The Time Traveller’s Strife

23 02 2019

Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Golden Samovar by Olga Wojtas


Fifty-something Shona is a proud former pupil of the Marcia Blaine School for Girls, but has a deep loathing for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which she thinks gives her alma mater a bad name.

Impeccably educated and an accomplished martial artist, linguist and musician, Shona is thrilled when selected by Marcia Blaine herself to travel back in time for a one-week mission in 19th-century Russia: to pair up the beautiful, shy, orphaned heiress Lidia Ivanovna with Sasha, a gorgeous young man of unexplained origins.

But, despite all her accomplishments and good intentions, Shona might well have got the wrong end of the stick about her mission. As the body count rises, will she discover in time just who the real villain is?

But, despite all her accomplishments and good intentions, Shona might well have got the wrong end of the stick about her mission. As the body count rises, will she discover in time just who the real villain is?

A really light-hearted and rollicking entertainment this, the first novel (under her own name) by Olga Wojtas, who was for many years the Scottish editor of the Times Higher. She wears her learning lightly though and manages to make this a perfectly judged, very witty and fast-paced romp.

All good fun and a recommended comedy crime caper.




Planet suburbia

16 02 2019

Another Planet by Tracey Thorn


In a 1970s commuter town, Tracey Thorn’s teenage life was forged from what failed to happen. Her diaries were packed with entries about not buying things, not going to the disco, the school coach not arriving.

Before she became an acclaimed musician and writer, Tracey Thorn was a typical teenager: bored and cynical, despairing of her aspirational parents. Her only comfort came from house parties, Meaningful Conversations and the female pop icons who hinted at a new kind of living.

Returning more than three decades later to Brookmans Park, scene of her childhood, Thorn takes us beyond the bus shelters and pub car parks, the utopian cul-de-sacs, the train to Potters Bar and the weekly discos, to the parents who wanted so much for their children, the children who wanted none of it. With endearing wit and great insight, Thorn reconsiders the Green Belt post-war dream so many artists have mocked, and yet so many artists have come from.

I first encountered Tracey Thorn on Pillows & Prayers, the 99p bargain Cherry Red sampler, in 1982. With a solo track, ‘Plain Sailing’, and Marine Girls and Everything but the Girl songs too, I quickly became a fan. Since then of course she has released a sackful of albums with Ben Watt as EBTG and continues to produce solo records too. She has also produced two terrific books about her life in music too and this, the third in the inter-related series focuses more on the early teenage years and, interestingly, on family and suburbia too.

This one too is a great read and includes much confessional material from those teenage diaries as well as some really poignant reflections on parental relationships. The reminders of teenage life which emerge from her recollections of place though and the nature of suburban life including some really rather scary sounding encounters with older men are perhaps the really distinctive feature of the book.

It was great to hear her reading from the book at a recent event at Rough Trade in Nottingham (before she went down with a dreadful cold resulting in the rest of the book tour being postponed – get well soon!) and answering questions, mainly about the music. The question I never got to ask though was how she managed to get an A in her A level English despite reporting in her diaries doing pretty much no work. I reckon some revision slots were not recorded…

There are plenty of references to the music in Tracey’s life too at the time, some of it dead cool, some of it less so perhaps but actually all good. The disadvantage she had growing up, unlike me of course, was that she didn’t have the Marine Girls, Tracey Thorn and EBTG to provide the soundtrack.

Recommended reading for fans of Tracey and/or real life in suburbia.

four stars

Space operettas

9 02 2019

The Star Diaries by Stanislaw Lem

In a firsthand account, Lem’s hapless cosmonaut Ijon Tichy tells warped tales from the civilizations he discovers in a deep space galaxy so unlike our own that concepts of science, the rational mind, human progress, the sanctity of life, and motherhood all no longer apply. In their place, Tichy finds sadomasochistic robots who speak a dialect much like Chaucerian English, killer potatoes with an appetite for spacecraft, and robot theologians who are being relentlessly persecuted by creators who have renounced their original faith. Full of the intellectual satire for which Stanislaw Lem is esteemed, The Star Diaries speaks volumes about contemporary society in its depiction of highly bizarre, faraway, futuristic worlds.


