Author, Book review, England, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, UK, V. G. Lee, Ward Wood Publishing

‘Always You, Edina’ by V. G. Lee

Fiction – Kindle edition; Ward Wood Publishing; 242 pages; 2012.

Bittersweet and delightful are the two words that best sum up V.G. Lee’s Always You, Edina.

This family drama, set in Birmingham, England in the 1960s, is told through the eyes of Bonnie Benson, an only child, who idolises her Aunt Ed (of the title) but is too young to appreciate why other people don’t hold her in such high regard.

The story swings between the past and the present as a middle-aged Bonnie visits her 89-year-old grandmother in a residential care home and recalls the year that changed all their lives forever.

A surprisingly good read

I will admit that I did not expect to like this book when it was chosen as my book group’s November read. When I ordered my copy online I couldn’t help but think it looked self-published (it’s not).

Yet Lee is an established author with four novels and a short story collection to her name. She is also a stand-up comedian, which may explain why this book is so outrageously funny in places and why, even amongst the pathos of Bonnie’s childhood, there is a dark seam of humour running throughout.

A few pages in I got used to the plain prose style and the lengthy descriptions of what people were wearing — “I wore a pea-green linen trouser suit. Around my neck I’d looped a scarf in a silvery thread, one of my own designs” — and found myself getting drawn into a rather intriguing domestic drama in which Aunt Ed was akin to “Gina Lollobrigida and Grace Kelly — fire and ice” and whose “breasts stormed into the room ahead of her”.

In fact it is Aunt Ed, the glamorous character at the heart of this story and whom we only see through 11-year-old Bonnie’s eyes, that makes the novel such a charming, slightly naughty, read.

‘I wish I had hair like Aunt Ed,’ I said.
‘It’s out of a bottle.’
‘What do you mean?’ I imagined hair pouring like liquid gold from a fairytale flagon.
‘Ed has a hairdresser friend who comes to their house and does it for her but don’t tell anyone I said so.’
‘Does what for her?’
‘Dyes her hair of course. You didn’t think it was natural, did you?’
‘So could I have hair that colour?’
‘Over my dead body.’ Mum leant out of the window.

Coming of age story

Always You, Edina is essentially a coming-of-age tale. Bonnie, a pre-teen in the 1960s when children were still seen but not heard, is too young to comprehend the complicated relationships between the adults in her life: her parents, unhappily married, and her Aunt Ed and Uncle Brian, who seem smitten with each other. But it’s clear to the reader that there are inappropriate dalliances occurring that are beyond a child’s ken.

They are always arguing now. The grown-ups. Their rows are like little bonfires that they take turns in starting up, then along comes Gran with a bucket of water. Some hissing, some crackling, and usually the bonfire goes out.

Not a great deal happens plot wise: the story more or less charts the ups and downs of Bonnie’s life — her crush on her popular classmate Joanna Bayliss, her star turn in the class play, her mixed feelings for her cousin Susan, who pushes her down the stairs — but it’s so vividly told it’s hard not to keep turning the pages.

And Bonnie is such a delightful character: good-natured, clever and naive, all at the same time.

Always You, Edina isn’t a quick read, but it’s one to enjoy lingering over. The Bensons, including Bonnie’s cantankerous outspoken grandmother, are wonderful fun: Brummies brimming with heart, attitude — and carefully kept secrets.

Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Magnus Mills, Publisher, Setting, UK

‘The Forensic Records Society’ by Magnus Mills (with playlist)

Forensic records society by magnus mills

Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury; 186 pages; 2017. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Magnus Mills takes the quintessential British obsession with music and turns it on its head in The Forensic Records Society. It is typical Mills fare: soporific, surreal and filled with deadpan humour.

It is about two friends who start a club called — you guessed it — The Forensic Records Society. It meets every Monday at 9pm in the backroom of the local pub, The Half Moon. The idea is for each member to bring along three 7-inch vinyl singles, which they listen to (“in strict rotation”) on an old portable record player. There is to be no discussion, no commentary, no judgement of other people’s tastes. The idea is to listen to the music forensically.

Of course, things don’t go according to plan. Not everyone follows the rules. A rival group forms. A splinter group soon follows. And the rivalry between each society becomes more heightened — and more absurd — as this short, quirky story proceeds to its humorous conclusion.

An eccentric tale

I’m a big fan of Magnus Mills’ work and I’ve reviewed all his novels. This one is just as idiosyncratic, eccentric and fable-like as the rest.

