‘Could there be a world of interest and adventure beyond the Midlands? A world of confidence, sex and excitement? A better life – a better me?’ These are the questions Gerard Philey grapples with over New Year, 1995. Sitting in his rented Black Country room, reflecting on his thankless teaching job and miserable love life, he courageously decides to abandon his humdrum existence and embark on a quest for Euro-fulfilment, fun and fitness on the Continent.
After a shaky start in Brussels, events manoeuvre him to Amsterdam where chance encounters shift his world well and truly into fifth gear. He samples the trials and tribulations of new relationships, alongside managing a sex shop in the city’s Red Light Area – on top of the challenges of fat-free living and international travel!
Through his bittersweet diary, we see how Gerard steers a laugh-out-loud course through farcical episodes and fanciful characters…and how entanglements from past and present draw him unwittingly into a criminal underworld where events ultimately take their toll.
It has been a while since I was able to get away on a proper foreign holiday. Rather like the eponymous Gerard Philey of Brendan James’ charming debut novel, I spend my days helping to educate the next generation of souls. Although they do not – as yet – choose to decorate me with chewed up pieces of ‘Paris Match’ as his do, I certainly recognise the ennui of the listless educational professional he describes!
One of my fondest ever memory is of a holiday I took alone to France as a newly qualified teacher. I was able to nap and write and drink wine in the sun and utilise my less-than-adequate language skills to procure decent food at a bargain price. It was pure Peter Mayle (a hero of mine I’ve written about before)
This novel is a bit like a hybrid of a ‘A Year in Provence’ meets ‘The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole’ and is very much enjoyable accordingly. James is a writer of assured quality and the wryly amusing encounters his put upon hero endures brings to mind the work of Tom Sharpe and the tortures he regularly put poor Wilt through.
A read that zips by like a galloping Eurostar, this is one for the traveller in your life. Happy holidays!
Brendan James is the author of the new comedy novel, “Gerard Philey’s Euro-Diary: Quest for a Life”. Though this is his first novel, he has a large number of non-fiction publications (under the name Brendan Bartram) as a former university lecturer and researcher. A passionate linguist and Europhile, he spent a number of years working in the Netherlands, France and Germany. He lives in the West Midlands with his husband.
That’s what reluctant author Anthony Horowitz tells ex-detective Daniel Hawthorne in an awkward meeting. The truth is that Anthony has other things on his mind.
His new play, ‘Mindgame’, is about to open in London’s Vaudeville theatre. Not surprisingly Hawthorne declines a ticket.
On opening night, ‘Sunday Times’ critic Harriet Throsby gives the play a savage review, focusing particularly on the writing. The next morning she is found dead, stabbed in the heart with an ornamental dagger which, it turns out, belongs to Anthony and which has his finger prints all over it.
Anthony is arrested, charged with Throsby’s murder, thrown into prison and interrogated.
Alone and increasingly desperate, he realises only one man can help him.
Everyone is always so grouchy about targeted advertising. Big companies like Amazon and Apple mining your online behaviour to sell you products people like you have already bought, their algorithms churning away in the background to manipulate you into parting with your hard earned cash.
I get it. It’s never nice to feel like a sheep, manipulated and herded. Netflix’s documentary, ‘The Social Dilemma‘ does an excellent job of exploring the dystopian overtones of how we live now.
But, here’s the thing – sometimes, it’s quite nice to be offered products people like you would like. Those algorithms are really just the video rental clerks of the 80s, but with about the same level of interaction skills and better personal hygiene.
So, I suspect I was the proverbial fish in a barrel when Audible told me the daily deal was Anthony Horowitz’s ‘A Line to Kill’.
Secondly, I had just finished reading his second James bond continuation novel, ‘Forever and a Day’, the single best continuation of that franchise in literary form since Kingsley Amis’ ‘Colonel Sun’ written under the pseudonym Robert Markham .
Finally, there was the setting. Alderney is the only Channel Island I have been to – as a child no less – but even as a teen I could see its potential as a locked room murder mystery setting. Throw in a literary festival – very much my “thang” and I was in.
Well, hooked does not do justice. I’ve now read – or more accurately had read to me by the superb Rory Kinnear – all of the novels in the series. Kinnear is – somewhat confusingly – the voice of Anthony Horowitz. Because what this series needed was more meta-overtones.
