Book Review: The Atomics

atomics

“He knew he was feeling terrible because he wasn’t getting enough radiation. If he wanted to feel strong again, to have that same energy as when he had pummelled that stupid boy, he would have to replenish his supply. Top himself up, as it were.”

The world’s first nuclear power station to generate electricity for its nation’s grid started operations in 1954 at Obninsk in the Soviet Union. Other countries soon followed suit. The UK opened Calder Hall at Windscale in 1956. By 1968, when this story is set, there were ten operational nuclear power plants connected to the UK’s commercial grid.

The Atomics focuses on a community of scientists, engineers and supporting staff brought in to operate and manage a newly built power station on the Suffolk coast. The protagonist, Frank Banner, is a talented Chemistry graduate – educated at Cambridge – who believes nuclear energy is the future of clean and efficient power. Unlike many of his co-workers, he has no fear of contamination. Indeed, he believes low levels of radiation can be beneficial.

Frank has a troubled past. His father was a farmer and a brutal man who regularly beat his wife and only child. Frank’s mother had psychiatric issues and committed suicide when he was eighteen years old. The boy idolised her and hated his father. Frank believes young women deserve protection from self-entitled and predatory men.

The story opens in Oxford where Frank has narrowly escaped a prison sentence for savagely attacking a boy. The boy’s mother retaliates, leaving Frank with mental as well as physical scars. His employers, in an attempt to avoid further bad publicity, suggest redeployment to the isolated Seton One power station. Frank understands he has little choice if he wishes to continue working in a field he enjoys. Although at times she has considered leaving her husband, Frank’s wife, Gail, agrees to accompany him. She wants a child and hopes the move will be a fresh start for them all.

Gail and Frank move into a new-build bungalow by the sea, one of many identikit residences provided for the workers at the new power station. Across the road live Maynard and Judy Scott, and their two young children. Maynard is an engineer at the plant – a lecherous buffoon whose wife drinks to forget what her life has become. When not sunning herself on the beach, Gail spends gin-soaked afternoons with Judy. Meanwhile, Frank nurses his dislike of everything Maynard says and does.

Another work colleague, Anthony, is dating Alice, a pretty young nurse at Seton One’s health centre. Alice is a local girl whose father works at a boatyard – necessary for the fishing industry that provided the region’s main employment before the power plant was imposed on them. The looming and secretive building is treated with suspicion, as are its associated incomers. Alice views Anthony as a possible route out of what she regards as a tedious backwater that expects little of its women beyond housekeeping and motherhood.

“In the village, the men were really just boys. No – worse than that – they were just fools. They believed you had to stand up for yourself or be emasculated. But it was utter bollocks. In that single loving look from Gail, Alice had sensed a world outside the village, a world of more complicated thought patterns, of people who did not accept that life was simple. That was where she belonged.”

Frank is a fascinating, terrifying creation. He regards himself as a protector, a saviour, but must always tamp down the angry turbulence of his true thoughts and desires. When his past starts to haunt him, what self-control he can muster becomes ever more unravelled. To the women he appears better and more interesting than the Maynards of their world. Only Gail knows what her husband is capable of, although not how unstable his core has recently become. Like the fuel rods he works with, Frank requires cool containment and careful handling. With Gail’s thoughts focused on getting pregnant, she fails to notice her husband spiralling away.

A chain reaction is sparked when Maynard shows an interest in Alice. Frank, with his delusions of saving defenceless young women, sets out on a mission of protection that requires an act of destruction.

“For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Newton’s Third Law. True in physics, true in life. If you sin, you will be punished. It was one of the undeniable rhythms to life. And if you are the one delivering the punishment, you will be rewarded.”

The insights into the history of nuclear power, especially early attitudes to safety and the risks of wider contamination, add interest to what is a tense and evocative unpeeling of the male psyche. The female characters may be granted greater emotional intelligence but are complicit in their acceptance of certain behaviours – perhaps typical for the time period.

The pacing is not that of a thriller but the plot contains many thrilling aspects. The author delves deep into dark character traits, how they are often downplayed to make daily life easier. Much could have been made of Frank’s upbringing but the reader is trusted to note connections. A deliciously chilling denouement provides an effective rounding off.

