Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, Magnus Mills, Publisher, Setting, short stories, UK

‘Screwtop Thompson’ by Magnus Mills

Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury; 128 pages; 2010.

There are no Magnus Mills’ novels left for me to read, so I thought I would give his short story collection Screwtop Thompson a go, having picked it up at a second-hand book sale earlier in the year for the princely sum of $3.

Mills is one of my favourite writers. He’s got a style all of his own. Part fable, part absurdist. Always original and hugely humorous.

He is an expert at looking at our overly complicated society (or British culture), honing in on a particular issue and then reducing it down to something super simple, as if to say, have you ever thought about things like this? (And the answer is always, “no”.)

In his novels, he has covered everything from bus timetables to record collecting, British exploration to time-keeping, and always with an eye to the ridiculous.

This short story collection is more of the same but has a domestic, rather than societal, focus.

For instance, in the opening story, Only When the Sun Shines Brightly, an enormous sheet of plastic — “industrial wrapping, possibly twenty yards in area” — gets caught high up on a viaduct wall and causes noise and disturbance as it flaps in the wind. A business owner who works below the viaduct tries various methods of reaching the plastic to pull it down, all to no avail. People complain about the eyesore and the noise, but nothing is ever done about it. Then, when it is miraculously removed, the narrator of the story complains it’s now too quiet to sleep!

In another, At Your Service, a short man called Mr Wee (LOL) asks his friend to help cut a few branches off a tree that is obscuring the view from his second-floor flat. Getting access to the tree — “a great overgrown thorny thing” — proves farcical, but when at last the bowsaw is used, Mr Wee is not happy: so much light now floods into his flat he has to keep the blinds down!.

Another story, Once in a Blue Moon, is a bit more off-kilter.

My mother’s house was under siege. One chill Friday evening in November I arrived to find the entire neighbourhood in a state of high alert. The police had blocked the street at both ends. A helicopter was circling overhead, and there were snipers hidden in the garden.

The narrator manages to convince his mother to let him into the house — after she’s shot out the upper-storey bedroom window — by asking her what she’s planning to do at Christmas. Her guard down, she invites him in, makes him a cuppa and answers his question — all the while keeping the gun levelled at him. It’s a quirky story, but not out of keeping with the kinds of absurd situations Mills normally puts in his novels.

My favourite story, Hark the Herald, will resonate with anyone who’s stayed in a British B&B and endured the passive-aggressive nature of the hosts, in this case, Mr Sedgefield and his partner, who put on a polite act, all the while treating their guest with thinly veiled contempt. It’s Christmas, and the narrator is looking forward to socialising with other guests, but despite being promised he will meet them on numerous occasions, he always seems to miss them, begging the question, do they even exist or are they a figment of Mr Sedgefield’s imagination?

Anyway, you get the idea…

There are 11 stories in this quirky little collection, most of which are only 10 or so pages long, so the volume is a quick read. Some of them feel a bit thin, almost as if they are sketches rather than fully formed ideas, and occasionally the endings are too abrupt.

On the whole, I’d say Screwtop Thompson was for true Mills’ aficionados, rather than for those who have never read his work before.

Author, Bernard MacLaverty, Birgit Vanderbeke, Book lists, Cynan Jones, Damon Galgut, J.L. Carr, Jay Mcinerney, Karin Fossum, Kate Jennings, Magnus Mills, Marguerite Duras, Mary Costello, Nell Leyshon, Nuala Ní Chonchúir, Sonya Hartnett, Tarjei Vesaas, Tommy Wieringa, Yoko Ogawa

17 intriguing novellas you can read in a day (or an afternoon)

If you are looking for a quick read during “lockdown”, something that will absorb you and take you out of yourself for a few hours, you can’t go past a short novel.

I have a penchant for books with fewer than 200 pages and thought I’d list some of my favourites here.

All these books can easily be read in the space of a day — or an afternoon. They have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. To see a full review, simply click the book title.

Cover image of A Month in the Country by JL Carr

A Month in the Country by JL Carr (1980)
Escape to a long-lost English summer in this subtle tale of a young soldier who returns from the Great War and undertakes a special project: to uncover a medieval mural inside a church.

Academy Street by Mary Costello (2014)
Follow all the joy and heartaches in the life of a passive, too-afraid-to-grab-life-by-the-horns Irishwoman from her girlhood in rural Ireland to her retirement in New York more than half a century later.

The Lover by Marguerite Duras (1984)
Immerse yourself in this evocative and sensual story set in 1930s Indo-China which revolves around a teenage girl’s affair with a man 12 years her senior.

Bad Intentions by Karin Fossum (2011)
Discover a crime book with a difference in this fast-paced story about three men who go on a weekend trip to an isolated cabin by a lake — but only two of them return.

