Category Archives: Books

Hoots mon, the scones are unbearably light!

Phil: Although I’m not Scottish, my ancestry does permit me to wear the Lamont tartan, I’m partial to a bit of Lorne sausage and even a portion of fried haggis. I also consider the Tunnocks teacake one of the finest delicacies in the shops. The caramel wafers aren’t bad either.

The Unbearable Lightness of Scones caught my eye in the book pile at work for a couple of reasons. I like scones, and it’s set in Scotland Street, Edinburgh.

I’ve been there, mainly because at one end of it was a railway yard and I spent much time helping out a friend who had built a model of it exhibits his efforts around the country. That it is written by Alexander McCall Smith was less appealing as I’ve never got into his Number One Ladies Detective Agency series, no matter how good people tell me it is.

Anyway, this is an interesting book that defies many literary conventions.

For a start, there is a huge amount of text that doesn’t move the story forward. All that stuff we are told to edit out. Well, not here. The characters head off at tangents, spend a long time thinking of random things and generally using lots and lots of words. Far from light, it’s actually quite dense and took me a couple of attempts to get going with.

The other oddity is there isn’t really a plot. Things happen, but we never get the feeling that anything significant is happening, but this isn’t a bad thing.

What we have a literary soap opera. My understanding is that the 100 (yes one hundred!) chapters are from the Scotsman newspaper and published on a daily basis. The books are collections of these for those who want their tales of Edinburgh life in a single helping. So, there are lots of characters living independent, but sometimes interconnected lives.  Along the way, several points are made by the author – for example, one of the characters is a small child whose overbearing mother could come straight out of the Guardian cliche lineup with her strident feminist ideas.

It’s a book riven with tartan too. You don’t see the pretender to the Scottish throne pop up very often not Jacobite being used as a slur. Do people still care about that stuff? Even one of the art sub-plots centres on a portrait of Robbie Burns.

If you can get past the style, then I can understand why the residents of Scotland Street become as popular as those of Glebe Street, albeit, representing a very modern take on their home city that will be a revelation to many readers from south of the border. This book could have been set in London in many respects. That it isn’t is a credit to the author, and probably a credit to his previous success allowing him to say a firm “No” to any publisher suggesting that he’s picked the wrong capital.

I got into the story after a few chapters and once in, worked my way through pleasantly quickly. I didn’t dare leave it too long between reading sessions for fear of losing the plot, but as the chapters are short, and the focus moved between different plot threads, it’s an easy book to pick up and put down for short bursts of reading between other jobs.

Now if you don’t mind, I think there is one more teacake in the fridge…

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Relaxing reads for taxing times

Phil: Here’s a handy hint. Don’t publish a blog post about how you are starting to feel more comfortable with the current situation. It’s a prelude to your metal state heading downhill fast for several days. Just shut up and read some books. To help, here are the two most recent that I’ve finished in my regular post-lunch tea and reading sessions.

Warning: Contains Spoilers. Or at least spoilers if you’ve never read any chick-lit before and can’t spot the bleedin’ obvious plot lines.

The Hidden Cottage by Erica James

Mia Channing appears to have an enviable life: a beautiful home, a happy marriage, a job she enjoys and three grown-up children to whom she’s devoted. But appearances can be deceptive…

When the family gathers for her son’s thirtieth birthday, he brings with him his latest girlfriend, who, to their surprise, has a nine-year-old daughter. Then, before the birthday cake has even been cut, Mia’s youngest daughter Daisy has seized the opportunity to drop a bombshell. It’s an evening that marks a turning point in all their lives, when old resentments and regrets surface and the carefully ordered world Mia has created begins to unravel.

You’d think from the blurb that this is all about Mia, but the main character is Owen Fletcher who buys a cottage in Little Pelham. The cottage was part of his childhood when he lived for a while in the village. He’s one of those annoying people in novels with bucket loads of cash but no obvious way of earning it, but we let that pass because he’s not a dick. I did have a “what does he DO all day?” moment, but in the current situation, adults not actually doing much to fill the hours doesn’t seem so odd.