There are elements of horror within these pages that could induce nightmares. More horrific though is the recognisable willingness of the characters to ignore what they know to be damaging in order to keep their own lives secure. The power station setting adds originality to a portrayal of the dangers posed by damaged people. An unsettling tale I am happy to recommend.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Lightning Books.

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Book Review: The Mating Habits of Stags

“I love it up here, she said. It’s so wild.
Wild?
A-huh.
There’s nowt wild about it. It’s all man-made.
But it’s nature, you know.
It’s a desert. These hills are nowt but a sheep ranch.”

“These hills should be covered in forest.
She scanned the landscape. I didn’t realise.
Pricks that own the land, swiddening the moor, burning heather off to create new shoots for grouse to feed on. Reason yon dale floods. Peat acts like a sponge but when they burn it, they knacker it. All that damage to folks’ homes and businesses just so some posh southern twats can come up here once a year and shoot some game.”

The Mating Habits of Stags, by Ray Robinson, is set in Yorkshire where the protagonist, septuagenarian Jake Eisner, is on the run from both the police and the son of Charles Monroe – an elderly man he has recently murdered. After a childhood marked by poverty, Jake spent most of his life as a farmhand. He knows the land and how to survive.

Jake is a widower, his beloved wife, Edith, having died a year ago. They raised a son, William, but he too is dead. Jake’s friend, Sheila, cannot understand why Jake would have killed a wealthy landowner who was already in poor health and living in a care home. She does not know their shared history. Jake has talked little about his past. What Sheila does know of him she has gleaned from having been born and raised in the same locality. She would have liked to get to know him better but he often rebuffed her attempts to spend more time together.

The timeline of the story jumps back and forth giving the reader glimpses of lives marked by actions and their consequences – the beauty and pain of living. It is a tale of: desire, grief, love, revenge.

Jake makes his way across woods and moorland, camping out or finding occasional shelter in farms he once worked at. He moves on regularly to evade capture. With winter closing in he turns to those he hopes might offer assistance. He learns that he has become prey.

“Fox hunters: terrier men on quads, pony clubbers in hacking jackets, car horns and bugle calls – those privileged hooligans.”

Sheila is perplexed by Jake’s actions but is distracted by her own worries about her daughter and grandson. Feeling used and taken for granted, she has recently moved away from her home town. When Jake turns up on her doorstep she must make a decision. It is one she will come to regret.

The narrative offers a no nonsense glimpse into the lives of working class families in an area where what wealth exists is in the hands of those who made it from others’ hard graft.

“He eyed the north face of the magnificent Monroe Hall. Such places sickened him with what they represented: generations of downtrodden poor in the factories and mill-towns. Claggy-arsed industry, scab of the North Country.”

Sheila decries her daughter’s work ethic and choice of partners but recognises that her own history is chequered. She has a difficult relationship with her mother. She still has feelings for her second ex-husband – and also for Jake.

The glorious use of language provides a vivid evocation of the landscape.

“A swap of wind scurries through the abandoned mill, a wind made of leaf mould and rusted rabbit wire.”

“The plop and patter of rainwater, a liquid metronome”

The dark beauty of the place and the people who live there are rendered in unsentimental yet emotive detail. As the reasons for Jake’s behaviour are teased out, along with their repercussions, his journey and its outcome inexorably alter Sheila’s future. And yet there is much, it seems, that cannot be changed.

The sparse yet salient prose drops a depth charge into the reader’s sensory responses, the story offering so much more than the actions portrayed. The characters’ flaws are the cracks that enable a flow of empathy and understanding. This is an uncompromising depiction of northern England that I unreservedly recommend.

The Mating Habits of Stags is published by Lightning Books. 

Book Review: A Right Royal Face-Off

 

“A man wants his own face on the wall, not to remind himself how he looks – a looking-glass would serve just as well for that – but to tell the world that he is the kind of man who has his face painted, and his wife’s face, and his children’s. Once they are on the wall, he can rest in the knowledge that he is that sort of fellow, and the world knows it, and the world will also remember him and his wife and his children when their physical bodies are long departed.”

