April 29, 2016

THE ILLUSTRATED MAN

by Ray Bradbury
294 pages, Harper Voyager

Review by Pat Black

I feel like a spoiled child. Ray Bradbury has disappointed me.

He’s my favourite uncle; so imagine the growing horror on his big, friendly face when he visits at Christmas, and I tear open the wrapping paper, and… what’s this? I don’t want this! Where’s the good stuff?

This is horribly ungrateful, and I do feel ashamed, because The Illustrated Man is stuffed with classic tales. Part of my disappointment comes through having read a few of them before, either alongside other authors or as part of the mega-compilation put together by Everyman a couple of years ago. But the main factor was the format and the framing device for the stories; it’s such a let-down.

The Illustrated Man has been a looming presence in my reading life. Not to have read it seemed as silly as not having seen Citizen Kane or Gone With The Wind (I’m guilty on both counts… yes, I know). I knew about the concept – that a man has tattoos all over his body, and that the ink comes to life after dark, to reveal the stories behind each piece of art. How brilliant. How very Ray Bradbury.

But the actual story, “The Illustrated Man”, does not appear in The Illustrated Man. I’m presuming Bradbury wrote the longer piece after the publication of the book of the same name – after all, it is a very good idea - but surely they should have added it in later editions? It seems as daft as having Meat Loaf release Bat out of Hell without “Bat Out of Hell” in the track listings. Or “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” appearing on The White Album. You get the idea.  

So we start off with a prologue where a narrator meets the illustrated man himself on a hillside in the night. I want to make a wee joke here about young men curling up for a sleep beside half-naked body builders they meet in a park, but such things can happen in Ray Bradbury’s world without the inner spoiled child turning into a sniggering schoolboy.

We see the ink on the man’s body morph and change into images which introduce the stories in the book. It’s a cracking frame for what is to follow, but it is quickly dropped after story number two, with the illustrated man only returning for a brief coda. This seemed a bit of a waste. The framing device should have been a story in itself, unfolding as we go along, with the illustrated man trying to find the witch who cursed him. It seems a waste, otherwise.

The stories themselves don’t seem to fit in with the concept of the illustrated man, either. Cursed by a witch to have living, changing stories inked on his skin, this man belongs in the realm of the fantastical Ray Bradbury – the man who wrote “Homecoming” or “Uncle Einar” or “The Fog Horn”. But the stories in The Illustrated Man are mostly science fiction, a continuation of the themes and concerns of The Martian Chronicles. The gears grind a little. The working parts could have been put together a bit better.

Look… I know uncle Ray brought it all the way through from Los Angeles! I can’t help being disappointed! His stuff is usually so brilliant!

We begin with one of Bradbury’s very best, “The Veld”, where a futuristic mum and dad build a nursery for their two children which prefigures the holodeck on Star Trek. It creates vivid, 3D representations of places and things, down to the wind in your hair and the scent in your nostrils. The idea is that it’ll show the children Narnia or Oz or some other kind of fairy tale kingdom. But, little buggers being little buggers, the mother and father are disturbed to see that their children have recreated an African savannah, where lions prowl in the long grass. What is it that the big cats are eating?

The central is shock is pure Twilight Zone, but the story’s main concern touches on Ray Bradbury’s lifelong dislike of gadgetry, new technology and its dehumanising effect. You can only hope he lived out his final years without having truly engaged with social media and marketing-led journalism. “That’s so horrible even I couldn’t have imagined it!”

“Mars and rocket ships” sci-fi of the 1950s turns some modern readers off. Bradbury himself dismissed such criticism, saying his stories were fantasies, and don’t belong in the same geometrically precise brainbox as Isaac Asimov or Arthur C Clarke. “Kaleidoscope” is a fine example of this – a sublime piece where several astronauts are unceremoniously torn out of their rocket ship, spilling out into certain death in space. In their dwindling radio contact through their helmets, the spacemen journey from bickering and acting out their grievances to a sense of acceptance, and even epiphany.

“The Other Foot” is a Martian Chronicles-style effort, which sees Mars as an interplanetary ghetto. Black people have gotten fed up with their treatment back on Earth, and have found peace and community on the red planet. But Earth, torn apart by nuclear war, soon casts its envious eyes towards Mars’ green fields and blue skies, and a delegation of white men arrives to seek asylum for the motherworld’s survivors. This story has a resonance far beyond the contemporaneous civil rights struggle, with its notion of rich white men as refugees, relying on the charity of people they abused. It firmly plants Bradbury on the side of the angels.

“The Man” saw a surprisingly Christian Ray Bradbury, playing with New Testament imagery and mythology. A space captain is looking to arrest a mysterious man with a message who is travelling across colonised worlds in the cosmos, changing the way people think. The Man is infuriatingly out of reach on every planet the vindictive captain lands on – he’s always just missed him. It’s strange that Bradbury, who had what I would recognise as humanist impulses, reveals such overt Christian leanings. In other editions of this book, I understand “The Fire Balloons” is included, which seeks to look at how divinity can survive in a universe with life forms completely different to humans, and not, it would seem, created in the image of a creator. Again, it’s curiously sympathetic to the business of men in dog collars, but this one was cut out of the UK version I bought.

Hard sci-fi fans’ toes would curl at “The Long Rain”, which sees a set of explorers travelling through a bedraggled Venus, where it rains hard, all the time. They’re searching for the sun domes, dry, warm refuges where people can shelter out of the rain. But the rain messes not only with their equipment, but also their heads. The tap-tap-tap of the deluge destroys everything, eventually, and some of the explorers simply give up.

The setting doesn’t even remotely resemble the real Venus, so I can imagine it might have irritated some readers, but its concept was intriguing. We’ve all been caught out in the rain before.

“The Rocket” was superb whimsy, where a family man has just enough money saved for a single ticket for a trip into space – but who should go? Should it be him? Should it be mama? Which of the children shall take the trip of a lifetime?

The solution to the problem soon arrives, but it doesn’t require any rocket fuel or oxygen supplies. This one made me smile. Global travel has become a signifier of status more than ever before. And with the advent of social media, something that was once considered mind-crushingly dull – being subjected to a slideshow of other people’s holiday photos – is now something most of us either endure or participate in, in HD quality detail, every single day. But for many, the economic reality of backpacking in Vietnam, going off-piste in the French Alps or even that old shrieking buzzard, “taking a gap year”, is an impossible widescreen dream. Uncle Ray – a man who never had a driving licence and travelled everywhere by bus or bicycle – would have sympathised with people whose passport pages are somewhat unillustrated.

