Monthly Archives: November 2013

MR PHILLIPS by John Lanchester

When I was growing up I was forever being told I had no sense of humour. With hindsight, I think it’s just because I wasn’t amused by what those around me found funny (Benny Hill, The Two Ronnies, Morecambe and Wise…) but it’s still the case that I often can’t see the humour in things – or even that they are meant to be funny. I really didn’t get that The Office was comedy, for example, until someone pointed it out… This book is a case in point. The reviews on the back cover mention its “comic genius”, that it’s “exceptionally funny”, that each page is bursting “with comedy which is rich and humane”. Yet although much of it made me smile, and there are some truly laugh out loud moments, overall I found it sad rather than funny.

It’s a Monday and we meet Mr Phillips made redundant the Friday before. He hasn’t told his wife or sons yet, so gets up, as normal, takes his briefcase and leaves the house for the day. Out in the world, rather than at his desk being an accountant, Mr Phillips encounters all kinds of different people and situations, which move him to reflect on the world and his part in it. There’s a pornographer hanging out in Battersea Park, a blonde TV celebrity with whom Mr Phillips is rather obsessed, a tramp and teenage girl who start kissing on the bus and turn out to be actors in a piece of street theatre, bank robbers in crash helmets, the widower of Mr Phillips’s former RE teacher who lives just a stones throw away, and an overly friendly regular at the Tate Gallery. There’s also a running commentary on all Mr Phillips sees, what it reminds him of – usually sex – and what he’s thinking. The book is peppered with Mr Phillips’s complicated mathematical calculations, including how often everyone is having sex, and when’s the best time to buy a lottery ticket bearing in mind the chances of winning weighted against the chances of dropping down dead before you manage to claim your fortune. It’s a portrait both of one man’s internal life – and the real achievement of this novel is Lanchester’s creation of a character whose thoughts, hopes, ponderings and desires are so detailed, so private and yet so recognisable – and, at the same time, a portrait of “ordinary” London where all sorts of things are happening if you are open to their possibility.

The sadness for me came from the sense of a life defined by the mundane, closed off and routine. A rich internal life that hasn’t really connected with the external world. But this feeling lifts as the book goes on and Mr Phillips starts to interact with London rather than just being an observer. He stands up to the bank robbers, speaks to his neighbours and sees the familiar  from a different perspective. As he returns home after a day on the streets, he hasn’t yet made up his mind what to tell Mrs Phillips about his job, but there’s a wonderful sense of hope and possibility in the closing line. “He has no idea what will happen next” it reads, and neither do we for much of this book and certainly when we close its final pages. That’s an enormous part of the appeal and, although I didn’t enjoy this as much as Capital, it certainly lives up to one of the reviews on the back cover – “an inspired daydream”.

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Filed under biographical, comedy

INSTRUCTIONS FOR A HEATWAVE by Maggie O’Farrell

Some people I know only read books written by women. I think this is the reason why. It’s so warm, compassionate, big hearted and kind, like being held by your mother, and not something I can conceive of a man writing.  It’s summer 1976 and the country is in the midst of a heatwave. Gretta Riordan’s husband left the house to buy a newspaper and hasn’t come back.As Gretta’s children rally round to comfort their mother and try to find their father, all sorts of temperatures are rising. Sibling rivalry, old secrets and misunderstandings surface in the cracks opening up in their lives and it seems very likely that this family will never quite recover from the time Mr Riordan walked out on them. O’Farrell depiction of their unravelling is masterful. She’s generous without being sentimental, probing without being too forensic. I’ve often been known to vent about books that leave ends untied and advised by those who mind less that it’s a chance for your own imagination to take over. With this book I can see what they mean. So much is left unsaid and so many possibilities remain open. The instructions of the title turn out to be this: there’s no set of instruction that will get you though a crisis other than to remember who you love. The love in this book is palpable, despite all the pain and wrangling that makes up the story, and despite the fact that it’s never really talked about. It’s just there, like a mother should be, like the heat is on a summer’s day, sometimes overwhelming and even stifling, but missed once its gone.

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TANGLEWRECK by Jeanette Winterson

This book is possibly all that a children’s book should be. It’s got time travel, a wicked step aunt, white rabbits that talk, science that stretches your mind and black holes that stretch your limbs.  There’s a plot that takes in ancient Egypt, Dickensian London and a futuristic planet with 3 moons and a replica Vatican City. It has daring acrobatics on Tower Bridge,  a double decker bus full of children swept away by a time tornado, and a comedy pair of brutes called Thugger and Fisty.

Centre stage is a genuinely brave, true and kind girl named Silver who is the subject of a mysterious prophecy involving a clock known as the Timekeeper. Both Regalia Mason, head of a powerful company called Quantum, and clock collector, Abel Darkwater, want to get their hands on Silver and the Timekeeper, believing they hold secrets that can be exploited to their own selfish ends. Silver has to work out who to trust and how best to protect the future, as she  embarks on a dangerous journey during which she learns that love is the only thing that travels faster than the speed of light.

