The Smallest Giant in Town ‘Muncle Trogg’ by Janet Foxley

I picked ‘Muncle Trogg’ up on the off chance, whilst in my local library. Something about it caught my attention. My son had enjoyed [[ASIN:0340999071 How to Train Your Dragon]] and Muncle looked similar, in a hopeless pariah sort of way. I’m so glad I did, for in ‘Muncle Trogg’ Janet Foxley has created an enchanting children’s story.

My son (7) loved it from start to finish, begging for more each night. ‘Why do the chapters have to finish in all the best paces?’ I was asked time and again. It had never occurred to me before that good writing, come bedtime, can be a parenting nightmare. There were times I wished a chapter ended with Muncle doing his homework, rather than careering into the sky on the back of a half-tamed dragon.

The story is simple, but its setting and execution are brilliant. Muncle is a giant, only he hasn’t grown, so he is smaller than all his classmates, and shorter even than all his brother’s classmates. Due to his size he is hopeless at all the important giant school subjects, and with his Gigantia exams looming, the future looks bleak for Muncle.

The giants live on the inside of Mt Crumpitt (Just one of the many excellent names in the book, including King Thortless and Muncle’s teacher Mr Thwackum). They used to live outside, where they ruled, by fear, over the ‘Smallings’. Their superiority ended when Smallings discovered ‘magic’ and invented ‘fire sticks’. What the giants have in size and strength, they lack in intellect. With the exception of Muncle; he’s a small giant with a large brain.

The story is entertaining in the extreme. There are a number of routes I thought it may have taken, but Foxley followed none of them. Muncle overcomes various problems of size, and attempts to understand the mysterious Smallings, often with hilarious consequences. Muncle travels to the Smalling world, takes to the stage, and tries to tame a dragon. He also sits his exams.

‘Muncle Trogg’ is never dull, and makes for great bedtime reading. This is one of the best contemporary children’s novels I’ve had the fortune to share with my son. It’s a story with great heart, that remains positive throughout. We cannot wait to start to read the sequel. In fact, we already have!

Vive La Différence – ‘The Terrible Thing that Happened to Barnaby Brocket’ by John Boyne

‘The Thing That Happened to Barnaby Brocket’, is a fable made in the mould of Roald Dahl. Barnaby is a perfectly pleasant child with deeply unpleasant parents. Their meanness sets Barnaby on an epic journey of self-discovery. The moral of the story – it’s okay to be different.

Barnaby’s parents spend their entire lives trying to be normal. They work in an office, where they are neat tidy and uncomplaining. They do nothing to draw attention to themselves and find those who do vulgar. Their first two children are wonderfully normal. Barnaby their third, is not. He disobeys the laws of gravity, floating off unless tied down.

Boyne’s prose is whimsical, his story surreal. It’s entertaining but serious, scary yet safe. Barnaby’s parents cannot cope with his condition, and prevent Barnaby from leaving the house. When it’s time to send Barnaby to school, instead of sending him to the local school with his siblings, they pack him off to the school from Matilda (which Boyne appears to have imported wholesale.)

When Barnaby inadvertently gains fame and notoriety, his parents lose the plot completely and simply let him go. The adventures begin. Barnaby embarks on a crazy journey across the globe, careering from one caper to the next. Pretty much every episode in the book contains somebody who has been ostracised for not being normal; for not conforming to their parents wishes. There are two things to be drawn from the book. For children, be who you want to be. For parents this is a cautionary tale; don’t make your children in your own image.

The message is repeated too often and over-simplified to work as true cross-over fiction. It is simply an entertaining children’s story. Large parts of the novel are set in Australia, predominantly Sydney, which may make the story less accessible for UK readers. I think it could have been set somewhere non-specific, without losing anything. Indeed, I think Boyne overuses place names in the setting of his scenes. Talking about The Rocks, Kirribilli & Circular Quay, is wonderfully evocative if you been there, but without context, loses something if you haven’t.

