Book Review: Killing & Dying – Adrian Tomine (Faber and Faber 2015)

Books like this make me wish I had interesting, creative and meaningful ideas and artistic talent.  Quite frankly, I’m jealous of Adrian Tomine.

The bookseller at Foyle’s in Birmingham told me how good this book was as I was paying for it.  It was a nice piece of decision reinforcement; a bit of a pat on the back and a cry of ‘good taste fella.’

Tomine’s graphic novel/comic contains six diverse stories with unusual plots or settings.  The book examines the relationships between fascinating and sometimes flawed characters.  It draws the reader in.

The first story, perhaps my favourite, is ‘A brief History of the Art Form Known as “Hortisculpture.”  Gardener Harold combines the disparate world’s of horticulture and fine art to create some truly ugly living sculptures.  Harold meets resistance and derision from neighbours, friends, family and the existing clients of his gardening business.  His attempts to sell his idea and the various ways people attempt to avoid telling him that it is rubbish are highly comical. The comic is presented as a series of 6 ‘four frame’ stories in black and white followed by a nine frame colour piece.  It’s as if it was taken from the pages of a daily newspaper with the colour page featuring as a special in the Sunday edition.

Amber Sweet tells the awkward tale of a girl who receives unwanted attention due to the fact that she looks like a famous porn star (the Amber Sweet of the title).  The girl’s life and relationships with men and women are ruined by the misunderstanding. The girl gets little sympathy, even from her female friends, but a chance meeting with Amber Sweet allow her to make sense of things.  This is a thoughtful piece on pornography and the objectification of women.

‘Go Owls’ sees two baseball fans hook up after an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.  Dennis Barry is a prematurely aged minor drug dealer and general ‘waster’.  The lady in the story is not named but simply referred to by Dennis as ‘Babe’.  At an obvious low point in her life she perhaps sees the chance of support, companionship and love but suffers a series of blows, both mental and physical.  We can laugh at Dennis, who is one of life’s losers, but his treatment of his ‘Babe’ is creepy and wrong.  This is not a hard-boiled tale of domestic abuse by any means.  It is a contemplative account of a man’s manipulation of a woman.

The next story, ‘Translated from the Japanese’ is a short but beautiful example of Adrian Tomine’s artwork.  We never see the lady who narrates the story.  Instead we see a journey she takes through her eyes.  Casual observations of everyday surroundings are impeccably rendered.  The story is short and enigmatic; definitely one to ponder over.  

‘Killing and Dying’ refers to two things that a comedian can experience on stage.  This is the tale of a teenage girl who wants to be a standup comedian and her relationship with her parents who want to be supportive but struggle somewhat to see comedy as a great career path.  The story is told in pages of 20 frames and each is a stamp-sized study of expression and emotion.  

The final tale, called ‘Intruders’ follows a US war veteran struggling to reintegrate on his return home.  By a strange coincidence he has the opportunity to hang out in his old family home during the day when the current owners are out at work.  It’s a peculiar set-up but quite an effective piece on alienation.  

This is a brilliant book – one to read, enjoy and think about again and again.  Highly recommended. 

Book Review:  A Red Sun Also Rises – Mark Hodder (Del Rey 2012)

I stumbled across this book in a pound shop.  The front cover highlights that the author was a winner of the Philip K. Dick award.  Might be a cheap hidden gem, I thought.  Wrong!

Don’t judge a book by its cover, but perhaps you may be able to make some useful assumptions based on the establishment that is stocking it.

The cover and the hyperbole on the back suggested a steampunk novel.  The initial tale of a rather weak Victorian country vicar, named Aiden Fleischer, seemed reasonably interesting.  Fliescher takes pity on Clarissa Stark, a lady whose body has been badly damaged in an accident leaving her in constant pain with twisted limbs.  Ms Stark wears very dark, leather bound goggles – one of the few nods to steampunk in the novel.

Fleischer’s fondness for a local young lady, leads to him being blackmailed.  He decides to flee by becoming a missionary and travels with Stark to a remote tropical island. Whilst on the island, Fleischer and Stark fall through an apparent rip in ‘space-time’ to another planet.  I really should have stopped reading there but I carried on like a fool.  

Life is too short to go into too much details but the remainder of the book was filled with some painfully melodramatic and cringeworthy dialogue, aliens with crazy names and a very tenuous grip on understanding their own life-cycle and improbable triple-stage metamorphosis.  

Fleischer undergoes an amazing transformation from a craven man of the cloth to a muscle-bound sword-wielding agnostic warrior.  If this book were ever to be filmed (saints preserve us!) this section would be a montage.

