Book Review: Billionaires’ Banquet

Billionaires’ Banquet, by Ron Butlin, is a wry tale of a group of Edinburgh students living in Thatcher’s Britain. They are on the cusp of the rest of their lives, ready to move beyond their years of drink fuelled casual sex in the cold and cluttered bedrooms of cheap shared accommodation.

Hume holds a PhD in philosophy but has yet to secure a permanent job. Cat is awaiting the results of her Pure Mathematics Masters degree and is expecting to receive a First. St Francis dropped out of training for the priesthood so is signing on. These three share a tenement flat, four stories above street level and owned by Electric Boy who has his recording studio in the attic above.

On Midsummer’s Eve, 1985, a Spaghetti Banquet is in progress in their kitchen. Electric Boy has brought his girlfriend. Visiting the flat for the first time is DD, a music student invited by a friend who failed to show. All are looking to their dreamed of futures while carrying baggage from their pasts.

As the summer progresses into autumn Hume comes to realise that his life is not going to travel its expected path. Cat has disappeared and DD is growing impatient with Hume’s stasis. If he is to move beyond pot noodle dinners and avoid turning into one of the homeless beggars beginning to appear on the city streets then he needs to take responsibility, grasp the opportunities supposedly on offer, and secure a decent paying job. He comes up with an idea, at once brilliant and absurd. With a few convincing lies, some help from his friends and a great wodge of luck he pulls it off.

Fast forward twenty years and the group’s life has undergone radical change. Some of Hume’s business associates may be dodgy but he has reaped his rewards. He has also discovered that such success comes at a cost.

Whilst the Occupy movement demonstrates against capitalism and the western powers shout about fighting terrorism, Hume decides to cast off his shadier connections and raise money for a cause. He will host a Billionaires’ Banquet, a high profile showcase to establish his business in the more ethical space to which he aspires.

There is a dark humour to the writing as the characters attempt to navigate a world where success is measured in wealth yet is defined as hard work by those who look with disdain on the faceless workers who keep the cogs of their businesses turning. The climax is a brilliant satire that invoked shades of Ballard’s High Rise. The ways of the world are understood by those who have experienced its seedy underside rather than by the idealistic intellectuals.

Within the context of a spirited story the author brings into focus the cost of a nation’s greed. An evolving Edinburgh provides the perfect backdrop. This is a contemporary parable that insightfully entertains.

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

Book Review: The Clocks In This House All Tell Different Times

The Clocks In This House All Tell Different Times, by Xan Brooks, is a mesmeric tale of loss and survival. Set a few years after the end of the First World War, its cast of characters include those who have returned from the conflict and the families of those who did not. There are the bruised and haunted, scoundrals and chancers, and the wealthy privileged whose carefully managed roles ensured they were barely touched. All wish to look to the future yet remain affected by the still recent past.

Lucy Marsh and her younger brother Tom, having been left orphans, are sent to live with their paternal grandparents who run a now failing pub. Money is tight so Lucy, along with three other young teenagers, is sent to work with two groundsmen from Grantwood House, the home of Lord Hertford. His Lordship runs a charitable foundation which helps injured war veterans and has provided accommodation on his estate for four soldiers who suffered horrific injuries in the war. Each Sunday evening the children are driven to Epping Forest where they are required to spend time with these men.

The leader amongst the children is Winifred. She and Lucy become friends. They refer to the damaged soldiers as the Funny Men and have their favourites, regarding the behaviour required of them as distasteful but not so much worse than other tasks demanded of them at home. The forest evenings have interludes when they can savour small pleasures rarely offered in their difficult lives. Despite why they pay for the youngsters company, the Funny Men provide an enlightening, if disquieting, diversion.

“He tells her that the trees in the forest are several centuries old but have been kept healthy by a process called pollarding, which involves stripping back the upper limbs. When a tree is top heavy it will topple or split and very likely crash into its neighbours and bring them down as well. The pollarding prevents that; it ensures growth and progress. He says that every society, however advanced, could use some pollarding every now and again.”

When events force an end to these outings Lucy and Winifred become more directly involved with goings on at Grantwood House. The heir to the estate gathers misfits and miscreants to entertain him and his peers at drug fuelled parties. Over the course of a summer he draws the Funny Men into this web. The heir and his father believe themselves to be forward thinking, benevolent supporters of the downtrodden proletariat. Naturally they regard themselves as superior.

“Mobility and equality – these are things I will always support. And yet it follows that mobility is most effective and lasting when it is properly regulated. This is why we look to sensible, progressive members of the ruling class. To ensure there is free movement and proper fairness for all. […] Let me state it quite plainly. Men like him have done more for men like you than men like you have ever done for yourself.”

