Thursday, 31 December 2009

My best reads of 2009

The following, in no particular order, are the books that I most enjoyed reading during the course of the year. Some were recommendations, gratefully acknowledged, from other book blogs most notably Stuck in a Book and Random Jottings.

Paris in the Fifties by Stanley Karnow was one of those books that just gives you a warm, fuzzy feeling while reading it, so much so that, having borrowed it originally from the library, I went out and bought my own copy so I could keep it. Part biography, part travel book, part period piece, it is a loving and perceptive portrait of French life, culture and attitudes. A strongly nostalgic account of a bohemian, artistic, intellectual and above all affordable Paris which has, alas, long since vanished.

Swallowdale by Arthur Ransome, but I could just as well nominate any of his books, since I have embarked upon reading the whole series, only a few of which I read as a child. Magical stories told from a child's point of view but with adults participating willingly in the whole make-believe process where necessary. Sadly, modern standards make such childhood freedom of action seem even more of a fantasy than ever. Well-deserved classic status.

Full Dark House by Christopher Fowler. The first of the Bryant and May mysteries. Impossible to describe, impossible to put down. Fowler is a wonderful writer, with evocative descriptions of a darkly tantalising London through the ages, woven into the story of a long and touching friendship. Start with this one, but read them all.

Richard Aldington and H.D. ed Caroline Zilboorg. Letters chronicling this brilliant but doomed relationship. I have written at length about Aldington already on this blog. Novelist, poet and biographer, he is shamefully neglected. He and H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) were widely credited as the creators of Imagist poetry, and much admired by Ezra Pound and Ford Maddox Ford. Excellent commentary and introduction by Zilboorg.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, yes and the second one too. So much has been written about this great trilogy by Stieg Larsson that I have little to add. So rare to find such wonderful writing coupled with such gripping story-telling. I enjoy and admire Mankell, but this is even better. Looking forward to the third one.

Bad Penny Blues by Cathy Unsworth. See my recent post on this. I genuinely believe Unsworth is a major new talent.

Final Edition, by E.F. Benson. The very last thing Benson wrote, delivered personally to his publishers though he was mortally ill with cancer and knew he only had a few weeks left. The last volume of his auto-biography, surprisngly frank about relationships within his family, and written with a jaunty light-heartedness in the face of death.

It's Too Late Now by A.A. Milne. I have always disapproved of Milne's attacks on Wodehouse, which I thought were priggish and narrow-minded. This is a wonderful book, though, a charming auto-biography up to WWII.

Frost at Morning by Richmal Crompton. Justly famous for her William books, Crompton was an amazingly prolific writer and her novels deserve to be (much) better known.

Randall and the River of Time by C.S. Forester. See my separate post in the blog archive. Read this (and others) to show what a great writer he was above and beyond the Hornblower books.

The Last Great Frenchman by Charles Williams. An enthralling biography of de Gaulle.

Man and his Symbols by Carl Jung. Written by Jung himself and various collaborators. A new (i.e. non-Freudian) view of the part symbols play in dreams, and what insights these may offer.

The Egoist by George Meredith. There is a separate post on Meredith in the blog archive.

The Chalk Circle Man by Fred Vargas, a lady despite the nom de plume, and an architect. Vintage and Harvill Secker have a lot of explaining to do for having translated and issued these wonderful books in totally the wrong order. Be warned: this is actually the first, despite having been published last (so far).

Stranger Than Fiction, by Jim Murdoch. See separate post. Dazzling follow-up to Living With The Truth.

The Leaf by Frank McGillion. See separate post. This Booker-nominated novelist deserves to be much, much better known. I recommend starting with On The Edge Of A Lifetime.

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. I think this one just sneaked into 2009 and, yes, it really is as good as everyone says it is.

"Death Takes a Wife" by Anthony Gilbert and "The Rasp" by Philip MacDonald

As an exercise, I recently jotted down a list of 28 Golden Age detective writers and ran a search of them on the Camden Libraries database. Of the 28, only 7 featured, and even then in some cases with a solitary book lodged in the basement of a reserve collection. No criticism intended of Camden, who operate a great service, and Swiss Cottage library is surely one of the best in the country, but it seems a little sad that books that have given so much pleasure over the years should be so easily consigned to oblivion. I have taken it upon myself to track down as many books by these authors as I can, by various means, and will report as and when I am successful.

One which Swiss Cottage did kindly retrieve from the basement for me was Death Takes a Wife by Anthony Gilbert. One which they were able to extract from the bowels of another libray was The Rasp by Philip MacDonald. They turned out to be very different books, one of which had stood the test of time much more successfully than the other.

Anthony Gilbert was the nom de plume of the lady writer Lucy Malleson (1899 - 1973), who also wrote fiction as Anne Meredith, and some works for children under her own name. What on earth has happened to all these wonderfully prolific writers who wrote under several different names?

Her style is reminiscent of Ngaio Marsh and I was very impressed by this book. The premise is an interesting one. A young woman marries a man whose first wife she knows (because she nursed her) to have died in mysterious circumstances. Soon we become embroiled in a round of blackmail and murder all revolving around one central question: did he or did he not murder his first wife? A rough diamond is retained to clear both husband and second wife (who comes under suspicion for a later killing).

I have to say that the mystery is not a particularly baffling one. Enough clues are scattered around to enable the reader to guess the truth well before the end. However the book is very well written indeed, especially in so far as it gets inside the head of the young woman, who is most sympathetically portrayed. To me, this did not feel a dated book, any more than, say, Marsh feels dated and I would recommend it to any devotee of murder mysteries. My only surprise is that more "Anthony Gilbert" books are not around - Camden have only one in the whole borough.

The Rasp by Philip McDonald (1899-1980), on the other hand, is dated. It reads like a cross between Buchan and Sapper. If you enjoy these two (and I do) then you will find it a good read, but if you don't then be warned. The story itself is well done, a sort of locked room mystery with an ingenious solution. It is also sweetly romantic; no fewer then three couples get hitched in the course of the closing chapters. Interestingly, MacDonald later moved to California where he became a successful screenwriter, but was during the 1930's one of the best-selling English thriller writers.

More updates on these lesser-known Golden Age writers as and when books become available. In the meantime, readers might like to investigate the post on Edmind Crispin in the blog archive.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Christmas and New Year Quiz

In each case the name of the book and author are required, but in some cases there are bonus marks available too. Answers by midnight London time on 3 January, please.

The first section covers books which have some connection with ships or boats:

1. The 1951 film Captain Horatio Hornblower was an adaptation of not one but three books. Can you name them, the author, and the actor who played Hornblower?
2. An unpopular officer is persuaded by another to fake a duodenal ulcer in order to escape from sea-going duty. Bonus marks for the names of the two characters involved.
3. Edmund Talbot lays a cunning plan to be alone with the woman of his desires, a plan involving an old naval tradition. For a bonus mark, what is it?
4. One of the central characters is put in the pillory in the City of London after innocently but unwisely getting involved in a stock market scam, and then goes to sea in a privateer. For a bonus mark, who is the owner of the privateer?
5. Billy lives in dread of a visit from a one-legged man. When he dies in mysterious circumstances following a visit from a former shipmate, what the young hero finds in Billy's sea chest sparks a rollicking yarn.

Now how about some opening lines?

6. I have just returned from a visit to my landlord - the solitary neighbour that I shall be troubled with.
7. There was absolutely no possibility of taking a walk that day.
8. "Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents," grumbled X, lying on the rug.
9. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times ...
10. It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs ...

Test your knowledge of author's lives. Only the name required here.

11. This writer lived in India but later in Rye, and was the subject of a poisoning attempt. Various books were made into films, including a very famous one starring Deborah Kerr.
12. This writer won the Booker Prize and later ran BBC Radio. Most of his books are currently out of print!
13. Born in America, this writer came to live in England at the age of 2, subsequently returning to America. Originally a poet, he was to gain fame with a number of hard-boiled detective novels. His style is highly individual and has been much admired, copied and parodied.
14. This writer's early experiences as a rent collector and solicitor's clerk would prove hugely influential in the novels he wrote depicting a particular part of England. He lived for some years in Paris, where he was friendly with a young Somerset Maugham.
15. Having attended Eton, which he described as "excellent preparation for vice of any kind", he had a bewildering array of casual jobs, including a lingerie salesman, international art smuggler, and vineyard labourer. In later life he would write a series of hugely under-rated crime novels, all of them very bleak, sometime known collectively as the Factory series. He has been described as the creator of English noir. He wrote under at least two different names, either of which will be accepted.

