Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Pursewarden's Christmas Book Quiz

Yes, it's that time of year again. As Tom Lehrer has it: "Hark the Herald tribune sings, advertising wondrous things."

Try the 2010 Book Quiz. This one is a little more wide-ranging than last year, and I'll give you one clue: this time there's no Arthur Ransome. See how many you can get. (Please don't cheat and use the internet ...)

Back by popular request from last year, some more opening lines for you. Book and author, please.

1. "Was there anything quite so under-rated in this shallow, plastic, global-corporate, tall-skinny-latte, kiddy-meal-and-free-toy, united-colours-of-fuck-you-too world than a good, old-fashioned, no-frills, retail blow-job?"

2. "ABANDON HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE is scrawled in blood red lettering on the side of the Chemical Bank near the corner of Eleventh and First ..."

3. "The only advice I can offer, should you wake up vertiginously in a strange flat, with a thoroughly installed hangover, without any of your clothing, without any recollection of how you got there, to the police sledge-hammering down the door to the accompaniment of excited dogs, while you are surrounded by bales of lavishly-produced magazines featuring children in adult acts, the only advice I can offer is to try to be good-humoured and polite."

4. "When the shower of shit, which he welcomed, spattered over his chest and belly Professor Pfeidwengeler was thinking about his worst enemy, Dr. Ruth Neumark."

5. "Dora Greenfield left her husband because she was afraid of him. She decided six months later to return to him for the same reason."

6. "Does such a thing as 'the fatal flaw', that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life exist outside literature? I used to think it didn't. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs."

7. "The waiter, who had slipped out to make a quick telephone call, came back into the coffee room of the Goose and Gherkin wearing the starry-eyed look of a man who has just learned that he has backed a long-priced winner."

8. "Gerald Middleton was a man of mildly but persistently depressive temperament. Such men are not at their best at breakfast, nor is the week before Christmas their happiest time."

9. "September 3rd, 1939. The last minutes of peace ticking away. Father and I were watching Mother dig our air-raid shelter. 'She's a great little woman', said Father. 'And getting smaller all the time, I added'. Two minutes later a man called Chamberlain who did Prime Minister impressions spoke on the wireless; he said: 'As from eleven o'clock we are at war with Germany' (I loved the WE). 'War?' said Mother. 'It must have been something we said', said Father.

10. "Whether or no she, whom you are to forgive, if you can, did or did not belong to the Upper Ten Thousand of this our English world, I am not prepared to say with any strength of affirmation."

Next, some questions concerning business and finance. In each case, supply the name of the character, the name of the book (if appropriate) and the name of the author.

11 Whose stockbroker was called Mr Mammonchance?

12 This merchant sits at the centre of an international web of business and finance. He plots a revolt against the civil power while fathering a love-child with the narrator's girlfriend. His wife has affairs with two men who may be able to expose the plot in order to spy on them. His tongue-tied brother turns out to be a gifted orator. Their mother is a beautiful woman who is horribly disfigured by a dreadful disease.

13 This very wealthy man of leisure and refinement becomes even more wealthy as a result of shorting the market before the Wall Street Crash. Appointed a count by the Pope, he leaves his immense fortune when he dies on the Riviera to his niece, so that her husband can try to reconstruct his father's investment firm which failed during the crash.

14 The heroine rejects this man's proposal of marriage when he is rich and she is poor, but then marries him later when he is poor and she is rich, using her unexpected inheritance to re-start his mill. In the meantime she has lied to him in his capacity as investigating magistrate in a murder enquiry in order to protect the black sheep of the family, her brother, who is a deserter from the army.

15 Named after his ability to conjure up his favourite breakfast right there in the dealing room, this character is one of a cast of dealers sitting high in the fog and low clouds of San Francisco. Unlike his colleagues, he succeeds in breaking out of the endless cycle of contracts and options which keep them chained to their desks but prevent them from ever actually becoming rich.

16 This unfortunate young man is simultaneously sent down from university and loses his small inheritance. Impoverished, he becomes engaged to a wealthy businesswoman. However, innocent of business matters, he neglects to realise that the business in question actually consists of running brothels. As he sits down to his pre-wedding breakfast the police arrive and arrest him.

17 Whose long and successful career as a prosperous local merchant and civic dignitary is haunted by the guilt of having sold his wife to a stranger at a country fare as a penniless and drunk young man?

18 This character loses all his money by investing it with the rogue banker Mr Merdle, and is imprisoned for debt. Ironically he has himself in the meantime restored the fortune of a man long imprisoned for debt at the same prison, having been made aware of his plight by the man's daughter. Released when his business partner's affairs prosper overseas, he marries the daughter.

19 One of the central characters realises that he has been used as a pawn in setting up a new company, buying lots of goods on credit, then selling them all quickly for cash and moving on without trace. The term applied to this particular type of fraud is also the title of the book.

20 This financier and man of property gets into a protracted dispute with an architect whom he has engaged to build him a house. Though ultimately successful in court, it proves a pyrrhic victory since the damages are paid for the architect by an elderly well--wisher. In what rapidly becomes a very tangled story, the architect is in love with the financier's wife, but later dies tragically in a traffic accident, distracted by hearing some dreadful news.

