Tag Archives: British fiction

War Crimes for the Home: Liz Jensen

“White blouse and a pink skirt, I’m wearing with a roll-on underneath and my best undies just in case I do turn out to be loose”

I came across Liz Jensen’s book: War Crimes for the Home by pure chance, and attracted to the cover, perversely reminiscent of J. Howard Miller’s WWII war poster,  I bought a copy.

we can do it

And here’s the cover of Jensen’s book:

war crimes

While the ‘We Can Do It’ poster implies female strength and determination geared towards the war effort, War Crimes for the Home shows a WWII era female factory worker applying makeup. It’s a subversive image, and it’s a portent of what’s inside the covers.

The story is narrated by the elderly, demented wheelchair bound Gloria, who finds herself, following an unspecified operation on her duodenum, parked at an “old folk’s home” called Sea View. You can’t really blame Gloria’s family for leaving her there. Her only son, Hank, works on oil rigs and is gone half the time, and there’s a long standing feud between Gloria and her daughter-in-law, Karen. According to foul-mouthed Gloria, who refuses to call Karen by her name, her daughter in law is a “crap mum,” and has a lover, who “comes and gives it to her every Thursday.”  To make her point, Gloria periodically demands a DNA test to prove the paternity of her grandson, Calum.

Gloria claims her memory is ‘like a sieve,’ and she uses her old age and her various infirmities as a refuge from accountability and her son’s probes into her past. Gloria is a tough old bird, but she’s definitely fading, and after the death of fellow resident, “half-dead old drooler,” Doris, Gloria lingers in a place between the dead and the living, memories of a murky past and a present in which she protects herself by vulgarity, dementia (which Gloria uses as a weapon) and uncouth jokes.

Gloria’s mind jumps from the past to the present, and WWII finds Gloria and her older sister Marje working in a Bristol munitions factory. They were originally a cockney family who moved to Bristol, but “things got buggered,” and now the two sisters live alone and are running wild following the death of their mother from cancer and with their father missing in Singapore. Marje has a fiancé, British airman Bobby, and then Gloria meets Ron, an American GI from Chicago.

Several big questions loom over Gloria’s spotty version of the past. What is the significance of The Great Zedorro and the Slut Fairy? Why is she haunted by images of a little girl, “dripping water and pond-weed” ? Did Gloria ever go to America? Here’s a conversation Gloria has with Doris:

-Hank?

-My son. American connections. Chicago. The windy city. I always said to Hank, if you shut your eyes, you’ll remember it. Skyscrapers and blueberry muffins and all that. I call him Hank from those days, it’s what his dad would have called him, it’s what Americans call their children.

-How long were you there? she goes.

-What, Bristol?

-America.

-Never been there.

-What?

-Seen it on TV, Chicago and that. I had a GI boyfriend once. He fought in Tunisia and then he bombed Germany. Had a big scar on his thigh from shrapnel.

Doris looks at me.

-One Yank, she says. -Remember that? One Yank and they’re off.

Gloria is a fascinating character–fascinating because she uses her old age and dementia as both a shield and a weapon. She can be as rude and as crude as she wants, and then when her son Hank tries to pin her on her past, Gloria submerges herself in her various diagnoses. Here’s Gloria’s daughter-in-law Karen visiting with a present:

-Are you going to have a look then, Gloria?

The bag’s made of fake silk which is red and Chinesey. There’s stones in it.

-Semi-precious, she says.-Healing stones, they’re the latest thing. I’ve ordered some for the shop. You hold them in your palm and they calm your mind. Re-energise you. I’m so glad you settled in. It’s a lovely home, isn’t it? Nice carers, lovely view–

-Do I look like I need bloody sodding stuffing blinking re-energizing? It comes out loud, louder than I thought I could shout, because the blood’s rushing about now. No stopping it. -Handful of bloody pebbles is all they are, look! Load of old rubbish!

I’ve chucked the lot at the window, and it splits across with a big crack. Then all the air from the outside is whoosing in, it smells of frankfurters from the harbor, there’s a van does them.

-Healing my arse. Healing, my flaming arse.

Next thing the little pregnant nurse is on the scene saying

-Calm down, please Gloria, all she do, she come give you nice present, you go break window! I tell Mrs M!

Calum starts screaming the place down like a spoilt brat. If there’s one thing I hate it’s a baby.

On some level, Gloria as sharp as ever; she knows how to wound people and always scores a direct hit, but then occasionally she bumps into a disturbing memory and verves off. Gloria’s family members want her to give them the truth about the past before she dies, but she fights her memories of life during WWII,  a time when the men are out there fighting the war, but at the home, the enemy takes a very different shape, and the women are left to fight their own battles for survival.

While War Crimes for the Home is a story about memory, on another level entirely, this is a story about aging. We are expected to engage in age-appropriate behaviour and Gloria who is, above all, a non-comformist is fighting against being scripted as the ‘little old lady.’ No wonder she strikes up a relationship with fellow resident “dirty old monkey,” Ed who gropes the nurses and plays with himself in public.

-That old boy she’s seeing to, I tell him, name of Ed Mayberley, he’s pushing ninety, he was a POW in Japan like Dad. He can’t keep his hands to himself, he can’t. Yesterday I saw him grabbing one of the foreign girls. She nearly screams the place down and slaps him. It’s abuse that. Someone should report her.

We all inhabit roles in this life, but as we age the roles narrow, and yet people’s characters don’t fundamentally change.  How often do we see our parents as individuals who have loved and lusted? Parents are advised to let their children be individuals and find their own paths in life, but does this advice trickle up the generations? Gloria refuses to be pigeonholed by her relatives and that’s part of the problem here. The elderly residents of Sea View who are frequently treated like children are fighting back against these rigidly prescribed roles with bad behaviour that’s cloaked by “Mad Cow,” dementia and age.

War Crimes for the Home will make my best-of-year list. It’s funny, touching, and original. This book comes recommended for fans of Beryl Bainbridge.

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The Ted Dreams: Fay Weldon

“My life seems full of husbands who suggest I ‘see someone’, when all that happens is I see something others don’t.”

