Review: The Zoo

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by Jamie Mollart

5 stars

indexThe story of a successful ad-man’s descent into insanity told in alternating scenes: from his current post-breakdown life in a psychiatric unit, and the months immediately before when he was working on a new advertising campaign for a Dutch Bank – the tainted account that ultimately brings his drug and alcohol-fuelled world crashing down.
In the present, James Marlowe finds himself sectioned and incarcerated, living a life of almost constant horror, beset by frightening and paranoid delusions; a fantasy life staged on a set made of bizarre and horrifying hallucinations. Abandoned by his beloved wife and child and shunned by fellow inmates, James lives in terror of The Zoo, a collection of children’s toys – plastic figures who exert a malevolent hold on his imagination.
The Zoo is a mesmerising story. Bleak and dark, devoid of even a chink of hope until the absolute end, it is brilliantly well written, without an ounce of fat or padding. It had me hooked from beginning to intense and extraordinary end. Powerful. Astonishingly good. A truly remarkable début.

In honour of the final, magnificent episode of Mad Men

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I could write a review, but why bother when others have already done it better than I ever could.

Chris Harvey in The Telegraph.

And Jon Hamm in the New York Times.

It’s the Real Thing…

Review: The House of Hidden Mothers

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by Meera Syal

4 stars

61aExw9GOpL._AA160_This is a tale of two very different women living in two very different societies. In East London, successful businesswoman Shyama has fallen for a younger man. They want a child but she is now too old. In India, surrogacy is a booming business with life-changing payments for village women with few, if any other prospect of bettering themselves.
It’s a very engaging fiction about the lives of women and the essential vileness of men – at least that’s the central message I came away with. Very few males (it’s mainly the fathers) possess much honesty, decency or kindness. Almost all the younger specimens, even the best of them, are cheats and liars. The worst are rapists, even murderers. Few seem to have much genuine respect for women.
It’s not entirely one-sided, plenty of the women are hard to like too. I grew to loathe the surrogate Mala with her calculated, self-conscious ‘simple village ways’ and ingratiating grace. She is a remarkably cleverly-constructed character. All of her motives and actions are so well hidden. I was sorry for her at first, as I was meant to be. Such an intelligent, ambitious girl marooned by birth in a prison of arranged marriage and traditional values and expectations, trapped in a rural village with no hope of escape from a future of hard work, exploitation and childbearing. But almost from the start – from the moment Shyama takes her to the Mall – she proves herself an adept little schemer. I am certain she had everything planned from the moment she set her husband up as a wife-beater. Calculating, manipulative and utterly Machiavellian, I disliked her intensely. By contrast, she made the protagonist Shyama (the obvious cipher for the author) even more likeable than she was clearly intended to be.
The House of Hidden Mothers is too long; terribly over written in parts, with long, unnecessary digressions into Indian politics and the immigrant experience. It is also predictable – it was very apparent to me what would transpire in almost every storyline, especially the last and the biggest. But – despite all that – it was always very readable, always entertaining; I always wanted to know what was about to occur, even though I had already guessed. All the characters – even the least of them – are memorable and very well drawn. I particularly enjoyed Shyama’s beauty-salon colleagues and patrons, and scheming, devious Uncle Yogi and snobbish Auntie Neelum. Tara’s a bit of a pill, but teenagers usually are and she was perfectly portrayed.
So much of the story is told by conjecture; little is laid out in black and white. Syal tends to skirt over points of plot and leave much to the imagination. It’s an original way to tell a tale and one I enjoyed, having to read between the lines and think about it it. And – perhaps surprisingly, considering the author is best known for her comedy – this is not a light or easy read. Dark themes abound, there are some very nasty characters and the end is no comfort. It left me more than a little bit angry and with an aching sadness that there are no truly happy endings or tidy conclusions.

Far Side of the Moore

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MOORE3If you haven’t heard it yet, hurry off now and listen to this delicious radio play about how amateur astronomer Patrick Moore came to host the Sky at Night, the longest running programme with the same presenter in television history and – if the play is to be believed – also responsible for the programme’s title and music.

