Telling tales

16 03 2019

Hings by Chris McQueer




From the streets of working class Scotland, and on occasion, a little beyond our solar system, comes one of the country’s most hilarious debut writers. Putting surreal and witty twists on the everyday, Chris McQueer creates recognisable characters you will love and want to avoid like the plague.

Peter’s earned his night off, and there’s not a bloody chance he’s covering Shelley’s shift. He just needs to find some pals for the perfect cover story. Deek is going to be at the forefront of the outsider art movement and do Banksy proud. Davie loves tattoos and his latest is going to be a masterpiece. Tam is one of the most creative minds in the galaxy (apparently), but creating parallel universes can cause problems. Everybody on Earth wakes up with their knees on backwards.


There are some very entertaining short stories in here from a writer who is new to me. I do think some of the story titles give a flavour of what’s on offer:


I really did enjoy most of these and McQueer is an extremely creative and entertaining writer. There are obviously some similarities with early Irvine Welsh but there is a unique voice here who is both sharp and very, very funny.

Looking forward to reading more like these.

four stars


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.



Goodbye, farewell

11 03 2017

Goodbye to all that by Robert Graves



In 1929 Robert Graves went to live abroad permanently, vowing ‘never to make England my home again’. This is his superb account of his life up until that ‘bitter leave-taking’: from his childhood and desperately unhappy school days at Charterhouse, to his time serving as a young officer in the First World War that was to haunt him throughout his life.

It also contains memorable encounters with fellow writers and poets, including Siegfried Sassoon and Thomas Hardy, and covers his increasingly unhappy marriage to Nancy Nicholson. Goodbye to All That, with its vivid, harrowing descriptions of the Western Front, is a classic war document, and also has immense value as one of the most candid self-portraits of an artist ever written.

Just brilliant this and one of the best autobiographies I can recall. Graves somehow manages to encounter just about every notable artist around during his time in the trenches but also beyond. There is some comedy as well as tragedy in here, most notably when Graves’ unit is sent, in error, to Cork instead of York thanks to a Morse code mistake. Highly recommended

4.5 stars

Shiny shiny

7 11 2015

Satin Island by Tom McCarthy


From the Guardian review

The novel’s first-person narrator, known simply as U (we don’t find out Y), is a consultant ethnographer retained by an influential organisation to gather data in the furtherance of a multi-tentacled project to gain some strategic, unbreakable stranglehold on the world. The how or why of this isn’t entirely clear, not even to U, as he jets off to international conferences or busies himself in his basement office identifying memes and overarching rhetorical behaviours, casting his anthropologist’s eye over breakfast cereals, rollerblading, oil spills, the mysterious deaths of skydivers.

There follows dense babble from the narratives of cultural theory, technology, tribal lores and so on, from which U must compile a Great Report that will unlock the underlying codes that govern our age. No wellspring of learning is left unfathomed, while the commonest observation – a shoe buckle, the buffering circle on a computer screen – is liable to trigger a poststructural disquisition on time and memory, or a lesson on how iodine or ventilation systems work.

Unfortunately this all makes for a really rather dull read. It’s clever but ultimately unsatisfying and leaves you with an empty feeling at the end. Despite its Booker shortlist status this really is one to avoid.

2 star

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