“The Fox and the Forest” was the book’s pulpiest story, but it’s also one of the most accomplished. A married couple are enjoying a Mexican fiesta in the 1930s, until they notice a strange man following them. They have come on holiday, but not in any conventional means. They’re time travellers, having escaped into the past to escape their jobs while the people of the future destroy themselves with warfare. The strange man has come to bring them back home; but they don’t much fancy the return trip. This one was tightly plotted, but also curiously evocative of Hemingway.

“No Particular Night Or Morning” sees Bradbury re-examine another fascinating theme; how humanity will operate out among the stars, where age-old mental anchors such as dawn, dusk and even up and down have no meaning. A crewman aboard a spacecraft begins to crack up as it journeys through the stars. There’s nothing to keep him fixed; so his mind begins to drift, and dwindle. The notion of a future played out among the stars inflamed Bradbury’s imagination, but it also brought out the melancholic side of his storytelling. He saw space travel as, pardon the pun, alienating.

“Marionettes Inc.” was another Twilight Zone-style shocker, where a man finds out his neighbour has bought a robotic doppelganger, so that he can step out every now and again for a drink without his wife giving him heat. Where the story is headed was fairly obvious, but I was most struck by Bradbury’s concept of an automaton – a brain made of platinum, copper wiring, all pistons and clanking joints under the skin. This was before the age of the microchip, I realised, but Bradbury’s fears over automation and artificial intelligence would have been exactly the same had he been writing in the present day.

“The City” and “Zero Hour” have apocalyptic things on their mind. In “The City”, the deserted metropolis the human crew discover has been the victim of age-old human dabblings – and it has revenge on its mind.

“Zero Hour” takes a quick snapshot of how you might react if you were told that the end of the world was imminent. Funnily enough, we were told this just last night, with a lump of rock which would have been a potential extinction event had it made planetfall whizzing just past Earth, according to some reports – a hair’s breadth in cosmic terms. Bradbury was writing in the shadow of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with the Cold War cooling nicely in the background, so nuclear annihilation was an understandable preoccupation. This fear, which I remember being ever-present as I grew up in the 1980s, is something we’ve allowed ourselves to forget, even though all those missiles are still there, pointed straight at you and me.

We finish up with another outright horror story, “The Playground”, where we rediscover that the happiest days of your life are nothing of the sort.

There are other tales included, not all of which are as striking or effective as the ones I’ve described, but all of which have Bradbury’s unique poetry and purpleness. “Usher II” looks at someone trying to recreate the world of Edgar Allan Poe in a theme park during a time when fiction and fantasy are completely banned. A bit much, you might think, until you remember North Korea. “The Visitor” sees a man with unique psychic abilities arriving on Mars, where men are subject to a strange disease, with their minds crying out for intellectual sustenance. And then there’s “The Highway”, where a farmer sees a stream of people pouring out of the United States, with the apocalypse following behind.

These are lonely stories, in a lot of ways, featuring people outcast or at odds with their times. Lots of these tales are shaded a very particular kind of blue. You wonder if Bradbury was a lonely man.

So, I didn’t like the way it was packaged, but for The Illustrated Man the sum of its parts is far greater than the whole. As a short story collection it’s just about on par with The Martian Chronicles, but some way behind The Golden Apples of the Sun. However, the framing device was a waste – it seemed sort of tacked-on, and had it been fleshed out it could have been brilliant.

That said, I can’t knock the individual stories. They were penned by one of the best storytellers of all time, after all. Ungrateful wretch I am, I might have thrown a tantrum at Uncle Ray when I unwrapped his toys, but I still played with them and loved them anyway.  

April 19, 2016

THE DARKEST OF SUNS WILL RISE

by Brian Sfinas
174 pages, Heartless Press

Review by Bill Kirton

This is a teasing, tantalizing book. Part of that may be because I’m not familiar with the conventions of the genre, but I know enough about it to sense that in this instance, the writer may actually be testing and stretching those conventions. The sci-fi essentials are there – space travel, extra-terrestrial entities, a close dependence of humans on machines and a  society which has clearly evolved from some of the processes and preoccupations that prevail today. But there’s also a deliberate confusion, passages which challenge accepted social and moral behaviours, a reluctance to ascribe qualities such as heroism and treachery to exclusive sources. Motives and reciprocations overlap, acts of simple human jealousy sit among and are mixed with threats of potentially cataclysmic conflicts which may only be resolved by the premeditated creation of black holes. As Mr Spock might say, ‘It’s sci-fi, Jim, but not as we know it’. In fact, the impression I’ve retained from my reading of it is that it is so layered with events whose significance operates simultaneously at many separate levels that it might need several readings to understand all the author’s intended themes.

It’s certainly unconventional in its form and narrative techniques.  Others have compared The Darkest  Of Suns will Rise with the epistolary novel, but examples of that genre seldom offered as many distinct viewpoints as this author exploits to convey the different layers and elements of his story. His principals share their interior and exterior monologues with us and are, in turn, probed and ‘explained’ by the advanced alien civilisation which has access to their rational and irrational thought processes. Between their diary entries and written interpersonal communications are extracts from databases of the type into which Wikipedia will evolve, written reports of serving officers, records of thought processes infiltrated and interpreted by the alien consciousness, items of correspondence. In other words, there are many voices, many opinions, many narrators. And this, too, must be a deliberate choice of the author. We’re told so often that a writer must show and not tell and, in my opinion bizarrely, there’s a reluctance to grant authors omniscience. The creation is theirs, everything in it is a product of their own thinking so of course they’re omniscient. The trick, the skill, is to parcel up that omniscience in such a way that it doesn’t intrude. The technique adopted here is to assign different aspects of the narrative – the internal fears and feelings of characters, the precise nature of the prevailing social conditions and structures, the policies driving the various factions, the actual events which occur and provoke reactions and plot developments – to appropriate sources: diaries, reports, conversations, internal monologues. Yes, it means the point of view changes repeatedly, but the change is signaled in a clear, bold headline immediately before the relevant passage so there should be no confusion in the reader’s mind about where the information’s coming from. The overall impression is of a carefully designed mosaic representing the preoccupations, sensations and perceptions of the story’s principals.

I know I’m focusing on the formal aspects of the book, but that’s because I found them intriguing. I’m also reluctant to summarise the plot because I don’t want to risk any spoilers and I think in any case that just ‘telling the story’ would do the novel an injustice. There aren’t any goodies and baddies in the conventional sense. The aliens, The Prognosticate, have infiltrated humanity and helped it to what, on the surface at least, seems to be a utopian peace. Illness has been banished, our despoliation of the earth has been reversed and there are logical futuristic developments of familiar everyday processes. The internet has become internets, nanotechnology has solved most of the problems which prevail today, religions have been superseded. But, perhaps as a result of all this, life seems dull, too easy, featureless. One of the elements which may disturb some readers is one character’s need for pain, an extreme masochism which makes excruciating demands. Objectively, in this monotonously perfect existence, it is perhaps a signal of the forces that have been suppressed but not extinguished. And, indeed, there are those who don’t accept the pacifying intrusions of the aliens. They are the Orphanage, led by a Mother, and they have not rejected the old Gods, so conflict is still a factor in this utopia – at private and public levels.

