I was given this book as a gift, and (novels being more my usual diet) it’s not the sort of thing that I’d normally find myself reading. But I have a...moreI was given this book as a gift, and (novels being more my usual diet) it’s not the sort of thing that I’d normally find myself reading. But I have a general interest in history and - as a writer myself - I always appreciate a well written text. And this is very well written, the author combining an accessible account of Sophia’s life with unobtrusive touches of dry wit. An enjoyable read.(less)
Anyone looking for a readable, accessible introduction to the basic principles of counselling need look no further than ‘Counselling For Toads’. Focus...moreAnyone looking for a readable, accessible introduction to the basic principles of counselling need look no further than ‘Counselling For Toads’. Focussed primarily on the concepts of Transactional Analysis, but addressing a number of related concepts along the way, this clever little book has a great deal to offer. I’d have given it five stars, but for its somewhat weak (and unnecessary) final chapter, and the fact that the fifth star belongs to Kenneth Grahame.(less)
This is one of the strangest books I’ve ever read. Here’s a list of some of its qualities (in no particular order). This book is: bizarre; entertainin...moreThis is one of the strangest books I’ve ever read. Here’s a list of some of its qualities (in no particular order). This book is: bizarre; entertaining; erudite; surreal; inventive; free (of most accepted writing conventions); sloppy; funny; characterful; wilfully inconsistent; (randomly) indebted to Shakespeare; (randomly) informative; (randomly) opinionated; (randomly) time-travelling; (consistently) random. I’m giving it four stars on account of the fact that despite all of the above I read it to the end and enjoyed doing so, which gets more impressive the more I think about it. Apparently it’s about the Young King Arthur, who like many a young man was fond of mounching on mercy-flavoured bread, which of course has yet to be invented….(less)
‘You’re Too Wonderful To Die’, the story of a medical man’s struggle with his faith in the aftermath of a personal tragedy, is a very authentic and cr...more‘You’re Too Wonderful To Die’, the story of a medical man’s struggle with his faith in the aftermath of a personal tragedy, is a very authentic and creditable first novel. It is not perfect – there are one or two structural difficulties and the occasional technical error – but it is engaging from the outset and written in a beautifully understated manner. Take, for example, the fact that the grieving narrator, Alex Glassman, is dissuaded from taking a plane trip to visit his parents by the sudden realisation that, ‘I wouldn’t mind being in a plane crash.’ In other places, the author’s medical knowledge (Bomback is himself a doctor) is used to lend dry humour to what otherwise might be a bleak read. Trying to reassure his severely ill patient – Esme, the girl who is too wonderful to die - that the consequences of bad side effects of her treatment are tiny, Alex tells her that, ‘…we’re talking of something along the lines of less than one percent.’ Soon after this, Esme makes it clear that she does not want to go on a ventilator. ‘Is it true,’ she asks, ‘that once someone with cystic fibrosis goes on a ventilator, she never comes off?’ Alex tells her that, ‘Doctors don’t like to use the word never.’ Esme replies, ‘But we’re talking something along the lines of less than one percent, aren’t we?’(less)
I bought this book because I'd had some minor dealings with the author, via his editorship of the excellent poetry magazine 'Anon'. I wasn't at all su...moreI bought this book because I'd had some minor dealings with the author, via his editorship of the excellent poetry magazine 'Anon'. I wasn't at all sure it would be my cup of tea, though, and it did take me several attempts to get into it at first. But when I finally sat down to give it a fair trial and got through the first few pages, I soon began to see what a very good book it really is. It's been described by Sarah Dunant as a 'serious comic novel' and that sums it up nicely. It's serious in that it reads as a highly authentic insight into life in modern India, and deals with issues of faith and mysticism and the power of the unsaid. It's comic in that it offers dry, often dark humour from beginning to end, whether in relation to the absurdities of domestic life or the equally absurd machinations of the political world. For anyone who's interested in a poignant, thought-provoking and entertaining book, this one comes highly recommended. (less)
‘Happy Ending’ is a memoir in free verse, and there’s a lot to like about it. It’s painfully honest, very direct and...moreAn artful, painful, poetic memoir.
‘Happy Ending’ is a memoir in free verse, and there’s a lot to like about it. It’s painfully honest, very direct and - for the most part - genuinely poetic. In many ways it’s a romantic book, with artful turns of phrase which pull whole worlds of meaning into otherwise simple observations. A lover’s blue eyes are ‘the color of Marilyn Monroe’s car; the color of Picasso’s guitar’, images which suggest the exotic, the unobtainable, a life beyond reach.
As might be expected in a story of heroin addiction, the theme of the outsider figures prominently, and the idea of winners and losers is recurrent. Rat is clearly on the side of the losers, who ‘aren’t going away’, and (albeit he is ostensibly talking about his dog) he offers a bitter insight into the losers’ plight with the words ‘too mean to love…thrown away and beaten - you can’t blame us for hating you.’ He is perhaps not quite so successful when he steps back and addresses politics with a big P, but such moments are few and far between, the majority of the book remaining in the realms of the intensely personal.
