What A Carve Up! by Jonathan Coe

My review from Goodreads, there are some spoilers in the form of the general feel of the book and a comment on the ending but nothing that should spoil it for a reader…

 

what-a-carve-up

 

A political novel, inside a family history, inside a who done it, wrapped together by an old black and white comedy, staring Shirley Eaton (yes, that famous Bond girl.)

Once I got into the book I couldn’t put it down. It starts with an introduction to the Winshaw family, a thoroughly despicable bunch, rolling in money and desperate for more. The family history is to me written by a young, successful novelist called Michael Owen, who plods through his own family trauma whilst delivering a few chapters a year to his publisher. Coe uses different points of view throughout the text, extracts from newspaper articles, film scripts and even dreams. What initially took me a little while to get my head around soon becomes a wonderful stream of images that plot this reprehensible family’s rise, alongside the slow destruction of the welfare state, through the 80’s and early 90’s.

The political aspect is well researched, scathing and often funny. The characters are richly drawn and have a real resonance throughout the plot, no matter how briefly we see them. I particularly liked Mr Onyx, the meticulous, homosexual detective, who keeps finding himself caught on the long arm of the law for toiletry indiscretions and how Owen’s dreams appear to be precursors to the action. I really enjoyed this, it was witty, moving, critical and gripping. Well worth the 400 plus pages just for the adrenaline paced, gore fest at the end, Cluedo with buckets of blood. Marvellous.

Naked Lungs

I was asked to read at the launch night of Naked Lungs a Birmingham based spoken word night in the heart of the city. This happened nearly two weeks ago and to be honest I didn’t know what to expect; spoken word nights can be a bit hit and miss and this was the first one. I’d met Chris Baker two weeks before and we’d chatted about what he was after, I was impressed with his enthusiasm and laid back approach to getting a project like this off the ground and promised him some stuff for the launch magazine. The magazine was the clincher really, not only would Naked Lungs be a spoken word night but it would also comprise a magazine that would feature work from all the writers on that night’s bill.

The Greenhouse Cafe is the venue for Naked Lungs and a mighty fine venue it is at that. Situated in the Custard Factory, the beating heart of Birmingham’s creativity, it is cool without having to try too hard, they do good green tea which was enough for me to give it a ringing endorsement.

The bill for that night was Seasick Fist, Annie-J, Garrie Fletcher (me,) Ben Jones and Keiran Goddard. I didn’t know any of them and I was that busy leading up to it that I didn’t even Google them, if I had of done I might have had an inkling of what a treat I was in store for.

Seasick Fist is young, vibrant and almost electric with words. He attacks the mic at such a rate that you’d be forgiven for thinking that someone had gone crazy with a diction machine gun, cutting down the rows of onlookers with nothing more than well aimed words. Annie-J is a wonderful poet that reflects upon her grandmothers courting rituals whilst extolling the virtues of playing Tomb Raider, both of these proved to be insightful and very funny. Both these performers had recounted their thoughts almost entirely from memory so I let the side down by having to read direct from my story, well, it is nearly 3000 words. I went down well and was really pleased with the crowd’s reaction to my story ‘Kowalski’ which is a tale of an elderly Polish man befriending a young Pakistani boy. Keiran Goddard was the last on and treated us to a fine selection of poems from his next collection, tales of rag-and-bone men, lost loves and city streets, which I shall definitely be checking out. However, for me, the evening was stolen by the marvellous Ben Jones and he wasn’t even in the room! Ben found himself double booked and unable to attend so he sent along a Powerpoint and audio track to stand in for him. Ben is a philosophy lecturer at Halesowen College and the flyer had promised ‘Free form philosophy, live on stage.’ Ben’s presentation, even though it wasn’t live, was enthralling to say the least. For twenty odd minutes he kept us all hooked upon his every word as he ruminated upon the philosophy of masturbation, yes, wanking. A few people I’ve mentioned this to have looked at me aghast to say the least but it wasn’t sordid or cheap; it was well constructed, painfully funny and penetrating (no pun intended.) Yes, it really made you think about wanking.

Anyway, those wonderful guys at Naked Lungs have posted a video of snippets from the first evening with a gorgeous soundtrack. Check it out, see what you missed and make sure you’re at the next one.

