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Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks by Christopher Brookmyre

Little, Brown 2007, 343 p.

 Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks cover

The fifth in Brookmyre’s series of novels featuring journalist Jack Parlabane and it’s the mixture as usual, flashes of mordant humour in amongst investigation of nefarious goings on. In this one though, Brookmyre’s target is a rather easy one, spiritualists/mediums/psychics – whom Brookmyre characterises, no doubt wholly justifiably, as interested only in the money their activities bring in. The set-up is that Parlabane, as a newly installed Rector of Kelvin University, has been called in as an observer of a trial of psychic phenomena at the University (a fiction which is a very thinly disguised version of my alma mater, The University, Glasgow.) The catch is that in order to receive the money to fund a Chair of Spiritual Sciences the University has to accept that it be set up under the Science faculty, as is the trial.

The level of mayhem here, and the body count, is lower than in the typical Brookmyre novel. Most of the murders occur offstage. It’s all good readable stuff; though the early musings of rival journalist Jillian Noble are a bit tedious.

Along the way we learn about the history of psychic faking and the various ruses its practitioners employ to gull the suggestible. Appropriately given this subject matter there is a certain amount of authorial misdirection going on. But we are warned by the text that nothing here is what it seems.

We are also treated to Parlabane’s observation apropos the Scottish male psyche, “Anything that gets us off discussing our emotions can only be applauded; it drives us forward, away from petty distractions, in our never-ending quest to understand everything except ourselves.”

I did notice the occurrence of phrases which Brookmyre would later use as book titles – when the devil drives; where the bodies are buried.

This isn’t pretending to be great literature but once past the Jillian Noble bits it is entertaining enough.

And the unsinkable rubber ducks? This is the term used for those who cling stubbornly to belief in psychic phenomena no matter how often or completely they are debunked or shown to be fraudulent.

Pedant’s corner:- At one point reference is made to a Kelvin Avenue. Its counterpart in the real world could be Kelvin Way (unlikely) or, more realistically, University Avenue. It is unfortunate then that, later, Brookmyre refers to University Avenue. The trial is named Project Lamda: the Greek letter is spelled lambda. Some of these following irritations may charitably be attributed to being in the narrating character’s voice. Homeopathy (whatever happened to œ or even oe?) medieval (ditto æ or ae,) “served to maximise the crescendo,” (a crescendo is a steady build-up, can you maximise a build-up?) the mean time (meantime,) a “he said” for a “she said,” off of, snuck (sneaked,) “pan breid” the usual phrase is “brown breid.”

100 Best Scottish Books (Maybe)

I came across this list a week or so ago. There are some odd choices in it. The Woolf and Orwell are surely pushing it a bit to qualify as in any way Scottish. And The King James Bible? Yes he was primarily a Scottish King but the endeavour was undertaken for reasons to do with his English realm.

Those in bold, I have read. There’s a lot I haven’t. Time to pull my socks up. (Those with a * I have now read.)