Fay Weldon’s novella, The Ted Dreams begins with an unforgettable sentence: “It was the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring… except a clot of blood, creeping up from Ted’s leg to his brain, to kill him as he slept…”

the ted dreams.jpg

Phyllis was married, rather miserably, to art gallery owner Ted for twenty years when he died, unexpectedly, in bed one night. When Fay Weldon’s wonderfully funny book, The Ted Dreams opens, Phyllis is remarried to Robbie, an American neuro-pharma-scientist after an indecent interval of just ten months of widowhood. Phyllis was warned by her grief therapist not to “embark on a relationship,” but arguing that “a good man is hard to find” and that “they don’t just hang about on trees like ripe fruit waiting to be plucked,” Phyllis plunges ahead into matrimony once again. Phyllis is now happily married to Robbie, getting plenty of sex, and marriage to Ted with its many problems is buried in the past. Of course, it’s just possible that Phyllis’s bovine contentment could be explained by the pills she’s given by Robbie to fix those “hormonal issues.”And since Robbie has a top-secret job at Portal Inc. where he works on psychotropic drugs, he’s in a perfect position to provide her with all the experimental mood-altering drugs needed to keep her happy and content.

Phyllis remembers that Ted used to complain about her moods: ” ‘I know it’s your hormones’ was all Ted would say, thus maddening me the more. ‘ I just sit it out.’ ”  But Robbie takes his work home. “One little pink pill night and morning,” and Phyllis is  “generally benign and tranquil.”

But since this is a Fay Weldon novel, fans know that domestic bliss is a mere façade, and behind Phyllis and Robbie’s seeming domestic bliss lie some ugly dark truths. The first crack in Phyllis’s happiness is a result of all the Ted dreams she has. In Phyllis’s dreams,  Ted “grown no older, just a bit sadder and recently more resentful” appears to be stuck in a dark wood, and in the latest dream she sees him brushing off mud from a shoe. What a nasty shock, then, when Phyllis wakes up and discovers a lump of mud next to the bed. Can it be that Ted still exists somewhere in another dimension? Is there ‘life’ after death? Why is Robbie so fascinated by Phyllis’s dreams of Ted? Is Ted trying to break through to the other side, and if so what are the implications for Phyllis and Robbie?

As Fay Weldon’s wickedly funny plot unfolds, Phyllis begins to ask questions about her marriage to Robbie, and she talks to the poisonous Cynara who may or may not have had an affair with her business partner Ted and who was, according to Robbie, “just a bed buddy.” Can it be just coincidence that the marvelously bitchy Cynara had sex with both Ted and Robbie? The ‘visits’ from Ted turn out to be the most recent events in Phyllis’s life that defy rational scientific explanation. She’s given to visitations from ‘beyond,’ episodes of telepathy, and is known to be a ‘sensitive’ with telekinetic powers.

With ever growing paranoia, Phyllis begins to question the fabric of her entire existence: what exactly was her neighbour’s involvement in her husband’s death, is Phyllis the subject of a sinister experiment, and is Robbie’s sperm laced with psychotropic drugs designed to narcotize? With alarming speed Phyllis’s ‘perfect’ new married life begins to unravel, but then after we meet her creepy identical twin daughters (who could have stepped out of The Shining,) Martha and Maude, we realize how weird her life really is:

their bickerings often end (and they do bicker) just because one of them is using the other’s lines and they get confused.

Fay Weldon is in top form here with The Ted Dreams, and she proves she is as relevant as ever with this tale of spying and psychotropic drugs.  I loved this book for its subversive humour and for its tongue in cheek look at conspiracy theories, life extension and the ‘Great Beyond.’

That’s right, I felt like saying: when in doubt, fucking blame the woman.

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The Good Liar: Nicholas Searle

“No, on reflection disclosure is not a good thing, thinks Roy. It doesn’t salve the soul. It invites questions, not least from oneself, and upsets the certainty at which one has arrived. At his age he can do without such perturbations.”

Nicholas Searle’s debut novel, The Good Liar, begins with an elderly man preparing for an appointment with a woman he’s ‘met’ through an internet dating site. Roy prepares for the meeting with a feeling that the woman who calls herself Estelle is “heaven-sent.” Are we about to get a little geriatric romance in the vein of Last Tango in Halifax? No, fear not dear reader… we are about to get something much nastier, and that becomes apparent as Roy thinks about all the time wasters who lie about themselves and their means:

With this transitory reflection comes a momentary weariness. Those dreadful meetings in Beefeaters and Tobys around the Home Counties with frumpy old women in whom the bitterness of their long unfulfilled marriages with underachieving and uninspiring husbands has in widowhood seemingly become the sense of license to lie at will. For them there is no legacy of happy memories or the material benefit of platinum pensions in leafy Surrey mansions. They reside in poky terraces that no doubt smell of fried food, eking out an existence on government handouts cursing Bert, or Alf, or whoever it may be, and contemplating a stolen life. They are out for what they can get now, by whatever means. And who can blame them really?

Roy, who for the purposes of this first date, calls himself Brian, is on the lookout for a rich widow. It’s a “professional enterprise,” and he’s used to wading through lies from women who present themselves positively before he uncovers the truth. He refuses “to let them down gently” and enjoys “dismantling them forensically.”

“I thought you said you were five foot six and slim,” he may say with incredulity, but is delicate enough not to add: rather than a clinically obese dwarf. “Not much like your photos, are you? Was it taken a few years back, dear?” (He doesn’t add the postscript: perhaps of your better-looking sister.) “You live near Tunbridge Wells, you say; more Dartford really, isn’t it?” Or “So what you mean by ‘holidaying in Europe’ is a package trip once a year with your sister to Benidorm?”

Roy isn’t a nice man. If fact, even though he may appear to be a well-dressed, harmless elderly man, he’s a predator, and he’s about to meet a well-heeled widow, a retired professor named Estelle….

the good liar

Estelle turns out to be Betty, an attractive, spry, slender, independent, intelligent woman and more to the point, a widow with a sizeable nest egg. She’s just the sort of mark Roy is looking for, and as for Betty, well she appears to want a companion. But what is she really after?

The plot goes backwards in time with episodes from Roy’s opportunistic life and the crucial points (the 90s, the 60s, the 50s, the 40s and all the way back to the 30s) at which he’s been able to use other people and step into different identities. These episodes are set against Roy’s present day life with Betty. He moves into her home and generally seems oblivious to how unpleasant he can be under sustained intimacy, but then while sociopaths are natural chameleons and so good at mimicking human emotions, sustained contact can reveal anomalies.  I asked myself why on earth Betty tolerated such a bore, but all is gradually revealed under Nicholas Searle’s controlled narrative.

