Sunday, 29 April 2012

Stephen Dixon: What is all This? Uncollected Stories

I've begun reviewing for the on-line site Book Munch, which has a reputation for 'tell it as it is' reviews.  My first assignment was a giant anthology of Stephen Dixon's previously uncollected short fiction.  He is a strange writer - the nearest analogy might perhaps be Raymond Carver, but Dixon is meaner and leaner than that, or perhaps Kafka, because he generates the same kind of brooding malevolence - a sense of unease beneath the surface and you've no idea where it comes from. His style is unique and he's an author that anyone writing short fiction needs to be aware of. You can read the complete review below.

'Reading all sixty two of Stephen Dixon’s uncollected stories in a single five hundred and sixty page marathon is a challenging experience.  But then, Stephen Dixon has been forcing readers to confront their own assumptions about literature, society, their complacencies and preconceptions, and ideas of how and what a writer should write, for more than fifty years. What Is All This? is an apt title.  It expresses a kind of bewilderment about being human, and the world we live in, which is the question that connects diverse stories that span several decades from the 1950s to the present day, reflecting the output of one of   America’s most undervalued writers........'  Read More on Book Munch

Monday, 23 April 2012

The Survival of Thomas Ford: John AA Logan

This is my second E-book this month after Catherine Czerkawska’s Curiosity Cabinet, and both books really demonstrate the quality that is available on the E-platforms.  Both books were turned down by publishers after ‘rave rejections’, for marketing concerns and decisions that had nothing to do with the books themselves.

That both books have been in the top 5 sellers on Amazon demonstrates just how off-the-mark publishers have been recently.  Even celebrity memoirs aren’t selling as well and Dickens is languishing behind them too.

The Survival of Thomas Ford is a thriller that is at times extremely dark.  John Logan manages to get inside the mind of a teenage psychopath with chilling reality.  Thomas Ford loses his wife in a car crash caused by Jimmy and his friend Robert.  Ford is the only survivor and spends months in hospital recovering.  Despite his injuries he remembers, very clearly, the car and its occupants.  The police find it hard to believe him and for a while both the police and his in-laws suspect that Ford may have caused the accident himself.

Jimmy’s girl-friend is a cleaner at the hospital.  When he discovers that Thomas Ford is not only alive, but has given the police a description of him and his car, he decides that Ford must be removed.

The novel is very well written (crime fiction so often isn’t) and gripping all the way to the grisly end.  If you enjoyed the Wasp Factory and Train Spotting, or even if (like me) you didn’t, you’ll like this.    

Monday, 16 April 2012

Twelve Minutes of Love - Kapka Kassabova

Have you ever danced at a Milonga?  Do you know what a Gancho is?  Ever had a Tangasm?  If so, then it’s very likely you’re a Tango addict like Kapka Kassabova.  If the answer’s no, then prepare to be informed, moved, seduced and entertained. 

Kapka Kassabova is a wonderful poet and the author of a previous memoir, ‘Street without a Name’, about growing up in Communist Bulgaria.  That story ends as the Kassabova family leave Bulgaria for the UK and New Zealand.  When Twelve Minutes of Love opens, Kapka is a 27 year old New Zealander, with no sense of belonging anywhere, and a permanent sense of what the Portuguese call ‘Saudade’ - a state of longing, homesickness and displacement; the condition of the exile.

Straying into a club one evening to meet friends, Kapka hears Tango for the first time, watches a couple dance it, and becomes hooked.  Tango was created in South America by exiles, displaced people living outside the fringes of society.   It’s a hybrid, a sinuous, seductive mongrel - a music that was in perfect synchronicity with Kapka’s mood at the time.
Kapka with her collection of Tango shoes
Soon, she was discovering that there are tango relationships and other relationships and the two don’t always mix.  The perfect partner in one life may have two left feet in the other. Kapka began travelling the world in search of tango - Auckland, Argentina, Berlin, Edinburgh, Marseilles - and the book describes her relationships and the extraordinary cast of characters she meets in what Kapka believes to be a search for new tango experiences, but which is in fact a search for who she is and where she belongs.  And, yes, it does have a happy ending.

This is a beautifully crafted memoir that uses the structure of the music as a structure for the book.  It’s a brilliant read and Kapka Kassabova obviously dances as well as she writes.  I'm jealous!

Thursday, 5 April 2012

S.J. Parris: Prophecy

Prophecy is the second Giordano Bruno book and Stephanie Merritt's style has become much more assured.  This novel is much stronger on plot than the first (Heresy) - I found it gripping all the way through.  The historical background is beautifully done.  The detail is rich and many layered and made me feel that I really was in Tudor London.  There are no 'obvious' touches - the research doesn't show at all.