And, in the end, perhaps that is the book’s main message. The couple at its centre enjoy a relationship of domination and submission, the themes of subjugation and control are constantly restated. Maybe we’re not made for peaceful, unthreatened existence. We need to fight, to feel, to be challenged. But that ‘perhaps’ and that ‘maybe’ are important. The book’s teasing complexities may have other significations, different interpretations. What does seem clear is that the author has not taken an easy route here, but he has created a totally absorbing, well-constructed, poetic examination of the interplay of very mysterious forces.

April 11, 2016

THE LONG WAY TO A SMALL, ANGRY PLANET

by Becky Chambers
400 pages, Hodder

Review by Pat Black

If I achieve nothing else today, hopefully I will have made you want to listen to Deep Purple’s “Space Truckin’”. Alternatively, you could check out a strange and wonderful book, which shares the same themes, though not the same Jon Lord organ riff.

Becky Chambers’ debut, The Long Way To A Small, Angry Planet, is described as a space opera, and I guess it carries those notes. Far into the future, humans have moved out into that great big galaxy out there. We’re calling ourselves Exodans, having left our home and spread out into space, meeting the vast array of intelligent alien life forms out there. The Exodans trade, they mingle, they prosper, and yes, they make love with their new neighbours. In this book.

Alien sex. Yep. That got your attention.

“Space opera” might make you think of ray guns and battleships, quests and conquests, goodies and baddies, heroism, villainy, square-jawed heroes and babes, all that stuff. You can take this as either a warning or a hearty recommendation: there isn’t much of that in this book. It has iMAX-ready epic scope, but this is a funny, intimate piece of work about a space crew, and their big and small dramas out in the cosmos. It might be a sitcom without the outright comedy; it might also be a soap opera, without the kitchen sinks. 

Our story centres on one ship, The Wayfarer, whose purpose is to “punch” through space and time to create tunnels. This allows for long-distance interstellar travel through the territory of the Galactic Commons, a sort of outer space European Union. The ship, under the command of Ashby Santoso, is hired for a job to open up a channel on the far side of the galaxy to an uptight, fighty race no-one much likes, in a bid to foster better links and communications.

I want to describe Ashby as a sort of square-jawed space captain type, Captain Kirk mingled with Mal from Firefly, and maybe a little bit of the late Han Solo. I imagine him as looking like these guys, but… he’s not, really. We learn quite quickly that the human diaspora has long tired of warfare, having ruined their own place with it in the species’ infancy. Humans are peaceniks now – not quite space hippies, but certainly not cowards, either. They just don’t care much for warfare; they have a horror of it. Although Ashby has to make decisions and keep his crew in line, he’s not one for firing his ray gun or losing his temper. This makes him a great rarity in space opera: the ideal boss.

Our “in” when it comes to life on board The Wayfarer is Rosemary, who has been hired to do accounts and admin. Through her, we are introduced to the human/alien menagerie on board; Kizzy and Jenks, the two human techs; Sissix, the pilot, a feathered reptile from Andaria; Dr Chef, a giant caterpillar-looking thingy who is, as his title implies, part-chef, part-medic; Corbin, who looks after the algae which keeps the ship working, and also the office *rsehole; and Ohan, a dual personality locked in the body of a weird four-legged creature, the navigator who handles the awesome task of pushing the ship through the fabric of space and time. And the whole is kept running by Lovey, the ship’s AI.

It turns out that Jenks the tech is in love with Lovey; he sleeps next to her generator, and talks to her all the time, synching his mind with hers. Lovey, who has a distinct personality, reciprocates. He secretly hopes to create a synthetic body to download Lovey’s personality into, and from there, one reasonably supposes, to help himself to some robot lovin’.

Sissix’s species are a sensual lot, big into touching, petting and ultimately coupling with anyone who’s up for it. Corbin, in contrast, is an uptight pain in the backside, but he also has a deadly secret which causes some big trouble for the crew later on.

Dr Chef is a kindly big soul, and it was here that Chambers really stretched out, describing how simple gestures or a change in colouring can denote mood, expression, psychological states; utterly alien, yet still familiar and easily interpreted. And then there’s Ashby, who is having a fling with a strange, bad-ass alien mercenary type, who has to sneak into and out of the ship on some pretence or other in order for them to be together.

It isn’t all canteen gossip and email flirting. There are bursts of danger and violence. When the ship is boarded by horrible space pirates, this is the point that millions of writers would have pushed the story in one direction, probably involving a bit of shouting and shooting. Chambers, to her great credit, instead nudges it to places you wouldn’t expect.

Later on, the ship must weather heavy fire from other alien nasties. But if you’re coming to this book expecting some peeeowww peeeoowww – and we all like a bit of peeeowww peeeooowww now and again – then you may end up disappointed. It’s not overly fussed with fighting and shooting. There’s plenty of drama, loads of future tech, and a fair bit of intergalactic political intrigue, but if you’re expecting some Peter F Hamilton or even Iain M Banks stuff, forget it.

What I liked best about this book was the sense of family it engendered among the crew. There sometimes comes a moment if you’ve been working at the same place for a long time when you realise – not without horror – that you have come to know your colleagues as well as family members or close friends. Indeed, you might have spent more time in their company than you have with your loved ones. While you wouldn’t place them on the same shelf, exactly, there are bound to be strange fraternal ties with long-term work-mates, and maybe even a little bit of love, too – even though you could walk away from them tomorrow if the right offer comes in. You know just about everything there is to know about them, and vice versa. In their own way, and though it might pain you to admit it, they are family. So it proves aboard The Wayfarer.

Plus, I was tickled by how normal scenarios were given extraordinary framings. Ashby’s love affair with the alien is meant to be a secret, but the whole crew knows about it, and in great detail. They love it when she arrives on board; love the gossip; love speculating about what’s going to happen next for the star-entwined lovers. Much as you would if one of your mates started going out with someone, and they started to appear on the social scene.

So, too, for Jenks and Lovey. This isn’t a deep dark secret. It’s something shared between peers in the same social group, as it would be back home. During one violent incident, when a little blood is spilled, it reminded me of the horror and sympathy that might be elicited when one of your mates gets punched on a night out. I want to say it’s a feminine reaction to an explosion of nastiness, but that’s reductive and also sexist. It’s a sensitive handling of an unpleasant event. The whole book is very sensitive. It cares about its characters, even the irksome, rule-book junkie Corbin.

