Barcelona Review Book Reviews:
issues 9 & 10
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issue 10

Roger Fishbite by Emily Prager
Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture
by Apostolos Doxiadis
Magpie by Jill Dawson
Lies Within by Michael Largo
The Jealous God by Syneca
Down on Ponce by Fred Willard
Dead Birds and Alive and Kicking by John Milne
The Dogs of Winter by Kem Nunn
Box Nine by Jack O’Conner

issue 9
Filth by Irvine Welsh 
Some Rain Must Fall by Michael Faber
Nothing Personal by Jason Starr
The Vampire Armand  by Anne Rice
I Was a Mate of Ronnie Laing by Anne McManus
Soho Black by Christopher Fowler

issues 7& 8
| index for issues 1 to 6


Note: The BR encourages readers to buy books at their local independent booksellers, but not all UK books are available in the US and vice versa. For on-line book ordering of UK books Amazon UK and  Internet Bookshop carry all titles reviewed in the BR; all US releases carried by Amazon US unless otherwise noted.

Roger Fishbite by Emily Prager Chatto & Windus UK / Random House US 1999 *sneak preview*

US writer Emily Prager is best known for her humor and wit, as seen in such mags as Penthouse and presently the Village Voice. She’s indeed funny and bright and I’ve long enjoyed her journalism. It was with pleasure then that I received her fourth novel hyped as the "fiction sensation of 1999" whose "sassy heroine is like Lolita with a handgun." I certainly would plop down my hard-earned cash for such a promising fun read as this... but, reader beware. Roger Fishbite, I’m sorry to say, is pure tedium, with a Lolita-like character whose principal talent would seem to be to put the reader to sleep - and I mean passed out face down in the pages from sheer boredom. Too bad, because the premise is a potentially good one: Prager takes the Nabokov classic, updates the scenario, changes the names, and plays with the plot. Our protagonist is Lucky Lady Linderhof, a spoiled, precocious 12-year-old Manhattanite, living with pretty mother (Dad is a doctor who split for Pakistan long ago to help treat the dying babies). Mother rents a room to Roger Fishbite, who soon marries her but with his lusty eye - and hands - on Lucky. He then runs over Mom in a taxi and takes off with Lucky. But there is no Quilty in this version. Rather, Roger’s the one who sneaks around with child model, Evie Naif, on one film shoot after another. Roger has none of Humbert’s sensitivities. He’s a slimeball through and through albeit with just enough charisma to pull off his act. But Lucky soon enough discovers his behind-the-scenes affair with Evie and blows him away. She ends up in prison but with much favorable publicity and a talk show, Babytalk, of her own.

This could be an entertaining spoof if played for laughs, but the laughs aren’t there and the plot falls painfully flat on its pages between the lack of humor and the predictability of the narrative. And who knows why we have the Chinese housekeeper/babysitter, Chiong, who adds nothing whatsoever to the plot? Presumably, since Prager has spent much time in the Far East, she couldn’t resist inserting some token figure from that experience. No other reason. The best of the book comes near the end when Lucky and her rich, private school girl friends organize a group called WHINE (World’s Hapless Infants, Notice Everyone!), which purports to address the problems of child abuse worldwide, such as child labor abuse in South Asia and child prostitution in Thailand. The girls stage street theater in front of the embassies whose countries abuse their children. This captures the thinking of the wealthy and precocious pre-teens and is mildly amusing. In another novel Lucky could develop into an interesting character, representative of the fun and foibles of her age and social class. But here, she and this ill-thought plot, amount to one big yawn. J.A.

Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture by Apostolos Doxiadis 1992 (Greece); revised and translated into English 1998

Greek author Doxiadis wrote this novel in 1992 and updated it slightly for the 1998 publication in English. It’s a delight to have it in translation at last because this is a riveting good story about pride, obsession and - gulp - mathematics. Have no fear if you’re somewhat left-brain deficient in the math department like me; Doxiadis’s narrative is easy to follow and will have you chatting away about Goldbach’s Conjecture, Fermat’s Last Theorem, Kurt Godel’s Theorem, etc. as though you knew what you were talking about (well, kind of). I did learn this: Fermat’s Last Theorem is no longer theory as it was proven in the mid-90s, ditto for Kurt Godel’s Theorem back in 1931. It’s been surprising and somewhat disheartening for me to learn that several of my friends already knew this, from reading the Sunday papers, they say, but if I can’t blow off about my new-found knowledge at least I’m no longer so ignorant. What has not yet been proven (and therefore not yet a subject for the Sunday papers) is Goldbach’s Conjecture, which remains one of the toughest mathematical problems to date. He who can prove Goldbach’s theory will surely win the Nobel. I think you could win the Nobel if you disproved the theory as well, but I don’t want to get in over my head.

