Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Bone Clocks (Part One)

Even the cover is mysterious and beautiful...
Well hi. Come in. Fancy a cuppa? 'Course you do. Take the weight off. I have much reading to tell you about. Much. Well some. Okay, half a book. But it's a big book, in at least two senses.

Steaming through the Booker long-list can sometimes be a lot of work.

Some books are too huge to be read and reviewed swiftly, yet some are structured in such a way as to conveniently let you review their constituent parts.

Thus, in the manner of Den of Geek reviewing a few episodes of a TV series, I am going to give you my first impressions of the first three "episodes" of David Mitchell's forth-coming Booker-longlisted novel The Bone Clocks.

I've always felt an odd affinity with Mitchell because we both began our careers working in Waterstone's in Canterbury, though separated by a decade or so. Tim Waterstone once remarked that Mitchell "isn't as clever as he thinks he is", which may be true, but he remains infinitely cleverer, and a far better novelist, than our former CEO.

Anyway, that's enough 'inside baseball'. Beware spoilers, all ye who glance below this point...

A Hot Spell
The Bone Clocks begins in 1984, and schoolgirl Holly Sykes is about to have a very bad day. New boyfriend Vincent Costello lets her down in the worst - albeit the most obvious and leadenly signposted - way, and the only obvious course of action for young Holly is to run away from home. What follows is a 24-like real-time odyssey across Kent as Holly enjoys some increasingly weird encounters with school friend Ed Brubeck, the enigmatic Esther Little, stereotypical 80's lefties Heidi and Ian, and a mysterious killer, before finding gainful employment picking strawberries. Just when she's settling into a new identity her past catches up with her and drags her back to reality...

Expect Mitchell's typically muscular, captivating prose, pulling you through a narrative which reads like Black Swan Green having a violent fight with Cloud Atlas. If you want to know which genre we're in, it's vaguely SF or so it appears right now. This is occasionally jarring, especially coming so thick and fast in the opening episode. It's a bit like a Neil Gaiman story so far, if you can imagine a suddenly very heavily literary Neil Gaiman...As the episode finishes, you definitely need to know what the hell is going on here, and you're mercilessly hooked.

Myrrh Is Mine, Its Bitter Perfume
The second episode leaps us forward to 1991. Like Caitlyn Moran has just done in her novel How To Build A Girl, the 1991ness is established by characters listening to Nirvana and watching Twin Peaks. Lazy: I can't argue about the TV choice, but I think Use Your Illusion I and II were much more important records of the era. And so was 30-Something. But I digress.
We are now in the narrative company of Hugo Lamb, an irresistible little rogue, rich Cambridge undergraduate, sexual adventurer, cad, and bounder. Lamb's story begins with a baffling encounter with the enigmatic Immaculee Constantin, then we detour to his college get-rich-quick scams, his home life and family, there's an audacious link to Black Swan Green, we discover his criminal alter ego Marcus Anyder, before jetting off for a spot of skiing in Sainte-Agnes with a fairly repellent group of his appalling, loaded acolytes. They proceed to ski, drink and whore their way around the New Year break, but Hugo falls in love with the barmaid at their apres-ski watering hole, the spiky, aloof and somewhat damaged Holly Sykes. But when he's presented with a clear choice, Hugo must choose between Holly and the mysteries offered to him by our surreal friends from outside our reality, who are known as the Anchorites...
Hugo is one of Mitchell's very strongest characters to date and this episode is perhaps his finest chunk of prose, wholly engrossing and ferociously readable. The Anchorites (clearly the book's 'villains' and the architects of Holly's weird encounters in episode one) are suitably bizarre and menacing, and it's somewhere amid this section that you find yourself really falling in love with The Bone Clocks.  

