Tag Archives: Contemporary Fiction

Less Than Zero, by Brett Easton Ellis

3.5 stars3.5/5

Less Than Zero is Brett Easton Ellis’s first published book.

Less Than Zero, by Brett Easton Ellis

Picador, 2010 edition (hardback), 208 pages - review copy.

Thanks to the lovely people at Picador I got my hands on the rather beautifully presented re-published hardback copy and having been quite fascinated by American Psycho decided to read the book that started Ellis’s career.

Written in the stream of consciousness narrative, Less Than Zero follows protagonist Clay who goes back to visit Los Angeles on his winter break where he spends time seeing old friends and sees his ex-girlfriend Blair. Most of the time he is high on cocaine or drunk or both. His family life is depressing (although flashbacks hint at happier times), his friends at best shallow, at worst sociopathic and and he seems to meander through bizarre often disturbing situations becoming more and more detached as the book goes on.

Parts of Less Than Zero make uncomfortable reading, as we watch people try to bring excitement to what feel like hollow lives by pushing their limits psychologically and sexually. Rather than protecting them, these teenager’s privileged lives expose them to experiences very bad things. Ellis highlights the greed and excess of the 80’s – the book is peppered with references to consumer brands – and in a similar way to American Psycho hints at the dark consequences of a boredom driven by teenagers having too much ‘stuff’ and too few morals.

Ellis’ style really works for me. The cold, disconnected voice of the narrator only makes what he observes seem more disturbing. I like his references to music of the era which really create a sense of time and place (don’t you always vividly remember what was happening at the time you listened to a particular song?). The title of the book is actually a reference to a song of the same name by Elvis Costello which a bit of Googling reveals that refers to nazism and teenage sex as well as people prioritising material goods over anything else:

“He said, he heard about a couple living in the USA,

He said, they traded their baby in for a Chevrolet”

The lyrics hint at society gone mad and so it’s not hard to see why Ellis was inspired to choose it as the title for this book.

I also like the way that Ellis creates verbal clues out of the signs that Clay sees. He notices particular words on signs and number plates such as ‘Disappear here’ and ‘DECLINE’ which have a sort of subconscious significance to Clay’s life.

Less Than Zero is an interesting read and feels very modern, despite having been written over 25 years ago. It made me think that the show Gossip Girl is similar – like an updated, frothy (and more suitable for TV) comment on the lives of bored, rich teenagers. Like American Psycho, it’s not exactly an ‘enjoyable’ read but it wierdly compelling. I wouldn’t rate it as highly as American Psycho (for me probably a 9 out of 10), which now, having read Less Than Zero feels like the masterpiece Ellis was working up to – similar themes and style, but a more mature version and a more involved plot. Read if you want an introduction to Ellis, or you liked American Psycho and want to see what came before.

The Lonely Londoners, by Sam Selvon

3 stars3/5

Well, this is probably the longest it has taken me to review a book. I read The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon for my book group back in August, and when I put it down I just wasn’t sure how I felt about it so decided that I should give it time to let it settle. Strangely it still hasn’t.

The Lonely Londoners, Penguin Modern Classics edition

Penguin Modern Classics, 2006 edition, 160 pages - Book group choice.

First published in 1956, The Lonely Londoners is a slim novel, but one that is packed with detail and filled with vivid descriptions of early 1950’s London seen through the eyes of Moses Aloetta, a migrant to the capital from Trinidad. At the beginning of the story, Moses is waiting at Waterloo Station. He is meeting another Trinidadian Henry ‘Sir Galahad’ Oliver who has just arrived in England. He doesn’t know him – all that connects them is the fact they are both West Indian. They are united by this fact alone and their sense of otherness, in a predominantly white city.

In The Lonely Londoners we are introduced to a variety of characters, all West Indian migrants and mostly young men. They get along however they can in the busy city, whether it be through hard graft or by hustling a living. Getting work is tough enough and the environment is hostile. Moses comments to Sir Galahad;

“English people don’t like the boys coming to England to work and live…they frighten we get job in front of them, though that does never happen. The other thing is that they just don’t like black people, and don’t ask me why, because that is a question that bigger brains than mine trying to find out from way back.”