Outsider Writers

Working with young people outside of the classroom.

Final call for submissions for the summer edition of the NAWE magazine. We’ve already had some great articles in and some excellent proposals so make sure you get them in before the deadline, full details below.

Submissions needed from Outsider Writers

NAWE (National Association of Writers in Education) are looking for articles on working with young people outside of the classroom for their next magazine. I will be co-editing the newsletter, so have a look through the guidelines below and get in touch.

It can seem that creativity is a dirty word these days, unless it involves accounting, and that the ability to memorise facts has overtaken the need to be innovative and inventive, but we know better than that. We know that NAWE members are out there, delivering challenging and inspired activities behind enemy lines, as it were, right under the noses of the wrote learners and table memorisers. We want to hear from you inspired foot soldiers. We want to hear about your successes, your failures; about activities you’ve tried, after school clubs you’ve lead; workshops in the community; online development; activities in school that are outside the curriculum; in fact, anything that gives young people an insight into the incredible, diverse world that is writing outside of the curriculum. We want articles, top tips, case studies, interviews, writing activities, advice and so on and they can be as inventive as you want. So feel free to submit a photo essay, comic strip, flow chart, haiku or any of the more traditional journalistic forms. Contact us with article proposals now!

Deadline update

Submissions need to be with us by the 30th of April 2013.

This magazine will be edited by Garrie Fletcher and Elisabeth Charis both are teachers and writers that work with young people outside of school.

Article submissions should be sent to editorial@nawe.co.uk as soon as possible. For any more information please contact Elisabeth or Garrie via the NAWE email above.

The NAWE website can be found NAWE

If you run a group but are daunted by the prospect of writing an article please get in touch with us, we may be able to help or even suggest a different format that enables you to share successful ways of working.

10 to 1 Survival of the Lit(est)

Pigeon Park Press have set themselves a challenge: to produce a novel using ten authors over a year. Starting in May 2013 each of the ten authors will write a 1000 words on their character and each month a character will be voted off until only one is left.

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This sounds like a very interesting project indeed, Big Brother meets Pulp Fiction (the cheap fiction magazines of the early 20th century not the Tarantino movie,) something that could be great fun and quite manageable, at only a 1000 words a month, the trick will be not getting voted off. So its a popularity contest for writers? Maybe not writers but definitely for writing. I imagine who ever writes the most engaging prose, with the most intriguing character, will win, although organisers have said that ‘cliff-hanger’ endings, to get readers voting for the next instalment, will not be allowed.

pigeon Park Press tested the water with this idea when they produced Full Fathom Five another collaborative novel that should be out early this year.

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I think I’m going to throw my hat into the ring for this one, it sounds like fun and you never know I could be last writer standing?

Check out the Pigeon Park Press site for details and give it a go.

Reliable Witness

I’ve just got back from town, Birmingham city centre that is, where I experienced the wonderful Reliable Witness multimedia story. The story was commissioned for this years Birmingham Book Festival (which is on now) and brought together novelist Mez Packer and play write Rochi Rampal to construct an interactive story across different media. The blurb promoting this claims that you will ‘…get right inside the story!’ and you do.

The story was launched at Arts Fest last month where Darren proposed, live, on stage, to Amy in front of a large crowd, who were innocently waiting for the next band to come on. Amy turned Darren down and rushed off in floods of tears. Many of the onlookers thought this was real, it even warranted a half page splash in The Birmingham Mail and scores of videos popped up on YouTube and other social media sites. Both characters have been very active on Facebook with people following them and interacting with them as the story develops. The final stage of this piece is an interactive experience that brings the story to a chilling climax, well the route I took did.

A shop in the ground floor of the Pavilions Shopping centre has been taken over be Reliable Witness where you will be greater by a very friendly member of their team who will recap the story so far for you with video footage of the proposal and the article from the Birmingham Mail. Next you sign up on a touch screen and choose who’s story you wish to follow. I chose Amy as I was curios as to why she turned him down. Amy then called me via a video link and begged me to get some stuff for her from her flat. The flat door opened and I entered.

The Adhere Creative team have done a very good job in setting up a believable space with touch screen computer, iPad, CCTV and speakers. Once in the room I received another video call from Amy and she explained why she turned Darren down.