The novel begins: "Every family has its black sheep - in ours it was Uncle Petros." The narrator is Uncle Petros’s most favored nephew. He tells of how his family has always considered Petros to be one of life’s failures. The nephew, who begins his story looking back to his high school years in Athens, is naturally curious about the eccentric uncle who lives on the outskirts of the city and is more or less a recluse interested only in chess and gardening. As the nephew learns, Uncle Petros was once a maths prodigy, who studied and taught for many years at a German university and spent time at Cambridge as well. One day he visits his uncle and announces that he would like to make a career of mathematics himself. Uncle Petros proposes to set his nephew a mathematical problem to solve. If he can solve it, he says, then mathematics is indeed his chosen field, but if he cannot solve it, then the nephew must make a binding promise to drop mathematics as a career pursuit. He accepts the terms, fails to find a solution and heads off to university in the US undecided about his major now that it won’t be math. His roommate by chance is a math major and through him he learns that the problem his uncle had set him was no other that Goldbach’s Conjecture. This conjecture is what his uncle had spent his life trying to prove and could not. Part Two of the novel sees the narrator on a return trip to Greece confronting his uncle and demanding to know why he had set him such an impossible task. We then get "The Story of Uncle Petros Papachristos," which the narrator tells us in the third person. It is a fascinating story of math and genius and here we get the pride and obsession that characterizes the life of Uncle Petros. Part Three brings us to the present day. Petros is now an old man, nearly 80, and slightly unhinged. The nephew, who began his life in mathematics but later gave it up, confronts his uncle again, wishing him to own up honestly to his past failure. What follows is a fascinating end to the tale with a dazzling climax. First and foremost Doxiadis is a storyteller extraordinaire. He’ll keep you turning the pages to get at the uncle’s story and in that story unfolds the life and world of a mathematical scholar who single-mindedly pursued one goal: the proving of Goldbach’s Conjecture. That most difficult of conjectures, by the way, is this: Every even number greater than 2 is the sum of two primes. Sounds elementary, but that shows what I know. J.A.

Magpie by Jill Dawson Sceptre UK 1998

Jill Dawson’s first novel Trick of the Light (1996) was a favorite UK novel of that year. It is about a fairly hip young girl, Rita, down and out and on the dole, and her baby daughter, who leave the squats of London with the long-haired slacker American boyfriend/daddy to set up house in a remote mountain area in the state of Washington, the house being a cabin with no electricity, no indoor toilet, and not much of anything. The American boyfriend, who owns this bit of land and plans to pan gold for a living, has a violent streak and the narrative focuses on just how the young girl handles the situation in a country and wilderness completely new to her. There is not much of the abused woman syndrome here, however (though she is abused); rather, what one remembers is the extraordinary pluck and independence of the girl. It’s a wholly satisfying novel (with some notable comments on the two cultures) and a truly memorable one. With Dawson’s second novel, Magpie, I rather expected the protagonist, Lily Waite, another young single mother, to come from the same mold as Rita; but, although she is equally engaging, Lily is another personality altogether.

Magpie begins with young Lily and her five-year-old son Matthew, suddenly appearing one night in a run-down counsel estate in East London. They have hardly any belongings except for a couple suitcases and a bag of a few charred remnants, but from this meager (and rather mysterious) beginning, they make the sterile flat their new home. Josh, a downstairs neighbor, is a laid-back, pot-smoking Jamaican pushing forty. Lily and Josh soon form a sexual relationship, which surprises Lily who is apparently not accustomed to casual sex or fast friendships. Any discomfort she feels around him, however, is easily dispelled by Josh’s easy manner. Josh is also a help with Matthew, who proves to be a hellcat at the local school. Slowly we learn of Lily’s and Josh’s past, both filled with loss. It would be unfair to say much more except that Lily comes from the north, the daughter of an odd, elderly couple who have doted on their only daughter, even into her marriage, which is now presumably finished. Lily’s excitement and exuberance at facing life on her own is a thrill to encounter and her at times bizarre behavior becomes, in this author’s hands, perfectly understandable the more we learn of Lily and her background. Dawson is a mesmerizing storyteller, who depicts her characters with a depth and feeling and precision that leave them lingering in the mind long after. I have a slight preference for the first novel, which, especially to an American reader, I would recommend as the best introduction to this fine English author. Interestingly, I read that the author has had a long love affair with the United States, attending college there for a term in the Midwest when she was eighteen and later living for long summers in a log cabin in seven acres of wilderness in Washington which she owns; hence, the cross-cultural subject and setting for the first novel. Her work is sadly unavailable in the U.S., at least for the moment, but can be ordered through or Internet Bookshop J.A.