Episodes from Roy’s sordid past are contrasted with the various fictions he tells Betty, so we are taken through the looking-glass to the real events–events which Roy has chosen either to forget or to gloss over. There are amusing moments when, for example, Betty tries to pin Roy down about his family. When he mouths the typical thing that he “bitterly” regrets losing contact with his family, and Betty offers to help him find them, he then says “they’re all dead.” But then later he invents a fictional son who conveniently lives in Australia and never travels to England.

“Would you like to see him?”

“Not really,” says Roy. “We have so little in common. And I’m afraid I’m unduly rigid when it comes to my moral standards.”

Ultimately, The Good Liar argues that we cannot change other people, and neither can a sociopath ever grasp a sense of his responsibility when it comes to his actions. The only thing we can carry away from a brush with a sociopath is the knowledge that we have survived.  This debut novel is well constructed, well paced and a page turner. I thought I was going to read something with an unreliable narrator along the lines of Get Me Out of Here or The Truth and Other Lies, but The Good Liar is a much more serious book, and Searle never allows Roy to control the reader’s vision.

Perhaps Roy should have asked himself why Betty picked the name “Estelle” for the first meeting. Although this is never addressed in the book, Great Expectations and its connotations came to mind.

Review copy.

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The Past: Tessa Hadley

“Had anyone, Alice insufferably said, ever seen her with a book?”

I’ve been circling the work of Tessa Hadley for some time, attracted by the themes, and yet reluctant to commit as I’ve never been not quite sure of the substance. The description of The Past was something I could no longer resist, and now, after turning the last page, I want to read everything this author has written.

The premise of The Past is simple enough–four siblings congregate on the country home of their now deceased grandparents for a three week holiday with the purpose of deciding, finally, whether to sink money into the decaying former rectory, or sell it and split the profit. Of course with four siblings–three female and one male, now all firmly in middle age, we can expect some complicated familial politics, and Tessa Hadley delivers the delicate nuances of these relationships exquisitely.

The Past

Harriet is the eldest sibling. She’s unmarried but has a partner, Christopher who’s always off riding his bicycle somewhere. Serious, plain Harriet has spent her youth devoted to political causes and is currently involved with “advising” asylum seekers. She’s unattractive and feels severely challenged by the idea of femininity. Perfume, makeup, putting together an attractive ensemble of clothes… these things escape her and proximity to her sister Alice’s femininity always leads her to feel secretly inadequate.

Next in age is Roland, a university academic and the author of several successful books–he’s on his third wife, Pilar, a glacial, perfectly groomed, intense Argentinian lawyer who, adopted by right wing elite during the Dirty War, rejects left-wing politics as annoying frivolity. Roland and Pilar are accompanied by Roland’s teenage daughter from his first marriage, Molly.

Then there’s 46-year-old failed actress Alice–once so promising but now she’s not sure if she’s made a mess of her life. Very conscious of her appearance, she’s waiting for the next man to come along, and in the meantime, she drags along Kasim, the son of a former lover, for the holiday. Alice wonders “whether people seeing them would think Kasim was her lover, or her child.”

The youngest sibling is Fran, a teacher and the distracted mother of two fey children–Ivy and Arthur. Fran’s musician husband is also glaringly absent from the gathering.

It’s supposed to be a family holiday with no outsiders–a rule broken by Alice when she drags Kasim along, but then Alice feels justified since Roland is bringing his new third wife, and at this point, to the sisters, Roland’s wives seem temporary phases of his life: “Roland and his seraglio – as Alice called them, though not to his face.” The sisters disliked Roland’s second wife, Valerie, and consider the marriage a disaster.

-Roland should think about us when he gets married so often. Fran said. -All over again, we have to learn to live with a new wife. We’d got used to Valerie.

-Sort of used to her.

-I wasn’t ever used to her, Ivy said.

-Her voice was screechy and her head went like a chicken’s when she walked.

-Like this, said Arthur, imitating it.

Alice said wasn’t it such a relief, now that Valerie was a thing of the past, to be able to come out with the truth at last?

At the house, various dramas play out between the siblings, the children, and their guests. The children, locked into their own impenetrable world, and left largely to their own devices, discover a secret at a nearby abandoned, decaying cottage. Alice and Pilar, polar opposites in temperament, clash over who has the proprietary relationship with Roland, and Harriet finds herself befriended by Pilar; it seems an incongruous friendship, and even Harriet has to brush away some uncomfortable thoughts:

When Harriet was twelve or thirteen, she’d had a friend at school whom she’s loved and who had used her, sending her on pointless little errands, finding out where she was vulnerable and prodding there, resorting to her company when there was no one more interesting, dropping occasional kindnesses like crumbs. Harriet had tidied this memory away, believing it belonged safely with childish things; now she remembered her mother’s impatience with this friend’s exploitation, and her own inability to explain what she knew about it -that the abjection was not a downside, but the essential fabric of her love.

While the plot of this novel is certainly enough to capture interest, it’s the author’s rich style which elevates this marvelous novel:

Alice and Kasim stood peering through the French windows: the interior seemed to be a vision of another world, its stillness pregnant with meaning, like a room seen in a mirror. The rooms were still furnished with her grandparents’ furniture; wallpaper glimmered silvery behind the spindly chairs, upright black-lacquered piano and bureau. Painting were pits of darkness suspended from the picture rail. Alice had told her therapist that she dreamed about this house all the time. Every other house she’d lived in seemed, beside this one, only a stage set for a performance.

As the plot unfolds, it becomes clear that the house and the influence of their long deceased grandparents had a pivotal role in the lives of the siblings. Their mother died while they were still quite young, and “their father had gone to pieces –  which was forgivable – and run off to France with another woman, leaving his orphaned children behind -which wasn’t” Tessa Hadley creates a unique world centered on the four generations who’ve lived in this splendid old house, and shows us, with admirable insight, the evolution of essential personality traits that both undermine and support these individuals in their lives and their familial relationships. While Fran is not quite as fully developed a character as her siblings, and at times she seems like an addendum to this tale, somehow by the last page, this mirrors the plot of this wonderful tale of family dynamics, sibling politics and unspoken family crisis.

