Tag: Dan Rhodes

When the Professor Got Stuck in the Snow

Have I mentioned how much I enjoy reading Dan Rhodes? Of course I have: see previous reviews of Gold, Little Hands Clapping, and Marry Me. But there’s enjoying a book, and then there’s this.

Rhodes’s latest novel (new in paperback from Aardvark Bureau), When the Professor Got Stuck in the Snow, sees Richard Dawkins and his put-upon assistant Smee, on the way to the village of Upper Bottom, where the Professor is due to address the All Bottoms Women’s Institute. But bad weather sees the pair stranded in Market Horton, where they end up staying with the local vicar and his wife…

First things first: this book is hilarious, the funniest I’ve read in ages. The Dawkins character is splendidly pompous, and Rhodes takes every opportunity to puncture him. To say much more about how he does so would risk taking away from the fun of reading the novel, which I don’t want to do. So here’s a quotation to give you an idea:

[…]’Do you think I am kind, Smee?’ His eyes narrowed. ‘Well, do you?’

Smee was desperate to make up lost ground. ‘You are very kind, Professor.’

‘You are quite right. I have devoted swathes of my life to kindly telling people how ignorant they are, and correcting them, and giving them the opportunity to think as I do. Look at me now, traipsing through the countryside, taking only modest fees, sometimes no fee at all, as I inform the clueless that there is no God, just as there is no goblin with a purple face, and that  there is no consolation, none whatsoever, to be found in religion. If anybody is kind around here, Smee, it is me – and I am unanimous in that.’

The humour isn’t all targeted in one direction, though: Dawkins has to put up with facile questions from the residents of Market Horton, as well as requests for favours such as delivering kittens (the thinking being, he knows about science, so he must be able to do that sort of stuff). The novel reads like a broad, delightful (and sharp) cartoon.

Ah, but wait. Something else that I like about Dan Rhodes’s work is that he’ll create these cartoonish scenarios, and then suddenly show you something real underneath that transforms what you’ve been reading. He does it here, and I’d better not say any more; but if you read the book (which you should), you’ll see what I mean…

Okay, so this has ended up being one of those blog posts where I basically end up saying, “This book is great; please read it,” without going into an awful lot of detail as to why. Well, so be it. I want you to enjoy this book as much as I did, and I think the fewer specifics you know, the better. Just know that it’s Dan Rhodes on superb form.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

When the Professor Got Stuck in the Snow (2014) by Dan Rhodes, Aardvark Bureau paperback

Sunday Salon: Ten Love Stories

I’ve been reading Marry Me, Dan Rhodes’s new collection of flash fiction on the theme of marriage. This being Rhodes, all is not exactly sweetness and light: in many of these stories, a male narrator is treated shabbily by his female partner – or occasionally he’s the one behaving shabbily himself – in absurd and darkly amusing ways.

‘Is there someone else?’ asks one man as his wife leaves him. ‘No,’ she replies, ‘there isn’t. But I would really, really like there to be’. Another woman informs her husband that he’ll have to leave, then produces a catalogue and sells him pots and pans for his new home (‘I would give you a discount because I know you, but it’s early days and I’m sure you’ll understand that I’ve got to keep a firm grip on my finances now I’m a single gal’). And so on, and so on, with these wonderfully barbed and pithy lines.

But, just occasionally. there are touches of real romance, as with the couple who put the lump of charcoal he gave her in lieu of a diamond under their mattress in the hope that pressure may transform it. The result: ‘it never looks any different. I think we would be a bit disappointed if it ever did.’ Moments like this bring light to the book, which ends up being quite sweet, in its own deliciously sour way.


As it’s nearly Valentine’s Day, I decided to go back through my blog archives and see how many love stories I’ve reviewed over the years. My instinct was that it wouldn’t be that many, but (allowing for my subjective interpretation), I’ve come up with a list of nine more books to add to the one above, which is more than I expected. Here they are – but I’m not necessarily promising happy endings…

Viola di Grado, 70% Acrylic 30% Wool (reviewed Jan 2013)

A girl struggling to move on from her father’s death may have found a way forward when she meets a local boy who teaches her Chinese – if she can let herself move forward, that is. I really enjoyed this book, but it might as much an anti-love story as a love story.