Moses himself has been living in London for some time, and in some ways seems has now made himself at home. While he suggests that Sir Galahad “hustle a passage back home to Trinidad today”, he himself has almost become ingrained in the city. He marvels at how some people manage to save money from a measly three pounds per week wages to take back to their families, but he himself cannot, making the reader wonder if he is trapped or whether he really does ever want to return to the ‘mother country’. Selvon conveys the limbo that these migrants must have felt – never quite a part of London, but somehow divorced from their home country.

The book is written in vernacular which makes it at times a tough read. Many a moment I wondered what certain words (such as ‘test’) meant and muddled my way through with educated guesses. At the same time, the use of the vernacular added to the books authenticity and made me feel as if I was really hearing the voice of the narrator and the characters in the book.

And The Lonely Londoners has a cacophony of voices. Sometimes optimistic (Sir Galahad), sometimes contemplative (Moses) and also cocky (Cap). I had a mixed response to these characters. I kind of liked Moses who reminded me a bit of Eeyore in Winnie The Pooh (weird I know), really disliked Cap who seemed full of himself and chauvinistic but was quite enchanted by Big City with his tall stories and confusion of the word ‘music’ for ‘fusic’. I also loved the passage where one of the few female characters – Tanty, manages to convince a reluctant shopkeeper to give her a tab.

There were some tragi-comic moments, such as when Cap decides to catch a seagull for his dinner which I found genuinely funny, but I have to say The Lonely Londoners is quite hard work. The book switches from one character to another, and these snapshots of their lives are simultaneously fascinating and confusing. I liked some of the characters and found parts of the book beautifully described but for some reason it left me feeling at a distance from it. Perhaps it was the fact that the voices were mostly masculine, or because I didn’t really feel much emotion from the characters. This sense of distance is something that I think is exactly what Selvon intended, and adds to the theme of loneliness, but it didn’t quite work for me.

The Lonely Londoners is more of a portrait of an era than a ‘story’ and opened up my eyes to a part of British history that I had no previous knowledge of. While I didn’t enjoy this book enough to want to read more Sam Selvon in the near future, it does leave me wanting to read more about the experiences of migrants to England during this period of time. To hear another voice.

My rating:

6 out of 10

Can you recommend other novels which explore migrants to England in the 1950’s?

Interesting link I found from BBC History – Black British History Since Windrush

Dead Babies, by Martin Amis

Dead Babies. What a title. I kept hiding this book in public especially when small children were around. The story is as lurid and shocking as the title suggests and this is the reason why, while I have rate this book highly I would not recommend it to everyone. You have been warned!

Amis introduces us to a cast of characters, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. Actually sublime, is the wrong word. There are some superficially charming characters, but really they are all pretty vile and some are more pathetic than others. Unfortunately-named Keith Whitehead, is the stories’ most physically grim character. Short, fat and squat with digestive maladies that will make you cringe at Amis’ description. Pustular Keith is on the outside, he is actually one of the books more sympathetic characters , particularly when compared with the aggressive and erratic Andy Adorno and Roxanne Smith, a buxom but manipulative and downright nasty American. The least offensive character is probably Giles Coldstream, whose obsession with his teeth is totally awful to the point of being hilarious. There are also three female characters (Celia, Diana and Lucy) who are marginally less appalling but still with their particular vices and possibly less memorable and well-described than the men in the group. Finally, two more Americans – Skip, who I can best describe as a bisexual psychotic hick, and Marvell, a Jewish drug dealer. This delightful party is holed-up together at Appleseed Rectory for a weekend of drug-taking and debauched sex.

A 1980's Penguin edition. Seems like the most dangerous drugs that the cover photgrapher could find were contraceptives and cod liver oil...!

The story primarily follows the events of the weekend, which are messy to say the least, but intermittently we are also given a snapshot of the background of each character. This gives a valuable insight into the people that they have become. I didn’t feel any more empathy for the characters, but it did fulfill the question of ‘why’ they were all so awful. This approach could have been contrived but I thought it was done seamlessly.