Somehow references to Jack the Ripper are shoehorned into the book, I suspect to remind the reader that it’s set in the Victorian era.

This being nominally steampunk, there is, of course, an airship.  

The plot was needlessly convoluted and when the resolution came I scarcely cared.  My eyes and brain felt tortured by the horror of this ludicrous shambles.  

As a final twis of the knife, the final chapter manages to shunt in a time-lapse, the Second World War and the Bermuda Triangle.  This just left me feeling angry and insulted.

I have read this book so you never have to.  

Book Review – The Murdstone Trilogy – Mal Peet (David Fickling Books 2015)

This is the last book written by Mal Peet before his death in 2015 and his first aimed at an adult audience.  Mal Peet is better known for his books for children and young adults and won a number of awards of the years.

Perhaps a touch autobiographical, The Murdstone Trilogy is the story of Philip Murdstone, a writer who specialises in young adult novels about sensitive boys that are well received critically but don’t actually sell many copies.  Murdstone’s agent twists his arm into writing a fantasy novel, a genre that Murdstone detests.  

This then is a comedy fantasy (or a fantasy comedy?).  It is difficult to avoid comparisons with Terry Pratchett.

Murdstone’s agent explains the essential concepts of ‘High Fantasy’ involving a realm, dark lord, shire, dorcs, dwarves, greybeard, a sword with a Welsh-sounding name, a quest, dragons and an ‘amulet of something or other’.  

“The style for High Fantasy is sort of mock-Shakesperian without the rhyming bits.”

In attempting to write a fantasy in the classic style, Murdstone is visited by Pocket Wellfair (great name) a magically powered scribe from another realm, who needs Murdstone’s help.  In return Wellfair can help Murdstone with his fantasy masterpiece.  Wellfair is a cussing dogsbody and brings to mind some of Pratchett’s characters such as Coroporal Nobby Nobbs of the City Watch.  

As well as mocking High Fantasy, Peet rails against the changes to writing and publishing brought about by the Internet age.  Murdstone rants:

“Writers no longer work in solitude, crafting meaningful and elegant prose.  No. They have to spend most of their time selling themselves on the fucking Internet.  Blogging and tweeting and updating their bloody Facebook pages and their wretched narcissistic websites.”

In channelling the memories of Pocket Wellfair, Murdstone writes Dark Entropy which quickly becomes a bestseller.  Despite being a fraud, Murdstone’s vanity leads him to accept the accolades of the critics and the financial rewards of finally selling more than a handful of books.  Murdstone becomes addicted to success, he is weak and difficult to like as a character but humorous nonetheless. 

Peet also has a good-natured dig at Steampunk, which is described by a librarian from Tavistock library as;

“Victorian time-warp.  Like Blade Runner directed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel.”

Peet’s satirical take on fantasy and the requirements of writers to engage with the Internet age is a humorous (but not laugh-out-loud read).

Book Review:  The Rosie Project – Graeme Simsion (Penguin – 2014)

This is our book club’s latest selection and chosen as something a bit less challenging than the Man Booker winner we read last month.

Graeme Simsion’s book tells of a chapter in the life of Professor Don Tillman, geneticist.  Don is highly intelligent, incredibly organised, efficient, productive and totally devoid of social skills.  Having said that, he is not uncaring or unfeeling.  Don has only two friends, Gene the womanising head of his department and Gene’s wife Claudia.  Don consoles himself with the thought that he has four friends if he included Gene and Claudia’s children, one of whom is called Eugenie.  ‘Gene’, ‘Eugenie’?  Do you think some point is being made here?

Don’s failure to read social situations and people’s emotions, even if they are very overt, are highly comical.  Criticism, sarcasm and even offers of casual sex are wasted on him.  

Tired of being alone, Don sets up ‘The Wife Project’ and develops an ingenious questionnaire, which he combines with more regular dating methods to find his ideal life partner.  Don helpfully tells one poor lady that his method has been refined so that he can eliminate most non-suitable candidates in less than 40 seconds.  

Don meets Rosie, a friend of Gene’s.  According to Don’s questionnaire, Rosie is unsuitable as a candidate to be his wife in many, many ways.  Despite this, Don finds he enjoys being with her and decides that he will continue to see Rosie for intellectual stimulation until Miss Right comes along.

Anyone familiar with Mr Logic in adult-humour comic ‘Viz’ may view Don as his kindred spirit, albeit in a less openly annoying way.

Don’s relationship with Rosie, and his offer to help her find her real father is a funny and often quite touching read.  A fast read and very enjoyable.