Evan Mandery, Q: a Love Story (reviewed Sept 2012)

This must be a love story, because it says so in the title, right? Well, maybe not, as its protagonist receives repeated visits from his future self, trying to persuade him to call off his relationships. But the ending is actually rather affecting.

Alice Zeniter, Take This Man (reviewed May 2012)

A fine portrait of complex circumstances, as a young French-Algerian woman prepares to marry her Malian childhood friend in a bit to prevent his deportation. Not so much a tale of ‘will they?won’t they?’ as ‘should they? shouldn’t they?’.

Henry Green, Loving (reviewed Jan 2012)

A tale of love and contested space in a wartime country house. It begins and ends with the words of a fairytale, but that kind of happiness is a long way from being guaranteed.

Robert Shearman, Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical (reviewed Aug 2011)

An excellent set of stories examining love in its various manifestations.

Alison MacLeod, Fifteen Modern Tales of Attraction (reviewed July 2011)

Another fine set of stories about love.

Daniel Glattauer, Love Virtually (reviewed Feb 2011)

A novel told through two people’s emails; their correspondence becomes a form of courtship dance. Will they or won’t they? I don’t know without reading the sequel.

Priya Basil, The Obscure Logic of the Heart (reviewed June 2010)

A non-religious boy from a wealthy Kenyan Sikh family and a girl from a devout Birmingham Muslim family fall in love – and the complexities of their situation are very nicely delineated in the book.

Ronan O’Brien, Confessions of a Fallen Angel (reviewed Aug 2009)

The story of a young man who has apparently prophetic dreams of people’s deaths. I include it here for its wonderful portrait of falling in love twice, in two different ways – the dizzy rush of first love, and a slower flowering of affection later on in life.

Fiction Uncovered 2012

Fiction Uncovered, the initiative to highlight the work of established UK authors who may have fallen off the radar, is back for another year. The 2012 list was revealed on Wednesday; unlike last year, I wasn’t able to attend the announcement, but I was still keen to see which titles had been selected. Here are this year’s books (quotations taken from the Fiction Uncovered website).

Peter Benson, Two Cows and a Vanful of Smoke

What the judges say:  ‘The tease of a title gradually resolves itself as the delightful comedy of drug-running in rural England plays out. The cartel meets Ambridge.’ – John Sutherland, Lord Northcliffe Professor Emeritus of Modern English Literature at UCL; Chair, 2012 Judging Panel

It’s fair to say that I probably wouldn’t have picked this up if I saw it in a bookshop, though the blurb’s suggestion of a supernatural note is intriguing, and I do like the narrative voice in the extract I’ve read. Looking up Benson’s other books, he seems a wide-ranging author, but with a particular focus on landscape, especially that of Somerset. I think he’s a writer I should investigate further.

Cressida Connolly, My Former Heart

What the judges say: ‘A family saga spanning the second half of the twentieth century, this gentle story of women’s lives in Egypt, Lebanon and the London Blitz is at once tender, comic and wise. Following on from the success of her short stories, My Former Heart marks out Connolly as a novelist to watch.’ – Katy Guest, Literary Editor, Independent on Sunday; 2012 Judging Panel

This is a first novel from Connolly, who has previously published a short story collection and a historical biography. Family sagas aren’t generally my thing, and I don’t feel particularly inclined to try My Former Heart; but I think Fiction Uncovered ought to be broad in scope, so as far as I’m concerned, it’s no problem if not everything on the list appeals to me.