Lies Within by Michael Largo Tropical Press Miami, Florida March 1999 *sneak preview*

This action-packed thriller begins with the abduction of eight-year-old Katey Curan, twin of Jamie and daughter of secret agents James and Lisa Curan, presently located in Haiti. Just for whom and for what James and Lisa are working remains one of the novel’s central mysteries, but it is clear from the start that James is in on the abduction - for whatever bizarre motive, good or evil - and wife Lisa is not. In an attempt to pay the ransom, plans are foiled (or are they?) and James and Lisa dive overboard just as a boat rigged with a bomb explodes. They live; escape to the States; James has plastic surgery; and the two continue to live for the company (whoever and whatever it is) while presumed dead. The twins, Katey now in tow, are brought up by James’ second cousin Tucker, a whiskey-drinking, alligator-poaching man of the Florida Everglades, who is as in the dark as everyone else about the children’s parents. Skip ahead ten years: James and Lisa have been living high on the company’s payroll and travelling the world while doing whatever it is they do - ostensibly working for the CIA...but are they? Or are they counter or splinter agents? Lisa misses the twins, is hitting the bottle a bit too heavily, and wants out.

Meanwhile, cute Katey (now a nursing student) and brother Jamie (long-haired tugboat worker) are beginning to keep secrets from "Papa" Tucker, who long ago cleaned up his act and raised the twins as best he could. Katey’s convinced she’s pregnant, but doesn’t know how she got to be so; Jamie’s full of attitude and totes a mysterious notebook; and the head of one of the Haitian abductors turns up in a cellophane bag along the road by their home. The focus is now on Tucker and his evil employer, Joe Hill, co-owner of the alligator hatchery (really a cover for heroin smuggling, unknown to Tucker), which - surprise, surprise - all ties in to what the biological, presumably-dead parents are also involved in - kind of. No use trying to make sense of it all; rather like one of this year’s films, The X-Files, there is some entertainment to be had along the way despite the ludicrously chaotic plot. The bad boys - which the author is best at depicting - are truly evil and as the action draws closer and closer to their sure-fire downfall, the narrative picks up full speed and provides a wholly satisfactory ending.

The novel is, however, in serious need of some heavy editing. About a fourth of the narrative should be cut to avoid repetitions and needless ‘explanation’ that only further confuses the plot line. But, the author’s vivid description of the Florida Everglades evocatively sets the backdrop and much of the CIA biz rings as true as the best of that genre.  If the plot sounds like your kind of book, go for it; if not, you might want to catch the film. Not any plans for one that I know of, but it’s got Hollywood written all over it - including a near twenty-foot, hormone-fed gater. J.A.

The Jealous God by Syneca *sneak preview*

A dying baby is taken, as a last resort, by her white mother to a voodoo ceremony and the decisions made that night to save the child resurface 22 years later. Randall ‘Randi’ Austin is now rich, intelligent, beautiful but lonely and has finally decided to leave her family home in Albany, New York for Florida, getting away from the past which includes the nasty, creepy Nick with whom she once had a brief fling. As a parting gift her step-father gives her a box with two talismans inside that her stepmother had been given in Egypt.

Almost immediately the talismans work their odd magic but Randi is oblivious to their power, unlike Nick who not only knows what they are but what they can do and he badly wants them - though they have to be given willingly. Then the murders start and Randi’s computer mysteriously adds the grisly details to the romance novel she is attempting to write. Enter Michael Santera, the handsome ex-doctor turned detective, with partner Lucius, who seems to have a finger in every pie - and a fight of good versus evil develops as the new millennium approaches. The only problem is that the forces of Evil are savvy and well prepared for the battle at hand, but Good, in the unwitting form of Randi, hasn’t a flying clue that the destruction of mankind is in her hands.

One of the unwritten conventions for this type of book is that the reader should be kept in the dark, with only occasional flashes of light to lead the way until the final few pages when all the switches are pulled and the end is fully illuminated. The Jealous God passes this test with flying colours, the unexpected twist(s) that finishes the novel leaves the final outcome satisfyingly unresolved and the author also manages to explain why some of the protagonists had to be so stereotypical. The ending is, in fact, far more clever than one would expect from the narrative leading up to.

First, there are those stereotypical characters, all full of chest or breast, long of limb, healthy and intelligent, that almost doom the book from the start; only Lucius stirs interest because the reader knows he is dealing from the bottom of the pack - but just whose side is he on? He also gets the few fun one-liners. Then there is the very stripped down, bone-basic writing. This could have been an advantage in many ways but didn’t work to its full because, like a cut-away shot in a movie, the mere mention or sight of an object draws the reader’s attention to that object; e.g., a coffee-pot doesn’t mean a device to make coffee, but signifies the next object to blow up, fly away, turn to dust or whatever. One or two red herrings here would have helped distract the reader from the obvious.

Where this stripped-down style could have helped is in distinguishing the three stories that make up the plot. There is Randall’s story, then excerpts from her romantic novel-in-progress, and finally extracts from her dead stepmother’s journal. Unfortunately, Randall’s romantic novel-in-progress reads exactly like Syneca’s actual novel; there’s not even a hint of parody. Ditto for the journals.