A Right Royal Face-Off, by Simon Edge, tells the story of an artistic feud between Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds. Both artists made their living painting portraits commissioned by those who could afford such vanities in the eighteenth century. Thus, despite humble origins, they mixed with the aristocracy. Viewed through the eyes of Gainsborough’s footman – a young man working in a household receiving esteemed visitors but employing few servants – the story offers a social history laced with humour.

Interspersed with the the goings on in Georgian times is a contemporary tale. A television production company is creating a series for daytime viewers’ consumption. Britain’s Got Treasures invites members of the public to bring their valuables for experts to assess. Budget constraints have affected both the quality of the presenters and the experts. When an elderly lady brings a grotesque and vandalised painting, claiming it is a Gainsborough, she is roundly mocked on camera.  Taking umbrage at her treatment she marches off set but not before someone with a little more knowledge starts to question if she could be correct.

The stories told are of ambition and pretentiousness. The behaviour of celebrities and their coteries across both timelines is gently mocked along with members of the public who are complicit in their willingness to offer the requisite attention. The role of a partisan media in whipping up interest is shown to be no modern invention.

In Gainsborough’s day members of the public would pay to view portraits and other paintings at The Royal Academy – a sort of celebrity magazine of its time. Unlike today such art was not regarded as a highbrow pursuit and the faces of actresses and mistresses were of as much interest as royalty. Artists submitted their best work for display to maintain their standing and thereby draw in further clientele. The annual exhibitions were critiqued in the newspapers, providing valuable publicity. Linked to these were stories of the sitters – the gossip and intrigues lapped up by all and sundry.

At one time in more recent history Gainsboroughs were the most highly valued paintings in the world. Nowadays they are not so sought after – the market has moved on. It is this fickle nature of value – people as well as things – that is expertly lampooned throughout the tale. Cultural snobbery and its capriciousness along with the fixation of the masses on anyone deemed famous is, it seems, ageless.

The writing is engaging once the first few chapters have established the structure employed to progress each thread. Alternating chapters offer in turn: a scene from Gainsborough’s home life; the latest letter from Gainsborough’s footman to the young man’s mother; an episode from the making of the TV series. I particularly enjoyed the footman’s droll letters as these provide a window into the life of ordinary people living outside of London in Georgian times as well as unadorned commentary on the private and public behaviour of Gainsborough and his contemporaries. The TV series thread illustrates how little has changed. It is refreshing that the artistic elements of the story may be appreciated without either obsequiousness or expertise.

An entertaining social history replete with candid observations and witticisms. A reminder of the commerce required if artists are expected to continue to create. A deft and exuberant satire that is pointed whilst avoiding cruelty – enjoyable and well worth reading.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Lightning Books.

Book Review: A Long Shadow

A Long Shadow, by Caroline Kington, is a family saga set on a farm in the English West Country. It includes mystery, history and suspense. There are beautiful people and admirers vying for their attention. There are unpleasant characters and, by the end, the reasons behind their behaviour. There is the death of a farmer, Dan Maddicott, and a trail of clues to keep the reader guessing if his demise was accidental or something more sinister.

Before laying the groundwork for the main storyline, the reader is introduced to Susan who, as a teenager during the Second World War, fell pregnant to an American GI. Her cruel stepmother packed her off to a house of shame where such fallen women would give birth before handing their babies over for adoption. Susan plans her escape but ends up in an equally perilous predicament. The story moves back and forth between Susan’s subsequent life and that of Kate, Dan’s wife, at the start of the new millennium.

A third timeline details Dan’s life, cut short when he dies due to the discharge of a shotgun. Dan’s family have owned and run Watersmeet Farm for generations. Although an only child he has many cousins, two of whom, Max and Mary, he saw regularly throughout his childhood. Their visits to the farm ceased after an episode on a tenant’s property that inflamed a long running enmity. Jem and then Frank Leach are thorns in the side of the Maddicotts, but ones their landlords have little appetite to displace.

Dan lives within a close knit community and becomes the envy of his many friends. Until the BSE and then Foot and Mouth crises his farm prospered. The cattle he raises are regarded as of high quality. Dan wins the hand of the beautiful Kate who becomes his loving wife. We learn of their meeting and courtship; we are introduced to their two small children. That Dan’s death occurred shortly after he took out a life insurance policy has set local tongues wagging and causes his grieving widow to dig deeper into the farm’s history.

