Annabel's House of Books

Noli domo egredi, nisi librum habes – Never leave home without a book.

Tag: London (page 1 of 8)

The making of Mary (Queen of Shops)

Shop Girl by Mary Portas

shop girlMary Portas is one of those TV presenter/gurus you either love or find profoundly irritating. I love her and her championing of the high street and independent retailers. Her TV programmes where she helps ailing businesses are full of common sense and good advice jazzed up with her team’s design flair. The shame is that nearly always once her team have left, the businesses helped often gently slide back towards their former bad habits.

Running her own design agency, she has far reaching influence in high places. She was appointed by the Government to survey Britain’s high streets and put forward ways to regenerate them which she did – and then the Government invited towns to make bids for a Portas grant.  Abingdon put a bid in but it didn’t win one – but our town desperately needs something to happen – for the key thing is our little shopping centre is owned by an insurance company, who set the rents so high that no-one can afford to open a shop in it. This doesn’t bother the landlords to whom it doesn’t matter whether the units are full or empty – they’re accruing in property value on their books anyway. It’s a sad state of affairs, and is happening the whole country over – leading to homogenisation of high streets as the big chains are the only ones who can afford the rents, and independent retailers suffer.

Anyway, Mary’s memoir is not about that part of her life – I just took the opportunity to comment!

Shop Girl is a delight, following Mary’s childhood and first steps into the world of retail design up until she plucks up courage to freelance.  She was born in 1960 into a big Irish family in Watford. They all squashed into a small end of terrace house. Mary’s Dad worked for tea manufacturer Brooke Bond, and her mum (to whom she dedicates the book) was the typical loving Irish mother who spends much of her time putting food on the table for her big brood.  Fourth of five kids, Mary, it’s fair to say was the naughty one. Giggling in church, eating dog food for a dare, loud and always looking for fun, and all too often getting caught!

Caramac 1970sThe book is written in short chapters – extended vignettes, typically of three or four pages – and each is titled with a product of the 1960s or 1970s. It’s a memoir driven by sensory memories – the smell of her mum’s Coty L’Aimant perfume, the first taste of a Caramac bar, hearing Marc Bolan’s Ride a White Swan.  (Another sensory memoir is Philippe Claudel’s Parfum which I reviewed for Shiny New Books here.)  It’s an effective style – I was in reveries each time one of my childhood memories was evoked by these headings, (I was born in 1960 too!) – what a nostalgia trip!

The teenaged Mary constantly challenged her teachers at school, but they found a channel for her outgoing personality in drama, at school and at home:

Lawrence hands me the mirror and I stare at myself. My temples and cheeks are dusted with fuchsia eye shadow and there’s a huge red zigzag edged in blue running from my forehead down over my right eye and onto my cheek. My hair looks as if I’ve just stuck my finger into a plug socket. I look like a miniature version of Bowie himself. […]

Mum walks into the room and looks at me singing. ‘Don’t you look grand!’ she says absentmindedly. ‘Now I really must get over to Jean’s. There’s a lot to do for the church jumble sale tomorrow.’

But I hardly notice her leave. I am lost in the moment. Michael, Joe, Tish and Lawrence are my audience and there is nowhere else I’d rather be.

Sadly, Mary’s mum died when she was 16, and with Mary’s older siblings flying the nest into the world of work, she became more and more of a carer to her little brother Lawrence. When she was offered a place at RADA, she turned it down, she couldn’t bear to leave Lawrence. Instead Mary enrolled at Cassio college in Watford on a course that specialised in shop window design.

As I stared at the huge store-front windows at the end of the day, I suddenly glimpsed the possibility that Cassion might offer for the first time. Sitting in a lecture, I’d heard that Salvador Dali had designed windows. So had Andy Warhol. Now I understood why. These windows were art, drama, performance. They were a stage, and through them the audience of passers-by were transported just as they were when they watched a play. My love of drama had found a new outlet.

A placement at Harvey Nicholls brought good references but no permanent job, but this didn’t deter Mary who talked her way into Harrods’s shop windows team – and so she takes her first steps towards retail stardom.

The young Mary on the page is totally recognizable as the older, more suave Mary off the telly. The same sense of humour, straight-talking and big heartedness was there all along. This is a warm and happy memoir, although tinged with sadness at losing both parents while still young, her determination shines through. Fabulous stuff – I do hope she writes a sequel. (9/10)

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Source: Own copy.

Mary Portas, Shop Girl (Doubleday, 2015) Hardback, 288 pages.

