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Found 17 results

  1. I suspect that Tim Lott is a misunderstood man. He writes about grotesque characters in a sympathetic way and people imagine this is because he wants the characters to be admired. In When We Were Rich, we re-encounter the characters from White City Blue - four lads living in and around the White City estate in West London. Frankie Blue is an estate agent; Nodge is a taxi driver who has recently come out as gay; Colin is a computer geek; and Diamond Tony is persona non grata following an incident on a golf course. Picking up almost immediately from the end of White City Blue, we follow these characters and their newly found partners from the eve of the false Millennium (the real millennium started in 2001); through the boom years of the New Labour project and into the Global Financial Crisis of 2008. What Tim Lott does, seemingly effortlessly, is capture the atmosphere around major events and show how ordinary people responded to them. He holds up a mirror to ourselves and if we don't like what we see, we have only ourselves to blame. In When We Were Rich, we see the naked greed around the London housing market. We see people who believe they deserve the wealth they have accumulated through owning property - and expect to be able to repeat the feat for ever. We see people who judge others by their income, their job, their postcode. And because we have lived through these times ourselves, we know it won't end well. It's Rumours of a Hurricane twenty years on. I believe firmly that Tim Lott wants readers to sneer at his characters, not admire them or aspire to be them. Whether it is venal Frankie, selfish Vronky, lazy Roxy, the vain and hypocritical Fraser, the psychopathically angry Tony - they are all there to be mocked. Especially Fraser, the fifty-year old ripped EasyJet pilot - promiscuous on the gay scene while demanding fidelity from Nodge - turning up to Labour Party meetings to lament the fall of Militant. A thoroughly vile man in every way. When We Were Rich is the perfect summation of London in the 2000s, just as White City Blue was for the 1990s and Hurricane was for the 1980s. It is an easy, enjoyable read with much humour and quite a bit to say about class struggle and karma. Most readers will hate When We Were Rich if reviews of Tim Lott's past works are anything to go by. Their loss. ****0
  2. A Stranger City is an ambitious novel that seeks to draw parallels between recent history and Brexit Britain, using the stories of various members of northeast London’s diverse community to illustrate the situation. The frame on which the novel hangs is the discovery of an unidentified young female body in the River Thames. The discovery is investigated by a policeman and featured in a documentary by a filmmaker. We then broaden out and meet their families and some of the wider community. We find a community that is diverse even within the United Kingdom, including Scots, Irish and migrants from elsewhere in England. Then we find migrants from the Commonwealth and semi-recent conflict zones - Iran after the fall of the Shah. And then there are the more recent migrants from within the EU. All are seen to be integral to the London we see today. Contrast this with an England that seems to be retreating into itself, harking after the glory days of an Empire, capital punishment and boiled cabbage. Those who are smart enough, able enough, want to move away from this increasingly hostile and ignorant society. Which is ironic, since so many of them came to London precisely to enjoy a broader, global perspective and experience culture and sophistication. The story of the dead woman remains in the background. For a while it is (intentionally) confused by a parallel story of a missing social media star - a vacuous young woman who is famous only for being famous. And while the dead woman mystery is ultimately resolved, it is not satisfying. The main point is that it is possible for someone to go missing and not be missed, not be reported in this unfeeling society. Might it have been different if she had been English? A Stranger City is successful in depicting a multicultural society; it makes interesting political points showing the contradiction between the current insularity and the aspirations of individual members of that society. There is some wonderful depiction of characters. But it doesn’t quite hang together as a story. It is too difficult to hold so many characters in the mind all at once, so each time a character re-appears, he or she has to be re-learned. Their inter-relationships are too opaque and the narrative drive is just not there. Which is a pity, because the descriptive writing is fabulous. ***00
