Monday, 28 April 2014

“Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.”

With a new film in production, with Tom Hiddleston and director Ben Wheatley, and the Tate Britain exploring the enigma of ruined architecture, in current show Ruin Lust, this is the perfect time to pick up a copy of JG Ballard's 1975 sci-fi gem Highrise.

In the novel Ballard imagines a scenario in which society, in this case within the microcosm of a luxury Highrise development, completely breaks down. What begin as minor malfunctions such as faulty lifts and waste disposal systems soon escalate to life threatening events as the inhabitants turn feral within the luxury carpeted halls. Social order is literally thrown from the high rise balconies as a new dystopian order seeps through the concrete structure of the vertical city. 

The story centres on 3 key characters who neatly represent the social worlds that exist within the complex. On one of the lower proletariat floors is Laing, a lecturer who we meet early on in the novel roasting an Alsatian on a pyre of yellow pages. Higher up lives TV producer and social climber Wilder. On one of the upper floors is Royal, architect, urbanist and idealist.

The work is at its best when the boundaries blur between the social strata creating an anti-society no-mans land. Ballard allows us to experience this through the eyes of the three main protagonists effectively. This wouldn't have worked as well told through one single view point.

The challenge with the novel is to recognise that this is essentially a period piece. Much has changed since 1975 and the book is markedly void of digital interference.

A great read with a unforgettable first opening sentence that will hook you in whether browsing in the library/bookshop or trying a kindle sample. Your perfect hit of post-apocolyptic mayhem.

More about the film adaptation here

More about Tate Britain's show here

Tweet @wordsshortlist if you're planning to read

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Always read the small print...

Robert Glancy's debut novel proves that the devil is indeed in the detail, in this case within the small print. We meet Frank Shaw whose job, on the bottom most rung of the corporate ladder, is to compile the terms and conditions (the bit nobody reads)in contracts compiled by his family law firm.

Following a near fatal car crash Frank pieces together his life from fragments of memories using his meticulous attention to detail. By appraising the rules of life through different 'terms and conditions' Frank discovers more about his former life than he ever understood before his amnesia.

1. Frank hates his job
2. Frank is suspicious of his wife
3. Frank wasn't the happy chappy everyone tells him he was

The novel is initially tricky to get into. Each chapter includes foot notes which feel more like an academic paper than a work of fiction however, a quarter of the way in to the book this feels natural as we get to know Frank, the narrator. What begins as an unusual quirk soon becomes an valid device which provides a handy and concise way to develop characters and plot lines. 

Interesting characters include Alice, Frank's wife and author of a seminal business book who struggles to understand the boundaries between real life and a self help seminar. Also Malc, Frank's brother whose emails from Thailand often go unanswered. 

The novel is at its best when Frank begins to understand the small print of his own life. Firstly challenging the point of his his career by unleashing 'corporate graffiti' in the small print of some pretty serious contracts. Secondly as he begins to unravel the deceit close to home. Original and compelling stuff.

The only unanswered question is why Frank ever accepted the status quo before his accident. A sobering prospect that it took a serious car crash for Frank to get a grip on life! 

Terms and conditions is a disappointing read that's slow burning, formulaic and predictable*

* Disclaimer: Of course, none of this is true, Terms and conditions is a great read! 

What the critics said...

This tale of a lawyer losing his grip on reality is original, very funny and very poignant. Read it! (Paul Torday, author of Salmon Fishing in the Yemen)

It's wonderful. Funny, poignant, simple and profound - it's the kind of book I absolutely love. And it has the best ending I've read in a very long time (Gavin Extence, author of The Universe Versus Alex Woods)

Sunday, 13 April 2014

With the announcement this month of the long awaited new novel from Kazuo Ishiguro now is the perfect time to re-discover Never Let Me Go the million selling novel from 2005.

Both of Ishiguro's most successful novels, The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, have made the transition to the big screen but to only experience these works on film is to miss the subtlety of one of the best writers working in Britain today.

Never Let Me Go is an intense coming of age drama set in a seemingly near perfect boarding school. In the first part we meet the three lead characters, Kathy, Ruth and Tommy at a school environment in which health and well being dominate the curriculum. 

Through the nuances of their teachers, know as 'guardians' we discover that the story is actually set in a near future, anti-utopian, vision of England. Science-fiction, not really, this dystopian future is only slightly removed from a world we recognise which is what makes the second and third parts of the book so compelling.

From adult hood to life as a 'donor' Ishiguro weaves a story of love and loss that is about as unforgettable as fiction can get. Brilliant writing, ingenious narrative and thought provoking morality will keep you reading all night.

Never Let Me Go is a classic book club choice but, now that almost 10 years have elapsed since initial publication, the furore has died down allowing more room for the story.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

The April shortlist.....

Look out for weekly blog posts here about these great titles over the next few weeks

Terms and Conditions -  Robert Glancy (Bloomsbury)

High-Rise - J.G. Ballard (Flamingo Modern Classics)

Never Let Me Go - Kazuo Ishiguro (Faber and Faber)

Read more this April!