New growth sprouted livid green, the tan mulch under the pines in a plantation had darkened to ox blood, unripe blackberreies were fuzzy with grey mould. Beside a path a bank had sheared away ina  smear of red mud; skirting around it they saw  into the raw root-gape, like flung arms, of a tree upended, its deep hole whiskery with torn roots.

Review copy

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The Childrens Home: Charles Lambert

I was introduced to the work of Charles Lambert in 2010 through the novel, Any Human Face.  In 2011 I read Little Monsters, The Slave House in 2013, and A View from the Tower in 2014. The Children’s Home was my first book for 2016, and it’s a complete change of pace for this author. Following the trajectory of a nightmare, the book starts with the feeling of a fairy tale, morphs into fable and then the mirror cracks to reveal a dystopian horror. This genre-defying book is being compared to the work of Neil Gaiman, and although I’m not that familiar with Gaiman’s work to make a comparison, I think it’s best to judge the novel on its own merit.

The novel concerns a hideously disfigured recluse, Morgan, who lives in a rambling, elaborate walled country estate, in a house designed by his grandfather. Very little information is given at first about Morgan, his life, his family’s fortune or why he has chosen to isolate himself, but gradually over the course of the novel, some of the mystery is peeled away. Although each chapter begins with a childlike tagline, this is not a children’s book.

The Children's HomeMorgan lives with a housekeeper named Engel, and shortly after she arrives, the outside world begins to penetrate through the gated estate when children inexplicably begin to appear. The first one, named Moira, is left on the steps in a basket:

Other children arrived soon after that, as though Morgan had earned them by taking the first one in. Some were abandoned, as Moira had been, left on the kitchen step, which was now checked hourly; others, he suspected, were given to Engel at the door, by whom, he didn’t know. These were the children who arrived empty-handed. By the end of the third month of Moira’s presence in the house, there were six or seven, he wasn’t sure exactly, of varying ages.

Even though the number of children grows, it remains a mystery just how they arrive in this walled estate, and then as Morgan stands by the drawing-room window

a square of air above the lawn seemed to ripple as though it were silk and a knife had been drawn across it, and a child appeared on the lawn and began to walk towards the house, perfectly confident it seemed, that she would be received.

The children increase in number, until the house begins to resemble an unofficial orphanage, and there’s something strange about the children–especially a little boy named David who arrives with a cardboard tag tied to his wrist. Morgan notes the children don’t seem quite normal.

“Have you ever noticed.” he said, “that the children seem to know when they’re not wanted, not in the ministerial sense, of course, but, you know, when somebody simply wants to be quiet, I suppose I mean when I want to quiet? They just disappear, they make themselves scare, as though they’ve never been in the house at all, as though they’ve never existed. And then. just when you notice and start to wonder where they are, when you start to worry about them, I suppose, although you might not realize it’s worry, it registers as a sort of apprehension, they reappear as miraculously as they disappeared. They pop up from behind the sofa or you hear them crying or calling things out in the garden. But haven’t you sometimes ever wondered just where they go?” He paused for a moment. When he continued his voice was hesitant. “It’s as though they came from the air,” he said.

Although Morgan doesn’t know it, the arrival of the children signals an end to his chosen isolation. Soon Doctor Crane is called to visit the children, and gradually Morgan is forced back into the world he has chosen to abandon even as the children explore the house and discover secrets Morgan is unaware of. As Morgan is forced to deal with his past, the horrific present arrives and brings catastrophe….

The Children’s Home has an eerie ability to get under one’s skin. It’s a nightmarish tale of dysfunctional families, cruelty, greed, sinister government agencies, and global ruin that starts ever so simply with the appearance of a fairy tale and then expands as Morgan’s chosen isolation drops away. In spite of the way this novel began, I knew that Charles Lambert wasn’t going to give us Mary Poppins but that there was some deeper, much darker play at work. There’s a lot going on in this deeply layered novel, and as Morgan’s horrific secret is gradually revealed with the children accepting their adoptive father for his kindness and loving qualities, we learn that there’s more than one reason to stay behind the high walls of Morgan’s protected estate. Ultimately the novel, which may have difficulty attracting its appropriate audience, makes an irrefutable statement that the measure of any society can be drawn in its attitude towards its children.

Given my fascination with crime novels, The Children’s Home is not my favourite Charles Lambert novel but I shan’t forget it, and it proves what I’ve suspected, that Lambert is capable of a range of work–evident, IMO, in Little Monsters.

Review copy.

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Trouble on the Thames: Victor Bridges (1945)

“Wait till Hitler’s in Buckingham Palace and these darned Britishers are crawling around on their bellies.”

Trouble on the Thames, a short, thoroughly engaging spy thriller published in 1945 by Victor Bridges finds Naval Lieutenant-Commander Owen Bradwell in a funk. After receiving the news that he’s become colour blind, Bradwell, a young man, with a brilliant career in front of him, consults a Harley Street specialist. The bad news is that “chances of recovery were about one in a thousand.”  This means that Bradwell’s naval career is over, but then he’s recruited by the British Secret Service for a recon mission. With Britain very likely to plunge into war with Hitler, it seems that the country is awash with spies.

According to the Secret Service official who recruits Bradwell, a Lieutenant Medlicot recently committed suicide rather than face charges of treason. Medlicot was “conducting experimental work on some new gadget in connection with submarines,” when he became entangled with the owner of the Mayflower, a nightclub in the West End. Medlicot most likely had extensive gambling debts which were then leveraged to persuade Medlicot to hand over a “complete copy of the plans.” The sleazy owner of the Mayflower club, a certain Mark Craig, is suspected of being a spy for the Germans.

These are delicate times. German diplomats reside in England, and with a government that “still believes in the possibility of appeasement,” the Secret Service wants a “cast-iron” case against the spy network suspected of operating within the Mayflower Club before moving to make arrests or expulsions from the country. This is where Bradwell comes in. He’s given ten pounds for expenses and told to travel to the countryside where Craig owns a private island. There under the guise of a fisherman, he’s to collect information about Craig’s visitors.

trouble on the thamesTrouble on the Thames is an adventure story, and since we have our dashing hero, of course we have to have our heroine. Romance appears in the form of a plucky young woman, Sally Deane, an interior decorator who, on a mission to save her sister from blackmail, stumbles into the nest of Nazis.