Still, this is a minor gripe because like Dahl, Boyne has written a yarn that will delight his readers. Barnaby is a likeable character, whose scrapes draw you along at breakneck speed. The pace never flags, and it’s surprising the number of ways in which you can be expected to conform. My initial impression of the end was that it was unsatisfactory, but on further reflection, it is an appropriate one. Whilst Boyne doesn’t deliver the happy ending we might have wanted, to do so would have undermined the book’s message. Congratulations to Mr Boyne for not taking the popular path. An excellent gift for your nieces and nephews, I can see Barnaby Brocket being popular with young readers for many years to come.

The Knave of Glass – ‘Jack Glass’ by Adam Roberts

Many moons ago I read only books set in made-up lands. There had to be swords and magic; funny names and green skin were also welcome. I tried to branch out; funny names and green skins, now on made up planets. But spaceships and laser guns didn’t do it for me. To be honest I found them a bit silly.

One day all that changed. I read Ursula le Guin’s ‘The Dispossessed’. Here was something I hadn’t encountered before; a book that was more than just setting and action. Fiction that was less about the science and more about, well, real life. It was the first time I noticed science fiction being used as a lens to examine our world. Reading ‘Jack Glass’ reminded me of reading Le Guin for the first time. The books are nothing alike in style or story, but for depth and quality they match perfectly.

Adam Roberts is an author I have been aware of for a long time, yet never managed to read. Each time he published a book I’d look at it, think ‘that looks really interesting’ and then put it back down again. The notable exception to this isYellow Blue Tibia, because frankly, if anybody has the chutzpah to use that as a title, their book deserves to be read. Yet despite enjoying YBT, I still hadn’t read another Roberts book. Until now. The premise of this book and its gorgeous cover (one of the finest I’ve ever seen) catapulted ‘Jack Glass’ up my ever increasing to-be-read pile.

From from start to finish ‘Jack Glass’ is a joy to read. It is, in essence, a whodunit in three acts. Set in space. The plot is wonderful; strong, plausible and rich in scientific speculation. There are any number of twists and misdirections, none of which feel forced or false. Roberts’ prose is evocative and playful. His descriptions of setting, character and emotion are pitch perfect. Characterisation is strong; Jack Glass – mass murderer, is a delighfully erudite antihero, sure to become a fan’s favourite.

All this would be enough to recommend the book, yet there is more. The story unfolds against a backdrop of tyranny. The solar system is run by a hierarchy of oligarchs. Power and profit are put above all else. The most expendable resource in the solar system? People. In what is thinly veiled analogy of global big business, Roberts uses his novel to dissect consumerism and how those in power stack the deck to protect themselves. In Roberts’ novel there is a huge underclass. Their plight forms a serious counterpoint to the lighter nature of his sci-fi/crime mash up.

‘Jack Glass’ is a delight from beginning to end. It contains three intertwined locked room mysteries, which, combined with some elegant science, create a series of puzzles that can’t help but intrigue inquisitive readers. Roberts’ solutions don’t disappoint and combining this with a strong social and moral examination of corporate power, he has written an entertaining novel that delivers on every level. Roberts is one of contemporary science fiction’s preeminent writers, and this book sees him at the top his game. A classic in waiting.

Who Stole the end? – ‘The Thief’ by Fuminori Nakamura

I don’t know if it’s supposed to a clever postmodernist twist, but somebody seems to have stolen the ending of ‘The Thief’. The story is a first person narrative, and whilst the novel’s conclusion doesn’t quite break the number one rule of first person narratives, it ends in such a way to leave the reader bewildered as to how the story could ever have come be told. It’s an open end, but not in a good way. It’s open in a ‘why did you bother to tell the story, if you were going to leave it like that?’ way.

It’s a shame as the rest of the book is pretty good. The Thief is the the third Japanese crime novel I’ve read, and they all have a similar narrative style. Pared down prose, and unsensational storytelling that focuses on the frustrating details of life. None of them have felt particularly Japanese, and I suspect if names hade been changed I could happily have believed the story to be set in the US, UK or perhaps if you could imagine such a thing, Scandanavia. Some may consider this lack of a sense of place a drawback. I don’t particularly mind, as long as the story is strong.