The latest novel in the series, Book 4, ‘The Twist of a Knife’, continues the conceit of having Horowitz as his own Watson, trailing along behind enigmatic private detective Hawthorne as he strides out in front.
Horowitz clearly has some fun depicting himself as vain and whiny in a way which must have been delightful to write but is also quite cruel and he continues to let Hawthorne get away with all the best lines.
At the opening of the novel, narrator Anthony has to grapple with the reluctance to write any more books in this series and the indisputable fact that the reader is holding/listening to the book he is refusing to write. A deliciously meta conundrum if you like that sort of thing: I do.
As well as being one of the most successful and clearly the hardest working writers in the UK today, Horowitz is a master craftsman. And in these novels, he deploys all of his well-honed talents to best effect.
Suspects are introduced, dismissed and re-interviewed. The theatre is also a motif in another excellent novel of this year, ‘Bad Actors’ by Mick Herron. However, Horowitz does not succumb to the temptation of making theatre related pun after pun. But, Hawthorne can’t resist an Agatha Christie dénouement and it arrives with a welcome theatrical flourish.
Narrator Anthony is worried that the books have run out of steam – after all, he’s even run out of writing allusions after ‘A Line to Kill’ (probably best he didn’t go with ‘The Pun-ishment is Death’ for this one in fairness). He’s damned if he’s going have them named Hawthorne Investigates as well: but, as a reader, I don’t think he need worry.
This is a series with plenty more puff in the tank and for anyone who likes classic murder mystery fiction, crafted by a professional at the top of their game, this is for them.
Bestselling author Anthony Horowitz has written two highly acclaimed Sherlock Holmes novels, ‘The House of Silk’ and ‘Moriarty’; three James Bond novels, ‘Trigger Mortis’, ‘Forever and a Day’ and ‘With a Mind to Kill‘; the acclaimed bestselling mystery novels ‘Magpie Murders’ and ‘Moonflower Murders’ and the Detective Hawthorne novels, ‘The Word is Murder’, ‘The Sentence is Death‘, ‘A Line To Kill’, and the latest ‘A Twist of Knife’ is out in August 2022.
But Leslie was definitely at the vanguard of a movement to rehabilitate the reputation of a performer, about whom I was pretty sure the debate was settled and the world had moved on: Paul McCartney.
Leslie’s piece, ‘64 Reasons to Celebrate Paul McCartney‘ – which you should definitely read by the way – appeared to herald the beginning of some form of rediscovery and rehabilitation for “the kid”.
The second reason Leslie gives as reason to celebrate this multimillionaire is, “it’s the end of 2020, the kid is 78 years old and is widely regarded as having made more great songs than anyone else alive. He is releasing a new album, McCartney III.”
Ok. Well, firstly, he ain’t no kid and – as far as I can tell – the only people who widely regard him as “having made more great songs than anyone else alive,” are Ian Leslie and Alan Partridge. I imagine it would sure as hell come as a surprise to Bob Dylan, for a start.
However, what the whole sudden appreciation of McCartney really put me in mind of is the conclusion of Alan Bennett’s play ‘An Englishman Abroad’.
As Coral Browne tells the audience, “If you can eat a boiled egg in England at ninety, they think you deserve a Nobel Prize.”
People aren’t suddenly reappraising McCartney because he’s got relevance or he’s amazing at melodies. People are reappraising him because he’s old and he’s not dead and he’s less of a weapon’s grade tool than Ringo.
“McCartney’s reputation has never fully recovered from the shredding it took when The Beatles broke up,” writes Leslie. Yeah, again, funny that. It’s like when Paul Weller broke up The Jam to do The Style Council. Can you trace the roots of that subsequent venture in singles like Beat Surrender? Of course.
Should you vilify the artist for branching out and trying new things?
Also of course. Because it was awful, it looked stupid and it pleased no one. It pleased no one because it wasn’t cool.
And that matters. it matters because they’re supposed to be rock stars.
I get that he wasn’t originally. I get that by the time they’d ceased being The Quarrymen and got shot of DAs and rocker jackets and been repackaged, he was in a little group marketed as cynically as any Busted, Boyzone or McFly.
And I agree that The Beatles made some quality pop records and they could play their own instruments – at least before the acid years when they got “interesting” – or unlistenable depending upon how honest you want to be about it.
In the absolutely superlative documentary series – and mercifully shorter than ‘Get Back’, ‘My Life as a Rolling Stone’ – Mick Jagger speaks revealingly about the way the attitude of the group was deliberately cultivated as the anti-thesis of The Beatles’ holier-than-thou goody-two-shoes-ness.