Having had questions about the sea and the navy last year, it seems only right to have some questions about soldiers and airmen this time round.

21 The eponymous hero of this book succeeds in fighting for the army of two different countries during the same war. He later makes an advantageous marriage, but throws away his carefully won social status in a moment of blind rage. His young son is killed in a riding accident. He later unwillingly fights a duel with his step-son.

22 This character eventually dies in hospital from an unspecified disease, allegedly exacerbated by a fellow officer smuggling whisky into the ward at his request. Prior to meeting his end, he fights a protracted campaign of deception and skull-duggery over an ancient portable toilet known as a thunderbox with a fire-eating senior officer who claims to be able to kill a man with a spoon.

23 This young militia officer tells our heroine that he has been wronged by a wealthy man who is staying in the district. She taxes him with this news, and is upset when he refuses to discuss it. When the officer later elopes with her younger sister, to the imminent ruin of her entire family, she is forced to revise her views of both men.

24 This young flier falls in love with a Polynesian girl, Full Moon (perhaps partly because she saves him from drowning), while loyally serving his legendary companion during some ripping adventures in the Pacific, battling an evil Corsican. His companion was unlucky in love, falling for a beautiful woman after a forced landing when his magneto shorted, only to discover subsequently that she was an enemy spy. Understandably, he was awfully cut up about it.

25 Hated by his men, this leader turns on one of them who has spoken of a "fair fight" with the words "That is a filthy, obscene, disgusting word, and I will not have it used by any man in my squadron." A consistently successful ace, he is shot down one day after realising that he has fallen in love with a nurse he met while in hospital.

26 A figure of fun at school, this officer rises rapidly through the ranks during wartime and subsequently becomes a Member of Parliament, a Peer of the Realm, and a University Chancellor. He falls in love with and marries a most unsuitable woman who is famously sick in a vase.

27 A carelessly signed fuel chit blights this officer's career. He later becomes a successful novelist, fathers a child by the young wife of a hereditary aristocrat, lives with a retired high-class prostitute, and helps thwart a plot by an evil schoolmaster to possess a beautiful boy.

28 Having fallen out with the general whose favourite he previously was, this young Lieutenant is posted by the General in a fit of pique to command a platoon on a dangerous combat mission. Resented by the platoon sergeant, there is no happy ending.

29 This soldier is shell-shocked and can remember only a distant past. Returning to country house society, he is the object of two different women's attentions. Narrated by another female, who acutely observes what she sees around her. A psychiatrist helps him to face a difficult choice. Perhaps an inspiration for number 30 (below).

30 A working class lad who becomes an officer, but never feels accepted in the officers' mess. Shell-shocked, he is treated by a psychiatrist alongside fellow patient Siegfried Sassoon. Bisexual and promiscuous, he eventually gets engaged to a young munitions worker.

Finally, can you identify these detectives and/or their companions and associates?

31 This detective falls in love with the daughter of a duke while investigating a murder at a stately home. He is later quizzed as to his intentions by her brother, himself a celebrated sleuth.

32 This detective with a biblical name has a partner who does not need to eat, and who goes on to star in a non-detective role in a famous series of books by the same author.

33 Despite being able to fly, this police office is captured by the villain of the piece, but manages to escape with the help of a flatulent secret weapon, and get the better of him. They later become first uneasy allies, and then friends. She does not tolerate fools gladly, and is constantly in trouble with her superiors.

34 This detective is described as not using his own name (or title), and lives in a flat above a London police station. Blond and languid, he at one stage has a pet jackdaw. In one story his Romany connections come in useful.

35 We first make the acquaintance of this detective as he investigates the death of a young actress in an Oxford college. With everyone else convinced that she committed suicide, his main challenge is to prove that in fact any murder has been committed at all. An unusual ring worn by the woman serves as a plot device, as well as featuring in the title of the book. In this and all the books in which he goes on to feature there are numerous cultural references, which some find eclectic and entertaining, and others puzzling and pretentious.

36 The blowing-up and killing of this detective is described at the beginning of the first book detailing the cases which he and his partner have solved over the years. He has a penchant for antique boiled sweets and white magic. Pipe tobacco and pints of bitter also feature heavily. His partner is elegant, charming, and a great hit with the ladies.

37 After a detective sergeant from Scotland Yard fails to solve the mystery of a stolen diamond, this man determines to crack the case himself. Sinister Indian jugglers lurk in the background. An evil doctor and a misappropriated trust fund also feature.

38 This detective, created by an author who is better known in a different genre, has his office in a fashionable part of North London, and his investigations head off in directions which appear totally irrelevant to the matter in hand, running up huge expenses claims in the process. Another detective who does not use his real name, perhaps because of some scandal in his past while at university. A leather coat and a red hat make it difficult for him to blend into the background.

39 This lady detective unexpectedly acquires a fine home and a housekeeper. Fond of quoting the bible and Tennyson, she has good relations with the police, as is only to be expected since she was once the Chief Constable's governess.

40 We first meet this detective in a case that involves an orchid hot-house, murder, blackmail, missing persons, and an enigmatic Jewish woman in a bookstore. Claiming to be able to speak English if he needs to, he goes on to feature in several further books.