Anyway, this is quite involved with Mia’s three children and most importantly, overly controlling husband, all walking on eggshells with each other, finding their way in the world, loving and losing etc. The actual main romance isn’t prominent in the book. It’s there, but takes up very little of the story compared to the rest of the characters, and is all the better for it.

I’d say that this is the thinking readers chick-lit with some well worked parallel storylines, especially Mia’s marriage and Owen’s childhood. There are a few shocks along the way too. Maybe the supporting characters in the village are a bit cartoonish, but the background hangs together well enough not to be obtrusive.

I read this one in small chunks, but it’s one of those books I’d make little bits of time during the day to grab another chapter of.

A Summer Scandal by Kat French

When Violet moves to Swallow Beach, she inherits a small Victorian pier with an empty arcade perched on the end of it, and falls in love immediately. She wants nothing more than to rejuvenate it and make it grand again – but how?

When she meets hunky Calvin, inspiration strikes. What if she turned the arcade into an adult-themed arcade full of artisan shops?

Not everyone in the town is happy with the idea, but Violet loves her arcade and business begins to boom. But as tensions worsen and the heat between her and Calvin begins to grow, life at Swallow Beach becomes tricky. Is it worth staying to ride out the storm? And can Violet find her own happy ending before the swallows fly south for the winter?

Violet inherits a pier and apartment in the childhood town her mother refuses to return to. There are secrets from her grandmother who died in mysterious circumstances. And her neighbour is hunky Calvin Dearheart.

Reader, she shags him.

She also turns the pier into a series of workshops for those making things for the adult entertainment industry. Maybe I’ve lived a sheltered life, but a couple of them were “That’s really a thing?” moments. You don’t want to search for them on-line either on a work computer.

I wasn’t wild about this, the idea that you’d turn the centrepiece of a pier into a series of workspaces where the most public-friendly thing on offer would be a leather whip seemed odd. Artisan workshops would work, but I suspect that the Great British Public aren’t ready for X-rated goods while strolling along the seaside.

To be honest, the characters are all ridiculous, but it’s all played straight and so the book gets away with it. There are more historical parallels, outrageous coincidences and the ending is a bit weird, but overall, it’s everything the cover suggests. Light fun with a happy ending. Just like that that the pier’s customers are expecting.

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Evil word counting

Phil: Imagine a world very like the one we live in, but where women have no passports, money of their own, jobs – and are limited to speaking 100 words a day.

That’s how America looks in Christina Dalcher’s novel Vox.

The word limit is enforced by a wristband every female is fitted with at three months of age. Each word spoken is counted and when you reach 101, you receive an electric shock. Keep talking and the shocks become stronger until you “learn your lesson”.

All of this is enforced because of a new brand of “Pure” Christianity that has taken hold. Spreading from the bible-belt, it’s now controlling the White House and everyone else.

As you read, it becomes obvious that people are adjusting to the new normal. Jean McClellan is the main character and we see through her eyes as her sons tell her that according to their lessons at school, a woman’s place is in the home. Chillingly, her daughter wins a prize for not speaking at all. Women haven’t just lost their place in society, they have literally lost their voice.

I found this a scary read. OK, it turns into a thriller towards the end, but the scene-setting is very, very effective.

What makes it especially uncomfortable is that you can see how this sort of thing could happen for real. Vice President of the USA, Mike Pence, won’t eat alone with a woman and has been applauded for this by the religious right. His boss isn’t exactly known for his consideration towards women either.

Don’t think women would all stand up and fight – the rise of the #tradwife movement is sending women back to the 1950s and while they might not be queueing up to wear an electric word-counter, they love the idea that women should stay at home doing what their husband tells them they are allowed to do.

Like all good sci-fi, Vox is a commentary on the present day. It holds up a slightly distorted mirror to our lives and the reflection acts as a warning to things that could happen if we don’t pay attention.