There’s many parallels with other great children’s stories, such as the Northern Lights trilogy, but  Winterson’s language makes this book sing in a way that nothing else I’ve ever read for children of this age does. The title alone gives you a clue. Tanglewreck, the only home Silver has ever known and the refuge to which she returns in her mind whenever things get too much, is a play on the word rectangle and a perfect example of Winterson turning things on their head. Familiar and at the same time unfamiliar, Tanglewreck’s about being eleven, daring to imagine the unimaginable, letting go of everything you know whilst holding on to what’s most important, and, above all about how to outsmart the grown ups. As I said, everything a children’s book should be.

 

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Filed under drama, fantasy, historical, sci-fi

SHARP OBJECTS by Gillian Flynn

About a third of the way through this novel I was suddenly struck by its resemblance to another book. I wracked my brains only to realise that it was reminding me of Flynn’s runaway success GONE GIRL. Superficially they are very different and this didn’t grip me from the outset in quite the same way. Yet when it comes to toxic relationships, stifling small town America and psychological punch in the stomach SHARP OBJECTS has much in common with Flynn’s second novel. Camille is a journalist, sent to her childhood town of Windy Gap to investigate a potential serial killer whose two victims are young girls found with all their teeth pulled out. As she reveals the town’s secrets, Camille’s own buried past resurfaces, exposing the emotional and physical damage caused by a dysfunctional family and by teenage behaviour that makes the girls in the film Heathers look benign. Scarred from years of cutting herself and being bullied, Camille is a very powerful narrator. We witness her desperate unravelling, her self-destructive desire for acceptance and her vulnerability. As she drinks herself into oblivion, she describes how she wills each day to pass as that means she’s 24 hours closer to the day she never has to wake up again. Yet it’s Camille’s  courage and compassion that allow her alone to see what’s really going on in the close knit Windy Gap community and why young girls are at such incredible risk. Macabre, chilling and claustrophobic, SHARP OBJECTS got right under my skin and in many ways is even better than GONE GIRL because its subtler and the main protagonist elicits our sympathy. In fact all that lets its down is the anticipation of a clever twist that meant I too easily guessed where the plot was headed.

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Filed under drama, thriller

THE UNDERSTUDY by David Nicholls

When I first read this several years ago I was disappointed – I was expecting it to be as good as ONE DAY and it just isn’t. But on this re-reading I got much more from the book, especially the humour. It’s the story of Stephen McQueen who has spent his life being mediocre at all his endeavours; as an actor, a husband and as a father. He never gets the breaks, his career centres around playing passers by or corpses, and he lives in the flat from hell, without even a fridge. It doesn’t help that Stephen’s always having to explain that he’s not THE Steve McQueen and is currently understudy to the 12th sexiest man in the world, Josh Harper. So when Josh invites Stephen to a birthday party, he thinks his luck might finally be changing – until he turns up and realises that the invite was for him to wait tables and serve drinks. Stephen gets very drunk in response, pocketing Josh’s Oscar and some of the star’s much prized Star Wars memorabilia. The evening’s not a complete wipe out though, as he meets Nora, Josh’s American wife, with whom Stephen falls gradually but totally in love.  When Stephen finds out that Josh is cheating on his wife he faces a terrible dilemma – to tell Nora or to strike a deal with Josh that would see the understudy step into the limelight for the first time in his life.

As the archetypal  anti-hero, Stephen is sent up with tenderness and affection, whilst Josh is the caricature of a spoilt celebrity, saved from being one dimensional thanks to Nicholl’s adeptness.  Nora’s the perfect foil to both men. Funny and sad in equal measure, this book is packed full of the author’s trademark excruciating descriptions of people digging bigger and bigger holes for themselves. These deliver several laugh out loud moments and, when combined with a suitably happy ending,  make THE UNDERSTUDY the perfect antidote to the encroaching autumnal gloom outside.

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THE MIDNIGHT PALACE by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

I had heard of this writer but didn’t realise that he wrote primarily for young adults until I read the back of this book, found on the second hand shelves of my local book shop. I really enjoyed it although it does feel aimed at a slightly younger audience than the usual teen fiction I read. It’s a ghost story centred around twins, Ben and Sheere, separated at birth to protect them from a vengeful father. He grows up in an orphanage alongside a loyal and trusted, group of friends, whilst she lives with her grandmother, forever moving on and hiding from the past. When the two turn 16 and their paths accidentally cross, they have no choice but to confront the curse placed upon them all those years ago. Set in Calcutta in the early part of the 20th century, this novel crackles with dark secrets and one man’s fury. It’s hugely atmospheric, with a haunted partially destroyed railway station taking centre stage alongside the midnight palace of the title – a deserted ramshackle building used by the orphans as a secret hideaway. The plot unfolds with all the force of the runaway train carriage that appears in several scenes, culminating in an electric finale, that sadly plays to every stereotype and sees Ben battling demons whilst his sister Sheere offers herself up as a sacrifice. That aside, this is a lyrical and unusual ghost story and one which made my spine tingle, something not many books have ever achieved.

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Filed under drama, fantasy, historical