  3. The Outer Circle is set over the course of five days, shortly after the end of the London 2012 Olympics. The story is set on the other side of the city in the very affluent area of Regents Park and Primrose Hill. A man walks into the Regents Park Mosque with a flamethrower...We follow the event and the aftermath through the eyes of five different characters: Saul - an older man who walks through Regents Park to get his daily treatment for prostate cancer Rashid - who works in the bookshop at the Mosque, a recent convert to Islam Deena - a black police officer Tom - a student Jan - a journalist The narrative is broken into sections that drop in and out of the characters' lives, all trying to unpick what has happened. At times the characters can seem a bit cliched, and the dialogue can sound pretty clunky at times, but the story is compelling enough to capture the reader. The book's real strength is the sense of place. Regents Park is a pretty small area, even though, as we're told more than once, it takes a while to walk the length of the park. It is an area with cafes and bars, bandstands and bunkers. It has a high footfall from tourists, locals, dog-walkers, homeless... The park is almost a place apart from the rest of the city; the roads through it are closed at night and feel like secret roads; there are lawns and trees and bushes instead of the buildings and CCTV cameras; the park has its own rules and those who use the park feel temporarily relieved from the rules of the rest of the city. But as well as adhering to the strict geography of the park, there is also a sense of multi-cultural London. It has been in broadcast into every home around the world through the Olympics, it has folk of all colours and creeds. The cultural diversity is great enough that, for the most part, people can walk around unnoticed in a busy and somewhat impersonal city. We step into the world of politics and prejudice - with a firmly left of centre editorial policy applied sometimes with a heavyish hand. The novel is pacy and the pages seem to turn themselves. All five characters have their individual quests and part of the fun is seeing how they interlink. This is a light, entertaining read that sometimes promises to provoke thoughts and sometimes succeeds in doing so. This would be worth taking to the beach on holiday to deliver a taste of home. ****0
  4. I have always found Alison Kennedy's books a bit dull, which is a shame because in real life she is a live wire with a mordantly dry wit. So I approached Serious Sweet, courtesy of its Booker longlisting, with a bit of trepidation. I needn't have worried. Perhaps it is the basic premise - a middle ranking civil servant working in Tothill Street finds himself out of favour at work and bored by his lonely home life. I was that person, right down to working in Tothill Street, way back 15 years ago. Or perhaps it is the sardonic take on London life in the 21st Century. But whatever it was, I couldn't get enough of Jon Sigurdsson. Meg Williams, on the other hand, as a clerical worker in an animal shelter felt less immediately accessible. The novel itself is a bit like Ulysses. Jon and Meg wander around London over a 24 hour period with a vague intention of meeting up but being waylaid by various people. Meg spends time in hospital, almost as a parallel to Joyce's scene in the maternity hospital. And whilst there is a love story between the two of them, what you really have is an extended study of two characters, set against a wider study of contemporary London (and the wider nation and its government). Neither Jon nor Meg is terribly likeable - Jon is pompous and Meg is a whinger - but neither is either of them contemptible. They are complex, flawed characters who are unhappy with life; the reader comes to want them to have a chance of happiness even if it is not going to be in the terms of a Hollywood Rom Com. The writing really is stellar in terms of creating a sense of person and a sense of place. Kennedy uses a device of third person narrative blended with italicised first person stream of consciousness from both Jon and Meg's perspective. There are also little vignettes dropped in of everyday city life - life in cafes, on the streets , in parks or on the Tube. This scene changing offer welcome relief from what might otherwise have felt too claustrophobic. It also offers enough hooks that anyone who has lived in London will recognise details. Kennedy has a way of making everyday details seem significant, and in such a way that the reader gets an "a-ha" moment on recognising each of those details. The novel is long; there's no getting away from that. And at times, the lack of plot driven action can feel a bit like meandering (which is, of course, what Jon and Meg are doing). There are diversions into politics, philosophy and personal history. There is a wealth of words dedicated to the gap between the personal and the public self. And at times, it can feel slow. But, again like Ulysses, if parts of the text can feel like a bit of a slog, the impression at the end is one of heartfelt beauty and grace. For the reader, it comes together as a complete experience that handsomely repays the effort it took to get there. Over the passage of time, the memory of some novels grow and others recede. I suspect this one is a grower. *****
  5. Capital is so titled as it is an exploration of both life in early 21st century London and some of the effects of the financial crisis on the city, as well as the role money plays in the lives of its lengthy cast list. The novel freewheels chapter by chapter between the residents of several houses on Pepys Road, a street in an unspecified south London suburb, but probably somewhere in the vicinity of Clapham Common. The houses sell for 7 figure sums. Residents include wealthy banker Roger Yount and his recklessly extravagant wife Arabella. Further down the road is elderly widow Petunia Howe, grandmother to Graham aka Smitty a Banksy style anonymous artist. At one end of the street are the Kamals, who run a newsagents. One of the houses is owned by a football club and is occupied by a teenage Senegalese prodigy, Freddy Kano and his father, Patrick. As well as these residents, there is Polish builder Zbigniew and Hungarian nanny Matya, both employed by the street's residents, and Zimbabwean traffic warden Quentina, enforcing its parking restrictions