In the same vein, when a boarding party touches down on an alien planet beset with shrieking giant insects, I expected an action scene with ray guns and peril. Instead, the party meets new mates, makes friends, and settles down to a barbecue underneath a protective shield dome. I would bet anything that Chambers thought of this scene while she was at a barbecue, swatting away bugs and wishing she had some sort of heat shield to keep them off. I imagine this was in Scotland, and the bugs were midges.

Then, another landing party lands on Sissix’s homeworld, where we are introduced to part of her complex family unit as well as some adorable alien babies. This leads to a truly outstanding gag when the young Andarians are allowed to approach the humans, breaching their strange sense of tactile propriety.  

Sissix is a wonderful creation – just odd enough to be fascinating, but with what we might recognise as humanity, too. The Andarians enjoy sex with multiple partners of any gender, in any old way. The elegant, feathery reptiles often have to be reminded that humans are a bit funny about intimacy and touching, and they scoff at the monkeys’ odd hang-ups, such as hiding their genitals. Despite humans’ innate shyness in these matters, it seems that anything goes in the future, and humans and aliens can, and do, get it on out in space.

The book openly questions why so many creatures in the universe might have similar characteristics between so many disparate worlds, despite being separated by great gulfs of time and space – feathers and scales, for example, or eyeballs and limbs – and also dares to provide an answer. Chambers speculates that this phenomenon might also extend to feelings, which are, literally, universal.

The crew’s journey does take them to the place that’s mentioned in the title, but this is only a matter of connecting A to B, and giving our characters something to do. LWTASAP is a quirky number, and possibly not what you were expecting when you signed up. But you’ll be so glad you made the trip. 

April 5, 2016

THE SNOWMAN

The Snowman
by Jo Nesbo
576 pages, Vintage

(This review is of the unabridged audio edition, read by Sean Barrett)

Review by Pat Black

Audiobooks. I’m big into them, now. We’re setting foot into a whole new world.

Stepping gingerly into my aural canal; taking care not to tangle your boots in the rough gorse at the entrance; hammering crampons into my cochlea; trudging ever east – fudgy underfoot – in that slow, cotton wool-stuffed journey towards my brain.

I was already cheating on my regular bookshelf with my Kindle. The two had come to an understanding, if not quite a truce. The bookshelf knows that it has the quality and the sturdiness I will forever come back to and treasure, but the Kindle can always be counted on for a filthy 10 minutes before bed, or an even dirtier thumb-trembler at lunchtime.  

Now I’m cheating on them both with audiobooks in the car. When will the house come crashing down?

In truth I wish I’d made this switch a couple of years ago, when I first started a fairly long commute by car. Circumstances at the moment do not allow for much in the way of reading time. It gets so that I dream of having a holiday somewhere with a beach and blue water; when asked why, I honestly reply that it’s to clear my books backlog.

I think I might need help – actual hired help, personal readers to go through the unread books round the clock, before reporting back to me later. I’d be a sort of Barbara Cartland in reverse.

Anyway, this was my second foray into the world of Audible.com, thanks to a particularly thoughtful Christmas pressie, and it was just as enjoyable as my first. 

Jo Nesbo’s books were a familiar sight on three-for-two tables at Waterstone’s and elsewhere in the wake of Stieg Larsson’s stunning post-mortem success roughly a decade ago. A few times I was almost tempted. Clever marketing, anyway; on the front cover was an image of an attractive, if somewhat unsettled looking girl with dark eyes and hair. Salander, you think, almost subliminally. The cover and the author’s name scream “Scandie Noir” at you, and that’s exactly what you get. To be fair to Nesbo, his work was around long before Stieg Larsson’s, but this is the book that launched him globally.

The Snowman is centred on the Norwegian capital Oslo, and stars the grizzled police inspector Harry Hole. According to the audiobook, you pronounce Hole as “hooleh”, close to “hula”, and not, er, “hole”, as in the thing in your bucket, or your shoe, or, eh…

The same was true of the author’s name, which is more like “Nesb’” - the word truncated after the B - rather than “Nesboh”. This was according to the pronunciation used by the actor Sean Barrett, who narrates the whole book, anyway. It may not actually be the way it’s intended to be spoken, though I don’t doubt the actor has done his research.

Within minutes of pressing Play, thoughts of Toast of London were battling the spoken word for supremacy in my mind, but I don’t say this to mock or belittle Barrett – it’s a brilliant performance, and we’ll come back to that shortly.

The novel is a... *paste crime novel cliché here*. Thrill ride? Roller-coaster? Page-turner? It is all of these things. How about “a thoroughly entertaining and engaging psycho-thriller”?

Someone is picking off women who are married with children - striking when the first snows of winter fall. The women often vanish without trace, although there is one ghastly exception which shows us how sadistic the murderer is. The killer leaves a calling card at the scene of the disappearances, which gives him, or her, their tabloid name: a snowman, staring at the windows of the house. 

You will find a couple of nits to pick. A big one is Hole: brilliant but maverick detective, bit of a loner, drink problem, haunted by the past, still has loads of sex. He could be a Scandie Inspector Rebus, but then Rebus comes from familiar stock in his own right. Inspector Cliché.

“Stock” is a key element of The Snowman. The very uncomfortable topic of unfaithful mothers and cuckolded fathers unwittingly raising children who are not their own is a big factor, as is a rare genetic blood disorder which could ultimately point towards the killer's identity. 

Or not.

Suspects come and go, some arousing suspicion, some avoiding it. There's a lot of “hey - this person's the killer! No, wait, that's a rod silde - this person's the killer! No, wait...”

This helps muddy the waters sufficiently to allow the real killer to slither past the reader undetected. They appear on your radar, of course, but Nesbo skilfully makes you doubt the readings. As such, The Snowman just about passes the key test of any mystery: Did you guess who did it? Well, kinda, but they were on a shortlist, and I was never sure, even after the moment they were unmasked.

This is the ludic element of every mystery, thriller and whodunnit. There’s a game going on between writer and reader, and the story has to dispense with logic at certain times in order to fool you. It's a board game, with a host of suspects lined up, motive attached, and all with a potential part to play. In a sense, if the author wrong-foots you, they have to strain credibility in order to make it all fit. It all makes sense in the end. It’s a big novel, and Nesbo handles the story and its pay-off well. In considering this, I thought of Ian Rankin; he claims he often has no idea who the killer is when he starts writing, the better to surprise himself – and hopefully, his readers.

This book felt like a series I'd read before owing to one or two stock types, but characterisation is well handled. Hole is memorably described as having a “voice like a lawn-mower”, and I'll praise Sean Barrett's performance in that respect right away.

Then there's Markus Skarra, Hole's colleague on the force. He's blunt, rude and faintly moronic, fulfilling a sort of Inspector Lestrade function, blundering in and getting things wrong, allowing Hole to narrow his eyes and make the correct assessment. Skarra reminded me of more policemen of my acquaintance than Hole did. And yet, despite some shocking sexism when he makes a terrible pass at a colleague, I had a sneaking liking for Skarra.