John Galt – Annals of the Parish* (1821) is on my tbr pile. I’ve read The Member and The Radical. See my review here.
Aonghas Pàdraig Caimbeul – An Oidhche Mus Do Sheòl Sinn (2003) This is written in Gaelic and hence beyond my competence.
Kate Atkinson – Behind the Scenes at the Museum – (1995) I read this years ago.
Ian Rankin – Black and Blue (1997) I’ve not read this Rankin but I have Knots and Crosses.
Laura Hird – Born Free (1999)
Tom Nairn – The Break-Up of Britain: Crisis and Neo-Nationalism (1977) Non-fiction
Frederic Lindsay – Brond (1984)
Naomi Mitchison – The Bull Calves (1947) Not a Mitchison I’ve read but I’ll need to catch up with more of her work.
Anne Donovan – Buddha Da* (2003)
Matthew Fitt – But n Ben A-Go-Go (2000) Science Fiction in Scots! Brilliant stuff.
Patrick MacGill – Children of the Dead End (1914)
AJ Cronin -The Citadel (1937) Cronin was from Dumbarton. I’ll need to read him sometime.
Frank Kuppner – A Concussed History of Scotland (1990)
Robin Jenkins – The Cone-Gatherers (1955)
Thomas De Quincey – Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1822)
Iain Crichton Smith – Consider the Lilies (1968)
R. M. Ballantyne – The Coral Island (1858) I may have read this as a child but I cannot actually remember doing so.
Louise Welsh – The Cutting Room (2002)
Robert Alan Jamieson – A Day at the Office (1991)
Archie Hind – The Dear Green Place (1966)
James Kelman – A Disaffection (1989) I read years ago. Kelman is essential.
RD Laing – The Divided Self (1960) non-fiction
William McIlvanney – Docherty (1975) Again read years ago. Again McIlvanney is essential reading.
David Hume – An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748) Philosophy. I haven’t read this.
Andrew Greig – Electric Brae (1997) A superb first novel. See my review here.
Tobias Smollett – The Expedition of Humphry Clinker* (1771) Smollet was from Renton, which is 2 miles from Dumbarton.
Violet Jacob – Flemington* (1911)
Agnes Owens – For the Love of Willie (1998) See my review here.
Ian Fleming – From Russia, With Love (1957) Fleming? Scottish? Only by extraction it seems.
Dorothy Dunnett – The Game of Kings (1961)
Denise Mina – Garnethill (1998)
James Frazer – The Golden Bough (1890)
Nancy Brysson Morrison – The Gowk Storm* (1933)
Bernard MacLaverty – Grace Notes (1997)
George Mackay Brown – Greenvoe (1972)
Alistair MacLean – The Guns of Navarone (1957) I read this many years ago. Decent enough wartime thriller.
J.K. Rowling – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997)
Joseph Conrad – Heart of Darkness (1902) Conrad was the favourite author of the original Jack Deighton (my grandfather.) I’ve read The Secret Agent and always mean to get round to more. But… Wasn’t Conrad Polish?
John Prebble – The Highland Clearances (1963) Non-fiction
Ali Smith – Hotel World (2001) See my review here.
Arthur Conan Doyle – The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902)
George Douglas Brown – The House with the Green Shutters (1901) A Scottish classic; see my review.
Willa Muir – Imagined Corners (1931)
Luke Sutherland – Jelly Roll (1998)
Chaim Bermant – Jericho Sleep Alone (1964) is on the tbr pile.
James Robertson – Joseph Knight (2003) Robertson is another of those very good present day Scottish authors. My review of Joseph Knight.
Various – King James Bible: Authorised Version (1611) ???? See comments above.
Alasdair Gray – Lanark (1981) Absolutely superb stuff. More essential reading.
Ronald Frame – The Lantern Bearers (1999)
James Boswell – The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791)
Bella Bathurst – The Lighthouse Stevensons (1999) Non-fiction. I bought this for the good lady and it’s another I keep meaning to read.
