Monday, 10 June 2013

Goodbye Iain Banks | Scottish author of The Wasp Factory, Culture, The Crow Road

The end when it came was far more sudden, far swifter than anyone had thought. Ian Rankin, his friend and fellow Fifer, in a touching, off the cuff,passionate tribute, told the BBC news last night that even as recently as last Tuesday doctors had told the author that he had months rather than weeks to live. It turned out to be days.

Banks was 59. A prolific novelist, he has written science fiction and ‘mainstream’ novels since his early twenties – his breakthrough, The Wasp Factory, was published when he was just 29. He was a storyteller first and foremost, which is perhaps why he was never feted by the literary judges. His fans loved him, forgave him, delighted in his success when he got things right. The comments on social media over the past 24 hours have been telling: Banks wrote about a world people recognised as their own time and place.

North of the border this meant a lot. Banks’ novels with their Scottish settings, accents and colour offered his fellow countrymen a strong sense of identity in a culture that was otherwise dominated by American TV and film; not to mention a London-centric culture.

His Scottishness might have been off-putting to those who didn’t come from the land of his beloved whisky – but the opposite was the case. If anything it made him more endearing.

Neil Gaiman: He was one of us
One of the most moving pieces about him I’ve read this morning is Neil Gaiman’s in the Guardian. There’s a degree of respect there, of love, even though the pair were, as Gaiman puts it, not strictly speaking that close.

Gaiman is English-born, American-based, but Banks was “one of us”, noting: “If you've never read any of his books, read one of his books. Then read another. Even the bad ones were good, and the good ones were astonishing.”

I interviewed Banks a year ago, on the phone, about his thenlatest novel Stonemouth, for the Big Issue’s books pages. It’s a brief article and one that didn’t really do him justice. But at the time it wasn’t Iain Banks The Author we were talking about it, was simply The Latest Iain Banks Book, and I’d never have held it up as one of his best.

That said, there was something about Stonemouth, as Gaiman says, that makes it worth the read. And you felt reading it that this was the same man who had written The Crow Road, The Bridge and The Wasp Factory. There was a heart to it along with the darkness. It suggested there was more to come…

Just two books have followed. The first was his last Culture novel, The Hydrogen Sonata, and now this month we get The Quarry, which focuses on a boy whose father is dying of cancer. Yeah. Worth reading. Expect a lot more heart.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

A26 | Roadkill | Pascal Garnier

Pascal Garnier’s The A26... this is literary fiction with a hapless, desperate serial killer.

At first I didn’t think it really came off. We’re introduced to Yolande and Bernard, a peculiar brother and sister who live together in a small town outside Paris. Yolande hasn’t left the house in years – not since the end of the second world war. Her brother has just discovered he is dying, which spurs him, oddly, into a killing spree.

At first Garnier seems intent on playing this for laughs as if the victims are utterly meaningless and that jars a bit.

But as the book went on it began to really grip me. The truth that is revealed is that for these Frenchmen and women the war has never really ended, and they are the poorer for it.

Pow! First impressions of a controversial Chinese literary POWerhouse

Thinking about it, 2013 has to be the ideal time to focus on the big wide world. The last twelve months have, after all, been so bloody British: Jubilee, Olympics, about a dozen pageants, Dickens, Shakespeare, even Scottish independence. There were entire weeks when you wondered if the rest of the globe had shut down completely.

So it’s a relief to pick up a book and travel without leaving your armchair – and a good novel is better than the average airport departure lounge or hotel swimming pool. A trip to China? I was sceptical of reading my first Mo Yan, what with his comments about Chinese state censorship which led to Salman Rushdie calling him a “patsy”. Ouch. But Pow! is a pleasant surprise. A strange, dirty, picaresque novel that struck me as entirely political and hugely critical of Chinese society.

I’m no Mo Yan expert (who is?). But it’s worth recalling that much of what we now consider our own great art was written under British state censorship – Shakespeare included – both moral and political. This isn’t to excuse China’s one party state, but surely each individual artist must address the realities of his time, and work within them, if he is to be heard at all.

And Pow! doesn’t read like an apology for anyone. Told in a complex fashion in two parallel narratives by Luo Xiatong, aged ten and twenty, it describes a corrupt, rural village which to some extent could be anywhere, east or west, in the past three centuries. It’s shocking that this is actually a description of China as recently as the 1990s: a time when its peasant communist society was being swept aside by the crudest most amoral brand of capitalism. The village makes its money from selling meat, any meat – beef, pork, camel, dog, you name it – which the butchers pump with water and formaldehyde to boost profit.

I found it didn’t matter that the book’s construction was a bit strange and rambling. I was travelling an alien landscape and I’d take whatever was coming. What I got was part social commentary, part satire... and a lot of stuff about meat and sex. Yes, the world’s new superpower is eating a lot of pork. But is Mo Yan worth his Nobel? Is anyone?