through a shady employer. Lanchester follows his characters' lives from December 2007 to December 2008.The residents begin to receive anonymous postcards which state "We want what you have", then photographs of their front doors are posted on a blog. From here, the campaign takes a darker turn and the police become involved. Within this framework, the author employs his cast to show the diversity of London life. It is clear where his sympathies lie: he can barely disguise his contempt for Arabella and her ilk. Roger's career comes to a sticky and sudden halt moments before the banking crisis hits the City. Freddy's stutters. The Kamals are visited by their Pakistani matriarch and come under scrutiny from the police as the "We Want What You Have" campaign develops. Zbigniew and Matya, in London to earn money, find love and develop roots in the city. However, Capital isn't so simplistic that the poor prosper and the greedy get their comeuppance. The immigration service catch up with Quentina, for example, and Petunia falls seriously ill. Not all the strands work perfectly, but Lanchester finds the right tone for most of the stories: satirical for the Younts and Smitty, sentimental for Petunia and Matya, comic for Mrs Kamal's visit. If you can imagine White Teeth written by Kate Atkinson you'd be in the right area. As a resident of the city myself (albeit the north rather than the south) Lanchester captures the chaos of London well; how immigrants keep it functioning and how much time can be spent in transit and searching for a parking space. Unlike its most obvious recent antecedent, Sebastian Faulks' A Week in December, Capital doesn't get bogged down in explaining the machinations of the City and its institutions; thankfully Lanchester used his research in this area to write a pretty decent history of the financial collapse called Whoops! Capital is a satisfying, readable novel, and hopefully of as much appeal to non-residents as this dyed in the wool Londoner.
  6. The Busker promises three cities, two years, one chance. Yes, the cities bit is correct, and I’ll take Liam Murray Bell’s word for it that it takes place over two years – although it is difficult to gauge the passage of time – but “one chance” is a bit misleading. We open the book to find Robert Dillon, homeless on the streets of Brighton, having pawned his guitar to buy a bit of food and some drugs to help him sleep. Since Robert – or Rab – is a busker, this seems to reflect some pretty short term thinking. Rab seems to be a stereotypical Glaswegian junkie, having incoherent arguments with his incoherent homeless buddy Sage. Certainly, Rab is at rock bottom. So it challenges pre-conceptions to discover that Rab is an articulate man from a middle class part of Glasgow who recently signed a recording contract and had an album released. The novel layers back in time, first to London where Rab is living the high life, raiding the mini-bar in his swanky hotel room, being ferried about the place by record company limousines, and looking forward to a life of fame and wealth. And then it is layered further back to Hyndland, Glasgow, where Rab’s friends are looking at universities as Rab is making preparations to head down to London for the big time. He is full of hopes and expectations; perhaps his girlfriend Maddie might come to join him; they could buy a house and once the royalties start to pour in, Maddie’s English uni tuition fees wouldn’t be a drop in the bucket… Obviously, we know that Rab’s music career is not going to end well; part of the intrigue in the novel is seeing how such a low ebb can be reached from such promising beginnings. The journey gives a searing portrayal of the music industry which seems so cut-throat and unsentimental that it’s a wonder anyone would ever consider joining it. Everyone seems to be in hock to someone else – those who seems to be screwing over the artists are being screwed over themselves. There is also a good deal of cynicism about celebrity endorsement of grass-roots movements. Rab is encouraged to involve himself with the Occupy movement, pretending to be sincere, pretending to live in a tent, pretending to be in touch with the streets. The irony, of course, is that this is exactly the future that is waiting for Rab. One of the strengths of the book is the development of Rab as a character. He may not have been much chop as a rock star, he may take some poor decisions and sometimes seems callous, but he does have an innate optimism that is hard to dislike. He doesn’t want charity; he doesn’t want to admit defeat; and he seems to still have hope that he’ll be able to pull himself up. In each of the three sections, he is counterpointed by more pessimistic characters – Sage in Brighton, Price the record mogul in London, and Maddie, the girlfriend in Glasgow. Rab is never deterred by the fact that the voices of pessimism often seem to be right; and the reader cheers for him. Does he get there in the end? Perhaps. ****0