Dead Babies is a difficult read in parts because of its shocking content. Originally published in 1975, it must have been pretty outrageous. I didn’t know the publishing date when I started it and thought it was much more recently written. Apart from some of the language (particularly some wierd racist terms) this is a book that could easily have been written in the 80’s, 90’s or 00’s. You could say that it’s like a ‘posh’ Trainspotting in some parts, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Irvine Welsh had been influenced by Dead Babies. However it’s also a funny read – Giles, with his terror of losing teeth is consistently comic. Amis cuts his characters’ personalities to shreds with a knife-sharp pen and a generous dose of dark humour.

I read London Fields a few years ago, and while I found it interesting and skilfully written, it is a dense read. Dead Babies feels like you’re caught up in a fast paced, slightly hellish whirlwind of a novel. Dead Babies is superbly written. Disgusting passages are hyper-vile, but there are also sentences that are beautiful in the way that they are constructed and timed. Amis uses language in an original and surprising way and I am slightly in awe of his skill with words.

My Rating:

9 out of 10

N.B. This was a Riverside Reader’s book group read. I think it’s worth mentioning that this book divided us on ratings. Definitely a ‘Marmite’ book. You can see a summary of the group’s thoughts here.

Have you read Dead Babies or any of Amis’ other books?


The Radleys, by Matt Haig

I’ve been in a dark little world the last couple of days. Yesterday I watched quirky animated film Coraline (highly recommended) and I’ve also been reading a curious specimen of Young Adult fiction, The Radleys. Why did I find it curious? You’ll just have to read on to find out…

On the surface, The Radleys is a book about a suburban family who have a gruesome secret. A monstrous one in fact – they are vampires. ‘Meh’ I hear you sigh ‘another vampire book’. Well yes and no. Yes it is a book about vampires, but it is a very different treatment of the genre. And I say ‘genre’ but actually because of the setting and central themes of the book I would say that it’s actually much more about family, relationships, and people struggling with forbidden desires. The vampire story is a useful and entertaining plot device.

A bit about the plot. The Radleys are a family of ‘abstaining’ vampires – well Peter and Helen are (Mum and Dad), but their teenage kids Rowan and Clara are at the start of the fact unaware of the fact. They remain in the dark until one day a disturbing event turns their life upside-down.

This is a funny book, full of cultural references and a suburban setting that make you feel that a family of vampires might be living down your street. I enjoyed Haig’s dark humour and his inventive style kept me interested throughout. While The Radleys isn’t difficult to read, it does cover some challenging themes. Right from the outset it is clear that this is no happy family. Mum and Dad are struggling to communicate and the kids are having difficulties at school. Dad doesn’t seem to care about anything (except for flirting with the next door neighbour) and Mum fills her life with endless tasks to distract her from the truth.

This could all be very depressing, but as the story goes on we see the family begin to face some of their secrets and admit the lies they’ve been telling themselves. Haig’s portrait of a family in turmoil is very believable and the underlying ideas about the importance of honesty (with oneself as well as with others) are nicely delivered without being sickly-sweet. Actually this book is anything but sweet as there are plenty of dark moments where blood-lust and sexual feelings are mixed together. Haig conveys cleverly how people struggle every day with ordinary and not so ordinary passions.

My one, very minor concern with this book is that some of the cultural references feel quite UK-focused, so I hope that doesn’t impact how it translates elsewhere. On the other hand it’s a typical suburban situation that should be easily recognised in many westernised countries – and the family experiences that are described should have universal appeal.

According to publisher Canongate (who kindly sent me this copy), the film rights to the book have already been bought by Alfonso Cuaron (director of Y tu mama tambien, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban). I can imagine this working really well on the big screen, and The Prisoner of Azkaban is my favourite treatment of the Harry Potter films – it’s quite unnerving in parts, so Cuaron’s style would work for a film version of The Radleys. I hope that it doesn’t get lost amongst other vampire themed stories because it is very different.

I was surprised and impressed with The Radleys. It’s an original and funny book which also pushes boundaries and explores how people deal with difficult situations – things that I think are important in Young Adult fiction.

