#SecondThoughts: Booker Prize Readathon

One of my long-held goals has been to read the Booker candidates along with the judges so, when the winner is announced, I’ve an opinion regardless which book is announced as the winner. I’ve made only two serious attempts to date – in 2015 & 2016 – and had absolutely no intention of giving it another try, until I noticed Amazon had discounted their Kindle prices for a fair few of the long-listed candidates. So without any forward planning, here I am, doing my third Booker Readathon.

I considered employing a number of possible methods in an attempt to maximise the success of its outcome but, in the end, I simply read whatever title appealed in the moment (as before). Let’s hope this isn’t an ill portent.

As to my credentials for spotting a Booker winner, I must make an admission – I’ve yet to make an accurate forecast. In past years, I’ve been convinced I’d read the winner, only for another book to gain the gong. Some of those winners I’d read and judged not as good (or not liked as much if I’m being entirely honest), others I’d not read till afterwards and had to admit to their obvious winning credentials. On then to my reviews, in the order I’ve read them.

No One Is Talking About This – Patricia Lockwood

This is very much a book of two halves. The first is made up of snippets – intentionally so – as we’re getting to know a person who’s life is lived fully via social media. It takes some getting used to, but it is worth persevering for, when the change comes, it is all the more powerful for being placed against this background of shallowness. In the second, it’s a family tragedy which takes centre stage. The tragedy? That the central character’s sister is pregnant and suffering from Proteus syndrome – a rare disorder resulting in disproportionate growth. The strength of this second part is that at no point did it feel at all voyeuristic – instead it felt urgent, genuine, painful, uplifting and yet distressing all at the same time.

Its unusual style makes it a potential winning candidate.

Light Perpetual – Francis Spufford

Spufford’s tale is one of alternative history. It opens with an powerful description of the build up to a V-bomb hitting London’s east end, giving us little glimpses of five young children – all of whom are killed along with everyone else in the vicinity. But in subsequent chapters, she imagines the lives they might have led. Not a tale of cuteness, but one of real lives – some positive, some negative, some somewhere in the middle. A really enjoyable read.

As to winning potential, it rather depends what the judges are looking for this year – a good read, something more out of the ordinary, or a very literary piece of work. My personal suspicion is this won’t make it through to the shortlist.

Second Place – Rachel Cusk

I was uncertain if Jeffers was a therapist, friend, or simply an imaginary person to whom M is recounting her tale, and in the end it didn’t really matter. The only other person who is unnamed is L – the artist who M invites to visit, ostensibly because she wants him to paint her-but, of course, he decides to paint everyone but her. Despite this (or maybe because of it), she continues to seek out his company, finding their few exchanges emotional and deep, when they are actually distressing and disturbing. M is open throughout about her history of emotional self-flagellation, of almost needing criticism to exist. We never know what the oft referred to dark passage of her life consisted of, but rather like knowing who Jeffers was, it didn’t really matter in the end. An interesting examination of power, and of male and female roles.

Although I didn’t particularly enjoy reading it, the quality of the writing makes this a potential winning candidate, especially if the judges are after a literary piece of work.

Great Circle – Maggie Shipstead

At 600 pages, this felt even longer in places. A fascinating story of a pioneering female aviator who is lost on a grand round-the-world journey across both poles, weaved into a tale of the modern day actress chosen to play her. The latter aspect is useful, but a lot less interesting. Marion’s story – and those of the people in her life – is what’s truly fascinating. This is a story rich in detail, most of it set at a time when world events were life changing. Despite a wonderful and interesting supporting cast, Marion is a magnificent central character – independent and proud, driven and stubborn – and one who lives a truly full life.

I expect to see this on the shortlist, but as to its winning potential… I’m unsure.