Finally, a few generalist questions. Again, the name of the book and the author are required.

16. Subtitled An Island Tale, this book tells the story of a man who falls in love with a traveling lady musician. Remarkable for having been written by someone who became a major novelist in their third language.
17. A Booker prize-winner, this rambling but magnificent novel tells the story of an admitted fantasist, and is said to tell the history of the country in question in parallel with that of the central character. The writer would later win the Booker again.
18. The words "you have been in Afghanistan, I perceive" launch a famous partnership on the reading public.
19. This prize-winning novel describes the sad marriage of a police office in Africa. Written by an author who spent a lot of time in Capri.
20. The central character, who is described but not named in the title, achieves success in life, but is hiding a dark secret concerning a drunken episode at a country fair many years previously. When he later dies, disgraced and impoverished, his secret having been revealed, he asks that no sexton toll the bell for his passing.

Results and answers will be announced as soon as possible after 3 January.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

"Major Benjy" is big in Henley

A Google alert tells me that Major Benjy has been elected one of five Books of The Year 2009 in Henley on Thames. Other book shops and book clubs please note ...

Monday, 14 December 2009

"Bad Penny Blues" by Cathi Unsworth

Having spent many years scouring second hand books shops for the works of Derek Raymond, I owe a debt of gratitude and a nod of respect to Serpent's Tail, a fine imprint for noirish crime fiction, for having recently brought him back into print.

I was interested to read one of their latest offerings, Bad Penny Blues, since I have heard its author, Cathi Unsworth, hailed as a new Derek Raymond. Having read the book I can tell you that the comparison is not appropriate. This is not intended in any way as an insult to Unsworth - as you will see I enjoyed her book immensely - but simply a statement that her style is nothing like Raymond's. His is lean and spare, with background colour pared to the bone, and stories of almost desolate bleakness. Unsworth's book, on the other hand, teems with life and vitality.

It deals with what gradually emerges as a series of murders, and is set against a sordid background of Soho clubs, crooked detectives, vicious pimps, and pathetic tarts, some of whom have sunk steadily to the dregs of their trade. Some characters are clearly based on real life people (Freddy Mills the boxer, for example, who was a friend of the Krays, died in mysterious circumstances, and has been linked by some with the murder of a number of prostitutes between 1959 and 1965 ... hmm.)

In fact, all the historical detail (late 50s to early 60s) is quite superb, the separate but converging strands of the story are told convincingly by two main characters (one male and one female), and there is a wide supporting cast of well-crafted individuals, all of whom make you believe not just in them but in what they contribute to the plot.

I have to confess that the identity of the killer does not come as a surprise, though Unsworth very cleverly creates a denouement which makes it clear that, though there may have been one major villain, there have been a whole host of minor ones, and that the apportionment of responsibility for various things is by no means clear (just as in real life). Much has been cleverly fore-shadowed by clairvoyant experiences, and I felt an echo here not of Derek Raymond but of Christopher Fowler.

I felt that the flashback / premonition passages worked well, though they might well have faltered in the hands of a clumsier author. My one minor quibble was with the resolution of the heroine's personal situation, which I thought smacked a little of a Jilly Cooper romance and belonged more in the realm of chick-lit than in a dark and brooding thriller. Again, I'm afraid the identity of the person concerned is heavily signposted long before they eventually get together.

This is a minor quibble indeed, though. I loved this book and could not put it down. Cathi Unsworth is a genuinely unique and talented writer who creates great characters and pens a cracking story. I recommend it unreservedly and look forward to her next offering.

"Bad Penny Blues" is published by Serpent's Tail under ISBN 978-1846686788

"The Invisible City"

There is a fuller (and more sympathetic) review on Jim Murdoch's blog. Click here to go there.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

"Imperial", "The Invisble City", "Something's Wrong" and "The Night Following"

In an effort to cut down my TBR pile, I am going to mention briefly some of the books I have read recently but am not for whatever reason intending fully to review.

Imperial by Willim T. Vollmann is a towering piece of non-fiction from an award-winning writer. Dealing with the largely arid area of South-East California it encompasses migrant labour exploitation and the crucial importance of water, among other things. At well over a thousand pages it is of a length that I normally love in a book, but I must confess that I stalled around page 600 and skimmed the rest. It deals with some important issues but, surprisingly for a writer who has won prizes, it reads in a very disjointed style, almost as though he has simply transcribed his notes each day. I am not normally a fan of re-writing, and do as little of it as possible myself, but I think this book could have benefited from a really determined editor.

The Invisible City by Emili Rosales arrived heralded as the next Shadow of the Wind. It isn't. I have to be careful here, because I have not read any of Rosales's previous novels, but this one just did not work for me. He works in publishing (indeed, I think he may have published Zafon - certainly there is a glowing endorsement from him on the cover of this book) and it as though he has decided to write a certain type of novel and evoke a certain type of atmosphere but does not quite know how to pull it off.

The Invisible City ranges across the centuries and there is a denouement of sorts, as far as at least one love story is concerned, but all in a very predictable way. Perhaps unkindly, I thought this book contained a mish-mash of writing styles from the Eco of Foucault's Pendulum, through the Peres-Reverte of The Dumas Club to, of course, Zafon himself, rather than revealing an individual novelist's voice. Maybe I am just being overly subjective and demanding on this one; I would be interested to hear what other readers thought.

Lack of originality is certainly not a criticism one could level at Something's Wrong by Sam Smith. This is one of the most innovative novels I have read for some time. The form is that of a series of transcripts of tape recordings of someone who, as it becomes rapidly clear, has some serious mental health problems. This is a harrowing work, which raises some disturbing issues about mental health care generally, and care homes in particular. You feel yourself literally getting into the mind of the character, and caring about what happens to him - both rare attributes in novels these days. I am sorry that lack of time prevents me from writing a fuller review.

Similarly with The Night Following by Morag Joss, which I also greatly enjoyed. Without giving away too much of the plot, this is a story of sudden death, infidelity, guilt and attempts at increasingly bizarre redemption. I really enjoyed it.

Joss is a fine writer, though her style is taut rather than flowery. Her characters are credible, finely drawn, and elicit our sympathy. More basic requirements that many modern novelists seem to think they can safely ignore as out-moded and therefore end up writing things which it difficult to classify as "novels" at all, at least if you read Forster. Not Joss, however; this is very good stuff. I was reminded while reading it of P.D. James and Donna Tartt, and was therefore interested to read afterwards in the publisher's blurb that the former is an acquaintance, and encouraged Joss to write.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

"A Yank Back To England" by Denis Lipman

Denis Lipman grew up in Dagenham and this is a sort of reverse travel book, telling the story of him introducing his American family to his English parents and relatives.

Lipman is a professional writer (plays and advertising) and it shows. The chapters read like short stories, each one detailing a different part of the country as he and his wife pass through, often with other family members in tow. Incidentally, the family theme is a fascinating sub-plot to the passing scenery, as various stresses and strains start to emerge.

Lipman is a also a fully paid-up member of the Mapp and Lucia appreciation network, which is how I came across him and this book in the first place. There is a particularly interesting passage on Rye as he, like so many before him, looks for the Benson window in the church and imagines his creations shopping and gossipping their way around the cobbled streets.

I would particularly recommend this book to an American audience, many of whom come to the Benson gathering in Rye every September. Many of the experiences described will be familiar, I am sure, not least the vagaries of English catering ...