Our narrator is a pickpocket, and his tale makes his crimes feel like magic. He’s a loner. He steals for money, he steals for fun, he steals for revenge. He even steals without realising it. The novel has a metaphysical thread running through it. The Thief occasionally narrates otherworldly events, that could not happen, yet he seems totally convinced of. These episodes combined with the spare prose, reminded me of James Sallis’, The Killer is Dying

The central story is old, but well told. The Thief is pulled into something bigger than he can handle. Something with political and gangster connections. He cannot escape the destiny mapped out for him. Despite the thief’s desire for isolation, he has one meaningful relationship in the world, and it is through this that the gangsters control him.

The Thief poses interesting questions about destiny and fate, and shows the perils of both forming emotional attachments and the futility of living life without them. The book is readable, but ultimately lightweight. It certainly isn’t a patch on The Devotion Of Suspect X a book I consider to be one of the finest crime novels written in the last decade. Nakamura has created an interesting, conflicted narrator, but his story fails delivers on its promise.

Murder by Numbers – ‘The Devotion of Suspect X’ by Keigo Higashino

This review first appeared on Amazon.co.uk on 21st Aug 2011

Fed up with gritty realism? Had enough of alcoholic detectives with enigmatic names? Bored by ever more elaborate and gruesome serial murders? Then look no further, this is the book you have been waiting for. I like crime fiction, but let’s be honest, it’s pretty formulaic. This of course is partly why I like it. I like to be able to sit down with a Wallander or a Bosch novel and know pretty much what I’m going to get. For ‘TDOSX’ I had no expectations, and that in itself was a breath of fresh air.

The novel opens in a quiet Tokyo suburb, where Yasuko works in take-away lunch shop. We soon learn she has a violent ex-husband, who has managed to track her down. They argue, and he ends up dead. What is Yasuko going to do? Just as she is contemplating spending the rest of her life behind bars, a knock comes at the door. It is her quiet neighbour Ishigami, a high school teacher, and also a maths genius, who conveniently has a crush on Yasuko. ‘Don’t worry,’ he says ‘I will take care of everything.’

The reader knows about the murder and who did it almost from the outset. What we don’t know is how Ishigami intends to protect Yasuko. Kusanagi, the detective investigating the murder is an old hand, tenacious and thorough in his investigative technique. He, conveniently, has a friend, Yukawa who is a physics lecturer and also a genius. In a third piece of convenient plotting Yukawa and Ishigami were acquaintances at university. There then follows an intriguing and utterly compelling game of cat and mouse, as two towering intellects attempt to outwit one another.

The premise of this novel is strong, and although some of the connections between its characters are a little contrived, as a thriller it works on every level. It starts by twisting the genre through 180 degrees. You desperately don’t want the killer to be found; hope for the police not to catch their man. The false trail laid be Ishigami is almost flawless, yet Yukawa and Kusanagi find teasing inconsistencies, that they tug at until they reveal more of the real picture. Then when a suitor approaches Yukawa, how will her saviour react? This development adds a further psychological depth to the novel. It’s wonderful.

I found myself unable to put this novel down. There are no explosions, no chain of dead bodies, no mysterious cyphers, just a brilliantly constructed plot, a masterclass in logical thinking, all told by a consummate storyteller. I haven’t read as good a crime novel in many a year.

Jews with Swords – ‘Gentlemen of the Road’ by Michael Chabon

Michael Chabon is a writer with serious literary pretentions, yet his works have a certain pop-culture geekiness to them. Kavalier & Clay is steeped in early comic book history, the The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a hard boiled crime noir set in a counter factual universe. Both novels have their playful side but they are serious at heart. GofTR is the opposite. Whilst it does have some serious elements, this is an entertaining swashbuckling swords and sandals adventure story.