Jill Dawson, Lucky Bunny

What the judges say: ‘With sleight of hand, a little rouge and a mind as sharp as a razor, Queenie Dove does battle with all the Depression, the war and her father have to throw at her. Dawson writes with a pace and humour that is infectious and her cast of characters will stay with you long after finishing the book.’ – Jasper Sutcliffe, Head of Buying, Foyles Group; 2012 Judging Panel

The synopsis makes this sound fun – a tale of wartimeEast Endcrime capers – and the extract suggests a novel with a serious heart; that’s a pretty unbeatable combination when it’s done well, so I think I’ll be taking a look at Lucky Bunny.Dawson’s bibliography suggests she’s another writer whose work covers varied ground, which is always a good thing in my book.

Tibor Fischer, Crushed Mexican Spiders

What the judges say: ‘Small minded readers might object that this is not a novel but two exquisitely packaged short stories. But the stories themselves – sardonic and beautifully chiselled – radiate wonderfully.’ – John Sutherland

Here’s something that wasn’t on last year’s Fiction Uncovered list: a book of short stories. (Admittedly there are only two – printed back-to-back – in this 64-page volume, but still.) Tibor Fischer is one of those writers whose name I know without knowing anything about his work; now I’ve looked it up, his fiction sounds just the sort of quirky stuff I enjoy. This collection could be a good place to start.

Doug Johnstone, Hit & Run

What the judges say: ‘The whole panel were impressed with the non-stop energy of Hit & Run. Just when you think his protagonist has no further left to fall, he makes another crazy decision that amps up the suspense to an even greater level.’ – Matt Thorne, writer and Head of Creative Writing at Brunel University; 2012 Judging Panel

I felt that last year’s Fiction Uncovered list missed a trick by not including any ‘genre fiction’, so it’s nice to see titles like My Former Heart and this thriller being selected now. Hit & Run sounds like a book which delivers the goods as a thriller whilst also offering something more substantial in its characterisation; that would be a good combination of attributes.

Susanna Jones, When Nights Were Cold

What the judges say: ‘A delightful adventure full of feisty women, mountaineering, all kinds of escape and Edwardian derring-do, this is narrated by a classic unreliable narrator who looks back on friendships gone catastrophically wrong among the peaks of theAlps. Jones’s fourth novel deserves to put her on the literary map.’ – Katy Guest

I read one of Susanna Jones’s earlier novels, The Earthquake Bird, a couple of years ago, and rather enjoyed it. The contemporary Japanese setting of that book is quite different from the early twentieth-century British and Alpine background of When Night Were Cold – but, as should be clear by now, I like variety in an author’s oeuvre. And I have a soft spot for books with unreliable narrators, so this could be good.

David Park, The Light of Amsterdam

What the judges say: ‘From the problems between fathers and sons to the perils of going to see Dylan in his dotage, this is a deep and richly pleasurable reading experience.  Park depicts the frustrations and excitements of everyday life with equal clarity.’ – Matt Thorne

I first heard of David Park in an article from last year in which various writing and publishing types were asked to name writers they thought deserved more attention (frustratingly, I can’t find the link) – and now here he is on the Fiction Uncovered list. I’d like to read one of his books, but can’t honestly say that the synopsis of The Light of Amsterdam sounds interesting to me; perhaps I’ll try a different Park title.

Dan Rhodes, This Is Life

What the judges say: ‘Using his trademark dark humour Dan Rhodes draws his protagonist Aurélie Renard, and the reader, deep into the heart of the most romantic city in the world, Paris. Rhodes explores art, politics and modern life, with hilarious and enlightening results.’ – Jasper Sutcliffe

Now here’s a writer who I know deserves a wider audience. I’ve read and greatly enjoyed Rhodes’s previous two novels – Gold is especially good – but have heard mixed things about his Paris-set latest, that it might not have the spark of his others. Still, this is Dan Rhodes we’re talking about, and I’d never dismiss one of his books without reading it. I’ll probably read Timoleon Vieta Come Home first, mind.

You can find the Fiction Uncovered titles on display in a bookshop near you.

Read Simon’s take on the list over at Savidge Reads.