"A Yank Back To England" is published by Gemma Media under ISBN 978-1-934848-24-1

Monday, 23 November 2009

"Swan Song" by Edmund Crispin

Random House are to be congratulated for bringing Edmund Crispin back into print under their Vintage imprint. Publishers please note that technical merit and obscurity do not have to go hand in hand. I secured this book only a few minutes ahead of someone else the first day it arrived in my local library, and there are already reservations pending on it for when I take it back.

Crispin's real name was Montgomery and he was an amazingly talented individual. A capable enough musician to be both organist and choirmaster at an Oxbridge college, and to write various film scores, he also wrote short stories, film screenplays, and book reviews for The Sunday Times. It is though for his detective stories that he is best known.

His first, The Case of the Gilded Fly, was published in 1944, so he cannot strictly speaking be considered part of the Golden Age, though he is so stylistically if not chronologically (he was born after Ngaio Marsh and died before her). His style is quite unique. Light, witty, devastatingly intellectual, and occasionally very bitchy. His range of vocabulary is impressive (even I had to look up "cinereous"), and his characters, though lightly sketched, are full and largely sympathetic.

His detective, Gervaise Fen, is an Oxford don with a liking for Wagner and beer, who drives (very erratically) a battered red sports car called Lily Christine. Because his books are much shorter, Crispin is never able to flesh him out in the same way as Sayers does with Lord Peter Wimsey, but there is much of the same easy intellectual superiority, though with a much more eccentric touch - perhaps Wimsey crossed with Campion?

Detective stories are largely a matter of taste. I must confess to being unable to read Agatha Christie for some reason, though I can appreciate that her books are well crafted. The only one that I ever really enjoyed was The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, since it is so original, as anyone who has read it will know. I also found The Mousetrap positively puerile when I finally saw it on stage. I much prefer Ngaio Marsh, though I think the romantic sub-plot, so important and well done by Sayers once Harriet Vane arrives on the scene, is a real weakness for her. The scene where Alleyn and Troy finally come together seems wooden and stilted, even allowing for the period dialogue. Romance also blossoms in Crispin's books, but not for Fen, who has a wife and children hidden discreetly offstage.

I think it is quite possible that Crispin is the best writer of all these authors. With all due deference to Sayers, there is something about Crispin's prose that reaches out and grabs you. His description of a blustery, snowy day in Oxford is wonderfully evocative in Swan Song. Given that this is a murder mystery, it is difficult to say much more about the book without risking divulging some essential clue, but I can reveal that, like some of Marsh's stories, it is set in a theatre against a backdrop of rehearsals for Wagner's Meistersinger.

It has always been a source of surprise and disappointment to me that Crispin has never been filmed or televised unlike his rivals. The image of an Oxford don driving a red sports car around Oxford lanes is surely a cinematic one. Perhaps this re-issue of perhaps his best book (though I might vote for The Moving Toyshop) will prompt the re-evaluation which is surely overdue.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

"The Madness of Queen Maria" by Jenifer Roberts

I do not usually review non-fiction on my blog, but am very happy to make an exception in the case of The Madness of Queen Maria. Jenifer Roberts is to be congratulated not only on adding considerably to one's knowledge of eighteenth century Europe, but also because she has produced a very well-written book, which keeps the reader enthralled with what is admittedly a very sad story throughout.

Given the title of the book, it really is not spoiling the plot to divulge that the unfortunate Maria spent the last twenty-five years of her life insane. Even that was not the end of the indignities heaped upon her, since she died horribly of dysentery, and her rotting corpse was then was not finally given the state burial it was due for another five years or so after that, as we learn from a gripping but gruesome description of her putrid body being laid out according to custom by retching and fainting princesses.

Away from the personal side of Maria's life, however, we have a familiar tale of royal favourites, an oppressive and overbearing church, and an autocratic absolute monarchy. Forget the so-called Enlightened Despots such as Maria Theresa, Frederick and Catherine who were embarking on cautious reform in Austria, Prussia and Russia respectively. The Enlightenment seems to have left Portugal largely untouched.

As I said, this is a sad story, but well worth reading. Anyone familiar with the Napoleonic wars will have a pretty good idea of how things are going to end, but I have never before heard the events described from a Portuguese, rather than an English perspective. I really enjoyed this book.

"The Madness of Queen Maria" is published by Templeton Press under ISBN 978-0-9545589-1-8

Monday, 2 November 2009

"The Secret History of Science Fiction" ed. Kelly and Kessel. "Gravity's Rainbow" by Thomas Pynchon

I am not normally a huge fan of short stories, but I really enjoyed this anthology, partly because it is much more than merely a collection of short stories, also debating the question of to what extent Science Fiction and mainline fiction are really separate entities at all. I found this fascinating. How many mainstream writers have actually written Sci Fi? I could think straight away of E.M. Forster (The Machine Stops), Anthony Burgess (The End of the World News), Lawrence Durrell (The Revolt of Aphrodite, originally published as Tunq and Nunquam) and of course George Orwell (1984). Maybe readers can suggest some others?

The real point is to what extent Sci Fi is under-estimated as fiction simply because of its label. This is a debate I have considered previously in writing about Philip K. Dick, and I tend to agree with Kelly and Kessel. Asimov's Foundation series, for example, can be read as good serious literature, while Dick is almost certainly a neglected genius by anyone's standards. Similar issues arise with various "historical" novelists, though technically any novel set in the past could be regarded as "historical". Perhaps what we need here is a further sub-classification into the "costume drama" type of historical novel (Daphne du Maurier, Jean Plaidy, Dorothy Dunnett, etc.) and the others (Patrick O'Brian, Derek Robinson, C.S. Forester, etc). Yet even this sort of exercise has its dangers, for I can think of at least one lady in North Norfolk who would hotly defend Dunnett as a serious novelist, as I suppose is du Maurier if only for Rebecca. Oh dear!

I think this all goes to show that, as the editors suggest, any sort of classification is both difficult and dangerous, that really there is just "literature", and that to seek to parcel it up into neat little compartments based purely upon its subject matter achieves little but to diminish certain authors in our estimation.

Kelly and Kessel start with an interesting "what if?". Suppose Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow had won the Nebula Award (a sort of Sci Fi Booker Prize) for which it was short-listed in 1973. Would this distinction between Sci Fi and serious fiction have ended? Or might there be yet another classification, perhaps, of "speculative fiction"?

By an amazing coincidence I had just finished reading Gravity's Rainbow when this book arrived. I can see why it might have been considered for a Sci Fi award, though in truth it's hard to say precisely that it would qualify. On one reading of the book there is no alternative science going on, at least not in the sense of it actually working. There are lots of people attempting to do things which sound scientifically impossible, but largely in the hope of gaining and keeping large budgets and staffs, and thus political influence, for this is a novel which operates on various levels. V2 rockets did break the sound barrier, for example, and some of the experiments described sound close to what Jung was working on as described in Synchronicity.

Picking up a Pynchon novel is always a humbling experience for anyone with aspirations as a writer. Like Joyce, his prose is like large vats of hot, dark chocolate in which you can easily drown while enjoying it. It is a style that no other contemporary writer could pull off, yet while it is brilliant it also runs the risk of being labelled as impenetrable as some verse (think Ezra Pound). A novelist's first task is to tell a story, and you cannot do this if you lose your reader along the way. As Pynchon concocts his heady brew, in which every image is striking, every character is larger than life, and every scene slightly surreal, you feel your senses beginning to reel. He is more of a challenge than any writer I have ever read.

As a period piece, set in England during the latter part of WWII, the book works well, although there are a few glaring errors. Petrol for private cars was unobtainable, for example, as were stockings, while the German rocket base at Peenemunde was way beyond the range of Spitfires, except for specially adapted high level reconnaissance models. Normally, I find such things irritating but somehow here they did not seem to matter, perhaps because, as with Philip K. Dick, one's sense of reality has become gradually distorted anyway.

There is a constant mix of the sublime and the ridiculous, of high brow and low brow. It is almost like watching a cartoon version of Proust, or listening to Mahler arranged for the barrel organ. A truly remarkable book. Does it matter whether it is Sci Fi or not? I don't see why.