Small Circle of Beings

Small Circle of Beings by Damon Galgut (2005)
Learn about a stubborn South African mother who fails to take her young son to hospital when he falls dangerously ill — will you condemn her or feel empathy?

Of a Boy by Sonya Hartnett (2009)
Spend time in the head of a scared, lonely schoolboy who convinces himself that the three children who move in across the road are the same children whose recent disappearance now fills the TV news.

Snake by Kate Jennings

Snake by Kate Jennings (2001)
Meet Rex and Irene, a married couple living on an outback farm in post-war Australia, who hate each other but must muddle on regardless.

The Long Dry by Cynan Jones (2014) 
Accompany Gareth as he spends an entire day trudging the hills of his Welsh farm looking for a missing cow —  and along the way learn about his hopes, his dreams and the love he has for his wife and children.

Cal by Bernard MacLaverty (1983)
Get caught up in an affair between a Catholic man and an older Protestant woman during the height of The Troubles in Northern Ireland — and be prepared for a heart-rending morally challenging ride.

Explorers of the new century by

Explorers of the New Century by Magnus Mills (2006)
Strap yourself in for a totally bonkers competition between two groups of explorers competing to reach the “furtherest point from civilisation” — expect many laughs and quite a lot of WTF moments!

The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon (2012)
Take 15-year-old sharp-tongued Mary by the hand in “this year of lord eighteen hundred and thirty” and go with her as she is forced to work at the local vicarage as the live-in help.

Bright Lights Big City by Jay McInerney (1985)
Experience life as an out-of-work fact-checker in 1980s New York — go to all the parties, take all the drugs, but don’t let on your glamourous wife has left you, and do your best not to fall apart at the seams.

You by Nuala Ní Chonchúir (2010)
Meet a funny, feisty 10-year-old narrator caught between two families —  her mother and her new boyfriend; and her father and his new wife — in 1980s Dublin.

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa (2010)
Be charmed by the relationship between a young housekeeper and her client, an elderly mathematics professor whose short-term memory only lasts 80 minutes.

The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas (1966)
Succumb to the mystery of an intense friendship between two 11-year-old girls, one of whom disappears in the “ice palace”, a frozen waterfall, in rural Norway.

The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke (1990)
Sit around the dinner table with a German family awaiting the arrival of the patriarch so that they can all celebrate his promotion with mussels and wine — but why is he so late?

The Death of Murat Idrissi by Tommy Wieringa (2019)
Travel abroad with two young women from the Netherlands, on holiday in Morocco, who agree to help smuggle a young man across the border into Europe — with deadly repercussions.

Have you read any of these? Do you have a favourite novella? Or can you recommend a few that I haven’t put on my list?

Book lists

16 books for 16 years of blogging

Sometime this week marks the 16th birthday of this blog. (I’m not sure of the definite date, only that it was the first week of March 2004.)

To celebrate the occasion I thought I’d create a special list, choosing an influential book for every year I’ve been blogging.

Each of the 16 books I have chosen left a lasting impression on me in some way, either by taking me into new reading territory or introducing me to a new favourite author.

Without further ado, here is my list arranged in chronological order beginning with 2004.

Year: 2004
Book: ‘Towards the end of the Morning’ by Michael Frayn
What it is about: A comedy of manners featuring two Fleet Street journalists in the 1960s who spend most of their time in the pub wishing they could break into the more lucrative business of television reporting.
How it influenced me: It opened my eyes to a whole new “genre” of books about newspaper journalists. I’ve read quite a few since then and have a list of my favourite 10 here.

Year: 2005
Book: ‘Three to see the King’ by Magnus Mills
What it is about: An allegory exploring whether the grass is greener on the other side.
How it influenced me: Reading this strange, quirky book turned me into a lifelong Magnus Mills fan. I’ve read all of his novels since then. You can read those reviews here.

The Barracks by John McGahern

Year: 2006
Book: ‘The Barracks’ by John McGahern
What it is about: A former nurse in war-torn London returns to rural Ireland, where she marries a policeman much older than herself and becomes stepmother to three children. When she develops breast cancer, she hides the diagnosis from everyone bar the local priest.
How it influenced me: After reading this book it made such an impression on me I went out and bought McGahern’s entire back catalogue. That same year I read two more by him. He promptly became my favourite writer. I even went to County Leitrim, where McGahern was from, to hunt out haunts mentioned in his novels and his memoir.

Year: 2007
Book:  ‘The Blackwater Lightship’ by Colm Toibin
What it is about: Three generations of Irishwomen, estranged for years, reluctantly join forces to look after one of their own who has a serious life-threatening illness.
How it influenced me: It turned me into a life-long Toibin fan and I’m slowly but surely making my way through his backlist. This is what I have reviewed so far.

