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Books Editorial

telegraph-avenue.jpg November 12 Book Reviews
 

Telegraph Avenue

Michael Chabon, Fourth Estate, £18.99

Chabon manoeuvres his maximalist style onto Jonathan Franzen territory with this doorstopper of a novel, set in the mid-noughties, which takes place in and around Oakland, California, but principally a record store stocking old jazz, soul and funk music. It’s co-owned by Archy Stallings (black) and Nat Jaffe (white) but is under threat of closure due to the proposed opening of a nearby mega-store by Gibson Goode “The 5th richest black man in America”. The author also draws us into the lives of Gwen and Aviva - spouses of Archy and Nat, who operate a business of their own (midwifery) - as well as the regular frequenters, nefarious and otherwise, of the record shop. Chabon, as ever, writes whiz-bang sentences that are the literary equivalent of overstuffed tacos (his pop cultural similes providing the heat) and his handling of the Tom Wolfe-esque back-story - tying together blaxploitation film stars of the 70s, a Black Panther “hit”, and political corruption - is woven through the story with typical adroitness. Warm, funny and elegiac, this is Chabon at his most humane. RM

Disturbing Bedtime Tales For Very Bad People

Dean Wilkinson, 6e Publishing, £4.99

This slim volume of short stories (and a few poems) reads like a cross between Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Tales of the Unexpected, but told with the potty mouth of Viz comic. The result is one of the most puerile things I’ve read since I last scanned the back of a toilet door in a Bigg Market pub. This is not a criticism however, as the author obviously set out to stuff his lusty tales with lashings of vulgarity, a task in which he succeeds with something to spare. What I felt more uncomfortable with was the tiresome tilting at political correctness: “[Death will] get you in the end. It doesn’t matter if it’s a blocked heart valve caused by stress, or a stabby immigrant on a thousand pounds a week benefit”. Not funny and straight out of the Daily Mail Book of Hate. That said, the stories are well constructed and told with an obvious knowledge of the genre, and, if you’re a Very Bad Person, you may find something to warm your soul here. RM

Ocellus

Andrew McEwan, FeedARead.com, £8.99

This is not a handsome book. From the stretched cover image (ugh!) to the slightly clunky typeface, it’s never going to win any beauty contests, but the contents within have a lofty ambition which, while not wholly successful, can only be applauded. It’s a time-travelling tale set in Newcastle and skips back and forward from Roman times to the present day and populated by well known locals such as Stephenson, Collingwood, Bewick and Swan. And although there are many fascinating tales that truly delight, there is also a palpable lack of narrative propulsion. Some of the sentences also need unpacking, such as: “Some years before Alan Price opened a bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale on a piano in the presence of Bob Dylan, touring at the time, just having played the City Hall, Hilton Valentine, future mechanic, sat picking at guitar strings and smoking cigarettes in the back room of the Dun Cow, himself and one Bryan Chandler at odds over chords and whose round it was, Price late as ever, Steel and Burdon playing darts”. Is the author aiming for a Joycean style, or is the grammar here as stretched as the cover image? RM

The First English Revolution: Simon de Montfort, Henry III and the Barons’ War

Adrian Jobson, Continuum, £30

Simon de Montfort, the leader of the English barons, became the first man to seize power from a reigning English monarch when he defeated the forces of Henry III at the battle of Lewes in 1264 (and took Henry prisoner) becoming, by default, the first non-anointed ruler of the country and the closest England came to the complete abolition of the monarchy until Oliver Cromwell had a dabble nearly 400 years hence. De Montfort would go on to form the first English parliament which featured elected representatives, but (SPOILERS!) he was killed at battle of Evesham in 1265 and his gains were reversed. Jobson doesn’t go in for a flowery prose style (he never imagines the king sweeping along dimly lit corridors scattering minions in his wake) which may disappoint those who like their medieval history to have a little juice in it, but his focusing on the facts pays dividends for those who wish to learn about this often overlooked period in English history. RM

The Daylight Gate

Jeanette Winterson, Hammer, £9.99

Well here’s a delicious combination that I never thought would come off: The Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit author penning a thoughtful and thickly evocative slice of grand guignol for the Hammer Horror publishing imprint. It concerns the real-life events surrounding the Pendle witch trials (exactly 400 years ago) and from the opening sentences (“The North is the dark place. It can be subdued but it cannot be tamed. Lancashire is the wild part of the untamed”) I was gripped. It’s a grimly seductive tale in which Winterson doesn’t refute the allegations of mysticism (and indeed has some of the women practising magic by means of dismembered heads and the like) but in a society so riddled with patriarchy, we’re left with the impression that these women would do anything to cling to whatever power that they can find, even if it proves illusory. The real revulsion arises from their treatment which includes being locked away and tortured for weeks on end in dismal dungeons. Told with great verve and economy, this is Horrible Histories that grown-ups can get really their teeth in to. RM