Jul 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.
Jun 16, 2011 § 2 Comments
COFFIN 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.
May 29, 2011 § Leave a comment
“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)