Tarry Flynn

Year: 2008
Book:
‘Tarry Flynn’ by Patrick Kavanagh 
What it is about: This is a joyous bittersweet novel about a bachelor farmer in rural Ireland in the 1930s.
How it influenced me: It opened my eye to the concept of “rural novels”, especially ones about farming, which I have sought out ever since.

Merry go round in the sea by randolph stow

Year: 2009
Book: ‘The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea’ by Randolph Stow
What it is about: A gentle coming-of-age story set in Geraldton, Western Australia during the Second World War.
How it influenced me: I loved this book so much I actually read it twice in a year. It also made me want to read his entire back catalogue, but at the time most of it was out of print. Fortunately, Text Classics has since rectified this and I have them all lying in wait.

Year: 2010
Book: ‘This Human Season’ by Louise Dean
What it is about: Set in Belfast at the height of The Troubles, this profoundly moving story looks at both sides of the “dirty protest” carried out by political prisoners held in The Maze prison.
How it influenced me: As well as making me want to read more books by Louise Dean, it encouraged me to seek out more novels from Northern Ireland. Through this exploration, I have discovered the likes of David Park and Deidre Madden.

Devotion of Suspect X

Year: 2011
Book:  ‘The Devotion of Suspect X’ by Keigo Higashino
What it is about: This is an extraordinary crime novel which bucks the normal conventions of the genre: we know from the outset who has committed the crime, how they did it and who has helped cover it up, but we don’t know the steps taken to protect the real murderer.
How it influenced me:  This book got me into Japanese crime fiction, including several by Higashino, as well as wider Japanese literature.

Plainsong by Kent Haruf

Year: 2012
Book: ‘Plainsong’ by Kent Haruf 
What it is about: Set in rural Colorado in the 1980s, this gorgeously bittersweet story follows the trials and tribulations of a handful of diverse but interesting characters, including two old bachelor brothers, who run a farm and take in a pregnant teenager kicked out of home.
How it influenced me: This book rocketed straight into my all-time favourite reads. I loved its rural setting (see Tarry Flynn above) and its eccentric, warm-hearted characters, but most of all I loved the eloquent and elegant prose style. I have since read all of Haruf’s backlist. Sadly, his death a few years ago means there’s no more left for me to read.

Year: 2013
Book: ‘Of Human Bondage’ by W. Somerset Maugham [not reviewed]
What it is about: This doorstep of a novel follows the life and times of an orphan with a club foot who is raised by a strict and religious uncle in the English provinces, but flees, first to Germany, then to Paris, before settling in London to study medicine. It’s a profoundly moving book because it shows what happens to people when there is no welfare state. I loved this book so much I couldn’t bring myself to review it.
How it influenced me: Since reading this book, I’ve been happily working my way through W. Somerset Maugham’s backlist. This is what I have reviewed so far.

Year: 2014
Book: ‘Black and Proud: The Story of an Iconic AFL Photo’ by Matthew Klugman and Gary Osmond [not reviewed]
What it is about: This award-winning book examines racism in sport. It charts the story behind the image that is on its front cover — Aboriginal Australian AFL footballer Nicky Winmar pointing to his chest declaring he was “proud to be black” after enduring racist abuse during a football match on 17 April 1993 — and puts it into the wider context of Australian society.
How it influenced me: I’m not a football fan, but this book proved to be a compelling account of an important issue. I read Anna Krien’s Night Games: Sex, Power and Sport, which is about rape culture in the AFL world, at around the same time and it was equally as compelling. But the Winmar story was the one that sent me off on a new journey exploring indigenous issues, including Stan Grant’s Talking to My Country and Cal Flynn’s Thicker Than Water: History, Secrets and Guilt: A Memoir.

Year: 2015
Book: ‘The Good Doctor’ by Damon Galgut 
What it is about: Set in post-apartheid South Africa, this is the story of two doctors working in a deserted rural hospital who must share lodgings. It is a fascinating portrait of male friendship amid huge societal changes as the “new” South Africa shakes off its dark history.
How it influenced me: This book, with its effortless, dreamy prose, turned me into a Galgut fan. I’ve read four more novels by him since reading this one.

Walking Free by Dr Munjed Al Muderis

Year: 2016
Book: ‘Walking Free’ by Dr Munjed Al Muderis (with Patrick Weaver)
What it is about: The true-life story of an Iranian refugee who was held in Curtin Immigration Detention Centre in the remote Kimberly region of Western Australia. After surviving this hellhole for 10 months, he eventually gained his freedom. He is now one of the world’s leading specialists in osseointegration in which prosthetic limbs are implanted and fused into bone Terminator style.
How it influenced me: This book opened my eyes to Australia’s shameful and inhumane policy of detention for refugees and asylum seekers, and made me more conscious of the issues facing those people seeking new lives against the odds.