There are many supporting characters adding colour and shade. Dan has a loyal farm manager who supports Kate after her husband’s death. There are other farm hands who have varying inter-rivalries. Dan’s mother is calm and supportive and also a terrible cook. Kate’s mother in Cambridge is garrulous and selfish, blatantly favouring her younger daughter, the enchanting Emily.

Kate’s admirers include Max, an old flame. She grows closer to a widower who owns and runs a nearby farm. Her friends include Mary whose marriage suffers its own challenges. Acquaintances rally from across the country when Kate requires assistance. Despite the difficulties encountered over time by characters – domestic violence, alcoholism and homelessness, culls of livestock – at its heart these people have an enviable support network.

The tragedies, the comic characters, the question of how Dan died, keep the reader turning the pages. The writing is polished and well paced with a structure that maintains interest. The denouement tied up threads without changing characters’ behaviour.

There were few snags in the writing. I was, as ever, irritated by the need to mention a woman’s soft breasts. I was perplexed that pubic hair could be described as silky. Can people have button eyes? – I couldn’t picture what this meant. Such minor issues can be accepted when the tale, although in places idealistic, held its reader’s attention.

I enjoyed the moments of humour such as the older ladies’ competitive grandparenting. Emily was granted a great deal of power but perhaps men do fall so hard for a pretty woman who showers them with attention. Ivan was, unusually, an MP I regarded with a degree of empathy.

The setting offered an interesting perspective on farming with its never ending demands and ingrained duty. Taking Kate, a city girl, and placing her far from her burgeoning media career, much to the chagrin of family and friends, allowed the financial problems Dan encountered and then didn’t share with her some authenticity. The difficulty young farmers had finding partners now that women expect greater support and autonomy was just one of several asides to ponder.

This is a book worth considering if looking for a tale that is neatly written and not particularly demanding. Rural drama with sufficient variety and suspense to maintain reader engagement.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Lightning Books.

Book Review: Wolf Country

Wolf Country, by Tünde Farrand, is set in a future dystopian England. The rise in cost of supporting welfare claimants – the old, the sick, the disabled – was regarded as economically unsustainable so the elites changed the system. Only they may now own property, living in fenced off tracts of land in the countryside or in exclusive high rises in the city. Others – those capable of earning their Right to Reside – are provided with a home in a redeveloped area of a city, its size and facilities based on their monthly spend.

High Spenders populate the salubrious areas with Mid Spenders aspiring to join their ranks. Low Spenders are given little space and less security. People who run out of funds – non profitables – are either sent to a walled off wilderness known as the Zone to die amongst gangs of criminals or, if they had been consistent spenders for enough years, retire to a Dignitorium where they will be looked after for a set period of time before being terminated.

The story is told from the point of view of Alice, a school teacher married to an architect, Philip. On Boxing Day he goes missing, presumed dead in an explosion at a shopping complex. Distraught at her loss Alice struggles to cope, especially when she realises their extensive savings are severely depleted. Instead of looking forward to the expected promotion to High Spender, she faces the prospect of a future downgrade.

Chapters move around in time to offer glimpses of Alice’s childhood and then courtship with Philip. Her older sister, Sophia, had been a keen proponent of the new social order, going as far as to turn in a non profitable family member who resisted the local authority’s demand that they enter a Dignitorium. Alice hasn’t seen or spoken to Sophia since she left the family home to marry the son of an Owner.

Dignatoriums are not just for the elderly. Anyone who cannot maintain the prescribed lifestyle as a profitable member of society is regarded as an unacceptable drain on resources paid for by the hard working. Non profitables are openly castigated with anyone supporting them accused of selfishness in allowing them to live.

Philip’s father, a talented artist, lives in the Zone where he has somehow managed to survive for several years. He disapproved of his son’s choice of wife, regarding Alice as a willing puppet of a deeply flawed and cruel system. When Alice tries to find out what happened to Philip she gradually uncovers the truth behind the propaganda she has accepted all her life.

The denouement offers a salutary lesson. Although a bit much in places for my tastes, the clever final lines once again raise the bar and leave a strong impression.

