartheid laws had been repealed, but between 1986 and 1989 there were still an estimated 30,000 people held without trial during various states of emergency. In 1988 there were attacks on police and army installations every month (you can find a list here). Under sanctions South Africa’s economy was one of the weakest in the world and sportsmen were banned from taking part in international events. Mandela still had another two years to serve.

By the end of Frank Turner’s five year contract Mandela would have been a free man, a Nobel prize-winner and only months away from the presidency; apartheid would be at an end. Are these momentous events even mentioned? The Turners have a black maid and one of the jokes is that they have no idea how to treat her. That’s all we get. (In fact they treat her rather well: as an employee.)

A disappointing book. I was hoping for something anecdotal in the style of James Herriot or Gervase Phinn, but although Hurst-Nicholson has a sharp observational wit, her writing lacks their generosity.

But Can You Drink the Water? Amazon (UK) Amazon (US)

Dick Francis on a motorbike

May 29, 2011 § Leave a comment

Sum Net GainSum Net Gain – Charles Fenn
Fastprint Publishing
Paperback 281pp. £9.99 ISBN 9781844268511

“Dick Francis on a motorbike” is how Charles Fenn describes his thriller. “But with more sex.” He’s right about the sex.

James Turner is a Cambridge graduate, one of the stars of his set on and off the rugby field. After graduating, though, he turns his back on career and fortune. Ten years later, when former friends are civil rights lawyers, dot com entrepreneurs and MI5 operatives, he is a motorcycle dispatch rider in London and openside flanker for a semi-professional local team. A reluctantly-attended reunion opens old wounds. Riding home afterwards he is chance witness to an attempted rape and rescues the victim. The two plot lines converge in a satisfactory way to a dramatic conclusion.

The comparison with Dick Francis is appropriate, and not simply because the story is told in the first person. The narrator is intelligent and self depreciating, and like Sid Halley and his colleagues he is underestimated by the opposition because of his occupation. Silly of them considering that he is six foot two and built as a rugby flanker should be. He is also, like a jockey, tough and focused. Having seen several colleagues killed in road accidents, his mantra is concentrate or die.

Unlike Francis, Fenn has a taste for philosophy, and one of the book’s themes is an ethical one – why choose to do the right thing in a world where God has been replaced by a blind watchmaker? The title conveys one answer: balance risk against benefit and select the path which offers the greatest benefit to the greatest number. Though these moral musings are fascinating in themselves, I found that they interrupted the action more than once. Fortunately the rugby player wins out over the philosopher and James Turner ends up storming through the visiting team’s defenders.

Oh yes, the sex. Well, there’s a fair amount of it and not much left to the imagination. I didn’t find it prurient or pornographic, though. There is tenderness and humour in the love-making, which is as it should be.

This is a book which I suspect celebrates the writer’s personal passions – motorbikes, rugby, philosophy and sex – and his enthusiasm shows on every page. An enjoyable and engaging read.

Sum Net Gain Amazon (UK)

Never mind the quality, feel the width

May 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

ExilesExiles (The Progenitor Trilogy, Book One)
Dan Worth
Kindle £1.49 ($2.99)

This self-published space epic would make a fat book. I don’t know how many pages there are because I’m reading a Kindle edition. A lot. It should have been 30% shorter.

It makes a promising start: two xeno-archaeologists, human and alien, discover a floating derelict. The ancient warship throws a new and disturbing light on the history of one of the Galaxy’s oldest and most advanced races. Before they can publish their research they are accused of espionage and find themselves on the run from the security forces of two planets. Meanwhile war looms between Earth and the K’Soth empire, and at the centre of the galaxy an ancient evil stirs…

Some of this may sound familiar (including the apostrophe in the middle of the bad guys’ name). The recipe calls for generous helpings of Babylon Five and Deep Space Nine, with a dash of Ian M Banks and a pinch of Frederik Pohl. Perhaps a soupçon of Arthur C Clarke. If you’re going to steal, steal from the best. It doesn’t matter – Dan Worth’s imagination is wide-ranging and vivid and he pulls together a number of classic SF themes with enthusiasm. He slips confidently from the detail of alien cultures to monumental space battles and the interwoven story lines are enough to satisfy the most demanding space opera buff.

To me, though, the book reads like a draft rather than a finished novel. Not the first draft by any means, but not the final one either. There is a touch too much detail. Some of the descriptions of aliens and their planets read like travelogue rather than fiction. The battles last a plasma bolt too long.

The same goes for the writing: there’s sometimes a sense that paragraphs are a sentence too bulky, sentences sag under the weight of too many phrases and phrases are overloaded with adjectives. There are several fine action sequences – Worth can certainly do it if he tries – but a good deal of plot development is handled through dialogue, with the characters explaining to each other what is going on.

There are also a lot of errors – I counted about 40 without looking very hard. Most are typographical, a few are spelling mistakes and a couple are real schoolboy howlers. Wake up at the back there! Worth, explain the difference between principal and principle.

Like a number of self-published authors, Dan Worth hasn’t quite managed to sever the cord. The story is still partly in his head. One more draft might have allowed him to look at it more objectively, from a reader’s point of view, and cut away everything that didn’t serve the book.

In his About the Author note he says that he writes for his own enjoyment. Other authors have made similar comments. Terry Pratchett’s claim that he lives in constant dread that someone will discover how much fun he has writing, and stop him doing it… well, that about sums it up. But if you’re going to publish, it’s the reader’s fun that counts.

Exiles Amazon (UK) Amazon (US)

If this sounded interesting, you may also enjoy:

Deja Vu The Last Man on Earth Club

%d bloggers like this: