“Kill Your Boss” by Shane Kuhn (2014)

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“If you’re reading this, you’re a new employee at Human Resources, Inc.”

I remember reading once that you’re more likely to die prematurely being a character in a soap opera than you are in a war. In literature, it seems that the odds are stacked even more against you. There are so few books that don’t involve the two constants somewhere in their narrative – love and death. And in literature, we meet not only the victims and those tracking down the killers, but we get to know quite a lot of the killers too. John Lago, for example.

John Lago is a hitman for Human Resources, Inc. They are a large company of trained assassins who will take on any job for the right money and scrub someone off the face of the Earth before you can blink. They specialise in crooked white-collar workers by using assassins in their early twenties who pose as interns in their companies. Interns, it seems, are easily forgotten, can seemlessly blend into their surroundings and never draw attention to themselves, making them perfect sleeper agents. John is twenty-five and on his last assignment, taking on a role at Bendini, Lambert & Locke, an enormous New York law firm. One of the top men is selling witness protection data, and they need to find out which one it is and take him out.

John begins to blend into his office as usual, but things are complicated when he meets and falls for Alice who works for the same company and is clearly into him. Distracted by such hindrances as romance and emotions, John is finding it a little harder than usual to find a way to his target, and matters are complicated further when he hacks into Alice’s computer and discovers that she’s an undercover FBI agent investigating the very man he’s trying to kill. John will need all of his wits about him as he tackles his final challenge. Once he’s done this, he can retire with sacks of money, have plastic surgery and disappear for good. That is, if he survives…

The book is written as a guide to new recruits to HR Inc., and indeed in the USA it was published as The Intern’s Handbook, which is also the name John gives his book in-universe. He is a desperately unpleasant character, which may seem obvious given that he’s a hitman, but I’ve read about them before and some of them are much more likeable, oddly. While there are redeeming features and much is made of his horrific, abusive and neglectful childhood shunted around between foster homes and the care system, there’s no way of getting around the fact he committed his first murder aged eight and is recruited by Bob at HR Inc. when he’s twelve. Unpleasant perhaps, but not without humour. John is quite funny, as is the book in general, and the concept of planting faceless interns into companies to bring down criminals is a really good one.

However, all in all, while it had some interesting moments and a cast of rather fascinating characters, it lacked any really satisfying payoff and by the time you’re there it’s almost impossible to work out what was true and what wasn’t after all. Not in the sense of “it was all a dream” which would be unforgivable, but just in that when you’re dealing with secret agencies, there are always more lies being spread around than you might realise. Naturally as one might expect of the theme, there are a lot of very violent scenes and complicated fights that are described in painstaking detail. One or two are fine, but you become somewhat desensitised to it towards the end and the suspension of disbelief that John is surviving all these attacks threatens to fail. It was an interesting concept and I enjoyed it, but it feels like one of those that I wouldn’t be able to tell you much about six months down the line.

A fun, quick read, and perhaps deserving of cult classic status one day.

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“The Improbability Of Love” by Hannah Rothschild (2015)

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improbability“It was going to be the sale of the century.”

I’ve never been one for art. I’ve been to several of the country’s most impressive and important galleries in my time, but I’m generally never left feeling how I think I should. Art very rarely makes me feel what other people seem to feel when they look at paintings. I can tell when something’s good, and it’s that old adage of “I know what I like”, but paintings and sculpture don’t really fill me with emotion. I’ve known people who get it, and this book has perhaps nudged me a little closer to intending to visit a gallery soon. The Improbability of Love is, as you may have surmised, set within the art world and the gilded, wealthy corners of creative society, and it’s rather swanky, as you may imagine.

Annie McDee is struggling in her new life without Desmond. She’s now found herself in an antique shop looking for a present for a man she knows she shouldn’t be dating. Tucked away behind a rubber plant, she sees a painting that strikes her as particularly beautiful. She buys it, but she has no idea that she’s just acquired a genuine Watteau; a painting that has passed through the hands of everyone from Voltaire to Hitler and stuns anyone who sees it. Annie has other things to worry about; her new job as a personal chef, her mother’s ongoing struggles with alcoholism, and the fact she’s caught the eye of a young museum guide called Jesse. But she’s desperately uninterested in opening up her heart to let someone else in.