Given contemporary attitudes to those in need – the rise in hate filled rhetoric and blaming of the poor and displaced – this is a chillingly believable depiction. The writing style brought to mind Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go with Alice’s compliant acceptance of the brain washing that ensures propagation of blatant consumerism and dehumanising of the needy or aged. The structure and flow are well balanced with moments of tension adding to reader engagement. This is an addictive and worryingly prescient read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Lightning Books.

Book Review: The Beat of the Pendulum

“We’re not bold enough about telling the truth. We mask it and muffle it.”

The Beat of the Pendulum, by Catherine Chidgey, is a depiction of one year in the author’s life created using fragments of conversation. Each day has an entry. Some of these are a few words long while others go on for pages. The conversations are with key figures, mainly family members. They cover the mundane minutiae of life including: looking after a baby; visiting elderly relatives whose minds are slipping; medical consultations; discussions with husband. As a writer the author has thoughts on her peers and on critics. The conversations transcribed have been recorded and are presented in a manner that appears unadorned. It is a brave approach as the portrayal may be real but is not flattering – which may be the point of the exercise.

“I had the idea that I could run very expensive, very exclusive creative writing workshops for wealthy tourists. But I’d have to look at a lot of shit writing.”

Chidgey teaches creative writing at the University of Waikato, New Zealand. Her views on her students are at times searing.

With a new novel due to be published she is concerned about its reception. There is resentment that her work is not appreciated as she believes it deserves. At the same time she is highly critical of books she reads, damning one with the faint praise: “onerous”, “not horrendous”.

“I’m sick of reading about stunning first novels by stunning debut novelists. They can all piss off. What about bitter disillusioned mid-career novelists?”

She is suspicious of anyone appearing to offer friendship then mentioning their own literary aspirations.

When her new book is released she instructs her husband to post about how proud he is of his talented wife on his Facebook timeline. She also adds a mention of the novel to her mother’s Christmas letter. Such self promotion is not a surprise but the manner in which it is done adds to her feelings of resentment at how her work is received.

Interactions with her elderly mother, who lives in a care home and is growing ever more forgetful, are more nuanced. Whilst recognising the repetitiveness and frustrations of these conversations – as will anyone with elderly relatives – they were lengthy. The whole book felt lengthy.

Family and friends get together and catch up on news of people known to an inner circle. Photographs are poured over in attempts to work out who is who and reminisce. Strangers to the group would be unable to follow the conversation and, as a reader, there is a need to care enough to concentrate. There are nuggets but also much repetition.

“I’m not missing Mum as such – I’m missing a memory.”

There are numerous entries on Chidgey’s health issues which she seems to think about a great deal. She also concerns herself with cleanliness, describing her daughter’s library books as “filthy”.

The author muses on her looks, especially her eyebrows when her photograph is to be taken. There are mentions of past acquaintances and a hope that they only see her more flattering images. Little interest or care is shown about what they may have achieved.

“I googled a lost loves’s name and found his obituary”

Chidgey is often on the lookout for ideas for a next book. Some of these would be funny if there were not an underlying cruelty.

“Book of unused acceptance speeches. I would contact celebrities and invite them to contribute.”

She shares her thoughts on literary events and interviews.

“You always say brilliant things.
No I don’t.
You do.
It makes me feel sick. I’ve said everything in the book, so just fuck off and read it.”

“I’m having to tell a story about the telling of the story, because telling the story isn’t enough these days.”

Many of the conversations are notably lacking in PC editing. Such honesty can be caustic.

Described as creative non fiction, this is a book that may appeal more to other authors. As a reader it made me question how authors truly regard us.

At close to five hundred pages of recorded conversations this was a challenge to finish. In writing this review I do not expect my opinion to be welcomed.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Lightning Books.

Book Review: Self and I

Self & I, by Matthew De Abaitua, is a cautionary yet always engaging tale, ideal for anyone who dreams of becoming a published author. Written in the form of a memoir it recalls true events and interactions from the author’s earlier years. It offers a reflection on a bygone era capturing how life was experienced without the maturity of hindsight. It remains mindful of those involved at the time.