Because of the killer ending it is a shame that Syneca didn’t take a little more care in the journey there, an extra ten to twenty pages could have fleshed out some areas and given more control over the frantic pace. As it stands, The Jealous God is still an entertaining read; the frustration is that it could be better. M.G.S.


If you like intelligent crime novels then November 1998 was the month for you when No Exit Press (UK) published a whole collection of delights. The Review has read five of them in what can only be termed an enjoyable reading fest. In no particular order, Michael Garry Smout gives you the lowdown on the down and low:

Down on Ponce by Fred Willard No Exit Press, 1998
I originally read this as a manuscript a few months ago and was glad to see that a publishing house like No Exit picked it up. This would be a good book even without a story line and with just the crackling dialogue, which at times induced the embarrassment of laughing out loud. But the plot is sharp as well: A man contracts ex-dope smuggler Sam Fuller to kill his wife. Sam is a dedicated criminal so of course tells the wife, keeps the money and decides to stay low for a while. But when he reads that his mobile home has been destroyed with his body in it he knows that he may have bitten off more than he can chew, so he decides to hide out in Atlanta’s rundown Ponce de Leon Avenue before making his next move. Here he links up with Charley, an ex-con whose buzz expression "One of your better (insert here whatever)" soon spreads to other characters and even the reader. Charley’s gang consists of homeless, wheelchair-bound Stinky, and Bob, who not only has half his face missing and can’t talk but also has fits where he thinks his clothes are on fire. Sam gets involved with Bill "Dong" Chandler who runs an operation that must have a stash of cash hidden somewhere and in a sort of perverse take on Robin Hood Sam knows he must steal from the rich criminals to give to the poor criminals (himself and his odd-ball crew). Sam is one hell of an organiser but still needs the help of Bug, a psychotic nut currently locked up in a mental hospital. And that is not where the fireworks start: they’d already begun on page one. This is one of your better debut novels, as Charley would say - hard-boiled, fast and funny with Sam - the sad, lonely, almost cold, straight man who is surprised by nothing - as the perfect foil to the freak show of chaos that he must somehow shape into a unit.

Dead Birds and Alive and Kicking by John Milne No Exit Press 1998

Dead Birds, originally published in 1986, was the first Jimmy Jenner P.I. book. Alive and Kicking is the latest (there are two more in-between). Jimmy Jenner was a Metropolitan policeman whose dreams of rising in the force and becoming a detective are cruelly shattered by a terrorist bomb which leaves him minus a foot and deaf in one ear. He decides to become a private investigator and just about survives doing the usual divorce and writ serving work. The police give him a sort of break in a rigged case to help whitewash a possible diplomatic scandal and the resulting publicity attracts the attention of boxing manager George Duncan who hires him to ‘mind’ his wife. But she is brutally murdered and Jenner is suspect number one. That is just the beginning of his troubles. Lots of things don’t add up and Jenner’s first involvement in real detecting heads for failure, something he takes personally. There are some very good moments - like the preface where Jenner tells his life story to a seagull. All in all a very tight, well told and well written story with a definite nod to the American greats but still remaining wonderfully English.

Alive and Kicking is a whole different kettle of fish; although many basic elements from the original remain - Jenner’s wisecracking for example - the style and feel have radically changed. For a start there is an overbearing sense of sadness that emanates from the sleazy dirty streets of London, the weather, the fact that Jenner’s marriage - started in Dead Birds - is now not only on the rocks but his wife wants to settle down with someone else, forcing Jenner to do what a man usually does - hit the whisky. The jobs are getting boring and the current one, a divorce case where the wife of a corrupt borough surveyor wants to know where he is hiding his money before he leaves her for a much younger woman, seems just another run-of-the-mill case. Then someone tries to shoot a person who looks like Jenner. Next the surveyor and girlfriend are found dead in a wood and then Jenner witnesses the shooting of Mickey De Witt (now a businessman, but thirty years before he reputedly ordered the shooting of gangster Tommy Slaughter). This sets Jenner brooding about the past, the impoverished London when he was a kid, his strong-minded father and his minor criminal brother, Joe, who was a member of Tommy Slaughter’s group and who died in a trench construction accident.

During this period of brooding bits of an imagined puzzle slot into place but proving them is difficult as certain parties in the police seem very interested in leaving the past well alone. In the middle of all this bleakness Jenner’s sharp tongue and wit really shine through. It is only his own humour that keeps him going, keeps him pushing on, because no one else is very supportive. If you’re a fan of the Jenner books then you’re going to love this one, though the pacing is a little odd at times; but this is to allow for all that brooding and the fact that the plot is not linear but similar to plotting an air valve on a moving bicycle. If you have never heard of Jenner P.I then this one would not be the best choice as an introduction; start with Dead Birds and work up. If the name of John Milne seems familiar but not in fiction, that is because he has quite a reputation in the UK for TV screenwriting, including Taggart, Silent Witness and Lovejoy, which even made it to Spain.