An Island – Karen Jennings

This is a tale of lighthouse keeper Samuel, whose solitary life is disturbed when a body washes up on his beach. This is not the first body, but the problem is this body is still alive… and seeks refuge. Although unnamed, Samuel’s lighthouse is clearly on an island off an African country – one with the all too familiar tale of despots and dictators. Samuel is a decent man, but not a brave one, and he is also emotionally broken following his release from prison. On the island he finds sanctuary, and his fragile emotional equilibrium is disturbed by the man seeking refuge. With the trauma of Samuel’s past, his fear of having become elderly and vulnerable, even potentially of being near death, and without a shared language to prevent misunderstandings – the tension builds. A disturbing read, and an excellent depiction of paranoia.

I’d be surprised not to find this on the shortlist, and would say it has decidedly the right credentials to be a winner.

A Town called Solace – Mary Lawson

Ostensibly the tale of a young girl whose teenage sister runs away from home, her parents distraught with worry, no-one is paying much attention to Clara who becomes convinced she has to fulfil certain repetitive behaviours in order to ensure her sister returns safely. Before the disappearance, Clara’s elderly neighbour goes into hospital. Clara is a regular visitor next door and takes on the responsibility for caring for her cat. Her neighbour has a sad secret past which comes full circle when, after her death, a stranger pulls into her drive and unloads some boxes. This tale is about small town life, about people’s frailties, about wrong decisions made with the best of intentions, about unintended consequences.

A quietly enjoyable story, but a surprising appearance on this year’s Booker long-list and I’d not expect it to progress to the shortlist.

A Passage North Anuk Arudpragasam

Despite being a long-time Indophile, my knowledge of Sri Lanka is shamefully lacking. In this tale, told as a stream of consciousness of the protagonist, Krishnan, I learned a great deal, especially about the Tamil fight for independence. Containing some of the longest sentences I’ve encountered since reading Peter Carey’s Booker winning True History of the Kelly Gang, it made for beautiful reading. Indeed, I found many of them interesting enough to mark (on my Kindle) for later reference.

Although I’m yet to hand out my first fifth star, I suspect this could appear on the shortlist.

China Room – Sunjeev Sahota

An unabashed Indophile, I galloped through this one. Two tales weaved together – one of Mehar, the other of her great-grandson. Although key to the book’s title, the earlier tale of Mehar was less interesting to me – three wives, three husbands, the husbands all knowing how the wives were allocated, the wives left to guess – its outcome seeming inevitable and so unsurprising. The tale of Mehar’s grandson – visiting his uncle’s family in India in order to detox – is far more interesting, but less well developed. I’ve read subsequently that there are significant parallels between the author’s family history, which may explain why he has chosen to only offer small insights – little snippets if you like – into this portion of the tale.

I loved this and while I’d hope to see it on the shortlist, I don’t have high expectations.

With a little over 2 weeks remaining till the announcement of the shortlist and 5 books still to read, I’m well on track. As I’ve not read a book which I felt deemed five stars, there’s no obvious winner for me – so far. Do join me on October 31st when I wrap up my #SecondThoughts on attempting the Booker Prize Readathon, with my reviews on the remaining candidates and who I think will be a winner in 2021.

Have you read any of the candidates? Do you think any of them is a potential winner?

© Debra Carey, 2021

Filling time

Today was the day.  The handover had been completed without a hitch, and Joe sidled out of the rendezvous with the brown paper bag clutched in his hands.  There is an art to being unobtrusive: Joe had watched too many of the wrong sort of films and over-did his nonchalant departure.  Still, if his skitter from the protection of one doorway to another was attracting the attention of the crowds, it was shielding him from the one set of eyes that he was trying to avoid.

He’d spotted his stalker, quite by chance, when he stepped out of the office block on his lunchbreak and had become dizzy with indecision.  Why was his nemesis here now?  Should he abandon his plan?  No!  Audentes fortuna juvat, he muttered under his breath.  Very well.  If fortune favoured the brave, he would be brave.  He strode onwards, away from his destination, attempting to throw his stalker off the scent.  He walked down tiny side streets, aware of eyes on him.  Suddenly he twisted into a department store, zig-zagging amongst shuffling shoppers and exiting from the main doors on the other side of the building.  From there, Joe tried to keep out of sight, moving quickly until he reached his target.