But, coming back to The Secret History of Science Fiction, what Kelly and Kessel have done is to gather together, and presumably where necessary commission, short Sci Fi stories by mainstream authors. These are all enjoyable and one or two are outstanding. I would single out in particular those by Michael Chabon and Don DeLillo. Read and enjoy.

"The Secret History of Science Fiction" is published by Tachyon Publications of San Francisco under ISBN 978-1-892391-93-3

Sunday, 1 November 2009

"The Search" by Maureen Myant

Having just seen Protektor at the London Film Festival, which also portrays life in what was then Czechoslovakia under the Nazis, I felt I had to go back and read this book again, which I did and it was just as good as I remembered it being the first time round.

Myant tells of a family forcibly split up by the Nazis after the husband / father has been killed, and follows the efforts of Jan, who is only ten years old, to seek out his different family members and re-unite them.

This she does well. There are some tense scenes, particularly when German soldiers are conducting searches, and also some powerfully emotional scenes, not least the bitter sweet ending, which I will not reveal. It reminded me a little of reading The Silver Sword by Ian Seraillier when I was young. I wonder if Myant had read this too? It seems such an obvious parallel, though there the family are Polish, I think.

This is a first novel, and promises well for the future. It is certainly a whole lot better than many I have been forced to read while judging first novel prizes. Alma Books are to be congratulated on being ready to support such a promising writer.

"The Search" is published by Alma Books under ISBN 978-1-84688-092-6

Saturday, 17 October 2009

"The Hidden" by Tobias Hill

I read and enjoyed Hill's 2003 (I think) novel The Cryptographer, which I thought was a quite dazzling work, taking what seemed to be starting out as a straight up and down thriller and moving it into totally new territory.

It was cultured and cheeky. The central character was a billionaire called John Law, who did not (as many believe) invent paper money, but did invent securitisation and destroy the French economy in the process. There were knowledgeable references to The Wasteland, particularly the lines about banks.

It also suggested that it was possible to move seamlessly between the worlds of humans and computers. There was mention of a computer virus that could kill humans, for example.

It was a book that is impossible to classify. Serious novel? Thriller? Science fiction? In truth, probably a combination of all three. I remember being left in no doubt that here was a truly original voice.

The Hidden is a different sort of novel entirely. Telling the story of a young man who goes to Greece and finds himself getting drawn into some strange goings-on involving two attractive but mysterious women, I was reminded very strongly of The Magus. I don't know whether this was a conscious influence on Hill, but it kept coming back to me as I read this book.

Like The Magus, this is a novel which keeps you constantly guessing on what level reality is operating, and just what might be "reality" after all. Certainly poor old Ben, the central character, always seems to be at least one step behind.

This is a much more intimate novel than The Cryptographer, or at least operates on a more initimate level. The book is well written, though I found the revolutionary punctuation unsettling. I thought that perhaps I would get used to this as the book progressed, but I never did, and I think it spoilt it a little for me. It was also puzzling, as it did not seem to add anything. What does the author have against direct speech? Unless there is a very good reason for doing so, I cannot see any good reason to depart from accepted norms; it just gets in the way of the reader losing themself in the book.

Tobias Hill is clearly a very fine writer, and I did enjoy this book. I thought the ending in particular worked very well, and would work perhaps even better as a film. I do urge you to read this book, despite the strange punctuation.

"The Hidden" is published by Faber and Faber under ISBN 9780571218387

Friday, 16 October 2009

"The Best of Men" by Claire Letemendia

A looming deadline for my own next book has meant that I have not been as active as I should have been in book postings. I actually read this book some time ago but read it through again quickly yesterday to refresh myself.

As the name suggests ("our best of men" refers to Oliver Cromwell and was used by Antonia Fraser as the title of her well-known biography) this is work of historical fiction set around the English Civil War. I liked the fact that Beaumont, the central character, had been off fighting in various European wars. This did actually happen, and quite a few of the Englishmen who ended up fighting out of principle against their fellow countrymen had actually been fighting for money as mercenaries but shortly before.

It is difficult to say very much about the story without giving away the plot, but Beaumont becomes involved with a plan to assassinate Charles I, and there are some nice twists and turns.

One of the central problems with any historical fiction is just how much period detail you should go for. Costumes, surroundings and background events are essential, and you need to get them right, but what about speech? P.G. Wodehouse memorably starts a chapter in one his Jeeves and Wooster books by saying "I'm never sure how much scenery to chuck in", and these sentiments could surely hold true of dialogue too. Nothing is more sudden death to a novel than a surfeit of the "Gadzooks, Madam, but I'll slit the scoundrel's gizzard" type of thing. I know this is a contentious area but I personally believe Daphne du Maurier ruined various of her books in this way. Patrick O'Brien, on the other hand, got it just right, I feel.

Letemendia deals with this problem largely by ignoring it and using more or less modern dialogue throughout. After the first few pages, this works surprisingly well , but there are times when it goes a little too far. I could not really suspend my disbelief to the extent of accepting that a seventeenth century person would say "I suppose ...". This is not even English, but American. Even today an English person would say "I suppose so"; only an American would say "I suppose", or "I guess". Back then they probably said something like "perchance", or "very like" in much the same way that in Yorkshire even today they say "happen", or rather " 'appen".

However, this is a minor quibble. This is a very well crafted story which rattles along at a fine pace and is set against what seems to be a very accurate historical background. I know this period pretty well as I studied it for A-level, and I did not spot a single real blunder.

"The Best of Men" is published by Random House under ISBN 978-0-224-08937-1

Sunday, 4 October 2009

"Autumn Sowing" by E.F. Benson

Yes, all right, it was inevitable that I would feature "Fred" Benson on the blog sooner or later, but the catalyst has turned out to be a very special book indeed, one that might even have to change our views about that nice Mr Benson who wrote the witty and captivating Mapp and Lucia books.

I found Autumn Sowing a little while ago, but have been holding off reading it for as long as possible. Incidentally, while finding it I also made a wonderful discovery that would surely have appealed to Fred himself; there is another writer called George Benson - no relation - who wrote a book on the law and practice of flogging, this esoteric tome nestling alphabetically beside a volume of Rambles and Reflections by Fred's brother, Arthur. A delicious irony this, as their father, a decidedly odd character who became Archbishop of Canterbury but who also groomed a very young teenage girl and might well have ended up on the child sex offenders' register had he been alive today, had a reputation for being a compulsive flogger during his days as headmaster of Wellington.

For those who are already aficionados of the Mapp and Lucia books, Autumn Sowing sets us down initially in very familiar territory. There is baby talk, and bibelots, and a mayor, oh and even a hospital in need of a new wing. There is the same deliciously waspish wit too. We learn that the mother-in-law of Thomas Keeling, the central character, enjoyed "admirable health, and the keen, spiteful temper which gives its possessor so indignant and absorbing an interest in life."

Yet, before long, strange new notes begin to break in discordantly on these harmonious scenes of visiting clergymen, Beethoven slow movements and Sunday lunch. Redolent of Barbara Pym, we discover that Keeling's daughter Alice is in love with a Georgie Pillson type young vicar whose own interests, despite him shamelessly encouraging her to adore him, lie elsewhere and whose only object of devotion is probably himself. With Barabara Pym these facts would be calmly noted and the narrative would then move sedately on. With Benson, usually, a deliciously catty observation would completely explode the vicar in our eyes, while a second would comfort us that Alice's passion was in reality but a passing fancy, and that no real harm had been done to anybody.

"Usually", but not here. Benson walks us late on in the book into a full frontal description of Alice's despair which is real enough to make one flinch from reading it. Even this is nothing, however, compared to what he has in store for Thomas Keeling who, we are led to believe in the opening chapters, is a stock figure from a social comedy, yet who is then taken on a roller coaster ride of powerful emotions which leave him devastated, drained, and changed for ever.

Keeling is a stock character in one respect. He is the middle aged man who has never known love, and when it strikes it hits him with all the viciousness of an emotion which has been pent up and unused for thirty years or so. This is a book of raw passion; not lust, but something much more dangerous - that idealised love which is made overwhelmingly powerful by the object's unattainability being part of that very perfection which triggers the feeling in the first place. An all consuming urge which makes thought of anything else - everyday business affairs, for example - all but impossible. A hopeless bubble of desire which, when it bursts, reduces every other aspect of life to insignificance compared to the dread awfulness of having to accept that the only thing in the world you really want is the one thing you will never be able to have.