I won’t go into too much detail becauseI don’t want to spoil it for you but all I’ll say is that there is a sinister twist in the tail and that I left the flat in a hurry.

The writers and the creative team have done a great job in creating a believable and immersive world that pushes the possibilities of story telling. A must visit for readers and writers in the area but more importantly for those people who don’t necessarily consume books but spend their time facebooking and googling, you guys really have to go see.

So, when you’re in Birmingham go to the ground floor of the Pavilions Shopping Centre and enter the Reliable Witness space, you won’t be disappointed.

Reliable Witness

Birmingham Mail article

Review: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’ve read all of his other novels and really enjoyed them but this one didn’t do it for me. Mitchell can write, there’s no denying that and he has a confidence in his storytelling that leaves many other writers flagging far behind but for me this was one intricate description of a quirky Japanese character too far.

I couldn’t relate to any of the characters and found it hard to keep going until finally I called it a day about mid way through the book. I know you’re clever Dave, just tell the bloody story! I felt, at times, that I was suffocating in the past, viewing everything in high res 3D smello vision, choking on the detail. Overwritten. A brutal edit might have got something decent from it but this just smacked of over indulgence to me.

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Review: Among Thieves

Among Thieves
Among Thieves by Mez Packer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed this.

It rattles along at a fair old pace hooking you into the lives of the three main characters who are Jez, a white working class Coventry lad at odds with his upbringing, Pads, a privileged middle-class university drop out who struggles with his attraction to his fellow drop out Andy and Mehmet an Albanian emigree who tells the story of his life to an unknown listener with sadness and honour. The tale is set in 1984 and mainly takes place in Coventry, southern Spain and India. The attention to detail is good, without being stifling, but I did find it odd that there was no mention of the miners strike what with Cov being caught in the crossfire between the Arley and Keresley pits during the industrial action and Andy being such an advocate of ‘class war.’ I also wasn’t sure about the use of the phrase ‘chill out’ for that time period, I don’t remember hearing it but then I was only 14/15 at the time. These minor quibbles aside I found the book totally engaging and bought into the whole premise of two middle class blokes running a small drugs gang in Skaville UK, however improbable that may be.

I thought it was very brave of Packer to sidestep dealing with Andy head on, who for me is probably the focal point for the whole tale, and to only allow us to see him through the eyes of Jez and Pads, brave and inspired. This approach works really well and gives Andy real validity something which may have been lost if we heard things from his point of view. Packer has chosen three males as her main characters and she draws out very believable protagonists, these are people you know, or have known, I was impressed with how well she captured male view points especially on women, honour, family etc. without sounding tired or second hand. I don’t want to spoil the book by talking about the plot, so I won’t, all I will say is that it snakes and winds around to a very satisfying conclusion without feeling overly contrived. Some of the description in the book is just gorgeous and I wish I’d made notes as I was reading it do that I could share them with you.

Friends recommended this to me ages ago and I only wish I’d read it sooner as its one of those wonderful books that stay with you long after you’ve finished it, one of those rare books where you dread getting near to the end because you know you’ll have to leave those characters behind but that you push on with regardless because you have to find out what happens.

If you’re thinking about reading this stop thinking about it and start reading it, great stuff.

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Review: Girlfriend In A Coma

Girlfriend In A Coma
Girlfriend In A Coma by Douglas Coupland
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m not a big fan of Coupland. I’ve read some of his books but I couldn’t tell you what they were called or what happens in them. He writes so cleanly and efficiently that the prose just washes over you pretty much in the same way that the TV movies some of the characters in this book work on do. Having said that I actually enjoyed Girlfriend in a Coma and find that the characters still resonate with me even after finishing it a week ago, wether I’ll remember it in a year remains to be seen though. Coupland journeys through the lives of six incredibly dull characters that are vacuous and lost, in fact they have no redeeming features what so ever, so it was no mean feat keeping me interested in them but somehow he did. I won’t bore you with plot details but I will say that it was a very original take on an ‘end of the world’ ‘post apocalyptic’ tale and that, despite being an atheist, I found the book very spiritual. I think Coupland’s use of ghosts, spirits, religion etc. is very restrained and very effective. When it was published it was cited as a wake up call to the 90’s, I’d say that the themes it deals with a more than relevant today. We see a world obsessed with work and the allocation of time, people too busy with themselves to observe the beauty all around them and too introspective to take stock of the damage they are doing to others and to the world at large. We see people desperate to read the latest fashion mags but indifferent to the needs of others. Now that I think more closely about it I don’t feel that the characters have stayed with me because if I’m honest I’d have to go and grab the book to list their names. What did stay with me was the feeling that the world is on the cusp, that we live in a time where we can make a real difference or destroy it with indifference. Girlfriend in a Coma is basically ‘What a Wonderful Life’ on a global scale but where the plight of James Stewarts character stays with you, the lives of these characters quickly diminish leaving you with just Coupland’s fears rattling around in your head. Enjoyable and thoughtful but will it stay with you?

