It’s Human Rights Day and my favourite illustrator and author Chris Riddell has had hand in producing two books to educate children and Young People about their rights and why they need them. My Little Book Of Big Freedoms should be in every classroom, every library and on every child’s reading list. It should also be on the National Curriculum , as should Here I Stand. Few things in life are more important than understanding how we are protected from evil, except perhaps we need to be, and why those protections need to be universal.
Geoff Johns, & Brian Azzarello
I don’t do DC but Dystopian Dystopia was more than I could resist.
Ok, so I arrived late at this particular game. I’m not the world’s biggest graphic novel reader, and I tend to stick to the independents. I haven’t read anything off the Marvel or D.C. shelves since I was a kid, pushing forty years ago.
It’s not that I don’t like them. I cut my teeth all those decades ago on regular doses of X-Men and the Fantastic Four, but that was back in the days when they were still comics, and fandom didn’t require that you memorised every detail of all of the characters lives and evolutions through different multi-verse manifestations. I can’t be bothered with that shit. Also, I like things a little twisted and, really, superhero books are ultimately all superhero books, no matter how anti-hero the superheroes are.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Batman and Iron Man: I love X-Men and Wonder Woman, but I’m not really interested in reading my way through the umpteen different series each major character has spawned.
Enter: a customer in the shop one day. He starts rattling on about this alternate DC Universe stuff: a series of books were the nominally twisted world of DC becomes even more twisted and warped. Where Wonder Woman is at war with Aquaman and half of Europe has been sunk. A universe SO twisted that when the Waynes are held up in the alley – it’s not Thomas and Martha that are killed, and so it’s not Bruce that becomes Batman…
Well, I was never going to resist something that twisted and warped and now, two books in, I’m spending as much time researching all the stuff I missed by not reading all those comic-books as I am actually reading the comic-books!
Anyway, long story short: These story lines are fantastic, and if you like DC, and you like twisted you should definitely be reading them.
By Patrick Flanery
Half hearted ‘cyber thriller’ isn’t very ‘cyber’ and fails to really ‘thrill’
Written in the first person I Am No One is the account of recent events in the life of the fictional NY academic, Jeremy O’Keefe. O’Keefe, ironically an expert in surveillance, finds himself the subject of apparent scrutiny by unknown observers, a discovery that propels him into paranoia and pushes him to the boundaries of sanity. As the story is unpacked, page by page, it becomes clear that O’Keefe’s paranoia is not unfounded, and that his initial confusion as to why anyone would want to bother observing the behaviour of a mundane and only moderately successful Professor actually belies a deeper understanding of the cause and his actions that precipitated it.
O’Keefe is a difficult character to really sympathise with. Whilst his ideology is admirably egalitarian he falls into that bracket of slightly stuffy, middle-class liberals who take themselves too seriously and fail to practise what they preach. In fairness to O’Keefe he largely has the grace and self-awareness to question the rationality of his fears and accidental moments of prejudice (though he is of the very typical male Liberal variety that doesn’t seem to recognise the contradiction of professing himself feminist whilst watching porn): slightly pompous, slightly too much self-regard slightly too much sense of victimhood, he is not unlikeable just a bit of a non-entity. Whilst this is clearly intentional it makes his narrative stodgy. Not unreadable, but at the same time easy to put down for a week whilst a more engaging book is read. This is either a spectacularly adept piece of characterisation or an unfortunate reflection of the author, Patrick Flanery. I do hope it is the writing because if not then all the peculiar, inaccurate and unlikely observations made by O’Keefe on behalf of his character regarding differences between the British and Americans are likely also Flanery’s. For example the breath-taking assertion that socio-economic failure is treated more harshly in the UK than in the US, when any basic knowledge of sociology in the two countries shows that the criteria for failure is a) much broader in the US and b) responded to far more harshly, e.g.: “if you don’t earn enough from your three jobs to afford medical insurance to pay for your cancer treatment, you clearly haven’t worked hard enough. The fault is yours , you are a failure and the punishment is premature death.”. It is also difficult to accept that Flanery is regularly treated with distrust and dislike by bank cashiers for his Irish name. Quite aside from anything else most bank cashiers in this country now aren’t old enough to remember the Irish troubles, and the bigots-for-bigotry’s-sake have long since transferred their angst from the Irish to the Poles and the Muslims.