George MacDonald – Lilith (1895) The Scottish tradition is to write fantasy rather than SF. I’ll need to catch up with this.
John Burnside – Living Nowhere (2003)
Anne Fine – Madame Doubtfire (1987)
Alan Spence – The Magic Flute (1990) I’ve read his Way to Go.
Des Dillon – Me and Ma Gal (1995)
Margaret Oliphant – Miss Marjoribanks (1866)
Alan Warner – Morvern Callar (1995) I think Warner’s most recent books The Worms can Carry me to Heaven and The Deadman’s Pedal are more successful.
George Friel – Mr Alfred, MA (1972)
Neil Munro – The New Road (1914)
William Laughton Lorimer (trans.) – The New Testament in Scots (1983)
George Orwell – Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) I know it was written on Jura but Orwell? Scottish?
Alexander McArthur and H. Kingsley Long – No Mean City: A Story of the Glasgow Slums* (1935)
Alexander McCall Smith – The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (1998)
Christopher Brookmyre – One Fine Day in the Middle of the Night 1999) Brookmyre is a fun read – if a little too liberal with the violence. But this isn’t even his best book. See my review here.
Catherine Carswell – Open the Door! (1920)
Andrew O’Hagan – Our Fathers (1999) I have yet to warm to O’Hagan. My review of this book.
A.L. Kennedy – Paradise (2004) Kennedy’s more recent Day and The Blue Book impressed me more.
Muriel Spark – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) My review is here.
James Hogg – The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) The quintessential Scots novel. The döppelganger tradition starts here.
Suhayl Saadi – Psychoraag (2004)
Nan Shepherd – The Quarry Wood (1928)
Walter Scott – Rob Roy (1818) Scott more or less invented the Scots historical novel but I can only remember reading Ivanhoe.
Thomas Carlyle – Sartor Resartus (1836) Anothe disgraceful omission on my part I fear.
Toni Davidson – Scar Culture (1999)
Margaret Elphinstone – The Sea Road (2000) I’ve read Elphinstone’s A Sparrow’s Flight and The Incomer; but not this.
Jimmy Boyle – A Sense of Freedom (1977)
George Blake – The Shipbuilders (1935)
Gordon Williams – The Siege of Trencher’s Farm (1969)
Neil M Gunn – The Silver Darlings (1941) Of Gunn’s work I’ve only read The Well at the World’s End.
Ron Butlin – The Sound of My Voice (1987) I’ve not read his poetry but Butlin’s fiction is excellent. My review of The Sound of my Voice.
Robert Louis Stevenson – The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) Following on the döppelganger tradition from Hogg. Again I can’t remember if I’ve read it or just watched adapatations on TV.
Jeff Torrington – Swing Hammer Swing! (1992)
Lewis Grassic Gibbon – Sunset Song (1932) A brilliant novel. Worth its status as a classic. See my thoughts here.
John Buchan – The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915)
Virginia Woolf – To the Lighthouse (1927)
Irvine Welsh – Trainspotting (1993)
Janice Galloway – The Trick is to Keep Breathing (1989) I fear Galloway is an acquired taste. See here.
Jackie Kay – Trumpet (1998) I read this last year.
Christopher Rush – A Twelvemonth and a Day (1985)
Michel Faber – Under the Skin (2000)
David Lindsay – A Voyage to Arcturus (1920) In the Scots tradition of the fantastical but has a weirdness all its own.
Iain Banks – The Wasp Factory (1984) The much lauded Banks debut. I’ve come to think A Song of Stone may outrank it.
Adam Smith – The Wealth of Nations (1776) The foundation stone of Economics.
Compton Mackenzie – Whisky Galore (1947)
Jessie Kesson – The White Bird Passes (1958) To be reviewed within the week!
Kenneth Grahame – The Wind in the Willows (1908) I may have read this as a child but can’t honestly remember.
Alexander Trocchi – Young Adam* (1954)
James Kennaway – Tunes of Glory (1956)
John Gibson Lockhart – Adam Blair (1822)