Answers by email please to guyfsATyahooDOTcoDOTuk by 5 January 2011

Sunday, 5 December 2010

"The Ministry of Fear" by Graham Greene

What a pleasure to come across a book that one has read many years ago (in the 70s in my case) and find that it really is just as wonderful as you remember it having been. Back then, of course, everybody read Greene, but he seems to have fallen out of fashion. Why is this, I wonder? Perhaps because publishing a book these days is as much about promoting the author's future books as it is about the work in question, and with a dead author of course, there can be no future works. Ditto media rights, although The End of the Affair was filmed as recently as 1999 (Greene died in 1991).

The Ministry of Fear was itself filmed in 1944, though some of the characters' names were changed for no apparent reason, and from the very first pages it has the atmosphere of the sort of wartime thriller that used to be two-a-penny (or, more accurately, two-a-shilling for those of you who remember bobs and tanners). Exactly the sort of story that could have been written by any of the screenwriters who dashed off scripts about menacing men in raincoats standing under lamp-posts, and sudden deaths in mysterious circumstances in darkened rooms.

The difference is, of course, that Greene takes this staple fare but transforms it into a serious novel, often mixing fact, perception, idea and random observation in the same paragraph. We are, we learn dealing with somehow who thinks of himself as a murderer, having been the perpetrator of a mercy killing of his dying wife. Justice has in this instance been merciful, committing him to a mental hospital for a year rather than passing a death sentence. This basic truth about the central character swirls around the book from then onwards, even being present in the final scene when, we learn, unlike in Brighton Rock (the film-makers changed the ending in cowardly fashion) a lie on which a love is based is going to remain steadfastly unmasked.

Love. yes. The feminine interest in this case is a young Austrian girl, who should surely have been played by Alida Valli, since the character is based so closely on the girl in The Third Man (which, unusually for Greene, was a film treatment turned into a novel rather than the other way around), yet one reads with a shudder that the part went to the American actress Marjorie Reynolds, whose main claim to fame was a bit part in one of my favourite films (scandalously unavailable on DVD), His Kind of Woman. Whether she is a "good guy" or "bad guy" remains unresolved until near the end, and even then is shrouded in a certain amount of ambiguity.

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that Greene was never taken as seriously as he should have been as a novelist because of the accessibility of his writing, and the thriller-type plots which many of his books employ. Yet it is impossible to read more than a few pages without realising that he was one of the twentieth century's greatest novelists in the English language. Again, the fact that so many of his books were turned into films may have perversely worked against him, with many people perhaps contenting themselves with watching the film and thus never actually buying the book. Even public libraries no longer carry anything other than a skeleton selection of his works.

Re-reading this book after such a long interval has made me want to re-experience his whole canon, and one of my New Year's resolutions will be steadily to re-read the lot, starting with The Man Within.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

"The Last Enemy" by Grace Brophy

Apologies for the lack of posts over the last couple of weeks. This has been caused partly by my other life intruding (chairing a conference in Paris and then teaching an MBA module at Cass Business School) and also because I have rather unwisely agreed a deadline of mid-January for delivery of the manuscript of my next book.

I have also been reading (and eking out to make it last as long as possible) Peacemakers by Margaret MacMillan, which is the quite the best book I have read for a very long time.

However, revenons a nos moutons, and fiction in the shape of The Last Enemy. An unfortunate choice of title, since one thinks instantly of the immortal Richard Hillary book, and I seem to remember at least two others as well, but this is the only unfortunate thing about this book. Well written and well crafted, it is a murder mystery set in Italy and has inevitably prompted comparison with Donna Leon, though I am not sure why. Stylistically it reminded me more of Camilleri, or even Mankell.

Without wishing to give away anything about the plot, I thought the denouement a little unsatisfying and contrived. This is not your traditional detective story, where carefully scattered clues allow you to work out the solution for yourself, but a policier in which a sudden truth becomes known. However, the characterisation and overall plot more than makes up for this. Intriguingly, it leaves various possible romantic entanglements signposted but unresolved, which hopefully means this will be the first of a series. I hope so - I really enjoyed it.

Friday, 5 November 2010

"The Listening Eye" by Patricia Wentworth

Patricia Wentworth was a Golden Age detective writer who should be reckoned the equal of Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy L. Sayers. Why is it that the great Golden Age writers were all women? She lived a long life (1878-1961) and was a prolific writer. Her books, which stretch to over two pages of Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers, were published at roughly two a year between 1910 and 1961.

The Listening Eye dates from 1957, though it still has a "between the wars" feel to it, with its chaste romances, country house weekends, servants, boarding houses, settlements and allowances. It features Wentworth's lady detective Miss Silver, who is inevitably compared to Christie's Miss Marple. That Christie should apparently have stood the test of time far better is hard to understand from a purely literary point of view. Wentworth's writing is at least as good, and Miss Silver is a genuine semi-professional detective as opposed to Miss Marples, who is essentially a glorified small town gossip. It seems largely due to the fact that Christie has been sold hard (done to death?) by film and television whereas Wentworth has not.