The Wedding Bash
Episode three is set in 2004 at the wedding of Pete and Sharon, the younger sister of Holly Sykes, who is in attendance with her daughter Aoife (your guess is as good as mine) and the father, Holly's life partner, Ed Brubeck, who has somehow ended up as a war journalist, on leave from a stint covering the occupation of Iraq. Walking on the pier the morning of the big day, a chance encounter with Immaculee Constantin is soon forgotten, then Aoife is distraught when Ed refuses to let her visit the showman psychic Dwight Silverwind, who Ed rightly dismisses as a miserable fraud. As the day unfolds tension arises in the family: Holly wants Ed to leave the paper and leave war zones. Ed, with a fresh commission in his pocket wonders if it's actually something he can give up, especially as his own recent harrowing experiences in Baghdad have left him emotionally indebted to two heroic victims of terrorism. When Aoife goes missing, the Sykes family are devastated by a familiar dread, but it is forces from outside our reality who intercede to help Ed on his race-against-time search.
We're on slightly steadier ground in this episode, the Middle East scenes bristle with terrible authenticity and the Wedding-day scenes read like a domestic thriller. There seems to be very little SF or fantasy at work in this section, until we get to the point where it suddenly definitely is. And at the end of this section you're left wondering - will Holly keep Ed? And beyond that - what on Earth is going on?

Well, there are three episodes left for the story to unfold, three more leaps into the future (it does feel a little Cloud Atlas, all this leaping about, and it'll only feel more so as we go into the future I suspect) but it would appear we're following Holly, and these Anchorites who are always hovering on the periphery of her life.
The experience of reading this book is richer than the experience of reading your average novel, as you'll know if you've read any of Mitchell's stellar fiction. Though I'm dubious about the Booker judges ever awarding the prize to a work of urban fantasy, (which this damn well is) Mitchell seems to be pulling off something magnificent here.

If the second half of this book is as good as the first, then we can possibly call off the search for 2014's best novel...

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Winterhill update

Hi folks. Hope you've all had a great week.

I am stuck into David Mitchell's forthcoming novel The Bone Clocks and a review of that is... some time away, I'm afraid. I did warn you this would happen.

Oh don't be like that. I'm trying my best, I really am. Truly. Here, let me...let me wipe away your tears and hug you a bit. Is that better? Is it? Eh? Oh fine. Sod you then.

In the meantime, Kindle owners, and indeed Kindle App for iOS owners can pick up not one but two volumes of my Sci-Fi series Winterhill. Each book or "series" contains six stories, so the idea is you can binge on it like a DVD boxset (older readers may remember those) or draw it out like Charlie Bucket making his birthday bar of chocolate last him a full year.

Did you, by the by, see the new cover for the Penguin Modern Classic edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? My, but it's a stinker. And has caused a modest furore. Twitter, it's fair to say, fair lost its shit over this one.

But yes, Winterhill. The Complete First Series has so far had some lovely reviews and has been compared to Douglas Adams, Doctor Who, Joss Whedon, Red Dwarf and Orphan Black. These are all STAGGERING things to be compared to, and it's fair to say I'm a quivering blush-face of shucks.

But at least it's better than the cover for
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
The Complete Second Series (or at least the jacket) was, however, compared to an erotica novel so I have hastily changed the design while I'm working on a longer-term design for the range. However, it is even better than the first series, I promise, with all kinds of twists and turns. Yes, there is an over-arching story-arc, and yes it helps to read the stories in order, but you probably don't have to. Be different: start with season two, I dare you.

What is Winterhill about? It's a series of adventures set five hundred years in our future, featuring Rebecca Winterhill, who can't remember who she is, and begins with her meeting Madagascar Talifero, who won't talk about who she is, and swiftly finds them both under attack from some space vampires. And that's just the first story. In each book there are monsters, zinging one-liners, cocktails, space travel and new worlds to explore.

The plan is to publish the third volume at Christmas 2014, (not too long to wait, is it? I'm no George R R Martin, I promise you) so you have plenty of time to try the first two and become dangerously addicted. Series three, it pains me to say, is probably going to be even betterer than the first two. And more answers will be revealed about the identity of our amnesiac adventurer.

I hope you try one, or both.

Try both. That would be best.

I hope you'll forgive me for not having finished The Bone Clocks, and that you'll join me next week. (If you live in the UAE you can also hear me on the lunchtime Books section of the Andrew Hosie show on Monday at 12.30 on Abu Dhabi Classic FM).

Until next weekend, my friends. Until #Capal-day!

Friday, August 8, 2014

The Hundred Best Pages of the Year

Hello! Come in. I'm sorry I'm not properly dressed; I'm home alone and I've been catching up on some of my reading. I am so far behind it's acutely upsetting. Excuse me if, on occasion, I gibber a little. Or deploy the Oxford comma. I'm told I'm prone to them.