Flanery is also an academic, something that is abundantly obvious from the highly structured writing method he employs in this book. The reader is left with the impression that where other novelists write books to be read as stories Flanery has written a text with an eye to future deconstruction by English Lit students. That is not necessarily a bad thing, of course, but occasionally one wishes he could have been a little less concerned with construction in the minutiae and more concerned with crafting a story with a complete beginning, middle and end: and therein lies one of the greatest failings of this book: it has no real conclusion. Questions are raised that go unanswered. In particular there are issues with characters, whose true identity may never be elaborated upon or, in the case of his girlfriend who makes a sudden, poorly explained behavioural volte-face that is entirely out of character but provides Flanery with a device to enable his protagonist take the critical closing step to the tale.
It seems that Flanery has written this book as a parable on the dangers of unfettered digital surveillance: how easy it is for those who wish to to access all our personal data and how very quickly and efficiently lives can be subverted. Whilst this may be a revelation to a few it has to be said that there is nothing revealed in this book about the scope and methods of data collection that anyone who has even a small amount of technical savvy won’t already know, which rather undermines it as an expose. The book also attempts to portray how easy it is to suddenly and unintentionally find oneself on the wrong side of the law. Unfortunately in this story the actions which purport to have landed O’Keefe in possible criminality are so ridiculous and far-fetched that only the most paranoid would ever see an offence in them. Contrary to highlighting the ease with which the well intentioned can unwittingly find themselves in need of lawyers it suggests that all the peripheral characters are actually far more paranoid and delusional than O’Keefe will ever be
by Lois Austen-Leigh
Aged Like A Chip-Shop Vinegar Rather Than A Fine Wine
If you want murder mystery this is probably not the book for you – the body doesn’t appear until very late in the book. That is not to says there isn’t mystery to be tackled, simply that there is a notable shortage of bodies in libraries, as it were. Which is surprising as the story is set between Cambridge University and a contemporaneously typical Old Country House which surely must have had perfectly good library offering oodles of potential for simply dozens of bodies. Sadly this was an opportunity completely over-looked by Miss Austen-Leigh.
Which is a shame because it almost certainly would have made it a more appealing read.
I wanted to love this book. I loved the main character Prudence. I loved her name. I loved her independence. I loved the way she freely cursed whenever she felt like it, despite being a Bishop’s Daughter. I loved the setting. I loved the idea of smuggling. But then there was the rest of the book.
It is expected, when reading books from another era, to have to make allowances for the social norms and prejudices of the time, and I am very good at that. Golden Era crime is one of my favourite, and most-read genres. I am used to making those allowances. But this time I found I just couldn’t get past how deeply steeped the story was in a very narrow social and moral ideology , and how dated and exclusive the expression of those ideas was. The whole concept, for example, of judging someone to be upstanding and reliable based on the understanding of what type of ‘hunter’ they are is so archaic that it is rendered laughable in the worst way.
There are many books that are, and feel, dated but which maintain a literary integrity because they are solid, well-written and well plotted. So their antiquity becomes not only forgivable but remains a quintessential part of their nature. Unfortunately in the case of The Incredible Crime the distance in time seems to have just emphasised the books position as a froth piece. As a result things that may have been forgivable in other cases (making up a drug and the side-effects of it that you then don’t have to name) serve to make the story, and by extension the characters and their values seem silly and trite. Although the fact that they are silly and trite also contributes to that impression. Where most of it’s contemporaries, whilst being very distinctly products of their time, manage to remain largely on the side of ‘historically charming’ this book serves as a rather brutal reminder of the classism, sexism and elitism that most of us are glad to have left behind.
Having said all of that, once I’d got to grips with the fact that a body wasn’t appearing any time soon, and the outrageously chauvinistic social mores I found that there was a reasonably engaging mystery to be cracked. I am sure that there are many people out there who will enjoy this and be able to ignore all the bits that made me twitch. I, sadly am still twitching.
by Laura Lippman
Beautifully rendered story chronicling the awful collision between events past and present for a newly inaugurated District Attorney.
Thank you to Andrew at Faber & Faber for the ARC. This book was the first in a run of a fantastic half dozen or so that I read back-to-back – either ARC’s or proofs – and that were all compulsive reading.