Allingham & Ambler

Yesterday, I was delighted be invited to another event for bloggers hosted by the estates department of PFD (literary agents Peters Fraser & Dunlop) at the Groucho Club.  Their Simenon event a few months ago was excellent. This time, they were featuring the work of two authors – Margery Allingham and Eric Ambler.

AllinghamSurprisingly, I’ve never read Allingham who was regarded, along with Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and Ngaio Marsh, as one of the ‘Queens of Crime’ but I do remember enjoying the TV series Campion which starred Peter Davison  in the title role with Brian whatshisname (Yorkshire wrestler chap) as Lugg, his manservant.

Luckily Barry Pike, the Chairman of the Margery Allingham Society was on hand to introduce us to her work and make some recommendations on the best books to start with. He recommends Look to the Lady – the third novel to feature Campion, published in 1931,  as one of her very best and an ideal starting point to get to know the author rather than the first, The Crime at Black Dudley.   The Tiger in the Smoke is probably her most famous book, having been filmed, but being a post-war novel is quite different in feel.  Barry was a darling to talk to, endlessly knowledgeable about his special interest, and sporting a tie featuring a drawing of Albert Campion by Allingham’s husband, Pip Youngman Carter.

I am really looking forward to reading Look to the Lady, coming home with a copy of that one and Sweet Danger.

amblerThen to Eric Ambler, and PFD had lined up none other than crime author Simon Brett to champion his work to us.

Before the talks began, I was mingling in a small group having spotted Sakura, and I was raving about The Mask of Dimitrios (which I reviewed here) and it being the novel that James Bond reads on a plane in … and couldn’t remember which Bond book it was (From Russia with Love). I didn’t realise it was Simon Brett opposite me until we were introduced – apologies for my babbling!

Brett gave a fascinating short talk about Ambler, illustrated with some great quotes.  Ambler was an engineer, and capable of explaining complex mechanisms etc plainly and concisely – which is a real skill!  He also wanted to get away from the Golden Age mysteries which all require a suspension of belief being set in their own little worlds. He wrote about more real adventures, like Graham Greene without the allegorical slant and a bit more humour. His typical protagonists are ordinary men who get involved in events not of their choosing, but discover inner reserves to take control. His villains are also real, a step away from the dastards that had populated crime fiction and thrillers for so long. Brett recommended The Mask of Dimitrios from 1939 as one of his finest, and as Ambler’s novels are all stand-alone, there is no need to read in order.

I came home with several more Ambler novels to read including The Light of Day – which was filmed as Topkapi, and thriller-fan that I am, I know I’ll enjoy them a lot.

It was also lovely to see Kim there too, and I’m sorry to have missed meeting Clare who was also at the Groucho.  Many thanks to PFD for arranging another great afternoon and the publishers who supplied books for us to take away.


More from the archives…

The other week, I posted some of my pre-blog capsule reviews, and they got a good response. So, while it’s the holiday season and I’m still tweaking my new domain, here are a couple more five starred books for you:

Clear by Nicola Barker

clearAnother of Nicola Barker’s amazing novels which just capture the ways and words of her characters so clearly. Narrated by 28yr old Adair, he works at the GLC and is drawn to watch the spectacle that was David Blaine suspended in a glass box by the Thames in 2003, and meets some interesting people there too. He is cocky and arrogant, but does try to think about things, and close to the start of the book comes out with this amazing simile describing the spectacle and egg-throwing public – I quote:

“it’s like the embankment is a toilet and Blaine is just the scented rim-block dangling in his disposable plastic container from the bowl at the top.”

You can picture it exactly can’t you!
During Blaine’s self-imposed imprisonment, Adie meets, falls for and is confused by Aphra, a gourmet cook, has many philosophical discussions with his landlord Solomon, and ultimately finds himself – in a sort of ‘I can see clearly now the Blaine has gone‘ kind of way (excuse my awful pun).
This novel just draws you in and doesn’t let go.

(10/10) May 2008

NOW: Clear, published in 2004, isn’t regarded as Barker’s best novel by a long chalk,  but I remember being intrigued by the in-yer-face antics of these Londoners and I was definitely interested in the Blaine spectacle.  I still have four others of her novels in my TBR (Behindlings, Darkmans, The Yips and In the Approaches). Suggestions which to read next?