Soon, however, with her painting in tow, she is plunged into the art world, which is populated by arrogant critics, penniless nobility, ruthless art dealers, desperate Russians, kind restorers, and more millionaires than you can shake a stick at. When Rebecca Winkleman is asked by her father, the wildly successful art dealer and Auschwitz survivor Memling, to track down a painting that he’s been missing for years, she finds herself also on the trail of The Improbability of Love, unaware that it’s owned by her new chef. Elsewhere, the mad, fame-and-fortune-hungry Barty has to convince a Russian oligarch to foster an interest in art, Earl Beachendon must find an artist willing to sell his works to the museum or his career is over, and poor Jesse must try not to let his feelings for Annie overcome him.

If only paintings could talk… And fortunately, here, they can. Of sorts, anyway, as the book is interspersed with chapters from the point of view of the painting itself, allowing us to learn about its history and meaning. You can certainly say it’s had an interesting life.

I did wonder if I was going to like this book. It’s one that seemed to have had a lot of publicity and table space in bookshops, which is either a sign that it’s really good, or that they’ve got a lot of them to shift. But actually, yeah, I did. I love the worlds of the fabulously wealthy (wouldn’t you love to have so much money that money stopped mattering?) and it’s fun to see how they spend their millions and billions on too much food, old paintings and extravagant houses. Mine would all go on books and good wine

Something odd is going on in here, though. While the characters are all interesting, three-dimensional and broken in their own ways, the real hero of the book is the painting itself and, to a lesser extent, all art. Much is made of the fact that act can instill emotions in us, change the way we feel, and make us feel things we didn’t know were possible. It’s a book that has inspired me to trek up to London specifically to go peruse another gallery. Maybe art lovers will get even more out of this book, being able to picture the paintings in question and knowing how the fictional ones would look. I mean, I can tell a Klimt from a Caravaggio, but I’ve never been overcome by emotion for a painting. Do I need to try harder?

The look is great, and somewhat unique thanks to the inclusion of the painting’s monologues. The painting is rather funny as a character, full of snobbery and disdain for its new owner, in the beginning at least. The book as a whole is gripping, and we bounce between characters, getting inside everyone’s heads and finding out what a dark and twisted place the world is when there’s this much money at stake. Hannah Rothschild is also great at having you think you know where a plot thread is going, only to twist it at the last moment. A really fun romp through an unfamiliar world.

“The Antagonist” by Lynn Coady (2011)

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antag
Every hero is someone else’s villain.

“There you are in the picture looking chubby and pompous, and it makes me remember how you told me that time you were afraid of fat people.”

Life isn’t black and white. There are innumerable shades of grey in between and when you tell a story, you’re guaranteed to tell it in a different way to anyone else. Something that is traumatic to you, might seem unimportant to someone else. Now imagine if that someone else had taken your trauma and sold it. How would that make you feel?

This is exactly what has happened to our antagonistic protagonist, Gordon “Rank” Rankin. At thirty-nine, after years moving around Canada with more than a few dark secrets in his past, he discovers that is old friend Adam has written a book. Inside this book is Rank’s story, and he’s furious. All his secrets, confessed one drunken night to this friend, have been laid bare on the page.

Raging, Rank finds Adam on the Internet and begins to send him emails that aren’t exactly non-threatening, but don’t suggest that he’s about to turn up and bash his door down at any minute. Rank just wants a chance to tell his side of the story – give Adam a refresher course of what happened at university and before, from his point of view.

What Rank ends up discovering, however, is so much more.

OK, so some books are immediate duds, and some books are immediately revered and held aloft, but then there are some – and they’re rarer – that sit simply on that three-star-review position and don’t seem to resonate particularly in either way. The Antagonist is one of those. It’s well written, and Coady has a flair for colourful, interesting language. She sets up fully rounded characters, painting them for us, and knows how and when to release certain information for the best reactions.

But frankly, there are a lot of words here for not much action. Rank’s three great tragedies in his life are revealed out of order, and one of them he isn’t even directly responsible for, which seems to be the one, ironically, that he can’t forgive himself for most. You can see where it’s going, and it’s rather interesting, but it just takes a bit too long to get there.

The conceit of having Rank speaking directly to Adam in the book is good, but he is a distracted narrator, drunk some of the time at least, and he weaves about the narrative, jumping backwards and forwards in time, changing from first to third person and back again with barely a warning. I guess more than anything it’s a story about Rank’s father, Gord, whether it’s intended to be or not. Unfortunately Gord isn’t a particularly captivating presence, more a cartoonishly angry man who has a bad relationship with his son.