We were going to talk about the 2014 Booker Long-list, correct? A glorious whittling of the year's fiction output into one glorious foot-high pile of volumes; albeit with the usual qualification that half of them haven't been published yet. On hearing that Joseph O'Neill's amazing The Dog had made the cut, HarperCollins brought forward the book's release so that the public could read it for themselves. Other publishers have been less nimble or concerned.

And, yes. This year we have some American writers joining the fun. Much fuss and bother was made that Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch didn't make the cut, but at the risk of upsetting people, I have to point out that, for me, it really wasn't good enough.

You don't have to be dental to work here,
but it helps!!!
But I'll tell you who did make the list: Joshua Ferris, a man described as "one of the sexiest men in fiction" by someone who has clearly forgotten how swoonsome yours truly is. In a certain light. From time to time. On radio.

His latest novel is To Rise Again At A Decent Hour, and last weekend, readers, I read it. It was the first of Ferris's writing that I've read, and for me at least this was a book of two halves.

We begin in a Manhattan dental surgery, where the hero, Dr Paul C O'Rourke, a somewhat curmudgeonly dentist from Brooklyn, runs a small, happy practice, fixing sick mouths, ably assisted by Connie (his ex) and the redoubtable Betsy Convoy, the real power behind the throne. For a hundred or so pages this scenario unfolds, gently, gloriously, with dialogue which is so impressive and energetic and glorious that it basically medalled. Like the finest comic writing of Ted Heller, or vintage Martin Amis, this one hundred pages is so good I was ready there and then to call it the best book of the year.

...And then we come to the rest. After one hundred or so scene-setting pages, the plot begins. It's a plot which fails to convince, lacks resolution, and frankly it bored me quite a lot. Imagine one of Will Self's tales of paranoia and involuntary metamorphosis, but a much more plausible, down to earth idea. Throw in some soft identity-theft and an ancient religion, and you have a bubbling slurry of reedy, brackish broth rather than the meaty stew you'd ordered and thought you were in fact getting.
Rarely have I enjoyed a book so much to begin with, only for it to collapse into a frankly tedious spiral of doubt and confusion.

I think Ferris might be one of the finest comic novelists working today, but this is sadly not the book which lets him dazzle you. I'd be surprised if it makes the Booker shortlist.

My next Booker-nommed read is David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks, which former Waterstones spokesface Jon Howells described as "Stephen King meets Neil Gaiman". Fifty pages in, I'd say no-one does an introductory section quite as well as Mitchell and it is indeed starting to feel predictably amazing. However, it's a big book, and I'm a busy man, so don't expect a full review in seven days' time. If I haven't got anything to review for you by then I'll probably give you an update on Winterhill or something. As you can see, it's getting some nice reviews...

Now be gone. I need to get dressed, you need to go and read something brilliant.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

A Game of Thrones

Let's be honest from what our transatlantic chums might call the "get-go": the world does not need another review of A Game of Thrones, it really doesn't. George R R Tolkien's sprawling fantasy epic has been a global bestseller for about twenty years, and the recent TV adaptation has helped nudge it into the mainstream. It's massive, isn't it?

Disproving the Pratchett hypothesis that
suggests all fantasy writers need to be
white-bearded crazies in hats
So massive, indeed, that suddenly just watching the show (on my legally purchased DVDs, guys) wasn't enough and I wanted to get back to the source material, mainly out of cynicism. "It's fantasy,"  I thought to myself, "it's not as if it's going to be literature, is it?"

Well, er, yes, it is. J. R. R. Martin can sure write. The book (I've just finished the first novel, seven more to go!) takes itself seriously without drifting up its own sphincter as so many of these things tend to do. The writing is intelligent, stylish and - thank god - really rather good. The world of Westeros is built effectively and without fanfare, and the characters all jostle for your attention and affection; though, let's be honest, as with the TV show it's all about Tyrion Lannister. (Ned Stark, just like on telly, is noble to the point of being a bit bloody stupid, Jon Snurrrr is all anger and so on, Danaerys's scenes crackle with the writer's obvious favouritism, and just sometimes, the arrival of another chapter featuring bloody Catelyn Stark can be a bit wearing.)