Down in the city by Elizabeth Harrower

Year: 2017
Book: ‘Down in the City’ by Elizabeth Harrower
What it is about: Set in Sydney one hot summer, it tells the story of an abusive marriage between two people from opposite ends of the social spectrum.
How it influenced me: Even though I’d read two books by Harrower before, this was the one that made me sit up and pay attention. Her ability to evoke atmosphere and to capture the inner-most workings of the human soul are just brilliant. I am on a mission to read all of Harrower’s work. This is what I’ve read so far.

Lie with me

Year: 2018
Book: ‘Lie With Me’ by Sabine Durrant
What it is about: This book nicely fits into the “holidays from hell” genre. It’s a psychological thriller set on a Greek island but is told from the perspective of a nasty, conniving narrator who you are never quite sure whether to trust.
How it influenced me: I always like a good psychological-thriller-come-page-turner and it’s such a relief to find a new author who you can rely on to offer up a great story. I have since read several more by this author.

Year: 2019
Book:  ‘The Old Boys’ by William Trevor 
What it is about: This is a black comedy about four septuagenarians who all went to boarding school together more than 50 years earlier and behave very much as you would expect a group of immature schoolboys to behave — badly! They connive, cheat and backstab each other, all in an outlandish bid to establish who is “top dog”.
How it influenced me: I had previously read quite a bit of Trevor’s later work and I associated him with poignant tales of thwarted love in rural Ireland, but this book showed me that his early work was very different (this was his debut novel): it was set in London and darkly comic. I have since read several more of his earlier novels and hope to work my way through his massive backlist. All my reviews of his work are here.

So, there you have it. These are the most influential books I’ve read in the past 16 years. I’m conscious of the fact that this is a very male-dominated list. But I’m sure that if I compiled this list tomorrow, the books here would probably be different. For now, this will have to do.

Have you read any of this list? Or care to share your own influential reads?

6 Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘How to be Both’ to ‘Moderato Cantabile’

Six degrees of separation logo for memeYou all know that I don’t do memes, right? Well, I’ve decided to make an exception to the rule.

I’ve been reading and following the Six Degrees of Separation book meme, which is hosted by Kate at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest and runs on the first Saturday of the month, for a long time. You can find out more about it via this post on Kate’s blog, but essentially every month a book is chosen as a starting point and then six other books are linked to it to form a chain.

It’s a great way of discovering new books and new authors to read.

Every time I see this meme pop up in my WordPress Reader I think, next month I’ll give it a go. And then of course the next month comes around and I think the same thing. And this month I figured it was about time I pulled my finger out and just did it.

So welcome to my first ever Six Degrees of Separation meme. Hyperlinks will take you to my reviews.

The starting point is:

How to be both by Ali Smith

‘How to be Both’ by Ali Smith (2014)
Typically, I haven’t read How to be Both, so I can’t point you to a review, but I have read another Ali Smith novel, which is the first book in the chain:

1. ‘The Accidental’ by Ali Smith (2005)
Published in 2005, The Accidental was one of Smith’s early novels. I read it with a mixture of confusion and admiration, for it was quite unlike anything I’d read before and I wasn’t sure if I liked it or not at the time. The writing was hypnotic and full of wonderful wordplay, but the characters — all on holiday in Norfolk one hot summer — were hard to get a handle on. In my review I said it had a “touch of the Paul Austers” about it, which leads me to the next book in the chain:

2. ‘Invisible’ by Paul Auster (2009)
Auster has a reputation for writing complex post-modernist novels but I like the way he uses meta-fiction to play with the reader’s mind: I often find his novels have an uncanny way of seeping into your unconsciousness to leave a long-lasting, and sometimes unsettling, impression. He’s not for everyone, but Invisible — his 16th novel! — is wholly accessible and quite a fun read for anyone wanting an introduction to his work. It’s essentially about a writer and how he comes to write a controversial book. It then examines whether that book should have been published because of its damaging revelations about the real life protagonist within it. The morality of writing novels is also explored in the next novel in the chain:

3. ‘About the Author’ by John Colapinto (2002)
About the Author is a hugely entertaining plot-driven novel about a struggling writer who steals someone else’s manuscript and gets it published under his own name. It was one of the first books I ever reviewed on this blog way back in 2002, but I still remember it as a fun fast-paced read that explored lots of issues around writing and the trappings of fame. The trappings of fame are explored in the next novel in the chain:

4. ‘The Thrill of it All’ by Joseph O’Connor (2014)
A wonderful fictionalised memoir of a guitarist from a rock band that made it big in the 1980s, The Thrill of it All charts the story of Irish-born Robbie Goulding’s climb to fame and his subsequent slide into obscurity. It’s laugh-out-loud funny in places, but it’s also tinged with sadness and melancholia. It’s an ideal book for music lovers, especially if you like blues, ska, New Wave, punk or rock. Music lovers will also appreciate the next novel in the chain:

Forensic records society by magnus mills

5. ‘The Forensic Records Society’ by Magnus Mills (2017)
The Forensic Records Society is typically kooky Magnus Mills fare: two friends set up a record appreciation society in which members meet in a pub to take it in turns to play 7-inch vinyl singles to listen to the music forensically. There is to be no discussion, no commentary, no judgement of other people’s tastes. However, not everyone follows the rules and a rival group forms. The rivalry between them is what makes this story so funny — and quirky. Again, maybe not a book for everyone, but I’m a longtime Mills fan and I loved spotting the musical references throughout because the text is littered with song titles, minus the name of the performers, so it’s fun testing your knowledge along the way. Music is also the inspiration behind the next — and final — book in the chain:

6. ‘Moderato Cantabile’ by Marguerite Duras (1958)
The title of this French novella is a direction for playing music in a “moderate and melodious” way, which could also be taken as a metaphor for the book’s structure, which is based around eight short chapters. It’s a simple story about a woman who becomes obsessed with a murder that happens when her son is taking a piano lesson. But it’s not really about music; it’s more about class divisions and societal expectations, and is written in a beguiling, melancholic tone of voice, which I loved.

So that’s my first ever #6Degrees: from an award-winning British novel about art through to a French novella inspired by a musical direction.

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.

—————————————————–
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, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Magnus Mills, Publisher, satire

‘The Field of the Cloth of Gold’ by Magnus Mills

The-field-of-cloth-of-gold

Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury Publishing; 224 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

It’s no secret that I am a Magnus Mills fan, so I was naturally keen to read his latest book, The Field of the Cloth of Gold, as soon as it came thudding through the door. It’s been almost four years since his last novel, but it turned out to be worth the wait, for this is another profound story characterised by Mills’ typical bare-boned prose, tongue-in-cheek humour and incisive commentary on the foibles of human beings.

A tented village

The story revolves around a large irregularly-shaped field — known as The Great Field — situated in the bend of a “broad, meandering river”.

Dotted across this lush, green field are several tents of various size, shape and description, but over time more and more tents appear as people arrive to take advantage of the beautiful views, fresh air and quietude. But as the population of this quiet backwater steadily increases, disputes over territory, views and resources arise.

When a trench is created under the guise of drainage control for the (always damp) south-east corner, it doesn’t take long for some inhabitants to realise it’s actually a wall — or a defensive rampart, depending on your point of view — designed to secure the best corner of the field for a select group: everyone else must simply move north.

If you think this sounds a little like a metaphor for Britain you’d probably be right. I read this surreal story trying to figure out its meaning — was it a fable about community? immigration? British history? — before I decided it could almost be anything you want it to be: it’s charm lies in its ability to be interpreted in a myriad of ways. It’s clever and smart and even if you don’t want to have to think about the points Mills might be making you can simply read the novel for what it is: a delightfully quirky and eccentric tale about a bunch of people living in a field and trying to get by the best they know how. I really loved it.

More reviews of Mills’ work

I’ve reviewed all of Mills’ previous novels on the site — simply click on the book titles to read the review: The Restraint of Beasts (1998), All Quiet on the Orient Express (1999), Three to See the King (2001), The Scheme for Full Employment (2003), Explorers of the New Century (2005), The Maintenance of Headway (2009) and A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In (2011).

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

‘A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In’ by Magnus Mills

A-Cruel-Bird-Came-to-the-Nest-and-Looked-in

Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury; 276 pages; 2011. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

If we ever needed a novel to satirise the current malaise of the British Empire — complete with unhappy public sector workers, crippling debt and politicos looking after their own interests — then who better than to offer it up than Magnus Mills? A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In is Mills’ seventh novel, and it’s typical Mills fare.

If you’ve never read anything by Mills before, you need to prepare yourself in advance. I promise that you will have never encountered anything quite like a Mills novel before.

He writes in a completely stripped back way, using short, simplistic sentences. On face value, these may seem dull and monotonous, but you can never accuse him of being boring. That’s because it’s up to the reader to figure out what’s going on — in many cases, it’s the things that Mills doesn’t say that make his stories so powerful.

Mills’ stories are also peopled entirely by men, there is little or no characterisation (although you will probably recognise people you know — officials and jobsworths primarily), little or no descriptions of people or places, and the plots are superficial.

But as allegories or fables, you can’t get any better. And as far as black comedies go, you’re in for a real treat.

Poking fun at the feudal system

In A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In Mills’ tackles the feudal system, which is not a topic you’d generally associate with humour. Yet in Mills’ hands it becomes the funniest thing since, well, the feudal system.

The story is told through the eyes of an unnamed character, who is Principal Composer to the Imperial Court. Despite never having played a note in his life, he is “supreme leader” of the imperial orchestra. He clearly isn’t up for the job, but it doesn’t matter, because the conductor, a very talented musician, does all the work for which he can take credit.