We’re exploring too many themes here – narcissism, fate, forgiveness and religion – and as such none of them get enough page time to stand out. Again, it’s not a bad book by any stretch of the imagination, the writing is polished and it’s an easy read, but it’s just not very memorable. Find me in a year and ask me what I thought of this book. I’m unlikely to be able to tell you much.

It’s a filler novel; but at heart a tale of fear, struggle and our obsessions with ourselves, always wondering how we come across to others, but never really knowing.

“Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend” by Matthew Green (2012)

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memoirs

Imaginary friend: not pictured

“Here is what I know: My name is Budo. I have been alive for five years.”

Despite the seemingly unique premise, this is not the first book I’ve ever read from the point of view of an imaginary friend. However, in the other one, the narrator’s identity as such was a twist (hence not giving the name here). This book offers that up on a plate.

This is the story of Budo, an imaginary friend who was brought into being five years ago by Max, an 8-year-old boy with Asperger’s Syndrome (as I understand it – it is never explicitly addressed). Five years is a long time for an imaginary friend to stick around, so Budo is respected and revered by other imaginary friends he meets. Max has done a good job of imagining him, however, and he looks almost exactly like a teenage boy. Max is the only human who can see him and communicate with him, and Budo can have no contact with the outside world.

Budo is intelligent, but has limits. When born, he only knows what Max knows, but since he has been imagined older, he is able to learn things quicker. He understands people and the fact that they don’t always mean what they say, or can’t always be trusted. He has learned these things from watching Max’s parents and teachers when he wanders off. He can then pass this information onto Max.

It’s very hard to describe much of the plot without giving too much away, but the story all seems to be going in one direction before veering off wildly into another in a manner that works, but has you caught off-guard by a red herring. It’s a bit like how episodes of The Simpsons begin with one story only to drop it after five minutes and move onto another one.

Memoirs is much darker than I expected it to be, although it is very cleverly written. Because Budo effectively has the mental capacity of a small boy, he tells the story much as you imagine a child would. As someone who has never had much affection for child narrators (Alice and Lyra come immediately to mind), I found that this worked really well. You could only know what Budo knew, and he didn’t understand some of the things the adults were saying. There is a point, for example, when one of the teachers complains about the “damunion“, a term that Budo cannot understand. It took me a while to cotton on to the fact that she is referring to the teacher’s union: the “damn union“.

spoon

Would you like to play a game?

Budo is not the only imaginary friend in the story. Most children have one, but very rarely do they last anything like as long as Budo has. They are also all entirely unique, capable of doing only what their children have imagined they can do. For example, Budo has the ability to pass through doors and windows, but does not and cannot sleep. Others may be able to fly, or teleport. Some are less lucky and have been imagined without arms, or without the ability to speak. Most imaginary friends are fuzzy air from the waist down, and almost none of them have ears or eyebrows. There’s even one Budo meets who is just a large spoon with arms and legs. He’s called Spoon.

The book delves deep and explores one of the greatest fears of the modern world, and Budo too deals with something that has plagued humankind for generations – the thought of being ignored, left behind and forgotten. Having seen hundreds of imaginary friends come and go over the years, he seems consistently terrified that he will be next.

There is a beautiful observation in the novel about teachers, saying that some of them “teach school” and some of the “play school”, the latter being ones who just show up and do the job, but don’t really care about the children and are just doing it for the paypacket. We certainly need more of the former in schools today. I was lucky enough to have several of those during my education, and I’m forever grateful to them for making me who I am today.

The mythology of the imaginary friends is particularly brilliant. It is not a very well explored subject, so Green can take it wherever he likes. I love the idea that they are all unique and can communicate with one another. The idea that they cannot make contact with the human world is nice, makes sense and adds a level of complexity to the whole thing, as when Max gets in trouble, Budo can do nothing to help him out of it. There is a question mark over how the imaginary friends can pass on information to their imaginers that they could have absolutely no idea about, potentially giving the children almost psychic powers. I suppose though that when they said, “My imaginary friend told me” then it would simply be ignored.

If you loved The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, this book is definitely for you. If you simply want to discover something unique and meet a cast of quirky, delightful characters, then it’s also worth looking into. It might just change the way that you look at a few things.