OK – so my first admission here is that, although I read a lot of crime I have somehow managed to remain completely oblivious to the (quite large!) body of work from Ms. Lippman!
That said the, fact that there exists such a body to give evidence to her long experience as a writer goes someway to explaining the smooth skill with which the story of newly-appointed State’s Attorney, Lu Brandt, is unpackaged and delivered to the reader.
The story is told in a combination of first- and third-person relating current and past events. I found this a slightly odd and unsettling, though effective, way to use the voice of the narrator, and I was constantly bothered by who was narrating in the third-person sequences.
Lu Brandt, scion of a former and legendary State’s Attorney , grew up in the experimental new town of Columbia, in a house on the edge of Wilde Lake. For me she is one of the most realistic characters I have ever read, and I feel a strong empathy for the child Lu in the historic sequences, though she was far smarter than I ever was! Her mother’s death early in Lu’s life, her father’s immersion in his job and the age gap between Lu and her older brother left the precocious Lu with the feeling of always being an outsider in her own life, yet one with a unique and largely over-looked position from which to view the events of all their lives. In childhood this externalism simply confused her: as an adult she misconstrues it as casual and unintentional neglect – nothing she can’t overcome or forgive with an adult’s perspective. Gradually, though, she begins to feel there may have more deliberation behind it.
The plotline is simple: The first case to land on Lu’s desk in her new job is a mundane but nasty murder. Directing the police to be more thorough than her predecessor demanded Lu finds occasional links back to her earlier life in Colombia. At first these seem like nothing more than the kind of inter-connection of lives that is to be expected in small town, but the further she digs the closer to home the connections appear to come, and her earlier childhood observations begin to take on a more menacing cast.
This is not an original format or even a particularly uncommon story but it is in the details and the delivery that Lippman’s skill is brought to bear. The steady rhythm with which the facts and fictions, truth and lies are laid before the reader; the characters, who are developed from bright-eyed high-schoolers, through college and into more cynical middle-age; the events that carry those same characters to that darker stage of their lives – all of these aspects of the story are delivered with a style and depth that make this one of the most thoroughly engaging books I have read this year.
by Adam Kay
A trip through the modern NHS in easy and accessible anecdotes.
On the surface of it this is an engaging and often hilarious collection of anecdotes from someone who worked as a doctor in the NHS for several years. There is an abundance of stories for those who love to hear about the quirks and peculiarities of humanity. Dark and funny things that will make you laugh out loud whilst simultaneously making your toes curl. The de-gloved penis. The dehydrated cocaine users. The homeless man who preferred to go back out on the streets rather than run the risk of MRSA.
Referring to the diaries he was obliged to keep during his years as an obstetrician, Kay has pulled together a raft of stories and thoughts ranging from simple one line ‘notes-to-self’ to more lengthy tales of patients he cared for.
The happy, the funny and the occasional simply uplifting make for an easy and read that clips along nicely. I had this in audio book form and it was a little over six hours long. It is easy to pick up, slightly less easy to put down.
You may also have seen this book referred to as ‘heart-breaking’.
And it is. Because in writing a highly entertaining memoir Kay has found the perfect vehicle to deliver some brutal truths about the state of our NHS these days. To highlight the lies being peddled by the Secretary of State for Health and the government.
This is not a treatise on the issues facing the National Health Service and the people who work there-in delivering health care, there is no lengthy analysis – he simply punctuates the usually funny, sometimes tragic stories with brutal realities he has experienced first-hand:
Being told that he would have to come back for a weekend halfway through a two-week holiday abroad because the cover he had had to arrange himself fell through;
Falling asleep in his car in the hospital car park before he even managed to start it and waking up the next morning only to find he’d slept so long he was still late for work. On Christmas Eve;
Working out that with the unpaid overtime he was expected to put in his actual wage was £6.60ph – less than if he’d worked in McDonalds.
This is far more important book than it is really given credit for. I would recommend this book for everyone who loves stories about the peculiarities of people, and it’s a must read for all those who love the NHS. It should also be mandatory reading for anyone who has ever nodded their head when Jeremy Hunt’s lips have been flapping.
Random waffle-thoughts on our local music festival.