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Thirteen by Sebastian Beaumont

thirteenStephen Bardot is depressed after the failure of his business, and agrees to become a night-time taxi driver for a year. He finds that becoming nocturnal leads to a strange mental state due to complete exhaustion where nothing is quite what it seems. When he discovers that a house, 13 Wish Road, where he’s had a regular pick-up doesn’t exist, he begins to become obsessed and tries to get back into the zone where it was real. The Nurse tells him, ‘Thirteen is not a number, it’s a state of mind‘. This leads to many strange experiences including meeting the girls of his dreams, but then he starts to ask questions about Thirteen, and just when as he’s starting to come out of his depression, the events in the zone get very bad indeed …

Based on real experience of driving taxis and drawing from the author’s work as a psychotherapist, this is a many layered novel. Unlike many other novels which include experiences in altered states, this one is so skilfully written, you really believe in the dreamworld – it starts off so ordinarily as if it were part of normal life, that by the time you find out about it, you’ve been engaged with it for some time; when things get weirder you’re then drawn with it. Finally, you are left to make up your mind over what ultimately happens to Stephen, but the lack of a finite ending doesn’t jar, just keeps you thinking about what a good book it was.

(10/10) June 2008

NOW: I remember discovering Thirteen via Scott Pack’s blog, (indeed he gets a quote on the front cover of the paperback).  This book and its successor The Juggler were brilliant mucking with your mind books – but I don’t know if Beaumont has written any more like this (he previously wrote several LGBT novels).

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Source: Own copies. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Clear: A Transparent Novel  by Nicola Barker,  4th Estate paperback, 352 pages.
Thirteen by Sebastian Beaumont, Myrmidon Books, paperback 256 pages.

The case of the missing disk…

Acts of Omission by Terry Stiastny

stiastny Thrillers set in the world of modern British politics are not that common compared with those led by the spies who report to the politicians; Acts of Omission is mainly the former. It is the debut novel by a former BBC News reporter who worked in Berlin in the late 1990s and is based upon a true story. There are three main characters:

Mark Lucas, a former television producer, is now a charismatic young minister in the Foreign Office. His office has come into possession of a disk containing the names of British informants to the East German Stasi. The Germans are putting pressure on him to give it to them, but the British diplomatic service would rather not. Visiting Berlin, he is shown the jigsaw operation that is still ongoing to piece together the files that the Stasi shredded when they left.

‘Of course,’ said Ilse quickly. ‘There are people whose whole lives may have been affected by what’s in these sacks of paper. They have a right to know what happened to them, the same as everybody else. It’s not their fault that it’s their files that were destroyed. So it’s our duty to give them that truth back.’

Even if you find our your best friend had informed on you? Even if it compromises national security? These are the dilemmas behind it all, and Mark has to toe the government line in his reply, despite personally being for returning the disk.

The second character is Alex Rutherford. A civil servant – working for the intelligence services in an office based job. The morning after the night before, he wakes up hungover only to realise that his laptop is missing and inside it was the disk – the only copy! He thinks he left it in a taxi home, and sure enough the laptop is in their lost property office, but without the disk.

Thirdly, Anna Travers is a second string journalist on a national newspaper. She gets her big chance when the disk is delivered anonymously, of course, to her paper. Seconded onto the team working on the disk, she has to try and winkle out its secrets and some of them will be difficult to deal with once made public and the right connections made.

Acts of Omission particularly explores the relationships between the government and the press through their front-faces and more murky underbellies. Early on, Anna gets a new boyfriend who works in Downing Street advising the PM and so with her we get taken into Number Ten, the Lobby at Westminster as well as the newsroom. It’s a far cry from door-stepping with by-election candidates in northern towns where Anna starts the novel. Stiastny has obviously put her wealth of experience into making the framework of the novel very credible. Additionally all three leads are very plausible and likeable characters, although Mark is a bit naïve.

The plot twists and turns around the politics and the detective work on the disk. The bureaucracy involved is a little dry at times but authentic and Stiastny manages to keep the suspense going through that to create an enjoyable debut. There’s also room for more novels involving Anna too as her journalistic career begins to fly which would be fun. (8/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Acts of Omission by Terry Stiastny. Pub John Murray 2014, paperback May 2015, 336 pages.

Annabel's Shelves: B is for …

Ballard, J.G. – The Drowned World

ballard drowned worldHaving just read one book set in a dystopian near-future London, when I finally came to choose my ‘B’ book for my Annabel’s Shelves project, I picked another. There was one author and particular title that just leapt out at me. It had to be Ballard – and it had to be The Drowned World – especially as my edition’s cover shows another view of the London skyline. The Drowned World was Ballard’s second novel, published in 1962 – the same year as Rachel Carson’s ground-breaking book about the effect of pesticides The Silent Spring. Ballard had been training as a doctor, but had given up a career path in medicine to become a writer. He had some success in publishing short stories in the late 1950s, before his first novel which was written while he was editor of a science journal.