But the chief pleasure in The Snowman for me was in the performance of the actor narrating the tale. I was tickled to find out that Sean Barrett played the Priest With The Very Boring Voice in the Father Ted Christmas special, a shocking 20 years ago now. His voice certainly isn’t boring here, but it’s memorably rich and deep. There’s a couple of Steven Toast-style moments – I’m sure that isn’t how you pronounce “flaccid”, fella – but I admired the way he slipped into and out of different characters’ voices without sounding silly. By and large he goes for a Scandinavian burr for Hole and his own Actor English accent for everyone else, but I was tickled when he opted for northern English tones for Skarra. For all I know, that’s what people in parts of Oslo actually sound like, but nonetheless it was inspired.

It’s a shame he doesn’t try for a Scandie accent throughout – words like “panties” and “c*ck” would sound terrific in a Norwegian accent, as would “nipples”. Maybe spoken with an air of hysteria, like that lad with the goggles and the rifle at the start of The Thing.

Neecht! Neeples!”

“Nipples” are significant in this story.

This is the essence of hypocrisy coming from a Scotsman, but I heard a pleasing poetry in the odd names and their pronunciation. Despite all those hard, abrupt consonants bouncing off each other like drunks in a taxi queue, there’s a strange mellifluousness in the Scandinavian tongue. It got so I would repeat the names every time Sean Barrett uttered them. Katrine Bratt (“Brahtt-eh”). Arve Stop (“Schtupp”). Idar Vetlesen. Markus Skarra. Zaphod Beeblebrokkse. I loved rolling them around in my mouth.

So, hats off to Sean Barrett – hours on end of reading, fully committed, with never a slip or an undersold line. My only other experience of audiobooks prior to my current kick was a thriller that I listened to during an insane phase of my life when I walked to and from work every day. It was read by an American actor who sounded bored for most of it. This made me bored, too, and I didn’t get to the end. It put me off audiobooks for years. I’m pleased to say this production has restored my faith in them.

However, sex scenes read aloud… now, there’s the sticking point, so to speak. Naughty bits in books are simply not meant to be experienced this way. They’re furtive things, best kept private, or even secret, and they work best when internalised. Actually saying those words aloud must be a bit like something bizarre you blurt out during orgasm, and then spend the rest of your sex life trying to live down.

How the poor man didn’t corpse saying things like “she grabbed his throbbing d*ck” and “I’d like to see your p*ssy”, I’ll never know. Maybe he did. Through the magic of digital editing, it’s all seamless.

I dare you to do it with your partner, your friends, or your workmates, the next time you read a dirty bit in a book. Pick a deep, fruity voice… or a sharp, raspy one… imagine John Hurt… hell, go Full Richard Burton… and let rip.

Next up on the audio list: Wolf Hall

March 28, 2016

AUTHOR INTERVIEW

Booksquawk interviews Five Go Glamping Author Liz Tipping

Interview by Hereward L M Proops

Booksquawk: Tell us a little bit about how you came to write “Five Go Glamping”.

Liz Tipping: I saw a competition with a big cash prize for writing the opening of a novel, and while I didn't think I could manage a whole novel, I thought I'd give it a go. I ended up missing the deadline for it but I uploaded the opening chapters on the authonomy website where it was spotted by a couple of editors.

Booksquawk: Have you ever been glamping?

Liz Tipping: I have! I went glamping in a yurt in Worcestershire last year just when I was finishing off Five Go Glamping. I love camping and I've got one of those tents that goes up in one minute, but it was great not having to pitch a tent at all. It was also truly excellent not having to blow up an airbed and wrestle with a sleeping bag. Plus, it had a log burner in the tent, so it was nice and warm. You still have to walk across a field to go the loo though, so it's not that glamorous.

Booksquawk: Do you have difficulty embracing the ways of the countryside like Fiona and her friends?

Liz Tipping: No, I love being in the countryside. I live on a really busy road in a city, so it's great being away from traffic and noise and people falling out of the Wetherspoons at 1am. I do miss having a good phone and internet  signal when I'm away though. In fact, every time I have some kind of publishing news, like when I was offered the contract for Five Go Glamping for example, I'm always on holiday. It's frustrating not being able to respond to things like that because you don't have a phone signal.

Booksquawk: “Five Go Glamping” is unashamedly chick-lit. How do you feel about that label? Do you have any interest in other genres of fiction?

Liz Tipping: It seems that every few weeks, someone on the internet will get upset about the chick lit label, but it's never bothered me at all, in fact I love it. There's a few things that often crop up about the term and why people don't like it. one is that people consider it a derogatory term and belittling.

I suppose if you're an author and you are writing something deep and literary and then because you are a woman your book is labelled chick lit when it isn't, then that's fair enough people would be unhappy. But I think if you are writing popular women's fiction, being labelled chick lit is nothing to be ashamed of Popular culture and the culture consumed by women and particularly working class women is the most ridiculed of all. Labeling something "chick lit"  to me means it's something silly and frivolous but  that's not a bad things and my books ARE frivolous and silly and fun and full of daft things, so I'm cool with that. Things like soap operas, reality television and chick lit books have scorn poured on them as though they don't have any value, but fun things are just as important as more intellectual pursuits so I'm very proud to be a chick lit author.

I read in lots of genres, I love science fiction and fantasy, sagas, comedies, historical, Young Adult. The only thing I don't tend to read is horror- I love a bit of gore, but the psychological check under the bed stuff keeps me awake at night.

Booksquawk: Fiona is a very believable protagonist, how much of her is based on your own experiences?

Liz Tipping: Not a lot really, but I do find people who behave in a petty manner at work very irritating like Fiona does. I've never managed to last more than a few days working in an office, so I wouldn't have lasted ten years like Fiona did! My friend read five Go Glamping and said some of the things the characters say sound like the sorts of things i say, so I suppose there's a lot of me in the characters and how they respond to things but not in the actual experiences themselves.

Booksquawk: Food plays an important role in the book, particularly sausages. Tell us about your love of pork products.

Liz Tipping: Ha ha! Yes indeed, there are many types of sausages in the book; cocktail, hotdogs, sausage sandwiches, toad in the hole. If I could go back and change the book at all, I'd write some chorizo in and possibly salami as well.  I love sausages. My favourite sausages of all are Irish sausages and it's kind of hard to get them in the UK but I have found a little Irish grocery store where I can get my hands on some Clonakilty sausages. Whenever I go to Ireland, I always bring back some Superquinns sausages. Last time I brought back 48 in my hand luggage.