The author has created a compelling tale and so much more. The actions of each of the characters are in many ways reprehensible yet, given circumstances, the reader cannot help but empathise. There is a lingering poignancy but also resilience and determination. Despite the catastrophic climax the denouement is uplifting.

A book with heart and soul that is original, penetrative and engaging. It should be relished by every discerning reader.

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

Random Musings: Lessons in Mind Control #StanlysGhost

I recently reviewed Stanly’s Ghost, the final installment in Stefan Mohamed’s Bitter Sixteen Trilogy. This is a fantasy adventure series aimed at young adults and you may read my review here. For many it will be a fun, action packed tale of intrepid if somewhat geeky heroes fighting monsters and evil overlords. They save the world, and more specifically their friends, from the power grabbing intentions of a ruling elite led by a smarmy yet dastardly megalomaniac named Freeman. Whilst thoroughly enjoying the story, what I took from it were parallels with our current reality.

One of the powers being abused by the bad guy is mind control. He and his acolytes use this not only to subdue and get their way but as an instrument of torture, a way of destroying those who attempt to thwart their plans. In the basement of their headquarters are prison cells within which superpowers may be neutralised. Freeman prefers to harness these superpowers for his own ends, but any who refuse to comply with his demands are taken down.

The hero, eighteen year old Stanly Bird, is in many ways charmingly naive. He wants above all else to do what is right. The problem is that to thwart Freeman’s plans he has to engage in similar activities. Stanly also harnesses mind control to get others to do his bidding. This is often to the good – he banishes a wife beater – but to get rid of Freeman it is suggested he will have to kill, or at least send his enemy to another realm, preferably one where he will suffer for his misdeeds. Freeman had sent Stanly to another realm in a previous book in the series, supposedly for the greater good. What is the difference?

All this set me thinking about the UK where political thinking has recently become more polarised. The last General Election (in 2015) was challenging as no parties seemed to represent ordinary people, that is, those who could not directly benefit the politicians. It was hard to choose who to vote for when all candidates talked in misleading soundbites and demonstrated blatant self-interest. A change was needed, and with the subsequent battle for the Labour Party leadership and then the vote for Brexit this was achieved. Now the country seems even more divided and discontent. The uncertainty that change brings is not being well received.

Before the General Election many complained about the Prime Minister, Cameron. They are not happy with his successor, May. The Labour Party leader, Milliband, was widely mocked for his willingness to compromise, yet his successor, Corbyn, is disliked for his steadfastness – he is regarded by many as ineffectual. Before Brexit many complained about the waste and perceived cronyism within the EU. Now leaving it is being decried as a national disaster. Change is demanded, but only if it follows the agenda of particular groups.

“I love Europe. I love its peoples, its culture, its food, its architecture, its common heritage, its cultural diversity, its trains, its art, music and drama, its literature and poetry, its history and the richness of its land. It’s just the EU that I loathe.”

In Stanly’s Ghost, Freeman has taken the power that Stanly’s previous actions granted him and used it to achieve a number of good things. The country is stable, infrastructure projects provide work, sustainable power sources are harnessed. There is still discontent, particularly amongst those who struggle to accept the empowered living openly and displaying their differences. Certain unempowered people would prefer to go back to when they could regard themselves as superior.

To take Freeman down would be to throw the country, and possibly the world, into the unknown. New leaders would emerge, and they may be no better. What right have Stanly and his friends to forcefully decide what is good for the wider population?

“A revolution is not successful or complete until a new set of oppressors consolidate their power.”

One plot line in the story involves a drug that could be added to the water to quietly remove all superpowers. In one sense this would make everyone equal. Stanly argues that individuals should not have the drug foisted on them, that they should be offered a choice. Who would choose to give up their privilege? It may be commendable to wish for a better life for the downtrodden and oppressed, but few are willing to sacrifice the comforts they enjoy in order to achieve equality and the downgrade in their own lifestyle that this may bring, even when they can see that they bear a degree of culpability for other’s suffering. Think of the current attitude towards immigrants and refugees.

The superpowered in Stanly’s Ghost use mind control. In our world this is achieved through the skewed and biased dissemination of information. It is too easy to regard those who hold views that are anathema as fools. Both sides do this. The reality is a great deal more complex than many seem able to accept.

