Monday, 18 April 2016

The Dark Philosophers

Title: The Dark Philosophers

Author: Gwyn Thomas

Year of publication: 1946, Library of Wales edition 2005

Back cover blurb: 'Sex, murder and devastating black humour mark these three novellas from the 1940s.  In Oscar, the narrator of death and exploitation fails to fend off the evil that envelopes him.  In Simeon, the abuse of sexual and family power ends with violent death, and in The Dark Philosophers itself, the grimly humorous philosophers gather in an Italian café in the Terraces to tell the dark tale of revenge that they engineer.'

Status: Completed

Reading reveals: Welsh author Gwyn Thomas was once well known, speaking on BBC radio with some regularity.  A high media profile did not guarantee posterity, however (take note, Will Self), and not even a TV drama of his life starring Anthony Hopkins could save him from a slide into near-obscurity.
   I've always imagined the Welsh valleys to generally be places of God-bothering tedium, so the version presented here is quite a surprise.  For a start, everyone is quite horny.  Also, everyone is forced into hard compromises just to stop themselves from sinking under at a time of high unemployment and poverty.  Often, these two things intersect.
   The first story, Oscar, is about a man who owns a mountain and the man who looks after the man who owns the mountain.  It's a disturbing tale of precisely what money will buy you when you've got some and no one else around has.  It's a gruesome portrayal of a man's bestial state, and worth checking out.
   The Dark Philosophers itself, despite being the work that defined Thomas, is possibly the one here that has aged the least well.  The philosophers themselves, three only-occasionally employed clientele of an Italian coffee shop, have a wit so cynical it wears you down after a while, and their half-love of their own poverty is one step away from Python's Four Yorkshiremen.  Some scenes seem to exist only to present them with easy targets, and their willingness to step over anybody in order to make a political point betrays them as being as monstrous in their own way as the capitalism they rail against.
   Up a hill again for the final story, Simeon, where a farmer turns to incest with his daughters in their remote cottage.  It's quite creepy, like a children's story that goes very wrong, and also well worth your while.

Random paragraph: '"In any case," I muttered, "I don't give a damn.  Mountains, tips, Oscar, Danny, Hannah, work and pain, living and dying, it all looks terribly odd to me."'


Thursday, 28 January 2016

Live Now, Pay Later

Title: Live Now, Pay Later

Author: Jack Trevor Story

Year of publication: 1963

Back cover blurb: 'Live Now, Pay Later is not quite of this world, and certainly not of the next: it belongs to the world of the 'never-never,' somewhere on the outer fringe of that provincial England which Kingsley Amis and John Braine have shown us with almost shocking frankness.
   In Jack Trevor Story's provincial town - fast in the grip of Hire Purchase but living it up with brittle gallantry - we are shot into a convulsive existence of rapid results, devious politics, easy women, and easy payments.  Somehow, though reluctantly, you have to hand it to the feckless Albert, prince of tally-boys, whatever squeezes he puts on the housewives.  As they surrender to his promiscuous glamour, they seem to be caught up in a sorry serial where there's always another thrilling instalment next week.  All except for Treasure: after eighteen months she had had enough.
   You're bound to laugh at the clipped and bawdy dialogue of this social merry-go-round.  But you'll wince at the cutting edge of this brilliant writing.'

Status: Completed

Reading reveals: Jack Trevor Story is best known for writing the novel The Trouble With Harry, made into a film by Alfred Hitchcock, and for being the inspiration for Jim Henson's '80s TV series The Storytrevor.  Here, he explores the social menace of Hire Purchase, infecting the working classes with the promise of living beyond their means.
   It begins tremendously well, with the salesman and debt collector protagonist sleazing and furtively shagging his way around town as one did before the sixties properly happened.  As it goes on, however, Story spreads his net too widely, and our attention is directed towards the business meetings of estate agents and the like, and the opportunity for an immersive character study is lost.  Towards the end, the kitchen sink grimness of abortion, rape and the like sits uneasily with an increasingly comic plot, and a ridiculously unlikely accidental death pretty much threw me out of the book completely.  You're left with the impression of a quite old-fashioned English comic novel being awkwardly dressed in new-fangled kitchen sink clothes, which is a shame, because the early chapters pack a powerful punch.  The film version does very well on IMDB though, so maybe that irons it all out a bit.