The Principal Composer sits on an eight-member cabinet presided over by his Exalted Highness, The Majestic Emperor of the Realms, Dominions, Colonies and Commonwealth of Greater Fallowfields.

Absentee king

Unfortunately, His Highness seems to have gone missing, and because he never turns up to the weekly cabinet meeting no decisions about the empire, which is bestridden by ongoing problems, can be made. So the officers-of-state, who are all equal in the hierarchy, muddle along as best they can.

Any form of cooperation between departments is ruled out, so the problems — an unreliable postal system, a lack of money in circulation (it’s all being “reserved for a rainy day” by the Chancellor of the Exchequer) and an imperial telescope that only works if the Astronomer Royal has a sixpence to put in the slot — are never sorted.

A series of idiotic decisions are made. Chief among these is an imperial edict that arrives via post from the absentee emperor. He orders that the sun must set at five o’clock all year round, but the only way to make that happen is to ensure all clocks within Greater Fallowfields are put forward by two minutes every day. This means a great deal of work for one particular cabinet member — who moans and groans about it  — but for several others it’s seen as a wonderful opportunity to enjoy tea — lemon curd and toasted soldiers — in the library to watch the sunset every day.

A crumbling empire

Mills paints a convincing portrait of an empire, a former maritime supremacy, now stuck in its ways, failing to modernise or make decisions with the best interests of its citizens in mind.

Typically, there’s a lot of deadpan humour (when one cabinet member points out that there’s “absolutely no kind of spiritual, theological or pastoral representative”, a colleague responds, “Thank God”) and bitter irony (the cabinet spends much of its time rehearsing a play which is an “example of the feudal system in perfect working order — until someone tampers with it”).

But it all comes to a head when a (literal) threat on the horizon is noted: foreigners are building a trainline to Greater Fallowfields and an immigration boom seems imminent — or does it?

A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In is a seemingly impossible mix of the odd and endearing. It’s playful and fun, but with a serious undercurrent running between the lines. The characters are delightfully eccentric and the way in which the empire is run will, at times, remind you of the terrible bureaucracy and inflexibility of systems here in the UK.

All in all, it is a wonderful, comic read that is bound to appeal to new readers and Mills’ fans alike.

More reviews of Mills’ work

I’ve reviewed all of Mills’ previous novels on the site: The Restraint of Beasts (1998), All Quiet on the Orient Express (1999), Three to See the King (2001), The Scheme for Full Employment (2003), Explorers of the New Century (2005) and The Maintenance of Headway (2009).

 

10 books, Book lists

10 books to make you laugh

10-booksFor this list of 10 Books I’m looking at those that tickle the funny bone. Admittedly, I generally prefer my fiction a little on the darker side, but every now and then it’s refreshing to read something a bit more light-hearted, and if it gives me a belly laugh or two, then all the better.

Plus, readers constantly ask me to recommend books that will make them laugh — and these are the humorous novels that immediately spring to mind.

Here’s my top 10 funny novels (arranged in alphabetical order by book title):

EnglishPassengers ‘English Passengers’ by Matthew Kneale

This isn’t your typical funny novel. In fact, it’s probably best classed as historical fiction. But there are aspects of it that are incredibly witty. Told through the eyes of more than 20 diverse characters, it plunges the reader into a wonderful boys’ own adventure tale turned comical farce in which a Manx smuggling vessel inadvertently flees British Customs by sailing half way around the world to Australia. To make the journey legitimate the crew, headed by Captain Illiam Quillian Kewley, carry on board a small expedition team, comprising a spiritually crazed reverend, a sinister racial-theorist doctor and a wayward botanist, intent on finding the lost Garden of Eden in Tasmania. It’s a wonderful romp and, in my opinion, is one of the best books published in the past 10 years.

AFarCryFromKensington ‘A Far Cry from Kensington’ by Muriel Spark

I suspect I could have chosen any of the late Muriel Spark’s novels to be included in this list, but I’ve gone for this one purely because I remember enjoying it so much when I read it last year. It’s set in 1954 and tells the story of Mrs Hawkins, who works in publishing, and finds herself in deep water when she’s just a little too frank with a client. There’s a dual narrative involving a death threat against a lodger with whom Mrs Hawkins resides, which adds a rather sinister twist to the story.

GingerMan‘The Ginger Man’ by J.P. Donleavy

Ask me to name the funniest story I’d ever read and I would not hesitate to name this one. First published in Paris in 1955, the book was banned in Ireland — where it is set — and the USA for obscenity. It follows the adventures of Sebastian Dangerfield, an American Protestant of Irish descent, who does everything a married man should not do: he spends the couple’s rent money on alcohol; staggers home drunk and acts violently towards his wife; and conducts numerous adulterous affairs. He’s thoroughly unlikable and completely selfish, and everything he does is outrageous. And while the book treads a whisper-thin line between comedy and tragedy, it’s the comic elements which really makes this story a great one to chortle along with.

