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Trevor Coote "Trevor Coote" (Tahiti, French Polynesia)
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A Week in December
A Week in December
by Sebastian Faulks
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.74

4.0 out of 5 stars A cleverly constructed satire on modern metropolitan life and its ills, 3 Feb. 2015
This review is from: A Week in December (Paperback)
Normally I find myself wondering what all the hype is about over some moderate, overrated novel but in this case I am surprised by the calumny heaped upon what I consider to be rather a good work. A Week in December is not original but nevertheless is a cleverly constructed and at times compelling satire on modern metropolitan life and its ills. It is not, as claimed, ‘edgy’ or ‘vicious’ satire. Charlie Brooker is edgy. Doug Stanhope is vicious. Sebastian Faulks is much too polite to tear into ordinary folks with gnashing incisors and instead we are treated to a clever and amusing depiction of a handful of disparate individuals (cleverly linked in a convoluted way) eking out their starkly different lives among the London swarms. Unlike many modern novels, not all the characters are objectionable (a hallmark of ‘vicious’ satire). Even the wannabe jihadist is treated with unusual sensitivity, though there have been the inevitable rumblings about mild remarks made about the Koran. There is, though, one odious individual, hedge fund manager John Veals, a true comic creation – if a little flat – a Sherman McCoy for the Noughties. But Veals is more than just a cartoon baddie; he is plainly a vehicle for the author’s transparent anger against the avaricious and morally bankrupt financiers who provoked the 2008 global financial meltdown, and it is a very informed anger.
The principal criticism levelled against Faulks is one of stereotyping, the bÍte noir of political correctness. In a quasi-comic novel of this sort I do not think that that is an especially serious offence. Stereotypes are based in some kind of reality (dour, sardonic, cautious Brazilians or exuberant, happy-go-lucky, reckless Germans would not wash) and can be used to good comic effect in the hands of an accomplished writer, but they should never be used to judge an individual, and they are not here. My more valid criticism is that the author’s generally justified ridicule of the ever expanding social and technological trivia of our time too often comes across as old man grumbling about change. Besides, we have become familiar with satires on reality TV and social media. In summary, I enjoyed a Week in December and I recommend – with minor reservations – that fans of Booker-style fiction give it a go, but soon as, with only six years since publication (as I write), it already shows early signs of dating.


Lowlife, The
Lowlife, The
by Alexander Baron
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

4.0 out of 5 stars Hackney before the retro bars and coffee shops, 31 Jan. 2015
This review is from: Lowlife, The (Paperback)
Hackney, late 1950’s: a shabby world of slum tenements and slum landlords, low-paid workers and petty criminals, augmented by recent arrivals from Jamaica. But it is also a staging post for upwardly mobile Jews en route from Whitechapel and Spitalfields to Golders Green and Finchley (where there are ‘houses at forty thousand’!). Harryboy, addicted gambler, wastrel and Jewish wide boy, lives alone in his Dalston flat reading Zola. He makes regular excursions to (the now long-extinct) Harringay dog track, to Finchley to see his doting sister who has married a rich bookmaker, and to Mayfair to sleep with wealthy tart Marcia. From day-to-day he keeps himself to himself until a new family moves into the boarding house where he resides and turns his life upside down. The Deaners are a lower middle-class family who are struggling financially and have had to decamp to Hackney from (the then) suburban Ilford. Harryboy befriends the weak and hen-pecked clerk Vic, taking him to the dog track and regaling him with exaggerated tales of financial success. His wife, the snobbish Evelyn, disgusted and ashamed of their lowly position, intensely dislikes Harryboy, and is jealous of her husband and young son Gregory’s admiration of him. These complicated relationships are a recipe for disaster, especially when gambling debts take a grip.

The Lowlife is a largely forgotten work which falls firmly in the kitchen sink genre. It is a fairly short novel and not especially wide-ranging. However, it is a fine evocation of working-class, post-war London with its undercurrent of violence, and of the peculiar, almost quaint, attitudes of that time. It successfully conveys the inflexible class divides and the ambivalent and often hostile attitude to Commonwealth immigration, and there have been few better depictions of gambling addiction and its consequences. I would recommend it mostly to those interested in London post-war social history in fiction.