A book with bite!

My rating:

8 out of 10

The Passage by Justin Cronin

The Passage, Justin CroninWoman with Sainsbury’s carrier bag on the tube: “I’m baking lemon drizzle cake tonight… it’s the first time I’ve done it.”

Friend: “What you’ve never made lemon drizzle before?!”

Me (silently seething): “SHUT UP!!”

There are few things worse than getting to a gripping point in a book and then somebody else’s conversation invades your thoughts, totally breaking the spell. I suppose that’s what I should expect reading on public transport. I devoured the final few chapters of The Passage at home on the sofa, giving it the attention it deserved – and this book deserves, no demands attention. At nearly 800 large pages it is not a novel to be picked up lightly (excuse the pun). It’s sheer size and epic scope as well as the fact that it is a bit of a page-turner means that it can take over your life for a good few days or weeks depending on how fast you read. I was absorbed to the point that I found it quite frustrating having to put it down to do something else (like go to work).

The Passage is quite a difficult book to sum up without giving away the storyline too much. After all, if you are going to bother reading a massive book then, I imagine that you would like some of it to be a surprise. To be on the safe side I’ll quote the blurb:

“Amy Harper Bellafonte is six years old and her mother thinks she’s the most important person in the whole world.

She is.

Anthony Carter doesn’t think he could ever be in a worse place than death row.

He’s wrong.

FBI agent Brad Wolgast thinks something beyond imagination is coming.

It is.


I will say that it is a book about vampires, although more of the 28 Days Later variety than RPatz in Twilight. It did make me think of how I felt watching the films 28 Days Later and I Am Legend because of the way that the monsters in the book were terrifying, insensible and lacking any obvious humanity, and also because it felt quite cinematic. It doesn’t surprise me that the film rights have been sold to Ridley Scott because I can imagine it translating well to the big-screen.

However, by drawing comparisons to these films I am in danger of selling The Passage short as being unoriginal. If anything it has a very different style to any book I’ve read in a similar genre. The first half of the book sets the scene of the story in-depth, exploring the lives of key characters – Amy, Anthony Carter and agent Wolgast. Cronin creates incredibly well-developed personalities, each with their own quite tragic back story. He takes his time progressing the story, however the writing never feels slow, rather you feel fully immersed in the plot.

There is a quite sharp change in the story about halfway through the book, which I have to admit threw me. Initially I thought it felt a bit disconnected, however once I became used to this (trying not to give anything away!), I soon became absorbed again. I think this break in style is a bit of a gamble, but one that pays off – mainly because Cronin’s storytelling is so strong.

Cronin is a talented novelist. The Passage is really well written. It is a brutal book. It combines vicious bloodthirsty monsters with characters that you really don’t want to be killed off because Cronin makes you like them. He describes people and landscapes with a great deal of skill and moments of everyday beauty and  are offset against which are set against the underlying sense of horror. By the time you finish reading The Passage you really feel as if you have been on an epic journey with the characters. An impressive achievement and a totally absorbing read.

My Rating:

8 out of 10

Thanks to Simon (Savidge Reads) for my now well-thumbed copy. You can read his thoughts here.

I am the Messenger, by Markus Zusak

I read The Book Thief about a year ago and really enjoyed it, so when Simon picked another Markus Zusak book – I am the Messenger – for Riverside Readers, I was delighted.

I am the Messenger couldn’t be more different in context than The Book Thief although stylistically it is not too far removed in the way that it uses dark humour and vivid characters to convey themes of humanity and personal development. The story begins when protagonist Ed Kennedy becomes an accidental hero at the scene of a bank robbery. Afterwards he begins receiving cryptic messages delivered on playing cards. He undertakes a series of missions which bring him into contact with a range of different characters. Sometimes dangerous, sometimes beautiful – his experiences turn his life up-side down.

Forthright and down-to-earth, Ed is a likeable character although definitely an unlikely hero. A 19 year old Aussie cab driver, Ed’s life doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere special and he is acutely aware of his failings (“bad at sex”) and generally believing himself to be a hopeless case. He is constantly harangued by his rather hard-nosed mother and lives in the shadow of his dead father’s alcoholism. I found that the first person narrative in the story was really well executed and I really enjoyed Ed’s affable, self aware voice as well as his detailed descriptions of the character flaws and strengths of his close friends.

