Guess that’s why they call it the blue

2 12 2017

Porterhouse Blue by Tom Sharpe

Porterhouse College is world renowned for its gastronomic excellence, the arrogance of its Fellows, its academic mediocrity and the social cache it confers on the athletic sons of country families. Sir Godber Evans, ex-Cabinet Minister and the new Master, is determined to change all this. Spurred on by his politically angular wife, Lady Mary, he challenges the established order and provokes the wrath of the Dean, the Senior Tutor, the Bursar and, most intransigent of all, Skullion the Head Porter – with hilarious and catastrophic results.

It is all a bit over the top but one of the most entertaining campus novels of the last half century. Every satiric angle you could imagine in relation to a fictional Cambridge college is covered here in great style. Whilst some of the humour is a bit dated (and, perhaps inevitably, sexist) it is nevertheless a galloping read well worth it, as is the TV adaptation (which was, I think, scripted by Malcolm Bradbury and includes an unforgettable David Jason performance).

four stars

 

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Swinging London and beyond

25 11 2017

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

Two brown girls dream of being dancers – but only one, Tracey, has talent. The other has ideas: about rhythm and time, black bodies and black music, what it means to belong, what it means to be free. It’s a close but complicated childhood friendship that ends abruptly in their early twenties, never to be revisited, but never quite forgotten either.

Bursting with energy, rhythm and movement, Swing Time is Zadie Smith’s most ambitious novel yet. It is a story about music and identity, race and class, those who follow the dance and those who lead it . . .

It’s another great read from Zadie Smith. Beautifully and elegantly written it really does flow. The narrative jumps about in time and place, from childhood to adulthood and from London to New York to West Africa but hangs together well. The friendship of two girls remains at the heart of the book but the working adventures of the narrator as she follows her international singing superstar boss around the world are compellingly portrayed.

It’s a terrific and multifaceted novel which delivers on many levels and really should have made the Booker shortlist.

four stars





Tartan times

18 11 2017

A Time of Love and Tartan by Alexander McCall Smith

 

If only Pat Macgregor had an inkling of the embarrassment romantic, professional, even aesthetic that flowed from accepting narcissistic ex-boyfriend Bruce Anderson’s invitation for coffee, she would never have said yes. And if only Matthew, her boss at the art gallery, hadn’t wandered into his local bookshop and picked up a particular book at a particular time, he would never have knocked over his former English teacher or attracted the attentions of the police.

Whether caused by small things such as a cup of coffee and a book, or major events such as Stuart’s application for promotion and his wife Irene’s decision to go off and study for a PhD in Aberdeen, change is coming to serial fiction’s favourite street. But for three seven-year-old boys Bertie Pollock, Ranald Braveheart Macpherson, and Big Lou’s foster son Finlay – it also means a getting a glimpse of perfect happiness.

 

Delightful, understated and charming comedy as ever, the wonderful Scotland Street tales continue. It really is hard not to enjoy these great characters and their daily travails and if you haven’t ever tried one of these episodic yarns then they really are worth a go.

 





“I lost my heart to a starship trooper…”

11 11 2017

Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein

In Robert A. Heinlein’s controversial bestseller, a recruit of the future goes through the toughest boot camp in the Universe—and into battle against mankind’s most alarming enemy.

JOIN THE ARMY AND SEE THE UNIVERSE

The historians can’t seem to settle whether to call this one “The Third Space War” (or the fourth), or whether “The First Interstellar War” fits it better. The soldiers just call it “The Bug War.” Everything up to then and still later were “incidents,” “patrols,” or “police actions.”