All of which prompts an obvious question: how on earth did Fred Benson come to write a book like this? There is no clue to anything like this in his other books which have survived more or less in print: Mrs Ames, Paying Guests, or (despite its name) Secret Lives, for example. Passion is markedly absent from his oeuvre. When marriages arise they are sparked either by bluff masculine enquiries, or discussed decorously over needlepoint. In one case it is even mischievously implied that a man proposes out of embarrassment at having forgotten to put his jacket on before entering the drawing room.

Writing about Autumn Sowing, John Julius Norwich suggests that the book simply ran away with Benson, who ended up shocked and not a little horrified at what had transpired. This is pure supposition, of course, but may not be wide of the mark. There is a sense of a false ending at the end of Chapter Ten which, if allowed to stand, would be very bleak indeed.

The world had ceased spinning for him as he walked back. He lifted heavy feet as if he was going up some steep, interminable hill ...

Instead, it is as if Benson suddenly pulls himself together and tries to make the best fist he can of the mess he has created. While he is unable to lift the blackness which we know will hang over Keeling's life from now on, Benson does allow him a redemption of sorts in the shape of a reconciliation with his daughter, whose feelings, them both having loved and lost, he can now understand for the first time. "I never knew you before tonight", she says.

That is almost the last word, but not quite. The actual ending is almost too cruel for words. Without giving away too much of the plot, Keeling has enjoyed a figurative Secret Garden (yes, yet another Mapp and Lucia allusion) which has brought him his only real source of comfort. We are left in no doubt on the last page that this has now been tainted for ever because of its associations with his doomed love, and as the book closes he literally locks it away for ever and hangs the key upon a hook. Redemption of a sort, then, but no mercy.

"Poor father", Alice says. "I'm sorry, whatever it is."

Friday, 2 October 2009

"The Wonder of Whiffling" by Adam Jacot de Boinod

One of my favourite authors is Douglas Adams, inventor of the immortal "trilogy in five parts", The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Such was my devotion to the Adams canon that while at university I attempted to create my own version of the Pangalactic Gargleblaster, allegedly the strongest drink in the universe. My memories of the only occasion on which it was launched on an unsuspecting public are at best hazy, but I do dimly recollect that it contained rather a lot of aquavit, and that one of my sister's friends disappeared while drinking it and was subsequently found unconscious under a hedge three front gardens away. Sadly, my attempts to recreate the legendary technology which could spontaneously move a woman's underwear six feet to the left were markedly less successful.

One of Adams's lasting contributions to the cause of writing generally was The Meaning of Liff, in which he created words for all those things which really deserved to be specifically described in the English language, but weren't. So, for example, "budby" is defined as a nipple clearly identifiable through flimsy or wet material, though lengthy research for the purposes of this post reveals (so to speak) that the term does not seem yet to have been adopted by those internet sites which specialise in such material. Similarly, "epping" is the futile movement of fingers employed in a restaurant in an attempt to attract the attention of a waiter.

AJB has gone a stage further. In The Meaning of Tingo, and its succesor Toujours Tingo, he collected words from various foreign languages which may not come instantly to mind, but which nonetheless may come in useful, much in the same way as the celebrated "my postillion has been struck by lightning" used to be prominently featured in English/French phrase books.

I must point out an uncanny connection here, since I am probably one of the few people other than the author actually to know that the Albanian language has over twenty words for different types of moustache (some of which I believe apply only to Albanian women), and did in fact use this fact in my own first book (the catchy and addictive Multi-Asset Class Investment Strategy) to astound and amaze a whole generation of business school students. There is much more on offer, though. We learn, for example, to slip the Persian word "nakhur" (a camel that gives no milk until her nostrils are tickled) into everyday conversation, while who could be without the Japanese "tsuji-giri", meaning "to try out a new sword on passers-by"?

Now, in The Wonder of Whiffling, he performs the same invaluable service for our own rich English langauge, in a way not seen (or, rather, heard) since the immortal days of rambling Sid Rumbold on Round the Horne. For example, in Yorkshire a stridewallop is a tall and ungainly woman, while in Canada, a cougar is an older woman on the hunt for a younger man. (In Britain they are called bridge players.)

This is clearly an invaluable work of scholarship without which no bookshelf may be considered complete.

The Wonder of Wiffling has just been published by Particular Books under ISBN 978-0140515855

Thursday, 1 October 2009

"The Shadow of a Smile" by Kachi Ozumba

African Novels is a supposedly commercially attractive pigeon-hole into which publishers have been lobbing books hopefully on a regular basis over the last few years, and I have been unlucky enough to have had to read a few of them, particularly for judging and reviewing purposes. A mistake in most cases, because it takes more than a bit of local colour to make a good novel, and nothing I have read to date has come close to The Famished Road, which for me set the gold standard.

On the back cover of The Shadow of a Smile there is the by now inevitable comparison with Ben Okri, but for once the blurb does not lie, for this is a very fine novel indeed. There are in fact publisher's references to various writers, but perhaps the most appropriate one does not figure at all, for this book reminded me more than anything of Kafka's The Trial. Like the unfortunate hero of that book (Josef K), Zuba finds day to day issues escalating nightmarishly into a legal minefield, and imprisonment.

The Shadow of a Smile is a very different novel to The Famished Road. For one thing, whereas Okri convincingly shows us the world through the eyes, and using the language, of a fairly naive child, Ozumba's protagonist is an educated and sophisticated young man of good family. This introduces us to a subtle shading of moral ambiguity, for it emerges that Zuba's father has been an establishment figure and part of a (presumably) corrupt previous regime. It is thus entirely possible that his father's colleagues subjected others to exactly the same privations which Zuba is now forced to suffer.

Much of the narrative is bleak, for we need little convincing to believe that Nigeria is not the best place in the world to be imprisoned, but Ozumba's achievement is to take such potentially harrowing surroundings and find in them not only sympathy and occasional acts of kindness, but even humour.

This is presumably Ozumba's first novel, since no previous ones are credited, and it is a deeply impressive debut. Incidentally, the title is a quotation from Anna Akhmatova, the persecuted Russian poet, on whom see a fascinating essay by Clive James in Cultural Amnesia, and refers obliquely to the expression on a fellow sufferer's face when she realises that her story will be told one day after all.

The Shadow of a Smile is published by Alma Books under ISBN 978-1-84688-089-6

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

"The Alexandria Quartet" by Lawrence Durrell

Click here for a guest piece on the Alexandria Quartet on Norman Geras's blog.

Friday, 18 September 2009

"Stranger Than Fiction" by Jim Murdoch

This is the first time that I have reviewed the same author twice, apart only from Philip K. Dick, and both he and Jim Murdoch are very fine writers indeed.

Regular visitors to this blog will remember that I gave his Living with the Truth (reviewed December 2008) rave notices as it was quite the most stylish, thoughtful and dowright original novel I had read for a long time. I remember wondering at the time how Murdich was going to follow it though, not least because there was talk of a sequel yet the hero (using the word only in its literary sense - there is nothing heroic about Jonathan Payne) actually died at the end of it.

Constructing a whole new novel around a character who died in a previous one may seem a tall order, yet Murdoch pulls it off brilliantly. The universe, it appears, has ground to a halt, and not for the first time either. God is seriously hacked off by this, and Truth and his colleagues are under strict orders to track back through an infinite number of chains of events try try to find out what went wrong, so that the same mistake can be avoided in future. I will not spoil the plot by describing things any further.

This highly imaginative device allows Murdoch to work all manners of conjuring tricks, even appearing himself at one point, and with a respectful nod to Puckoon to boot. He even contrives yet another twist at the end, which leaves the way open for a third novel in the sequence, which I very much hope he will write.