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Review: Pigeon English

Pigeon English
Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book has some strong recommendations on the front cover. Quotes from the Times, the Guardian and short listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2011 send out the message that this is real quality and maybe that’s what lead to my low rating, maybe I was expecting a lot more. The story concerns itself with young Harrison Opoku a Ghana national who now finds himself living in a tower block in modern day London with his mother and elder sister. The story is told in the first person from Harrison’s point of view and this is somewhere that Kelman really excels, as a reader you are transported to this magical world of guardian pigeons, amateur detection and the stirrings of first love but something never rang true for me. Whilst the narrative is convincing I felt a lot of the characters actions were not to the point that a major piece of plot info is unrealistic ally held back until towards the end of the book. The story revolves around the murder of an older boy who Harrison knows and Harrison and a friend spend their time trying to find the killer. They attempt to take fingerprints from the crime scene, they look for foot prints and try to collect sputum samples from people in the area. Harrison is constantly harassed by the local hoodies, they try to enlist him and when he fails a number of tasks they turn on him and threaten him with violence. Harrison’s friend Dean watches a lot of CSI and tells Harrison about the things they should be doing to catch the killer, yet when they find the victims bloody wallet they don’t hand it in to the police. This didn’t make sense to me as they’d spent the whole blummin book looking for evidence. Also when it becomes blatantly obvious who the killer is we find out that Harrison had witnessed an altercation between the murdered boy and the killer on the day he was murdered but he never once mentions this to anyone or even thinks about it until the end. This struck me as absolute nonsense, totally unrealistic, to the extent it ripped me out of the world that Kelman had created with a jolt. You can’t have a character hunting for clues, desperate to solve a crime who forgets/blanks a pivotal incident from their memory just to ad tension to the story, as it didn’t anyway, it was fairly obvious who the killer was from the beginning so this rather baffled me. Also, whenever Harrison thinks of Ghana or talks to his father and younger sister back in Ghana we have a picture of an African idyl, strong community spirit, healthy living, care free days but no real indication as to why they’ve split up the family to be in England? The child’s eye view of urban London is wonderfully told, with a very strong authentic voice and I suspect that it was this that lead to the short list and plaudits but the brutal plot twist and holes made it less than perfect for me. In the end I came away from this feeling that it was a very well meaning, middle class view of a much deeper problem. The pigeon I hated, tolerated and then enjoyed but never really understood why.

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Review: The Peculiar Memories Of Thomas Penman

The Peculiar Memories Of Thomas Penman
The Peculiar Memories Of Thomas Penman by Bruce Robinson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Most people will know Bruce Robinson from his brilliant script and direction of the film ‘Withnail and I’ and that is what first drew me to this book. I wasn’t sure what to expect as film is so different from a novel but I needn’t have worried. Robinson is a huge Dickens fan with the book set in the seaside town of Broadstairs, where Dickens wrote Bleak House, and the novel bearing many Dickensian themes, however it isn’t just a homage to his favourite author. Robinson has a clear and original voice all of his own and creates an intriguing world of hidden turds, Edwardian pornography and home made explosives. I was enthralled by this bizarre, dysfunctional family and young Thomas who tries to make sense of it all. The house they live in is almost a character in its own right and is so expertly drawn by Robinson that I can still smell the dog meat boiling on the stove. I’ve put it as one of my top ten on my World Book Night list because it just has to be read by a wider audience. Get a copy and lose yourself in the world of Thomas Penman.

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