An Elk is for life, not just for Christmas... Doppler

The cover of Doppler by Erlend Loe comes with a neat little tagline: “An elk is for life... not just for Christmas.”

John Lewis, eat your heart out. But clearly we are in Norway, where elk roam free. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Scandinavia and seen one but a few years ago I drove past several while in Sweden and marvelled at their big dopy faces, loping walk, and vast antlers. If the elk was a Coen Brothers movie it would be The Big Lebowski.

Doppler is middle aged, his father has just died, and he’s fallen off his bike. So he leaves his comfortable Oslo home, takes a tent and heads off to live in the woods, “adopts” an elk calf and calls him Bongo.
He stays put for over a year, carves a totem pole and becomes the focal point of an ad hoc all-male, tree-hugging cult. “The forest is gentle and friendly,” he says at one point, like a Nordic Obi Wan. “It’s the sea which is fickle. And the mountains. But the forest is predictable and less confusing than almost every other place.”

The whole thing is funny and a touch dark. Norwegians seem to have an endearing offbeat humour these days – the tone isn’t unlike Lillyhammer, the Steven Van Zandt comedy BBC4 ran recently – perhaps due to being fabulously rich thanks to all their oil. (Notably, this book’s satire dates from 2004, before the credit crunch, austerity and the squeezed middle.)

It’s charming. And it made me think: Doppler’s decision to live in a forest really isn’t so crazy. In fact, it is kind of extraordinary that more men don’t follow his lead. That the woods aren’t stuffed full of middle-aged IT workers, accountants and company directors who, like him, have grown fed up of the routine drudge, their wives’ moods, and the sound of the Teletubbies on TV. Men who only really want their own company. And to urinate in the open air.

Another short novel that caught my eye for entirely different reasons was The Black Lake by Hella S. Haase. A Dutch writer I’ve been meaning to introduce myself to for a while, she writes about her country’s colonial history. She died in 2011 and this novel actually dates back to 1948, but the translation is as fresh and as current as any Booker nominee.

Haase’s young narrator grows up in Java in the 1920s and 30s, his distant plantation owning parents a mystery, his only friend Oeroeg, the native son of the estate’s foreman. As the boys get older they become aware of the racial and cultural divisions which eventually will tear their world apart. It’s barely a hundred pages but beautifully judged, and a genuinely intriguing insight into the end of a European empire.

All of which has nothing whatsoever to do with tennis, the subject of the first essay in Both Flesh And Not by David Foster Wallace. You’ve heard of him: friend of Jonathan Franzen; highly regarded in America’s literary circles; dead at 46, having committed suicide following a long battle with depression.

These essays span two decades, and range from some thoughts about Terminator 2 to a list of under rated American novels. (Including Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, of which all he says is “Don’t even ask”.)

The most enjoyable is about watching Roger Federer play tennis and dates from 2006, when the Swiss was at the height of his domination. It manages to be detailed, strangely moving, and highly readable.
But no elks.

Doppler by Erlend Loe (Head of Zeus, £7.99)

Friday, 23 November 2012

SAS man hits the high street | Theo Knell struggles to adjust

If there is ever an invasion.... I want TheoKnell on my side.

Theo served with the British Army, including the SAS, for 22 years. A Hell for Heroes is his attempt to give an honest account of army life and very importantly, life after the army.

It’s a fascinating read, warts and all – covering service in Ireland and Africa - which will leave you with deep respect for the military. Even Paras puke with fear, but they jump just the same.

People like Theo are fitter, tougher and more capable than 99% of civilians could ever be. They can load weapons under fire, run 40 miles, cure a village of dysentery and perform surgery, as and when required.  

But when they are thrown out into Civvy Street, all the structure, camaraderie and usefulness is gone, leaving a terrible vacuum.

For Theo, that was when the nightmare of post-traumatic stress disorder began. He found it hard to land even the most menial of jobs: a leader of men it took him years to find his feet. He urges the services to do more to make the transition from military life to civilian life better. They should.

CJ Sansom | Dominion | Nazis in Great Britain

He is best known for his historical detective series starring the Tudor hunchback, Shardlake – think Wolf Hall crossed with Inspector Morse. But with Dominion, CJ Sansom takes history by the neck and sends it flying. “What if,” he’s asking, “Germany hadn’t lost the war?”

We’ve been here before. The author has already highlighted two influences in Len Deighton’s SS-GB and Robert Harris’ Fatherland. But Sansom has a different approach and the result is a highly entertaining, thought-provoking page-turner.

His scenario is that when Chamberlain resigns as PM in 1940, Churchill is sidelined. Winston wasn’t really the favourite at the time, so perhaps it isn’t that big a stretch to imagine Lord Halifax, the senior Tory, squeezing him out. Sansom argues in a lengthy historical note at the back of the book, that had this happened Britain would have likely sued for peace and learned to live with the Nazis.