I love the way it pokes fun at music obsessives and the sometimes snobby nature of those who collect records. The way that James, the co-founder of the society, wields his rule book brought to mind a funny experience of my own. In the early 2000s I was at a Peter Gabriel concert, in the round, at Wembley Arena. A family of four were sitting in front of me: mum, dad and their two sons, aged around 8 and 10. The boys were forbidden from dancing or singing along to any of the songs. “You must listen to them carefully,” instructed the dad. “There must be no singing!” And boy, did he keep them to this self-imposed rule.

I could just imagine this chap heading up The Forensic Records Society.

The book also pokes fun at that quintessential British establishment — the pub — and highlights how having a few drinks with friends can seem to make time speed up: you never quite know where the hours go.

The story also highlights how blokes bond over music; they don’t even need to talk about it. This is in stark contrast to the all-women rival group that forms — the Confessions Record Society (“bring a record of your choice and confess!”) — which encourages members to explain the emotional connection they have to particular songs.

Classic Mills

Like other Magnus Mills’ novels, there is little in the way of descriptive detail (I think he has a special aversion to adjectives), characters are only distinguishable from each other by their (rather ordinary) names and there’s no back story. The reader is simply plunged into a world that looks and feels familiar to our own, but isn’t quite normal. The fun is trying to figure out what is going on beneath the surface; what point is Mills trying to make about our society?

There’s a little smidgen of mystery in this one, too — what is the unbranded single everyone keeps wanting to borrow; what is Alice, the barmaid’s, secret; and what does the taxman have to do with anything — which adds an extra level of intrigue.

All in all, The Forensic Records Society is classic Mills. If you’ve never read him before, this is just a good a place as any to start.

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The Forensic Records Society Playlist

The book is littered with song titles (the performers are never mentioned, nor the genre), so I thought it would be fun to create a YouTube playlist of 10 tunes that were name checked in the novel. In no particular order, they are:

‘Six Months in a Leaky Boat’ (Split Enz)

‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ (Joy Division)

‘Come As You Are’ (Nirvana)

‘Waterloo Sunset’ (The Kinks)

‘Mr Brightside’ (The Killers)

‘The Day Before You Came’ (Abba)

‘On the Road Again’ (Willie Nelson)

‘Are “Friends” Electric’ (Gary Numan)

‘Substitute’ (The Who)

‘The Universal’ (Blur)

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ian McEwan, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘Saturday’ by Ian McEwan

Saturday

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 282 pages; 2005.

On Saturday February 15, 2003 almost a million people took to the streets of London to protest against the impending war in Iraq. It was the biggest ever demonstration witnessed in the UK.

As someone who took part in the Stop the War march, I was keen to read Saturday by Ian McEwan because it is famously set in London on that very day. But the protest is a mere backdrop to a more deeply personal story, that of a day-in-the-life of a well-established and highly successful neurosurgeon, Henry Perowne, whose comfortable existence is rocked by a string of unforeseen events.

Perowne’s normal Saturday — playing squash with a colleague, watching his son’s band rehearsal, shopping for food and then preparing a lavish family meal in preparation for his daughter’s arrival home after a stint away — gets slightly turned on its head when, first, in the early hours of the morning, he stands at his bedroom window and sees a burning aeroplane arc across the sky towards Heathrow Airport, and second, when he is involved in a very minor car accident that turns into a potentially life-threatening situation.

These dual events turn out to be thwarted catastrophes, but there’s an air of menace that permeates Perowne’s thoughts and deeds throughout the day. In many ways, his deeply personal — and somewhat selfish — fears echo that of the country’s citizens at large who are determined to stop the Government heading into a war that no-one wants. But Perowne lives a fairly sheltered existence where the harsh realities of the wider world rarely intrude. Even the anti-war demonstration, from which he views at a distance, only serves to irritate him.

For much of this novel, the reader could be excused for thinking that not much seems to happen in Saturday. Perowne’s dull routine is punctuated by a series of unexpected incidents, but McEwan tends not to focus too much on the actual events but on what Perowne thinks about them. It’s a very cerebral book (quite clever when you consider that the lead character makes his living operating on people’s brains) until you come to the unexpected, and somewhat shocking climax, which takes the action up a gear or two.

I’ve made no secret that I think McEwan is a brilliant writer. In this book, much hyped at the time of release, he delivers a carefully considered and distinctly British view of the modern world, where terrorism has begun to intrude on every day lives. This book is essentially about a rich and successful man coming to terms with the fact that money does not buy everything — not even your peace of mind.