Stoned, the crows

14 04 2018

The Crow Road by Iain Banks

 

‘It was the day my grandmother exploded. I sat in the crematorium, listening to my Uncle Hamish quietly snoring in harmony to Bach’s Mass in B Minor, and I reflected that it always seemed to be death that drew me back to Gallanach.’
Prentice McHoan has returned to the bosom of his complex but enduring Scottish family. Full of questions about the McHoan past, present and future, he is also deeply preoccupied: mainly with death, sex, drink, God and illegal substances…
 
With some trepidation I recently re-read this early Iain Banks novel, now over 25 years old, having not done so since shortly after its publication, having loved it back then. I should not have been so worried, it remains a cracking yarn and definitely one of Banks’ best. Banks ploughed a distinctive furrow in contemporary fiction at the end of the last century and The Crow Road is an outstanding example of his work. Although some of the IT references may now seem a little quaint in the attempt to sound terribly cutting edge, nothing can distract from a great plot, well-drawn characters and a thoroughly compelling narrative.

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Not Wholly Unbearable

7 04 2018

The Unbearable Lightness of Being in Aberystwyth by Malcolm Pryce

 

 

There is nothing unusual about the barrel-organ man who walks into private detective Louie Knight’s office. Apart from the fact that he has lost his memory. And his monkey is a former astronaut. And he is carrying a suitcase that he is too terrified to open. And he wants a murder investigated. The only thing unusual about the murder is that it took place a hundred years ago. And needs solving by the following week. Louie is too smart to take on such a case but also too broke to turn it down. Soon he is lost in a labyrinth of intrigue and terror, tormented at every turn by a gallery of mad nuns, gangsters and waifs, and haunted by the loss of his girlfriend, Myfanwy, who has disappeared after being fed drugged raspberry ripple.

 

I keep reading these hoping for a breakthrough. The characters are entertaining enough and the plotting is appropriately bonkers but the rib-tickling promised by many of the reviewers just fails to arrive. Nevertheless, it’s harmless, clever and mildly diverting so quite a long way from unbearable.





Getting on a bit

24 03 2018

The Diary of a Man of 50 by Henry James

Returning to Florence after 25 years of military service, a man finds himself haunted by memories of a thwarted love affair that took place on the banks of the Arno during his youth. On inquiring after the erstwhile object of his affections, he encounters a young man in amorous pursuit of her daughter. Eager to spare his young friend the sorrow that has marred his own life, the man finds himself deliberating the morality of recounting his own story. This heartbreaking tale touches on themes that were to dominate Henry James’s later fiction, including the suggestibility of youth and the dubious morality of influence. With characteristic psychological insight and a youthful fluency of expression, even in his early work James demonstrates himself a master of the art of fiction.[From Goodreads]

It’s clear, short, lucid and an easy read, not very Henry James you might think. The Diary of a man of 50 is a well-crafted and melancholic musing on age and youth. Although more of a long short story than a novel, it does pack quite a lot in and, for those of a certain age, it really is thought provoking.

four stars





There’s been a murder (or two)

17 03 2018

 

The Seven Dials Mystery

Gerry Wade had proved himself to be a champion sleeper; so the other house guests decided to play a practical joke on him. Eight alarm clocks were set to go off, one after the other, starting at 6.30 a.m. But when morning arrived, one clock was missing and the prank had backfired with tragic consequences.

For Jimmy Thesiger in particular, the words ‘Seven Dials’ were to take on a new and chilling significance.

A Caribbean Mystery

An exotic holiday for Miss Marple is ruined when a retired major is killed…

As Jane Marple sat basking in the Caribbean sunshine she felt mildly discontented with life. True, the warmth eased her rheumatism, but here in paradise nothing ever happened.

Eventually, her interest was aroused by an old soldier’s yarn about a strange coincidence. Infuriatingly, just as he was about to show her an astonishing photograph, the Major’s attention wandered. He never did finished the story…

The Murder on the Links

An urgent cry for help brings Poirot to France. But he arrives too late to save his client, whose brutally stabbed body now lies face downwards in a shallow grave on a golf course.