The consequences of this become clear as we flash forward to a fictional 1952, where Sansom weaves a story of resistance fighters, spies and Gestapo detectives. It hangs together, just about, and certainly kept me gripped. There’s a large cast, but it is handled well, with plenty of time taken to make you care about each character, just enough. Sansom manages another trick too: he is able to remind you why Nazis are so scary 
– capturing both their deranged logic, and their cruelty – while avoiding the worst stereotypes.

He’s clearly done his research: barely a page goes by without some sort of clever twist on reality. The newspaper magnate Lord Beaverbrook has become a Nazi-sympathising PM, Enoch Powell is in the Indian Office, the fascist leader Oswald Mosley – who in reality spent the war in prison – in the Home Office.

As a Scot, Sansom saves some of his most vitriolic contempt for the Scottish Nationalists – having one character note how they voted against conscription at the start of WW2 – which they did, in 1939. And in his lengthy historical note he brands the SNP “dangerous... shrewd political manipulators”, an outburst that has already earned him column inches north of the border.

Actually, I thought at times the author dwelt a little too much on his re-writing of history, allowing his characters to discuss events a bit too often. But the plotting is both complex and well paced. Yes, there’s a sort of ITV drama feel – perhaps because the prose comes without F or C-words, explicit sex scenes and the violence is never overwhelming. In fact, everything is somehow quite proper, like a 1950s black and white movie. But that will only help it, deservedly, find a big audience.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Tulisa Honest My Story So Far | Celebrity Biographies, two for a pound | Oh no, it's Christmas

You can tell it’s getting close to Christmas from the glossy tell-alls piling up in the shops. Out of the current top ten hardback non-fiction chart no fewer than six titles are celebrity memoirs.

Getting well groomed, expensively dressed actor and singer types to turn up at the annual staff barbecue is a nice bonus for publishers, but the real reason these books exist is that folks like Cheryl Cole have the kinds of fanbases mere fiction authors can only dream of.

Consider: 12 million people watch The X-Factor. So if just ten percent stumble into a shop and accidentally buy Tulisa’s new book... kerching!

Be warned though. Sleb books (as I shall now irritate you by calling them) come in two broad categories. There is highly rare but prized “great story involving a Sleb”. Remember Richard Hammond from Top Gear writing about the crash that nearly killed him? Corking stuff. Sold a shed-load. But the follow up in which he mused about stunt biker Eval didn’t.

Which brings us to the common or garden “Sleb in search of a story, any story”.

Take Miranda Hart for instance. If you love her BBC1 comedy series, ahem, Miranda, and many apparently do, then I guess you might well get a kick from Is It Just Me? in which said famously tall person discusses life themes with her 18 year old self. (Yup. She really does.)

Literary types might suspect the well-educated Ms Hart (she went to boarding school and played Lacrosse) is channelling not just the classic dialogues of Plato and Aristotle, but also Tristram Shandy, the celebrated 18th century meta-novel which spends most of its time worrying about how to begin. She even addresses us as My Dear Reader Chum or MDRC for short. But ol’ Shandy just wasn’t as “hilaire”, a term that crops up a lot, as ol’ Miranda.

A lot of Hart’s comedy is based on embarrassment, but the embarrassment that oozed from these pages was that of an otherwise talented performer and writer who had a highly lucrative contract to deliver a book when she had very little to put in it.

Perhaps Miranda is too young, at 37, to have a proper biography or a memoir in her. But then there’s Tulisa, who has just published Honest at the grand old age of 24. And it’s packed with... stuff. No Lacrosse jolly sticks here: Tulisa grew up in gritty North West London, lost her virginity at 14, and was a pop star about five minutes later. She likes to “get up to mischief”, a phrase she actually uses, and the detail, as you would expect, is fairly intense: “Chapter Five: After my success in Bugsy Malone at primary school, I was determined that I would become a recording artist.” Gasp.

High points include going to a strip club with her non-boyfriend record producer (“Of course, the press were all over it”) and how she never slept with Mark Wright from The Only Way is Essex (“Why is it that I can’t be friendly, or even a bit of a flirt with a guy without everyone presuming I banged him?”)

Saturday night TV fans will note that Tulisa is up against Strictly Come Dancing’s Bruno Tonioli, not only as judges on rival shows but on the bookstand, which brings me to one of the few genuinely good reasons to buy Sleb books: embarrassing pictures of the subject’s youth.

Bruno’s pics are particularly hilaire: as a toddler he was clearly rescued from the Italian version of The Addams Family and as a teenager from the Italian version of The Breakfast Club. You’ve never seen so much hair and teeth. Or man nipple. But the actual content? How can I break it to you darling? You write like a moose... doing a tango... wearing a swimsuit... on its head. Pass the sickbag.