Mostly originating in the 1950s I think, this is a quite extraordinary suite of short stories narrated by Ijon Tichy, a space farer who finds himself in many strange situations. Comparisons with Borges and Kafka are quite appropriate in some cases as several of the tales are exceptionally strange. Also more than a flavour of this in the later ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ by Douglas Adams for which it must have been an inspiration. Highly recommended.


four stars

Hollywood hollows

26 01 2019

The Deer Park by Norman Mailer


Amid the cactus wilds some two hundred miles from Hollywood lies a privileged oasis called Desert D’Or. It is a place for starlets, directors, studio execs, and the well-groomed lowlifes who cater to them. And, as imagined by Norman Mailer in this blistering classic, Desert D’Or is a moral proving ground, where men and women discover what they really want—and how far they are willing to go to get it. As Mailer traces their couplings and uncouplings, their uneasy flirtation with success and self-extinction, he creates a legendary portrait of America’s machinery of desire.

It feels very much a novel of its time. The central characters, whether or not they were based on those around in that era, feel like credible portraits. None of them though is remotely attractive and few have any redeeming features at all. Mailer, who I still think is an outstanding writer, was not known for his progressive sexual politics and unfortunately the underlying misogyny really does come through powerfully here. Still, an impressive, if unedifying, portrayal of a particular time and place and an interesting artefact if nothing else.



Flying higher

19 01 2019

The Last Pilot by Benjamin Johncock

With echoes of Raymond Carver as well as Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff and Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road, The Last Pilot re-ignites the thrill and excitement of the space race through the story of one man’s courage in the face of unthinkable loss.

Set against the backdrop of one of the most emotionally charged periods in American history, The Last Pilot begins in the bone-dry Mojave Desert during the late 1940s, where US Air Force test pilots are racing to break the sound barrier. Among the exalted few is Jim Harrison: dedicated to his wife, Grace, and their baby daughter.

By the 1960s, the space race is underway and Harrison and his colleagues are offered a place in history as the world s first astronauts. But when his young family is thrown into crisis, Jim is faced with a decision that will affect the course of the rest of his life whether to accept his ticket to the moon and at what cost.

It’s a good portrayal of an extraordinary time and place and does capture some of the excitement of the early days of the space race. But at the heart this is a tale of relationships and the absence of what would now be described as work-life balance. Whilst it is tightly written and well crafted, the comparisons with Carver and Hemingway are somewhat overstated. Nevertheless a decent read.


Top reads of 2018

12 01 2019

Big six

These are my favourite reads from the past 12 months. Plenty of other very good ones too but these are the stand out novels including a couple of older classics and two soon to be ones.


The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje


The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles by Giorgio Bassani


Villette by Charlotte Bronte


Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes


This is Memorial Device by David Keenan


The Forensic Records Society by Magnus Mills

All highly recommended.

Jack’s back

5 01 2019

Want You Gone by Chris Brookmyre

What if your deepest secret was revealed?

Sam Morpeth is growing up way too fast, left to fend for a younger sister when their mother goes to prison and watching her dreams of university evaporate. But Sam learns what it is to be truly powerless when a stranger begins to blackmail her.

Who would you turn to?

Meanwhile, reporter Jack Parlabane has finally got his career back on track, but his success has left him indebted to a volatile, criminal source. Now that debt is being called in, and it could cost him everything.

What would you be capable of?

Thrown together by a vindictive and mysterious mutual enemy, Sam and Jack are about to discover they might be each other’s only hope.

It’s one of the best in the very good eight book Jack Parlabane series by Brookmyre. With all the customary ingredients including moral ambiguities and some complicated plotting the story really races along. Brookmyre often covers some really contemporary themes, including around IT, media and politics,  and this is no exception – it could all sound pretty dated in a few years but at present it feels really convincing. Parlabane is also a great leading character – largely honest and credible with some big character flaws which keep him interesting and unpredictable.

The climax is certainly a gripping one but does depend on the author holding back some narrative which would otherwise have been revealed – a bit of a cheat really but forgivable. Anyway, great fun and recommended.



four stars

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