This is the sort of book that races along with very little down time. Spies, blackmail, an escaped prisoner, amnesia and murder all roll in to this short novel. With the action moving from the hubbub of London to the quiet beauty of the countryside, there’s the strong sense that the British way of life is under threat. This is an ultra patriotic novel, but that’s by no means a fault–rather it’s an indicator of the times. Against the backdrop of an ever-encroaching war, the characters are either black or white with those “in the pay of the Huns,” portrayed as opportunistic, morally weak, societal outsiders. At one point for example, German sympathizer Olga Brandon tells Craig, “I’m all for the Germans. I’d love to see them smash the hell out of these stuck-up swine.” German diplomat,  Count Conrad von Manstein is an “unpleasant mixture, a cross between a Prussian junker and a genuinely fanatical Nazi, about the worst abortion that nature has yet produced.” And at one point there’s a reference made to an “epileptic house-painter.” It took me a minute to absorb that this was a reference to Hitler.

The respective roles of the sexes and the ethnocentrism are problematic. Bradwell is the dashing hero, and of course there must be a scene where he saves the female romantic interest. While Sally Deane is a plucky character, an independent businesswoman breaking the mold for her sex, nonetheless, she gushes at the appropriate moments. Bradwell makes a great new recruit for the Secret Service–although perhaps a trifle loose-lipped. At one point the issue of whether or not women can keep secrets emerges, so that grates–especially since Bradwell didn’t hesitate to tell Sally and her partner who he was working for. And here’s a quote about Olga which is supposed to explain a lot about her character

Having a dash of the dago in her, however–we have discovered since that her mother was a Romanian dancer–she was already beginning to panic.

The book, which really is great fun, is an entry from the British Library Spy Classics series, and includes another wonderful introduction from Martin Edwards. Prolific author Victor Bridges (1878-1972)–real name Victor George de Freyne Bridges set his novels “among the tidal estuaries and rivers of Kent, Essex and Suffolk.” (Harald Curjel, Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers.) Trouble on the Thames is a very cinematic novel, so it came as no surprise to read that several of Bridges’ novels made it to film. It did come as a surprise, however, that this author, once so popular in his day, has almost completely faded from view.

Review copy

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The Mistake I Made: Paula Daly

“Do you ever look at your life and think you were meant to have more?”

The Mistake I Made by British author Paula Daly explores not the understated ONE mistake, but the multiple epic mistakes made by Roz Toovey, a talented hardworking physiotherapist who, nonetheless, finds herself burdened with debt and making some tough choices.

Roz is a 40-something woman. Separated from her immature husband, she lives in the Lake District, commutes back and forth to a corporate clinic, and frantically juggles the care of George, her troubled nine-year-old son with fifty-hour-a-week work demands. Her harried life is just a breath away from imminent disaster, and shortly after the novel opens that disaster arrives in the form of bailiffs who strip her rented cottage of its contents. This is followed by the arrival of an eviction notice. Roz, who’s swamped with credit card debt racked up by her irresponsible husband who gives her no financial support whatsoever, has nowhere to turn to for help. Thanks to a failed business venture, she’s already tapped out her parents and is loath to appeal to her sister, Petra, for help.

One day at a gathering at Petra’s house where she meets the very wealthy married couple, Nadine and Scott, Roz, blurts out the thought that men should hire professionals for sex rather than poach on other married women. It’s a statement that shocks the guests, but then she’s approached at work by Scott who offers her 4,000 pounds if she spends a night with him, no strings attached.

the mistake I madeThe plot, of course, evokes the film: Indecent Proposal–aging millionaire offers a married woman a cool mill is she spends the night with him. It’s a film that got a lot of buzz and made a lot of money upon its release in 1993, and that can probably be explained partly by the fantasy elements at play. At the time, a friend of mine told me she’d spend the night with someone for a lot less, and I remembered that comment as the plot unfolds. The film is referenced in the book, but the author turns the film’s romantic nonsense on its head. No Hollywood glitz here; Roz agrees to spend a night with Scott and all of her money problems will be over, right?

It would be easy to say that to agree with Scott’s proposal is the FIRST mistake that Roz made–but that isn’t true. As the book continues, we see that the decision to sleep with Scott is just the latest screw-up in a long history of screw-ups. At first as details unfold, it seemed as though perhaps the author was making Roz an unreliable narrator–rather than the rock solid force she seems to be. Instead Paula Daly gives us a very human character who, after making as series of mistakes and poor decisions, is drowning in debt and sees the proposal of sex-for-money as the lifeline it isn’t.

There were no good options; just one bad option slightly worse than the other. And you know what you should do. Your gut is screaming at you to back up. Reverse. Come clean now and take the hit before things get really out of control. But you don’t, because you are weak. And your habit of taking the less bad option is what got you here in the first place.

The Mistake I Made is a pageturner–partly due to unforeseeable twists and turns of plot, but also due to the author’s narrative style and the very convincing, compelling voice of the Roz. It’s easy to accept that Roz is a real person, and that makes her decisions easy to accept. Here she is describing what is like to be self-employed in an industry in which clients/patients tend to see themselves as customers:

I gave my best emphatic self: listening to patients’ worries, concerns about their lives, their children’s lives, their money worries, their health issues. I gave my best educational self: repeating facts about healing, posture about the links with stress and myofascial pain, facts that I’d been reciting all day, every day, year in year out. And I gave my best in merriment and entertainment, acting as though the patients were funniest, wittiest, most enjoyable people in the world to spend time with. I listened, smiling accordingly, as old men recited tedious jokes, as old women discussed how funny Alan Carr was. At the end of each day I would have to little left for George–so little left for me, in fact–that the most I could do was sit mute and expressionless, until it was time to go to bed.

The Mistake I Made is a well-plotted, gripping distracting read. It veered towards OTT towards the end, but that’s a minor quibble. I really liked Roz, and after the book concluded I asked myself why–after all she does some really questionable things during the course of the novel. Ultimately, in spite of what Roz has done, she convinces us of her untenable position–squeezed between working for a living and being the sole provider for a son who’s beginning to show emotional problems.