MaintenanceOfHeadway‘Maintenance of Headway’ by Magnus Mills

Magnus Mills is one of my all-time favourite authors, but he is an acquired taste. I’ve read his entire back catalogue and enjoyed them all. This is his latest book, but I could have easily named one of his others, as they’re all hugely funny stories. Maintenance of Headway is pretty much devoid of plot; it’s basically a series of vignettes about the running of the London bus network. Much of it is laugh-out-loud funny, particularly if you have a dry sense of humour. The wit comes chiefly through the conversations held between drivers on their tea-breaks. It’s the perfect read if you are looking for something that little bit different…

Scoop‘Scoop’ by Evelyn Waugh

First published in 1938, Scoop is billed as one of the funniest novel ever written about journalism. It follows the escapades of William Boot, who is mistaken for an eminent writer, and is sent off to the African Republic of Ishmaelia to report on a little known war for the Daily Beast. With no journalistic training and far out of his depth, Boot struggles to comprehend what it is he is being paid to do and makes one blunder after another all in the pursuit of hot news. One word: hilarious.

AShortGentleman‘A Short Gentleman’ by Jon Canter

This novel pokes fun at the British upper classes. The story is narrated by Robert Purcell, a distinguished barrister who finds himself on the wrong side of the law. The book is essentially a confession of his downfall told in a very long-winded but brilliantly witty way. We don’t know what crime it is that Robert committed, and part of the joy of reading this book is trying to figure it out as you go along.

Snuff‘Snuff’ by Chuck Palahniuk

A novel about the pornographic industry might not sound like a barrel of laughs, but in the very capable hands of Chuck Palahniuk it takes on a rather surreal, laugh-out-loud dimension. Instead of glorifying pornography, he pokes fun at it, and, in doing so, he highlights the absurdity, warped mentality and crudity of it all. But if I can offer a caveat, it would be this: don’t bother reading if you are easily offended. There’s plenty of bad language and crude scenes to last a life time in this one!

SomethingFresh‘Something Fresh’ by P.G. Wodehouse

I couldn’t put together a list of funny novels without including some Wodehouse. In this book, the first in the Blandings series, a retired American millionaire, Mr Peters, tries to get back his incredibly rare and valuable scarab which has been absent-mindedly pocketed by Lord Emsworth. What follows is a complete farce in which two rivals — Ashe Marson, a poorly paid writer of detective stories, and Joan Valentine, a magazine correspondent — try to get the scarab back in exchange for a rather generous reward from Mr Peters. Throw in an overweight private detective, a rich “idiot child”, a fussy butler and an efficient private secretary, among others, and the comic world of P.G. Wodehouse comes truly alive.

TimeAfterTime_small‘Time After Time’ by Molly Keane

This is a delicious black comedy that seems frothy and lighthearted on the surface, but has a very dark heart beating at its centre. It’s not immediately obvious but this is a story about the nasty things people do to each other. It’s set in a beautiful but crumbling mansion in Southern Ireland where four elderly siblings reside. Each of them is eccentric, fiercely independent and set in their own ways. When their cousin Leda arrives unannounced for a short stay little do they know the ructions she is about to cause… More please.

TowardsTheEnd‘Towards the End of the Morning’ by Michael Frayn

Novels about journalism and newspapers are particular favourites of mine (see Scoop above), and this one, written in 1967, harks back to the days when Fleet Street began to experience terminal decline. While it’s set in an unspecified newspaper and focuses on print journalists fearing for their futures, it’s essentially a comedy of manners. I laughed out loud a lot while reading this one.

So, what did you think of my choices? Are there any particular books or authors you’d recommend as a funny read? What is missing from my list?

Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Magnus Mills, Publisher, satire

‘The Maintenance of Headway’ by Magnus Mills

MaintenanceOfHeadway

Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury; 152 pages; 2009.

You know you’ve really enjoyed a book when you titter your way through it, which is exactly what I did when I eagerly devoured Magnus Mills‘ latest novel, The Maintenance of Headway.

Mills, who is one of my favourite authors, is, admittedly, not for everyone. He writes in a deliberately understated way, with an almost childlike naivety. He doesn’t bother with extraneous detail, because everything moves forward chiefly through dialogue. This allows him to really get to the heart of the matter, which, in most of his novels, is this simple premise: English life is plagued by bureaucracy and officialdom for no other reason than it keeps people in employment.