Giordano Bruno - heretic and ex-monk - is a guest at the French embassy in London at the request of King Henri of France.  He finds himself at the centre of a conspiracy to put Mary, Queen of the Scots, (currently imprisoned at Sheffield Castle) on the English throne and restore a catholic monarchy.  Bruno, paid by Walsingham to spy for Queen Elizabeth, finds his position very uncomfortable.  A young maid-in-waiting to the queen has been murdered with strange astrological symbols carved upon her body and all the evidence points towards the supporters of Mary Stuart.  Soon, Bruno's own life is in danger.  When the ambassador's wife returns from Paris and makes it clear that she wants Bruno's body - very much alive - in her bed, his loyalties are also put to the test.

This is a five star read for lovers of historical crime fiction.  I can't wait to read the new book - Sacrilege - out at the end of April. 

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Tobias Jones: The Dark Heart of Italy

Stendhal wrote that the feeling one gets from living in Italy is 'akin to that of being in love'.   I know what he means, and so does Tobias Jones (no relation!).  I read this book to try to understand otherwise incomprehensible Italian politics - the Berlusconi phenomenon in particular - and I wasn't disappointed.  After a couple of weeks of reading and re-reading, I can't get my hair to lie down.  The book didn't tell me anything I didn't suspect (after 12 years of coming and going) but it still shocked me by the extent of the revelations. 

 Tobias moved to Italy because he had an Italian girlfriend, fell in love with the place and didn't want to leave.  His work as a journalist, exposing the dark side of Italian political affairs, took him into areas of Italian life few dare to venture.  He researched the terrorist attacks of the 'Anni di Piombi' (the years of lead, 1970s and 80s) - bombs, shootings, mass terror, the deaths of magistrates, judges and politicians, the 'suicides' of suspects and even the abduction and assassination of an Italian prime minister (Aldo Moro in 1978).   The repercussions of these events and the failure of the Italian systems of politics and justice to deal with them, still shape Italian politics today.  Watch the film 'Il Divo' - Sorrentino's beautifully researched, corruscating account of what happened.

Tobias Jones's story of the 1990s fiasco of the 'Clean Hands' campaign that led to the election of Silvio Berlusconi makes interesting reading.  The UK expenses scandal, the fact that our prime minister was friends with a Murdoch employee, cash for peerages, widespread phone hacking, all seem like nursery school squabbles in comparison to the daily dealings of the Italian state.   And when he gets to the world of football and finance (yes they're all connected here), you finally realise what your Italian friends are up against and why most of them are so cynical about all aspects of public life.

Some of you may remember an Italian banker, linked to the Vatican, who was found hanged under a London bridge.  Roberto Calvi was head of the Ambrosio bank in Milan and in partnership with a man called Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, head of the Vatican Bank, in a scheme to launder huge amounts of money into off-shore accounts, assisted by a Sicilian tax expert called Sindona.   All, except Marcinkus,  died mysteriously once investigations got under way.  Calvi died in London in a faked suicide.  Calvi's secretary died - apparently another suicide.  Sindora was arrested, but given a poisoned coffee in prison as he awaited questioning.  The two men assigned to investigate the fraud were both murdered and Pope John Paul was shot in an attempted assassination.  Although the US federal dept had large amounts of evidence connecting him with international fraud, Marcinkus was never charged with anything.

Tobias Jones sums up what was a tortuous investigation where the name of a man called Gelli kept recurring and the trail led to a Masonic lodge of which Gelli was head - 'P2' -  whose membership included 52 senior caribiniere, 50 army officers, 37 high ranking tax police, 38 MPs (including Berlusconi), 14 judges, 10 bank presidents and senior media professionals.   An extreme right-wing document, the 'Plan for the Re-Birth of Democracy'  was found in Gelli's secretary's briefcase at the airport.  A Parliamentary enquiry wrote that P2 had 'ongoing links with subversive groups and organisations instigating and countenancing their criminal purposes' - including terrorism.  If Dan Brown had written this as a novel, we wouldn't believe it.

'Behind the surface of Italian democracy,' Tobias Jones writes,'lies a secret history, made up of hidden associations, contacts and even conspiracies, some farcical, others more serious'.  There is a 'white mafia of financial scams, money-laundering and international investment rackets'.   No wonder Italy is in the financial shit.

But even with all this knowledge, Tobias Jones is still in love with Italy - with its people, food, wine, landscape and way of life.  Now that I'm living here I know exactly how he feels.  I love it too.  There is a dark side, but there is also another - the warm friendship and family life, the aesthetics of food and architecture, that keeps Italians sane and enables them to live with their murky political backdrop. 

Originally published by Faber and Faber Tobias Jones has recently up-dated this book with a new chapter on recent events and released it as an e-book.   The original publication had consistently four and five star reviews - 52 of them - and it earned every one.  I particularly loved the chapter that asked why the nation that once created the greatest art in the world now has the worst television!