Mind you, I think the Nolan acts as a perfectly effective word counter when we meet, there is a look far more potent than any electric shock that says, “Shut up Phil, and do some work!”

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Killer blurb

When Korede’s dinner is interrupted one night by a distress call from her sister, Ayoola, she knows what’s expected of her: bleach, rubber gloves, nerves of steel and a strong stomach. This’ll be the third boyfriend Ayoola’s dispatched in, quote, self-defence and the third mess that her lethal little sibling has left Korede to clear away. She should probably go to the police for the good of the menfolk of Nigeria, but she loves her sister and, as they say, family always comes first. Until, that is, Ayoola starts dating the doctor where Korede works as a nurse. Korede’s long been in love with him, and isn’t prepared to see him wind up with a knife in his back: but to save one would mean sacrificing the other..

Phil: When I read this on the back of My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite while browsing the new books shelf of my local library, it did its job, grabbing me enough I wanted to read the story. With three books in my hand, I left it but came back a couple of weeks later and searched for it on the shelves.

Set in Lagos, it tells the story of Korede who keeps having the clean up when her sister murders her latest boyfriend.

As a nurse with a cleaning compulsion, she’s ideally placed to help, but when the sister hooks up with a doctor Korede facies herself, things get complicated. She can’t tell anyone about this except a patient in a coma.

Through the story, we learn some backs-story about the girls’ abusive father and his death (not their fault, but they were present) and this might give an insight into Ayoola’s behaviour. That, and she’s a little princess who’s never heard the word “no”.

The book has won awards, but I wonder if this is down to a metropolitan art crowd being excited by a book set firmly in Nigeria and making good use of the rules and traditions of that country. You are immersed in a way no non-native could ever do and some of the characters’ behaviours are appalling by Western standards. If you think the British class system is bad, the Nigerian one is far worse. It troubled me that the “house girl” never seems to warrant a name, nor any consideration for her constant servitude by the main characters for example.

I’m not sure the story every really gets going despite two deaths and a third close-call. The coma patient wakes up and remembers some of the stuff he has been told, but nothing happens with this.

The premise is really strong, possibly stronger than the book itself. Having said that, the setting fascinated me and I’m tempted to look up many of the foods mentioned. Maybe this is the best part – I was really taken to a new world, and that’s what reading should be about.

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Demon Seed – so good he wrote it twice?

Phil: An odd one this. Heading into my local library in search of something to read, I spotted a book called Demon Seed on the shelf.

I knew of the film and decided to give the original version a go.

Or did I?

In the first chapter, there is mention of both the Internet and the World Wide Web. “Hold on”, I think, “I’m pretty sure the film was made back in the 1970s. How come we have talk of things not developed until the late 1990s?”

The plot revolves around a sentient computer program, so some sort of moving around the world’s networks is fine, but I’m pretty sure that neither term was in common us back then.

To Wikipedia, I head and I’m right about the film, it was released in 1977. Assuming the book predates the film then how does the author know about the web?

Well, a little more digging and it turns out that Dean Koontz has written the book twice. Once in 1973 and again in 1997.

All is explained at the end of the novel. Koontz simply says he didn’t think the original was very good so decided to have another crack at it. This allowed him to add in all those future references to computing technology.

I wonder how he pitched it to the publisher though. “You remember that great book I wrote years ago? I’d like to do it again and see if people buy another copy to find out what I’ve changed.”

Is it a brave move to decided that the story you are best known for isn’t good enough, or a cynical one to cash in?

I suppose I ought to say whether I enjoyed the book. Not much. All the talk of the computer controlling Susan, the main character, made me very uncomfortable. There’s also a fairly graphic murder of an innocent man as well as passing mention of several others. Not my thing at all, but then we’ve mentioned I’m a bit of a wuss about these things in the past.