  7. There's no easy way to say this: The Faithful Couple is pretty boring. AD Miller's first novel, Snowdrops, succeeded by holding up a mirror to a world that was little understood: post Communist Russia, and supported this with a cracking story. His characters and situations were credible and interesting. In The Faithful Couple, we still see an intriguing reflection of a society - 1990s and 2000s London - but it is a world that many of us already know well. AD Miller doesn't really tell us anything we don't already know. There is what appears to be some inside dope on the Immigration Department of the Home Office, some stories of dotcom start-ups and financial service providers. It may be well portrayed, but the reader is left with a feeling of knowing recognition rather than enlightenment. The weakness, though, is the story. Adam and Neil first meet as backpackers in California; they are drawn together as two Brits in a strange land, a friendship cemented by an encounter with a girl. But the two characters - Adam, patrician, good looking but under-performing; and Neil, working class, hungry, risk-taking - are just not a credible pairing. And as we follow their lives, Adam in the lower reaches of the civil service and Neil as an entrepreneur, their continued friendship is just too unlikely. The holiday bonding was not enough to make them want to stay together; they would have been taken off by girlfriends/wives and work colleagues into totally different social circles. This is compounded by the fact that they never seem to have anything in common and, California notwithstanding, very little in the way of shared experience. They just seem to spend time together for the purposes of creating a contrast for the reader. Plus, Adam and Neil are so bo o o o oring. What starts out, perhaps, almost as a Jeffrey Archer Kane and Abel type rivalry just fizzles. It is clear which will succeed and which will sink, and they stick relentlessly to their pre-determined courses. There are no shocks and surprises; non epiphanies or revelations. The result is a novel that is well written on the surface, but does not do enough to capture the reader's interest, and meanders on for far too long. It is redeemed in part by some nice observational stuff, but overall this is a novel to miss. **000
  8. Readers of Will Self’s previous (Booker shortlisted) novel Umbrella will find Shark more than a little familiar. We revisit psychiatrist Zack Busner, running an experimental Concept House, offering psychiatric patients a communal living arrangement without wards, locks and restraints. The style is similar to Umbrella, with long slabs of text, eschewing conventional paragraphing, punctuation or linear style. It’s like stream of consciousness on acid. In fact, very specifically, it *is* stream of consciousness on acid. One of the particularly impressive feats of this style of narration is that it never draws breath. Whilst there are full stops, there’s no point where you can see a change of scene or a natural pause. Yet the reader does zip from scene to scene, time to time in the middle of sentences, in the middle of words. And it's all chock full of references. There are references within the references. Even when you know what is going on, it is hard to see how it is done. It is smooth and seamless, perhaps like the sharkskin fabric of which all the suits in the novel seem to be made. However, whereas Umbrella had a very focused narrative beneath all the fog and choppy timelines, Shark does not. If anything, it seems to be a loose collection of short stories, each centring around one person who is, in some way, associated with Concept House on a particular day in 1970. The stories themselves might be from before 1970 (some wartime stories); during or after that date. Dates are seldom given; they must be inferred from events taking place in the wider world. Taken together, they might be supposed to create some sort of “state of the nation” narrative of the second half of the 20th century. Of course, they are not presented in discrete stories – they cut back and forth, buried in swathes of pretty abstract meandering. By meandering, I mean the kind of stuff you occasionally hear from a mad alcoholic, often in sentences with subjects and verbs, sometimes with obscure vocabulary, but seldom actually making any sense. If you haven’t read Umbrella, Shark may well intrigue, fascinate, impress, surprise, delight. It is fizzy, it is slippy, it is very, very distinctive. It may repel, it may frustrate, it may infuriate. It’s a long, hard book. But if you know Umbrella, there is a fair chance that, despite its clear merits, Shark may disappoint and, even worse, bore you. ***00
  9. Layla takes poor decisions. She’s 19 years old, living in a shared flat in London and earns her living as a dancer in a strip club. The subject matter tends to channel people’s thinking down pre-conceived channels. Perhaps Layla is a poor innocent, being exploited for men’s pleasure. Perhaps she is a drug addict. Perhaps she is really a lovely person just waiting for the right man to rescue her. Perhaps she hates men. But Layla is way more subtle. There may be shades of these preconceptions that apply, but basically Layla is a selfish and headstrong woman who is trying to earn enough money to run away with the son she seems to have abandoned back home in Peacehaven. Her motives mix good and bad, but mostly are just not thought through. There’s little consideration of the consequences of her actions on others and very little attempt to match short term decisions to her long term strategy. Layla is not going to have a good life. The novel is told, unusually, in second person. Whilst this is normally irritating in a novel, here it is mostly successful. It creates a sense of immediacy and is presumably supposed to add to the authenticity of Layla’s voice – as though she is narrating aloud to herself. On balance I think the first person would have been a wiser choice – at best the second person screams of quirkiness for its own sake – but it’s not a biggie. The subject matter is grungey and explicit. We get to see the inner workings of the club; the