Random paragraph: 'From this Mr Callendar had reasoned there was more to Arnold than appeared on the surface; men who picked their nose in public were often underprivileged in some ghastly, unwholesome way.  Later his faith was justified when he had learned that Arnold had once worked for a shady second-hand car dealer who had been handling stolen cars when the police caught up with him; it was to Arnold's immense credit, in Mr Callendar's opinion, that the car dealer and all his staff had gone to prison with the single exception of Arnold, against whom, apparently, there had been no evidence.  Or at least, no believable evidence in the face of Arnold's steadfast denials.


Tuesday, 15 September 2015

The Man Who Won the Pools

Title: The Man Who Won the Pools

Author: J.I.M. Stewart

Year of publication: 1961, Penguin edition 1963

Back cover blurb: ''E were a mardy one as a nipper, our Phil.  Steady work and steady money - that's 'is motto,' said Phil Tombs's auntie on TV when he won almost a quarter of a million on the pools.

Nobody expects Phil to stay steady, however: they either take him for a rid, treat him like a proper nit, or try to organize his life for him.  But Phil is no fool, and he makes an enterprising, amusing, and provocative hero as he learns the social nuances and the power of cash, charging from one adventure to another with proletarian gusto.

The author of A Use of Riches in this entertaining novel employs his incisive style to depict the English social maze through his hero's intrigued and piercing gaze.'

Status: Completed

Reading reveals: Young man from a working class environment so emotionally constipated it's a wonder everyone doesn't throw themselves onto the road in frustration wins the pools.  He doesn't seem that excited about it, and neither do his friends.  This makes the first half of the novel a bit of a trudge as he listens to various Marxist-informed opinions about how he can invest it in co-operatives and the like.

After a while, he goes to London and things get more interesting as he finds himself being duped into investing in a strip club and in the schemes of a mad inventor.  Then there's some more class stuff and the book ends.

Although it provides a neat window into ideas about wealth and class in pre-Beatles Britain, Oxford don Stewart, whom, one suspects, has never lived like common people, completely fails to grasp the desire those without have to improve the material lot of themselves and their family, something which Thatcher would understand and exploit all too well some years later.

Overall, a worthwhile period piece that leaves you wondering why someone so devoid of dreams would bother playing the pools in the first place.

Random paragraph: '"All right,  But what I say's true.  The rich don't get much life - not really.  They know what they're sitting on the lid of.  It seeps up through their fat behinds and seeps into their heads as a haunting guilt and anxiety.  You can see it in their gilded youth.  All that stalking about in breeches and bowler hats is a sham.  There's a complete failure of confidence underneath."'

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Hard Luck

Title: Hard Luck

Author: James Maw

Year of publication: 1986, Grafton edition 1988

Back cover blurb: '"Hard Luck by James Maw is the extremely funny and touching, sentimental history of two boys growing up on a new town council estate called Prospect in post-war Britain; class, poverty, domestic violence, well-meaning idiocy and welfare bureaucracy are accurately flayed through the experiences of the endearing and astonishingly well sustained voice of one of their child victims... Dickensian satire and genuine affection... pure pleasure... take it on holiday and be grateful for mercies given"

For Tom and Richard, the Prospect estate is a territory to be explored and taken over.  For their parents - doting Ellen and not-so-doting Frank - the estate is a brave new world (even if the underground pipes and valves don't work as smoothly as anticipated).  Yes, times are changing; there's cuddly blue Winceyette instead of linen, and brightly coloured modern things instead of old fashioned junk.  There's television, with fascinating programmes like "Criss Cross Quiz" and the "Dickie Henderson Show" (and Kennedy's assassination).  But while nearly everyone is supposed to be having it good like never before, life for Tom and Richard isn't so easy.  Their parents divorce and the twins go into the Crab Apple Home when Ellen ends up in hospital.  Then there's the 11-plus...
   Hard Luck is a brilliantly evocative novel - as colourful and unique as Oliver Twist and Huckleberry Finn.