In The Maintenance of Headway, Mills turns his scornful eye towards the running of the London bus network. (Mills himself was a bus driver when his first novel, The Restraint of Beasts, was published.) Well, I suspect it’s London for the city isn’t named, but the description of the street system — “The streets are higgledy-piggledy and narrow; there are countless squares and circuses, zebra crossings and pelicans. Go east from the arch and you’ve got twenty-three sets of traffic lights in a row” — is unmistakable. I’m also convinced that the “bejewelled thoroughfare” (“a great canyon of flagship stores stretching side by side for nearly a mile”) mentioned in the text is actually London’s Oxford Street.

As to the story, there’s not really much to it. In fact, it’s pretty much devoid of plot. The book is essentially a satire that pokes fun at the overly regimented (and somewhat unsuccessful) way in which the Board of Transport runs its buses, where “there’s no excuse for being early” and everyone bemoans the loss of the Venerable Platform Bus (which can only be another way of describing the now defunct but rather iconic Routemaster) with its conductors and no doors. It covers the running battle between the bus drivers, who just want to drive buses to their required destinations with a minimum of fuss, and the inspectors, who meddle with the timetables and routes under the guise of “maintaining headway” .

Much of it is laugh-out-loud funny, particularly if you have a dry sense of humour. The wit comes chiefly through the conversations held between drivers on their tea-breaks. I was rather partial to the rogue driver, Jason, with his reckless attitude to passenger safety. In a discussion about passenger’s who deliberately ring the bell with no intention of getting off, Jason says:

‘If they keep doing it on my bus I give them some treatment with the brake and the accelerator. Rough them up a bit:  teach them a lesson.’
‘What about all the innocent people?’ I asked. ‘The ones who haven’t touched the bell?’
‘Tough, isn’t it?’ said Jason.

If you’ve ever experienced the joys of being a bus passenger, there’s a lot in this funny little novel you’ll recognise. And next time you wait ages for a bus and then three come along at once, you’ll know exactly who to blame.

Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Magnus Mills, Publisher, satire

‘Explorers of the New Century’ by Magnus Mills

Explorers of the new century by

Fiction – paperback; Bloomsbury; 186 pages; 2006.

Magnus Mills is a cheeky little scamp. With a big black beating heart. He lulls you into a false sense of security before dealing you a killer blow. And you can’t help but love him for it.

Explorers of the New Century, his fifth novel, starts out as a rather fun, light-hearted story about two groups of explorers competing to reach the “furtherest point from civilisation”. One group — Scandinavian, small and efficient — follows a dry riverbed; the second — British, large and disorganised — takes a different route across an endless landscape of scree.

The narrative plods along (pun fully intended) for what seems like forever. Not much seems to happen. (Admittedly, I considered abandoning the book, because it was so slow and dull.) The Scandinavians make good progress but are constantly worried they’ll get pipped at the post, while the Brits get mired in bickering and make poor leadership decisions.

And then, somewhere around the half-way mark, Mills throws a curve ball that makes you rub your eyes and re-read the sentence to make sure you didn’t misunderstand it. Suddenly the book takes a rather kooky and surreal turn, and you begin to realise Mills must have had a great time writing this book. Either that, or he was hallucinating when he cooked up the plot.

Then, just as you’re coming to grips with this new turn of events, he delivers another surprise twist that turns everything, and I mean everything, on its head. The story, which began as a rather pedestrian (there I go with the puns again, sorry about that) narrative now becomes rather dark and sinister. It makes you see everything that’s already happened before in a new and disturbing light. It’s brilliant.

Now, for obvious reasons, I can’t reveal the exact nature of these two “twists”, but I can say that Explorers of the New Century is one of those deceptively simple novels that is part allegory, part fable and stays with you long after you’ve finished reading it.

Crucially, there’s a lot of deadpan humour in it too, which breaks up the monotony of the anorexic text. Most of it is quite subtle, but there was one exchange they caused me to laugh out loud. The British group has just set up camp and are fantasising about scones with “lashings of jam and butter”.

The tent had four occupants. Sargent was in his normal position by the door. Next to him was Summerfield, already fast asleep. Then came Seddon, and at the far end was Plover. The latter had adopted his usual pose. He was lying on his side, outstretched with his legs crossed and his head popped on one hand, facing the doorway.
He waited a moment and then said, “I think you’ll find that the  correct pronunciation is ‘scones’.”
“‘Scones’?” repeated Sargent.
“‘Scones,'” repeated Plover.
“Well, I’ve never heard that before. We’ve always said ‘scones’ where I come from.”
“Same here,” agreed Seddon.
“I assure you the word is ‘scones’,” said Plover. “You should look it up when you get the opportunity.”

Trust Mills to capture the absurdity of English people arguing about the English language!

For what it’s worth, this is a hugely enjoyable book which can be easily read in just a couple of hours, perfect if you’re looking for a quick palette cleanser between novels. It’s typical Mills fare, if a little darker than usual, so if you like this you’re sure to enjoy his back catalogue, most of which is reviewed here.