What intrigues me as a writer is how much George Ronald Reuel Martin knew of the size and scale of his tale before he started writing; and how he knew to finish this first book where he did (on page 780, which shows commitment if nothing else) and also how confident he must have been that he'd be continuing the series and didn't need to present his readers with a satisfying, closed ending. When the book finishes you know you've merely reached the end of what traditional book-binding can support rather than the end of a story.

But next time your hear HBO writers Benioff and Weiss giving it all that about how they've had to "start from the ground up" and "reinvent the wheel" when adapting the series of novels for the small screen, join me in a mild scoff. Certainly the first novel was written as if ready to go straight before the cameras. I struggle to think of anything significant that changed under the assiduous amendments of Benioff and Weiss. I understand they take greater liberties with subsequent volumes, and they'll be inventing the latter ones themselves as the TV show inevitably overtakes the series of books.

Next time you bump into GRRM at Dixie Fried Chicken, tell him to pull his ruddy finger out. I hear he loves that shit.

But; yes. I hugely enjoyed A Game of Thrones and I will totes be reading more in the series.

What's happened in the world of books? I don't know, I've been on holiday. The long-list for the Booker prize has been announced, and as ever it's caused a gnat's belch of controversy along usual lines ("half of them haven't even been published yet!") new lines ("half of them are by Americkeys!") and somewhat unexpected lines ("one of them's by David Nicholls! David Nicholls!")

I'll be getting to grips with the Booker list next week, as it deserves a bit of a look, I'm sure you'll agree. Until then I have work to do, and you, I'm sure, have brilliant things to read.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

How to Build A Girl (Again)

This week I was able to enjoy that increasingly uncommon treat, reading a whole book, from cover to cover, in one sitting. The only way I have found to make this work, in this age of easy distractions, is to book yourself into a business-class flight to New York and make sure that B.A. aren't showing a single bloody film that appeals to you in the slightest. Nevertheless, and not wishing to go off on one about B.A. (they destroyed my luggage too, the bastards) I was able to recline in my eery podule and enjoy the debut novel from everyone's favourite-journalist-apart-from-Charlie-Brooker, Caitlin Moran.

Green. It's a theme, you see.
How to Build A Girl reminds me very much of Stephen Fry's The Liar. In both cases we are reading a slightly fictionalised autobiography with a mere wisp of plot draped over the narrative to satisfy the demands of a "novel", and in both cases the author has already presented us with their autobiography anyway. (Attention, pedants - yes, I do know that The Liar predated Moab is My Washpot by around a decade.)

What you get here is not so much a novel as a names-are-changed-to-protect-the-family retelling of Caitlin's origin story (which we've already had most of in How To Be A Woman) where a spunky, overweight and self-loathing young heroine from the Midlands gets a job on a music magazine, sleeps around a bit, and moves to London. In my mind, this is to How to Be a Woman as Batman Begins is to Tim Burton's Batman; same story, different emphasis, different flavour. (Of course there's no Jack Nicholson in either, but still). As an added slice of fiction (I hope) is a subplot regarding her father's lingering hopes of pop stardom and his attempts to coerce the heroine to give his awful demo a glowing review in the mag she writes for.

It's fair to say it really doesn't deviate from what we've already been told about Caitlin Moran's life, so if you've already read How to Be A Woman then there's little new content for you here.

With that caveat out of the way, though, I should turn my focus to HTBAG's  merits, and chief among them is the sheer effing brilliance of the writing, and of this latest iteration of the story, for truly the tale improves with each telling. As this is a novel the tale can also be told in slightly more detail with less discretion - because the names have been changed. You see the genius of the system? Moran can make her heroine, Daisy Wilde, much ruder and liberated than she may have wished to portray herself previously, and who knows, perhaps this character is Wildely different from the novelist she's based upon, her experiences unimaginably different, exaggerated and extrapolated from their real-life originals. But I doubt it.