'The kind of detail that evokes an era'

Status: Abandoned p. 102

Reading reveals: Here in my final entry before I hand over this blog to the masses, I am looking at a book from the inner borders of lostness.  Hard Luck was well-reviewed when it came out in 1986, as attested above, and even won an award and shit, so why has it already slipped away from the collective book-reading memory?
  On one level, it seems an injustice.  The book is funny and well-observed. Detailing the experiences of growing up in a New Town in the late '50s, early '60s, it consists of a series of working class set-pieces, in which Christmas trees are stolen and pubs are waited outside of and that sort of thing,  And yet, I stopped reading.  I suppose the lack of a strong narrative thread wore me down.  There are only so many tales of poverty line-level cheekiness you can absorb before you want something more.
  Also, there's an assuredness to the book's belief in its own loveability that jars now.  It's all a bit too cosy, even when detailing child neglect and domestic violence.  That and the fact it makes so little use of its main characters being twins they may as well have just be one character most of the time.
  For all that, the fact that someone in their late-twenties would write a book so nostalgic for the era of their own childhood, presenting it as a distant world gone forever, is quite fascinating, You couldn't imagine someone wanting to do quite the same thing now. (Although I sort of did in my second novel Flying Saucer Rock & Roll, but moving swiftly on...)  It seems to be the thing to do here because of the series of fractures between the early '60s and the mid '80s (the Sexual Revolution, punk, Thatcherism) that made the recent past feel a very long time ago back then. I remember being dazzled by old episodes of Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), and they were only fifteen years old back then.  Late '90s A Touch of Frost doesn't have quite the same disconnect.
  So, Hard Luck, possibly over-praised at the time, but still worth a look.

Random paragraph: 'But after a few weeks Frank tired of the scotch eggs.  "Oh no, not another blinkin' scotch egg," he'd yell as he sat down at the table.'


Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Jack in the Box

Title: Jack in the Box

Author: William Kotzwinkle

Date of publication: 1980, Abacus edition 1981

Back cover blurb: 'Can a young man from a small mining town find happiness as a human being? Can Jack Twiller, his mind warped by Masked Man, Tailspin, Tommy and Secret Agent X-9, ever abandon the comic book heroes of his youth and find true maturity?  Does he even want to?
   A hilarious odyssey through American comic-book culture of the 40s, Jack's story is witty, nostalgic and real.  In this brilliant and original novel William Kotzwinkle confirms his reputation as one of the most exciting of the younger generation of American writers.'

Status: Completed

Reading reveals: Last entry I made an attempt to read the irredeemably awful E.T. The Book of the Green Planet.  Despite the book's startling lack of merit, I was nevertheless curious as to how established author Kotzwinkle got the E.T. gig, and so read one of his earlier works.  Although he is generally a fantasy/sci-fi writer, Jack in the Box is a coming-of-age tale, and weirdly enough it's very good indeed.
   Each chapter moving on the narrative with a jump of months or years, the passing time unacknowledged in the text, Kotzwinkle manages to convincingly capture the various states of mind from child to adolescent, as his young protagonist Jack Twiller grows from playing cowboy games in the street on to drunken house parties as a rock 'n' roll greaser.  There's one particular moment that captures the first stage in the death of childhood, where Twiller finds he can no longer play, that is one of the truest things I have read in fiction for a very long time.  There's also a scout camp from Hell, and confusion about the manliness of vomiting that pre-dates Alan Partridge,
   You can see why Spielberg sought him out.  Both have an intense understanding of childhood and its joys and fears.  Shame that the meeting of minds didn't work out better.

Random paragraph: 'They went straight to the place where Spider had been going up and down on Nancy. Crutch stared at the sandy grass. "I thought you had to do it on a flat rock."'


Monday, 1 September 2014

E.T. The Book of the Green Planet

Title: E.T. The Book of the Green Planet

Author: William Kotzwinkle

Year of publication: 1985

   E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial in his adventure on Earth captured the hearts of tens of millions, becoming a cult classic.  This new story begins where the film ended, as E.T.'s ships is rising into the heavens.
   In his wonderful new adventure, E.T. goes home to his beloved Green Planet, filled with strange and fascinating creatures.  But he's lonely.  E.T. misses Elliott and the good days on Earth... living in a closet, drinking beer, and wearing a wig.
   Here is the story of how E.T. solves his problem...'