First Touch
First Touch
by J. J. Welsh
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Exploiteurs sans frontières, 10 Nov. 2014
This review is from: First Touch (Paperback)
Having grown up with crunching 1960s/70s English club football the continental version of the game had always remained a mystery to me. When gentrification and commercialisation changed the sport out of recognition in the 1990s I was all at sea and lost interest. First Touch, which delves into the agency and talent-spotting side of international football and the impoverished social milieu vulnerable to its sharp practices, goes some way to enlightening me and bringing me up to date. It is ostensibly a story about two hopeful teenagers from the Ivory Coast with dreams of becoming rich footballers in Europe but who arrive in France by different routes and who have contrasting experiences there. To an extent, though, the principal characters are pawns in a story that aims to expose the potential hazards and pitfalls awaiting naÔve African youngsters as they are forced to run the gauntlet of predators, parasites and exploiters lurking in the murky world of business agents. In fact, there are a number of amusing scenes where agents, scouts, managers and assorted other individuals peripheral or integral to the game appear to outnumber spectators, eying each other suspiciously and second-guessing motivations; amusing because, in the end, there are enough reputable and concerned agencies and individuals to save the day. What is evident, though, is that exploitation in the football world is a global scourge which at the basic level is a form of people-trafficking.
First Touch is a decent story, thoroughly researched, perfectly paced, of ideal length and with the minimum of typos. It is an enjoyable reading experience accessible to anybody over 12 whether they are interested or not in football.


Suedehead
Suedehead

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A seventies curiosity, nothing more, 26 May 2014
This review is from: Suedehead (Kindle Edition)
As a London teenager in the late 60's/early 70's who had been force-fed Canterbury Tales and Silas Marner at school, Richard Allen's pulp novels made an immediate impact. They were exciting, aggressive and titillating at an age and in an era when it didn't take much to elicit such emotions. The `hero' Joe Hawkins is an antisocial youth who rejects all authority and does as he pleases for immediate gratification, regardless of the consequences. It was what we all dreamed of doing but in the main lacked the courage or were hamstrung by social restraint. Skinhead-ism at that time was essentially a working-class, escapist lifestyle subculture which exploded occasionally into violence on the terraces and streets but in the main consisted of ska music, short hair and trousers and much posturing.
But, though we thought we may have been reading about us, the author was certainly not one of us. He was a man in his 50's, a jobbing journalist born in Canada. No doubt he had carried out some rudimentary research but a lot of what was in his books would not have taken much more than scouring the endless tabloid moral outrage articles of the day and padding them out into basic plots. Suedehead follows Skinhead in a long, increasingly formulaic series that eventually abandons skinheads altogether and delves into other youth subcultures from Hell's Angels to Glam-rock. By the third volume they had already become jaded but continued for another 15.
Unfortunately, Allen's books were written in the Jimmy Savile era and if today you are a 60 year old who finds himself reading misty-eyed about rape by 16 years olds (a regular ingredient in the books) or bones being shattered by steel toe-capped boots then you should be a little concerned. Richard Allen's books should be seen as a 70's curiosity, nothing more, because they have almost no literary merit. They have, though, been strangely influential ever since and remain cult pieces.


I Have Three Things to Tell You, My Friend.
I Have Three Things to Tell You, My Friend.
by Robert DAmato
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.56

5.0 out of 5 stars Dystopia now, 8 May 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Following on from the excellent The Last Seminarian the author again takes us into the near future into a world horribly like our own during a worst case scenario. In theory, every individual who reaches 65 years of age faces a choice: permanent retirement and early death or a state-funded second career and genetic rehabilitation. In practice, for a dedicated teacher like John Sinclair, this amounts to choice between a brief period of post-retirement disillusionment and extinction, or slow death by micro-management. The future envisaged is that of an educational dystopia where the system is at the mercy of dim-witted, unimaginative functionaries and students are alienated in a managed electronic world devoid of human interaction and teacher input. It is so heart-sinkingly cheerless that the reader ends up feeling as sorry for the author as for the protagonists. However, this is not simply a crude attack, or even a prescient warning, on the current direction of state education but a first rate piece of storytelling with sympathetic, vulnerable and disturbed characters and a nail-biting denouement, a starkly original work that deserves a wide audience.


Mysterious Depths: An African Adventure
Mysterious Depths: An African Adventure
Price: £2.88

4.0 out of 5 stars Ancient traditions and superstitions interwoven with the spirit world, 28 Mar. 2014
Young Mamuke is sent by her beloved sister Sisim to search for her missing husband and the father of her unborn child, Otobo. What follows is a curious, Alice-like adventure into a nether world of spirits, oracles, vengeful gods and sacrificial rites. However, danger lurks around every corner and Mamuke’s adventures become ever more bizarre and violent, her trials more demanding and her foes more numerous and sadistic, culminating in battle scenes and confrontations that are positively Homeric.
Mysterious Depths is written with extreme clarity and an unusual amount of care as there are very few errors. It is in turns exciting, touching and gory and is obviously a world in which the author feels comfortable, and she is a fine writer. So what are its faults? Few really, once it is accepted that it is not a traditional novel but rather a folkloric tale. Yes, the characters are delineated into saintly good and irredeemably bad but that works in this kind of quasi-fantasy where ancient traditions and superstitions are interwoven with the spirit world. There is one moment of Hollywood (a bugbear of mine) where one of the heroines (no spoiler here) encounters three armed adversaries who, for reasons best known to them, instead of simply overpowering her, come at her one at a time enabling her to dispatch all three one after the other. But this minor quibble should not deter anyone from reading this enjoyable and highly imaginative African fable.