Booksquawk: As a Brummie, I was pleased to see a number of references to Birmingham in the book. If you were to give a total strange the full Birmingham experience, what would it entail?

Liz Tipping: I'm becoming slightly alarmed by the amount of articles in The Guardian discussing how brilliant Birmingham is and how everyone from London should move here. We're so used to everything thinking it's rubbish here and laughing about it, that I'm not sure many more people need to know how great it is.

But if I were to take a nice Booksquawk reader for a trip around town and they promised not to move here and put the house prices up, then I'd take them on a canal boat trip from Gas St Basin and then back into town to wander around our many museums and art gallery. Then a quick hop on the metro to the Jewellery quarter for lunch. Bookish types might like to visit Sarehole Mill, one of the haunts of JRR Tolkien. We'd spend the afternoon at Cadbury World and then a night out in an Irish bar in Digbeth, followed by a Balti on the Ladypool road.

Booksquawk: Why call the dog Brian Harvey? Why not Tony Mortimer or one of the other members of East 17?

Liz Tipping: The main reason I called the dog after Brian Harvey out of East 17 is because he  resembled Brian Harvey out of East 17. If he had have looked more like Tony Mortimer out of East 17, I would have definitely named him after Tony Mortimer out of East 17. Maybe this is something to think about in subsequent books.

Booksquawk: Do you have a particular routine for writing?

Liz Tipping: Kind of, I always plan to write in the morning and have the rest of the day free, but what I tend do is, faff about all day until the afternoon, and then start and end up writing into the evenings. It's kind of a stupid way of doing it. I always plan to leave the weekends free, but end up writing. With my next book, I am planning to be more organised though!

Booksquawk: Have you got anything else in the pipeline?

Liz Tipping: I've just finished my second book which at the moment is called Molly Ringwald's Cardigan so I am already thinking about my third. Probably because I read quite widely, I've had an idea for something in the "Post Apocalyptic Tomasz Schafernaker fan fic chick lit" genre but I'm not sure there's much of a market for it.

Read the review of Five Go Glamping here.

FIVE GO GLAMPING

by Liz Tipping
178 pages, Carina

Review by Hereward L.M. Proops

I don’t read much outside my comfort zone at the moment. I’ve reached that stage of my life where I know what I like and what I don’t like. With two young children at home, I don’t have the luxury of a significant amount of time to read, so when I do dive into a book, I want to be sure that what I’m diving into is going to be fun. That might account for why I’ve taken to re-reading books rather than seeking out new ones. It also might explain why I’ve been so quiet of late on the mighty ‘Squawk.

I have to say, I put off reading “Five Go Glamping” for some time. Although digitally acquainted with the author from our days together on the now-defunct HarperCollins Authonomy website, I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting Liz Tipping. When I heard she’d bagged an agent and an ebook deal with publishers Carina, I was very happy for her. I’d always felt that the working title “Five Go Glamping” was a truly brilliant one but my tendency to avoid ‘chick-lit’ led me to start wondering if I would ever get round to reading the novel itself.

And then it happened. My ageing Kindle went on the blink (don’t worry, it’s fine now - it just needed a bit of rest and recuperation). I found myself stranded one afternoon whilst waiting for my daughter to come out of her ballet class with nothing to read. I found the Kindle app on my phone and discovered that “Five Go Glamping” was the only book downloaded on it. With forty minutes to kill and nothing better to do, I started reading… and I am extremely glad I did.

The protagonist of “Five Go Glamping” is Fiona, a twenty-something young woman living in Birmingham. She has an uninspiring job and a music-promoter boyfriend who spends a lot of time away from her but occasionally drops by her flat to get his laundry done. Fiona lives frugally, cooking meals in bulk and freezing them, limiting herself to a few drinks in the pub when she goes out with her mates, even working overtime on Saturday. Fiona’s sacrifices are all carried out in the name of her five year plan, whereby she and her boyfriend will put enough money aside to be able to put down a deposit on a house of their own. The only problem is Connor, the absentee boyfriend, who does not seem to be putting so much aside and spends far too much on fancy haircuts.

When Fiona and her friends are offered a free ‘glamping’ holiday at the Find Yourself Festival, they jump at the chance. After all, the hippy festival is being held close-by to the Castle music festival so Fiona might get the chance to spend some rare quality time with her boyfriend. The only catch is that they have to participate in some of the New Age activities in order to qualify for their free accommodation in a yurt. Naturally, this leads to some amusing scenes where a group of city girls, their gay male friend and a dog called Brian Harvey find themselves faced with plates of mung bean casserole and the challenge of balancing their chakras. Some of the funniest parts of the novel are when Tipping pokes fun at ‘alternative’ healing festivals (two characters are named “Crazy Trousers” and “Weird Beard” whilst one of Fiona’s friends has a deep-seated loathing for women with mirrors on their skirts).

Being a chick-lit novel, things aren’t going to go smoothly for poor Fiona. By the time she agrees to go on the holiday with her pals, she already has her doubts about Connor’s level of commitment to the relationship. On top of that, she’s found herself suspended from work and due a formal disciplinary hearing after getting into an altercation with her line manager over her favourite mug. To make things worse, upon arrival at the festival, it becomes clear that Connor isn’t going to be available to spend time with her.

Enter Sam, the handsome landlord of the local pub. Although attracted to him, Sam’s laid-back attitude to life puts Fiona off at first. However, the old adage that opposites attract proves true and a few chance encounters bring the two closer together. Soon, Fiona has fallen for the easy-going pint-puller who doesn’t even own a smartphone and is torn between her loyalty for Connor and a chance of a new way of life with Sam.

As I mentioned earlier, “Five Go Glamping” is not my typical sort of read. I don’t run screaming from romantic comedies but their tendency to be rather predictable leads me to zone out whilst watching them. I’ve often wondered what is the point in following a protagonist’s journey if it is abundantly clear where they are going? “Five Go Glamping” may well have helped me overcome this notion. Sure, it’s obvious that Fiona will ditch Connor and end up with Sam right from the first moment Fiona takes note of his well-muscled arms and snug-fitting t-shirt. We all know that Sam’s relaxed manner is going to infuriate Fiona for a while before she realises that she’s falling in love with him. Despite the predictable nature of the outcome, this novel held my attention from beginning to the end. Why? Because Liz Tipping writes extremely well. Her characters are believable and never come across as mere talking heads. Her jokes are genuinely funny. The moments of pathos elicit the right emotions at the right times. Most importantly, the novel is just the right length - it’s not so short you can blast through it in one sitting but it’s not so long that it overstays its welcome.

“Five Go Glamping” is an engaging, highly entertaining novel. Accessible, witty, and romantic without resorting to slush or sentimentality. Liz Tipping’s confident debut establishes her as an author to watch in the future. If her follow-up novel is as good as this one, Sophie Kinsella and Freya North might have to start looking over their shoulders.