This is my sixth year at Victorious Festival (I’ve been every year since it started), and it is the first when I didn’t attend both days, so it was nice to find that the weather gods had turned Festival Weather to ‘full’. It boded well for the day, but nonetheless I packed a bag with seventeen layers of spare clothing, some wellies and a snorkel. It is still a festival after all. (I’m lying about the wellies and the snorkel)
A moderately early arrival ensured we had a quick entry, courtesy of cheerful and friendly gate staff, and Vespasian security who this year were handing out emergency contact cards. A clever, but thankfully un-needed, innovation aimed at fixing the ‘There’s Never One Around When you Need Them’ problem. Lanyard sellers, though, were not posted by the gates this year, which was a bit of a nuisance as it meant having to stop first at the Merchandise tent, where I accidentally bought another layer of clothing, along with my lanyard. It wasn’t my fault. They had a robot threatening to end the world if I didn’t indulge in unnecessary consumerism and a little crucible specifically purposed for customers to burn banknotes in. Actually, whilst we’re on the subject of lanyards the organisers could do far worse than bring the phone app back. It was reliable and versatile and it had a number of features that the lanyard lacks. (I’m lying about the robot. And the crucible.)
So, what were the good and bad points of the festival this year?
Well, let’s start, where I did. At the beer tent. Beer tents in the larger fields have been augmented by queue channelling this, which probably goes some way to explaining why the Vespasian Emergency Contact Cards didn’t seem to needed. Another explanation could be the concussion festival go-ers experienced on seeing the prices. I’ve been to a number of festivals, most recently Beautiful Days, and Victorious is noticeably one of the more expensive for food and drink. £5.50 a pint compared to Beautiful Days’ £4.00, and food with a general starting price of £6-7.00 (Beautiful Days £5.00) is a bit of a sting. You don’t have to be planning on gorging yourself stupid or drinking yourself senseless for this to push up the price of your day by an easy £50.00. On the other hand their merchandise is considerably cheaper, with festival t-shirts going for £12.00 against Beautiful Days’ £18.00. Interestingly, this was also true of band merchandise, which was available at Victorious for less than on some of the bands’ own websites. (I’m not lying about any of this. Except the concussion.)
Stages and Arenas, then. The World Music Stage and the associated area has grown considerably since last year, and is now home not only to some fantastic music but some great international food, and a Wishing Tree. The tree proved to be hugely popular and by the evening was so covered in wish cards that it looked like it was cloaked in Spanish Moss.
The Children’s Arena has also grown year on year. When I went to the first Victorious Vintage festival in the Dockyard, all those eons ago, there was one lonely carousel ride, and possibly a face-painter (singular: over-worked, harassed, possibly sobbing uncontrollably by 3pm and pleading for a quick death). It was clear at the time that the organisers had never personally experienced a bored child making their lives a living hell whilst they – as parents – pretend to casually sip a drink, nodding out of time with music they can’t actually hear over little Johnny’s whining, and pretending that they are still semi-sophisticated grown-ups exercising their freedom to drink a damn beer in the sun being cool…
There’s a whole extra level of suffering parents will go to get their money’s worth from a ticket price.
These days the kid’s area contains a raft of activities (bouncy castles & wall painting), as well as live act stage (Peppa Pig), crafting areas and a number of charity stalls (Air Ambulance; Home Start; Mobile Library) offering things to occupy the sprogs (an actual helicopter cockpit to sit in!) between the acts their parent’s actually paid to see. In fact charities were in abundance. The Southsea Alternative Choir were fundraising as usual for Enableability and some poor soul was made to dress up, in the sweltering heat, as big red heart for the British Heart Foundation. They wreaked their revenge by maliciously giving out free hugs. If you don’t think that’s much of a revenge imagine being squeezed hard by eight velour-covered sofa cushions in 25∘ of blazing sunshine.
The new stage this year was Butserfest, bringing it’s own brand of new talent exposure to the corner of Victorious that was previously occupied by the Real Ale tent. The Real Ale tent was, in turn, moved to the D-Day car Park.
Sadly the price for all this expansion in other areas has been the loss of the Silent Disco tent. The circus tent that has arrived is not nearly as participation-friendly and the sound of circus acts being performed simply does not inspire joy and lift the spirits like the sound of all the Silent Disco-ers singing along to their two different, and often surprisingly harmonious, DJ sets.