The Dogs of Winter by Kem Nunn No Exit Press 1998

This is my first surfing novel and living mere minutes from the Mediterranean, the world’s richest non-surfing sea, I obviously know nothing about the subject except for an old film that had a Pink Floyd song at the end. Now I’m a little bit wiser and realise that it isn’t all about having blonde hair and being a jerk in front of beach bimbos; it seems to be about trying to find the biggest wave and surviving it. Set in remote Northern California and far from the painted crowds, the first thing I noticed was the simple power Nunn has in describing the dark, moody side of nature. It is the bleakness of the area, the smell of the brine and the crackle of seaweed underfoot that holds the attention as much as the collection of mortals enacting their drama. Nature doesn’t act so much as a background as it does another character, if not a main protagonist. It is the rugged coast that in bad weather will create the monster waves and attract a few fearless surfers. But it is also the same coast that protects the breeding ground of the great white shark.

On land the danger is just as great: two factions of Indians live in uneasy peace, the ones further in the hills working away in drug factories. People die here from walking on the wrong side of the road. So a bunch of visiting white, city surfers would certainly get some kind of hassle even had not an Indian boy been accidentally killed when a huge wave knocked over the boat which the surfers were using to shoot photos. This leads into a sort of Deliverance showdown, though most of the time the surfers don’t fully understand the trouble they are in. So, just what sort of idiot would come into dangerous territory to surf in equally dangerous waters full of the world’s most dangerous sharks? Jack Fletcher, a washed-up surf photographer, is pinning his hopes of a comeback on this photo-shoot as the leader is surfing legend Drew Harmon whose ego is about as big as California. Harmon and two younger surfers are going to surf the ‘Heart Attacks’, and the photos will make all and sundry famous and wealthy if the locals or sharks don’t get them first. Then there is the odd problem of Harmon’s wife, who is not only wearing the clothes of a murdered girl but starting to look like her. Nunn also takes the story one better by actually keeping it on a human scale - there are no Rambos here, people dodge bullets and get scared but there is still room for some kind of communication. Nunn understands the simple principle forgotten by many writers and Hollywood, that people don't like getting killed. This book has done for surfing stories what Apple did for computers. Really impressive stuff.

Box Nine by Jack O’Conner No Exit Press 1998

This first came out in 1992 and won the Mysterious Press prize for best first novel. It should serve as a taster for Word Made Flesh due in January 1999. The current cover and the opening page or two led me to think that this was Sci-Fi, a feeling that stayed with me throughout as O’Conner does paint quite a picture of a nightmare world; the fact that it is contemporary adds to the unease. Lenore Thomas is a tough, hard-talking, gun-loving undercover cop with more than a taste for the drugs she’s supposed to be preventing. She lives with her brother Ike, a delicate, thoughtful type who works in the post-office. At about the same time Ike finds a package full of rotting fish in unused postal box nine, Lenore is learning about a new drug called Lingo that gives a great high but also stimulates the brain cells that govern comprehension and verbal skills. Up the dose slightly and it causes violent rages that can lead to death - for the user and any unfortunate bystanders. Lenore’s task is to try and find the distribution source for this highly addictive and deadly drug before it’s too late - and she might be up against more than one gang seeking the same. Too dark and brooding to be a page turner like Willard, Box Nine is nevertheless an absorbing read with the only niggle being the coincidence of the siblings in totally different professions getting independently mixed up in the same mess.
ISSUE NINE to top of page

by Irvine Welsh 
Jonathan Cape UK 1998

Power is what Detective Sergeant Bruce Roberston has and he wants more of it. No matter what the situation, Robertson intends to dominate, and, if it serves his perverse interest, to obliterate. As a serious crime detective in the Lothian force (Edinburgh), he has the power that goes with the job and, of course, abuses that power. As a freemason he has the hidden power of brotherhood; as a white Protestant he has the power of majority over blacks and Catholics; as a male from a working-class background he has power over the class-bound subservient women. With cocaine and other drugs he has the power to stay awake and earn overtime pay and with the extra money he has the power to make prostitutes do his bidding - such as getting shagged by a dog. He is up for promotion and his competition are about to feel his bid for more power as he gently sets them up against each other.

Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson is not a nice man. He is homophobic and racist and hurls the ‘N’ word around more than a Tarantino film then adds ‘wog’, ‘coon’ and ‘silvery’- Robertson worked in London where he picked up cockney rhyming slang; therefore, Silvery Moon = coon. The rest of the world are ‘spastics’, even the boys in blue are ‘uniformed spastics’. To Robertson women are nothing more than animated receptacles for his semen; they’re all whores to him or ‘hoors’ or ‘Roger Moores’. When he is not attempting to bed them he is masturbating in the station toilet over The Sun’s Page Three Girls or at home in front of a porn video. He is having affairs with several married women and has started to make advances on his best friend’s wife. His crimes against fellow officers and the general public are relentless and merciless (for me the worst was his stealing his sleeping friend’s glasses then crushing them underfoot for no reason). But Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson is not all-powerful; he is not God, as he discovers when a heart attack victim refuses to respond to his lifesaving attempts. And he is having difficulty solving a murder of a young black which might mean having to cancel his pre-Christmas sex and drug binge in Amsterdam. He is also not God because he can’t get rid of a nasty rash around his genitals nor can he get rid of a talking tapeworm that can devour all the food Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson puts down his gullet .

