Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Books of the year (so far)

Every so often I read a book that leaves me with a sense of disquiet. Or perhaps that’s not the right word. It’s a kind of edginess that comes of getting too involved in a book. Sometimes these books are so overwhelmingly brilliant that I’m left with a confused jumble of feelings and thoughts that I can’t fully articulate, but which nag away at me, pressing me to do the heavy work of comprehension. Other times I’m totally ambivalent about whether I even like the book or not and yet it’s lodged its hooks in my brain and I know it’s a book I’ll never forget, and sometimes the book has made me fall in love with it and I feel sadness that I’ll never get to read it for the first time ever again. When I look back on my reading year these disquieting books almost always turn out to be my favourites.

Heavy Duty People by Iain Parke

The first of the books I’m going to discuss today is one of the overwhelmingly brilliant ilk. It’s a biker novel published by a small press. This is the blurb:

When loyalty to his bike club and his brothers has been Damage’s life and route to wealth, what happens when business becomes serious and brother starts killing brother?

The blurb is straight to the point, and so too is the book. This is an edge-of-your-seat crime thriller of the best sort, the sort where the reader actually learns a thing or two, rather than just gorging on the hit of suspense like junk food only to instantly forget it. The second thing to say about Heavy Duty People is that the writing is terrific. I cannot for the life of me understand how this novel has not been picked up by a big press for a massive advance. The plot is fresh, the characterisation is spellbinding and the dénouement is perfect.

Heavy Duty People is the story of “Damage,” (A.K.A Martin Robertson) who goes from aimless teenager to an important figure in international outlaw biker club “The Brethren”. Eagle-eyed readers will notice that a Martin Robertson is listed as a co-author, though this book is most definitely a work of fiction. Heavy Duty People considers the roles of deception, misrepresentation and truth in the outlaw biker gang world and I enjoyed this post-modern device of toying with the reader’s notion of “real”.

Damage is the show-stealing superstar of the book and he really is a fantastic anti-hero. A rule-breaker, a loyal servant and a pragmatic murderer; he’s positively Shakespearian in his moral complexity. Hilariously, he’s also a financial advisor. As such, there is a great deal of fascinating information about systems for money-laundering, which I’ll certainly keep in mind if I ever fulfil my ambition of becoming a master criminal.

To give Damage the last word, here is his response (in the Afterword) to the question of whether he should feel guilty about his role in drug-smuggling:

“Just think, next time one of your mates has a snort at a party or your bird drops a tab at a club, someone’s had to source it for you, someone like me. This coke and shit doesn’t smuggle itself in y’know? It takes a bit of good old entrepreneurial risk-taking and effort on somebody’s part so’s you can get off your face. There’s demand, we take the risk and supply, and we get the rewards. Ain’t that how it’s supposed to work? Anyway, big tobacco sells stuff that kills you and if you’ve got a pension I bet you own some of it.

If I could only recommend one book this year, it would be Heavy Duty People.

Paperback, 230 pages, Bad-Press.co.uk, ISBN-10: 0956161510.

Into Suez by Stevie Davies

Years after Ailsa’s death, Nia finds Ailsa’s journal and sails into Suez in the wake of a mother she has never understood . . .

1949: The war against Germany is won; Britain is bankrupt and its Empire in decline. The Cold War has broken out; the Middle East is ready to explode. Britain hangs on to its occupation of the Suez Canal Zone in Egypt, the artery of Empire and a colossal arsenal.

Into this maelstrom, Ailsa Roberts, a vividly intelligent young Englishwoman sails on the ‘Empire Glory’, bringing her daughter to join her Welsh RAF sergeant husband, Joe. On the voyage out, Ailsa has fallen for the exotic Mona, an officer’s renegade wife, recklessly transgressing class norms, for friendship between officers and the lower ranks is forbidden. The womenfolk alight in a tumultuous world of casual British racism in the run-up to Egypt’s revolt against its hated occupiers.

Joe Roberts is a study in working class conservatism: the child of the Welsh steelmill, he left school at fourteen, just about literate. His tragedy is that of an emotional and (according to his own lights) honorable young man who struggles in the throes of his society’s prejudices. When he tries to call his wife to order, there are devastating consequences. In this epic novel of passionate love and murderous violence, Stevie Davies takes us to the complex heart of the modern world, in a story for our times.