expectations of the clients and the services on offer. At times it becomes quite gynaecological. We also get a good insight into Layla’s private life; her back story; her flatmates; her boyfriends. It isn’t a pretty picture but, at the same time, one has to conclude that Layla is pretty much the architect of her own misfortunes. There are so many points, in the story itself and in Layla’s past, where you just will her to take a different course of action. And despite past experience, each future choice brings fresh hope that Layla will get it right. This is not a light, heartwarming novel. It has been described as James Kelman-esque in the offering of an [almost] unbroken monologue from the margins of society. I’d say that’s a fair comparison. And just like James Kelman, a reader’s perception of the novel will hinge entirely on whether or not they bond, however loosely, with the narrator. ****0
  10. A great premise – walk every London Underground line in its entirety, on the surface, and report all the weird and wonderful sights you see and people you meet. Throw in a bit of map trivia and Tube trivia and what could go wrong? Well, for a start, you could find that most of what you saw was not very interesting. Just endless housing estates and main roads threading through industrial estates – interspersed by visits to the same central London locations you have visited on your previous three lines. You might fail to meet interesting people and instead have to pad out an entire line’s narrative with the planning guy from the City of London. Or you might find the top of the NatWest Tower a bit disappointing. You see, these types of travelogue books depend so much on the geniality of the company. I would trek every mile of the Andes with Michael Palin because he is an all round entertaining guy who observes without judging. Or I might walk along the River with Iain Sinclair whose depth of knowledge of local historic arcana is unparalleled. Or I could walk along the Irish Border with Colm Toibin, whose flawless use of language is used to show, not tell. But Mark Mason is no Palin, Sinclair or Toibin. He is prissy and judgemental; his trivia is superficial and probably came out of Schott’s Miscellany; and his writing is clunky. He tries so hard to be wry but it falls flat. He finds irony where there is no irony; he finds meaning where there is no meaning. And most of all, it is so repetitive. Each walk starts out with earnest but dull observation of the tiniest details of his surroundings. No shop is too small to mention; no station too bland to describe. After taking half the chapter to travel the first four stations, then a long conversation, the remaining stations are barely mentioned. Whitechapel to Upminster in half a page. This is a big failing since most readers will be Londoners looking for some kind of namecheck for their own station. And after reading pages of loving description of Wimbledon or Morden, it’s a bit galling to find your own Bromley-By-Bow or Totteridge & Whetstone dismissed as a passing mention, sharing a sentence with other stations. It’s as though Mark Mason has bored himself with the walk. And as line after line is paraded, Mason feels the need to inject novelty for its own sake. The Circle Line is done as a pub crawl – in which he is abandoned by his travelling companion. The Jubilee Line is done at night, thereby guaranteeing that nothing of interest will be seen and nobody of interest will be met. The final line – the Metropolitan – was done at Christmas, in the snow. Mark Mason keeps namechecking Geoff Nicholson’s novel, Bleeding London, which was about a man who wanted to walk every street in London. Indeed, Nicholson flies in from Los Angeles to meet Mason on one of the walks. It is clear that the Underground project was inspired by Bleeding London, but the frequent name checks just make Mason’s book look two dimensional. Nicholson’s novel may have mentioned maps and walking, but it was about people, not buildings. It was the story that mattered, and Walk The Lines has no story. The high point of the book, such as it is, is the appearance of Bill Drummond, erstwhile member of the KLF. Drummond is a conceptual artist who has more ideas in his little finger than Mason packs into a book – and his concept of a Cake Circle is really quite wonderful. If Cake Circles appeal, then this is your book. Otherwise, try Bleeding London. Or Pole to Pole. Or Lights Out For The Territory. **000
  11. The Embassy of Cambodia is ultra-short - perhaps only a tenth of a standard novel. But it's not a short story or even a novella. It stands, structurally, as a novel with both character and plot progression, chapters and backstory. But all in miniature. The novel opens with some observations about Willesden and the Cambodian Embassy in a general, everyman point of view. Very soon, however, the focus narrows to Fatou, an Ivoirean migrant who is working as, it seems, trafficked labour for a wealthy Pakistani family. Fatou has a naturally optimistic and phlegmatic disposition that means she tends to minimise her own troubles whilst thinking of others who are less fortunate. And on her journey from Cote D'Ivoire through Nigeria, Libya, Italy and into London she has seen some people who really are in a worse situation. The Cambodian Embassy is a source of mystery. It has high walls, over the top of which a shuttlecock can be seen, shuttling back and forth. Although Fatou and the other local residents know a little of the genocide under the Khmer Rouge, they know little of the modern country