It’s the reason your Mum loved the Liverpudlian quartet and your Dad was a Stones man. Because she went to church on Sunday and he was too hungover.
But now, it’s half a century later and the loathsome ditty guffer is getting praise for being a fantastic musician and for his ability to write a melody and…
But, here’s the thing: that’s not his job.
His job is to be a rock star. And that’s not his métier at all.
McCartney is probably a really nice man and, if you’re a music person, I’m sure his melodies are charming and carry you away.
Presumably to the Mull of Kintyre.
But, as the late, great Bill Hicks said, “I want my rock stars dead!”
In Relentless, the comedy equivalent of a proper rock album, he continues, “When did mediocrity and banality become a good image for your children? I want my children listening to people who fucking rocked! I don’t care if they died in pools of their own vomit! I want someone who plays from his fucking heart!”
You know why Janis Joplin and Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Tom Petty, Deep Purple, The Who and The Rolling Stones are cool?
It’s because they played from their hearts.
“But McCartney does play from his heart”, mewl the fans. Yeah, but their hearts were weird, warped, dangerous and black and his heart is a branch of Clinton’s Cards, all faux-Cath Kidson bunting and environmentally damaging glitter balloons.
The UK is not about sincerity. We are allergic to asinine assertions of hearts on sleeves. It why you can respect Phil Collins’ drumming and still know he’s musical criminal.
It’s why when Americans do political shows we get TheWest Wing, when the Brits do it, we get The Thick of It. If you’re sincere, you’re suspect and, probably, a wrong ‘en. Look how everyone believed the sweet-hearted, tennis-loving, Brexit Elvis-impersonator Cliff Richards’ Yew Tree stuff, even when demonstrably false.
It’s not just about dying – but it is about living on the edge. It’s about sex and drugs and rock and roll, not the Frog Chorus or Ebony and Ivory – even though they are the musical equivalence of the Iraq invasion – Go to The Hague, do not pass go, do not collect a Middle Eastern Peace Envoy role.
Vegetarianism, trainers with a suit jacket – which everyone used to rightly chastise him for before the Shoreditch “massif” began copying it ironically and then it became de rigour, like beard oil and unicycles -does not a rock god make.
And you see who’s not there? That’s right, because he’s not cool. Never has been, never will be.
When he made the trip to a muddy field in Gloucestershire, people were suddenly surprised that he wasn’t very good. “His voice has gone,” they whined. Gone where? Tell you what, who knew?
Oh that’s right, everyone.
Can’t imagine why letting the Werther’s Original Grandad have the main stage of a major festival which used to be good, could in any way go wrong…
I know that Caitlin Moran and Ian Leslie are better writers than me, more successful than me, vastly more talented than me and Moran, for sure, knows far more about music than I ever will.
But they are wrong on this topic. They are backing Clarkson-era Top Gear, jeans at the nipples, middle age, middle of the road “rock” compilations. And that’s never the right horse to back.
So, Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, From Me to You, please, I suggest we let Grandad slope off back to his shed and leave the rock music to the mad, the bad and the dangerous rather than the safe, the saccharine and the benign.
 Despite his blocking of me on Twitter (I think because of this subject?) I don’t really blame him. I think he’s an exceptional thinker about the world who, even when you disagree with him, is worth listening to and who introduced me to Substack. I have read more, and more widely, because of the money I give him for his newsletter and I rate him as one of the best writers working today. I emailed to apologise for whatever it was I did which upset him but have yet to receive a reply. You should definitely buy his book, ‘How to Disagree: Lessons on Productive Conflict at Work and Home.’ Perhaps the secret is to block people who annoy youonline?
And that, like everything which follows, is unforgettable.
This is a book about a lot of things – grief, hope, friendship, love. It’s also about what you’d do if you stumbled into the woods at dawn, found something extraordinary there, and decided to take it home.
It’s a tale that might seem familiar. But how it speaks to you will depend on how you’ve lived until now.
You don’t think about eggs very often, do you? At least, I don’t.
They are fragile: they are robust. Hard, soft, boiled, fried. They can represent stones rolled away from tombs, they can be balanced on their ends during the Vernal equinox. Allegedly. In evolutionary philosophy, they pose quite the conundrum – they are symbols of fertility: they are Schrodinger’s foodstuff.