Status: Abandoned p. 34

Reading reveals: Hard to imagine now, but established author William Kotzwinkle's novelization of Steven Spielberg's E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial was the biggest-selling novel of 1982 in the US.  Spielberg was so impressed by Kotzwinkle's take on the story, complete with the dubious addition of E.T. falling in love and lust with Elliott's mom, he gave him the task of puffing out his own vague ideas for a sequel into an original novel.
  I actually purchased this when about nine years old.  I don't think I ever finished it.  I remember being overwhelmed by the task of trying to picture what was described, as E.T. returns to his home planet and encounters all sorts of strange life-forms in mind-blowing environments.
   Still, the book haunted me.  Would reading as an adult be a more fruitful experience, my mature mind more up to the challenge laid down by the text?
   The answer is no.  It is dreadful.  The human characters, whose day-to-day lives E.T. clumsily interrupts with telepathic messages, bear virtually no relation to their movie counterparts, while the alien creatures E.T. hangs out with, actually giant sentient plants, are called things like Jumpums, Flopglopples and Beeperbeans and are as irritating as their names suggest.
  My nine year-old self was right to give up on this.  You should listen to him.  But please first purchase the book via the link provided below as I get a percentage.

Random paragraph: 'The youthful creature was tending a crop of legumes called Igios Atra, or as they were more affectionately known - Beeperbeans, which gave off a sharp beeping sound when their blossoms opened.  As it was springtime, there was considerable beeping going on, and the worker had corks in his ears.'


Tuesday, 26 August 2014


Title: (George)

Author: E.L. Konigsburg

Date of publication: 1970, Macmillan edition 1971

Status: Completed

Inner cover blurb: 'George is a little man who lives inside Ben, but his is no still small voice.  George speaks out loud and clear and his opinions quite frequently fail to coincide with Ben's.  For instance about William.  Ben thinks William is great.  He admires everything he does, and William is not only four years older but conspicuously successful.  George thinks William is a phoney.
   The only other person who knows about George is Howard.  Ben's kid brother, and he knows because, except for Ben, he is the only person George has ever spoken outloud to.  George finds Howard a comfortable friend.  They look at the world in the same way, except Howard can see it.
   That was how it stood the year that Ben was twelve and Mr Berkowitz announced that the seniors in the Organic Chemistry class were going to be allowed to do research.  This meant that William and Ben could no longer be lab partners.  Ben was sore but George was glad.  He felt Ben was getting too absorbed in science and he felt it would lead to no good.  He was right, but it took some pretty sensational happenings and an alarming period of non-communication before they (and Howard) were on speaking terms again.  In fact things might have made headlines and changed a lot of lives for the worse if it hadn't been for George.

Reading reveals: EL Konigsberg was a treasured American children's author, but (George) is one of her less-treasured books.  The premise of a boy with another personality living inside him is great, but George never reveals himself to be that interesting.  Then the plot gets bogged down in some tedium about talented high-school kids doing university-level research and some missing lab equipment that you can't imagine any young reader getting that excited about.  Maddeningly, the story sparks into life when enquiries are made into the protagonist's mental health, and there's a timely LSD scene, but nothing leads anywhere of consequence.  A frustrating book that has the capacity to be a classic, but just skims the surface of its material.  Oh well.  At least it's got pictures.


Monday, 18 August 2014

My Merry Mornings

Title: My Merry Mornings

Author: Ivan Klíma

Date of publication: 1983, Readers International Edition 1985

Status: Completed

Back cover blurb: 'A popular young writer during the Prague Spring, Ivan Klíma was banned from publishing in the aftermath of the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.  He has continued to write, however, and his works circulate in hand-typed, lovingly bound "padlock editions", along with other banned writers like Kafka, Orwell, Kundera and Škvorecký.' 