and have little idea, even, of what Cambodians look like. Fatou knows that the genocide was like her life in reverse image - with urbanites forced to migrate to the country to work the land - but seems to have little conception of the horrors behind that policy. Instead, the Embassy represents a land of mystery and intrigue, hidden from view but with a promise of a different, perhaps better life. Much of this little novel deals with outsiders, each with different and limited access privileges to various settings. Fatou's one freedom, for example, is to abuse her employers' guest passes to a private swimming pool and health club. She is able to come and go as she pleases, but is less able to grant access to others. Her friend, Andrew, is a Nigerian student who has access to the Internet and money to buy food in a Tunisian cafe. Her employers, the Derawals, have access to money and power yet, one imagines, find barriers themselves in a white British society. Although Fatou is in a bad situation, vulnerable and abused, she has hope and determination. The novel is not bleak and, in fact, is quite hopeful. Some of that hope is represented in the Embassy - a future world that is unknown but that promises much. For such a short book, Zadie Smith packs in a heck of a lot. As a hardback book, it is a small and beautiful thing. As an e-book, it I can be sold at a price point that reflects its brevity. It would be a mistake to judge it purely on the cost per word; it has a beauty and integrity that much longer books fail to deliver. But at the same time, do be aware that this is not a full length work. *****
  12. It's Monday morning and Mr Phillips puts on his suit, takes his briefcase and heads off for the station for his daily commute into London. The thing is, Mr Phillips lost his job on Friday. Mr Phillips is a man caught in the wrong era. He was perfectly crafted for the 1970s - sexist, lazy, conservative. Unfortunately, he finds himself out-evolved in the 1990s, 50 years old and trained in yesterday's accountancy skills. He has spent his life wearing blinkers, going to work, coming home, reluctantly raising children and avoiding his neighbours. In this novel, John Lanchester lets us see the Monday through Mr Phillips's eyes, giving us an interior soundtrack of Mr Phillips's brain. It's actually a revelation. Yes, there's heaps of sex - or fantasies of sex because, as Mr Phillips explains, if you put a penny in a jar for every time you did it in the first year together and then took a penny out every time you did it after that, the jar would never empty. In fact, Mr Phillips spends much of his time working out little mathematical puzzles including the amount of downtime he will have in his life and the time before each lottery draw he should buy a ticket to have the probability of hitting the jackpot exceed the probability of dying before the draw. Having decided to set out for the city as though going to work, Mr Phillips inevitably has to break out of his rut - since his rut has made him redundant. This gives him a chance to notice things he has never noticed before. He notices parks, tennis players (of the female persuasion), sex clubs, bus routes, people. He has a whole series of new experiences, most of which he struggles to ignore. Mr Phillips doesn't actually want the freedom he has suddenly acquired whilst, paradoxically, not seeming to be overly concerned at his unemployment. If you wanted a classic diagnosis, you'd have to say Mr Phillips is in extreme denial. What makes the novel work is the counterpoint between an unlikeable man at the personal level, and the unpleasant traits of London and wider society laid out for analysis and dissection. You can see the greed, the lack of morality, the extreme politics, the general decadence and the white vans. All the while, set in a place where everybody judges everyone else on their relative wealth and/or status. Or, perhaps more accurately, where everyone assumes that other people are judging them on these grounds when, in fact, nobody is noticing them at all. Mr Phillips is not really a plot novel. Things happen, but there's no connecting narrative drive although there are hints of Ulysses about the pointless journey and filling of time. Mostly, it is a character driven novel that relies on the humour and understatement of the narrative. Plus, there's the Salmon of Wisdom. ****0
  13. It seems some members of London's Orthodox Jewish community didn't like The Marrying of Chani Kaufman. I'm guessing they weren't meant to. This is a (mostly) very funny novel that is, literally, about the marriage of Chani Kaufman to her approved fiancé Baruch Levy. Chani is excited about the wedding but in fear of the wedding night. She has led a sheltered life, the daughter of a Rabbi in a strict Orthodox community. No television; no boys; no trendy clothes; no university. The novel then pans back and we see how Chani came to be getting married; we see into the lives of her family and the Levys; we see into the life of Baruch's best friend Avromi and his family - and his father just happens to be the rabbi who is going to officiate at Chani and Baruch's wedding. What we find does not make for happy reading. There are layers of ritual - depicted by Eve Harris as pointless and even damaging. There is denial of reality. There is hypocrisy. And overwhelmingly, there is sweet food. Life is a constant and arduous preparation for the Sabbath, the day the Jewish community will be busily resting. Everything is a constant rush to be ready for the start of Sabbath, the moment at