The slightly out of focus cover which shows a portrait of a woman’s face. It’s both symbolic and appropriate as Roz loses her balance and her moral compass in her efforts to stay afloat–right and wrong blur and merge. While it’s fairly easy to identify with Roz’s debt dilemma (in other words, it’s fairly easy to imagine getting into this position), the book also makes a strong case for working less, buying less and living a bit more. I liked the author’s style a great deal and will check out her backlist. And on a final note, I’m glad to see an author FINALLY tackling the problem of a character having mounds of cash and no way to spend it without raising eyebrows. That’s the one thing that annoyed me about Breaking Bad. Yes, Walter White eventually turns to money laundering in order to stockpile his millions, but the scenes with Walt paying for his cancer treatment with cash were unreal.

Thanks to Cleo for pointing me towards this book–a recommendation that was seconded by Crimeworm

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The Square: Rosie Milliard

“If you just drove in and out of the Square all day to deliver your child to The Prep, which is ferociously exclusive and expensive, you would feel as if life was a sort of planet of plenty, thinks Tracey, who knows full well from her clients who buy cosmetics from her that it is not.”

The Square, a novel from Rosie Millard is a satire which lampoons the lifestyles and values of a handful of residents of a neighbourhood of expensive London Georgian mansions that were “built for the Victorian bourgeoisie, fallen into disrepair, divided up, broken down, reunited, refurbished, [now] they are serving descendants of their original class once more.” Everyone who lives in the Square is proud of their address, as if living there is some sort of achievement. Most of the characters’ primary concern is appearances, so in this delightfully malicious look at class and materialism, we see characters who think they’re unique when in actuality, they are ultra conformists who have “knock-through kitchens,’ send their children to the same schools, compete with ridiculous dinner parties, and show off designer labels as if they were medals.

All those women with husbands who work in the City, dressed in their silk shifts and tweedy jackets, makeup so subtle it looks like it’s not even there, hair beautifully blown. It is the handbags which are the signifiers, though. Soft, buttery leather bags. Purple and green and black, with clinking accoutrements to announce their presence; silver locks and heart-shaped key fobs and gilt chains, and huge stitched handles which fit just so under your arm.

The residents/characters in the book include:

  • Tracey and Larry: who won the lottery but find that maintaining the lifestyle expected of residents of the square is beyond their means. They have two children–Belle and Grace and an au pair, Anya. Belle is old enough to remember her working class, pre-lottery days.
  • Jane and Patrick: Patrick “who has gone to seed,” brings home the big money while mega bitch Jane, known to her husband as “Der Führer,”  brings home her lover, Jay for frantic afternoon trysts. Their only child George is the most mature person in the household.
  • Harriet and Jay: overweight and unhappy Harriet doesn’t fit in with the other ultra slim wives, and Jay busies himself with an affair with ultra-skinny Jane.
  • Pretentious, obnoxious artist Philip Burrell and his nutty Russian wife Gilda who dresses like she “just stepped out of theatrical clothing emporium, or is trying to represent a painting by Watteau.” Philip hires a young man from the local council estate to build his pricey works of art: reproductions of golf holes which sell for up to 50,000 pounds a pop.

The novel follows the various complications in the lives of the characters and culminates in the residents’ fundraising talent show (the council refuses to pay for new iron railings. Sob…). We see Tracey, with her “tarty outfits,” who doesn’t fit in with the other wives, trying to make a living as a door-to-door cosmetic salesperson. Realising that the family will not be able to sustain the lifestyle of the Square for much longer, she hunts down financial makeover guru, television personality Alan Makin, while Philip Burrell decides to move on from making models of golf holes to making models of marathon courses. Meanwhile the resident children, unbeknownst to their parents, struggle with their own issues.

the squareVenom flies in to even the small scenes with two or three characters, but the major laughs break out when the residents come together en masse. The funniest scene in the book IMO takes place at Jane’s dinner party. Jane is the sort of character we  love to hate, and here when she’s on show, at her most pretentious, she’s very funny.

With characters such as these–the pencil-thin rich bitch, the cuckolded husband, the neglected overweight wife, and her slimy cheating spouse you know that you are reading about types rather than individuals–so don’t expect character development here. Yet in spite of the fact that author Rosie Millard’s novel concentrates on stereotypes, we can all too easily imagine people we know in these roles. I struggled with the character of Jane’s son George. He was too mannered, and the segment concerning George’s film seemed constructed for laughs rather than credibility. It’s hard to sustain humour in satire, and when the novel moved towards the fundraiser, the humour lagged and tired as slick wit weakened, and as Jane says as one point, it’s “sort of like realizing that modern British life is indeed modelled on a Carry On film.” But bravo to the author for nailing the pretentious crowd who live in the Square–a place, oddly enough that sounds a lot like Rosie Millard’s own neighbourhood, and a place even more strangely that sounds exactly like a neighbourhood here in N. America…

Opposite the blackboard is the obligatory ‘island’. Every kitchen has one, a marooned stone rectangle surrounded by a cluster of chrome stools. Somewhere on it there will be a single, commanding tap. There might be a recipe book propped up on a lectern, like a religious text.

Beside the island is a colossal, humming fridge and a vast six-burner appliance capable of feeding an entire church choir, should one drop in. This is known as the ‘range’. It is not used very much. Hot meals still tend to come from the microwave, or local restaurants, whose takeaway menus are pinned to a cork board.

The entire room glories in laboratory-style cleanliness. There is an entire cupboard devoted to cleaning implements and chemicals. There is a bespoke bottle for the kitchen’s myriad surfaces, each of which has been quarried, quartered, buffed and bullied into a properly gleaming state of submission.

Kitchens in the Square are a miracle of processed nature. Marble, granite, steel, quartz, slate, with accents of wood and chrome brought together in one glorious assemblage. The kitchens are like a geology lesson.

At night, the au pairs creep out of the small rooms. They enter these bright, soulless places and erect computers upon the marble islands. they perch on chrome stools and talk via Skype to their families in languages which to Belle’s English ear sound like falling water. Alone and undisturbed they explain to their fascinated relations how things are in the Square, a place full of money, nerves, and giant unused ovens.