And, in Bobby Palmer’s quirkily idiosyncratic debut, they may be a metaphor for the scrambled brain fog the eponymous Isaac is experiencing as his world disintegrates through loss and grief and everyone’s favourite river in Africa, denial.
‘Isaac and the Egg‘ is not hard boiled fiction (see what I did there?) But Palmer is a writer who blends the easy prose of a man who has worked damn hard to make it look this easy with the emotional depth charge that someone like Nick Hornby provides when dealing with men old enough to be better, but too immature to do better.
Narrator Johnny Flynn does an exceptional job. His voice has the honeyed tones of Matthew Goode – until the becalmed peace of my garden was shattered by the dog-whimpering quality of the scream used to replicate the voice of the egg. It was a shock. Almost as much as when I googled him and discovered he was the geezer from Lovesick! Either way, he is a phenomenal audiobook narrator.
‘Isaac and the Egg’ is a startling assured debut. It has a ‘Life of Pi’, ‘ET’, ‘Alien’ crossed with ‘High Fidelity’ atmosphere which marks Palmer out as a talent to watch. Moving, funny, melancholic, quirky and fast paced, this may be the late summer read we all need right now and is the sort of novel which resonates and vibrate through you as a reader long after it is finished.
With the unsolved murder of a homeless boy still preying on his mind, DI Gus McGuire is confronted with a similar murder, a missing teen and no clues.
Does the answer lie with an illegal dark web site where ‘slaves’ are auctioned off? Or with an online forum for teens?
How can Gus keep people safe when unjust bias rears its head and being different could cost you your life…?
I’ve only been to Bradford once. I was about eight years old and it was the sort of Keystone Cops holidays my parents specialised in: we travelled to Bradford from some god-forsaken location, the car got a puncture, my Dad’s tooth fell out when biting into a flowery bap twinned with a concrete breezeblock, we couldn’t the KwikFit which had the car.
My overwhelming memory, however, was the Film and Television Museum. It had, what was then, the only IMAX cinema in the UK and a chance to try and be a newsreader, reading an autocue. I couldn’t do it. I cried.
They also had a gigantic copy of that famous mugshot photo of Myra Hindley. After getting my mum to explain who she was, I tootled off but that night, I came down in floods of tears, scared that this real life monster was going to get me.
‘Unjust Bias’ clearly shares DNA with this earlier novel. Mistry’s hard-bitten representation of the city is here. Her predilection for shifting narrative stances from first to third and back again depending upon the character focus of the chapter is there and her obvious interest in the on-going psychological effects of the world upon these people is baked through the stories like logos through a stick of rock.
These are not happy-go-lucky, easy readers with a cozy element. These are dark and realistic depictions of a hard world and bad things happening to people in the wrong place at the wrong time.
But Mistry is a very fine writer and her Bradford is becoming a character in the way that Rankin’s Edinburgh is central to understanding the events.
Born in Scotland, Made in Bradford sums up Liz Mistry’s life. Over thirty years ago she moved from a small village in West Lothian to Yorkshire to get her teaching degree. Once here, Liz fell in love with three things; curries, the rich cultural diversity of the city … and her Indian husband (not necessarily in this order). Now thirty years, three children, two cats and a huge extended family later, Liz uses her experiences of living and working in the inner city to flavour her writing. Her gritty crime fiction police procedural novels set in Bradford embrace the city she describes as ‘Warm, Rich and Fearless’ whilst exploring the darkness that lurks beneath.
Struggling with severe clinical depression and anxiety for a large number of years, Liz often includes mental health themes in her writing. She credits the MA in Creative Writing she took at Leeds Trinity University with helping her find a way of using her writing to navigate her ongoing mental health struggles. Being a debut novelist in her fifties was something Liz had only dreamed of and she counts herself lucky, whilst pinching herself regularly to make sure it’s all real. One of the nicest things about being a published author is chatting with and responding to readers’ feedback and Liz regularly does events at local libraries, universities, literature festivals and open mics. She also teaches creative writing too. Liz has completed a PhD in Creative Writing on Diverse voices in crime fiction.
In her spare time, Liz loves pub quizzes (although she admits to being rubbish at them), dancing (she does a mean jig to Proud Mary – her opinion, not ratified by her family), visiting the varied Yorkshire landscape, with Robin Hoods Bay being one of her favourite coastal destinations, listening to music, reading and blogging about all things crime fiction on her blog, The Crime Warp.