which all tools must be downed, all activities ceased, and everyone will have fun. Yes, through gritted teeth, they *will* have fun. Eve Harris portrays a community leading dull lives, plenty of privations, and generally levels of tat and decay. Plus very sweet food. Nothing seems to be new and shiny apart from the honey glaze on assorted cakes. Even the wealthy Levys seem to have a Spartan quality to their palatal, leather-suited living spaces. There is an eternal feel to their world. This, of course, turns out to be a bit of a sham. It seems that many of the ultra-pious couples are denying their own children the fun that they themselves had enjoyed in more debauched times. Like Isaac, they are willing to sacrifice their children on the altar of a guilty past. The story is not unfamiliar. Fans of Fiddler on the Roof will recognise many of the set plays. What sets The Marrying of Chani Kaufman apart is the wit. Eve Harris has a talent for pithy one liners; piercingly sarcastic lines and put downs. Obviously, Ms Harris has a particular viewpoint that colours everything she writes, but she does it so well. Her characters may seem to be cartoony stereotypes, but they are endearing and thoughtful. They are allowed conflicting emotions, frailties. And there are real questions posed by this racial group that chooses a life of isolation and separation from mainstream society. Would London be as accommodating if it were a different religious or racial group seeking to live in such an enclave? *****
  14. Living in London is a strange experience. There's a feeling of loneliness and isolation, coupled with a belief that everyone else you see is coping much better. Everyone else seems to be busy, in company, with enough money and contacts to access a social life. In Londoners, Craig Taylor interviews 80 people who live or have lived in London (plus a Geordie) and gets their very different perspectives. But for most of them, there is a common sense that they are struggling to survive in a city that is bigger than them. The isolation and loneliness comes through in many of the interviews. Perhaps I wasn't the only one who felt the way I did. Craig Taylor does an excellent job in packaging the interviews around common themes, often following one interview with another that either addresses a point raised in the interview before or, perhaps, offers a polar opposite view. The overall feel is like those nostalgia TV programmes where celebrities do talking heads pieces to cameras, conveniently remembering some programme or artefact from 30 years ago with perfect clarity. The comments are mostly a little bit offbeat, occasionally eccentric, but do feel quite "processed". Craig Taylor's role is, for the most part, unseen. However, some of the interviews have the occasional scene setting in italics, talking about the pub or cafe where the interview is being conducted or, in one case, mentioning a toilet break. It's a useful device for reminding the reader of the nature of the interviews but Craig Taylor does well to avoid introducing his story into these snippets. Taylor has his own introduction, but apart from that, he lets the city and its people tell their own story. There are some absolute gems in the interviews. Each reader will have his or her own favourites, but I loved the badinage between three black barristers discussing their wigs and the nature of different juries. Some of their views were quite cynical, but probably 100% accurate. Race inevitably crops up in many interviews. In particular, there was a lot of mention of the Eastern European migrants that had come to the city in the past 10 years or so. There were few interviews with Eastern Europeans, leaving them as this large, offstage group that affected others' views. This had the interesting effect of making the Asian/Bangladeshi communities (the previous migrant group) look long-established and accepted. The interviewees mostly conveyed a sense of optimism and adventure. Living in London was seen as a bit like wrestling with a tiger - getting to grips with something bigger and stronger than yourself; ultimately doomed to fail but exhilarating whilst trying. And, as with my own personal experience of London, most interviewees seemed to talk and live their jobs first, and the city second - but with little mention of personal relationships. Yet for all the concentration on work, few (if any) seemed satisfied. As one of the final interviewees notes, London is so diverse that even if you succeed in doing something or living in a particular place, there are lots of alternative jobs or locations you could have gone for instead. There's a constant sound of "if only". ****0
  15. G. K. Chesterton’s ‘The Napolean of Notting Hill’ was one of those free books that I downloaded in the first enthusiastic flush of having a Kindle. I enjoyed ‘A Man called Thursday’ a while back so decided to give this a go. For me, it didn’t measure up to ‘A Man Called Thursday’ but it has its place in time. Written in 1904, Chesterton set the book in the future, in 1984. He is reputed to have given George Orwell (Eric Blair) a break by publishing an essay in in his magazine. Most of us are familiar with Orwell’s 1984. Chesterton’s future, though, includes no major technological differences and life on the surface seems very much the same as his own in 1904, but there are political and sociological differences. Chesterton ridicules the politics and philosophies of his time by exaggerating them, showing the absurdity of their extremes. People have not changed, but in some respects