Tuesday 30 June 2009

"The Song is You" by Megan Abbott

I recently read Megan Abbott's first novel, Die a Little, and enjoyed it so much that I have been saving up my review copy of The Song is You for as long as I could. I finally read it this weekend while on a trip to Madrid.

It is difficult to describe Abbott's writing without going over the top. Suffice it to say that I think she is probably the most stylish crime writer now writing, and possibly for quite some time. Her period and setting is post-war America, and her style clearly influenced by Raymond Chandler. How about this?

"He tried to decide if this Adair girl was attractive or not. He thought so when he first spotted her in the newsroom, breasts like hard little peaches against her tailored suit. Big cow eyes and a firm mouth. Legs that worked coming and going.

But something in the way she spoke seemed like each word she uttered sent out a hundred-yard stretch between them. Or like she was behind a pain of glass. And not in a way that made him want to rap on it, asking for admittance."

All the more remarkable when you think that Abbott is a woman and that here she has got comprehensively and credibly inside the head of her male protagonist.

The story is simply told. "Hop" Hopkins, a lowly Tinseltown reporter, helps cover up the disappearance of a girl for a Hollywood studio and gets himself a publicity job at the studio as reward. Two years later the story resurfaces and he sets out, somewhat dubiously, in search of the truth. In the process he also finds out things about himself, and is forced to make a choice between "good" and "bad", though these are much too absolute terms to be used in Abbott's deliciously grey amoral world. The plot sounds corny, but does not come across that way. In Abbott's skilfull hands it grips and draws us in.

The scene-setting is audacious yet succeeds brilliantly. Real and fictitious characters blend seamlessly, and the latter are obviously well-researched. I thought I knew a lot about Hollywood of the 40s and 50s, but I never realised that Dick Powell was Barbara Stanwyck's husband (though I suppose their respective heights should have suggested something of the kind).

As you may have gathered by now, I think Megan Abbott is one of the most talented and original writers to burst onto the scene for quite some time, and I sincerely recommend you to go out and find anything by her you can get your hands on.

Saturday 27 June 2009

"Missy" by Chris Hannan

Missy is a first novel, though its author is already an established playwright. This shows too, in the dialogue, which is taut, and credible. That credibility is important, since this is a historical novel set in the Wild West. It is also part of how Hannan has created a well-drawn heroine, Dol McQueen, as its central character.

Mention of historical fiction conjures up visions of contrived period speech and ostentatious display of local colour, but this book is much more than this. It is a genuine novel, however one wishes to define that term, and under its fast paced narrative there lie some serious issues, not least Dol's troubled relationship with her mother. Mention of Moll Flanders is not out of place, since the reader is likely to be ambivalent towards Dol herself, and one of the things I liked best about the book is the way in which she is forced to re-evaulate many of her attitudes and past actions in the closing scenes, something which Defore spares his heroine. I will not say more about this as I do not wish to give away any of the plot.

I have sat on the judging panels of two novel prizes, and I have to say that this book is far better written than many of the efforts which I had to wade through. I would like to congratulate the author on a fine piece of work, and look forward t0o reading his next offering.

Sunday 21 June 2009

"Pygmy" by Chuck Palahniuk

I was sent this novel by the publishers and have to say that it is one of the most original that I have read in a long time. "Original" in that it uses language in a very different and imaginative way.

The central character is a secret agent sent from some totalitarian Asian country to the USA in the guise of an exchange student. While there, his mission seems to be partly to gather information and partly to plan some horrific terrorist outrage. The book takes the form of his reports to his superiors.

What makes this novel so striking is that it is written throughout in the agent's own language, or rather using the grammar and syntax of his own language. I am no linguistics expert, but it appears to be based on Chinese, in that both the tense and the subject of a verb are often left to be implied by the context of the sentence. This makes the book a challenging read, to say the least.

Palahniuk is to be congratulated on the technical skill required to pull this off. Anyone who fears that the novel as an art form may be stuck in a rut should be given a copy of Pygmy.

Thursday 11 June 2009

"The Longshot" by Katie Kitamura

I was sent a review copy of this book by Simon & Schuster and have to say that I really enjoyed it.

The Longshot is a very impressive "novel" set against the unlikely background, for a woman novelist, of professional male fighters. In fact, I don't recall a single female character. I know very little about fighting, but this sounds like kick-boxing, which I always knew was big in Asia, but did not realise was also practised in America.

The crux of the book is the interplay between three different characters: the fighter, his coach and his opponent, though the latter is glimpsed only briefly and his feelings have to be guessed at. The writing and the dialogue are simplistic in style, with short sentences and short words. This feels right in this context as it is undoubtedly how the protagonists see the world. There is an obvious flavour of Hemingway, though whether deliberate or not I don't know.

What makes this all the more remarkable is that this is a debut novel, a fact which the sureness of touch, and the confidence to tackle such a difficult subject would seem to belie.