“Beware the new imperial elite: athiest, rational, convinced of their rights, prepared to trample the responsibility of individuals, families, communities and local institutions for themselves and substitute central control and governance ‘for the greater good'”

Stanly struggles with his conscience as he tries to decide what he should do. In a fast moving environment, where knowledge that may damage the standing of the powerful is witheld, it can be difficult to discern what the right decision may be. With hindsight there could be regret, but who can say with any certainty how any alternative result would have played out?

“The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.”

“Good science is not about crusading with preconceived ideas. It’s about asking why, and seeking the truth, however inconvenient it might be”

Stanly’s Ghost is published by Salt and is available to buy now.

The quotes I have used in this post are not taken from the book. They have been inserted to illustrate points of view, not necessarily my own.

Book Review: Stanly’s Ghost

“That brief, glowing time when an afternoon spent on the lawn with only a cardboard box and a stick for company was an afternoon well spent. That time which, like all times, you didn’t truly appreciate until you realised it had long passed.

But then there’s new times. And you do those.”

Stanly’s Ghost, by Stefan Mohamed, is the third book in the author’s Bitter Sixteen Trilogy. I review the first two books here and here. In this final installment the teenage superhero, Stanly Bird, discovers that he has somehow been released from his suspended dreamstate amongst the shimmers who unleashed monsters into his world. Stanly’s awakening is abrupt and confusing, with images imprinting themselves on his memory that he cannot explain. When he returns to London he finds that time has moved on and much has changed.

Stanly’s old nemesis, Freeman, is running what is now known as Angelcorps, working with governments and heads of state to manage the roles empowered individuals can usefully play in a society still being rebuilt after the Collision. Registration and enhanced surveillance have been widely accepted, for the good of the people (of course). What actually happened, and Stanly’s role in this, have been altered in people’s memories. Alongside the myriad of superpowers now being openly wielded, the most pervasive is mind control. Stanly needs to learn quickly if he is to avoid being manipulated. His powers are particularly strong and Angelcorp will only allow him to operate in the public sphere if Freeman retains control.

Like the previous two installments in this series, the writing is witty and candid with many passing references to popular culture. Unlike his friends, Stanly has not aged so is still eighteen years old. He is impulsive, somewhat arrogant and has little understanding of the organisation he is up against. His powers have grown exponentially and he is determined to use them to help his friends. He harbours a desire to be a force for good in the world, a comic book superhero. His problem lies in deciding what good means.

Into this maelstrom of conflicting emotions and risky exposures appears another powerful individual who also wishes to influence Stanly’s behaviour. The Collision proved that alternative worlds exist and he shows Stanly that it is possible to move between them. Stanly has the power to rid his world of a dangerous megalomaniac but he fears what doing so would make him.

Issues are explored with the lightest of touches whilst following Stanly as he flies around London, throwing large objects whilst reading people’s minds and using the force, or whatever it should be called in this tale. The narrative is funny and quick, poignant and honest in its depiction of a teenager trying to retain some control over his life when most of the time he hasn’t a clue what exactly he wants to do or to be.

After the epic battles and revelations I wondered how the author could create a saisfying denouement. He does so with aplomb. There may be no easy answers to the massive questions, nor to those Stanly struggles with on a personal level, but the final page is a perfect fit with all that has gone before.

An adrenaline inducing adventure that never takes itself too seriously. The writing flows and the action is fist-pumpingly good. A must read for anyone who has ever dreamed of having superpowers. Always fun and entertaining, yet it is the originality and depth that truly impressed me.

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

 

Gig Review: The Greenwich Book Festival

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Words and ideas come to life in two days of author events, discussions and creative workshops on the banks of the River Thames, hosted by the University of Greenwich in the historic buildings and grounds of the Old Royal Naval College and National Maritime Museum.

Yesterday was a day of firsts. My first time travelling the DLR through London’s docklands, my first visit to beautiful Greenwich, and my first ever book festival. The setting was wondrous and the weather couldn’t have been better. The event itself had a friendly, buzzing vibe with students of the university ensuring all attendees knew where to find the sessions they wished to attend. The grass outside was filled with picnicing families and excited children meeting characters from their favourite books. I was able to observe many of the bookish folk whose twitter feeds I enjoy.

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I had booked myself into four of the many talks and workshops on offer. The first of these was a panel discussion with Stefan Tobler from And Other Stories Publishing, Sam Jordison from Galley Beggar Press and Jen Hamilton-Emery from Salt Publishing, on the pros, cons, and growing importance of independent publishing in an increasingly commercial climate.

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They discussed the advantages of being both small and independent. These included low overheads (two of the three work out of their homes); no need to live in London, with the cost savings this provides; and the ability to publish only books they truly love and wish to read themselves. The disadvantages included the cost risk of big print runs when books sell well, particularly when they are included on literary prize shortlists (something they all desire but which presents logistical challenges), and the sheer volume of books that they need to find somewhere to store!