Which brings us to the motivation at the heart of ‘Happy Ending’ - Rat’s son, James. The final poem is an extremely poignant open letter to him, the simple language only serving to enhance its power. ‘…not all little boys get the best daddies,’ writes Rat. ‘You got me; I’m sorry.’ My favourite reference to James, though, is from halfway through the book, when the author is recalling a session at Narcotics Anonymous: ‘…someone said they heard a glimmer of hope in my voice... That’s what you sound like.’ (less)
The moment I set eyes on the poem 'Third Street Muscles and Fitness', which appears on the publisher's website, I knew I was going to love this collec...moreThe moment I set eyes on the poem 'Third Street Muscles and Fitness', which appears on the publisher's website, I knew I was going to love this collection. 'Third Street...' is a great poem, set on a rainy evening at the local gym. It opens with six men and their macho humour, but quickly dissolves into something altogether more sobering.
At its heart, 'The Uncertainty Principle' is a fatalistic work, dealing with the challenges of living in 'the bone weary, wounded world'. There's an inevitable cynicism in these poems, exemplified in 'Now Playing', which sees a young soldier heading off to war, his head full of the things he intends to do upon his return. 'Of course,' says our narrator, 'we all know he's shot dead or loses his legs... If you want to hear God laugh, tell Him your plans.'
This dark undercurrent flows throughout the length of the book, but above it there's a gentle humanity. 'The Fallout Shelter Handbook', which describes a recollected discussion of the proposed building of a fallout shelter around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, reads as a tribute to Kraushaar's father and an affirmation of basic human decency in the face of cold logic. Sitting around the dinner table, discussing plans for the shelter, the children raise concerns for their neighbours. What if they were to need somewhere to shelter? 'We would let them in,' says the father, despite his wife's objection. And what about their friends, and the Johnson twins, and the local bully? 'We would let them in.' And the brother's pet snake, and the sister's cat? 'We would let them in.'
It couldn't possibly happen, of course, but that's not the point. The protagonist in this poem, as in most of the pieces in this collection, has a choice in how he reacts to the senselessness and sadness of the world. It's a choice we have, too - we can succumb to despair, or we can respond with 'a sort of mild, unaccountable calm'. The suggestion, implicit in almost all of these poems, that we take the latter option, strikes me as a pretty good idea.(less)
‘A Week with Fiona Wonder’ is a beautifully written and deceptively well-constructed novel. Huddleston conjures powerful, evocative, often romantic sc...more‘A Week with Fiona Wonder’ is a beautifully written and deceptively well-constructed novel. Huddleston conjures powerful, evocative, often romantic scenes from the crude base materials of dying shopping malls and tacky fast food joints, in a story filled with deft allusions and brilliantly drawn characters.
Mercy Swimmer, the teenage narrator, is misunderstood by those around her, and unable to understand them. In this, there are clear echoes of ‘The Catcher in the Rye’, a book which Huddleston openly references. But there’s a key contrast between Salinger’s renowned protagonist and Huddleston’s, in that Mercy is not (and nor is meant to represent) your archetypal angst-ridden teen. Mercy doesn’t just feel different – she is different. She’s a naïve and empathetic young lady who intuitively understands a great deal about the problems of the world, and how some of them could be solved.
Celestial motifs feature throughout the book, and Mercy is often to be found gazing at the skies, which cleverly enhances her otherness. She is a misfit in many ways, and a dreamer, for sure – but her dreams are not of fifteen minutes of fame on some dreadful TV show. She dreams only of a fairer, happier world – something she knows in her heart is possible, if only the will were there.
As the novel progresses and Mercy’s frustrations with the people around her increase, however, another side of her character begins to emerge, one which surprises and disturbs her. She’s sucked into new feelings of hurt, anger and vengeance, and before she knows it, it’s too late - there can be no return to innocence. As Mercy herself tells us, ‘No one knows what goes on inside a black hole unless you’re actually in one, and if you’re in one then you’re already gone.’(less)
For me, this book was much easier to read than review. It was easy to read because it's intelligent and entertaining throughout, and it introduced me...moreFor me, this book was much easier to read than review. It was easy to read because it's intelligent and entertaining throughout, and it introduced me to the concept of virtual worlds which, though it's been around a while (lord knows how many hours my daughter has clocked up on The Sims) I've never so much as glanced at thus far.
Of course, 'The Virtual Life of Fizzy Oceans' takes the idea of a virtual world much further than The Sims, and Fizzy, the protagonist, finds herself on a journey of philosophical and political discovery, as well as investigating the differences - convincingly fewer than we might expect - between virtual and 'physical' life.
It's the philosophical and political content, however, that made the book a less than straightforward one for me to review. Many of the sentiments expressed chimed with my own, to the point that I experienced a sense of 'preaching to the converted'. But I think that's because of my age and, more particularly, my liberal arts education, which in a strange way make me a less than ideal reader.
It was, though, continually interesting and, on a couple of occasions, it was downright hysterical. The appearance of an unexpected guest at a public talk by an emulated 'Mark Twain' had me laughing out loud, and the fate of another emulation, slumped lifeless over a table due to the sudden disappearance of her 'physical life' counterpart at a key moment in her virtual life, was the kind of funny you're not supposed to laugh at but can't quite help. Maybe that's just my cruel streak, but the fact that I knew I shouldn't laugh at this 'virtual' character says something of the overall success of this very unusual book.(less)