Dr Robert Kerans is a biologist, part of a scientific survey team working on exploring the flora and fauna of the last cities of a mostly submerged world. The ice-caps have melted and the temperature is soaring driving those that survive ever-poleward as it keeps increasing.

As the sun rose over the lagoon, driving clouds of steam into the great golden pall, Kerans felt the terrible stench of the water-line, the sweet compacted smells of dead vegetation and rotting animal carcasses. Huge flies spin by, bouncing off the wire cage of the cutter, and giant bats raced across the heating water towards their eyries in the ruined buildings. Beautiful and serene from his balcony a few minutes earlier, Kerans realised that the lagoon was nothing more than a garbage-filled swamp.

Kerans lives alone in the air-conditioned luxury of a penthouse in the Ritz hotel. But Colonel Riggs has come to tell him that they’ll be moving out, heading north, in a few days time. Kerans and his colleague Dr Bodkin, need to pack up – and Riggs needs his help to persuade the reclusive Beatrice to come with them. Beatrice is the other last remaining Londoner in this lagoon.

The foetid jungle keeps encroaching, only the insects and reptiles can survive successfully in this world that is de-evolving back towards the Triassic. The coming of the iguanas to London combined with the super-equatorial climate brings insomnia and strange dreams. Riggs’s deputy Hardman goes mad under the pressure, running off southwards into the swamp on a raft – they search but don’t find him.

The question ‘how do you sleep?’ begins to assume a big significance, but Kerans and Bodkin feel strangely at home with this altered state, although Bodkin becomes rather obsessed by his childhood memories of pre-submerged London.

Apart from a few older men such as Bodkin there was no-one who remembered living in them – and even during Bodkin’s childhood the cities had been beleaguered citadels, hemmed in by enormous dykes and disintegrated by panic and despair, reluctant Venices to their marriage with the sea.

When it comes to it, they opt to remain with Beatrice, engineering to be left behind – but not for long. Soon Riggs and his crew are replaced by the white-suited Strangman – a latter-day pirate in a hydroplane with a bask (I looked it up) of crocodiles snapping at his heels. Strangman’s ship follows his arrival, it’s full of raided antiquities. Like a Bond-villain, he has Machavellian plans, and Kerans and Bodkin will have to work with him to work against him to survive.

The Drowned World is certainly a visionary novel. Stylistically, it is a real hybrid – reading like Graham Greene meets Conrad via Ian Fleming with the philosophical realisation of Richard Matheson’s The Incredible Shrinking Man as Kerans accepts his fate. Kerans is a leading man typical of any Graham Greene novel – clever but burned out at forty, yet fit enough to take action. I’ve not read Heart of Darkness, but it seems to me that Kerans could be Conrad’s Marlow and Strangman a pre-illness Kurtz, together with his henchmen? Never mind all the influences, it is an effective literary eco-thriller that manages to explore the human condition at the same time, and I loved it.

The extras in this edition of the novel include an interview and an article by Ballard about the ‘landscapes of childhood’ in his writing – he remembered crocodiles from Shanghai which also used to flood each spring and co-mingled those memories with his present at the time living in London.  Both features are very well-worth reading and it is interesting in the interview that Ballard describes his work as ‘speculative fantasy’ rather than science fiction.  Although Ballard describes the science behind his version of global warming plausibly, he never attributes it with any man-made origins, this was the early 1960s after all.  Ballard’s next novel, The Burning World, revised as The Drought in 1965, takes an opposite stance with water becoming precious due to industrial pollution.

The Drowned World was certainly my kind of ‘speculative fantasy’- I loved it. (9/10)

I must read more Ballard – I’ve only read a couple, (High Rise and Cocaine Nights) so I have plenty more to go – I know I’ll enjoy them.  I note that a movie of High-Rise is due out this summer starring Tom Hiddleston and Jeremy Irons – that’ll be interesting!

Now to my ‘C’ choice – as before I’ve photographed my shelves so those with eagle eyes can help me pick – or just suggest an author (or title) beginning with ‘C’ for me to explore. Thank you to everyone who has been suggesting so far, please know that even if I pick something else, I have thought about your ideas – I do intend to keep going through the alphabet with my TBR, so maybe next time around!

