Jack Bick is an interview journalist for an upmarket London magazine. He has a good track record, but the magazine seems to be drifting and Jack has the feeling that he's about to be let go. In what he expects to be his last week on the staff, he has two interviews to conduct: Oliver Pierce, a psychogeographical writer who hasn't had a follow-up to his bestselling work some years ago (Jack's idea); and an estate agent/property developer that his editor has told him to interview. Given the two options, Jack opts first for lager (the breakfast of champions) and then for Pierce. He and Pierce go off to explore Barking where a large plume of smoke is visible from all over London.
What follows is a meandering story of alcoholism, the seedy side of London life with dead-end jobs, half-fulfilled ideas and half-built properties. Jack is a whinging and unlikeable man who cadges off other people's goodwill. He is capricious and willing to throw anyone under the bus if there's a drink in it for him.
Plume is probably supposed to be both humorous and some kind of state of the nation piece. Unfortunately, the lack of plot or character development; the repetitiveness; the lack of any obvious motive behind any of the actions makes for quite a long and dull read. Some marks for ideas, the odd set piece and references to tube trains. Unfortunately, this just don't come together in a workable framework. The end, when it comes, goes off in a surreal direction that confuses more than it intrigues.
This is a shame, because Care of Wooden Floors was a superb, focused, funny novel that was well paced and spoke to this reader about the human condition. Plume doesn't.
Cooking With Fernet Branca was long listed for the 2004 Booker Prize and won the BBC's "People's Booker" title. However, Chris Smith, the chair of the panel that year, dismissed it as being "a bit of a one-trick pony". This seems terribly unfair.
The novel is a comic farce, set in Tuscany, where Gerald Samper, a British ghostwriter of sporting 'auto'biographies has set up a pastiche of the rural idyll. He writes by day and cooks by night - he believes himself to be quite the gastronome and intersperses his narratives with recipes that abound with ludicrously large or ludicrously small quantities of ingredients, many of which are ... um... exotic. Gerald is disappointed to find that he has a neighbour, Marta, a Voynovian composer of songs. The humour, chiefly, revolves around the mismatch between the two characters' self perception and their perception of each other. James Hamilton-Paterson manages to keep this up throughout the novel, with neither character getting stale. The more we get to know them, the more we want to know more.
Both Gerald and Marta introduce side-characters who are all, in their own ways, just as grotesque. We have Italian film directors, boy band stars, Eastern European oligarchs, playboys driving sportscars. It's perfect light holiday reading, but working on a number of levels. It's really very clever.
If Cooking With Fernet Branca has a weak spot, it is a rather rushed and chaotic ending - yet not one that is terribly closely related to the farcical misunderstandings. It's more just chaos for its own sake and the novel might have been stronger without it. But this is a minor blemish on an otherwise rather wonderful comic novel. I shall look forward to rejoining Gerald in the sequels in the near future.
Right now I feel inspired to go out and buy a bottle of Fernet Branca. If I don't like drinking it, I could always use it to make ice cream.
Skios is a farce requiring a case of mistaken identity as a guest speaker arrives on Skios to deliver the annual lecture to the Fred Toppler Foundation.
The plot is contrived. It never really pretends not to be. Once the real Dr Wilfred Norman has gone astray everyone conveniently does or says exactly what is required to keep the farce going. That's OK, because what the novel does really well is portray the way the various characters behave and think once they are put in the mind-boggling situation.
We have Nikki Hook, the naïve but scheming Executive Assistant at the foundation; the real Dr Norman, a pompous and boring celebrity academic; Georgie, the lust hungry long-weekender; and the charming, lugubrious Oliver Fox who can sweet talk his way into anywhere and out of anything. We also have a supporting cast of credulous saps who might know they were being hoodwinked if they were a bit less self-conscious and a bit more honest. Plus, two brothers who drive the Skios taxis and hate each other.
I don't want to spoil the fun, but it is a slapstick farce that would probably work well on stage where actors are customarily over the top. The dialogue is spot on and it is all done so neatly and so effortlessly. The one slight limitation is the grand finale when it all descends into chaos. That's the only point at which the novel becomes slightly incoherent and hard to follow.
Overall, Skios is great fun. It probably isn't great literature - though it is really pretty polished if you look closely. It won't give you new insights into the human race but will reflect what you already know into comic relief. It is sun-shiney and will make you laugh. What's not to like?
Almost English is a book about being embarrassed.
It's pretty universal, we are all embarrassed by our relatives. They never quite live up to the image of ourselves that we would like to project. For Marina in Almost English, it is her very Hungarian great aunts (one of whom is actually her grandmother). They speak a different language, have a different set of values and can barely communicate. Marina's mother, Laura, is not quite so Hungarian but is also embarrassing as she sides with the Hungarian aunts.
Of course, this is all seen through the eyes of Marina. For all we know, her relatives might be fantastic - albeit with some very central European ideas about fashion. And because we are all uncomfortable when surrounded by our families - even those who are not Hungarian - we feel Marina's shame.
Aged 16, starting out into the sixth form (year 11 in newspeak), Marina has transferred to a private school with delusions of grandeur. Marina is awed by her more refined co-students and tries to be more like them. In particular, she is fascinated by Guy Viney who seems not to be embarrassed by his family when he really ought to be.
There is a, frankly less interesting, sub-plot featuring Marina's missing father Peter. This feels like a distraction, particularly as the text does not always signpost the transition from main narrative to sub-plot terribly clearly. There is also a bit of confusion with the aunts and their backstory. It probably could be picked apart if anyone wanted, but it's probably easer just to say "it's complicated" and run with it.
On the surface, Almost English is a comic farce. There are comedy accents, slapstick moments, faux pas, misunderstandings aplenty. But underneath that there is a study of class and snobbery; latent racism and belonging. And beneath that, there are the questions of universal familial relationships, fear and isolation as people strike out to become independent, yet still crave the security of the home they are trying to reject.
Almost English is not a long novel and for much of its length, it flies by. Like other farces, though, it goes on just a bit too long and perhaps becomes just a bit too silly. But still good fun overall.