She's funny, she's loveable, she's like most of us - adrift and struggling to find her way in a big scary world we do not remotely comprehend - and like everyone she occasionally fucks up. Good. We need characters like that in books. I fear that Moran's readership is increasingly a female one, despite many wives and girlfriends buying her first book for their bemused partners. It would be a shame for men not to read this. I really wish it had been around when a teenage me had the idea of reading books by women to try to a) understand them and b) enjoy more luck getting off with them. Who did I end up reading to try to reach these vital ends? Carrie Fisher and Freya bloody North.


This, however, is a useful little book for everyone, about men, women, adolescence and reinvention of the self. I found only two errors within these pages, she got the original UK transmission year of the first series of Twin Peaks wrong, and also confused Han Solo for Luke Skywalker in the snog-Leia-and-swing-over-the-chasm-in-the-Death-Star scene in Star Wars. Both, ironically, mistakes no boy would ever make. The resolution of the sub-plot involving Daisy's father's demo is noteable by its absence, but apart from these tiny faults, this is a great read. A hugely enjoyable novel. A perfect holiday book. Recommended, my people.

Now, I have much to do, and you all need to go and read something brilliant, so let's meet back here in a week. Be well, my dears, and do try to behave yourselves.

Friday, July 4, 2014

A Modern Way to Eat

A Lovely Way to Cook
A more-than-usually gorgeous food book has arrived at Bookface Towers from Jamie Oliver "protege" Anna Jones, entitled A Modern Way to Eat. Initially I was fearful that Jones would be advocating an entirely new system of ingesting, possibly involving using an app in place of the traditional, time-honoured insertion of comestibles into the standard face-mouth, or digesting remotely via the Cloud. But rest assured; she's not here to shake up the established order of this to that extent, she just wants more people to cook lovely veggie food.

I'm quite at home with that idea, and the first recipe I stumbled upon in the book (well, OK, in the ten-page sampler I picked up at London Book Fair) was for a date hummus. I have made this around seven or eight times now for friends and family and people genuinely seem to love it. It's revolutionised my hummus appreciation and given me a reason to unpack the food processor every week or so. My god, it's moreish.

A Lovely Thing to Eat
And today, in my first experiment with a recipe from the book proper, I attempted her 'Full of Greens Fritters'. Her writing is laid-back and easy to follow (although food writers are not known for their impenetrable sesquipedalian circumlocution, thank heavens) and her recipe translates alchemically even through the hands of someone like me, who in five years of Middle Eastern living has forgotten virtually all I ever knew about cooking. In short, once I'd grated my courgettes, zested my lemon, crumbled my cheese and shredded my spinach, I ended up the proud chef of these beauties, very light, citrusy and bursting with goodness.

The book is simply full of tempting recipes brought to vivid life by some of the best food photography I can remember seeing. I for one hope this title does really well in the market, since surely we're all tired of Sweary Gordon, Fat-tongued Jamie and Nigella "You've still got some on your upper lip, dear" Lawson. The plan now is to work my way through the book trying out whatever takes my fancy on any given day. It's a Lovely Way to Live and will hopefully produce untold delights. So, if anyone asks you, my tip for foodie writer of 2014 is Anna Jones. Watch her closely.

Bookface is struggling, right now. The urge to write is stronger than the urge to read. I've finished five of the six stories for series three of Winterhill (check out the amazing and rather humbling reviews for series one here) and this is eating up all of my free time. So I still haven't finished A Game of Thrones, and I've a novel from Caitlin Moran called How to Build A Girl waiting to be read. It's been likened to Portnoy's Complaint in the twittersphere. Either this means early readers think Moran is as good a writer as Philip Roth, or they think it's basically a book about wanking. So, pretty compelling either way.

I'll let you know next time after this little trip I have to make to New York, if British Airways manage not to kill me in the meantime. Be well, stay strong, read something brilliant, and check out Anna Jones.

Peace out.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Frothy and Disposable

James Patterson
This week that most august man of letters James Patterson has established a massive cash fund to support independent bookshops in the UK. I'm sure it's not a tax-dodge and I firmly believe he's acting entirely altruistically, but the reality is that to succeed, these businesses need customers, and they need people to buy books. They need the major publishers to turn their backs on Amazon, and re-establish fair prices for books. Luckily, even as we speak, Amazon are doing their level best to destroy the relationships they've built up with the big publishers by demanding ever-larger discounts and unsupportably generous terms. It only needs one huge publisher to tell them to get lost and suddenly Amazon's USP - "we stock everything you could possibly want" - stops being true.  The customer's mouse could then hover over the buy buttons on the much more deserving, or who knows, they might return to their local high street shop to buy their books. Even if they are by James Patterson. Oh if only there was now a monolithically huge global publishing house who could realistically be the first to say "no" to Amazon... Yes, PenguinRandomPenguinHouse, I'm looking at you.