The story is mostly told in the first person by Robertson with short pieces by his wife Carole, who has left him, and by the tapeworm who literally crawls over the page. Welsh likes to explore the possibilities of ‘the page’ - see "The Acid House" story in the same named collection or the novel Marabou Stork Nightmares which would read completely differently if printed normally. Although not new - and a common device in poetry, advertisements and so on - very few novelists experiment with this technique. The tapeworm is actually the most simplistic device Welsh has used so far; it is presented on the page as a sort of irregular-ribbed tube graphic with the worm’s comments inside in different font, with lots of ooooooo’s to fill in the body of the graphic, which are slowly replaced by the worm’s comments.

The success of Trainspotting sadly means that all Welsh’s books are doomed to have to suffer comparison. OK, my two cents worth: Filth is far more coherent, consistent and better paced. Trainspotting was a collection of connecting anecdotes; Filth is a bona fide novel with a plot. Trainspotting was funny on the surface; Filth is far more sombre. Robertson is a total bastard and there is not much to laugh at as most of the time his actions ring horribly true; however, there are some funny moments and some great one-liners to hurl at people, the point being that each has its merits and each stands up well on its own. Filth has some weakish moments toward the end when everything is tied up far too neatly, but apart from that it is a graphically vivid portrayal of class betrayal, misanthropy, and the corruption that comes with unchecked power, revealing far more about human passions than at first obvious and proving that Welsh is no one-book-wonder and far more deft at his art than is often given credit for by the London literary establishment. MGS

Some Rain Must Fall by Michael Faber  Canongate (Scotland) October 1998

This collection of fifteen fresh and original stories by Dutch-born Faber (presently living in Scotland after several years in Australia) is an astoundingly diverse selection, with themes varying from the surrealistic-futuristic to contemporary personal and domestic explorations to a bizarre life-after-death scenario, and including narratives by "God" and about a woman’s "hand." It is difficult to imagine what kind of novel the author would produce (we’ll soon know, as he’s presently at work on his first), because he is capable of veering off into so many different directions, but there is a connecting thread in the wry, often aloof, often slightly mad vision of the author that holds the collection together. There is an edgy and unsettling feeling to most of the stories as well, which would seem to convey the premillennial tension of the times; this, along with the book’s global settings, makes it a very 90s collection.

The title story "Some Rain Must Fall," winner of the Ian St. James Award, focuses on elementary teacher-psychologist Frances Strathairn, who is called in during crisis situations in the classroom. As Frances, in her latest assignment, slowly encourages the young students to write little essays, talk and even act out, we gradually learn the story of the class’s "problem." This is followed by the surrealistic story "Fish" (winner of the Macallan/’Scotland on Sunday’ Award) in which a future Mad-Maxian world is populated by fish "swimming" through the air. With sharks hovering around dark corners and killer whales on the loose in addition to the human fanatics of the Church of the Armageddon, it’s a mother’s full-time job protecting her young daughter, Kif Kif. "Miss Fatt and Miss Thinne" takes another turn altogether into the realm of fantastic fable. These two "fairly young ladies, who had been friends since convent days" still live together in a cozy house. Both somewhat resemble Marilyn Monroe. One is a nurse and the other a model and part-time actress. All’s fine until Miss Thinne wakes up one morning without any desire for food and Miss Fatt can suddenly not eat enough.

"The Red Cement Truck" chronicles the life after death of a woman who is shot in her house, the victim of a robbery. She becomes invisible and follows the killer around, even trailing him home and crawling into bed between him and his wife. "The Crust of Hell" traces the trials of an American family, including a punk-Goth teenage daughter, living in a desert village of Bharatan, where the scientist father is stationed to study the sand and soil for its growth potential. Another good cross-cultural tale is "Pidgin English," which follows a young Polish girl presently living in England and working with her uncle in the Café Krakow, when she’s not clubbing at night. "Accountability" takes us to Australia, where a poor, abused Aborigine girl tries to set her life aright. "Toy Story" is a tale about the child, God, who finds a toy in the trash, which is the planet earth. "The Gossip Cell" presents an amazing new invention; "Nina’s Hand" is about just that; "The Tunnel of Love" features a "spruiker" (hawker) working a sex shop; "Sheep" follows five New York artists to the Alternative Centre of the World in Scotland.... and there’s more.