The demise of the net book agreement removed the level playing field for booksellers, something exacerbated by the rise of Amazon. There was agreement that the decision to set up a small press was made with a mixture of idealism and ignorance, but the consensus remained that it was worth doing. Any in the audience who have read books from these publishers would certainly agree with that.

For my second booked session, Inside the Mind of an Outsider, I was joined by my daughter who had been exploring the impressive grounds of the Old Naval College and visiting the Maritime Museum. She is a medical student with a particular interest in neurology so I had given her Alex Pheby’s Playthings to read. Alex was joined by Andrew Hankinson (author of You Could Do Something Amazing With Your Life (You Are Roaul Moat)), and Anakana Schofield (author of Martin John) to discuss art and the idea of madness. The event was skillfully chaired by Guardian writer Susanna Rustin.

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Each of the authors gave a reading from their book and talked of how they had created their story. They discussed what is meant by reality and truth, how culturally significant our understanding of these things are. They agreed that fiction enables greater verity as there is less demand for perceived accuaracy. Fiction is not a social science.

There was mention of risk in publishing books that may be regarded as difficult. They mused that Sales and Marketing people tend to like genres, that celebrity authors sell. I gained the impression that amongst this audience, literary quality and depth matters more than a name.

Time ran out with many in the audience still eager to join the discussion. My daughter was itching to talk to Alex but we were booked into another session so moved on.

This third event was such a joy any lingering disappointment at an opportunity missed was soon dispelled. Chris Cleave (author of Everyone Brave is Forgiven) was interviewed by Hannah Beckerman and the rapport between them created an intimate and utterly engaging hour of thought provoking and inspirational discussion.

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Chris talked of how history is related, that it is as much a commentary on the time being lived now as on the past. He believes that we are currently at a perfect distance to rexamine the Second World War as it is still within living memory but not too close.

The research he undertook for his book took him to Malta where he visited military graves, each the final resting place of half a dozen men. The soldiers were too hungry and exhausted to dig individual graves for their many fallen. Such details would neither be known nor understood had he not been there to ask pertinent questions.

Chris mused on how the young people at the time (many who signed up were still in their teens) became principled enough to take a stand and united enough to act. He did not believe that soldiers merely carried out orders but that they acted to protect those they loved, comrades as well as family.

He talked of bravery, how it may be learned and then grow. He also spoke of the importance of forgiveness, how nobody will have a morally clean war, dubious choices will be made. He speculated that modern warfare never truly ends as there is no victory or coming to terms with defeat as in the Second World War. This makes moving on a greater challenge.

As well as the many strands of research, experience and musings Chris talked of the importance of humour, and of a jar of jam that became a talisman. We now understood why refreshments offered for this talk included delicious jam sandwiches.

Having sat through three hours straight of fascinating talks I now needed air and a drink. Declining the offered tickets for additional talks we retired to the river bank for a break.

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Refreshed we returned for our final session titled Reality Skewed: Inside characters who see things differently. Paul Ewen (aka Francis Plug) and Adam Biles (whose book, Feeding Time, is to be published by Galley Beggar Press in August) talked to Sam Jordison about what their wayward characters can tell us about ourselves. Literature doesn’t always just allow us to see the world with new eyes; it allows us to access an entirely different conception of reality.

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As a Galley Buddy I will get a copy of Adam’s book hot off the press so it was interesting to hear more about it. Set in an old people’s home, with a protagonist who believes he is a prisoner of war, the reading Adam gave us left me intrigued. I have yet to read a Galley Beggar book that I have not enjoyed so am looking forward to receiving my black cover edition.

I have read Paul’s book (my review is here) but had not, perhaps, fully appreciated all of the deadpan humour it contains. He read out part of a speech he gave at Dulwich Bookshop on behalf of Francis, who has somehow become quite real, and had us in stitches. The apparently inebriated lady who subsequently asked him questions added to the slightly surreal quality of this highly entertaining event.

There was more to come at the festival but my daughter and I had to head home, her to halls for yet more exam revision, and me to make my way out to Wiltshire before the day ended and my promised pick up retired to bed. With the knowledge that my husband would huff at yet more book purchases I confined myself to buying just the one book that both my daughter and I were now eager to read. It was a fabulous day.

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The Greenwich Book Festival is part of the Royal Greenwich Festivals; a programme of events and activities delivered in venues, parks and open spaces across the Royal Borough.