Not the End of the World by Christopher Brookmyre

Abacus, 2009, 388p.

Not the most profound book with which to start my Read Scotland Challenge; not typical Brookmyre either as it’s set in California. First published in 1998, it imagines a millenarian run up to the end of the century.

LAPD cop Larry Freeman has a strange disappearance or four to investigate, photographer – and Motherwell supporter – Stephen Kennedy is in town to cover the American Feature Film Marketing Board meeting and take the pics for an interview with erstwhile porn actress Madeleine Witherson (the daughter of a US Senator,) failed US Presidential candidate and evangelical preacher Luther St John is whipping up the faithful for the new millennium.

St John has dubbed Witherson “The Whore of Babylon,” a symbol of the moral degradation into which he regards the US to have fallen, stirred up by the film and television industry. He has also predicted God will send a tidal wave to inundate greater Los Angeles in early 1999 as a signal of His wrath.

As to the plot, the Gazes Also, a boat belonging to the California Oceanic Research Institute, has been found crewless, a latter day Mary Celeste. Four scientists are missing. Another, Sandra Biscayne, was murdered several months before. St John sponsored both their projects. It’s not difficult to join the dots…. In the meantime religious nut-job Daniel Corby has plans of his own to sway the godless from their wicked ways. Plans which involve murder and human (self)-sacrifice. It’s a Brookmyre novel, there’s bound to be mayhem in it somewhere.

It’s well enough constructed, if not difficult to second guess, and Brookmyre carries us along admirably. He does feel the need to fill in characters’ back stories at considerable length, though, providing psychological reasons for them being the way they are, which is a little at odds with the overall thriller nature. He also manages to insert into the narrative a description of the eruption of Thera, the volcano whose explosion and subsequent tsunami destroyed the Minoan civilisation.

Religious fundamentalists (of whatever stripe) are easy targets, but none the less deserving of censure. None of them seem willing to live and let live. All of them are in the business of justifying their desire to control the behaviour – and thoughts – of others. Brookmyre doesn’t spare them.

There aren’t quite as many jokes as in a more typical Brookmyre novel and there isn’t a great deal of his usual Scots vernacular, though Kennedy has some good lines.

A mildly diverting, relatively undemanding read, even if I did spot two continuity errors. If you’re a fundamentalist it isn’t for you though.

Projected New Year Reading

Happy New Year everyone.

As I mentioned before the good lady suggested I should take part in her blog friend Peggy Ann’s Read Scotland Challenge. This post is about what I intend to read. (Whether I will actually get around to it all is another matter. There is the small matter of a review for Interzone to be got out of the way as a first priority and other reading to be done.)

When it came up I looked on this project partly as a chance to catch up on Scottish classics I have so far missed. In the frame then is Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s A Scots Quair trilogy – I have read most of his œuvre but not this, his most well-known work. The televison series made of it in the 1970s has been in my memory for a long time, though. I also have his Persian Dawns, Egyptian Nights in my tbr pile and a collection of shorter pieces under the title Smeddum many of which I have already read. I have not managed to source his The Calends of Cairo and doubtless if I did it would be horribly expensive.

Another Scottish classic I haven’t read is J MacDougall Hay’s Gillespie, which lies on my desk as I write this but, according to Alasdair Gray, has the “worst first chapter that ever introduced a novel worth reading.” I consider myself warned.

If I can get hold of a copy then John Galt’s The Member and the Radical will go on the list.

As far as modern stuff is concerned there are multiple novels by Christopher Brookmyre and Allan Massie on my shelves and as yet unread, two by Alan Warner, Andrew Crumey’s Mr Mee and James Robertson’s latest The Professor of Truth.

Plenty to be going on with.

We’ll see how it goes.

Natural Causes by James Oswald

Penguin, 2013, 448 p

So what am I doing reading a piece of straight crime fiction?

Well, one of the good lady’s blog correspondents (far away in the USA) discovered Oswald’s writing on the internet (Natural Causes was self-published and getting good sales before Penguin took it up.) When she told us Oswald (who is a Fife farmer) would be signing copies at Kirkcaldy’s Waterstone’s the good lady offered to get her an autographed copy. We duly went along to do that and so I’ve met him. He seems a nice guy. The good lady had first dibs on the book – she reads a lot of vintage crime, not so much of the modern stuff – and when she put it down I thought I’d pick it up.

Newly promoted Detective Inspector Anthony McLean has the sort of problems with his bosses and colleagues you might expect from viewing TV detective series. His back story involves the death of his parents when he was four (and, much later, of his wife.) He is assigned to the investigation of a young girl found ritually murdered in a basement. The trouble is she was killed around sixty years ago and the trail is cold. Meanwhile several high profile Edinburgh citizens are being murdered in a strange way, their killers then committing suicide. As a result McLean spends a lot of time attending autopsies.