I had quibbles with this book. It is not a genuine detective story in the sense of clues being laid out which, if properly considered, can bring one to a realisation of the nature of the crime and the murderer's identity. Although we are privy to Miss Silver's thinking, at least one of her hunches turns out to have been wrong. However, the writing and the characterisation more than makes up for this. The characters are unusually three-dimensional for what is a standard detective story, and the prose is well-crafted.

Fortunately, I have read very few of Wentworth's books, and my local library is well stocked with them ...

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Two slightly off-topic recommendations

Both these book recommendations are off-topic, falling neither within the broad (fiction) nor narrow (unjustly neglected English language novelists) scope of this blog. However, that will hopefully increase rather than diminsh the credibility of my views!

Cloud Road is a piece of travel writing by Jehn Harrison set in South America. Harrison takes about two years to do both desk and on-the-spot reserach for his books, and it shows. It also helps that he is a very fine writer.

Angels, Dragons and Vultures by Simon Acland (whose historical novel, The Waste Land, is reviewed on this blog) is a first hand account of venture capital and the entrepreneurial experience which is not only hugely informative but also happens to be genuinely witty.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

"Tomorrow the Apricots" by Douglas Hayes

I tracked this book down following a mention of Douglas Hayes in a biography of Julian Maclaren-Ross. Apparently "Jay" both reviewed and admired this author, though his books have long since fallen out of fashion.

First impressions were not propitious, as even back in 1973 publishers seemed to feel the need for a half-naked woman in army uniform on the cover, thus conditioning one to expect a Virgin Soldiers type of book. Anybody buying it on that supposition would however be in for an unwelcome surprise. This is a serious, well-crafted novel. Written in the first person and the dramatic present, it feels heavily auto-biographical and one can see why JMR liked Hayes so much, since it feels very much like some of his own army stories from WWII.

My only reservation about this book is its length; at 130 pages it is hardly a novel, except by the trashy, contemporary standards of some publishers who pass you off with a novella, or extended short story but still expect you to pay the price of a full length novel. Having said that, though, there is nothing wrong with brevity; after all, Heart of Darkness is one of the greatest works of fiction ever written.

I have not been able to find anything out about Hayes, who seems to have slipped into total obscurity. I do not even know if he is alive or dead, or whether he is the same Douglas Hayes who wrote the screenplay of a comedy film in 1963. Does anyone out there know any of the answers?

Monday, 1 November 2010

Booktrust Teenage Prize 2010

Congratulations to Gregory Hughes, who has today been announced as this year's winner of the Booktrust prize for teenage fiction for his novel Unhooking the Moon. The unsuccesful short-listed writers were:

The Enemy by Charlie Higson (Puffin)
Halo by Zizou Corder (Puffin)
Nobody’s Girl by Sarra Manning (Hodder Children’s Books)
Out of Shadows by Jason Wallace (Andersen Press)
Revolver by Marcus Sedgwick (Orion)

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Cornflower Books discussion

A very good discussion is going on over at Cornflower Books (see the blog link below and to the left) on the relationship between writers and publishers, and the current state of the publishing industry. I have already weighed in with my views. Writers, everywhere, do take the time to read this and contribute.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

"Selected Stories" by Julian Maclaren-Ross

As I may have mentioned before, short stories are not one of my favourite art forms, although I seem to come back to those of E.M. Forster (which I first read at school) at regular intervals. I read these Maclaren-Ross stories when they were re-issued a few years back, intrigued as much as anything by the title of Bitten by the Tarantula. I was struck then by the writing style. There is the lean, sparse style of Hammett and Chandler, by whom he admitted he was greatly influenced, but this is blended with occasional genuinely poetic insight, which feels more like Anthony Powell. Reading his biography, Fear and Loathing in Fitzrovia, by Paul Willetts, who also edited his stories, caused me to go rummaging through the wardrobes to find them and read them again.

The more time passes since his untimely death in 1964, the more clear it becomes that he was, if not a great writer, then a great writer manque (sorry, Blogger does not seem to allow for acute accents). As one of the obituaries said at the time, it will always be a matter for regret that he did not produce the great novel that his contemporaries were expecting from him. However, his range was remarkable. As well as his stories, he was a screenwriter, a radio playwright and a talented and consistently insightful book reviewer. He also translated French books for English publication.

A gregarious man who more or less lived in various pubs throughout his life (a factor which undoubtedly contributed to his early death), he knew all the great writers of the day, including Orwell, Powell and Greene, all of whom he admired, especially the latter. Indeed, according to his widow, "Graham Greene" were the last words which he somewhat puzzlingly gasped as he suffered his fatal heart attack in hospital. Olivia Manning was the wife of a close friend, and he also knew the likes of Tambimuttu, and shared an office with Dylan Thomas. Incidentally, the character X.Trapnel in Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time is based directly upon Maclaren-Ross

That he never wrote that novel must remain a source of personal regret given my own ambivalence about short stories (which many contemporary "novels" now resemble), but also surely to the wider literary community. One senses that he could have given someone like John Braine a run for his money.

Incidentally, the biography is very well written, and like all good biographers, Willetts manages to find the telling phrase to sum up this complex and contradictory character. Maclaren-Ross, he says, was "a mediocre caretaker of his own immense talent".