There is always an underlying tension or additional factor of some sort to give these stories a sharp edge, allowing them all to surprise and delight. The plots are tight and extremely well structured, and the myriad characters from diverse cultures and backgrounds are truly memorable. I couldn’t wait to pass the book on to friends and I couldn’t wait either to pursue a story to reprint in the BR (see "Fish" in this issue). Faber is a hot, new talent whose haunting vision perfectly captures the pervading aura of the fin de millénaire. J.A.

Nothing Personal by Jason Starr No Exit Press UK 1998

His debut novel, Cold Caller, slowly built up the lying, cheating, madness of its main protagonist while Nothing Personal jumps headlong into the thick of it, quickly serving up about six lying, cheating, mad protagonists. Every decision made, planned or otherwise, takes them closer to the point of no return. Some will get shot, some will die, an innocent will be abused and marriages will go to the wall, all because of a lack of money or from sheer vanity. And vanity is a key word. David Sussman is worried about his nose, his receding hair, getting old (yet he’s not even 40), and his recurring panic attacks. To do something to boost his jaded ego he has extra-marital affairs but this time he’s picked an oddball in ‘Chinese’ Amy Lee. In her screwed up mind David loves her so she fights for that love by stalking the family and even talking to David’s wife Leslie. Amy Lee’s blackmailing puts stress on David which sends out signals to Leslie who responds by becoming bulimic/anorexic. Compulsive gambler Joey DePino has different problems. He owes money and is in for a nasty beating if he can’t come up with some. He just blew his last wage packet on a loser at the race track and has lost his job. Wife Maureen is at the end of her tether; she wants a baby but Joey treats her worse than something the cat dragged in. Maureen sees her old schoolgirl friend Leslie’s marriage to David as perfect and even fantasises about being in her place, in her beautiful house with her husband and her daughter. Things need to change for all but it is Joey’s plan to help solve his money problems that tips the already shaky boat. With a cast of people that deserve little or no sympathy, the reader can only hope they get what they deserve - and then some. It is to Starr’s credit that the final result is possibly not the one expected, but wholly satisfying. Nothing Personal is a fast, well-paced and well-plotted domestic crime thriller with touches of humour and some memorable scenes. MGS

See Cold Caller review

The Vampire Armand by Anne Rice Alfred A. Knopf  US 1998

I haven’t followed the Vampire Chronicles but have dipped in once or twice as I thoroughly enjoyed Interview with a Vampire. As Armand was from that original I thought it would be interesting to get his story in what I hoped would be a ‘stand alone’ novel although I knew there would have to be some reference to Interview. But straight from the beginning, with Lestat in some kind of coma after seeing Christ, I realised I’d obviously arrived too late. Then we go back to the Renaissance and a young kidnapped boy called Amadeo being bought by mega-rich Marius - a vampire from Roman times - who has a sort of boy ‘harem’. Of course Marius and Amadeo become lovers in a sickening, fey romance that is just plain embarrassing. If one could take out words like my sweet angel, kiss, lips, heart, and love, the book would be about half the length. Marius lets the boy get experience from other people, of both sexes, and it is a spurned male lover who mortally wounds Amadeo. Marius is so upset that he of course turns him into a Vampire - the same formula, in other words, that has appeared before: AC/DC vampire meets cutie, falls in sickly love, cutie gets injured so is turned into vampire, has fun learning the new powers then leaves the master, usually in a huff.

This yukky heaven could now go on for eternity, but luckily some nastier Vamps turn up who don’t like the idea of Vampires consorting with the food chain (we humans). Marius is ‘killed’ and Amadeo’s name is changed to the less Christian sounding Armand and packed off to Paris where he meets Lestat 300 years later. Then I got lost. I’m assuming other books need to be read to understand just what the hell is going on, but Rice is not that helpful on background information, possibly knowing that only hardcore fans would pick this up anyway. The biggest omission is Armand meeting up with the presumed dead Marius hundreds of years later. Not even a "You haven’t changed a bit"; instead just a one-sentence mention that Marius was ‘alive’, which we knew anyway because he is at the church at the start of the book. After all the stomach-churning romance you’d think there would have been an emotional meeting. Must be in another book. Later, trying to wade through some tosh story about Christ, icons and so on (which also includes what appears to be Armand attempting suicide, which I think happens to others in other books), I was confounded by a very uneasy feeling about not only what I was reading but about the whole Vampire Chronicle. Here is a select, chosen, mega-rich group with a very open attitude toward sexual behaviour -bisexuality (but heavier on gay) is the norm with a good deal of underage sex (usually young boys but remember what’s-her-name from Interview), and partner swapping (forgivable after 400 years with the same guy, I guess). This group is highly religious; most are Christian, adore expensive things and feel it is their duty to identify then have the right to kill the ‘bad’ people on the streets - junkies, thieves, those without a home and so on. Sounds like an ultra-right group to me. Is there a Rice book covering the war years? Whose side were the Vamps on? Thumbs down on this one. Read Interview and drive a stake through the rest. MGS