This is the book I fell in love with. It’s a timeslip novel in which Nia uses her mother’s journals to try to better her understanding of a woman who seemed claustrophobically conservative in her view of the world. The journals prove Ailsa to have once been a liberal intellectual, and the book’s historical strand depicts Ailsa’s journey from bravery to fear.

As the novel’s title would suggest, Into Suez has a political slant and it tackles the disgraceful mess of the Suez Crisis. Equally fascinating is Davies’ exploration of two women’s experiences of a friendship that exists beyond the boundaries of class.

My favourite description of the differences between Ailsa and the entrancing Mona comes near the start of the novel, shortly after Ailsa has “fallen in friendship” with Mona:

Nightly sensual dreams made her blush on waking. Was it Mona or was it Ben who aroused her? Or both? Against her will, Ailsa was kindled by the sensual heat that sprang between husband and wife; the experience they seemed to have of mysteries so far all but closed to the virginal Ailsa. Mona had said something about an open marriage. That if you loved someone, you wanted the fullest possible happiness for them. Didn’t you? Possessiveness was bourgeois: look at Sartre and de Beauvoir. Ailsa distrusted those two libertine Gallic philosophers. She shrank from such arrangements as likely to benefit the man rather than the woman, unless she was missing something important – which was always possible. Someone would be hurt, it stood to reason. Mona, feeling her draw back, had said no more on the subject. It wasn’t just prudishness on Ailsa’s part, no, she didn’t think so.

Be warned, whilst this is undoubtedly an intelligent and stylish masterpiece of epic storytelling, it is also a total heartbreaker.

Hardcover, 448 pages, Parthian Books, ISBN-10: 1906998000.

Special Mentions

Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens by Jonathan Pinnock

A year or two into her marriage, Elizabeth Darcy has much on her mind: she has still not produced an heir for Mr Darcy, there are preparations to be made for the Pemberly summer ball, and her youngest sister Lydia has been abducted by aliens. As Regency England sleepwalks towards tentacled oblivion, will she be able to reunite with her old foe Wickham and put a stop to their evil plans?
Meanwhile, in the East End of London, the repulsive Mr Collins is running a Mission for fallen women whilst his poor wife Charlotte has fallen under the malign spell of Lord Byron and is now a laudanum addict. But is everything at the Mission all that it seems? What is Mr Darcy doing there? And why are there strange lights in the sky over Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s seat at Rosings?
Probably the most unconventional sequel to a Jane Austen novel ever written; certainly the funniest.

I first became aware of this novel when its author contacted me after my review of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I enjoyed that novel for its witty answers to some of the questions thrown up by Austen’s text. Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens does not mangle Austen’s original text and instead builds its own dazzlingly peculiar world.

The novel centres around a delightfully silly plot in which Elizabeth Darcy has to contend with aliens, murderers, time-travelling ghosts, hot air balloons and cameos from Jane Austen herself. Fans of parody, farce, and carnivalesque literature will get a kick out of Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens, but po-faced Austen fans in search of a titter are advised to reread Northanger Abbey.

The bawdy humour was sometimes a little crude for my tastes, but on the whole I thought it was an excellent and hugely-inventive parody that left me feeling that the author would be hilarious company during an evening at the pub.

Paperback, 264 pages, Proxima, ISBN-10: 1907773134.

The Birth Machine by Elizabeth Baines

Tucked up on the ward and secure in the latest technology, Zelda is about to give birth to her baby. But things don’t go to plan, and as her labour progresses and the drugs take over, Zelda enters a surreal world. Here, past and present become confused and blend with fairytale and myth. Old secrets surface and finally give birth to disturbing revelations in the present.
Originally published in the eighties, The Birth Machine was seized on by readers as giving voice to a female experience absent from fiction until then and quickly became a classic text. Out of print for some years, The Birth Machine is now reissued in a revised version. It is still relevant today to modern Obstetrics and Medicine, however it is more than that: it is also a gripping story of buried secrets and a long-ago murder, and of present-day betrayals. Above all, it is a powerful novel about the ways we can wield control through logic and language, and about the battle over who owns the right to knowledge and to tell the stories of who we are. The book was dramatised for Radio 4 and starred Barbara Marten as Zelda.