Like its predecessor (no pun intended), the book is shot through with wry humour and off-hand allusions to all manner of people from Kafka to Einstein. I particularly liked this, which is followed, believe it or not, by a reference to Frankie Howard:

Everyone is unprepared for the future. It is undiscovered, but do we discover it or does it find us, yelling "No, not yet! It's not time. I'm not ready. Come back tomorrow."? Everyone knows, though, that tomorrow never comes, and that's where they keep all the jam.

Another wonderful moment was the discovery that Truth's counterpart, Reality, knocks back a regular cocktail of mind-altering drugs. Truth goes on to explain that there is actually no such thing as absolute reality, but only the concoction of perceptions and expectations with which we surround ourselves. In effect, we each create our own "reality". Just like writing a novel, really.

It is difficult to describe Murdoch's prose and do it full justice. You really have to experience it for yourself, and I sincerely hope you will. Go out and buy Stranger Than Fiction. You won't be disappointed. There is a link here to a special offer.

Stranger Than Fiction is published by Fandango Virtual under ISBN 978-0-9550636-2-6

Friday, 4 September 2009

Time to post the answers to the quiz. To save you having to switch between posts I will repeat the questions as well.

1. In which book does the reader first make the acquaintance of Peter Duck’s cave?
"Swallowdale", Arthur Ransome. Most people got Ransome, though some guessed either "Swallows and Amazons" or (perhaps unsurprisingly) "Peter Duck". One lone individualist suggested Beatrix Potter ...

2. These two doomed lovers unwittingly drink a love potion, with tragic consequences since the woman is about to marry another man. What are their names?
Tristan and Isolde (or Tristram and Iseult). "Morte d'Arthur", Thomas Malory. Not Romeo and Juliet as some people thought.

3. A chance encounter at a railway station leads to the hero being entrusted with a magical device which can produce, among other things, armies of miniature soldiers. What was it, and what was his name?
A magic box, Kay Harker. "Box of Delights", John Masefield

4. What does Justine lead us into, and what is unusual about the story which follows?
"Justine" is the first volume of the "Alexandria Quartet" by Lawrence Durrell. Much of the story which follows is told not sequentially as one might expect, but looks repeatedly at the same events from the viewpoint of different characters.

5. Who rings a long and complicated peal of bells at short notice one New Year’s Eve, and how does a subsequent flood help him solve a deadly mystery?
Peter Wimsey. "The Nine Tailors", Dorothy L. Sayers. Subsequently taking refuge from a flood in the bell tower, he realises that the dead man was in fact killed by the sound of the bells.

6. Which former army officer, who at one time advertised himself in “The Times” as being ready to resort to crime “if of a comparatively humorous description”, plays a key role in suppressing a plot to manufacture synthetic diamonds?
Bulldog Drummond. "The Third Round", Sapper. Raffles was a popular choice here, but the give-away is in the wording of the newspaper advertisement if you know your snobbery with violence.

7. Who proposes marriage to the wrong sister on an impulse, and finally seeks to undo his mistake by committing arson?
Mr Polly. "The History of Mr Polly", H.G. Wells.

8. Which book opens with a celebrated author in bed with his catamite when visited by an archbishop in honour of his 81st birthday?
"Earthly Powers", Anthony Burgess

9. Who bribes a milkman to lend him his uniform in order to run away to Scotland, leaving a stabbed corpse in his flat upstairs?
Richard Hannay, "The Thirty-Nine Steps", John Buchan. This was the only question that everybody got right!

10. Which two young men use the severed covers of a bible to brush a swarm of insects off the body of a naked English lady?
Harry and Fleury. "The Siege of Krishnapur", J.G. Farrell. Only one person got this right and since she's my wife and knows my bookshelves almost as well as I do, I'm not sure she counts. Shame on the rest of you, since this won the Booker Prize.

(Trumpets off. Enter a herald, booted.) I always loved that stage direction. When I first read it at the age of about ten I assumed it meant somebody was kicked onto the stage. Anyway ...

Absolutely nobody got maximum points. Nor did anyone get the name of all ten books. Perhaps my selection of reading matter was too eccentric. Closest by far was the novelist Jim Murdoch, whose own book blog, The Truth About Lies is well worth a visit. One of Jim's books is reviewed on my blog already, with another to follow shortly.

Thank you to everyone who responded. I will try another quiz later in the year.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

"The Two Mrs Grenvilles" by Dominick Dunne

This book was first published in America, where the author was a well-known journalist, writing in particular for Vanity Fair. Sadly, he died a few days ago (the day before Ted Kennedy), having been suffering painfully from bladder cancer for about a year. That it was published in America as long ago as 1985 and yet (I believe) for the first time in the UK in 2009 only shortly before his death nearly a quarter of a century later is inexplicable, for this is a very fine novel indeed.

I will not give away the plot, for there are at least a couple of very important matters of which readers need to be kept in ignorance, but it is set in and around New York high society, chiefly in the forties and fifties, and tells the story of a tempestuous marriage between an "old money" rich kid and an opportunist showgirl. The writer blends real events and characters into the proceedings with great skill, and never does the suspension of disbelief seem to require any effort at all.

The text is stylish, polished and elegant. I felt that the ghost of Scott Fitzgerald stalked the pages, but also the Somerset Maugham of The Razor's Edge, or the Anthony Burgess of Earthly Powers. In fact, these are not idle comparisons, since there is much of both Maugham's Isabel and Burgess's Hortense in Dunne's Ann Arden. In particular, the very brief scene in which Burgess describes Hortense being dropped outside the narrator's apartment building naked and comatose after a wild party kept coming to mind. Essentially, though, Ann is a more successful version of Patrick Hamilton's Netta from Hangover Square. What Netta aspires to, Ann actually achieves, and achieves brilliantly.

The most tragic figure in the book is probably not the doomed Billy, but his mother, the second Mrs Grenville of the title. Recognising from the outset what sort of woman Ann is, she is rendered incapable of doing anything constructive about it by her own dispassionate relationship with her son. Her autocratic approach, which is all she is capable of, backfires horribly, pushing Billy headlong into a secret wartime wedding. Thereafter the book is as much about her as it is about Ann and Billy, and it is Dunne's great skill that though she is sketched lightly, she is sketched deftly. We get to know her thoughts largely through her own rather stilted utterances, yet we feel her pain nonetheless; sheer hatred hidden behind a mask of forced politeness.

It is not the least of Dunne's accomplishments that he manages to achieve a tenderness of sorts at the end, or at least some genuine pathos. With Dunne's passing, the world has clearly lost a very fine novelist indeed. I felt this book to be better than Updike and perhaps even equal to Bellow. It is my regret that I have only just come across his work.

The Two Mrs Grenvilles is published by Arcadia under ISBN 978-1-906413-03-3

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

BBAW Book Quiz

In honour of BBAW 2009, I am setting ten questions to test your knowledge and love of books. In each case the name of both the book and the author are required. In some cases, bonus marks are available where extra information is requested.

I will publish at the end of next week the correct answers, and the name of the person who got closest to maximum marks. Please email your answers to me at guyfs[AT]yahoo[DOT]co[DOT]uk

1. In which book does the reader first make the acquaintance of Peter Duck's cave?
2. Which two doomed lovers unwittingly drink a love potion, with tragic consequences since the woman is about to marry another man?
3. A chance encounter at a railway station leads to the hero being entrusted with a magical device which can produce, amongst other things, armies of miniature soldiers. What was it, and what was his name?
4. What does Justine lead us into, and what is unusual about the story which follows?
5. Who rings a long and complicated peal of bells at short notice on New Year's Eve, and how does a subsequent flood help him to solve a deadly mystery?
6. Which former army officer, who at one time advertised himself in "The Times" as being ready to resort to crime "if of a relatively humorous description" plays a key role in suppressing a plot to manufacture synthetic diamonds?
7. Who proposes marriage to the wrong sister on impulse and later seeks to undo his mistake by means of an arson attack?
8. Which book opens with a celebrated author in bed with his catamite when surprised by an archbishop, visting him in honour of his 81st birthday?
9. Who bribes a milkman to lend him his uniform in order to run away to Scotland, leaving a stabbed corpse in his flat upstairs?
10. Which two young men use the torn-off covers of a bible to brush a swarm of insects off the naked body of a young woman?