Oswald brings all this stuff together impressively well for a first novelist. If plot is the main attraction of detective stories then this one does it admirably. At times I was reminded of Christopher Brookmyre but it is less cartoonish and there are fewer jokes (for which Natural Causes is the better.) What I always find difficult about this sort of thing, though, is the high body count. Edinburgh, while a Gothic novelist’s paradise, truly isn’t that dangerous a city to live in – at least since Burke and Hare were apprehended.

Oswald has a good way with description and his characters aren’t wooden. Having McLean say, “Oh no you don’t!” twice is twice too many, though. There were also a couple of times when the connections were too apparent a bit too early and at least two continuity errors which a good proof read ought to have picked up.

The hinge of the novel is the ritual killing and any connection it might have to the present day. The hint of supernatural involvement in the ongoing deaths was for me the least convincing aspect of the whole tale. But I’m even less into that sort of stuff than I am to crime novels.

While, as you may expect from a first novel, there was the odd infelicity, Oswald clearly has talent, can hold the attention and make you turn the pages. Crime readers will certainly appreciate him. I did; and I’m not his target audience.

Things that irritate pedants section:-
Sunk:sprung count, 2:1 respectively, plus the common misuse of epicentre and a “who’s” for a “whose .” Not many considering it’s a debut novel.

Bedlam by Christopher Brookmyre

Orbit, 2013, 378p.

Brookmyre’s oeuvre has up to now been the crime/thriller novel, albeit tinged with humour. Bedlam is his first foray into Science Fiction. I came across an as yet unlent copy in my local library so thought, why not?

Medical technology company Neurosphere’s employee Ross Baker, shortly after discovering by chance his girl-friend is pregnant and without talking to her about it, has a new type of brain-scan and wakes up inside a computer game which he quickly recognises as he was an avid gamer in his past. Not long after this he is killed there but immediately “€œrespawns” to start all over again. He soon finds a way out into a series of virtual worlds which are in the process of takeover by an organisation dubbed the Integrity which is citing a phenomenon known as “corruption” to seek by force to keep these worlds forever separate one from another. In these digital adventures Baker adopts his former multiple game-player name of Bedlam. There are, though, occasional chapters set in the “€œreal”€ world where Baker is/was in conflict with his boss over the rights of digital consciousnesses.

My reservations about stories set within virtual worlds were set out in the third paragraph of my comments on Iain Banks’€™s Surface Detail. Briefly, if there is no real jeopardy, if there is no danger of death, what threat is there? Beyond tedium of course.

Unfortunately most of Bedlam is set within the virtual worlds and as such is seriously unbalanced. I could not suspend my disbelief and found myself longing for the “€œreal”€ world. In this regard the pregnancy element is a rather transparent way to try to enlist our sympathies with the digitally trapped Baker. Moreover Brookmyre’€™s style at times jars badly with the scenario. SF and humour are notoriously ill-matched bedfellows. A successful amalgam of the two is very difficult to achieve. Brookmyre has made little or no concession to the peculiar demands of writing SF and has adopted a similar tone to that in his thrillers. There were also signs of the book being pitched towards the US market (tic-tac-toe, medieval, asshole.)

Brookmyre’s typical readers may enjoy the virtual scenes – or not – but as SF Bedlam is perfunctory at best. Perhaps gamers will take to it.

A Snowball in Hell by Christopher Brookmyre

Abacus, 2009, 393p.

 A Snowball in Hell cover

A Snowball in Hell revisits the main characters from Brookmyre’s previous two books featuring Angelique de Xavia. As well as the detective herself we have Simon Darcourt, the Rank Bajin from A Big Boy Did it and Ran Away and Zal Innez from The Sacred Art of Stealing.

Darcourt has come back from the dead and commits mayhem on various minor celebrities. A De Xavia disillusioned with her job in France is enticed back to the UK to take him on but realises she needs the help of Innez, now making legal rather than criminal use of his talents for misdirection, to do this. By way of illustration Brookmyre gives us glimpses into the uses and history of the magician’s art.