Book Review: Death and the Seaside

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Death and the Seaside, by Alison Moore, introduces the reader to two women whose lives overlap with devastating results.

Bonnie is approaching her thirtieth birthday but her life has been stunted, much to the frustration of her overbearing parents who regard their daughter as clumsy and incapable. Her mother is constantly impatient with her daughter. Her father systematically puts her down. When they require her to move out of the family home she finds a small flat in a converted house owned by Sylvia, an enigmatic landlady who starts to take an invasive interest in the detail of Bonnie’s life.

Bonnie is an aspiring writer. She is well read and studied English Literature at university. Having dropped out in her final year she did not graduate and now works as a cleaner. She is not the most reliable of employees, struggling to find work  and rarely holding down any job for long.

The book opens with a chapter from Bonnie’s latest story. She starts many stories but takes none to completion. It soon becomes clear that her stories are variations and reflections of her own life.

Sylvia mentions early on that she had met Bonnie and her mother when Bonnie was a child but does not elaborate. She offers little of her own background, the burgeoning friendship being one way and controlling. Bonnie has few friends and welcomes attention from whatever source.

Sylvia reads Bonnie’s latest story and encourages her to write more. When Bonnie is unable to tell her the planned ending she suggests that they take a holiday at the setting of the tale, a seaside town Bonnie visited as a child, in order to generate inspiration. Bonnie is excited to be taking a holiday with a friend despite her accommodation requests being ignored.

A sinister undercurrent pervades the tale. On the surface it is is a variation on the theme of a lonely young women who is influenced by a stronger personality. Lurking unsaid is what Sylvia wants from Bonnie and why.

The pleasure of reading is in the detail: Bonnie’s apparent acceptance of her oppressive existence; her relationship with work colleagues, young men, her constantly critical parents. Bonnie appears adrift in the world. Her knowledge of literature and the intelligence this suggests belying the current state of her life.

As Sylvia’s background is revealed the plot takes a sinister turn. The reader is left with much to ponder about influences, known and unknown.

At 160 pages this is not a long read. For the size of the work it packs a mighty, subversive punch.

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

Book Review: Little Egypt

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Little Egypt, by Lesley Glaister, tells the story of nonagenarian twins, Isis and Osiris, who are living in their ancestral and now derelict home hemmed in by a railway line, a dual carriageway and a modern superstore. They haven’t seen nor spoken to each other in ten years. Isis takes her trolley across the bridge that connects their land with the store to collect supplies, then places food in a bucket for her brother to pull upstairs where he resides while she lives below. When the food is not collected she becomes concerned but fears to climb the rotting stairway, both for her own safety and for what she may find.

Isis likes the superstore for its warmth, facilities and her contact with the people she has come to know there. Having it close by makes shopping so much easier, an important consideration now she is old. The meadow on which it was built once belonged to her family. She sold it to developers ten years ago in order to stay solvent, causing the rift with her brother. Her grandfather started this family trend when he sold land to the railway company in the previous century. Her uncle sold another portion for the road between the wars.

Some of the food Isis brings home comes from dumpsters behind the store, fished out by her young friend, a self declared anarchist named Spike. When Spike mentions that developers will allow nothing to stand in the way of profit it plants a seed of hope in Isis that she may finally be able to leave the prison her home became when she was a teenager. The need to guard a dark secret has kept her and her brother trapped but now she ponders the possibility of escape.

The reader is taken back to when the twins had just turned thirteen. Their parents, obsessed with Ancient Egypt, had left the children in the care of a servant in order to fulfil their dream of discovering the tomb of Herihor. They sold almost everything of value to pay for their quest and set out full of enthusiasm, never to return.

With no money to pay for a tutor and an aversion to allowing their children to be educated with those they considered social inferiors, Isis must fill the long days amusing herself. Osiris spends his days reading of Egypt and teaching himself to write in hierolglyphs. He is fascinated by the Ancient Egyptian’s rituals for the dead.

Jumping between time periods the reason for the twins’ incarceration is gradually revealed. It is a story of loneliness, fortitude and the consequences of injudicious choices made by abandoned children which will haunt their lives. The unloved Isis remained loyal to her atypical brother. She did not believe that, should they admit to what they had done, he could survive the rancour of the wider world.

Beautifully written and with fully rounded characters there is much humour alongside the poignancy of the unfolding tale. I loved the idea that this old lady, born to privilege, should derive pleasure from all she is able to see of modern life, this superstore, and dream of selling up and moving on. With so much emphasis these days on preservation it is refreshing to consider change as good. The old days and ways recounted here offer little to remember of past times which should ever be considered fondly.

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