Hereward L.M. Proops

Read the author interview here.

March 21, 2016

SO YOU'VE BEEN PUBLICLY SHAMED

by Jon Ronson
304 pages, Riverhead Books

Review by Pat Black (based on the unabridged audio version, read by Jon Ronson)

We’ve all done it. Or had it done to us.

I’ve done it on this very site. To my shame.

Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed looks at people who have been dragged onto the social media stage and torn to pieces, for perceived slights against humanity which really weren’t anything of the sort.

Public shaming isn’t a new thing, as the office sociopath in your life will readily demonstrate, but its instant global effect thanks to Twitter and Facebook is more potentially devastating than ever before. Seemingly innocuous things posted without an ounce of malice can generate ripples which grow into tidal waves in a matter of minutes, drowning careers and swamping whole lives.

“My god, this could have been me,” is something you’ll say to yourself a lot in reading this book.

Ronson starts off with his own example of a time he publicly shamed people. One day, he discovered a sockpuppet account had been set up on Twitter under his name. It focused on the writer’s food snobbery and, it seems, a predilection for “cock” – both of which came as something of a surprise to Ronson. Understandably annoyed by the masquerade, Ronson set out to find, identify and shame the perpetrators.

He discovered that they weren’t people with grudges or internet shut-ins, but academics. They claimed that the doppelganger Twitter ID wasn’t an idle mickey-take of a public figure but in fact some form of sociological/philosophical experiment. Ronson confronted these people and lambasted them in public, voicing his anger at their jaw-droppingly juvenile stance and clear indifference to Ronson’s feelings.

How would anyone feel about such things? There’s no doubt Ronson felt vindictive – stuffed with righteous fury. There’s a time to shrug things off, and there’s a time to bring out what we call in Glasgow The Good Shoe. Isn’t there?

After witnessing the backlash these lecturers received, at his instigation, Ronson comes to realise that publicly shaming people can have far-reaching consequences which might outstrip that of the initial “wrong” many times over. Ronson takes what I would hesitatingly call a Christian outlook. Does anyone deserve to be publicly shamed? What is it that drives Twitter shamers to tear people apart in mobs – or worse, to stand on the edge of the circle and smack their lips at the executioners’ handiwork?

Ronson looks at some well-known recent cases of public shaming. The first of which concerned the neuroscientist and author Jonah Lehrer. A journalist read a quote in one of Lehrer’s books, supposedly from Bob Dylan. The reporter was a Dylan fan, and the quote – which appeared in the book Imagine – sounded “phoney” to him. “When the hell did Dylan say that?” Suspicion began to grow. The journalist, Michael C Moynihan, after a lot of digging and some suspicious prevarication from Lehrer, eventually found out that the author had fabricated the quote.

A promising career came crashing down as Lehrer’s work went under the microscope, with several additional journalistic malfeasances unveiled in brutal fashion. Nothing in Lehrer’s background served notice that he was a fool, and certainly he’d been no slouch academically. He won a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford, reserved for the brightest of the bright – but Ronson isn’t so much interested in why Lehrer did what he did, so much as what he went through as a result. Ronson interviews Lehrer several times, gaining a harrowing insight into how his life was torn to shreds. This leads to Lehrer making a speech at a high-profile event, ostensibly to apologise, which was broadcast live on the internet.

Ronson captures a moment of farce that wouldn’t disgrace one of the great sitcoms. Lehrer delivered his mea culpa before a digital backdrop showing live tweets to the event. So the speaker as well as the audience could see, in real-time, people’s reactions to his shame splattered across giant screens, in letters bigger than he is.

Some of these tweets were sympathetic, if not exactly supportive. But the vast majority were not.

Ronson also looks at the case of Justine Sacco, a young PR executive who was shamed to the four winds in a case you will certainly have heard of. In a dream job travelling the world, Justine made an off-colour Twitter joke about the incidence of Aids among black people across Africa. Justine’s comment was widely retweeted, with predictable cultural commentary attached, across the world. Hundreds of thousands of people called for her head on a plate… and much, much more besides. The witch hunt took a matter of minutes to gain international momentum.

What made this case particularly horrific was that the whole thing unfurled quicker than wildfire, hotter than hell, while she was in the air. Sacco was flying back to the US, oblivious that her reputation was headed for the gutter based on a joke she sent while she took her seat on the plane. Bear in mind that it was only a joke – poorly judged and in bad taste, but certainly not knocking black people or Aids victims. It had a satirical point to make about white privilege, which seemed to fly over the heads of most of the shrieking, frothing ragers who bullwhipped her to the top of global trending topics. The numbers involved are mind-boggling; the online world knew who she was almost instantly. This all unfolded before she’d even touched down, opened her phone… and Saw. Journalists were waiting for her at the arrivals gate.

It’s difficult to comprehend what a nightmare this must have been. Who had she hurt, really? Who was even offended?

Then there was Lindsey Stone, a care worker who appeared to be making crude gestures in a photograph taken outside Arlington Cemetery. Middle fingers, the flag, war dead, the military, and a young woman in the fullest bloom of life, laughing and enjoying herself… my god, she came pre-packaged for every right-wing lunkhead in white America to tear open with their teeth. And they did.

No matter that it was largely down to her not having her privacy settings correctly calibrated on Facebook; no matter that, again, there was a running joke attached, where Lindsay and a friend had a habit of taking pictures of themselves disobeying signs to “show respect”, “no smoking”, “no ball games”, etc.

Stone and Sacco’s lives were ruined as a result of silly light-hearted remarks which were picked up, misinterpreted, dipped in sh*t and smeared all over the internet. They both lost their jobs; they say they can’t even go dating, because their potential dates will be able to look them up on Google. Their lives will never be the same.

Ronson theorises that people are motivated to publicly shame because they thought they were doing something good. An underlying sense of morality was tweaked, and perhaps perverted. He examines analogue shamings of the past, such as the stocks, and concludes that they were banned because authorities realised they simply weren’t very effective in big cities. Why we might want to shame is examined, with a refreshingly critical look at one of the great psychological studies, the Stanford Prison Experiment. Ronson seems to suggest that the guard who went particularly off the rails in the landmark study thought he was fulfilling a role and proving the hypothesis, rather than turning into a monster when handed a uniform and a big stick. That he was doing good, in other words.

Ronson also looks at those who survive shame, such as the ex-Formula One boss Max Mosley, whose kinky sex life was exposed in harrowing detail by a British tabloid 10 years ago. Mosley won unprecedented damages over the case, but even more impressive, to Ronson’s eyes, is Mosley’s recovery from his shaming. It hasn’t stuck to him. He simply refuses to accept his lot: he refuses to be humiliated. I am unashamed, Mosley says. He even strikes back, getting righteous about his right to a private life, and his grim, implacable campaign in the courts.