Monday, 24 August 2009

"Fists" by Pietro Grossi

Fists is actually the title of three short stories which make up this book, and concerns a rather unusual relationship between two young fighters. The second revolves around horses, and the third around a young man who believes he is a monkey. They are well written, and each is strikingly different from each other. On this occasion I decided that rather than writing a review, I would conduct an on-line interview with the author, Pietro Grossi.

Pursewarden: Which writers have most influenced you from (1) Italian fiction and (2) English language fiction?

PG: It is difficult to say but, out of all of them, probably the two Italian fiction writers I most admire are Italo Svevo, La Coscienza di Zeno above all, and Pirandello. One struck me for his apparent simplicity, the other for his freedom, both for their endless wit. Again it is very hard to cut a bunch of books and authors out of hundreds, but if I have to draw a line I have to admit that the literature that has most influenced my writing, at least for the moment, is North American 20th century literature, all the way from Melville to Philip Roth. The author who has taught me the most about writing – I mean methods and tricks and how and where – is Hemingway.

Pursewarden: There is a strong sense of place in all of the stories. The horse story, for example, reminded me of the Abruzzo trilogy while the last story reminded me of the Garden of the Finzi-Contini. Is this something you deliberately aim for in your writing?

PG: I never thought about the Abruzzo trilogy but yes, definitely I recognized from the first moment there was something in Monkey that reminded me about Il giardino dei Finzi-Contini. Mostly the scene in which Nico remembers the first time he saw Piero's sister: the image of that girl reading in the garden could have definitely been cut out of some scene in Bassani's book. It's funny: I read Il giardino dei Finzi-Contini only once, when I was twelve: I guess luckily good things just stick with you.

Pursewarden: Why do you write short stories? What is about the form that attracts you?
Have you ever tried writing a full-length novel? What are the different challenges for a writer of each form?

PG: I started to write short stories because I wasn't able to write novels.

I kept beginning novels that I was never able to end, so at a certain point I just tried to write as it came to me, without worrying about how long it was and what was going on. So came ‘Boxing’. When Pugni was published and people started saying that I was a great short-story writer I kept on looking at those ten or twelve unfinished novels on my shelf and felt pretty ridiculous. The book after Pugni is a single longer story, though I don't really think you can call it a novel yet.

Some time or another I swear I'll get there.

Pursewarden: The last story is left deliberately unresolved. What was your intention here?

PG: I don't think I had any great intentions when I began the story. I actually never have great intentions when I begin a story. Or, at least, all the best stories I have written came out decently because I didn't have any great intentions. Anyway, when I began to consider Monkey and think about it I realized that it was a completely different story from the other two. The first two stories have a sharp beginning and a sharp end and a whole clear dynamic that leads from one point to another.

Monkey, I thought, worked in a different way. It was Cortàzar I think who once said that the relation there is between a novel and a short story is the same that there is between a feature film and photography.

I don't think this is true for every short story, but for a lot of them yes: Hemingway and Salinger and Carver for example work exactly in this way. The first two stories in Fists, in this sense, are more like very short novels, while Monkey doesn't really want to tell a story: Monkey just wants to take a picture of a small situation, a situation anyway that probably hides much deeper matters.

Monkey at first was pretty different and looked more like the beginning of a novel – which probably would have become another of my unended novels – then I realized that it was something different, not as clear and resolved but much sharper.

So, there you have it, the first author interview on this blog, but surely not the last. Fists is published by Pushkin Press under ISBN 978-1-906548-07-0

2009 Tilling Gathering

All Mapp and Lucia enthusiasts are reminded that there is probably still just time to register for this years Gathering on 5 September, organised by the dedicated and hard-working Jonathan Dunlop and Darren Reynolds at The Friends of Tilling. Sadly Pursewarden will be unable to attend this year, but can throughly recommend the event to all self-respecting Luciaphiles. Who knows, perhaps Hermione will be on hand to write the event up in his "five o'clock chit chat" column?

Oh dear, I hope I haven't given away the answer to one of the quiz questions.

Click on the link for details.

Friday, 21 August 2009

"Kilburn Social Club" by Robert Hudson

Kilburn Social Club is an appealing story of a football club peopled by leading cultural figures, all of whom earn the same wage. Attached to a large conglomerate, it finds itself at the centre of a family power struggle following the sudden death of the patriarch and his wife in a car crash. However, despite these intriguing circumstances, the book floundered a little for me, largely because I was left unsure as to exactly what sort of book Hudson was trying to write. Perhaps I am being fanciful, but I sensed a tug of war between a desire to create a serious novel and the perceived commercial demands of the marketplace.

Hudson is undoubtedly a fine writer. There are lots of nice touches at which you nod with appreciation, such as

"The rivers of the past flow into the present, and only in retrospect do we think we see the watersheds. If Monica hadn't noticed the man in black, then maybe everything would have happened differently."

You have to be an accomplished writer to get away with something like that in a contemporary novel (it is almost identical to something Forester said over half a century ago in Randall and the River of Time), but Hudson does. The problem is that it does not really fit with the textual style of the rest of book, which is largely strictly narrative in nature. It is almost as though he is trying to write a rather laddish piece of bloke-lit to order, but the real writer keeps peeping through.

For example, some passages of the book are simplistic in the extreme. How about this, which smacks of a piece of schoolgirl fiction?

"Aisling wasn't an idiot. She knew the letters to David were an issue for her. She was sure, deep down, that the letters were an issue for him too."

These are extreme examples, but I had trouble believing they could have been written by the same person. Perhaps the book was heavily edited prior to publication?

Overall, KSC had the feel to me of having been written with a sale of the TV rights specifically in mind - a sort of combination of The Brothers and The Manageress - and I'm sure the TV rights will be sold and it will prove very successful as a TV series, though things like the letters between Sally and Punty will need to be handled creatively.

I would recommend this as a great holiday read. It is a good story, with interesting characters. However, I would be fascinated to see what Hudson writes next. I have a feeling that he is actually a novelist rather than a writer.

2009 Book Blog Awards

I am surprised and delighted to announce that Pursewarden has been nominated in no less than three categories for the 2009 BBAWs. These are Best Reviews, Best Cultural Blog, and Best Literary Fiction Blog. Many thanks to those unknown individuals out there who were responsible for this.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Linguality dual language books

I have come across which features books in French or Italian with an English glossary on the facing page. This is a fantastic idea and it is a shame nobody has done it before. It means every time you come across a word or phrase you do not understand you can carry right on reading, rather than having to run off to the dictionary.

Unfortunately it is only available on a book club basis for now, but it is such a good idea that I am sure other publishers will pick up on it and make such books available in the book shops.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

"Black Spring" by Henry Miller

Where to start, in writing about Henry Miller? Come to that, where to stop? The only way to make this manageable is to restrict myself so far a possible to the book I am supposed to be reviewing, which is the new release by One World Classics of Black Spring. However, it is necessary to place it in the context of his other works, chiefly because it forms part of a trilogy which (though non-sequential) begins with Tropic of Cancer and concludes with Tropic of Capricorn. It is also set, at least partly, in that period of his life when he was living in Paris with flatmate Alfred Perlès, which is described in much more salacious detail in Quiet Days in Clichy. A fictional character named Carl masquerades as Perlès in both books, and the latter work is about the only surviving record of this largely forgotten writer; let us hope that One World Classics will now turn their attentions on him.

Miller’s main works of fiction fall broadly into two trilogies: the one just mentioned, and a second written later in life, comprising Plexus, Nexus, and Sexus, together called The Rosy Crucifixion. Thankfully, we can safely ignore these since they are common consent of a lesser standard than their earlier counterparts. Even the loyally sycophantic Lawrence Durrell cabled Miller in an effort to stop one of them (I forget which) being published, saying that they would damage his reputation. Personally, I found them tedious and over-long.