The reason that I have put "novel" in quotes above, is that I'm not sure this really qualifies as one. Like many books which are passed off as novels these days, it is really only an extended short story - a novella perhaps, but surely not a novel. I haven't counted, but there are probably less than 40,000 words. At least in this case the publishers did not resort to a huge font size to camouflage the fact, but it seems hard to understand why the publishers are asking the public to pay ten quid for this, when their recent (longer) The Song is You is significantly cheaper.

My only real reservation about the book itself, rather than how it has been packaged, is just how on earth Kitamura is going to follow it. Let us hope with a totally different sort of book that is just as well written, but in a style that gives her a chance to show what she can really do with the English language when not restricted by four or five word sentences. She is clearly someone who can write a stunning short story, but I feel she and her publishers need to decide whether she should stick with this format, or try writing a proper novel. According to E.M. Forster (who should know, since he excelled at both), they are very different disciplines.

Saturday 6 June 2009

Bassett, by Stella Gibbons

I first tried Stella Gibbons when I was at school, but Cold Comfort Farm left me, well, rather cold. However, at the suggestion of Elaine at Random Jottings I tried again, finding a copy of Bassett in the Camden libraries reserve collection.

Gibbons was a Hampstead writer, attending North London Collegiate and, after the death of her parents, living in Vale Cottage near Hampstead Heath with her two brothers.

Bassett is a very fine novel indeed. Miss Baker has an inheritance but until she is made redundant from her job never has to think about how to use it. Circumstances drive her into the company of Miss Pardoe, who has a run down house in the country but no money. Having first rescued Miss Pardoe from her tyrannical servants, Miss Baker turns the house into a profitable boarding house, thus liberating both women in the process and changing their lives entirely. This would be enough of a story for most novels but, not content with this, Gibbons weaves another plot (or rather two sub-plots) across it. The latter is largely auto-biographical, dealing with her own real life affair with a man called Walter Beck, whom she met on Hampstead Heath and with whom she used to go away on a regular basis to spend weekends in hotels under an assumed name (much more daring than this might appear today). As in real life, the affair did not end happily, though Gibbons later married an actor called Webb with whom she was very happy. After his early death from cancer she largely withdrew from the world for the last thirty years of her life.

On the evidence of Bassett, Gibbons is a very accomplished writer. Her characters are well sketched. We even find the man who treats her so badly, and his mother whom we hardly know, likeable and sympathetic. Of course we disapprove of what he does, but we understand the inner weakness which drives his actions. Somehow we sense that he will never find anyone finer than the woman he rejects, yet though Gibbons clearly identifies herself with the character of Queenie, she plays fair by her readers. We know that Queenie is seeing her lover through rose-coloured spectacles. We know that he is fickle and weak. We know that he is likely to give her up on a whim. Yet at the same time there is a power in the writing which enables us to share Queenie's sense of the perfect moment as she drives off into the early morning on an illicit outing with her lover in his open-topped car, while appreciating that probably even she in her heart knows that this pleasure is transient, yet none the less valid for that.

Sadly, in common with many fine books, Bassett appears currently to be out of print, but please do take the trouble to track it down in second hand bookshops. It will be well worth the trouble, I promise you.

Tuesday 2 June 2009

The Very Thought of You by Rosie Alison

I was sent a review copy of this debut novel and thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I won't give away any essential plot details, but it revolves around a young girl who is sent away from London during WWII as an evacuee, and comes to live in a large house in the country.

Around this fairly simple story line, Alison deftly weaves a number of sub-plots, each one of them asking questions about the nature of love and providing rather different answers in each case. The characters involved are strongly drawn, sympathetically portrayed and most are highly likeable, so one realises at once that this is far from a typical modern novel.

There is an obvious reference to The Go-Between, since the central character witnesses, as a girl, some adult reactions, emotions and behaviour that should clearly lie beyond the power of her own childhood experience to interpret, but this is a very different book. Hartley sets The Go-Between in such a way that most of what we observe we see through Leo, reminiscing as an old man about his experiences as a boy. Alison offers us a number of different perspectives, most movingly perhaps that of Thomas, who is confined to a wheelchair.

There is also a very strong sense of both period and place. It did not surprise me to discover that Alison was in fact describing a real place and, partly at least, drawing on real historical events by way of background.

This is an impressive book, particularly as a debut novel. It is a book that will stay with you long after you have read it, and I would recommend it. Once again, though, I have some doubts about the packaging and presentation. There is a very twee cover featuring a young girl which conjures up visions of "Women's Own", and the blurb is largely about the young central character. I fancy most men would run a mile from this book if they were to pick it up in a bookshop. When will publishers realise that a good book will sell on its own merits and does not have to be neatly pigeon-holed as "Chick Lit" or "Bloke Lit" or "A woman's book" in order to move off the shelves?