Ronson examines services which seek to remove shame from the one public record which seems to matter these days – Google – and then looks at the ways in which people can be rescued from shame in less technological ways. There’s one anecdote by a leading US psychiatrist about a murderer in his care which chilled me. He began to kill people in his life as a pimp because shame instilled in him at a young age had stripped him of his humanity. Beatings and sexual abuse left him dead inside – numb. A robot. Not a person. Violence was the only way for him to cope, or even to function, in a world which had decided he wasn’t worth bothering about.

You don’t have to go far to find examples of public shamings. Somebody is being shamed as we speak. Hey, it might even be you. The example that really struck home with me was the two guys at a tech conference who shared smutty jokes with each other about “big dongles” and what have you. They were amusing each other – not the world’s most mature jokes, but so what? It wasn’t for public broadcast.

Except that it was. A woman sitting behind them overheard them, tweeted what they’d been saying, took a photo of them, then posted it on Twitter – to catastrophic effect. Again, both men ended up losing their jobs after a worldwide internet sh*tstorm. One of them had a wife and a baby daughter. They’d done nothing wrong. I had little sympathy for the smug-sounding woman who did the shaming, and found myself wishing for her to suffer a backlash in kind.

She got it, from 4chan users. Once these and other online attacks on people by 4chan were spelled out, I felt queasy at my own motives in wanting the initial shamer to be… punished.

Punishment is what it’s all about. And our anger. Sitting there, at our computers, hammering at the keys, our fingers tap-dancing across the touchscreens. Offended by a world which we cannot control by deleting, resizing or reformatting.

Imagine some nightmare future where your brain is synched with an interface of some kind, without even a gap between a thought in your head and its expression on the internet, or whatever will follow the internet. Jesus!

I’ve indulged in public shaming on Booksquawk. The one I grew so ashamed about that I asked our editor to delete it was about a football player whose chief misfortune, really, was to have played for a team I dislike. But he was also guilty of a transgression which saw him scapegoated for a while in the national press and shamed six ways to Shanghai. I feasted on this event, the worst moment of someone’s life, more than 30 years after it happened.

Then I read an article about the guy. He wasn’t from an era when footballers got rich, or anything like it. Sure, he had some medals on the mantelpiece but only he knows what their true worth is. He maybe bought a pub or something once he retired from football. I thought: this guy has been whipped around the public square thanks to a mistake he made – possibly even in good faith – decades ago. He’s had enough. Why don’t you take the sh*t-faced comments out and leave the guy alone? So I did.

I like to think I knew what Jon Ronson experienced when he got the flame-thrower out on the dipsticks who mimicked him on social media. A shame all of its own. The shame of kicking people when they are down.

This was years ago. But there are more recent shamings carried out on big, obvious, and easy targets. You won’t have to click back too far to find my opinions on phone-hacking by the media, or on the ultimate British bogeyman, the late Jimmy Savile. Now, there’s hardly anyone in their right mind who would defend these people - in particular Savile, whose wickedness will reverberate for generations. A lot of them deserve all they get (or didn’t get, in Savile’s case). What Jon Ronson’s book did was to make me examine my conscience, and look at my own motivations for leathering these people, no matter how much they deserved it.

What kick did I get from acting all self-righteous? What purpose did it prove in parading these transgressors’ heads around in public? Was I telling people things they didn’t already know? Was I pleased with myself on some level? Did I feel noble? Did I think I’d done something good?

As I remarked earlier, Ronson has a pseudo-Christian outlook: no-one really deserves shame and humiliation, no matter what they’ve done. And even if they do, who are you to shame anyone? Let the shamers look to themselves before they unload on people who, in some cases, haven’t actually done anything wrong. Or, as another guy put it a long time ago, let he who is without sin cast the first stone. Looking beyond Bible Cringe, it’s not bad advice, all told. I felt suitably chastened, upon reading this book. It’s better to leave these mob events well alone.

Ronson misses out on the anthropological aspect of his analysis; that it’s mob behaviour, deciding what social norms are and enforcing them, brutally, on a global level. This idea reminded me of a study I once read about guys on building sites who make sexist remarks to passing women. There was a clear pecking order among the men, with much of the unpleasant remarks made by the younger members of the group, tailing off the older the men got. The study concluded that the reason for this was that the younger men were trying to gain entry to the group, and also to show social alignment with the elders. It’s horrid to think of ourselves as pack animals, but we are. Ronson seeks to debunk historical studies on “the mob” and apparent loss of control during mob behaviour. But there’s no denying a flocking instinct is at play in many public shamings.

Technology is the line driven right through the centre of all this. I wonder if this shame-based digital consensus will lead to a new kind of puritanism? Certainly I tire of all the hand-wringing and sanctimony on Facebook and elsewhere, even when it comes to seemingly worthy causes. When it comes to Justine Sacco and Lindsey Stone, I can sometimes see where I might have been these poor people, on the turn of a card, on a bad day.

Off-colour jokes? I think I’ve made enough of them on this site to get run out of town. I often talk about how my friends and I should have a killswitch on our email chat just in case we get hacked – or if one of us dies suddenly, sparing our partners the full horror of  discovering What Men Banter About Without Women.

I’m not sure I’m even joking. Some of the poor bastards in this book could easily be me if the wrong button is pressed.

What about criminals who seem more deserving of public shaming? Ronson interviews a Maximum Bob-style US judge who punishes criminals by making them carry signs and billboards revealing their crimes to passers-by. One thief was made to shame himself in front of the store he took items from, every day, for months.

Then we hear that the punishment worked. The criminal himself saw it as a form of redemption. Crime rates around about the store where the shaming happened fell significantly.

The ghastly question arises: Does society need shame?

There are laugh-out-loud encounters, first of all when Ronson attends a “have no shame” therapy session where people are invited to say what they feel without hiding it. This descends into a multi-player flaming session where people say how much they hate Ronson, leading to him losing his temper and revealing how much he hates them in return.

Ronson also interviews people working in the porn industry who make a living out of being publicly shamed and degraded. I “read” this book in its audio format, and I understood shame of a different sort when Ronson described the action in a porn shoot just as I opened the car window to flash my pass at the office car park sensor, while a couple of colleagues walked past the open window.

You may have gathered from the many reheated reviews I’ve put up of late that I don’t get as much reading done these days. Audiobooks played in the car are a godsend in this regard – I wish I’d moved over to this format two years ago. So now I partly “read” while I’m driving during my long commute. Ronson himself narrates the audiobook, and you certainly get a little more nuance in the spoken version than you would on the page.

The book left me counting my lucky stars that I’ve never been publicly shamed, and offering up a prayer or two to Google algorithms that I never will be.