One other common theme throughout Chabon’s writing is his use of language. He is a man not afraid to use twenty words where one would do. He’s also happy to throw in an obscure word or ten. Sometimes he reads like a master prose stylist, with complete command of the English language and at other times he reads like a pretentious twat. The percentage amount of each probably depends on the individual reader. I mostly loved it. Complicated though the language is, it’s filled with wit and mostly a joy to read.

The story is a boy’s own adventure. Sword-fights, swindles and disguises, rogues, armies and pirates all play their part. The cast of characters is strong. The two central players are men of malleable morals, yet despite their better judgement always seem to do the right thing. The book is dedicated to Michael Moorcock, and one of the protagonists could be an incarnation of Moorcock’s eternal champion.

The novel explores some of history’s less travelled backwaters. The Khazar state was a rare thing; a society where different religions lived alongside one another, and even fought in the army together. Though Khazar life was rough and often short, it is unmistakable from Chabon’s treatment of the period, that he considers it superior to the way the world currently tolerates religious differences.

As with many Chabon novels Jewishness is at the heart of Gentlemen of the Road. In an afterward Chabon says his working title was ‘Jews with Swords’, but nobody could take it seriously. They found idea of Jews slinging swords was absurd. In this book it’s Jewish characters are hard dealers of death and inured to fear. Far cry from a stereotypical New York Jew, as portrayed by Hollywood.

Gentlemen of the Road harks back to an earlier age of adventure storytelling. Whilst Chabon occasionally tries the reader with over elaborate vocabulary, it is an entertaining yarn, which at just over two hundred pages never outstays it’s welcome.

They are the Champions – ‘Gold Rush’ by Michael Johnson

With Great Britain taking three golds in the Olympic Stadium this weekend, there could hardly have been a better time to be reading Michael Johnson’s Gold Rush. As one the greatest Olympians of all time he is ideally placed to offer an insight into what makes an Olympic champion.  The short answer is talent and hard work.

For this book Johnson draws on his own experience and interviews with other great Olympic gold medallists.  Usain Bolt, Nadia Commenic and Ian Thorpe all contribute, as do British legends Chris Hoy, Steve Redgrave and Rebecca Addlington.

Perhaps the best thing about ‘Gold Rush’, is that as you read, you can hear Johnson’s authoritative baritone telling you his experiences. The calm and unsensational delivery that makes him such an assured pundit on television, sets the tone for the book.  Johnson is a man who knows about being an elite athlete.  The book’s opening chapters deal mainly with Johnson’s early career and the trials and tribulations up until he won double gold in Atlanta. After that he goes on to talk about remaining focused, coping with the pressures of fame and the temptations of performance enhancing substances (and his abhorrence of them).

The book does have a flaw, and it’s one that mirrors elite sport.  It’s repetitive.  Much as athlete training consists of endless repeats of training routines, Johnson’s book repeats the same mantras over and over again.  Focus, strategy, execute, these words turn up again and again.  We hear endlessly about Michael’s training programmes, and frankly they are only interesting to read about once.  Everybody knows that reaching the pinnacle of a sport is about so much more than talent these days; we’ve all seen the video montages of rowers exhaling their own lungs as they prepare for the games. Repetition is the nature of the beast and Johnson can be forgiven for falling victim to it in his book.  Less forgivable is his continual mentioning of his company Michael Johnson Performance.  It all starts to sound like a desperate plug.

It’s probably my personality type, but I found the human elements of the book to be the most satisfying. The chapters on cheating and fame are strong, probably because Michael is so passionate about them. All in all this is an interesting book.  It details the sheer volume of preparation that goes into competing for an Olympic Medal (for example Michael had two different hotels booked during the Sydney games) and the lengths athletes go to to make sure everything is right.

At a time when we are being wowed by superlative performances in every Olympic event, Johnson’s book is a timely reminder of the hard work and commitment that goes into every single one.  There is little in this book that will shock or surprise you, but it is a passionate yet understated appraisal of what makes an Olympian.