There could be no question of returning to the office to open the bag.  Every one of his colleagues would come sniffing around.  But he had thrown off his pursuer, so perhaps he could risk opening it in the park…?

Joe looked around nervously as he sat on the bench and started to open the paper bag.  He’d lived on lumpy homemade cheese and pickle sandwiches all week so that he could save enough to buy one of the exotic creations from the Café Du Sept Hippocampes.  It would, perhaps, have been safer to eat his lunch in the café itself, but the extra cost was beyond him, and the bohemian nature of the pretentious venue brought him out in hives.  But the sandwiches…he drooled at the merest thought of them, which had led to one or two embarrassing moments when he’d started day-dreaming in long meetings.

He drew in the smell first, the aroma being the first part of the feast.  There was always the temptation to nibble, to take mouse-like bites and so make the sandwich last as long as possible, but he’d discovered that to do so was to miss the point of this culinary sensation.  The only way was to take a deep, hearty bite and so draw in all of the separate ingredients in one mouthful and undertake some gastronomic alchemy and deliver an explosion of taste to the tongue.

Joe bit deeply, and lost himself in an instant of perfection.

His pursuer, that had followed him for just this moment, swooped over his shoulder and took its own bite out of the sandwich.  Landing on the grass in front of Joe, the seagull smirked, and eyed up the sandwich for a second go.

© David Jesson, 2021

#SecondThoughts: Blotto, Twinks and the new kind of book review

I’ve been becoming more disillusioned with ‘star’ reviews as time passes, so I thought I would pilot a new series here on Fiction Can Be Fun, drawing together approaches from several different sources. We’ll see how it goes: please do let me know if there is anything that you particularly like or dislike about the approach with a comment at the end. For the time-being, we’ll stick this under #secondthoughts, but if it looks like it’s a go-er, we’ll think again.

First up, Simon Brett’s Blotto, Twinks, and the Ex-King’s Daughter.

Simon Brett has a whopping 57 mystery books in four different series, plus a few other books (the most famous probably being the thriller A Shock To The System, with Michael Caine starring in the film adaptation). The longest running series is The Charles Paris Mysteries; the first of these was written in the mid-1970s. Bill Nighy plays the louche, alcoholic, shambolic, struggling actor, for whom the series is named, in a series of radio adaptions that were updated for the run that began in 1999. (They also had to make some changes to deal with continuity as the stories ended up being adapted out of order).

As I come to write this review, I realise that my experience of Simon Brett’s writing has mostly come from the radio adaptations with Bill Nighy, and from Brett’s series Foul Play, a panel game played by mystery writers. My only experience of actually reading his work is the first book in his Fethering series, which was a book club read. (Fethering is a fictional village on the south coast of Britain, just down the road from the very real Tarring. This probably tells you everything you need to know about Brett’s sense of humour). Brett has been on my TBR list for some time: I spotted Blotto and Twinks in the library recently, and I thought ‘why not?’

Blotto, Twinks and the Ex-King’s Daughter feels a lot like P.G. Wodehouse having a go at a Ruritanian novel, with a splash of Biggles, or something very much like. Blotto is the ‘spare’ in a ducal family, his elder brother Loofah having taken the seat when their father died sometime prior to the start of the book. Whilst Blotto is more athletic than Bertie Wooster, and very much more heroic, they have about the same capacity between the ears. His younger sister, Twinks, is the brains of the family, and in danger of turning into a Mary Sue type character. To Blotto’s relief, she’s more than happy to let him drive the car, even though she’s hopelessly modern and can change a tyre, something Blotto believes should be left to the working classes.

I read a comment recently about Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe stories which suggested that the mystery was second to the interaction of the characters, particularly the badinage between Wolfe and his leg-man and general factotum Archie Goodwin. This just made me think I need to get back into reading Nero Wolfe stories, because it’s a while since I’ve done so. The reason for mentioning it is that this book is billed as a mystery too, but there’s very little of it, to my mind. Instead we have Blotto and Twinks, a miscellany of characters, including their dreadful mother (who is giving Loofah a hard time because he’s only given her granddaughters so far), and a rather heavy-handed Ruritanian king-in-exile setting.