In July 1994, twenty-two year old Matthew Humphreys was employed by Will Self as the newly divorced enfant terrible of the British literary scene’s amanuensis, translated as slave-at-hand. Matthew lived alongside the in-demand author in a remote cottage in Sussex. He was eager to learn from his new employer and develop his own writing. Matthew grew up in a Liverpool dormitory town, took a holiday job as a security guard on the city’s docks, attained an English Literature degree from the University of York, and studied creative writing at the University of East Anglia under the tutelage of Malcolm Bradbury. He was still waiting for his expected coming-of-age moment that would define what he would afterwards be.

1994 was before the internet and social media. Authors expected to be revered, to have readers accept whatever they were given. Writers sought validation from other writers, feeling anger and frustration when readers didn’t pay their work the attention they believed it deserved.

“A sympathetic protagonist, an easy and unassuming prose style, and a strong plot – these were marks of weakness. Signs of pandering to the reader. And who wants to hang out with that loser?”

Matthew was a naive young man full of big words and little understanding. Now a creative writing lecturer at the University of Essex he may well have written this book with his students in mind. It is very funny in places and offers an insight into the mindsets of both an aspiring and an established author. Will Self was well aware of how the world viewed him and worked on maintaining his reputation despite the personal costs. He offered the young Matthew practical help and advice whilst warning him against the excesses in which he himself regularly indulged.

“Play up the vivid persona and use it to smuggle the work into the culture. The side effect of such a public persona is that it becomes the object of other people’s frustrated ambition, and they take out their grievances upon the work.”

In the period covered Matthew is attempting to find his place in the world whilst learning to accept his own inadequacies. At times he struggles with the lonely life in the cottage and his relationships with the people he interacts with, including those from his home town.

“The people you leave behind, the life you reject. Old friends are signposts down an untaken path. Ambition requires betrayal.”

Matthew worked for Will Self for six months although they remained in contact for longer. As well as relating thoughts and incidents from this time he offers the reader pivotal periods from his background, and what came after. He recognises now that he didn’t yet have the lived experiences needed to strengthen his writing. He was impatient for the life he craved to begin.

“I was a young man who compared the books I read with the books in my head, and found them wanting.”

He quotes author Jenny Offill who wrote

“You are not allowed to compare your imagined accomplishments to our actual ones.”

The ups and downs of living with a big personality like Will Self is fascinating but the insights in this book come from the author’s musings on his own thoughts and actions at the time. He has captured the intense certitude of a young person alongside that giddy concern encountered when they realise achievements beyond qualifications do not come with a map. In time Matthew will become a published author. That path is but one in a life chequered by mixed experiences and not coming to an end with the longed for publication.

As a reader with no illusions of ever acquiring the skills needed to write a book I am probably comparable to the nineties authors’ derided fans. I wonder if, in private, we are still thus perceived.

“Novels give us access to other lives, a few of which might be our own. Literary ambition belongs to readers as well as writers.”

An original memoir that is both absorbing and highly entertaining. Recommended to all with an interest in the world of creative writers, their yearnings, perturbations and conceits.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Eye Books.

Book Review: The Hurtle of Hell

The Hurtle of Hell, by Simon Edge, opens with a near drowning during which the protagonist, Stefano Cartwright, has an out of body experience. He views himself from above surrounded by a concerned crowd as a stranger attempts to give him the kiss of life. Stefano then travels along a tunnel of light before briefly encountering a being he believes to be God. Prior to this Stefano would have regarded himself as an atheist having rejected Christian beliefs and teachings as a teenager. Now he faces a personal crisis, fearing his current lifestyle will result in an eternity condemned to hell. Stefano’s long term boyfriend, Adam, cannot understand what has happened. A gulf opens between them.

Meanwhile God is growing bored with his lonely life at the centre of the universe. He travels to its outer edges and contemplates what may lie beyond. He is perturbed to have been glimpsed while looking through the seeing tube that enables him to zoom in on features that grab his interest by a hominid from

“the third rock from a middle-sized star in a spiral galaxy in a part of his universe that he technically classified as ‘over there'”

God’s interest is piqued. He has never before been seen. He seeks out the hominid from time to time casually observing its strange habits and interactions with little understanding.

Stefano cannot shake his fears. Everywhere he looks he sees messages that he believes could be spiritual warnings meant for him. When Adam tries to help the situation worsens.