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I hope our book doesn’t date this badly

Phil: Picking up a book of short stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, I’m struck by the contents, some of which make me feel uncomfortable.

Round The Fire Stories contains 17 tales from the master who created Sherlock Holmes. Many of them read and feel like something the great detective could have been involved with. Indeed, one of them includes a letter from someone who could very well be Holmes. If you like the style, then this is an interesting read.

But, and it’s a big but, some of the text has not aged well. Conan Doyle writes of an age of empire. Form the days when most of the map was pink and the sun never set on Her Britannic Majesties lands. We have plucky Brits out running the colonies or travelling to mysterious lands.

I quite like a bit of this. Part of me hankers for an era when travel was difficult and going abroad was an adventure, not somewhere you go for a stag/hen weekend and spend the time bladdered.

But with this comes some unfortunate racial issues. The Brown Hand revolves around a ghost of a beggar who comes to claim back his hand from the surgeon who severed it (saving the mans life) and keeps it in a jar. The hero of the story allows the spectre to find another hand made available after an accident and this seems to satisfy him enough to cease his haunting. The ghost can’t rest until he is “whole” and yet is happy with some else’s hand – because in the spirit world, all brown hands are apparently the same and he won’t know the difference.

It gets worse in The Fiend of the Cooperage, where the N-word is used repeatedly, not as an insult, just because that’s what people said in that era.

Is it fair to judge stories written around 1900, and republished in 1991, but today’s standards?

No, I don’t think it is. Any book is a historical document and to say you can’t read it leads quickly to book burning. These stories are of their time and my discomfort is a good thing. Most people (loons excepted) wouldn’t write something like this today. To be honest, things like Cooperage wouldn’t get published because it’s rubbish anyway. You could update it, but I’m not sure it’s worth the effort. Spoiler: A giant snake did it – see what I mean?

Conan Doyle was very keen on mystic and occult stuff and it shows here. Many of these tales intended to be told around the fire involve ghosts, the existence of which is never questioned. Holmes would have not been impressed.

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The grass isn’t always greener

Phil: Team NolanParker were chatting a few days ago, talking about work.

Like most people, we have the occasional “issue” with our jobs. I think it’s fair to say that no-one enjoys a job that is entirely trouble-free. Into every life, some rain must fall and when you get wet at work, there is some relief in getting things off your chest with a like-minded friend.

For example, you find yourself lunching in a pub on a sunny day. There is a fullsome gin menu and a large screen about to show the Wimbledon semi-finals. But, completely unreasonably, your boss will be under the impression that you should return to your desk instead of getting slowly blotto while watching sportsmen whacking a ball around and getting a suntan. Personally, I don’t like gin, but could see her point.

En-route to the pub I’ve been reading This is going to hurt by Adam Kay.

The book tells of his time as a Junior Doctor working in obstetrics and gynaecology. There are incredibly long hours, shift changes at a moments notice. Next to no home life, holidays interrupted, days off cancelled, bodily fluids spurting around the place, poor pay and a thousand other “issues”. All of which makes any complaints I have pale into insignificance. At many points, I wondered why he didn’t just chuck it in if someone in McDonalds was being paid better. 3/4 of the way through he explains that it’s the positive outcomes, the successes, the making a difference to someone’s life that keep people doctoring.

It is a cracking read, I’ve been racing through the book, picking it up at odd moments for a couple more pages – helped by the diary style which breaks the text up into short bites.

As Candice says, it’s easy to look at your current position and wish you were elsewhere (in this case, a pub with tennis) but the grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the fence. To continue with the trite phrases, you can easily find yourself jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire. All I know is I don’t fancy being a doctor. I might wield a scalpel occasionally, but the things I cut into don’t bleed, unless I get my own fingers through clumsiness.

One thing this book is good for though, contraception.

In stark contrast to a recent read which to make anyone feel broody, this one will have every woman pointing at her other half’s wedding tackle and saying, “You’re not bringing THAT thing anywhere near me again!”

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