In the novel he also excoriates rent-a-quote anti-pc newspaper columnists, the vacuousness of early Saturday evening entertainment programmes, their contestants and “reality” TV shows. Easy targets perhaps, but arguably necessary ones. In this regard the sarcastic plea for Take That to re-form sits oddly four years after the novel was published, as does a mention of Jade Goody.

There are twists and turns aplenty as the plot rattles along but much less humour than in other Brookmyre books.

Be My Enemy by Christopher Brookmyre

Or: Fuck This For A Game Of Soldiers. Orbit, 2005, 391p.

 Be My Enemy cover

Being the continuing adventures of Jack Parlabane, investigative journalist and gobshite.

After The Road To Berlin I needed some light relief. Brookmyre’€™s comedic touch is still here though less so than in others of his I have read. The plot – as in most Brookmyre novels – doesn’t really bear much scrutiny being merely an excuse to let the mayhem begin. Parlabane is sent by his newspaper to review the experience provided by a new provider of those team bonding outward bound courses. The paintball sessions soon grow more sinister and the participants discover what has brought them all there.

File under: diverting entertainment.

Sadly there were two “shoe-in‘€s plus two examples of that mishearing, “off his own back.” (My dictionary gives it as “€œoff his own bat”. Maybe Brookmyre never played cricket at school.)

I did also notice an, “€œAin’€™t I?”€ Was this perhaps Brookmyre’s way of avoiding that grammatical idiocy, “€œAren’€™t I?”€

The Angels’€™ Share

Sixteen Films, Why Not Productions and Wild Bunch. Directed by Ken Loach.

I saw this on one of my occasional jaunts to the local part-time cinema, which is a theatre most of the time.

This apparently won the Jury Prize at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival.

This reminded me a lot of Christopher Brookmyre’s books. Comedy is mixed in with violence but here the violence isn’€™t overplayed. It starts off with a very funny scene set on a railway platform where a remote Station Master berates a drunken would-be passenger over the tannoy to stand back as there’€™s a train coming. The bemused recipient of this warning behaves as you might expect but it‒s very well played. This character, Albert, is the butt of a lot of the humour in the film as he is presented as incredibly thick.

The plot revolves around a group of four convicts on community pay-back sentences being introduced to the arcane delights of whisky tasting by their overseer, Harry, a somewhat unbelievably sympathetic character. One of their number, Robbie, has just become a father and wishes to leave behind his life of brushes with the law and make a stable home for his girlfriend and child. He turns out to have an excellent nose for whisky and hatches a scheme to (ahem) spirit away – the angels’€™ share is a whisky industry term for the portion of a barrel which evaporates between it being laid down and finally tapped off so the phrase seems apposite – some of a recently discovered barrel of an extremely rare and well regarded whisky.

The movie does trade a lot in Scottish cliché – whisky, kilts, Irn Bru, violence -€“ but is very entertaining. A knowledge of West of Scotland demotic and a tolerance for expletives are necessary for full appreciation, though.

Boiling A Frog by Christopher Brookmyre

Abacus, 2006*, 402p.

 Boiling A Frog cover

The usual Brookmyre shenanigans, this time involving the nexus between politicians in the then new Scottish Parliament, the tabloid press and religious organisations. Boiling A Frog is a third outing for Jack Parlabane; except outing is not quite le mot juste, as for most of the book Parlabane is in prison after breaking into the headquarters of the Catholic Church in Scotland.

The book is flawed by the fact that the plot mostly happens in flashback or offstage while Parlabane is in jail and concerns a conspiracy to restore the primacy of “family values” to public life by framing various MSPs. It was as a by-product of the conspiracy and an unsettled state of mind due to problems in his private life that Parlabane was trapped into attempting the break-in.

If you stop to think for a minute the whole thing becomes unbelievable but believability has never really been the point with Brookmyre. You go along for the ride.

While not as amusing as other Brookmyre stories Boiling a Frog nevertheless has its moments.

Nowhere in the text is the strange title alluded to. An explanation is, however, given in the author’s note before the start.

*I read a reprint. The book was originally published in 2000.

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