Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Hard Luck

Title: Hard Luck

Author: James Maw

Year of publication: 1986, Grafton edition 1988

Back cover blurb: '"Hard Luck by James Maw is the extremely funny and touching, sentimental history of two boys growing up on a new town council estate called Prospect in post-war Britain; class, poverty, domestic violence, well-meaning idiocy and welfare bureaucracy are accurately flayed through the experiences of the endearing and astonishingly well sustained voice of one of their child victims... Dickensian satire and genuine affection... pure pleasure... take it on holiday and be grateful for mercies given"

For Tom and Richard, the Prospect estate is a territory to be explored and taken over.  For their parents - doting Ellen and not-so-doting Frank - the estate is a brave new world (even if the underground pipes and valves don't work as smoothly as anticipated).  Yes, times are changing; there's cuddly blue Winceyette instead of linen, and brightly coloured modern things instead of old fashioned junk.  There's television, with fascinating programmes like "Criss Cross Quiz" and the "Dickie Henderson Show" (and Kennedy's assassination).  But while nearly everyone is supposed to be having it good like never before, life for Tom and Richard isn't so easy.  Their parents divorce and the twins go into the Crab Apple Home when Ellen ends up in hospital.  Then there's the 11-plus...
   Hard Luck is a brilliantly evocative novel - as colourful and unique as Oliver Twist and Huckleberry Finn.

'The kind of detail that evokes an era'

Status: Abandoned p. 102

Reading reveals: Here in my final entry before I hand over this blog to the masses, I am looking at a book from the inner borders of lostness.  Hard Luck was well-reviewed when it came out in 1986, as attested above, and even won an award and shit, so why has it already slipped away from the collective book-reading memory?
  On one level, it seems an injustice.  The book is funny and well-observed. Detailing the experiences of growing up in a New Town in the late '50s, early '60s, it consists of a series of working class set-pieces, in which Christmas trees are stolen and pubs are waited outside of and that sort of thing,  And yet, I stopped reading.  I suppose the lack of a strong narrative thread wore me down.  There are only so many tales of poverty line-level cheekiness you can absorb before you want something more.
  Also, there's an assuredness to the book's belief in its own loveability that jars now.  It's all a bit too cosy, even when detailing child neglect and domestic violence.  That and the fact it makes so little use of its main characters being twins they may as well have just be one character most of the time.
  For all that, the fact that someone in their late-twenties would write a book so nostalgic for the era of their own childhood, presenting it as a distant world gone forever, is quite fascinating, You couldn't imagine someone wanting to do quite the same thing now. (Although I sort of did in my second novel Flying Saucer Rock & Roll, but moving swiftly on...)  It seems to be the thing to do here because of the series of fractures between the early '60s and the mid '80s (the Sexual Revolution, punk, Thatcherism) that made the recent past feel a very long time ago back then. I remember being dazzled by old episodes of Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), and they were only fifteen years old back then.  Late '90s A Touch of Frost doesn't have quite the same disconnect.
  So, Hard Luck, possibly over-praised at the time, but still worth a look.

Random paragraph: 'But after a few weeks Frank tired of the scotch eggs.  "Oh no, not another blinkin' scotch egg," he'd yell as he sat down at the table.'


Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Jack in the Box

Title: Jack in the Box

Author: William Kotzwinkle

Date of publication: 1980, Abacus edition 1981

Back cover blurb: 'Can a young man from a small mining town find happiness as a human being? Can Jack Twiller, his mind warped by Masked Man, Tailspin, Tommy and Secret Agent X-9, ever abandon the comic book heroes of his youth and find true maturity?  Does he even want to?
   A hilarious odyssey through American comic-book culture of the 40s, Jack's story is witty, nostalgic and real.  In this brilliant and original novel William Kotzwinkle confirms his reputation as one of the most exciting of the younger generation of American writers.'

Status: Completed

Reading reveals: Last entry I made an attempt to read the irredeemably awful E.T. The Book of the Green Planet.  Despite the book's startling lack of merit, I was nevertheless curious as to how established author Kotzwinkle got the E.T. gig, and so read one of his earlier works.  Although he is generally a fantasy/sci-fi writer, Jack in the Box is a coming-of-age tale, and weirdly enough it's very good indeed.
   Each chapter moving on the narrative with a jump of months or years, the passing time unacknowledged in the text, Kotzwinkle manages to convincingly capture the various states of mind from child to adolescent, as his young protagonist Jack Twiller grows from playing cowboy games in the street on to drunken house parties as a rock 'n' roll greaser.  There's one particular moment that captures the first stage in the death of childhood, where Twiller finds he can no longer play, that is one of the truest things I have read in fiction for a very long time.  There's also a scout camp from Hell, and confusion about the manliness of vomiting that pre-dates Alan Partridge,
   You can see why Spielberg sought him out.  Both have an intense understanding of childhood and its joys and fears.  Shame that the meeting of minds didn't work out better.

Random paragraph: 'They went straight to the place where Spider had been going up and down on Nancy. Crutch stared at the sandy grass. "I thought you had to do it on a flat rock."'


Monday, 1 September 2014

E.T. The Book of the Green Planet

Title: E.T. The Book of the Green Planet

Author: William Kotzwinkle

Year of publication: 1985

   E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial in his adventure on Earth captured the hearts of tens of millions, becoming a cult classic.  This new story begins where the film ended, as E.T.'s ships is rising into the heavens.
   In his wonderful new adventure, E.T. goes home to his beloved Green Planet, filled with strange and fascinating creatures.  But he's lonely.  E.T. misses Elliott and the good days on Earth... living in a closet, drinking beer, and wearing a wig.
   Here is the story of how E.T. solves his problem...'

Status: Abandoned p. 34

Reading reveals: Hard to imagine now, but established author William Kotzwinkle's novelization of Steven Spielberg's E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial was the biggest-selling novel of 1982 in the US.  Spielberg was so impressed by Kotzwinkle's take on the story, complete with the dubious addition of E.T. falling in love and lust with Elliott's mom, he gave him the task of puffing out his own vague ideas for a sequel into an original novel.
  I actually purchased this when about nine years old.  I don't think I ever finished it.  I remember being overwhelmed by the task of trying to picture what was described, as E.T. returns to his home planet and encounters all sorts of strange life-forms in mind-blowing environments.
   Still, the book haunted me.  Would reading as an adult be a more fruitful experience, my mature mind more up to the challenge laid down by the text?
   The answer is no.  It is dreadful.  The human characters, whose day-to-day lives E.T. clumsily interrupts with telepathic messages, bear virtually no relation to their movie counterparts, while the alien creatures E.T. hangs out with, actually giant sentient plants, are called things like Jumpums, Flopglopples and Beeperbeans and are as irritating as their names suggest.
  My nine year-old self was right to give up on this.  You should listen to him.  But please first purchase the book via the link provided below as I get a percentage.

Random paragraph: 'The youthful creature was tending a crop of legumes called Igios Atra, or as they were more affectionately known - Beeperbeans, which gave off a sharp beeping sound when their blossoms opened.  As it was springtime, there was considerable beeping going on, and the worker had corks in his ears.'