You’re probably getting the impression that I didn’t like this book very much. There are indeed many things that I found it difficult to engage with, and if you’re selling a book on the one hand as a mystery and on the other on the basis of some loveable eccentric characters, then you want the mystery to be stimulating and the characters to be engaging. There are another nine books, so far, in the series, so maybe I’m being overly harsh in my assessment, or perhaps the books mellow with time, or perhaps you just need to be prepared that the book is not a full blooded (conscious choice of words there) mystery. I find it difficult to recommend this specific book to anyone, but if you enjoy your detective fiction then I would recommend the Fethering books, and I would definitely advise listening out for Bill Nighy as Charles Paris. If I manage to snag a book from that series I’ll keep you updated.

How about you? Have you read any of Simon Brett’s books before? What turns you off a book? What are your expectations for a mystery novel?

#FlashFiction: Expenses – The Stories

“Jones, you need to report to the Finance Director – pronto!”

Evans was positively out of breath and – remarkably – appeared to have been running. Regarding his breathless colleague with a raised eyebrow, Jones responded with a lazy wave of his hand, before straightening the papers on his desk. Calmly finishing his tea, he reached into the top drawer and pulled out a tie which he slung casually across his shoulder. Evans regarded him with growing alarm, probably totally unaware that he was hopping nervously from foot to foot. When Jones finally made for the corridor, Evans followed with some relief. Then, just as all appeared to be going to plan, he was horrified to see Jones taking a sharp left into the gents.

“No, no, noooooo…”

Wringing his hands in the corridor as he regarded the door, visibly unable to make up his mind what to do, Evans finally pushed the door open, only to find Jones whistling as he adjusted his flies.

“Jones, you must come now…” his voice now almost a squeak, beads of sweat appearing on his forehead.

“Just a mo old son, got to wash my hands you know.”

Jones indicated the sign on the wall with a wink and proceeded to wash his hands in a most deliberate manner. Visibly breathing hard, Evans had resumed hopping from foot to foot. Anyone watching would have had serious concerns for his health when Jones started to fiddle with his tie – tying it and re-tying it multiple times. Finally, with a rueful smile, he turned back to Evans.

“Right you are, let’s get on with this then” and giving a little bow, he ostentatiously waved Evans ahead of him.

By now, Evans was so nervous, he walked down the corridor backwards, determined not to lose sight of Jones. Jones, of course, gave no warning of oncoming traffic – be that with person or… so the collision with the stationery trolley was particularly calamitous, spreading small items far and wide across the corridor. Jones, naturally, insisted they must stop to help, which caused Evans to return to hopping while also wringing his hands. Even though Jones was clearly enjoying himself enormously, they were waved on their way with a firm “I’ve got this, thanks.”

They managed the remainder of the walk to the Finance Director’s office without incident, mostly because all oncoming traffic were at considerable pains to avoid Evans. Some gave Jones an amused glance, yet others looked at him pityingly, but by far the greater number regarded him with what could only be described as contempt.

Now worrying that his joke may have backfired and wishing he’d put on his jacket, Jones stood back as Evans rapped nervously at the Finance Director’s door. Sticking his head round the door and announcing “Jones for you sir”, Evans fled without a backward glance. With no option but to face the music, Jones entered. He heard the barely repressed anger in the barked instruction “and shut the bloody door behind you!”

Shutting the door, Jones pulled up a chair and sat down, crossing his legs in an attempt to appear calm. But before he had a chance to speak, that anger was repressed no more and everyone within a wide radius heard the blast “no-one invited you to sit down Jones!”

Recoiling visibly, Jones jumped back to his feet and wondered what to do with his hands. Rejecting the option of putting them in his pockets, he wisely assumed the “at ease” stance with his hands clasped nervously behind his bank.