Monday, 4 October 2010

"War on the Margins" by Libby Cone

This is (I believe) a first novel by a new author who writes with refreshingly old-fashioned attention to such out-dated concepts as grammar, and also peppers her work with adjectives and adverbs. I would guess from this that she has never attended a course on creative writing.

The book is set on Jersey during the German occupation and deals with difficult subjects such as degrees of (and motives for) collaboration, and, crucially with what might be called Jewishness. It turns out there are a number of people who do not regard themselves as Jewish; some even attend church regularly and have been brought up as Christians. However, when their family circumstances are set against the draconian yet ridiculously bureaucratic rules of the Nazi regime, they are forced to recognise that they have been singled out, with consequences which are unlikely to be pleasant.

This is of course dark, powerful stuff, and one feels properly moved by what Cone depicts so well, not least the persecuted Mr Davidson. Yet, perhaps a little unworthily, I couldn't help feeling that maybe the world had already seen more than enough books and films on the awful fate of the Jews during the Nazi era about twenty years ago. Maybe it's just me, but I actually groan aloud now whenever I realise that I have been strapped into yet another Holocaust theme-park ride. In much the same way, incidentally, I think that new books about Napoleon, or the Battle of Britain, take a lot of justifying. It isn't that one should care about what happened any less, simply that there are only so many times you can hear the story.

The second strand of the book features the real-life writer Claude Cahun and her lover Marcel Moore, whose real name was Suzanne Malherbe. Since these are real life characters, it probably does not count as a spoiler to note that both were active in the resistance on Jersey, and were captured by the Germans in 1944, having been informed upon by a local resident.

I enjoyed this feature of the book too. Cone has obviously done her research thoroughly and I felt that the real and the invented blended together very well as a work of fiction. It lightens the gloom of the current publishing environment somewhat to see such a well-written book being taken up by a commercial publisher.

War on the Margins is published by Duckworth Overlook, ISBN 978-0715639726

Thursday, 30 September 2010

"Dead of Winter" by Rennie Airth

I have just completed this, the last volume of the John Madden trilogy - though let us hope that Airth changes his mind and writes some more.

I can remember being bowled over by the first book, River of Darkness, which is the one I would recommend for starters, although each story is self-contained. Despite the first book having been published as long ago as 1999, and having won acclaim and prizes in other countries, Airth remains a neglected author in this country - why?

Perhaps because his books, despite being extremely well written, are somehow viewed differently in England because they are policiers. We have had this debate before on this blog, with reference to things like SF and historical fiction.

Perhaps because we seem to be awash with crime fiction, as the shelves of any public library reveal. While this is a testament to the enduring appeal of the genre, it must be admitted that much of it is indifferently written at best, and some downright appalling.

More likely, though, because in an increasingly illiterate and ill-read society we are now completely in thrall to television, and thus to what has or has not been adapted for TV, and there seems little rhyme or reason to this. Neither Airth nor Fowler, who are both very good writers, have been taken up, whereas Dexter and Wingfield, neither of whom would pretend to any great literary quality, have.

Don't get me wrong. I admire both the Morse and Frost TV series but what those viewers who have not also read the books may not realise is (1) that in neither case is the character portrayed on TV the same as that depicted in the books and (2) the books themselves, if one comes to them cold, are unremarkable, whereas both Airth and Fowler's books stay with you long after you read them, even for someone who reads as many books as I do (about 250 a year).

This was particularly so in the case of River of Darkness, which was written partly from the point of view of a deeply disturbed individual, and was gripping, chilling and horrific yet still managed to engage the reader and draw them in. This was in no small measure due to the excellent characterisation, particularly of the central character, Madden who returns from army service in the First World War to resume his job as a detective. Others have used this device, but none so sympathetically as Airth.

So, Airth's relative obscurity in his adopted country (he was born in South Africa) must remain a mystery, but there is no further excuse for not being "in the know". Go out and read these books. You will not be disappointed.

Friday, 24 September 2010

BT Broadband

I am currently without internet access and have no real idea when it will be restored. I will answer all emails when I am able to.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

"Bryant and May Off The Rails" by Christopher Fowler

I see from Christopher Fowler's blog that this new release might be the last in the series unless either (1) sales pick up dramatically as a result of word-of-mouth promotion or (2) they get made into a TV series. Well, I can't do anything about (2) but I certainly can about (1).

This is a very, very good series of books indeed - far better than most detective stories I have read (and I have read an awful lot). It would be a tragedy if no more of these quirky, affectionate stories were to be forthcoming. So please get out there and buy this wonderful book.

Here is the Amazon link

Monday, 13 September 2010

"The Elephant Tree" by R.D. Ronald

A new voice from first-time (I believe) novelist R.D. Ronald, which I found a very pleasant surprise.

It is set in the world of petty career criminals and routine drug-taking, but despite such a sordid background tells a good story very well. One of the problems I usually find with books like this is that, unlike the old-time writers, modern authors tend to compete with each other in populating their books with characters that are as unpleasant as possible. What they overlook, but Ronald does not, is that if you cannot find a single person within the book remotely sympathetic then you very quickly switch off; after all, if you do not care what happens to any of the protagonists, then what's the point?