MOORE2Because of his ‘dicky ticker’, Moore was home-schooled by his mother Gertrude (played by Patricia Hodge) who also got him interested in stargazing to try to compensate for being kept at home and not allowed to play with other children.

The best of it was the comic madness engendered by the manic-rivalry- bordering-on-hatred between Moore and Dr Henry King (played by Anton Lesser). King’s poisonous phone calls to Moore, and to the BBC denouncing him, had me weeping with laughter.

Tom Hollander was superb as Moore. It’s maddening that this production will probably never make it on to TV (it would make a perfect Radio 4 film) because Tom Hollander looks nothing like – the polar opposite in fact – of Patrick Moore.

Do go and have a listen if you can – just click on the picture above. It will be on iplayer until 29th April and (hopefully) as a download soon.

Rather less hilarious was this week’s Inside Number 9. It was interesting, it was tense, it was packed with mild horror, but it wasn’t exactly a laugh a minute. The only funny thing in it was the irony of the ‘BBC Comedy’ logo at the end.

Review: A Year of Marvellous Ways

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by Sarah Winman

5 stars

MarvThe story of the last year of Marvellous Weeks, ninety years old and still bathing naked in the creek. Set (I’m guessing it’s never stated) in the Roseland Peninsula in Cornwall. It’s not an easy one to get into, with disparate characters introduced in stages, giving the opening chapters a jerky feel. The tale does not flow at the start and I can understand how some have found this hard to stick with and given up. It requires slow reading. It needs to be savoured. Stay with it: the story settles when the central characters come together to play their roles and a lush, eloquent, lyrical tale emerges. There’s Francis Drake, returned from the war to find then lose his one true love, his heart healed by Marvellous and her gift for the rhythms of nature and life. There’s Peace, whose moods can be tasted in the bread she bakes, loaves filled with names, songs and memories. Ned the fisherman is ‘Cornish through and through’ and woos, not with flowers, but bunches of whiting and oysters with ‘the coolness, the saltiness of a prince’s kiss’. And Marvellous herself, of course, a curious old woman who bathes naked and lives alone in a gypsy caravan, ‘part woman, part child and neither knew what to do with the other’, living in a landscape ‘rich with leaf mulch and salt mud’, where dawn winds blister across corrugated sands. Of ‘dirt grass moor and sand, a whole history of the Peninsula laid down one on top of the other, like fossils, like prayers.’ The poetry of the writing is, above all, what lifts this book and makes it sing. The description is lavish, prosaic and literary, but this never stalls the storytelling. A deeply moving tale told almost entirely in flashback, peppered with gentle twists and small surprises that became (after that admittedly very slow start) absolutely compelling. One bit of the last chapter made me sigh rather (it is a bit pat) but Marvellous’ final parting more than made up for it. It is one of the most moving things I have ever read. A beautiful end to a beautiful novel.