It would be misleading to call what Jones experienced that day a dressing down, for he was systematically torn apart with the only weapons the Finance Director had at his disposal – his famously sharp tongue. When he exited the office, Jones looked visibly shell-shocked. He’d not spoken a word, not a single one. It was abundantly clear to him that his point of view – let alone any excuses – were of no interest to the Finance Director. From his pallor, it was clear to all he knew he was lucky to still be employed.

Evans found him in the gents, and handed him a mug of hot sweet tea at the behest of one of the kinder first aiders. No more fooling around this time, Jones accepted the mug with a gratitude he couldn’t quite express. Evans waited as he drank it and shooed away anyone trying to use the gents, directing them to the next floor. Unusually, no-one complained, but then the word had probably spread far and wide.

Jones finally spoke “I really need a drink” which caused Evans to smile “I’ll get your coat shall I?” Returning with both coats, Evans slipped Jones quietly off the premises and sought out a pub. Not their local mind, for this conversation needed to be had where their colleagues wouldn’t find them.

Waiting till Jones had drained the first pint and had the second one in front of him, Evans finally asked the big question “so, what did you do?” The noise Jones made was somewhere between a strangled laugh and a sob.

“It was a joke you know – I heard he had a sense of humour.”

Now it was Evans’ turn to laugh – and he did so heartily and loudly. Finally composing himself, he asked “who told you that?” Jones named a mutual colleague, only to have Evans laugh again “you’ve been had lad, totally had. Come on then, give me the gory details…”

“My old car – the BM – was acting up and I was complaining about it one evening in the pub. He sympathised and asked me what I was thinking of replacing it with. I was chucking about the usual candidates, when he told me he saw me as someone who drove something with a bit more pzazz – something like a Porsche 911?”

Evans was giving him a quizzical look, so Jones replied “Naturally I said I didn’t think the company would pay the petrol, but admitted I’d love one – I mean, who wouldn’t? That’s when he suggested I both try it on a bit and play a little joke. Told me a mate of his had one and he could get me a month’s worth of petrol receipts. So I submitted those for my last month’s claim as he said it would give the old man a good laugh.”

“He didn’t tell you the friend of his with those petrol receipts was the FD then?”

Jones looked aghast.

“Or that the MD gave him a dressing down during a full Board meeting for even thinking he’d get away with claiming it as his company car?”

 That second pint went down without even touching the sides.

Evans headed to the bar “You’ll be needing a whisky with that.”

Jones offered no argument.

© Debra Carey, 2021

Lt Goode sighed. 

“What’s the matter Lois?” Lt Harris asked from the door.

“The matter is that.” Goode indicated a pile of paperwork with a belligerent chin, and somehow managed to look daggers at the stack at the same time.  The laws of physics precluded spontaneous combustion or, failing that, the stack toppling from the pressure of disapproval, but it was a close-run thing.  “I’d barely caught up with everything from the last incident and now there’s three times as much!”

Harris laughed in as sympathetic a manner as possible.  “Isn’t that your job though?  You must admit that you’ve had it pretty quiet until now.”

“Laugh it up fly-girl.  Pretty much everything every one on this bucket o’ bolts does on a daily basis racks up a cost that has to be accounted for not to mention your salary – you’d be singing a different tune if you didn’t get paid on time.  And you might not if I can’t get this lot sorted out.”

“Is it that serious?”

“Yes.  The Chief Engineer may be the hero of the hour, but he and the skipper have turned the whole ship upside down with this emergency refit.  Everyone is coming forward with claims for broken equipment or bits and pieces that have been requisitioned.  This one’ the irate accountant flapped a piece of paper ‘is for knicker elastic!  Knicker elastic!  I have no idea what it was used for yet, so now I have to work out whether to just give them the two credits, or waste my time reading the nonsense and trying to work out if it’s true or not!” Lois Goode broke off with an hysterical squeak.

“Errm…this probably isn’t the best time to give you this then?”

“What. Is, It.?” Goode asked with icily murderous intensity.

“Well you know that I flew the marines to the first Roc-55?”

“I don’t think there’s a person on this ship that doesn’t.”