I Was a Mate of Ronnie Laing by Anne McManus Canongate (Scotland) 1998

Dr. Charlotte McCloud was a respected academic in Sheffield, a Northern English city once famous for steel, now for The Full Monty. Dr. McCloud’s strong socialist stance and the joy of revolutionary battle in the late 60s has all but been destroyed by the Thatcher years, modern wimpy students with no balls, and the watered-down politics of Blair’s New Labour. Her days of screwing students and taking drugs in her office are long over and now she is a balding alcoholic known as Charlie, roaming the streets begging and even prostituting herself for some cider or whisky. She lives in a refuge with three other "sisters" and the four ‘Nuts and Sluts’ share what they have, the biggest breadwinner being Natty who has no aversion to giving anyone a blowjob for money and/or booze. But change is in the air in the guise of a very dodgy development deal and the refuge is closed.

Events take a more radical and dramatic turn after the four are involved in a terrible accident. For Charlie the aftermath presents a chance to reinvent herself and maybe even find love. But don’t get the wrong idea - this is no Hollywood plot; it is a grim look at Britain through the bottom of a cider bottle, told by Charlie, who is mixed up and in many instances wrong or contradictory, but in no way a one-dimensional character. The underlying theme of socialism in Britain from the 60s till now - the title refers to R.D. Laing, originator of the ‘social theory’ of mental illness - may prove daunting to non-UK readers, but the death of the sixties and the rise of the Me Generation is familiar worldwide and Charlie - a most excellent creation - is, despite her confusions, as good a narrator as you can get.

It is an impressive debut novel although I do have a quibble. Charlie tells the story in her own voice and, as drunks tend to do, she not only wanders a wee bit but resorts to a sort of rhyme - a random example: "Factions, fractions, democracy in action. City Hall has it all tonight, plus the gall of these ghouls we elect to demand respect". She herself says, when hearing a child talk to her: "I’m listening, fascinated firstly by the way her speech rhythms emulate the way my brain functions, always this chiming rhyming. It must be that the booze has arrested my development and frozen it at about the age of six like this." Fair enough, but for me the ‘chiming rhyming’ became just too much. It tended to break up the flow of a paragraph or even stop me dead when it was plain forced - "coke - Basingstoke" or wrong, "lush - bush". For others though, this may be the best thing since sliced bread, Saturday mornings and Damien Hirst. I hope that this is my problem alone as I should point out that in the far too few passages when McManus doesn’t use this device the writing is strong and very controlled. I look forward to her second novel or anything else she may have to offer, and, despite my personal reservation, there is much to be recommended in this debut. MGS

Soho Black by Christopher Fowler Warner Books UK 1998

What at first appears to be three different stories - an in-debt film executive who’s too nice for the cut-throat job, a police investigation into a bizarre murder, and a woman apparently sealed in her room without food or water - slowly turns into an interlinked tale of death, drugs and the living dead out on the town. Rather than Fowler’s usual setting of London at large, the area has shrunk to the small but vibrant area of Soho, once famous for its sex industry and now the undisputed film/media capital of Britain. It is here we meet film executive Richard Tyler. Tyler owes the mysterious Midas Blake money and Blake’s goons, One Eighty and Waldorf, can hardly wait for the pleasures to come on Friday when the recently sacked Tyler defaults. All this stress plus the white nose powder that the film industry seems to run on causes Tyler to have a heart attack and die. Well, not quite die; he is dead, but can walk and talk, though drinks go literally straight through him. His new status gives him a bit more courage to do what he couldn’t do alive, but he has only limited time to complete his plans as his body is beginning to rot - Scotch tape can only hold so much skin together. Elsewhere, the murder of Malcolm Cotton, being looked into by Detective John May, one of the book’s best-drawn characters, seems to involve butterflies. May’s investigations uncover disturbing news for the fun seekers of Soho’s nightlife. All this does actually come together into a satisfying conclusion, the only blot being the Judy Merrigan tale. This, more or less, appeared as the short story ‘The Midas Touch’ in Personal Demons. There it worked but in Soho Black, apart from giving a strange insight to Midas Blake, it goes against the furious pace and structure of the rest of the novel.

Fowler uses his inside knowledge of the film industry to great effect, creating a world that seems unbelievable - people would actually want to work in it? Another film maker turned writer, Hollywood’s D.J. Levien, says in his latest novel Wormwood (Miramax Books 1998), as a dig at films like The Player: "They evoked the bland commerciality and superficiality of things, and did so with a faint hint of accuracy, but they all had a plot twist -- a murder, an outlandish business coup --that was divorced from reality. They caricatured something that was already exaggerated. If a writer wanted to send up or run down the town, all he or she really had to do was tell the truth about how it was." Which would appear to be the opposite of what Fowler does in Soho Black; but, strange as it seems, despite his reluctance to ‘run down the town,’ Fowler pretty much does tell the truth in the case of Tyler’s tale and to find out how you’re going to have to read the book. MGS

see Personal Demons and Disturbia reviews

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