they have given in. Democracy has not been attained and most have given up trying for it. Government is run smoothly by the middle and upper classes without any disruptions from party politics or elections and most of the population are indifferent to it all. The monarchy is no longer hereditary, but a king as still necessary, as a figurehead, to get legislation through. He is chosen randomly from the people. Life is mostly peaceful, respectable, boring, dull and apathetic and anyone with a little colour to them stands out. Auberon Quin is one of these. He longs to break free and have fun, just to have a laugh. Then, just as he starts to do this, a new king is chosen and life changes for a large part of London, not least a redefining of the place-names. There are several battles, but, although they are bloody and people die, they are not really gory, they read more like play scripts, including a few Shakespearian-type speeches or campaign notes, dealing with strategy rather than feelings, emotion and pain. There is a map in the book, but it wasn’t very clear on my kindle so I looked it up on computer several times. Chesterton writes eloquently and his prose flows making the reading a pleasure. I enjoyed the humour and I liked the absurdity of the whole thing. In the past I have read that he wrote in paradoxes and I have also read that that statement belittles Chesterton’s thinking. I haven’t studied him enough to know, but I did find that he set me thinking in paradoxes. For example, I usually hold that I don’t support patriotism or regionalism and nationalism on the grounds that they foster arguments and wars and indeed we see a microcosm of this in the book, but then I do support free thinking and free speech and if that had to be sacrificed to get peace. Would I be looking for new colour in the grey world? Interestingly there are no women as main characters in the book. Neil Gaiman’s ‘Neverwhere’ acknowledges Chesterton as an influence by opening with a quotation from ‘The Napolean of Notting Hill’. He too has a London shaped by place-names and gives a social comment of his own.
  16. I have always liked Ruth Rendell and a friend of mine just finished the book and recommended it very highly. It is not a classic mystery or the portrait of a psychopath in the typical Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine mold. Instead, it is the ultimately-interwoven story of many different people who live just off the Portobello Road in London. The main characters occupy two different ends of the financial spectrum: Eugene Wren is a very affluent art dealer with an all-consuming addiction to a particular brand of sugar-free sweets called "Chocoranges." Lance Platt is a young man living off the dole and anyone who will give him a place to live and something to eat, no matter how revolting either of them is, in order to avoid even having to look for a job. But at least he's not addicted to anything. There are also: Lance's ex-girlfriend and her son, unexpectedly named Aberlard (which cracked me up), and her new boyfriend and his lowlife friend; Lance's Uncle Gib, a born-again former career criminal (theft, not murder or anything like that); Joel Roseman, a most unfortunate young man, and sweet Ella, Eugene's long-suffering girlfriend and the doctor for both Lance's ex-girlfriend and Joel, along with other more minor characters. The book tells the story of how these characters come together and what happens because of their encounters. It is extremely readable and in its observations of how people mess up their lives and fix them again, very touching. I recommend it very highly unless you can't stand a little bit of (okay, a lot of) farce in your "slice of life" stories.
  17. Long Walk to Wimbledon was first published in 1978 and it is very much of its time. The second world war was still a real memory and doom-mongers predicted a breakdown of law and order whenever there was a strike or a riot. Post apocalyptic novels abounded. This is very much of the JG Ballard ilk - High Rise or Concrete Island. We have a semi-deserted London populated by the last few, frightened residents scavenging for food and warmth, packs of hunting dogs, rats, army checkpoints, psychos... Our hero Mark has to negotiate the terrain on a mission to say goodbye to his dying ex-wife, routing from Highgate to Wimbledon, on foot. Keating presents a wonderful and plausible image of ruined London. You can sense the barricades, you feel the menace pouring out of dark doorways. And some of the characters Mark meets along the way are simply gorgeous. But, alas, Mark himself is dull. There is little attempt made to give him a character, he is simply a screen onto which other characters can project. If there is an allegory to be drawn, it is the struggle we all face when we first leave the family home and strike out on a life of our own. It can be frightening, bewildering and lonely. The sense of comfort and security of childhood never really comes back, but with the fear comes freedom. In a sense, we watch Mark forced out of his comfort zone and into the world beyond. Sure, it feels dated and one can pick holes in the plot and spot inconsistencies if one wants. But for all that, it is a short and engrossing novel. We do want to find out whether Mark makes it - a sense heightened by the introduction of a ticking clock. There are moments of surprise and shock along the way. A Long Walk To Wimbledon is not the best novel ever written but it is certainly worth having a look at. ***00
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