Reading reveals: A collection of stories, one for each day of the week, detailing the life of an intellectual forced to work a series of menial jobs under the Czech communist regime.  How purely autobiographical they are are is open to question (the author's wife and family zip in and out of existence throughout the book, while any woman who meets him immediately wants to sleep with him, despite his looking like a hobbit in a Beatle-wig on the back cover), but nevertheless the stories are sprightly and joyful, as the title states, despite the underlying grimness of the situation.  An engaging and surprisingly sexy tour of Communist-era hospitals, building sites and live carp street sellers.

Random paragraph: 'I think she worked as a shop assistant.  Whenever I saw her she was giggling at something, no doubt under the impression that laughing made her look sexy.  In bed, or so Mr Mixa maintained, she demanded it three times - first with him on top, then from the left and thirdly from the right.  Mr Mixa related all this in order to show how virile he was despite his age and his bulk.'


Saturday, 2 August 2014

The Revolt of Gunner Asch

Title: The Revolt of Gunner Asch

Author: H.H. Kirst

Date of publication: 1954, Fontana edition 1971

Status: Abandoned, p. 16

Back cover blurb: 'The "Catch 22" of the German armed forces
   Gunner Asch is fed up with his brutal barrack-room companions, with his Nazi bosses, and with the horror and stupidity of the coming war.  Also, he is seeing far too little of his girl.  But what can one man do against the mightiest army in the world?  It is a known fact that every army has its weak spot.  So Asch finds the Wehrmacht's - and strikes hard!'

Reading reveals: Former Nazi Party member H.H. Kirst's 'Gunner Asch' series was a huge success, selling millions of copies across Europe, and re-published regularly in the UK from the mid-50s to the early-80s.  The writing (or at least, that of the translation) was too perfunctory to engage me, and anyway, I hate books about soldiers because I never know who outranks whom.
  What is more of interest to me is the sheer wrongness of the covers they ended up with in the UK.  Generally, they were a photographic/cartoon combo featuring German military/Nazi uniforms and women's breasts, neatly encapsulating the weird relationship with WWII some sections of the British public somehow developed in the following decades.  Here is a prime example:

Why would you publish that?  Why would you buy it, unless you were into that stuff that Max Mosley definitely wasn't?  I've actually seen even worse covers on books by Kirst wannabes (you could see nips, and swastikas), but couldn't bring myself to acquire them for the library.  There are limits.  Even here, there are limits.

Random paragraph: 'Johannes was now standing in front of the entrance to the barrack block.  He looked up.  He could just make out the shape of a woman leaning out of a window.  It was Lore Schulz, the sergeant-major's wife.'


The Fall of Valour

Title: The Fall of Valour

Author: Charles Jackson

Date of publication: 1948, Ace edition 1960

Status: Completed:

   Mr. Jackson has handled this difficult painful them with skill and sensitivity.
   There is an undoubted earnestness and care in his sketch of the university professor whose marriage is coming to grief and finds himself in new deep waters with his love for a young soldier.
   The Fall of Valour is a work of great competence.
   I... was thrilled by the exact understanding of the problems that beset every overworked husband and underloved wife.
   by the author of The Lost Weekend'

Reading reveals: In The Lost Weekend, Jackson dealt with the thorny subject of alcoholism.  In this follow-up, he dealt with the still thornier subject (for 1948) of a male university professor falling in love with a sailor.  This is the sort of story that Far From Heaven intimated would have been untellable at the time actually being told.  True, much of the detail is hidden in delicate phrases, but squint and there are periods, contraceptives and erections all over the shop.  It speaks of a time when sexual categories were so crudely defined, people could be left utterly out of touch with their desires, not knowing who or what it was they wanted.  Of course, we've fixed all that now and everything's fine.
   Swimming in a fog of interiority, there'a Death in Venice languor from which the inevitable unwanted erection emerges.  Although the characters see homosexuality as a shameful state one step above child molesting in the pervy scheme of things, the book doesn't, and is ultimately humane in its treatment of the issue, and its exploration of a time when some men went to war and some didn't, and some men were thought of as men, and some were not.

Random paragraph: 'Cliff gazed moodily into the surf, his forehead troubled and frowning.  "Gee, sometimes I even think-"  He broke off suddenly, as if disgusted with himself."