Of course, if you are buying something to read from Amazon today, I can heartily, and hypocritically, recommend my own science fiction series Winterhill. It doesn't matter if you don't have a Kindle, you can get the Kindle App for your Apple devices too! Lucky day. Get to it. Winterhill is really quite good, I promise.

There's been an amazing quote this week from Freya North who has slammed the term "chick-lit" saying it implies such books are "frothy and disposable". This shows a hitherto unexpected lack of self awareness from North, writer of the most frothy, insubstantial and disposable novel Bookface has ever read. It's called Polly, if you want to read it and take issue with me. Does North fondly imagine she's writing meaningful, meta-textual literature suffused with rich prose and deft use of literary devices? Because...well, she's really not.

Remember Tom Perrotta? My favourite read of 2006 was the movie tie-in edition of Little Children. Perrotta struck me then as an American Nick Hornby, if you imagine a Nick Hornby had never written the meisterworks Fever Pitch or High Fidelity. Well, Perrotta's work is back before the cameras, this time the can-do-no-wrong cameras of HBO no less! The tie-in edition of The Leftovers is available, too. And it all looks very encouraging for life after Orange is the New Black, 24: Live Another Day, Penny Dreadful and Orphan Black.

So, yes, Bookface is mainly watching TV for the summer now, when I'm not working, writing or running. It's a bit of a golden age of TV right now. If you're hungry for a more book-review heavy book blog, I can point you towards my new twitter friend BookishDubai's blog here.

Meanwhile I have to pack for a trip to New York, so I'll thank you to leave me alone while I search for that missing running sock. Books a plenty when I return, I promise. Now scram.

Go and read something brilliant.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Bookface Prize

A Vision of Lovely
Am I the only one speechlessly excited by the prospect of Gillian Anderson's forthcoming fiction debut? A Vision of Fire arrives in October from Simon and Schuster. Normally Bookface is highly cynical when it comes to celebrities turning their hands to fiction (anyone remember Naomi Campbell's The Swan? No? Precisely) but I'll make an exception for Gillian Anderson because, essentially, I have fancied her since the autumn of 1993 when she first exploded onto my TV screen as Agent Scully in The X-Files. As yet there is very little info about the book but it's certainly on the radar here at Bookface Towers.

There's lots of booky fun to be had by joining the conversation on Twitter for #bookadayuk, which runs until the end of June. Each day they want you to share your book which befits that particular day's category. Join in. It's very revealing...

JK Rowling is returning with second "Robert Galbraith" crime novel entitled Silkworm. This makes it her first novel to share a title with a Guns N' Roses song, after the aborted Harry Potter and the Welcome to the Jungle. What else has hit the shops recently? The paperback of Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, which notably didn't win the Bailey's Prize.

Look at Gillian. Look at her. Lovely. Also, distracting. No wonder I can't think of much to say. In my defence there was supposed to be a huge review of George Ronald Reuel Martin's A Game of Thrones here, but I haven't finished it yet. It's a big boy, that one. Maybe there's room in the world for another serious literary award, one called The Bookface Prize which goes, each year, to the author I most fancy? The long-list would, off the top of my head, include Chimamanda Ngoze Adichie, JK Rowling,  Gillian Anderson (OBVS) and Marisha Pessl too. Yes, actually this is a great idea. I shall run with it. Stay tuned.

We're also only a month or two away from late August which sees the announcement of the Booker Prize long-list (ah, how quickly they roll around) and the return of Doctor Who. Which is off-topic, especially as it kept creeping into last year's columns. For which I apologise. Still, though, it was the 50th anniversary.