Gangsters of Shanghai
Gangsters of Shanghai
Price: £6.66

4.0 out of 5 stars Out of the frying pan..., 13 Mar. 2014
At a time of heightened IRA activity in troubled 1920’s Ireland Michael Gallagher, son of an upright sergeant in the RIC, takes a lowly post in the Shanghai police force and finds himself in an even more turbulent location. Simmering pre-war Shanghai is a seething hotbed of corruption, violence, vice and intrigue fomented by local gangsters and mischievous and exploitative foreigners. From the explosive opening sentence Gangsters of Shanghai casts the reader into this distant, colourful, but squalid and chaotic world with enviable authenticity. The work is impeccably researched, reasonably paced, always interesting and, despite the subject matter, highly likeable. Just about everything is right in this impressive first novel. Yes, there are a number of typos and a few anachronisms but nothing too jarring. The characterisation is not very deep but that is not always a fault (cf Dickens, Naipaul) when the storytelling is as compelling as this. One observation, but not to detract from the quality of the work, is a tendency so common in modern novels to see things through the eyes of Hollywood, here noticeable in later chapters and most evidently in the dialogue – ‘I can do you like I did your old man,’ he said. ‘You can try but you won’t get out of here alive…’ – and the rather hurried denouement. Sometimes it is as if the author (not especially this one) has one eye on a future screenplay.
In summary though, a fine and enjoyable read which I would recommend to anyone over the age of 13 (there is nothing too lurid or explicit within) who enjoys unchallenging modern historical fiction.


Skinhead Away
Skinhead Away
Price: £2.11

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Taut and authentic, 4 Nov. 2013
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This review is from: Skinhead Away (Kindle Edition)
Taut and authentic, this compact subculture fable kicks off at a slow pace, moves up a gear and then accelerates and explodes into well-timed seaside violence. Skinhead Away is a bruising piece of pulp fiction for hoolie-lit disciples with short attention spans.


The Last Seminarian
The Last Seminarian
Price: £2.14

4.0 out of 5 stars Quality crossover fiction worth a visit for non-SF devotees, 15 Aug. 2013
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I was sent what on the face of it was a standard science fiction title to review. I don't normally review genre fiction but decided to give it a go as it looked reasonable, and I am very pleased that I did. Within a couple of pages I realised that I was reading a novel written by an experienced writer (but see caveat below), though in the absence of any other traceable fictional works, I presume that it must be in some other domain.
Set in an imaginary future, virtuoso computer programmer Bill has written his friends from the past into a virtual world where they are able to revisit and re-experience events, both joyous and painful, inside their Catholic seminary in the early 1970's. Most of the novel takes place there and is an irreverent look at the shenanigans of the young seminaries, few of whom have any real religious conviction. Mixed in with the fun and the irresponsibility of youth the friends argue about matters both existential and spiritual, and there are some (very intelligent) discussions about the existence of God. The writing is slick, the characters well-drawn, the technology believable and the narrative pace steady over a relatively long work.
On the down side, the text is littered with typos, the penalty of employing a spellcheck rather than a proof-reader. However, all are relatively minor and do not interrupt the flow.
The Last Seminarian is quality crossover fiction which is worth a visit for non-SF devotees. I wish, though, that the author would come out of the shadows and provide us with a potted biography, a paperback version and a follow up title.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 4, 2013 6:23 PM GMT


Daddy Was a Punk Rocker
Daddy Was a Punk Rocker
Price: £4.54

4.0 out of 5 stars Trying to pick up the pieces when they all have jagged edges, 20 May 2013
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This is a terrific first book but the title and the blurb are somwhat misleading. They give the false impression that we are about to experience a light-hearted, nostalgic romp through a sunny English childhood but DWPR is not light-hearted - though it tries to be - but transparently candid and solemn, a painful tale of neglect, rejection and alienation. The sprinkling of humour somehow makes it all the more poignant, like someone making one-legged jokes through tears and gritted teeth, after an amputation. These are not criticisms but merely observations. If I have any criticisms I feel that the choice of tense (as noted elsewhere), the rather sparing prose and the jerky structure (like a poorly edited film) don't entirely do this melancholy memoir justice. And despite, or rather because of, the rather generic popular musical tastes of his dad, there is little sense of period, or for that matter place, other than city names. But these are minor quibbles. The overall impression is one of a powerful and accomplished piece of work.
This is plainly a cathartic book and I hope that it worked for the author as he has poured his heart out without bitterness and it makes quite unhappy reading at times, though it is so well paced (apart from the occasional jerkiness) and neatly written that it never becomes tedious and certainly never cloying and that is admirable. Make no mistake; candour is not easy when writing about life experiences, painful or otherwise. My own attempt was anything but candid. In the end, though, it is all so deeply personal. Having got the obligatory quasi-autobiographical first book successfully completed and out there it is, for a writer of this quality, time to dip his toes in other less murky waters.


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