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The History Man: Malcolm Bradbury

“Howard stared at the campus from the sit-in and what he said was: ‘I think this is a place I can work against.’ “

Regular readers of this blog know that I have a soft spot for books with an academic setting. Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man is a vicious satire about academic life, and if you’ve ever been involved in academia in any way, you will probably recognize the particularly despicable main character, Howard. The author, in a foreword, admits that while he “invented Howard Kirk […] He was an entirely familiar figure on every modern campus–if, like me, you happened to teach in once of those bright concrete-and-glass new universities that sprang up over the Sixties in Britain and right across Europe and the USA.” I agree. I’ve known several ever trendy, ever hypocritical, self-loving Howard Kirks and so this book brought back some memories.

the history manThe book begins very strongly with a description of the times and then introduces Howard and Barbara Kirk who are about, as the  “new academic year begins,” to throw another of their famous parties. Howard is a self-focused “radical sociologist,” and lectures at a new university in the seaside town of Watermouth:

His course on Revolutions is a famous keystone, just as are, in a different way, his interventions in community relations, his part in the life of the town. For Howard is a well-known activist, a thorn in the flesh of the council, a terror to the selfish bourgeoisie, a pressing agent in the Claimants’ Union, a focus of responsibility and concern. As for Barbara, well, she is at this minute just a person, as she puts it, trapped in the role of wife and mother, in the limited role of woman in our society; but of course she, too, is a radical person, and quite as active as Howard in her way. She is, amongst her many competences and qualifications, a cordon bleu cook, an expert in children’s literature, a tireless promoter of new causes (Women for Peace, The Children’s Crusade for Abortion, No More Sex for Repression). And she, too, is a familiar figure, in the streets, as she blocks them with others to show that traffic is not inevitable, and in the supermarkets as she leads her daily deputation to the manager with comparative, up-to-the-minute lists showing how Fine Fare, on lard, is one pence up on Sainsbury’s, or vice versa. She moves through playgroups and schools, surgeries and parks, in a constant indignation

Married for twelve years, and with two children, the Kirks have endured several metamorphoses. Both originally from the “grimmer, tighter north,” they were originally very conventional people who managed to escape from their “respectable upper-working-class cum lower middle-class backgrounds.” Perhaps it was their mutually shared backgrounds that initially drew them together, and while Howard’s career in Sociology soared, Barbara became an unhappy “flatwife,” giving up any hopes of a career to raise two children neither parent particularly wanted. Howard is given to constant analysis of their shifting marital relationship which he sees as “trapping each other in fixed personality roles,” and that their “marriage had become a prison, its function to check growth, not open it.” They almost broke up several times, but have stayed together in an ‘open marriage,’ and are considered by their peers as a successful couple who are now evolved from who they used to be–“people of several protean distillations back.”

The plans for the party (actually an annual event which has to appear to be very carefully ‘unplanned’ and spontaneous) gives the reader insight into the Kirks’ marriage and domestic arrangements. They live in a Georgian townhouse, away from the other academics who’ve chosen more prestigious, country settings. Henry Beamish and his wife, for example, live in “an architect-converted farmhouse, where they were deep into a world of Tolstoyan pastoral, scything grass and raising organic onions.” The Kirks’ home, a hangout for “radical students and faculty, town drop-outs, passionate working communists” is, naturally, in an area of “urban blight” and it’s been very carefully restored in a shabby-chic sort of way. While the Kirks may pretend to be anti-bourgeois, really they’re the epitome of bourgeois values. Their so-called radicalism, very carefully defined to slot into a safe niche, thrives on the fertile setting of the university campus.

A great deal of the novel centres on the Kirks’ party  but then the plot moves away to examine other aspects of the Kirks’ lives: Howard and Barbara’s joint exploitation of students for unpaid childcare and housecleaning, Howard’s affairs with his students, and a carefully nurtured self-serving rumor that a geneticist may be arriving on the lecture circuit. When one male student, Carmody, has the audacity to challenge the poor grades he’s received from Howard, this incident shows just how authoritarian the self-loving Howard really is.  “Intellectual freedom” is something that Howard wags on about and uses to defend his anti-university-establishment stance, and yet he refuses to extend the same right to opinion to anyone who disagrees with him.

For all of his talk about liberation, Howard is the biggest sexist around. He constantly avoids any domestic chores and his female students are potential sex partners. Here’s a great scene with Howard, Barbara, and their two children at breakfast:

Are you going to eat your sodding cornfakes?” asks Howard of the children. “Or do you want me to throw them out of the window?”

“I want you to throw them out of the window,” says Martin.

“Christ,” says Barbara, “here’s a man with professional training in social psychology. And he can’t get a child to eat a cornflake.”

“The human will has a natural resistance to coercion,” says Howard. “It will not be repressed.”

“By cornflake fascism,” says Celia.

Barbara stares at Howard. “Oh, you’re a great operator,” she says. 

“Why don’t you give them wider options? Set them free?” asks Howard, “Weetabix, Rice Krispies?”

“Why don’t you keep out of it?” asks Barbara, “I feed this lot. They’re not asking for different food. They’re asking for my endless sodding attention.”

One of the best characters in the book, is the very refreshing English professor Miss Callendar. When she was introduced, I thought that perhaps Howard had met his match. While I understand, on one level, exactly what author Malcolm Bradbury did with this character, nevertheless, I was disappointed with the story’s direction.

This is not gentle satire. While some parts of the novel are funny, overall the main characters of Howard and Barbara remain superficial; they are the very ‘types’ that we recognize, but beyond that, there’s no depth. There are some great moments, but the novel, determined to draw vicious satirical scenes from the life of a very particular type, bludgeons the reader with wearying heavy-handedness. While we know people who act like Howard and think like Howard, they don’t speak like Howard, so the result is that some of the dialogue feels stiff and forced, and there’s the sensation that these characters are caught in a set piece delivering their stock lines.