Like Selby's Last Exit to Brooklyn, The Elephant Tree does not fall into this trap. The characters, despite their actions and attitudes, retain enough ambivalence to keep our interest. It is difficult to say more without giving away any important aspects of the plot, but I found Angela, in particular, strongly sympathetic.

I have in the past twice sat on the judging committee of a well known award for first novels, and I have to say that I found this book vastly superior to much of the rubbish from leading commercial publishers which I was forced to endure. Thank the Lord for proper use of the English language, complete with grammar and proper punctuation. You would have thought that this would be a required basic skill of a novelist, but not any more. Ronald's prose is clean, sparse and a pleasure to read.

I look forward to further books from this writer. Perhaps Detective Fallon might justify his own series ...?

The Elephant Tree is published by Matador under ISBN 978-184876-456-9

Monday, 30 August 2010

Booker also-rans

I've had quite a few emails in response to my last post.

One chastised me, as a known devotee of Lawrence Durrell, for not considering Constance, which is of course the middle book of the Avignon Quintet. In mitigation, I can only plead (1) that I don't think you can really consider these novels separately rather than as part of a larger whole and (2) that, while magnificent, I don't regard the Quintet as highly as I do the Alexandria Quartet. To set the record straight for poor old Larry, I should record that he did in fact win the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Monsieur, the first book of the Quintet, and that most writers would regard this as a greater honour than the Booker.

Somebody pointed out that Iris Murdoch had been short-listed no less than five times, and should therefore qualify if only on the grounds of persistence, as to which please see my recent post on Under The Net.

I will mention Barbara Pym, since I believe she is a very under-rated author, and Quintet in Autumn has all the haunting melancholy of a true masterpiece - but please don't try reading it if you are feeling even slightly depressed, or you may quickly find yourself on the phone to the Samaritans.

I've already given the game away in my first post, of course. Earthly Powers is one of my very favourite novels and, pace William Golding, I still cannot believe that it did not win. I believe it is Burgess's finest work, and that is saying a great deal when you consider that he was undoubtedly one of the major novelists of the twentieth century; any of the Enderby books or the Malayan Trilogy alone would have guaranteed that.

I should also record in passing, without climbing for too long into the saddle of my hobby-horse, that surely Patrick O'Brien was treated unfairly in never being considered.

However, I would like to leave you with two rather quirky suggestions, at least one of whom produces blank looks and queries of "who?" even from fellow book-bloggers. Let's leave him til last.

Under the Frog was the first novel of Tibor Fischer and records life under the Soviet occupation of Hungary in darkly comic terms. In my opinioin it's not as good a novel as The Thought Gang, which represented the peak of Fischer's quality output, and I suspect that the only reason that was not short-listed was because Under The Frog had already been chosen only a year or two previously.

Now for the wild card. Goshawk Squadron by Derek Robinson was short-listed in 1971, the year in which a distinguished panel including Saul Bellow and John Fowles chose V.S. Naipaul's In a Free State. Set at a Royal Flying Corps base in France during the First World War, it details the various defence mechanisms people adopt when faced with extreme and prolonged stress. Note that the Booker was not so fastidiously "literary" in those days. Other shortlisted writers around the same time included Mary Renault, William Trevor, Kingsley Amis and C.P. Snow (the latter nominated in 1974, at the age of 69, and surely in the nature of a lifetime achievment award rather than a genuine suggestion that In Their Wisdom is a great novel).

Derek Robinson is unjustly neglected, and thus very much a Pursewarden writer. In addition to Goshawk Sqaudron he wrote two similar books: Hornet's Sting and War Story. I would also commend The Eldorado Network. As now seems obligatory in the case of a good author, some of his books are out of print, and he has recently taken up self-publishing.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Best non-Booker winners ...?

I have come across a reading group which is inviting suggestions for its next read, the theme being books which made it onto the Booker short list, but failed to carry off the honours. Emails welcomed from fellow readers and bloggers, but I feel Earthly Powers may prove a tough one to beat ...

Sunday, 22 August 2010

"Under the Net" by Iris Murdoch

I found this book in a second-hand bookshop in Norfolk and it steadily worked its way to the top of my "TBR" pile. I must confess that I had never heard of it, and it was not until after I completed it that I found out it was in fact Murdoch's first published novel. When I did, the news did not surprise me, for it has a very different feel to it than all the Murdoch novels I have read before. It may be a very unfair thing to say of someone who has won both the Booker (for The Sea, The Sea) and the Black Tait (for The Black Prince), but I have always felt that this she was not someone who had written lots of different novels, but rather the same one many times. One always seems to encounter the same sorts of characters wrestling with the same sort of issues, but with different names and in different situations.

Under the Net is undeniably different, and it is interesting to conjecture what might have happened had her writing continued to develop in this way. It actually reminded me very much of John Braine, one of whose novels I reviewed on this blog recently. It is part picaresque, featuring a male protagonist, Jake, who is a shameless user, believing other people have been put on earth solely to assist him with finding somewhere to live (rent free), and incidental spending money along the way.