None of that is the case with the earlier trilogy, though. As with Tropic of Cancer, Black Spring is written in a totally unique style. Fragmentary, with the unities of time and place cracked asunder, and influenced on Miller’s own admission by the prevailing surrealism and existentialism of the thirties, the scenes which follow each other in bewildering succession are thinly disguised (though, some believe, heavily embroidered) auto-biography, and carry a consistent message. Better by far, says Miller, to be poor, hungry and homeless if in being so one can find understanding and fulfilment, than to be wealthy and successful if this simply wraps one in so many layers of social convention and platitudes that one has no hope of ever seeing the world as it really is.

It is only fair to point out that the text is well larded with four letter words and graphic descriptions of various sexual acts which are, for good measure, at best dismissive and at worst openly contemptuous of women in general. All three books of the trilogy could be published only in France (by Jack Kahane’s Obelisk Press recently chronicled by Neil Pearson) and were immediately banned in both America and Britain. Indeed they were not finally published in either country until the early 60s, after the Lady Chatterley case. Bizarrely, though, in 1958 even while his books were still banned, Miller was elected to the American Institute of Arts and Letters, so presumably a significant number of copies must have been circulating privately.

Even on initial publication a number of books must have slipped past the customs officials in England, because George Orwell, Cyril Connolly and T.S. Elliott all wrote favourable reviews. So, from distant Corfu, did Lawrence Durrell, whose Black Book (his first novel, now largely forgotten) was also published in Paris by the Obelisk press. Anticipating a ban, no effort was made to release it in England and America, based largely on the advice of T.S. Elliot, who during his day job was Durrell’s poetry publisher. As Neil Pearson points out in his book on Jack Kahane, alongside its day to day task of churning out sleazy rubbish, Obelisk also played a valuable role without which writers such as Miller and Durrell would not have seen the light of day.

I initially read both the other two books in the Paris trilogy while I was actually living in Paris, but I found Black Spring at least as enjoyable even when read in the dull greyness of London (incidentally there is an almost Proustian section in Black Spring where Miller speculates on the various qualities of greyness) and probably even more accessible.

Yes, of course there are objections and drawbacks. It is difficult to avoid the suspicion that Miller’s frequent use of bad language is gratuitous, and intended solely to shock, particularly in the context of the prevailing mores of the 30s. His attitude to women would inflame many of the school of political correctness. The fragmentary nature of the novels often makes it difficult to string together any coherent long term narrative. Yet Miller is undoubtedly a writer of genius, and the fact that he paints life in the raw is an important part of that. He puts me in mind of Céline, the depiction of life in New York by a Frenchman ironically echoing the description of life in Paris by an American. Black Spring should be on the reading list of anyone interested in twentieth century literature, or indeed in the evolution of the novel.

A huge thank-you is due to One World Classics for having had the guts to publish something on the grounds of its literary merits rather than its perceived commercial potential. Let us hope that Perlès and Durrell’s Black Book will feature in their list sometime soon.

Pietro Grossi - save the date!

Pietro Grossi, author of Fists, will hopefully feature on Pursewarden on 25 August.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

"A Hero Of Our Time" by Mikhail Lermontov

I made the mistake of taking this book with me to read over lunch at my local cafe in Belsize Park. "Mistake", since my Russian waitress hissed, pointed at the book cover, and flew into a screaming fit, asking me why I was "reading books by bad people". Trying to carry the situation off as best I could, I asked if she had read any of Lermontov's poetry. Shuddering silently, she crossed herself and retired into the back room.

After such an unsolicited testimonial, the book itself proved rather disappointing in terms of its capacity for evil. It is certainly no more "amoral" (the allegation commonly levelled at it) than Boccacio, Rabelais, or (more to the point) most of Lermontov's nineteenth century contemporaries. It seems strange to believe that he was literally hounded to death, on the orders of Tsar Nicholas I, for having written it.

It has long been described as one of the great Russian novels, earning Lermontov comparison with Pushkin, whose The Captain's Daughter he greatly admired and tried to copy, but without success, his Vadim remaining unfinished at his death. Like Pushkin, he uses informal language, particularly in his dialogue, and creates rich, memorable characters in this novel, which is essentially a set of tales told by various protagonists, including not just the author/narrator but also at least two others. Apart from Pushkin, however, I was also struck by similarities with Tolstoy, but also with two French writers, Dumas and Proust.

Another feature of the book is that the various tales are not told in chronological order, something which is naturally confusing at first, but which does lead to a feeling of successive layers of meaning being made available to us. I wonder if Lawrence Durrell had read this book, or at least heard of it, before he wrote The Alexandria Quartet?

A Hero Of Our Time had long been on my list of books that I felt I really should read before I die, and One World Classics are to be heartily congratulated on bringing it back into print. If only there were a few more publishers around who put a book's literary merits ahead of its perceived commercial potential. I have another of their recent offerings to review as well, so watch this space.

Talking of death and matters metaphysical, the Russian waitress took me to one side as I paid my bill. Earnestly, she told me that she spoke to Jesus every day, that he was coming soon, and that I should be ready for him when he did. Somewhat shaken by this news, I stopped on the way home to buy an extra pint of milk. I hope he likes Earl Grey.

My School Bookclub

I promised that I would mention My School Bookclub, which can be found here. This is a commercial venture, but seems a very worthwhile one.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

"Randall and the River of Time" by C.S. Forester

C.S. Forester was the pen name of an English writer, whose real name was the more prosaic Smith. Born in Cairo in 1899, he was educated in England, including an unfinished training as a doctor at Guy's Hospital. He spent the latter part of his life in America, dieing there in 1966.

Forester is of course best known for his series of Hornblower novels, which are rivalled only by the Aubrey / Maturin novels of Patrick O'Brien. Like O'Brien, and perhaps Derek Robinson, he has been consistently under-estimated as a novelist because he chose to set his novels in war-time - though two of his Hornblower books won the James Tait Black prize, and Robinson was short-listed for the Booker.

In Forester's case this is particularly unfortunate since the Hornblower books were only part of his output. He wrote at least 18 other novels, as well as 13 history books (one of which was filmed as Hunt the Bismarck), plays, short stories and children's books. Of the remaining novels the best known are perhaps The African Queen and The Gun, which were both made into films, the latter under the title The Power and the Glory. The former, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn, deservedly won Bogart an Oscar, though undeservedly his only one. The latter, starring Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra and Sophia Loren, and featuring a story-line butchered by Hollywood script writers, deservedly won nothing at all. In fact, it was chiefly notable for an offscreen romance between Loren and Grant, which led to a proposal of marriage from Grant and a rejection from Loren, who married Carlo Ponti a few months later.

Randall and the River of Time is from quite late in Forester's life (1950). The story is simply told. A young officer is the object of an attempted seduction by a brother officer's wife while on leave in England. Later, after the death in battle of her husband, she traps him into marriage and proceeds in due course to cuckold him and steal all his money. The climax is a set-piece courtroom drama, the outcome of which I am certainly not going to divulge. Like all of his books it is notable for his degree of characterisation, an art of which he was perhaps one of the greatest masters amongst modern novelists. Though the story is told through the eyes of the eponymous hero, Forester also makes plentiful use of dramatic irony by showing us things which Randall does not understand but we do. We know, for example, though it is never stated, that his mother disapproves of his wife and sees straight through her. We know too that the wife herself understands this. Yet Randall remains cheerfully oblivious until the facts become shockingly obvious. As for Randall himself, Forester makes us feel that we are truly inside him, sharing all the shyness, bravado and innocence that even several spells in the trenches have not been able to dispel.

Shamefully, Randall and the River of Time seems last to have been published over twenty years ago and is now available only in second hand book shops (I found mine in one such in Tenby), but second hand copies are available on the internet and could presumably also be ordered from your local library. Many others of his books have suffered a similar fate. Given the quality of his writing, which in my view places him the front line of twentieth century novelists, this seems ridiculous. However, he is in good company, a company which includes various Booker prize winners. Once upon a time publishers issued what they believed to be quality literature, rather than recipe and diet books ghosted by so-called celebrities.

Please read not just this book but anything else you can lay your hands on by Forester. I promise that you will not be disappointed.