The month in reading: February 2010

I didn’t read quite as much in February as I did in January — but I did read a couple of books that I’m pretty sure will end up on my list of favourite reads of the year. So, my pick for ‘book of February’ is a dead heat between Liz Jensen‘s masterly character study/climate-change thriller The Rapture, and Skippy Dies, Paul Murray‘s sprawling tale of growing up (with added touches of comedy and theoretical physics).

Also on my recommended list from last month are Dan Rhodes‘ macabre Little Hands Clapping, and Amy Sackville‘s otherworldly The Still Point. And I should mention ‘Again and Again and Again’, Rachel Swirsky‘s highly enjoyable story from the most recent issue of Interzone.

All good reads, there. Check them out.

Dan Rhodes, Little Hands Clapping (2010)

My introduction to Dan Rhodes was his previous novel, 2007’s Gold, which I enjoyed very much; enough that I needed no persuading to seek out a copy of his latest work.  Little Hands Clapping is very different in subject matter, but unmistakably the work of the same author; and, as I read, I began to see deeper similarities. Perhaps more than usual, I find my thoughts about the present book coloured by those I had of the earlier; in that light, I’m a little less satisfied with Little Hands Clapping than with Gold, though the new novel is a very enjoyable read in its own right.

Synopsising Rhodes is awkward, because it doesn’t give a full picture: for one thing, if you take a bald summary of the plot, it seems that nothing much happens – but that’s not how the book reads; for another, Rhodes’s style is integral to the experience of reading him. I’m trying to think how to describe his style – words like ‘fairytale’ and ‘whimsical’ are going through my mind, but none of them seems quite right. The sense is more one of being told a story – of viewing a slightly heightened version of reality.

One of Rhodes’s common techniques is to mask something harsh and real behind that facade of tale-telling, such that you might have to stop and check back that, yes, you did understand that correctly. Take, the beginning, for example, where the author introduces his main setting, a German museum devoted to the subject of suicide. The museum’s caretaker is a grey old man who’d probably feel right at home in a Roald Dahl story; we first see at the end of the opening chapter that he’s not as straightforward as we might have assumed, when he happily munches on a spider which has crawled into his mouth. (The museum gains its own tinge of unreality from the way Rhodes unveils room after room, like a magician producing handkerchiefs from an apparently empty fist.) Whilst lying in bed in his quarters above the museum, the old man hears a noise from below; he thinks nothing of it, and, perhaps, neither do we – but we soon discover that the noise was someone hanging himself (this happens regularly, despite the museum’s having been founded with the aim of deterring people from suicide).

Other harrowing facts are revealed in a similarly deadpan way, not least that the doctor whom the caretaker surreptitiously calls out to deal with all the suicides has his own use for the dead bodies – he eats them. This will become public knowledge by novel’s end, as we learn early on.

Running in parallel are several other storylines, notably that of Mauro and Madalena, the most beautiful boy and girl in their village, who seem destined to be together always – and they are, until they leave and discover that, whilst Mauro is just as handsome in the wider world, Madalena is merely pretty. fate turns against them… With Rhodes’s style, it can be hard to get at the ‘real’ emotions; but this strand of Little Hands Clapping is affecting nonetheless, with some telling observations of love and how it can evolve.

So far, so good; why the unfavourable comparison with Gold, then? Because, as far as I can see, Little Hands Clapping doesn’t have the same subtextual richness. The individual elements of the novel are fine, but I don’t think they tie together in the way that Gold’s did, and that’s why I’m less satisfied. But I’m not dissatisfied, no way; not when Rhodes builds and maintains a momentum that drives his story on to a conclusion that seems inevitable (but is it?), yet remains compulsive reading. And the ending – like the ending of Gold – is a lovely piece of writing.

And so, with regret, I leave the imagination of Dan Rhodes behind once more. There’s no other imagination in literature quite like it – and I look forward to when the time will be right to go back there, to read another of his books.

Dan Rhodes’s website

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