Jake is a translator of French writers, and an important part of the plot revolves around a novel which has been written by a writer he despises. Jake's translation goes missing, and it subsequently transpires that two of the other characters are planning to make an English language film of it, but cutting Jake out of any financial reward. The writer is later surprisingly (as far as Jake is concerned) awarded the Prix Goncourt, thus shaking Jake's faith in his own literary judgement. However, it all sparks a hilarious and somewhat anarchic sub-plot whereby Jake kidnaps the German Shepherd dog belonging to one of these two characters and holds it to ransom. Leftist political claptrap, rants and riots also feature heavily.

First novels are often interesting, as setting the groundwork for the writer's later endeavours (think Under the Greenwood Tree), but not particularly enjoyable or gripping, yet none of this is true in this case. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, which I must confess is not something which I can say about all Murdoch's works. At the same time, her later writing seems to have developed in very different directions. Perhaps along with her own development as a writer went an awareness of cultural change, however. There is a lot of intellectual content which would probably be unacceptable to a publisher today (Under the Net was published nearly sixty years ago) and would require substantial dumbing down.

Perhaps surprisingly for such a good book, Under the Net is still in print (in a 2002 publication by Vintage Classics), so there is no excuse for not getting hold of it.

Friday, 13 August 2010

"Atlas Shrugged" by Ayn Rand

Some months ago I compared The Berlusconi Bonus with 1984. So might one Atlas Shrugged, though the latter is much, much longer.

Ayn Rand was born in Russia before the Revolution, but managed to escape to America in 1926, where she spent the rest of her life. She was a philosopher and historian as well as a novelist and at one stage founded an institute to promote her ideas, run by and named after her lover, Nathaniel Brandon.

In Atlas Shrugged, Rand constructs a nightmarish alternative reality which is truly Orwellian. Private enterprise and entrepreneurialism are first attacked and finally banned altogether in a rising tide of repressive regulations, driven by the unwillingness of the "moochers" to take responsibilty for their own affairs, and their envy of those who are successful in business, and the greed of the "looters" who, whether state, group or individual, would rather steal the fruits of someone else's labours than create wealth for themselves. Doubly nightmarish, in fact, since much of what she portrayed as science fiction in 1957 has largely come to pass in real life, at least here in the cuddly old European Union.

There is much more to her philosophy than that. She champions the use of reason as the only valid basis for decision on making and government policies, and the right of the individual to self-interest as long as this does not harm any third party. There is much talk of Aristotle, though I was reminded also of Kant and John Stuart Mill.

Here we find what is perhaps the main objection to the book for, though extremely well written, it is undeniably a piece of propaganda for a particular set of beliefs. She was happy for it to be referred to as "a philosophical novel", and the old question of where literary persuasion ends and propaganda begins rears its eternal head. There are long, strongly reasoned and strongly expressed speeches which sound oddly in the mouths of the characters. There are "good" and "bad" characters. There is clearly expressed "right" and "wrong".

All of which gets in the way, rather. Which is a pity because this is a very well written book indeed, which also works perfectly satisfactorily on the level of a simple narrative. A book, moreover, which every politician and regulator in the world should be forced to read, as an awful warning of what can go wrong.

The Fountainhead, her earlier novel from 1943 is now on my reading list.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Stieg Larsson and the state of publishing

Interesting to read in the press today an extract from Kurdo Baksi's forthcoming book on his friend, Stieg Larsson.

It seems that the manuscripts were originally rejected by one major publisher when sent in unsolicited, and only accepted by the second on the recommendation of a mutual friend. Shades of Harry Potter.

It really is high time that authors started putting a page right at the front of their books saying "This book was rejected by the following publishers ..."

I think this highlights everything that is wrong with the state of publishing. It is no longer run by people who really care about books, and finding and introducing new authors, but by people who think they understand about business. Sadly, they do not. The sort of books which they want to publish are "celebrity" books, either ghosted auto-biography of a particularly nauseating kind, or diet or recipe books (what one publisher disarmingly described to me as "crap books"), or books by established authors. However, they can source these books only the cost of large up-front advances, and the heavy discounting practised by on-line booksellers means that only occasionally will any large profit on the book result. Perhaps more publishers should go to business school ...

There is actually a direct parallel here with the world of venture capital, about which I happen to know rather a lot. In VC, it is accepted that many ventures will fail to produce any return at all (about half of all companies started, in fact), but that a very small number of so-called "home runs" will more than make up for this and will actually contribute about 80% of total gains across the whole portfolio. One thing which dramatically raises the likelihood of a home run occurring is a low entry cost. Publishers please note.

If you follow this logic, then publishers should only publish books which they can source without the payment of an advance, perhaps offering a better royalty deal instead. This argues for going back to the old days of trying to find quality books by little known authors. Every so often one of them will turn out to be Stieg Larsson or J.K.Rowling, but even the others will have a chance of breaking even in these days of print on demand production and distribution.

You see, what the publishers have failed to realise is that they are selling low margin items. There are two different margins here. The first might be called the gross margin, and represents simply the difference between what an item costs you to produce and what you can sell it for. This an be improved in one of two ways: raising prices or cutting production costs.

The former has probably gone as far as it might, since cover prices are now so high as to act as a deterrent for all but the most dedicated book buyers. Is it a coincidence that so many establihsed book-bloggers are now running exercises to see how few boks they can buy this year? In any event, in many cases publishers have no control over what price the book is actually sold at - Amazon routinely discount even best-sellers by 40% or so, and the publisher usually gets only half of that - 30% of the cover price!