In the Mobile Infantry, everybody fights. But you’re just as dead if you buy the farm in an “incident” as you are if you buy it in a declared war…

I first read this as a teenager and loved it as pure scifi brilliance. Returning to it more recently I wondered if that magic would still be there and what other dimensions there would be. Well, I still enjoyed it as a classic space opera but must admit to finding the political context a bit more unsettling. First the idea that citizenship could only be achieved through military service or equivalent and secondly the brutality of the whole interstellar combat experience. Overall though it remains a compelling and rather dark tale, one which focuses on the strange individual life of the ordinary soldier and raises some interesting questions about a highly militaristic society which are rather different from those around when it was written. The Verhoeven movie really doesn’t do it any justice (crudely entertaining though it is) and as for that Sarah Brightman song…





The old devil

4 11 2017

Rather Be the Devil by Ian Rankin

A CASE THAT WON’T DIE

John Rebus can’t close the door on the death of glamorous socialite Maria Turquand. Brutally murdered in her hotel room forty years ago, her killer has never been found.

Meanwhile, Edinburgh’s dark heart is up for grabs. Young pretender Darryl Christie may have staked his claim on the city’s underworld – but has criminal mastermind and Rebus’ long-time adversary, Big Ger Cafferty, really settled down to a quiet retirement? Or is he hiding in the shadows until Edinburgh is once more ripe for the picking?

Old Enemies. New Crimes. Rebus may be off the force, but he certainly isn’t off the case.

Rebus just never actually retires. And he never seems to forget about any of his old cases either. But who would not want him on their side when Big Ger is around. It’s the usual cracking read from Rankin and let’s hope there are still more to come from everyone’s favourite old devil.

 

four stars





Falling and Brexiting

28 10 2017

 

Autumn. Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. That’s what it felt like for Keats in 1819.

How about Autumn 2016?

Daniel is a century old. Elisabeth, born in 1984, has her eye on the future. The United Kingdom is in pieces, divided by a historic once-in-a-generation summer.

Love is won, love is lost. Hope is hand in hand with hopelessness. The seasons roll round, as ever.

Ali Smith’s new novel is a meditation on a world growing ever more bordered and exclusive, on what richness and worth are, on what harvest means. This first in a seasonal quartet casts an eye over our own time. Who are we? What are we made of? Shakespearian jeu d’esprit, Keatsian melancholy, the sheer bright energy of 1960s Pop art: the centuries cast their eyes over our own history-making.

Here’s where we’re living. Here’s time at its most contemporaneous and its most cyclic.

From the imagination of the peerless Ali Smith comes a shape-shifting series, wide-ranging in timescale and light-footed through histories, and a story about ageing and time and love and stories themselves.

Here comes Autumn.

It’s a terrific read and extremely well written (as you would expect from the marvellous Ali Smith). Sharp and clever it covers a lot of contemporary Brexity ground as well as some fantastic Pop Art commentary on Pauline Boty. There aren’t many novels with Art History lecturers as central characters and Autumn demonstrates they have a lot to offer. I’d never heard of Boty before and therefore was really pleased to come across this picture – The Only Blonde in the World – by her at Tate St Ives right after finishing the book. It may not have won the Booker prize but it was a very worthy runner up.

 


four stars





Decimation

7 10 2017

The Tenth Man by Graham Greene

 

In a prison in Occupied France one in every ten men is to be shot. The prisoners draw lots among themselves – and for rich lawyer Louis Chavel it seems that his whole life has been leading up to an agonising and crucial failure of nerve. Hysterical with panic, fear, and a sense of injustice, he offers to barter everything he owns for someone to take his place.

Graham Greene wrote The Tenth Man in 1944, when he was under a two-year contract to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and the manuscript lay forgotten in MGM’s archives until 1983. It was published two years later with an introduction by the author.

It’s an extraordinary premise and the consequences of the offer made by Chavel have a profound impact on the lives of those who remain. Having persuaded another to take his place and ultimately released from prison Chavel ends up returning to his former home where the family of the victim are now living and, changing his name, he starts work as their handyman. Things take a darker turn though when another arrives at the house claiming to be Chavel.

A short and punchy entertainment it is well worth a read.

 

 








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