P1020497 (1024x936)

From one dystopia to another …

The Ship by Antonia Honeywell

The shipI’m on a watery/eco-thriller/dystopian reading binge at the moment, set off by picking up this novel – I couldn’t resist the colourful cover with its silhouette of a broken London landscape and a nod to the film Titanic.

It’s the near-future; the world as we know it is broken. Five hundred specially selected people escape the hell of the dystopian society left on land to live on ‘The Ship’ and the alternative nightmare of being on an everlasting cruise.

Apart from having poor sea-legs, the idea of living aboard one of those huge cruise-liners fills me with utter dread – yet people already do! However, you can get off for an excursion … this isn’t the case for The Ship‘s 500.

Fowey 024 (2) (800x417)

‘The World’ moored at Fowey, Cornwall, summer 2010. Gorgeous tiny town with a deep-water harbour that can fit this behemoth!

The story is narrated by Lalage ‘Lalla’ Paul*, who is just turning sixteen. She lives in an apartment in London with her mother and father, although he is often not there. They live entirely within the law of the military government, obeying all the rules imposed on them, but they manage to continue to live well by the standards of others. Lalla’s life is sheltered, totally unlike those of the tent-dwellers in Regent’s Park, or the gangs in the underground. Being outside in London is a dangerous place, the nearby British Museum – whose treasures are a shadow of their former glories, is their only cultural retreat. Lalla tells us about the beginning:

I was seven when the collapse hit Britain. Banks crashed, the power failed, flood defences gave way, and my father paced the flat, strangely elated in the face of my mother’s fear. I was right, he said, over and over again. Wasn’t I right? Weren’t we lucky that we owed nothing to anyone? That we relied on no one beyond our little trio? That we had stores, and bottled water? Oh, the government would regret not listening to him now. … and for months we did not leave the flat.

Lalla’s father, Michael, has been planning his big escape ever since. He bought a cruise-ship, he’s been stocking it with everything needed for at least a generation’s life aboard. He’s been recruiting 500 deserving people with essential skills to take with him and they are waiting in the Holding Centre for the word from him that they’re ready to depart. But’s what’s stopping them from going today? It’s Lalla’s mother who is not sure. When Michael comes home for Lalla’s birthday celebration, he and her mother bicker:

‘How much worse do you want things to get?’
‘If you loved me, you’d stop pushing.’
‘If you loved me, we’ve have gone already.’
‘I love you Michael. I just don’t think you’re right.’
I stood in the doorway, forgetting I wasn’t meant to be listening. … ‘I want to go,’ I said. ‘If the ship is real, I want to go on it.’

They bat Lalla back and forth between them in their argument, but the decision is made when, as her mother moves in front of the window, a sniper shoots her. The ship has a doctor and surgery – it’s time to go.

Poor Lalla, her mother will not survive and she begins her life onboard in a state of profound grief, while her father has 500 disciples to lead. Will Lalla be able to overcome her depression at the death of her mother, will she be able to assimilate into life on the ship, make friends, have a useful life, and, dare I say it – help make the next generation?

The Ship is really a two-hander – an on-going battle between Lalla and Michael. All the other characters, even Tom, a young man Lalla is attracted to, are just props and aren’t really developed more than peripherally. Lalla, however, is irritating, selfish and angry, yet loveable, in the way that only teenagers can be and, although Michael is nominally benevolent and peace-loving, we somehow have to suspect his motives. With Lalla as our narrator, we gain no real sense of his long-term plans.

The biblical imagery abounds – apart from the myriad of obvious references to the book of Genesis – you can pick any prophet and see Michael in him. There are are some neat parallels in the military government enacting the Nazareth Act for instance, and could the 500 have been 5000 to feed? I may be a non-believer, but do love a good bible-story, so I enjoyed spotting all these. The questions remain: Is Lalla the new Eve? Will life ever be bearable for her on board this ark?

The Ship was a hugely enjoyable novel, a scarily prescient vision of the kind of future we could have if it all goes wrong. After the riots of a couple of years ago, somehow, I can imagine Oxford Street burning for three weeks as happens here. The combination of coming of age story with a dystopia and this fascinating setting was a winner for me. Highly recommended. (8.5/10)

* I also couldn’t help wondering, especially as I’ve recently read The Bees (review here), if Lalla was named for The Bees author Laline Paull? She does contribute a cover quote…  (P.S. Antonia told me via twitter that ‘Lalla is named for the baby at end of The French Lieutenant’s Woman and St Paul, rescued from the waves’).

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below (affiliate link):
The Shipby Antonia Honeywell, pub W&N, Feb 2015. Hardback, 320 pages.

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