As regards the second, if you have committed to payiong a big advance then you have boxed yourself into a corner before you start. Assume that you pay a £100,000 advance on a book priced at £30, each of which costs £5 to produce. Assuming all were sold on Amazon at a 40% discount, then you would need to sell 25,000 copies just to break even on your production costs.

However, even this is only part of the story, since it ignores the business's operating costs such as salaries, rent and taxes, which are used in calculating the net margin. In these days of the internet, a publishing business could of course be operated (like many VC companies) from somebody's garage or spare bedroom. Instead, they feel the need of plush offices in the West End, and salaries to match. It is entirely possible that these could be two or three times the company's book production costs. Which means that, on the above figures, you are now struggling even to break even.

Speaking as one who teaches post-graduate students at business school, it does seem to me that this model is unsustainable. I know of various publishers (including the two who were at different times offering to publish my history books!) who have effectively stopped accepting new proposals and, if I am right in my analysis, the next year or two could see various publishing firms going out of business altogether. It also seems to me that there are some fairly obvious things which could be done about altering the model, but I would be happy to hear feedback on what others may think, particularly some of the publishers who I know read this blog.

Friday, 9 July 2010

"Swallows and Amazons" by Arthur Ransome

During the recent book-bloggers' get-together in London (kindly organised by Simon Thomas) it emerged that some unfortunates had never read any Arthur Ransome, and as I happened to be re-reading Swallows and Amazons, the way one does from time to time, I thought this would be an excellent opportunity to introduce him to the hitherto Ransome-deprived.

Ransome was an amazing character. Escaping an unhappy marriage (itself a daring step in the prevailing culture of the time) he went to live in Russia in 1913, thereafter experiencing both the First World War and the Russian Revolution and its aftermath. This seems to have led him into an almost Bruce Lockhart type of existence (read Ace of Spies), resulting in him falling in love with Trotsky's secretary (who was to become his second wife), and engineering their joint escape from Russia, in the course of which he narrowly escaped death. Due to be executed for having passed through the enemy lines to rescue her, the officer detailed to do the job recognised him as a regular chess opponent from pre-Revolutionary days, and connived in him slipping away to freedom instead. Ransome, and his many readers over the years, owe the unknown Russian a debt of gratitude.

There are twelve completed books, and though they are set in deliberately vague geography, many of them fall into two broad groups set in the Lake District and the Norfolk Broads respectively. A book by Christina Hardyment (Captain Flint's Trunk) successfully identifies many of the real life places and people upon whom Ransome based his work. Mention of that book points up one of the dangers of getting drawn too closely into Ransome's world. Before you know where you are, you are reading books about Ransome, about small boat sailing, about the Lake District ...

Though aimed predominantly at children (until the coming of Enid Blyton, Ransome was by far the most successful children's writer in history), the books, like Richmal Crompton's William series, yield a whole different range of nuances when read by adults. For children, they offer an escape into a fantasy mock-serious world of adventure. For adults, they conjure up a vision of a long-vanished time of innocence and straightforwardness, an almost Orwellian yearning for a former version of Britain, a world before television when people read books, and observed certain conventions of courtesy and mutual respect. In reality, of course, one knows all too well that while life may have been at least a little like this for the sort of middle class children whom Ransome depicts, reality for the bulk of the country in the 1930s was much grimmer. However, for reality one reads The Road To Wigan Pier. For the willing suspension of disbelief, and the enjoyment of what follows, one reads Arthur Ransome.

Friday, 2 July 2010

Reading Update

By way of a quick update, I am going to lump together various books which I have been reading over the last couple of weeks.

The Fall of the West by Adrian Goldsworthy is a valuable addition to anyone's library. Like most people, I suspect, my Roman history gets a bit hazy after Augustus, and Goldsworthy remedies this omission by telling the story of the last three centuries or so of the Empire (mostly in the West), challenging a few established views along the way. Goldsworthy has previously written Caesar (which I have read) and In The Name Of Rome (which I have not).

Henrietta's War by Joyce Dennys was a recommendation from Simon at Stuck-in-a-Book, and a good one. The book takes the form of a series of letters to an imaginary "Robert" who is away on active service, which were originally published in Sketch before later being compiled in book form. It is full of gentle humour, as well as some genuinely tender moments. Well done Bloomsbury Group for re-publishing this. They were also responsible for The Brontes Went To Woolworths by Rachel Ferguson, which I read last year and which was also a recommendation from Simon.

Kant and the Platypus by Umberto Eco is impossible to describe or explain, so you will have to read it for yourselves to find out. Let's just say that it is a wide-ranging discussion of a number of philosophical issues.

All the King's Women by Derek Wilson is not, as the title suggests, a bodice-ripping piece of historical fiction but a serious piece of historical writing focussing on Charles II's relationships with the various women in his life and exploring the influence which each had upon him at different times. It also helps to explain the rather tangled genealogy of the Stuart family which eventually led to William and Mary sitting on the throne.

Up The Line To Death is a collection of war poems which I re-read about once a year. By the way, did you know that for quite a while war poems were excluded from the Oxford Book of English Verse?