Review: The Chimes

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by Anna Smaill

5 stars

ChimesI read many wonderful books but rarely anything so singular, poetic, exceptional, as utterly unique as The Chimes.
On the surface, this is yet another post-apocalyptic, dystopian story of life amidst the horrors of a state ruled by a remote elite – in this case, a quasi-religious order of absolutist purity, where words are nothing and music is all. The Order exert control by stealing memory, effectively crippling all dissent, keeping the population cowed and bovine, “nameless wandering ones… clustered for comfort… like sheep on the public green: memorylost”. The Ravensguild, a loose gathering of dissenters able to retain memories, keep memory for others and pass them on, have been all but wiped out. Those who remain live isolated, in terror of discovery.
This is an absorbing and enthralling story lifted beyond mere page-turnery by enchanting, lyrical writing of unusual breadth and depth of imagination. Engaging characters speak a curious new language to fit this strange world ruled by music. People travel in beats, smell in song, move lento or alto –
“The first street I pass carries the waft and song of peanuts cooked in caramel… I pass bakers singing yeasted bread… the homely note of one tune weaves its way out of the rest… a solo voice singing, though it’s not so much a tune so much as a quick underbreath patter to match the rhythm of boiling water and hissing water.” It’s clever, charming stuff, but never clumsy, difficult or unreadable. It does not get in the way of the story. It’s a little challenging at first, but once you adapt to its rhythms and pace, the language soon makes perfect sense and what emerges is a cracking tale told with a softly musical, poetic touch. Anna Smaill’s prose sings on the page and makes the grim, fallen world she imagines almost beautiful.
I feel the cover needs a mention too: so pure and stark with a centre-piece of vivid colour and detail. I couldn’t stop looking at it.
Rarely do books hold quite such a rich and profound depth of wonders as this. This is the best book I’ve read this year by miles. If there’s a better book to come, I can’t wait to read it.

The word-hoard

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Robert Macfarlane on rewilding our language of landscape –

RoarieFor decades the leading nature writer has been collecting unusual words for landscapes and natural phenomena – from aquabob to zawn. It’s a lexicon we need to cherish in an age when a junior dictionary finds room for ‘broadband’ but has no place for ‘bluebell’ – Click on the pic to read the rest

Review: The Well

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by Catherine Chanter

4 stars

wellThe Well is a truly entrancing read. Once begun, I couldn’t let it go. I read it in three evenings. It spoiled more than one night’s sleep – but not because of the plot, because the plot is rather weak; I found most of it more than a bit hard to believe. The premise is borderline supernatural, though nothing else in Chanter’s semi-dystopian world is, but the curious anomaly of the rain falling in one small spot in the midst of a heinous drought is never explained or even the cause of much practical curiosity. And I was never convinced by Amelia’s hold over Ruth. The necessary degree of hypnotic, Manson-like charisma seemed entirely lacking in her. I found her immediately sinister and untrustworthy. I would have had her off my land in half a heartbeat.  The story was also very predictable – disappointingly so: absolutely nothing in this story came as a surprise. But still, I had to know how it was going to resolve, if it would end as I was sure it must (and it did).
The seduction of this novel is all in the quality of Catherine Chanter’s writing, which is sublime; world class. The woman can certainly tell a tale and, though I didn’t find her tale particularly original or convincing, it is so fabulously told. From beginning to end, The Well is mesmerizing, enchanting, utterly compelling – not quite a masterpiece, but in time, maybe next time, Catherine Chanter is sure to produce one, because her writing and her storytelling is some of the best I’ve read in years.

Review: The Altogether Unexpected Disappearance of Atticus Craftsman

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by Maman Sanchez

4 stars

indexSent by his father to Madrid, on a mission to close a failing magazine, Librarte, a shy young Englishman, Atticus Craftsman has gone missing. A lazy and inept policeman, Inspector Manchego is charged with finding what has happened to the young man, whilst getting deeply involved with the all-female employees of Librarte, who all seem to have something to hide.
This is a wonderfully quirky, fresh and original comedy; a light and easy read. A story led by its characters, and what a wonderfully well-drawn, eccentric bunch they are: Beta, the literary spinster and leader of the group; Gabriela, whose marriage to her Argentinian is failing under her need to conceive; the apparently staid, married Maria with her five children, whose guilty secrets threaten everyone’s security; poor fat and getting fatter Asunción, whose husband has just dumped her and run away with an sir stewardess; and beautiful, unpredictable southern spitfire Solea, who is destined to play such an important role in the disappearance of Atticus Craftsman.
The English characters are not terribly believable and more than a little cliché – the Craftsmen man all appear to have been based on Jacob Rees-Mogg – but that doesn’t really matter very much. This is a comedy, a farce, a fantasy, and a very good and enjoyable one at that.

We are watching The Web of Fear…

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Poppy remains deeply concerned about Yeti plans for the invasion of Earth.

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