Sad news this week - genuinely sad news - Rik Mayall died. Apart from his recent autobiography (which wasn't all that good if we're being honest) he was the author of the seminal 80's comedy tie-in book How to be a Complete Bastard which my mum and dad wouldn't let me buy. Still, I'm over it now*. As a TV actor I loved him in both The New Statesman and Bottom, and back when I bought those most pointless examples of publishing, TV script books, I bought these both. Given how most of Rik's comedy contemporaries have turned to fiction - Ade Edmondson, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Dawn French, Ben Elton etc. -  it's a surprise he never did.

Now I suggest you all run along as there's really nothing to see here this week. I'm just going to sit here and stare at Gillian until my legs go numb.

*I'm clearly not.

Friday, June 6, 2014

The Twelve Days of Kelly Christmas

Eimear McBride. Ten years rejected. 
Baileys Prize. 
Half-formed Thing. Stream of consciousness. Hard work. 
Fascinating story of how it got backing by a small indy publisher. 
Challenging. Unreadable? 
You judge. My brain. Hurts. 
Maybe ten years ago, I might have tried. 
Congratulations, Galley Beggar Press.

Hope Floats
I have just finished reading The Extra Ordinary Life of Frank Derrick Age 81, by J.B. Morrisson, who I was once lucky enough to be able to interview. He's probably too busy to return my calls these days, now he's switched publishers and gone and got a proper surname. His literary ambition is naked. However, Frank Derrick is the third novel from Jim Bob, and is probably the first you could call mainstream.

His debut, Storage Stories, is like a Graham Linehan Channel Four sitcom, and his follow-up Driving Jarvis Ham is like a modern, celebrity-obsessed take on John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces (which I'm actually quoted as saying in the paperback edition. Which is nice.)

Frank celebrates his eighty-first birthday by being run over by a milk float. A widower with a daughter who lives abroad, Frank lives alone and has thus far been enjoying an old age spent buying rubbish from charity shops, ignoring the bills, hanging out with his friend Smelly John at the nursing home down the road, and looking after his cat Bill, who clearly dislikes him. But now, injured and far less able to cope with life, it is arranged that he will get weekly visits from a carer for a few months to help him out, and from the first meeting with Kelly Christmas, something is reborn inside Frank...

So what is Frank Derrick 'like', if I were to try, in my limited, and feeble way, to compare it to something? Well, there are touches of Samuel Beckett's bleak wit in elderly Frank's fruitless attempts to cope with the cyclical madness of modern life - call centres, charity shops, the NHS, all of which Frank is helpless in the face of, and utterly unable to effect meaningful engagement with. There's also a great joke involving his new glasses and how they arrive which is pure Beckett. It's a book of tiny things, everyday ordinariness, and gentle bleakness mixed with moments that depress you utterly and others which give you hope that old age might not, after all, be the worst thing that can ever happen to you.

But I guess I'm more reminded of Ricky Gervais' sitcom Derek, which is also concerned with showing the reality of nursing homes, healthcare, lovely people struggling with bills, with real life, in an unconcerned world where you're of no use if you're not making money. As with that show, there is much in Frank Derrick to warm the cockles of your heart, although there are certain scenes with Bill the cat which moved me to cold fury (Bookface is a bit of a cat person, you see).

Jim Bob is a naturally funny writer, but in Frank Derrick he's toning it down (there's very little of his usual swearing or stuff about wee or poo) partly because the characters he's working with require a different tone (apart from Smelly John) and possibly partly because he's aiming to build a more dignified literary presence you don't get by simply pelting the reader with swearing or childish jokes. (But, Ian McEwan, it is big and clever and you should definitely try it). So it is a sadder, more despairing humour that suffuses the book, but it's very funny, and I'd have to say The Extra Ordinary Life of Frank Derrick Age 81 is one of the better reads I've had lately. Add it to your holiday reading pile, please.

Now, not being the sort of reader to find himself behind the curve, I'm about to start one of these popular Game of Thrones novels by George R R Martin because I'm told they're quite good and I shouldn't be an old snootypants about the fantasy genre because, as a Sci-Fi author it all gets a bit "pot and kettle". In an inversion of the usual relationship between book reviewer and reader, I'll therefore be the last man on the planet to have read it instead of one of the first, and you can all bombard me with angry comments about how wrong my opinions may be.

I'll look forward to that.