Encapsulate the book in one sentence? A warm and quirky triumph-against-the-odds story stretching from outer space to the streets of Wigan.
Intriguing, tell me more. Tom Major, 40-something and convinced earth holds nothing for him, has accidentally ended up in a spaceship heading to be the first man on Mars. Trying to call his ex-wife, he instead connects to Ellie and James, a family in Wigan struggling to keep things together while their father is in jail and their grandmother Gladys goes slowly doolally.
Why this, why now? I was a big fan of David Barnett's Gideon Smith steampunk fantasy series (reviews here, here and here). The author pulled a reverse-Iain Banks and popped the M into his name for this non-SFF novel, and I picked up Calling Major Tom when it originally came out and had every intention to read it until I just... forgot. But I recently listened to the Graphic Audio adaptation of the first Gideon Smith which reminded me I also had Calling Major Tom as an audiobook -- and here we are.
Did you finish it? Did it work for you? Honestly, I loved this book. I wasn't sure I was going to; it's a genre I like but don't tend to read in, and I was vaguely worried it would feel like a formulaic 'feelgood' novel, or a cash-in on Bowie's death. But I really, genuinely, adored it. Whilst the 'tough older daughter holding down three jobs to keep working class family afloat' is something of a trope, the story barrels on through it; the Ormerod family are vivid, spiky and easy to root for - and refreshingly northern. As for their companion story, Major Tom up in space, the juxtaposition is potent, and his individual story carries surprising heft -- the slow unveiling of his backstory shades in his 'grumpy misanthrope' set-up with poignancy, and dots of motivation and resonance connect in surprising places as the story unfolds. Everyone's arc in the book feels earned, rather than plotted, which I guess is the difference between an calculated 'feelgood' story and one that actually, well, feels.
What surprises did it hold – if any? The Kirkus review of this book mentioned this recently, and whilst this may not sound like a recommendation for this book, honestly it is! Calling Major Tom features the best use of a fart joke for pathos since Shaun of the Dead. How's that for a pull quote?
What scene will stay with you? What character will stay with you? There's a wonderful moment later in the book when, about to step out of his shuttle and into open space, Tom Major sees something; the otherwise played-straight narrative tips briefly into something with a darker tinge of magic-realism and it totally clinched it on a book I was already loving. I can't say more for fear of spoiling it.
What do you mean, bad reviews? Because writers don't get to reply to their bad reviews themselves. Paraphrased from goodreads:
"Unlikely and difficult to believe."I mean, there's a healthy dose of coincidence happening, but this is fiction, and you are aware we've been able to go to space since 1961, right?
"It's just a saccharin feel good story about a poor working class teenage girl who hates society and endangers her own family because she thinks she's living in Victorian England." I would like to lightly mock this, but actually this particular comment irritates me enormously because it shows an astonishing lack of understanding of working class experience.
"The whole misanthrope in space is a red herring." A red herring from... what, exactly?
Is it available today? Out now from Trapeze/Orion in ebook, paperback and audiobook.
Misc notes: - I cannot stop calling this book Goodnight Major Tom. I've had to correct it each time. - Fantasy movie casting: Paddy Considine as Major Tom, that girl from Ackerley Bridge as Ellie, younger Emily Blunt as the PR woman. - I recall reading there was originally a scene in which Carrie Fisher calls the spaceship, that was removed when she died. I'm not sure if the Simon Cowell scene replaced it, and the Cowell scene is a gleefully funny replacement if so, but damn, I want to read the Carrie Fisher version.