The narrative takes the reader back to Stefano’s childhood and the expectations of his parents. As he was coming to accept that he was gay, the AIDs epidemic was garnering media attention. Finding his home life intolerable Stefano moved to London, effectively reinventing himself and setting aside the family he left.

Following an unfortunate accident with his seeing tube, God must spend time learning more about these hominids. He discovers that they have attributed a great many strange powers to him which he regards with incredulity.

“Hominids could never have a realistic grasp of how insignificant they were, of the different scales on which they and the creator existed”

Nevertheless God makes the most of his new experiences, even growing fond of some who he observes. Their perspectives of the god they have invented and the universe in which they exist may be incompatible with practical reality but God derives pleasure from learning more about how they think and act during their brief lives.

The structure of the story flows with ease through the varying voices, providing insights into the prejudices, concerns and selfishness that each of the characters must face. The character of God adds much humour, his observations an effective commentary on organised religion and man’s exaggerated sense of his own value. It is both amusing and sobering to reflect on.

This is a light read but provokes sufficient questioning to maintain interest. An entertaining addition to my summer list.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Lightning Books. 

Book Review: Their Brilliant Careers

Their Brilliant Careers, by Ryan O’Neill, is a collection of sixteen short biographies of Australian writers you will never have heard of. This is because they don’t exist. Taking all the tropes and conceits of the highbrow literati, the author has constructed a literary world that is entirely believable. Many of the supporting characters are real whilst others are renamed but recognisable. This is a razor sharp satire but presented with dry wit and laugh out loud humour.

Such is the apparent authenticity of the presentation it is left to the reader to determine (or investigate – yes, I did) what is actually true. Did this book win the prizes or make the shortlists detailed on the cover? Is the author bio on the back flap authentic? As the author is a character, and his late wife (to whom the book is dedicated) one of the ‘extraordinary’ writers included, all is up for question. Even the index contains nuggets that should not be missed, for reasons that will become clear in the reading.

Given the often incestuous relationships between writers, editors, publishers and critics there are many overlaps between the biographies. Manuscripts accepted for publication, and those that are rejected, are too often selected by criteria that has little to do with what is contained within the pages. Names matter, especially when a serious tome is submitted bearing a female moniker. Misogyny is just one of the many prejudices ridiculed here.

Another is the pretentiousness of those who believe themselves arbiters of quality, especially within the sphere of the avant garde. I enjoyed the idea of an 800 page opus that stands out due to its exclusion of the letter e being seen as somehow worthy for that reason. As with several of the biographies, the cause of this author’s death provided a fitting punchline to his entry.

Literary magazines and their editors’ desire to find the next great writer are lampooned. There are numerous quotes from submissions, amongst them a poet whose nonsensical words are considered thus:

“Chapman’s nihilistic, ambiguous poems were unlike anything Berryman had come across […] opaque, allusive verse the work of a genius”

Another entry is for the daughter of an influential publisher who grows up considering herself a muse, insisting that every writer she meets include her in their books – or else. Another is for a writer who comes across the unpublished work of a nineteenth century author whose work appears to have inspired numerous classic novels. Plagiarism is explored as is the art of biography itself. The meta aspects of these entries add to the humour.

Tempted though I am to highlight the wit behind Sydney Steele’s entry, my favourite is that of Helen Harkaway. When Helen was told that her debut had become a runaway bestseller she baulked at the idea of fame and eschewed the usual promotional publicity. Instead she chose to live incognito at her remote estate. She feared that anyone straying onto her land could be a fan or reporter. Unable to countenance an increase in such activity, she instructed her publisher to hold her subsequent manuscripts until after her death. The run-ins with the public that she did experience merely exacerbated her concerns. Weaving Helen’s paranoia into the book’s real world was a fabulous play on certain celebrated writer’s conceits.

Rivalries and jealousies are satirised. Writers’ friendships are milked until they sour when glittering careers wane. The invented authors may be pastiches but their biographies could almost be authentic. They play on commonly mocked elements yet remain amusing rather than cruel.

An inspired concept written with deadpan humour that is throughout engaging and entertaining. For anyone with an interest in the rarified world of publishing, this is a recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Lightning Books.