February, 2007


We all know that MySpace is rubbish, but I hadn’t realised, until I went to play with it, just quite how rubbish it is. Considering its popularity, you might think that they’d make the damned thing a teeny bit user friendly.
You’re stuck with default sections and to do anything neat at all, you have to hack around in CSS in a horrible manner.
Anyway, much buggering around with my site has resulted in this. I’m not proud, but it’s better than 99.999% of MySpace pages in that it doesn’t look garish and doesn’t assault your good taste too much.
Next up is a bit of playing with Yahoo Pipes. But that may be a while yet.

The Bullet Trick

I read Louise Welsh’s first novel, The Cutting Room, and liked it, but the prospect of a new novel with a magician protagonist and set in the seedy part of Berlin amongst other places was irresistible.
The action takes place in three cities, London, Glasgow and Berlin.
As the novel opens, William Wilson is putting on a magic show in a seedy Soho club as the warm-up for some exotic dancers, all in celebration of the retirement of a Met detective. So far, so The Vice. But things take an unexpected turn as Wilson, who’s a bit down on his luck to say the least, is persuaded to pick the pocket of the detective to retrieve a mysterious envelope. Things go a little awry and he has to make a sharp exit before gunfire intervenes.
We then jump back and forward in time between Glasgow now, and Berlin some time earlier. As I mentioned in my previous review, I can dislike this device, and early on, Wilson’s life in Glasgow is so grim that you really want to jump back to the action in Berlin, where the cast of characters is more interesting.
In Berlin, we enter a dark world of seedy erotic clubs and magic, meeting a cast of decidedly sexy characters along the way, not least of which is Sylvie. And as the story picked up, jumping forward becomes less of a chore, and you find yourself turning the pages ever more quickly. I positively raced towards the end, so much did I enjoy it.
I notice that I’ve somehow skipped Welsh’s second book, Tamburlaine Must Die, but I will return to it. Welsh really loves giving us the seedy side of the world, and it feels very real. I’d be amazed if this book doesn’t make either a film of some description. It’s crying out for it.
I’ve never been to Berlin…


William Boyd is always worth reading, and this novel has done especially well. It’s probably selling more than all his previous novels combined by virtue of it being on the Richard & Judy list. It was also shortlisted for the Costa Coffee Book Prize.
And you know what? It’s really good. It’s basically a spy story which flashes back between 1976 Britain as Ruth brings up her son on her own whilst tutoring foreign language students in Oxford. But her mother has revealed herself as not being Sally, as she thought she was, but Eva, an international spy.
The story jumps backwards and forwards as we learn more about the deeds of Eva during the Second World War, first in Europe and then in the USA. She’s controlled by a mysterious man called Romer, and it becomes apparent that although events took place many years earlier, there’s something that still needs resolving.
The trouble I sometimes have with books that jump back and forth is that you’re more interested in one half of the story than the other, but Boyd is a master story teller and he makes sure that each part of the tale is as interesting as the other. You’re always left wanting more and the book is a real page-turner.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Catching up with a few recent books still. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen was the Book at Bedtime on Radio 4 a couple of weeks ago – you can’t miss the sticker on the cover telling you as much. The author, Paul Torday, also popped up on the Simon Mayo book segment a couple of weeks ago to plug this book too.
The plot is simple if mad. The much put-upon Alfred Jones works for a government fisheries department. One day he’s asked if it’d be possible to breed Salmon in the Yemen. He laughs it off, but political willpower being what it is – lots of bad news coming from the Middle East – that government mandarins begin to see the “strengths” of the idea, and he’s politely asked to get on with it and do the impossible.
The story is told in a series of diary entries, interviews, letters, interviews and even extracts from Hansard. It’s silly, it’s playful, it’s sad and it’s happy.
I really enjoyed this story, and you simply don’t know quite what’s going to happen despite even the least fish-aware person realising that salmon, as a rule, prefer the climes of the North Atlantic as opposed to those of the Middle East.
How could you not like a book called Salmon Fishing in the Yemen?

Blue Shoes and Happiness

I read something recently that suggested that Alexander McCall Smith is able to knock out another No.1 Ladies Detective Agency novel in a fortnight or so. That’s probably not quite the case, but he certainly is a one-man publishing phenomenon putting the likes of Terry Pratchett (in his prime) in his place. As well as this series he has two other series on the go at the moment, The Sunday Philosophy Club and 44 Scotland Street – neither of which I’ve read any books from.
But returning to Blue Shoes and Happiness, and Mma Ramotswe is investigating a case of blackmail amongst others. The mystery and crime elements of these books is practically irrelevant – reading these books is the equivalent of following the equivalent of The Archers set in Botswana. You have your regular selection of characters, a few misunderstandings, a few stories developed a little and not a great deal else. It certainly passes the train journey for a day or two.

Music in the Co-op

So I popped around to my local Co-op to pick up a few essentials after work. Outside, a single unseen tinny loudspeaker was blaring out classical music.
Very strange.
I looked up, and thought that perhaps someone in a flat above was enjoying the music.
Then I found out what was really going on. It seems that kids hang out in front of the shop all day, and then come in for a spot of shoplifting. The shop is seemingly unhappy at this ever-so-slightly anti-social behaviour and has installed the speaker and music. Kids, it seems, don’t like classical music. It’s even louder than the volume that their mobile phones are capable of!
But that’s not the half of it. It seems that the audio also contains those high-frequency sounds that only kids are said to be able to hear.
All very entertaining, although I’d have thought that your speaker might need to be capable of playing those frequencies in the first place, and I’m not entirely convinced about the Co-op’s audio fidelity in this instance.

Banned Books

And speaking of The Independent – it has a new promotion running on Saturdays called “Banned Books.” Each week you can buy one of “25 cutting-edge titles, censored classics and literary landmarks” for £3.49 with your Saturday Independent (at selected stores).
They gave away the first in the series, A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, on Saturday. I’m a sucker for a freebie, so of course I picked up a copy. Except that I’m not so sure that it has ever actually been banned. I’m pretty certain it hasn’t in the UK – indeed I suspect that it’s one of the few titles first published in the 1960s to have remained permamently in print. And while the film was unavailable in the UK for many years, that was never “banned” either. Stanley Kubrick simply withdrew it sometime after it had been released following a press furore over supposed copycat attacks, and never allowed it to be re-released or made available on video or DVD in the UK. Of course, nowadays you can easily pick up a copy and it comes around regularly on Film 4 and the like. Unavailable it might have been, but not banned.
I’m not saying that the book wasn’t banned in other countries, and I doubt that the novel has been published in, ooh, North Korea or similar. But banned?