But why is the dead man wearing his son’s overcoat? And who was the impassioned love-letter in the pocket for? Before Poirot can answer these questions, the case is turned upside down by the discovery of a second, identically murdered corpse.

I used to read a lot of Agatha Christie when I was much, much younger and found both Marple and Poirot unbelievably exotic and strange. Reading them again many years later they seem no more dated than they were in the 70s but they do retain that exotic feel.

Lots of murders then, many a twist and turn, a dead end and a missed clue, but the plotting remains immaculate, the primary characterisation impressive and the pacing generally excellent, even if Christie is of a different age. Still worth reading.





No Dominion

10 03 2018

Dominion by C J Sansom

 

1952. Twelve years have passed since Churchill lost to the appeasers and Britain surrendered to Nazi Germany after Dunkirk. As the long German war against Russia rages on in the east, the British people find themselves under dark authoritarian rule: the press, radio and television are controlled; the streets patrolled by violent auxiliary police and British Jews face ever greater constraints. There are terrible rumours too about what is happening in the basement of the German Embassy at Senate House.

Defiance, though, is growing. In Britain, Winston Churchill’s Resistance organization is increasingly a thorn in the government’s side. And in a Birmingham mental hospital an incarcerated scientist, Frank Muncaster, may hold a secret that could change the balance of the world struggle for ever.

Civil Servant David Fitzgerald, secretly acting as a spy for the Resistance, is given the mission to rescue his old friend Frank and get him out of the country. Before long he, together with a disparate group of Resistance activists, will find themselves fugitives in the midst of London’s Great Smog; as David’s wife Sarah finds herself drawn into a world more terrifying than she ever could have imagined. And hard on their heels is Gestapo Sturmbannfuhrer Gunther Hoth, brilliant, implacable hunter of men . . .

Sansom presents an alternative history which proves to be as frightening as it is realistic. Imagining a Britain which surrendered in 1940 and where the Nazis rule is he offers a rather unpleasant picture of this country. But it is nevertheless a good yarn which also has some parallels with Sinclair Lewis’s ‘It Can’t Happen Here’. The portrayal of Churchill as resistance leader is a good one and Senate House as the German Embassy looms large over proceedings. The only mild criticism is that it is a bit over-long and, like in the smog, things move rather slowly at times.





Fiery and furious

3 03 2018

Pussy by Howard Jacobson

 

Pussy is the story of Prince Fracassus, heir presumptive to the Duchy of Origen, famed for its golden-gated skyscrapers and casinos, who passes his boyhood watching reality shows on TV, imagining himself to be the Roman Emperor Nero, and fantasizing about hookers. He is idle, boastful, thin-skinned and egotistic; has no manners, no curiosity, no knowledge, no idea and no words in which to express them. Could he, in that case, be the very leader to make the country great again?

It’s a sharp and brutal take on the Trump election which feels horrifically accurate and is just too real to be funny in many places. As a satire it works only too well and gives a compelling summary of the rise to power of a highly improbable leader. Scathing and frightening.

 





Amusing, but really not that alarming

24 02 2018

Going Off Alarming: The Autobiography: Vol 2 by Danny Baker

The dazzlingly funny second volume of Danny Baker’s memoirs: the television years.

Since my first book was published I have had countless friends and family members get in touch to say how come I hadn’t included this story or that tale. Was I ashamed of being shot twice, once up the arse, in Jamaica Road? How long should a man live with such a secret? If by retrospectively dropping my trousers every few pages I can reveal a fuller picture of myself during these years, then so be it.

Besides. Being shot up the arse. In front of your mates.

What else did he forget? Loads, and there’s undoubtedly plenty more to come. A couple of years after eventually getting to the first volume, I finally got round to volume 2. There are some laugh out load moments, a great set of stories involving the dog, Twizzle, and just lots of entertaining anecdotes from the world of Baker (plus the yarn about being shot up the arse). I have to say I found the final chunk of the book, focused on Paul Gascoigne, really not that interesting though.

 








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