This is a book that I’ve been meaning to get to grips with since my baby was born. It was too rich for me in the giddy, hormone-soaked months of new motherhood, but since then I’ve found much to admire in its gorgeous layers, its portrayal of wild childhood, and in the bold questions that it dares to ask about the way that people allow themselves to be subsumed by received opinion.

It is a fist-pumping moment when Zelda finally confronts her husband about his accountability for her disastrous medical treatment.

‘Roland, she says carefully, ‘did he tell you they are doing this all the time now?’ Inducing, just for the sake of it, for no particular reason except that they think it’s better? He told me.’

Roland’s eyes slew. He stares hard. He looks right away. Is he shocked by a truth he hasn’t suspected? Or is he caught out in a lie? Did he know all along, did the Professor let him into the secret from which she was excluded? His eyes shuttle, his thoughts tumble, revolve, then jackpot, he has it, the words which will appease her and prevent her from knowing.

‘That’s not what he said. Though I can see thinking back, that it could conceivably have been what he meant. He spoke of it as a precautionary measure.’

And a few paragraphs later:

She stares. He’s justifying the system. If he didn’t know he must have guessed. He buried the implications. The ins and outs didn’t matter. He decided for her. She was his, claimed by right, to treat as he saw fit. She had no right to knowledge. That she had forfeited.

I was in awe of the masterful examination of polite cowardice and of the barriers constructed to prevent women from asking questions about their own bodies.

There is something distinctly creepy about the start of the book, with Zelda at the power of a Science Almighty which brooks no criticism or interference. Gradually the reader grows closer to Zelda until she ceases to be just the observed and instead becomes the observer. As Zelda’s hospital experience progresses and drugs seep into her nervous system she recollects incidents from her childhood, which are rendered with a dreamlike eeriness. There is a necessary complexity to the structure of the novel as it escalates towards its crescendo ending, and the reader needs to work to keep engaged with the different storylines. The work is worth it though and just like Elizabeth Baines’s other recent novel Too Many Magpies, The Birth Machine leaves an indelible mark on its reader.

Paperback, 160 pages, Salt Publishing, ISBN-10: 1907773029.

Lisa Glass is the author of two novels, literary thriller Prince Rupert’s Teardrop and coming-of-age novel Snake Beach, published this month in e-book form. Lisa is represented by Ben Illis of the A. M. Heath Literary Agency.


10 comments on “Books of the year (so far)

  1. annebrooke
    April 27, 2012

    Sounds powerful stuff, Lisa – maybe I should be reading them all at once though! :)

  2. Lisa
    April 27, 2012

    Anne, I almost had a nervous breakdown just trying to write about them all at once. :-)

    These were all really great novels, though obviously totally different species.

    P.S. Remind me never to attempt four reviews in one post again. I now have two square eyes and at least six new wrinkles.

  3. annebrooke
    April 27, 2012

    I will try and avoid that scenario – though I’m sure you have absolutely NO wrinkles at all, my dear!! :)

  4. Jackie
    April 27, 2012

    Oh my, what a variety of themes & settings! But they all sort of deal with people learning about a new world. or new surroundings.
    Was the “Birth Machine” at all like “The Handmaid’s Tale”? Sounds like they may have had some similarities.
    I think “Into Suez” sounds like the one I would be most interested in.

  5. Lisa
    April 27, 2012

    Into Suez is an amazing book, Jackie. I think you’d enjoy the feminism and the insight into the politics of the Suez Crisis. And you’re right in your analysis of the books’ similarities. Thanks for flagging that up.

  6. Lisa
    April 28, 2012

    Oh and Jackie, I forgot to say that people have made the connection between The Birth Machine and The Handmaid’s Tale (though somehow I’ve never read the latter!)

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This entry was posted on April 27, 2012 by in Entries by Lisa, Fiction: crime, Fiction: humour, Fiction: literary, Fiction: thriller, Fiction: women's.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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