“No need to be catty.  I…well…erm…I had to used some duct tape to hold somethings in place.”

“So?  We carry that in stores.”

“Yeah…it was a bit last minute, and I had to use my own.”

Goode shot out a hand and snatched the piece of paper from her friend’s hand.

“Not just any duct tape then.  You are a grown woman!  Why do you even have Mr Men duct tape?  Wait, I just remembered – I don’t care.”  Goode carefully placed the expense claim at the bottom of the teetering stack of forms.

“Is there anything I can do to help, Lois?”

“Yes, you can get out of here!”

“I meant is there anything that we can do to help get the paper work sorted?”

“Yes, you can get out of here!”

Lt Harris, pilot, navigator, scourge of terrorists, fled.

“Petty officer!” The accountant yelled.  “What are we going to do about this fleet of Roc-55s the skipper seems to have acquired?”  Goode was on a short service commission.  She’d thought she lucked out with a boring scientific survey to pay back the Navy for getting her off her back water planet and through one of the better universities available.  She seemed to have found herself in a war-zone anyway though.

The petty officer scratched what little of his hair was left.  “Well ma’am, time was they’d be counted as prizes and every man-jack on the ship would have got a bonus.  Weighted by seniority o’course.  Still, we’re talking hun’erds of years ago.  Certainly never in the space navy.”

“Thank you for the history lesson” the accountant said caustically, “but what are we supposed to do now?  How do we sort out the expenses we’re racking up, like all the fuel they’re using?”

“Yes ma’am, thank you ma’am, very good question ma’am.”  He snapped his fingers and started rummaging in the filing cabinets for different forms.  “We’ll shift the problem over to Fleet HQ ma’am, and this is how we’ll do it…”

“Well done, petty officer, I knew you’d have a plan.”  Goode smiled for the first time in a week.

©David Jesson, 2021

Author’s Note – Things have been a bit hectic of late, so I’ve taken a rather loose interpretation of the prompt.  The spirit is observed if not the letter that I’d imagined when I first suggested this prompt!  This little story is also linked to a story that I’ve been delivering tweet by tweet all this year.  I’ve been telling the story of Captain Alleyn and her spaceship since just before the New Year, with each daily installment inspired by the #vss365 prompt.  Lt Goode is named in homage to one of my favourite sci-fi authors, with a riff on one of her (tertiary) characters.

#FlashFiction Writing Prompt: Expenses

A long time ago, a bit after dinosaurs ruled the Earth, but long before Google, I was getting used to having an email account, and people were starting to send spam. In those days not all spam was rubbish – for example, one email was a list of alternative answers to “Why did the chicken cross the road?” (Timothy Leary – Because it was the only trip the establishment would let it take). These days, you can google such things and find long lists of answers… I’m carefully not putting a link here.

What has this to do with expenses? Or flash fiction prompts? Well, one of the emails that filled up my inbox, back in the day, was a very clever ‘insurance claim’ which explained how certain injuries were received on the job. (I wish I still had that original). But it occurred to me that it might be quite fun to write something in a similar vein. So: what’s the explanation for the unusual expense claim that’s just hit the Finance Department? Your claim can relate to something pre-Covid, or slap bang in the middle, but needs to be just that little bit…odd. An extra screen for the computer because you’re working at home isn’t what we’re looking for. Similarly, a rock star demanding a bowl of purple skittles only is a bit passe.

Usual rules: keep it clean (which is to say, nothing NSFW)
Word count: 400-1000 words(ish).
Deadline: 8am GMT on Sunday 8th August 2021

Don’t forget, if you miss the deadline, you can always post your story to our #TortoiseFlashFiction page.

A reminder to new readers/writers, please post on your own site and add a link in the comments section below.  If you don’t have your own blog or similar outlet, do send us your story via the contact form on the About page and we’ll post for you, with an appropriate by-line – you retain the copyright.

One caveat, if you want to go down this route: this is a family show, so we reserve the right not to post anything that strays into NSFW or offends against ‘common decency’.