I am the Messenger has been categorised as a crossover book and I can see it sits across young adult / adult fiction genres. There is a strong message of personal growth and it is also structured and written in a clear way which makes it very readable. I did think that it was clever (if a little contrived) that the chapters corresponded to the suits and numbers of cards in a deck. These manageable chapters along with the conversational tone made for a pacy read. I do think that it managed to avoid being over emotional, however at times the underlying messages of the book were unsubtle and the developing love story hard to miss. Content-wise for the young adult category, I would say that it is probably suited at mid-teen age range. Constantly navel gazing when it comes to his problems in the love department Ed’s thoughts are often sex-oriented, although they tend to be insightful and funny rather than gratuitous. I definitely had the sense that I was stuck inside the head of a young man!

The best thing about the book was definitely some of the touching scenes and encounters with the people that Ed delivers messages to. There were also some pretty dark moments particularly at the beginning of the book which seemed designed to make the reader thing about what they might personally do in the situation. I wouldn’t say that this book changed my life but it was a really enjoyable and original read, and for me confirms that Zusak is a master of tugging at the heart strings without a saccharine-sweet approach.

My rating:

7 out of 10

What young adult or crossover fiction have you read an enjoyed?

Solar by Ian McEwan

Solar by Ian McEwanA couple of weeks ago, I went along with Simon (Savidge Reads) to hear Ian McEwan talk and got myself a copy (signed!) of his latest novel Solar.

Solar is the story of Michael Beard, a physicist and a philanderer. We enter his life in the year 2000 at the end of his fifth marriage which is failing because of his repeated affairs which have driven his wife Patrice into the arms of a builder. A former Nobel Prize-winner now gone to seed, Beard’s life is changed by an unexpected accident which solves one problem in his love-life and opens the door for him professionally. With his career invigorated, Beard is set to save the world from Global Warming if only he can look past his expanding belly and keep his complicated personal life from imploding.

The excellent character development in Solar, and the unsparing detail within the writing is exactly as I expect from Ian McEwan. The character of Michael Beard is at times loathsome, at others pitiable and the author’s treatment of him is brutal but also witty. He isn’t a protagonist that you want to succeed. He’s an anti-hero, who reminded me vaguely of Malcom Bradbury’s Howard Kirk in The History Man in his self-absorbed and egocentric outlook. I couldn’t empathise with him, but the thoroughness with which he is depicted has left a sort of stain on my mind – a very memorable creation!

The story itself does have a series of events, but it is definitely more of a chronicle of Beard’s personal journey. We follow him from his darkest days, through to a kind of new vigour and back again. Just as the world seems to be on a runaway path to destruction, Beard’s physical appearance and health is also decaying, his life held together by a lie as fragile as the Earths ecosystem is purported to be.

I enjoyed McEwan’s metaphors and the comments within the book that couldn’t help but be topical. At the beginning of the novel, Beard considers how each generation needs its own Armageddon. With the threat of the Cold War over, Climate Change may be our modern incarnation. Later, he gives a speech about motivating the masses to make changes to help the environment, commenting that it is not virtue that will move them, but self-interest and novelty; “Virtue is too passive, too narrow”.

Because of the subject that it deals with, Solar is fairly heavy in academic, science-related language. After all, Beard is a physicist, so we as a reader must share his science. At times this can make it a bit of a difficult read, even turgid in parts. I wouldn’t say that it is one of McEwan’s more ‘enjoyable’ books because the subject matter is so dark. However he does inject witty moments into the books to lighten it, such as when Beard experiences a particularly ‘sticky’ moment on a trip to the arctic (literally!). A few more doses of humour like these could have made the story flow a bit more.

Solar is a thought-provoking read – challenging in parts and funny in others. Overall it I found it a very interesting portrait of a man brilliant enough to change the world, but too corrupt to be its saviour.

My rating:

7 out of 10

Have you read or plan to read Solar?