What should they know of England?

Aug 20, 2011 § 2 Comments

Father of EmilyFather 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.

Amazon (UK) Amazon (US)

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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 amazon.co.uk 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)

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The fireball tomorrow

May 8, 2011 § 1 Comment

Tulagi HotelTulagi Hotel – Heikki Hietala
Dragon Independent International Arts
366pp. Hardback £13.59 ($23.99)
Paperback £10.79 ($19.66) ISBN 9781907386107
Kindle £0.69 ($0.99)


This is an oddly old fashioned book. If it were a film, it would be in Technicolor, or even black and white, with James Stewart in the lead role.

It’s none the worse for that – in fact the pitch of the story is perfect for the subject: the experiences of a group of American fliers in the Far East during the Second World War. The narrative loops back to visit the hero’s mid-western childhood and zooms forward to describe his return to the Solomon Islands in the late 1940s, but its heart is in the air over the Pacific.

Hietala is impressively expert on the technology and tactics of aerial warfare and he does not back away from its consequences. Characters die horribly; a few survive even more horribly. None of them escape without emotional scarring.

It is this which is the real subject of the novel: how to manage life and attachments when everything could end in a fireball tomorrow. Hietala finds a clever metaphor for the airmen’s refusal to contemplate the future in his hero’s fear of photographs: Jack knows that if he looks at one, he will see the shadows of the friends who are about to die. Sensibly, the author does not take the idea too far – this is not a novel of the occult – but it casts its own fatalistic shadow over much of the story.

This is a man’s book, which probably contributes to its old-fashioned atmosphere. There are two intertwined love stories, but the questions it asks are about how to behave under fire – and there are many kinds of fire to be endured.

Definitely a James Stewart film. John Wayne could do action, but it took James Stewart to convey the darkness and hurt that comes after.

Tulagi Hotel Amazon (UK) Amazon (US)

Where’s the party?

Apr 22, 2011 § Leave a comment

The Space Between ThingsThe Space Between Things – Charlie Hill
Indigo Dreams Publishing
Paperback 192pp. £5.99 ($10.27) ISBN 9781907401206
Kindle £5.69 ($9.39)

The Space Between Things begins in a Birmingham suburb on the day in 1990 when Mrs Thatcher left Downing Street.

We were sitting in a campus pub, The Pot of Beer, when we heard that Thatcher had gone. She was in tears, the bitch. Our first thought was “where’s the party?”
The party was in Moseley, two-and-a-half Embassy filter out of town on the number 50 bus.

It ends four years later, in a field in Bosnia. Between is everything that was bizarre and wonderful and weird and cracked in Britain under Thatcher’s grey Spitting Image successor: weed, bifters, skunk and e; free festivals, ley lines and raves; new age travellers, cheesies, anarchists, fluffies and crusties; the techno beat; squats and vegan cafes; Twyford Down, traffic cone hotlines and the Criminal Justice Bill. Even the characters’ names bring back memories: Smurf, Vee, Stripe, Sorrell, Ig and Mickey the Sleeves. Charlie Hill weaves it all together with a confident irony:

In the off-licence I saw Cheesy and Smurf. Cheesy was trainee Brew Crew, a lunch-out soap dodger. He was buying a four-pack. Smurf was a young traveller. They were coming up on something. It looked as through the head tunes sounded good. Their faces were ticcing in time.
“You alright, geez,” I nodded, “geez.”
“Just off to a party,” they said.

…and sometimes arcs into a tranced poetry:

And then in the van on the way back to Brum two days later, post-ecstasyed, vital toxins trickling down the cracks in my crazy-paving brain, I thought about the party, the people and the dancing in tents with space lights and lasers and the black sky at night with explosions in the sky and how it had been a great party, the best of all parties, but also of what else it had been, how those crazy days – yes, those crazy days – had gone beyond parties and were more, were a coming together that you might have seen if you’d put the graft in, a coming together of dissipation and energy, of getting fucked and exploration, of me and Tom and Stripe and Sorrell, of walking through the fire and the world and its possibilities…

And in amongst all this is a love story.

Vee’s gone now but she’s there in the stillness of the day. She’s there in the chatter too, alive even as it deadens my senses. She is the loudest and softest part of the chatter, like the beat in my head and the poetry I once recited and every time I hear her I feel as though I have discovered the great yes all over again…

Vee is the outsider, the one who puts the partying in perspective. For the narrator Arch, would be poet, would be roads protester, would be velvet revolutionary, she alters everything. Hill pulls off the double trick of allowing his characters to change and allowing them to fall short. Like Doris Lessing’s post-war activists, their solidarity fragments into factions and their idealism comes to seem just a bit daft.

A great read, full of fresh energy and insight.

The Space Between Things Amazon (UK) Amazon (US)

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