Published in 1975

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The Last Word by Hanif Kureishi

“Otherwise, these days, no sooner has someone been sodomized by a close relative than they think they can write a memoir.” Author Hanif Kureishi seems to be an author readers either love or hate, and this theory is arguably authenticated by a number of vicious, personal comments about the author left on this blog–comments far too nasty to see the light of day. The Buddha of Suburbia was an amazing book, but Kureishi surpassed it with his phenomenal Something to Tell  You, and as Kureishi is not a prolific author, I was delighted to see that he’d written another novel: The Last Word.  This is a story of a young man, Harry, who’s commissioned by a flamboyant, out-of-control publisher, Rob, to write a biography of a Lion of British literature, now in his 70s, the aging Mamoon Azam. Harry goes to live with Mamoon and his second, expensive Italian wife Livia in order to gather material for the book, conduct interviews and gather information from the diaries of Mamoon’s first wife, Peggy. The last wordThere was some gossip that The Last Word was based on V.S. Naipaul, his approved biographer, Patrick French, and the resulting book The World is What it Is, a ‘warts and all’ “confessional biography” (Ian Buruma). Author Hanif Kureishi denies the connection, but when reading The Last Word, it’s impossible not to think of Naipaul–and not just because Naipaul and Mamoon Azam are both “eminent Indian-born writer[s]” who’ve made their careers and homes in England. There are other connections between the lives of the fictional Mamoon and the living Naipaul, and as we might anticipate from a writer of Kureishi’s subtlety, there are also some differences. While Naipaul apparently complied with his biographer’s demands, Mamoon proves to be slippery and the most difficult of subjects. The Last Word begins brilliantly with Harry travelling with Rob by train to Mamoon’s estate. Harry is busy thinking, somewhat dreamily, of the monumental task ahead of him. He’s a book reviewer and a teacher with just one well-received biography under his belt, and now contemplating his future & home ownership, “it had occurred to Harry, in the last year, at least as he matured, that he needed to be well off.” While Harry chews over the project of writing a biography about Mamoon, his publisher Rob, acknowledging that it can “inhibit” a biographer to have a living subject, wants something sensational. Something “mad and wild“:

Harry, the Great Literary Satan is weak and woozy now like a lion hit with a monster tranquilizer. It’s his time to be taken. And it’s in his interest to cooperate. When he reads the book and learns what a bastard he’s been, it’ll be too late. You will have found out stuff that Mamoon doesn’t even know about himself. He’ll be dead meat on a skewer of your insight. That’s where the public like their artists–exposed, trousers down, arse up, doing a long stretch among serial killers, and shitting in front of strangers. That’ll teach ’em to think their talent makes them better than mediocre no-brain tax-paying wages slaves like us.

So of course, we are in for a romp. Here’s Harry commissioned to write an authorised biography of a living legend–a man “too cerebral, unyielding and harrowing to be widely read, [Mamoon was] becoming financially undone; despite the praise and the prizes.” Mamoon is considered a serious writer whose work wrestles with moral issues, and yet publisher Rob, sniffing that there’s plenty of dirt under that stiff writer persona, is pushing for an expose, a dirt-slinging, tabloid style biography which will be a bestseller. According to Rob, Mamoon’s fiercely protective, expensive wife, Livia, is “a man-eater who never passed on a meal,” and Rob even suggests that Harry should be prepared to sleep with Livia to get his story. Between Livia, who wants only a whitewashed biography, and Mamoon who’d rather not have to participate at all, Harry seems to be severely outclassed by craft and personality. The writing here is occasionally brilliant, evidenced here by Rob’s enthusiastic descriptions of two of the women in Mamoon’s life:

Marion, his ex-mistress, a Baconian torso on a plank, is bitter as cancer and spitting gobbets of hate to this day. She lives in America and not only will she see you, she’ll fly at you like a radioactive bat. I’ve organized your visit–some people accuse me of being a perfectionist. There is also the fact he drove his first wife, Peggy, over the edge. I’m sure he wrapped oranges in a towel and beat her blacker and bluer than a decayed Stilton.

And then there’s Rob (my favorite train-wreck of a character):

If Harry thought of himself as a cautious if not conservative person, Rob appeared to encourage his authors towards pugnacity, dissipation, and “authenticity” for fear, some thought, that the act and the art of writing, or even editing, might appear “artistic,” feminine, nancy, or possibly, “gay.” Never mind Mamoon, Harry had heard numerous tales of Rob’s “sociopathic” tendencies. He didn’t go into the office until five in the afternoon, though he would stay there all night, editing, phoning, and working, perhaps popping into Soho. He had married, not long ago, but appeared to have forgotten that wedlock was a continuous state rather than a one-off event. He slept in different places, often in discomfort and with a book over his face, while appearing to inhabit a time zone that collapsed and expanded according to need rather than the clock, which he considered to be fascist. If he became bored by someone, he would turn away or even slap them. He would cut his writers’ work arbitrarily, or change the titles, without informing them.

The novel is about the difficulties of biography and how we align the image of a great writer with a not-so-great human being. According to Rob, Mamoon “has been a dirty bastard, an adulterer, liar, thug, and, possibly, a murderer.” Of course it’s Harry’s job to get to the central truth at the core of Mamoon’s life, so the novel should also, in theory, be about Harry’s journey of discovery. Unfortunately, from its very promising premise and phenomenal beginning, the novel takes a turn with the character of Harry. He’s introduced with hints of naiveté–the way , for example, we’re told that it ‘occurs’ to him that he’ll need to be well off–a phrase that implies a certain unworldliness. Mamoon seems to do everything he can to derail Harry’s desire to gain access, and Livia clearly wants Harry to write a “gentle” hagiography. Both Mamoon and Livia appear to select Harry for the job because he’s one of “the few decent and bright Englishman left on this island,” yet Harry not naïve or decent. As the plot develops, Harry is revealed to be quite the opposite of how he first appeared. And herein lies the central problem, at least for this reader. While the novel is at its best with Kureishi’s caustic bitter wit (seen through Mamoon and Rob), Harry’s personal life quickly overwhelms the central plot and the philosophical questions on which the story rests. Harry is a difficult, unconvincing character and his sexual relationship with a minor character feels particularly contrived. After setting up the initial central dilemma of extracting the sordid truth from Mamoon whether he likes it or not, the plot stagnates, teeters, stumbles and veers towards farce and some scenes and dialogue seem patently false. I’ve come to expect unpleasant characters in Kureishi’s novels, and that’s not a problem as nasty people can be great fun to read about. The major problem in The Last Word is plot momentum and hijacking. So what does Kureishi have to say on the question of how we align the great writers with their often less-than-great characters? The central issue seems to be not so much what a writer does or doesn’t do in his personal life as much as a matter of hypocrisy, and here’s Mamoon on the subject of E. M. Forster:

View? I have no views on a man who claimed he wanted to write about homosexual sex, a subject we certainly needed to know about. Since he lacked the balls to do it, he spent thirty years staring out of the window, when he wasn’t mooning over bus conductors and other Pakis. An almost-man who claimed to hate colonialism using the Third World as his brothel because he wouldn’t get arrested there, as he would showing off his penis in a Chiswick toilet.

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