Stage sponsors are increasingly coming from the business and corporate sector (RadWeb and Strongbow both funded stages this year) so it was nice to see that Nick Courtney and Casement studios still have the Seaside Stage. This area is increasingly like a little festival-within-a-festival. In fact it’s starting to feel the Albert Road Mini Fest with stalwarts from the Southsea music scene, Al Burrito’s Bus, and Vintage clothing stalls as well as the Twisted Tearooms and The Board Game Tent. It has a similar air on independence, and a lot of the same faces as and seems appropriate that there should be an area of the festival that plays ‘Albert Road’ to Victorious’ ‘Portsmouth’.
Which segues nicely into the thing I only really finally noticed about Victorious this year: that it is one of the most dedicated music festivals I know. This country is a world-leader when it comes to music festivals. There are hundreds every year, the length and breadth of the U.K., and they all have their roots in live performances by bands. Some are huge and world-famous, others are small and independent and as I said earlier, I’ve been to a few but there is one thing about Victorious that is unique in my experience, and it’s where the soul of Victorious really lies.
The small stages.
It’s not the big-name acts like K.T.Tunstall, Franz Ferdinand or Elbow that make this festival, as good as they are. It’s the fact that you can never be out of earshot of music in this festival. And very often it’s local music. Local talent. Any tent with a bit of empty space is likely to have a performer, often one person with a guitar and mic. Stages are pitched so close that you move from one sound, through a weird fusion of noise to another distinct and different sound. If there is no performer on the stage you are sitting at you don’t really need the music loop they play because if you move three feet in any direction you’ll be able to hear another live performance from somewhere else. Music exists at Victorious with a continuity and density that others don’t seem to match. Maybe they can’t. Having a festival in a field limits the amount of local talent you can easily put onto a multitude of small stages, but the urban location and the incredibly rich and vibrant Portsmouth music scene not only provided the spark from which this festival was born, but enables it to easily and continuously fill all the minor stages dotted around the various arenas and loci. The original artists and the cover artists. From the Strong Island tent, through the Real Ale Tent and the Acoustic tent up to Butserfest: so much of the amazing music here is local where other festivals import every act on their line-up.
That is the soul of this festival. That is why Pompey is empty every year when the festival is on. It’s our biggest local event and it has huge local support. It is By Portsmouth, Of Portsmouth, and For Portsmouth.
It would be tragic if that were to change in the future.
But Dear God! Please, cover artists! Find something else to cover by next August because if I have to listen to one more version of ‘Valerie’ it won’t be bank notes going in the crucible!
This is an extended version of review written for AboutMyArea Portsmouth, pub. 28/08/17
I just counted 2 butterflies in the Big #ButterflyCount. Help @SaveButterflies & join in http://bit.ly/12D3sF2
WARNING: GRATUITOUS KITTEN PICTURE
Warnings aside this is – so far – an absurdly easy read dotted with absolutely horrific details. Not surprising given the subject matter but it’s the read equivalent of slipping into a big, deep, gloriously comfy sofa containing concealed razor blades. Every so often you get sliced by something you barely feel until you’re bleeding all over the upholstery…
OK, it’s not actually trademarked. You couldn’t actually trademark that. Probably. Unless you were a big multi-national corporation, preferably U.S. based…
Anyway, enough rambling, I do quite a lot of that, which will probably become to clear to anyone who is masochistic or foolish enough to follow this blog for anything more than one post. Assuming that I actually manage to do anything more than one post. I’m a bit of a Serial Starter. Things seem like a great idea. I look into them, I set them up, I get some steam into them and then with clockwork regularity and a complete lack of consideration for my efforts they fail to run themselves. Posts don’t write themselves, images don’t edit themselves and comments don’t respond to themselves. It’s very disheartening and shows an utter disregard for the feelings of their creator. Aaaand now I sound like I have a God-complex. I don’t, although my kids may disagree. And some of my friends. And relatives, and possibly the poor bastards that have to work with me.
Anyway generally speaking I don’t have a God-complex, nor am I U.S.-based multi-national corporation (though if you want to see some people with YUGE God-complexes…) but I do have bloody good taste and great discernment when it comes to books, which is why you really should follow and read this blog, becasue you just will get some amazing tips on books you should read. And possibly some other crap. And probably cats. And also, I have words. I have great words. I have the bestest words on the planet, it’s true. Ask anyone, they’ll tell you…